Biblical “Israel”, an ideological concept with 10+ applications

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by Neil Godfrey

My recent blog entry on the Haaretz article ties in with summaries I began a few years ago on Philip Davies’ pioneering book, In Search of Ancient Israel. (Only the four first links work yet — the remaining two will be finished one day, Time-and-Chance willing.)

Niels Peter Lemche in his Prolegomena in The Israelites in History and Tradition writes an excellent discussion about the problematic nature of attempting to define ancient or biblical Israel in racial or ethnic terms. After examining the concept of nation-state and surveying a range of examples of various other racial and national identities, he concludes:

An ethnic group consists of persons who think of themselves as members of the group, in contrast to other individuals who are not reckoned to be members and who do not reckon themselves to belong to this group. No ethnic group has ever been able to create a situation of stability that will last for centuries. Rather, ethnic groups are be definition unstable, with borders that can be transgressed in every possible way. As a matter of fact, an ethnic group is a part of a continuum of ethnic groups with overlapping borders, with probably many identities, held together by a founding myth or set of myths and narratives about how this particular group came into being. An ethnic group may probably also result simply from the existence of such myths with the ability to create identity among people. (p.20)

That last sentence would seem to be the most pertinent in the case of the creation of the concept of a “Jewish ethnic group”.

But back to Philip Davies. Here is a copy of one section of my notes from my earlier (yet to be competed) webpage:

The Israel of the Biblical Literature

  • Is it a political group? Political groups rarely coincide with one ethnic or religious group, and the kingdom of Israel was no exception. It consisted of many diverse racial and religious groups.
  • Is it an ethnic group? Ethnic groups are rarely the same as political or religious groups.
  • Or is it a religious group? Religious groups are generally mixed ethnic groups and found across different political groups.
  • Or can it mean all of the above?

Will it mean the same to an archaeologist studying the physical remains of Iron Age Palestine as it means to the authors of the various uses it has in the Bible?

The Israel of the Bible has at least 10 different meanings.

In the Bible Israel can mean:

  1. the name of the ancestor Jacob
  2. the name of the league of 12 tribes
  3. the name of a united kingdom whose capital was Jerusalem
  4. the name of the northern kingdom whose capital was Samaria (after the above kingdom broke up)
  5. after 722 bce, another name for Judah
  6. after the exile into Babylon, another name for the socio-religious community in left in the province of Yehud
  7. the name of a group within this community, the laity (as distinct from ‘Aaron’)
  8. the name for the descendants of Jacob/Israel
  9. a pre-monarchic tribal grouping in Ephraim
  10. adherants of various forms of Hebrew and Old Testament religion.

We may frequently (though certainly not always) say in what sense the Bible uses the word at any particular time, but that still leaves us with the question:

What sort of word is this that is so fundamental to the Bible yet so wide-ranging and flexible?

In the Bible the word always has an ideological or theological meaning. It means some individual or group that at some time belongs to God whether they are God’s failures and rejects or his success stories. It is a literary and theological term that changes its meaning to fit different stories. (The New Testament continues and extends the different uses of the word Israel, again with an ideological meaning.)

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Biblical “Israel”, an ideological concept with 10+ applications”

  1. I have managed to find some time to read all your latest posts, very interesting thank you. ‘Heaven above and Hell below’ reminded me very much of Jung, who spent so much time on extensive research of this subject. Jung objected to Freud calling him a Christian, but had no difficulty with identifying Freud as a Jew!

  2. Yep. There is no doubt Jew has been a racial term for a long time, but its biblical origins as such are not so clear-cut. Even today some Christian cultic groups call themselves “Jews” in one of the biblical theological/ideological senses of the word. But the fact Freud was a racial Jew tells us nothing about who his ancestors were 2000 years ago — and a few simple calculations can show that most of us can be found to be related to almost anybody anywhere once we count back a few centuries, especially if there were religious conversions added to the mix along the way.

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