When, finally, in the twelfth century BCEthe Jews settled in a country they could call their own, they used the worst possible judgment. They selected a strip of land that was a corridor for the armies of warring empires. Over and over again the Jews were to pay for this error of judgment by being decimated in battle, sold into slavery, or deported to alien lands. Yet they showed up persistently at the same old place, building anew their little strip of real estate which has been alternately called Canaan. Palestine, Israel, Judah. Judea, and now again. Israel. (Max Dimont, ‘Jews, God and History’ p48)
Judaism has 4,000 years of history. This was brilliantly analysed by a Christian historian, Paul Johnson, in his History of the Jewish People . His Prologue explains why he wrote it and his Epilogue what he discovered.
In his Prologue he asks “Why have I written a history of the Jews?
There are four reasons.”
The first is sheer curiosity.
My second reason was the excitement I found in the sheer span of Jewish history. From the time of Abraham up to the present covers the best part of four millennia. That is more than three-quarters of the entire history of civilized humanity.
My third reason was that Jewish history covers not only vast tracts of time but huge areas. The Jews have penetrated many societies and left their mark on all of them. Writing a history of the Jews is almost like writing a history of the world, but from a highly peculiar angle vision.
Finally the book gave me the chance to reconsider objectively, in light of a study covering nearly 4,000 years, the most intractable of human questions: what are we on earth for? Is history merely a series of events whose sum is meaningless? Is there no fundamental moral difference between the history of the human race and the history, say of ants? Or is there a providential plan of which we are, however humbly, the agents?
His Epilogue is what he discovered. He says
One way of summing up 4,000 years of Jewish history is to ask ourselves what would have happened to the human race if Abraham had not been a man of great sagacity, or if he had stayed in Ur and kept his higher notions to himself, and no specific Jewish people had come into being. Certainly the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might eventually have stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure.
Above all, the Jews taught us how to rationalize the unknown
The Jews were the emblem of homeless and vulnerable humanity. But is not the whole earth no more than a temporary transit-camp? The Jews were fierce idealists striving for perfection, and at the same time fragile men and women yearning for flesh-pots and safety. They wanted to obey God's impossible law and they wanted to stay alive too. Therein lay the dilemma of, the Jewish commonwealths in antiquity, trying to combine the moral excellence of a theocracy with the practical demands of a state capable of defending itself. The dilemma has been recreated in our own time in the shape of Israel, founded to realize a humanitarian ideal discovering in practice that it must be ruthless simply to survive in a hostile world. But is not this a recurrent problem which affects all human societies?
If the earliest Jews were able to survey, with us, the history of their progeny, they would find nothing surprising in it. They always knew that Jewish society was appointed to be a pilot-project for the entire human race. That Jewish dilemmas, dramas and catastrophes should be exemplary, larger than life, would seem only natural to them. That Jews should over the millennia attract such unparalleled, indeed inexplicable, hatred would be regrettable but only to be expected. Above all, that the Jews should still survive, when all those other ancient people were transmuted or vanished into the oubliettes of history, was wholly predictable. How could it be otherwise? Providence decreed it and the Jews obeyed.
2000BCE to 1200 Abraham introduces monotheism to the world. Age of Patriarchs. Joseph invites Jews to settle in Egypt; new pharaoh enslaves them. Exodus under leadership of Moses Jews receive Torah at Sinai.
1200 to 900 Joshua conquers Canaan. Two centuries of rule by Judges. First kingdom forged by Kings Saul, David, and Solomon. Breakup of kingdom into Israel and Judah. Temple restored.
900 to 500 Reigns of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Prophets enter Jewish history. Assyrians destroy kingdom of Israel; end of Israelites. Babylonia destroys kingdom of Judah; the people exiled.
500 to 100 Persians defeat Babylonians; permit Jews to return to their homeland. Temple restored.
100BCE to 100CE Rome annexes Hasmonean kingdom, establishes rule of procurators. Jesus bom. Romans destroy Jerusalem and gut the Temple. Masada falls and Jews are exiled. Change over from priestly to rabbinic Judaism
100 to 600 Bar Kochba stages new uprising against Rome. Change over from priestly to rabbinic Judaism. Rav Ashi fuses Mishna and Gemara into the Talmud. Emperor Constantine converts Rome to Christianity.
600 to 1100 Mohammed is bom. Islamic empire extended from India to the Atlantic. Spain invaded by Moors. Islamic empire begins to crumble In the Christian World: Jews survive barbarian invasions. Rashi Europeanises Babylonian Talmud.
1100 to 1600 First Crusade plays havoc with Jewish life. Jews enter Renaissance with great expectations. Two centuries of great European Talmudists. Sephardi culture clashes with Ashkenazi way of life. Spain and Portugal expel the Jews. Jews swept into ghettos in wake of Reformation. End of feudal Europe
1600 To 1800 Jews languish in ghettoes and shtetls. Salon and court Jews make their debut in Jewish history. Heresies wrack Jewish ranks. Mendelssohn maps intellectual path out of ghetto; Napoleon paves political road to freedom. Jewish settlements grow in New World.
1800 to 1948 Racism sweeps Jews into new frontiers of danger. Dreyfus Affair. Herzl founds political Zionism. Communist Russia threatens Jewish religion. Nazis murder six million Jews. America becomes largest Jewish Diaspora country. Zionism sweeps Jews into statehood and the need to defend themselves against their neighbours.