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Israelites, Judahites, Judeans, and Jews: The Four Phases of Jewish Identity Transformation
The origins of Judaism are controversial. While the public might deduce that Judaism started from Abraham since it was an Abrahamic religion. However, most scholars believe that Judaism as a religion emerged at a much later point. Some believe Judaism began at the start of the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy and the Hellenistic period, about 323 to 31 BC Others have argued that only the ethnic identity existed during the Graeco-Roman periodabout 395 to 332 BC, and that religious identity came at another time. Rather than locating the exact point in time that Judaism emerged as a religion, this essay will examine the different components that prove crucial in the identity-forming process. In this essay, I make the point that elements combined to form a distinct Jewish identity detected in various traditions of the Hebrew Bible where later events imprint on the religion known as Judaism. For this essay, I will use geography, politics, and religion to argue on the four phases of transformation during the formation of their identity - Israelites, Judahites, Judeans, and finally, Jews.
- Israelites: The beginning version of Judaism, identity is based on ethnicity, geography, and politics.
- Judahites: A transformation of Judaism after the split of the United Monarchy, ethnic identity extends only to citizens of the kingdom of Judea.
- Judeans: A transformation of Judaism after the return from exile, identity is based on the common experience of exile as well as a return of geographical and political identity.
- Jews: A transformation of Judaism starting from around the Graeco-Roman period, less restrictive in identity and more focused on religion.
- Gentiles: People who are considered as outsiders and non-Jews.
First, I will argue the process that laid the foundation for the later development of Judaism described in the stories about the early settlement of the land and the United Monarchy. This phase includes the conquest of the land and the introduction of kingship. It ends with the separation of Israel and Judah into two different states - Judah and Israel.
The geographic identity is present in the stories about the forefathers in Genesis and the desert wanderings in Exodus-Deuteronomy. For example, God makes the following promise “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”  This promise is repeated in Genesis 28:13 when, God informs Jacob that he was on the promised land that was granted to his family. The promise of the land is brought up again when God reassures Moses that he took notice of the people’s suffering and that he would lead them out of Egypt to a land flowing with milk and honey.  The frequent reference to the “promised land” is a precursor to the geographic identity developed through the accounts relating to the conquest of the land under the leadership of Joshua.
After Israel took control over the land, it was distributed to the tribes by the casting of lots, the political region of the Israelites began to develop. As we learn in the Book of Judges, internal strife and external pressures forced the tribes of Israel to appoint their first king. The appointment of a central leader unified the twelve tribes. Under the auspices of the United Monarchy, the unified tribes became the Kingdom of Israel, led by a king. Tentatively achieved under this unification, Saul was declared king before the Lord. Yet, only with King David’s appointment and the conquest of Jerusalem did all the tribes of Israel pledge allegiance to the king, as we learn in 2 Samuel 5:1-3.
In 1 Kings 5:1, scripture mentioned the geographic identity of the United Monarchy of Israel and its borders during the reign of David’s son Solomon. Here we learn that “Solomon’s rule extended over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and the boundary of Egypt.” However, this identity transformed during the reign of Rehoboam, which witnessed a geopolitical split caused by political, economic, and maybe even theological reasons. From 1 Kings 12:4-19, the biblical story of the division occurs from Jeroboam leading the rebellion after Rehoboam disagreed to lessen the abuse of his people and even stated that he would outdo his father Solomon on this matter. This split resulted in the Northern and Southern Kingdoms dividing Solomon’s lands and leaving Rehoboam ruling over Judah alone. Thus, the biblical text describes the division of the United Monarchy with modifications to Judah and Israel's geographic and political identity.
Although they shared a common ancestry, the geographical separation redefined the differences between the Judahite's and the Israelite's identities. The most apparent result of the division is the fact that Judah now ruled a much smaller territory. The political identity also shifted as the Israelites split into two factions. Now Rehoboam governed the Judahites. They became subjects of Judah and not of the United Monarchy of Israel. In 1 Kings 12, according to the Israelites, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin are divided. After the split between Israel and Judah, the two countries fought to control the land. In 1 Kings 14:30, for example, we learn that “[t]here was continual war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam.” Similarly, 1 Kings 15:16 reports continuous aggression between the King of Israel and the King of Judah. Yet, the kings of the two respective countries also allied to fend off enemies or conquer territory.
We also note a shift in religious identity. According to 1 Kings 12: 28-31, the Kingdom of Israel created their separate places to worship in Dan and Bethel and removed the restrictions on priesthood. Meanwhile the Judahites still worshipped in Solomon’s temple. Judah recorded Israel's deviations in contrast to the different religious identities, albeit from the same roots. The author of Kings created a separate identity for the people of Judah, thus laying the foundation for the later development of the Jewish people.
Even more, apparent differentiation existed between the identities of the two kingdoms after the Assyrians conquered the Israelites. Replacing the political identity of Israel, the Assyrian rulers renamed the region the Assyrian province. The Assyrians first deported the Israelites (2 Kings 17:23) and “brought [people] from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sephar-vaim, and he settled them in the towns of Samaria in place of the Israelites.” (2 Kings 17:24, NJPS). However, the newcomers were attacked by lions in 2 Kings 17:25 because they did not correctly worship the Lord. The Assyrians then brought an Israelite priest to teach them the proper worship of YHWH (what is this? Yahweh?). However, the settlers brought their native gods into Israel that they worship alongside YHWH. After the conquest of Israel and the deportation of her people, Judah was left to her own devices. According to 2 Kings 17:19, Judah was not innocent of Israel's sins, hinting at Judah’s imminent demise. Although the authors of Kings considered some Judahite kings as pious, the sins committed by Judah and her people proved to outweigh the righteousness of a few good kings. This account, at least, is what the Book of Kings wants us to believe.
Politically speaking, sinful behavior was not the cause of Judah's or Israel's demise. Instead, the downfall originated from the distance located between the empires. Judah’s failure stemmed from switching alliances between Egypt and Babylonia. They first sought protection and aid from Egypt when Babylon was advancing. After receiving no support, Judah gave their loyalty and allegiance to Babylon until Egypt retaliated against Babylon’s expansions. These frequent changes of allies likely created both political turmoil within Judah and showed others that Judah was vulnerable. In the end, Babylon defeated Egypt and laid siege to Jerusalem, seizing and exiling the Judahites.
In 587 BCE, Judah was conquered by Babylon, exiling its people. Almost 50 years later, Babylon surrendered to the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BCE. As Cyrus declares in his proclamation, “The LORD God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.”. The exiled Judahites, referred to as Judeans, were allowed to return to Judah. However, in Ezra 4, we learned how the remaining people in the land approach the returnees by saying, “Let us build with you, since we too worship your God, having offered sacrifices to Him since the time of King Esarhaddon of Assyria, who brought us here.”. Additionally, some were the “descendants of Judeans who have escaped Babylonian captivity.” Thus, the Judeans regarded them as outsiders, exiled to Israel during the time of the Assyrian empire. Although they worshipped the Lord of Israel, they also worshipped foreign deities brought from their immigrated ancestors. For these reasons, the Judeans prevented them from participating in the rebuilding the Temple. These outsiders then bribed officials to help delay the reconstruction for some time. This episode suggests that after the Babylonian exile, the Judeans had become more politically united, drawing boundaries with other groups that shared similarities with them. As was stated by Jon L. Berquist in the article “Constructions of Identity in the Postcolonial Yehud,” “To be Judean was to be a member of this political entity.” Despite the problems the Judeans encountered, they were eventually able to complete the temple’s construction. The Judeans reestablished their political and religious identities after returning to their geographic identity during this period, bringing back a sense of order and unity within the ethnic group.
In 322 BCE, following the conquering of Persia, Judea also fell under Greek rule. The identity of Judaism takes one more turn during this Hellenistic period the Judeans encounter gentile Greeks. As Shaye Cohen argues in his book “The beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, varieties, uncertainties,” by “the second half of the second century B.C.E. the term Ioudaios for the first time is applied even to people who are not ethnic or geographic Judeans who either have come to believe in the God of the Judeans or (i.e., they have become "Jews") or have joined the Judaean state as allies or citizens (i.e., they have become "Judaeans" in a political sense).”
Perhaps the most significant change during this period is “Jewishness” ’s transformation from a more ethnos-centered term to an ethnos-religion. The previous definition was rigid. Either one is a descendant of Judean or Judahite ancestry, or one is not. However, when the Hasmonean dynasty used the Hellenistic “politeia” concept of citizenship, they discovered this loosened Judean requirements and allowed gentiles, non-Jewish people, to be incorporated into the kingdom. In Jewish Antiquities, Josephus mentions the conquering and incorporation of Idumaeans into Judea provided they followed Judean laws. Even though there have been arguments about whether the Idumeans voluntarily assimilated into Judea, this event demonstrated a change towards the ethnoreligious identity.
The Hellenistic period was further weakened by ethnic. Hellenization brought the idea of citizenship, which removed many privileges previously exclusive to the ethnic group of Judeans. As Shaye Cohen argued, Judea followed the trend of its time and formed a league like others using the religious identity as the “politeia” and foundation to build upon. Because of the necessity to form alliances and incorporate gentiles into the kingdom; the ethnic identity became less of a requirement to be a Judean. Due to the more religious heavy necessities of the Hasmonean dynasty, cast the ethnic identity aside, and religion became the main identifying trademark of being a Judean/Jew.
The story of Judaism is like rippling water with its ups and downs. Due to conflicts and hardships, these people often adapt and even draw ideas from their surroundings to remain unified. As a result, their identity was also fluid and changed drastically over time. Throughout the four main phases discussed, Judaism underwent geographical, religious, and political identity changes. Many historical events contributed to these changes, the establishment of the United Monarchy and its fall during the Great Schism, the Babylonian exile, and the return during Persian rule, and the occurring Hellenization during the Graeco-Roman periods. Through this journey of events, Judaism has transformed into its more religious dominant concept today, where people accept this identity and story of ancestry with others. It is important to remember the fluidity of religion, ideas, and the possibility of them changing in the future, just like the past.
Cohn, Robert L. “רוברט כהן. ‘חזרתו של משה: ספר דברים ובניית הזהות של עם ישראל / THE SECOND COMING OF MOSES: DEUTERONOMY AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF ISRAELITE IDENTITY.” Proceedings of the World Congress of Jewish Studies / דברי הקונגרס העולמי למדעי היהדות יב, 1997, 59*-71*.
Coogan, Michael David, and Michael D. Coogan. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
D., Cohen Shaye J. The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Josephus, Flavius. Jewish Antiquities. Cambridge, Mass. etc.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
JPS Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2008.
Lipschitz, Oded, and Manfred Oeming. Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006.
Mason, Steve. “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 38, no. 4-5 (2007): 457–512.
 Robert Cohn, “THE SECOND COMING OF MOSES: DEUTERONOMY AND THE CONSTRUCTION OF ISRAELITE IDENTITY”
 Shaye Cohen, “The beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, varieties, uncertainties”
 Steve Mason, “Jews, Judaeans, Judaizing, Judaism: Problems of Categorization in Ancient History”
 Genesis 15:18, NJPS
 Genesis 28:13, NJPS
 Exodus 3:15-17, NJPS
 Joshua 18:4-6, NJPS
 I Samuel 8, NJPS
 I Samuel 11:14-15, NJPS
 I Kings 12:1-19, NJPS
 I Kings 12:24, NJPS
 I Kings 14:30, NJPS
 I Kings 15:16, NJPS
 See 1 Kings 22, 2 Kings 3, NJPS
 I Kings 12:28-31, NJPS
 Mordecai Cogan, The Oxford History of the Biblical World, 262-267
 Ezra 1:2; NJPS
 Ezra 4:2; NJPS
 Lisbeth S. Fried, “The ‘am hā’āreṣ in Ezra 4:4 and Persian Imperial Administration”, 123-124
 II Kings 17:29-30, NJPS
 Ezra 4:5, NJPS
 John Berquist, “Constructions of Identity in Postcolonial Yehud”, 57
 Shaye Cohen, The beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, varieties, uncertainties, 70
 Jewish Antiquities, 13.257-258
 Shaye Cohen, The beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, varieties, uncertainties, 110-116
 Shaye Cohen, The beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, varieties, uncertainties, 127-129