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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Gedaliah who, the determined Jew?

Tzitzit (fringes) cut from clothes of tribe Dan soldiers - The Megiddo Ivory
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob re-claimed Canaanite occupied land which amplified tensions among the local tribal kings and regional powers. Ancient Canaanites were never dull, especially on the south coast, which was hotly contested by invaders from north, south and east. Egyptians and Libyans controlled the coastal trade route north through Gaza to Megiddo. Inland, along the flat plains to the northeast competition was against their Hittite families, but after 300 years returning Israelites under Joshua wrested control of most of the land. Then, some 500 years later came the Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians advancing from the north to control access into Egypt and north Africa. Alternative access along the Jordan river and Dead Sea, although important, was often far more hostile.

During their 250 year sojourn, Jacob’s small family grew to a slave-community of millions living in Egypts eastern Nile delta before departing on their 40 year nomadic journey to the promised land. During this time they built a temporary sanctuary and nurtured their fledgling national identity. Their exodus vacated Egypt's Nile delta which became exposed to infiltrators. Torah, the Hebrew Bible, became Israel - the new nation’s constitutional and cultural manifesto. By the time Moses died, he had forged Torah’s principles of law and worship into their collective national psyche, but its open framework enabled fiercely competitive intra-tribal identities to express themselves in priority to apparent national interests.

Moses tasked Joshua to conquer the promised land for the 12 tribes of Israel to settle. Joshua accomplished this by leading each tribe through successive victories over 31 regional kings, each a descendant of Canaan son of Egypt’s founder, Mitzrayim the son of Ham. Ham’s brother Shem was granted the land of Canaan by their father Noah. Their brother Yafeth was given land north and east of Canaan in modern Iraq and Iran. The three regions belonging to Ham (Egypt), Shem (dubiously Canaan) and Yafeth (Mesopotamia) constituted the fertile crescent. The division of this valuable continental junction established the basis for significant regional rivalry.

Dan was the last tribe Joshua assisted to settle their land. It was a difficult allocation for the hotly contested (south of modern day Tel Aviv), but important Egyptian coastal trade route through Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod. The 64,000 eligible members of Dan were made up from only one family known as the Shuchamites, the descendants of Dan’s son Chushim. Dan's initial land allocation required them to expand south into land occupied by the Philistines (descendants of Mitzrayim’s grandson). However, a previous tribal pact entered by Abraham and Isaac provided Philistine immunity in Gaza and their Hittite and Jebusite cousins obtained immunity in Hevron and Jerusalem. Toward the end of the period of Israel’s Judges (a few hundred years after Joshua), Samson - a judge from the tribe of Dan married a Philistine woman Delilah, which changed the course of history at the time.

Garment of captured Shasu 
presented to foreign king
Absent a new ruler or king there was little cohesiveness among the incongruous tribes of Israel. Dissatisfied and left to fend for themselves, the seniors of tribe Dan snaked a path north through Israel's tribal territories in search of easy to conquer land. During the same period Pharaoh Merenptah was pushing north through Israeli tribal land to attack the northern Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh. Tribal Dan, known to the Egyptians as the Shasu, conquered Laish in Israel’s north and settled the area between the Golan Heights and Damascus. Dan's territory was split between the south west (Gaza) and north east (Golan) of Israel. Dan, the disgruntled rear guard of Israel were exposed to continuous conflict, contact and trade with Israel's foreign invaders and neighbors. Their victories over local kings and dominance over trade routes heightened competition with other, tribes and nations, which led to regional tensions between Egypt and their burgeoning northern Hittite and Assyrian foes. The Hittites and Assyrians, predecessors of the Babylonians and Greeks, descended from Yafeth and shared a common Cuneiform language.

Around a hundred years later King David consolidated Israel’s disparate tribes briefly establishing a united kingdom and paving the way for his son King Solomon to finally realize the dream of Israel at peace with a permanent temple in Jerusalem. However, peace between the tribes endured only Solomon’s reign. Immediately thereafter the northern tribes under Solomon's exiled treasurer Yerovam split from those in the south under Solomon's son Rechavam, so Dan's divided territory and presence straddled the nation. Around 300 years later this national division led to the prophecies of Yeshayahu (Isaiah) and Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) who predicted the destruction of Jerusalem by the Assyrians and its ultimate destruction by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar.

Under the Assyrians Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah, a righteous Jew to rule as his proxy, but he was murdered at a feast set by Ishmael ben Nethaniah of the tribe of Yehuda and the remaining Jews who had not already been exiled to Babylon were killed or fled to Egypt. Orthodox Jews observe the fast of Gedaliah immediately after Rosh HaShana in the 10 days of repentance preceding Yom Kippur, perhaps to recall some or all of Israel's sordid, competitive, self effacing history. The month from which the temple's destruction commenced was eventually named after Tammuz the Babylonian deity for food and agriculture and became the lowest point of the the Hebrew calendar.

Peace does not come easy, not for a lack of trying, but for lack of the unification King David tried so hard to realize in the middle of Israel's history. Now at the end of that history Jews the world over are having to find new and creative ways to consolidate their disparate views as the world compresses and apparent circumstance forces their hand to accept the essential ingredients that unify, forge and strengthen their national identity.