Peoplehood in the Bible

There are many examples of how the people in the Bible move from being individuals, into families, into tribes, into community and then into a nation.  Below are several quotations from the text that demonstrate these transitions.  You will also find discussion questions to help spark conversations about these texts.  We welcome your comments and feedback.

א וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.  ב וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה

And Adonai said to Abram, Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you; And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.  (Gen 12:1-2)

The Jewish people are born in the land of Israel through a covenant with God and Abraham (Lech Lecha).  Israel becomes a central location, as the Jews leave for Egypt, living in exile and yearn for redemption by returning to Zion.  This theme of exile-redemption recurs twice more after the destruction of the Temples and the dispersal of the Jewish people.[1]

1. Where else could the Jewish people have been born?  How is Israel an integral part of this story?

2. Here the offspring of Abram are considered לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, a great nation.  How might this make them a great people?

א וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים אֲנִי אֵל שַׁדַּי, פְּרֵה וּרְבֵה–גּוֹי וּקְהַל גּוֹיִם, יִהְיֶה מִמֶּךָּ; וּמְלָכִים, מֵחֲלָצֶיךָ יֵצֵאוּ

And God said to him: ‘I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a community of nations will be from you, and kings will come from your loins. (Gen 35:11)

The first commandment found in Genesis 1:28, פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ, tells Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply.”  This is the way in which the Jewish people will continue to grow and eventually become a nation.

1. Here the people are called קְהַל גּוֹיִם – a community of nations.  What does this mean in comparison to the term “a great nation” used earlier in the text?

2. What does this imply in terms of the future of the Jewish people and all people?

The beginning of the Book of Exodus describes the birth of a nation. “In Genesis, the patriarchs had a personal relationship with God; in Exodus, the Israelites will enter into a communal relationship with the Divine.”[2]

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת-עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם; וְאֶת-צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו, כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-מַכְאֹבָיו

And Adonai said, I have surely seen the affliction of My people in Egypt; I have heard their cries because of their taskmasters, for I know their suffering. (Ex 3:7)

וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי; וְגַם-רָאִיתִי, אֶת-הַלַּחַץ, אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם, לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם

Now the cry of the children of Israel has come to me; and I also saw the pressure of Egypt’s oppression on them.  (Ex 3:9)

וְאַחַר, בָּאוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה:  כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, שַׁלַּח אֶת-עַמִּי, וְיָחֹגּוּ לִי בַּמִּדְבָּר

And afterward, Moses and Aaron came, and they said to Pharaoh: thus said Adonai, God of Israel, Let My people go so that they will celebrate a festival for me in the wilderness. (Ex 5:1)

1. In the Book of Exodus the name of the Jewish people begins to evolve.  God refers to them first as “My people.”  What does this mean to you?  What does this mean about their relationship to God?

2. Two verses later Israelites gain a new name – b’nei Yisrael.  What does this name in terms of peoplehood?  As children of Israel how are they a nation of people?

3. Moses and Aaron refer to God’s people in Chapter 5.  What does it mean for a member of this people to refer to everyone else in this way?

4. What does it mean for a human to utter these words on behalf of God about his own community?

In the Book of Ruth the Israelites are defined as a people; not just as a religion.

טו וַתֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה שָׁבָה יְבִמְתֵּךְ, אֶל-עַמָּהּ, וְאֶל-אֱלֹהֶיהָ; שׁוּבִי, אַחֲרֵי יְבִמְתֵּךְ.  טז וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת אַל-תִּפְגְּעִי-בִי, לְעָזְבֵךְ לָשׁוּב מֵאַחֲרָיִךְ:  כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ, וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין–עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי.

And she [Naomi] said, Behold, your sister-in-law is gone back to her people, and to her gods; go back you after your sister-in-law.  And Ruth said, Do not entreat me to leave you, or to keep from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God (Ruth 1:15-16)

1. What does it mean for an outsider to recognize the Jewish people as “your people?”

2. What does it mean for a non-Jewish person to want to become part of the Jewish people?  What other steps might needed besides a ritual conversion?

In Jeremiah the Jewish people are told to make for themselves a life and community for themselves outside of the land of Israel.  They are being permitted to settle down and continue on in a new place, to survive as a people no matter where they are physically.  In this same verse God says that they will be gathered again from the nations and returned but it seems that the spread of the Jewish people across the world, into the Diaspora, remained permanent from ancient times.

כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  לְכָל-הַגּוֹלָה–אֲשֶׁר-הִגְלֵיתִי מִירוּשָׁלִַם, בָּבֶלָה.  ה בְּנוּ בָתִּים, וְשֵׁבוּ; וְנִטְעוּ גַנּוֹת, וְאִכְלוּ אֶת-פִּרְיָן.  ו קְחוּ נָשִׁים, וְהוֹלִידוּ בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת, וּקְחוּ לִבְנֵיכֶם נָשִׁים וְאֶת-בְּנוֹתֵיכֶם תְּנוּ לַאֲנָשִׁים, וְתֵלַדְנָה בָּנִים וּבָנוֹת; וּרְבוּ-שָׁם, וְאַל-תִּמְעָטוּ.  ז וְדִרְשׁוּ אֶת-שְׁלוֹם הָעִיר, אֲשֶׁר הִגְלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, וְהִתְפַּלְלוּ בַעֲדָהּ, אֶל-יְהוָה:  כִּי בִשְׁלוֹמָהּ, יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שָׁלוֹם

4 Thus said Adonai of hosts, the God of Israel, to the entire exiled community, whom I have caused to be carried away captive from Jerusalem unto Babylon: 5 Build for yourselves houses, and dwell in them, and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; 6 take wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there, and be not diminished. 7 And seek the peace of the city to which I have caused you to be exiled, and pray to Adonai on its behalf; for in the peace thereof you will prosper.  (Jer 29:4-7)

1. Relate this text back to the initial text in Genesis 12.  What must a nation or people due to survive as such outside of the land of Israel?

2. Is Israel a necessary ingredient for the success and future of the Jewish people?

[1] Bernard Reisman, “An Ideology for American Jews,” Journal of Jewish Communal Service, 63:4 (1987): 277.

[2] Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss, eds, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), 305.

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