6.3.1. The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel

6.3. HEBRAISM

6.3.1. The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel

Since the early days of Christianity until the Enlightenment, all Christians, regardless of confession, blamed the Jews for being the allies of the devil. The Jews had been a sort of universal scapegoat: whenever there were times of panic or “divine” plagues, they were automatically accused and killed. And yet, the traditional Christian eschatological scenario requires a return of the Jews to the Holy Land so that the Antichrist can manifest himself among them: “And the children of Judah and the children of Israel shall be gathered together, and they shall appoint themselves one head, and shall go up from the land; for great shall be the day of Jezreel” (Hosea 1:11). But the materialization of this grandiose project raised special problems of logistics, sociology, demography and geography. Of the 12 tribes of Israel, as they are described in Genesis 35:21-26, apparently ten were scattered and lost in the mists of history beginning with 720 BC, during the Assyrian domination. The biblical books of Chronicles and Kings offer the most details on this subject. Furthermore, there is a historical gap: it cannot be said for certain how many and which tribes were scattered. Only the century-old tradition, aided by religious beliefs, supported the presence of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin at the moment of the Savior’s birth (hence the name of “Judaism” for the religion of the Jews). This means that the other ten tribes of Israel, considered lost and scattered across the world, are those of Reuben, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Levi, Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher. And the Antichrist cannot reveal himself until there is a repatriation of the Jews to the Holy Land, especially of the tribe of Dan.

The prospect of repatriating the Jews gained momentum in the 16th century. The geographical discoveries questioned the old conceptions about the Universe and generated new theories regarding the shape, the dimension and the appearance of Earth. The problem was that God’s omnipresence demanded everything to have a purpose. After Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, Christians had to find the theological purpose of this new land. In this way America became an attractive spatial and temporal framework, free to be filled with anyone’s needs and ideas. Columbus himself believed that the new land was part of Asia and it was sheltering the Garden of Eden. After Amerigo Vespucci demonstrated that it was a new continent, America became Atlantis; Francisco López de Gómara in Historia general de las Indias, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa in Historia de los Incas, Girolamo Fracastoro in Syphilis sive de morbo gallico or Francis Bacon in New Atlantis linked the new continent to Plato’s legend. Others identified the Amerindians with the Lost Tribes of Israel. This point of view conveniently solved a biblical mystery, but indirectly promoted America as the new heaven and the new earth from Revelation 21 and the imminence of the end.

The scattering of ten tribes of Israel by the Assyrians is a historical fact. But the quest for these tribes turned into an adventure in itself, as the quest for the Holy Grail, King Arthur and Merlin the wizard. The Middle Ages was full of forgeries that …


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… gave rise to rumors, more or less founded. Mede was said to have obtained a copy of Roberto Bellarmine’s Hebrew grammar in his middle school years and he learned the basic principles of this language on his own. Another rumor said that in Northern Scotland a ship with sails and ropes made of silk had appeared, driven by sailors who were speaking Hebrew and the flag carrying the inscription “The Twelve Tribes of Israel.” The Jewish community of Avignon, France, prepared to migrate to the new kingdom in the spring of 1666, at a time when the famous Sabbatai Zevi was being proclaimed the Messiah in Palestine. In some parts of Europe the Jews even brought down the roof of their houses in preparation for a new exodus. Baruch Spinoza, a Dutch philosopher of Jewish origin, wrote about this phenomenon in a letter addressed to the German philosopher Heinrich Oldenburg: “Here there is a rumor everybody’s mouth that the Jews, who have been dispersed for more than two thousand years, are to return to their native country. … which if it were true would seem to bring a crisis on the whole world.”676

In his 13th-century Cronica, the Italian Salimbene di Adam reports that Frederick II conducted a weird experiment. The eccentric emperor ordered foster-mothers and nurses to raise several newborns without communicating with them at all, and to not allow them at all to hear the language of the people. Frederick aimed through this experiment to discover the natural language of human beings, infused by God to Adam and Eve. Unfortunately, all the children died.677 A couple of centuries later James IV of Scotland, allegedly, repeated the experiment by isolating a mute woman and two children on the island of Inchkeith. And this time the children came to speak Hebrew.678

The self-identification with the Israelites was a prime component of the Protestant imagination. The sufferings, the deprivations and the permanent relocation made Protestants often compare themselves with the fate of the Israelites and Rome with their oppressors. In 1641 John Milton expressed his disapproval of Catholicism and the episcopal system, presenting Rome as a contemporary Babylon and the bishops as Egyptian taskmasters.679 For the traumatized Protestant minority the Jewish people was a model of cultural survival and of political and administrative organization.680 Histoire des juifs of the French refugee Jacques Basnage was one of the boldest publications of the Enlightenment.681 De Republica Hebraeorum of the Dutch Petrus Cunaeus went through seven editions between 1617 and 1700, it was translated into three languages and it was the strongest assertion of republican theory in the early years of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. Cunaeus presented the Israelite state from the period of the First Temple as a practical model for the new independent United Provinces. The Bible, from his point of view, is a juridical model meant to assure the proper functioning of an independent state. In addition, together with the writings of Flavius Josephus, of Maimonides and of the Talmud, the Bible shows that the Hebrew state had a superior organization in comparison to the Roman or the Greek state. Because the laws came from the real God, Israel functioned as an archetype of the ideal republic. The operating legislation was that of natural law, emanated by the divine spirit of justice. But this model of governing cannot be classified as democracy, oligarchy or monarchy, but as a republic. The republic was the first political and administrative system in which Israelite authorities (the senate, the Sanhedrin, the judges and the priests) were able to implement the divine laws in everyday life.682

Cunaeus was preoccupied by the fact that the Dutch Republic might have the same fate of decadence shared by Athens and Rome, a decline caused, from his point of view, by the luxurious life and selfish quarrels between the leaders. By contrast, the Hebrew kings were constitutional monarchs, subjected to the law, with a special power over the nation’s religious affairs. The Hebrew Republic was a virtuous community of small republican farm owners, maintained in this form by the biblical law, which says that every fiftieth year (the Jubilee) all land transactions become null and the property goes back to the original owner. In this way all had equal income, the wealth of some did not degenerate into oppressing others, and the people did not leave their innocent occupation for other new and doubtful businesses.683


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