Conversion History: Ancient Period

The evolution of Israel as a nation into Judaism as a religion was paralleled by a move from assimilation of strangers to a more formal idea of conversion.

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God was conceived in very early Jewish thought as a national deity, protecting the Israelites in their land, aiding them in their fights, freeing them from hunger, and generally providing for the nation's sustenance. Misfortune--bad crops, illness--could be overcome by offering a sacrifice to God. God was seen as the exclusive Lord of the Israelites; they could worship no other deity and God would protect no other people.

Israel Becomes "Religion" with Move to Universal God

The concept began to change in the 800s BCE. The Assyrians, desiring hegemony over the world, gave impetus to the very idea of a single, unified world, an idea that transplanted itself into an emerging Israel and was transformed into a spiritual concept. It was such an idea that the prophet Amos (c. 751 BCE) adapted when he asserted that God was not just the God of the Israelites, but of all people, of the whole world. Amos concluded that if the Jews were faithless, God could rescind the covenant made with the Jews and give it to another people, assuming the other people accepted God's commandments. Amos, of course, preached a fidelity to the covenant that would ensure God's continuing favor. The startled Israelites heard from the prophet that their God was independent of them and could exist without them if they did not adhere to God's commandments.

Amos, the first universalist, could not fully comprehend the implications of his own interpretation. He believed God could enter into only one covenant at a time rather than entering simultaneous covenants. Also, Amos could not conceive of Israel worshipping God outside the land of Israel.

Amos's disciple Isaiah (c. 740-700 BCE), also noting Assyrian power, concluded that it, like Israel, was susceptible to God's ethical teachings. This was a vital step for Jewish universalism, for a critical connection had been made. Isaiah concluded that if God is God of the whole world, not just Israel, and if God had revealed divine laws at Mount Sinai, then it follows that those laws must apply not just to Israel, but to the whole world.

One of the defining moments of Jewish history was the exile of Jews from the land of Israel in 586 BCE. The exile had many significant effects. It destroyed the tribal structure of the Israelites. The severing of national identity from the overall identity of the people made the religious elements of the people paramount. The rabbinate based on scholarship replaced the priesthood based on lineage; synagogues and academies replaced the Temple; and Torah study and prayer replaced sacrifices. The Israelites, a national people, became Jews, the followers of a religion.

Portable God Means Gentiles Outside of Israel Can Adopt Jewish Religion

At some point, the prophet Jeremiah sent a letter to the Babylonian exiles telling them to pray for the welfare of their settlement in Babylon. The revolutionary theological change was that Jeremiah, altering the views of Amos and Hosea, argued that God could be worshipped outside the land of Israel.

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Lawrence J. Epstein is the author of numerous books, including Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook and Readings on Conversion to Judaism.