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This is the story of why the people of Israel decided to compile all their oral traditions in one book: the Bible. It all started when their land was conquered and destroyed and they were exiled in Babylon some 2500 years ago. There's a beautiful poem written at that time about the suffering in the exile. Boney M has transformed that poem into a successful disco song, you can watch it here: Rivers of Babylon.
The transcription contains only 8 minutes of the video (from 2:17 to 10:12), which was the original fragment posted here. Then, that fragment was deleted and I embedded the complete episode instead.
This script starts at minute 2:17 and ends at 10:12
In 589 BC, the people of Judah, last of the Israelites, rebelled against the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. He responded by ordering his troops to lay waste to Jerusalem and destroyed the Judean’s most precious possession, the Temple of Solomon. Then Nebuchadnezzar ordered that the king of Judah should watch his sons be put to death as a sign to all that his royal line had come to an end. Afterwards, the Babylonians led the people of Jerusalem into exile in Babylon.
As they travelled the 600 miles from their tiny homeland to Babylon, the Judean's future looked grim. Only a few generations earlier, the northern tribes of the Israelites had been taken into exile and vanished forever. Now the Judeans, too, seemed destined to disappear with all memory they had existed as a people lost forever. Their move was captured in a poem from the Book of Songs:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Sion.
On the poplars there we had hung up our harps
For our jailors asked us to sing them a song.
But how can we sing a song of the Lord in a strange land?
In spite of their despair and the incredible odds against them, the Judeans decided to fight for their survival as a people. They chose to fight not with spears and swords, but by writing a book. In every spare moment they could find, the greatest of the Judeans scribes, began to rewrite and edit together stories about their past, which had been handed down to them by their ancestors. The book they compiled was the first edition of the most influential work in human history: the Hebrew Bible.
The Bible was the first book. And you can argue it’s good history writing or bad history writing, I think it’s extraordinarily remarkable history writing for human's first time out. But it is the first, it’s the first time humans set down stories like that through many generations. And the fact that we did it so well the fist time out and that it impacted for so long. It's ahh...it's a wonder.
The scribes were driven by what they saw as a sacred mission to bring the lessons taught by the stories alive for their fellow exiles. So they would understand why they were in Babylon and how they could get home to Jerusalem. Their book was a guide to how the Judean exiles should live, not a literal history.
Many sceptics today want to ask: "Are the stories in the Hebrew Bible true in any sense?" They are true in some senses and not in others. In other words, the biblical writers want to expand upon events to shed light upon their meaning as they understood that meaning. We moderns say, "But wait a minute! We want to know what really happened." So for us, sceptical or not, the question is often "Can stories which are not true in every detail nevertheless be morally edifying?" My answer is yes. The Bible does not have to be literally true in every detail to be true in other senses.
The story said that the father of all Jews was Abraham. Abraham was born in the city of Ur in Mesopotamia. According to the Jewish book of tradition and law, the Talmud, the people of Abraham’s land worshipped the sky, and each city venerated a different heavenly body. Abraham’s father made and sold idols to the people of the city of Ur, but Abraham could not accept his father’s ideas about religion.
It’s a very famous legend. It says that when Abraham was a young boy, his father Terah owned a shop. The shop was full of idols. One day he said to his son, "Watch the store for a while while I go out." And when he came back, he found that every idol in the store had been smashed except for the largest idol that had a wooden stuff at its hand. Father said, "Abraham, what went on? I left you in charge. What happened?" Abraham said, "Don’t get mad at me. The largest God here destroyed all the others." His father said, "What are you, nuts? They are wood and stone." And Abraham said, "Aha, that’s the point. They are just wood and stone." And that story comes to tell us that it was Abraham who was the first one to discover the idea that there was one God in the universe, that God created the heavens and the earth, and not the other way around.
According to the stories, once Abraham began to voice his belief that the universe was ruled by a single God, that God gave him a mission.
And the Lord said to Abraham: "Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country which I will show you, and I will make you a great nation. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you, and all clans on earth will bless themselves by you."
The story says God led Abraham to a land near Egypt called Canaan. In Canaan God tested Abraham, and Abraham tried to learn about God. In their most disturbing meeting, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son.
HEBREWS, ISRAELITES and modern JEWS
/hi:bru:z/ , /ɪzrɪəlaɪts/ , /dʒu:z/
Abraham /eɪbrəhæm/ (from Mesopotamia, modern Iraq) moved to Canaan (modern Palestine) and there he had a son, Isaac /aɪzək/ . Isaac was father to Jacob /dʒeɪkəb/ , Jacob (renamed by God Israel /ɪzreɪəl/ ) had 12 sons. Those sons went to Egypt and their descendants were the Israelites (descendants of Israel, i.e. Jacob). In Egypt they multiplied and were enslaved. Liberated by Moses, they went back to Canaan and settled there, in modern Israel-Palestine. But the Israelites were divided into 12 different tribes, one for every son of Jacob (or Israel). The descendants of Judah /dʒu:də/ were called Judeans /dʒu:dɪənz/ . 200 years later (a. 1000 B.C.) King David unified all the tribes in one single kingdom (the Kingdom of David) and set its capital in Jerusalem /dʒəru:səlem/ . At the death of his son, Solomon /sɒləmən/ , the kingdom was divided in two: the northern tribes made up the kingdom of Israel and in the south, Judah and the small tribe of Benjamin made up the kingdom of Judah. 300 years later, the kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and their inhabitants dispersed and finally disappeared (they are known as "the lost tribes of Israel").
100 years later, a new empire, the Babylonians, conquered the kingdom of Judah and deported them to Babylon. There, after an intense identity crisis, the Judeans reorganized their society and their religion. When a new empire destroyed Babylon (the Persians), the Judeans were allowed to come back to Jerusalem, but they were now a different people: the Jews (named derived from "Judean") with a renewed religion: Judaism. Later they suffered the invasions of Alexander the Great and the Romans. In 73 A.D. they rebelled against Rome. The country was completely destroyed and Jews were cast away from Palestine.
For 2000 years, the Jews lived in exile but they always kept one thing in mind: one day they would return to their homeland, Palestine, and to their spiritual capital, Jerusalem ("If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I don't remember you; if I don't prefer Jerusalem above my chief joy."). They survived as a people because they kept alive the hope of returning to their homeland one day. In the 20th century, after Nazi’s Holocaust (where several millions of Jews were put to death) that dream could finally come true. Many Jews come back to Palestine (under British rule at the time), but the land was not empty. Jews claimed back their ancient land, but modern Palestinians had been living there for 2000 years. When the British left, Palestine was divided in two: Israel and Palestine. But they both wanted all the area for themselves, so they started a war. And they’re still at war.
ISRAELITES= This ancient people were called Israelites, because they were descendants of Israel, or Hebrews because they were descendants from Abraham (Israel’s grandfather).
Nebuchadnezzar= /nebjʊkədnezə*/ Nebuchadnezzar II, also known as Nebuchadnezzar the Great, was the most important Babylonian king. He turned Babylon into the biggest empire of the time and conquered Jerusalem.
HE RESPONDED BY OFFERING...= We use the construction BY + ING to express how something is done. How did he respond? By offering...
- You can open this door by pressing on this button
He ordered his troops TO LAY WASTE TO JERUSALEM= to completely destroy Jerusalem.
- The enemy lay waste to the countryside after the invasion
THE TEMPLE OF SOLOMON= After the 12 tribes of Israel were unified by King David into one single kingdom, people could only make sacrifices to God in one place, Jerusalem. David’s son, King Solomon, built there one of the most impressive temples of the time, and that temple was the centre of all religious life in Israel. Losing the temple meant losing contact with God and losing the pivot of their identity as a people. That’s why the destruction of the temple and the exile was such a huge tragedy for Judeans.
PUT TO DEATH= Executed. If you put someone to death, you order to kill them.
HIS ROYAL LINE HAD COME TO AN END= The royal line is the genealogic line going from fathers to sons to grandsons, etc. Monarchy is transmitted from father to son, so if all the sons die, the royal line is dead.
EXILE= To exile is to force someone to go away from their country. The exile is the period of time someone is away in exile. An exile is a person who is in exile.
TINY= Very small.
HOMELAND= The country or territory where you were born and raised, or where your ancestors come from.
GRIM= gloomy; unfavourable and worrying. When the future looks grim, you are pessimistic because you think the future will probably be bad.
WEPT= Weep-wept-wept. To cry, to shed tears.
SION= /saɪən/ One of the two mounts on which Jerusalem is built. In the Bible, they often say SION (or "Zion" /zaɪən/ ) to refer to the Temple of Solomon, or the city of Jerusalem or the whole country of Israel.
POPLARS= A kind of tree (see picture here)
HARPS= A string instrument (see picture here)
JAILERS= (also spelled "gaoler" BrE or "jailor" AmE) The person in charge of a prison (AmE jail, BrE gaol, both pronounced /dʒeɪl/ ).
THE LORD= God.
IN SPITE OF THEIR DESPAIR= Although they were desperate. We use IN SPITE OF followed by a noun, or we can use ALTHOUGH followed by a sentence (with a verb).
THE INCREDIBLE ODDS AGAINST THEM= If the odds are against you, you have a very little chance of success.
A PEOPLE= The word "people" can be the plural of "person" (one person, two people), but it can also be a singular word meaning "nation" (as a group of people). So we can say:
- People there are very nice (plural of "person")
- They are a very proud people ("nation", singular)
- Modern Palestine: one land, two peoples ("nation", plural)
SPEARS= /spɪə*z/ , a primitive weapon (see picture).
SWORDS= /sɔ:*dz/ a weapon (see picture).
SPARE MOMENT= Free time.
SCRIBES= In ancient times, a scribe was a public secretary or clerk who wrote official records (from Latin "scriba", from "scribere"= write).
HANDED DOWN TO THEM= If something is handed down, it passes down from fathers to sons to grandsons, etc. (or mothers, daughters...) For example, an object, a tradition or a story.
ANCESTORS= /ænsəstə*z/ people from whom you come from (parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on), specially generations older than grand-parents.
COMPILE= If you compile a book, you don’t make it up, you collect texts or oral stories and put them together to form something complete and coherent.
THE BIBLE= The Israelites in the exile put all their different texts and traditions together in one single book (or collection of books): the Hebrew or Jewish Bible. Later, Christians wrote some new books (the New Testament) and, together with the Jewish books (the Old Testament), they make the Christian Bible. After the success of the fiction novel "Da Vinci Code", many people think that the Bible was modified by King Constantine in 4th century A.D., but there are many Jewish texts and some Christian texts prior to that date that prove that the Bible (Jewish or Christian) has never been changed in any way (sacred texts were dealt with great care and respect). Archaeology has also provided proof of some fragments of the Jewish Bible before the book was written, at the time of oral traditions, and we can see that ancient oral texts match later written texts, which comes as no surprise, since before literacy times, long stories (especially sacred ones) can be orally passed down through generations with no significant changes, something impossible for modern people who never had to develop such a great memory since we can write things down.
REMARKABLE= Extraordinary, amazing.
HUMAN’S FIRST TIME OUT= The first time people tried that. Here, they refer to the first time people tried to write a book. Of course the Bible is not the first time humans wrote a story. We’re not talking about stories here, we’re talking about a book, which is different. The Bible is not just a collection of stories, it is the story of the people of Israel, a complete narration with a beginning, an end and a unifying meaning that guides the story all through the book.
IT’S A WONDER= It’s wonderful, it’s amazing.
THE SCRIBES WERE DRIVEN BY...= The scribes were motivated by..., they had that objective in mind.
THEIR FELLOW EXILES= The rest of the Jews in exile with them.
UPON= (Old fashioned) On.
TO EXPAND UPON EVENTS= If you expand on an event, you take the event and add new things. The scribes took the event, the real thing that happened, and added a meaning. They not only tell a story about what happened (history), but also explained the reason why it happened and what we can learn from that (religion). So to write the Bible, scribes took material from history, traditions and even legends to explain why they had come to the present situation: God made a covenant with them, an agreement. God kept his part, but the Israelites didn’t keep his part of the agreement, they went away from God. That’s why their country was destroyed. If they go back to God the agreement will be in force again and their land and temple will be restored. In this belief, Israelites strengthened their culture and their faith and finally could go back to their country.
TO SHED LIGHT UPON THEIR MEANING= To explain their meaning, to make it possible to understand. If you shed light upon something you explain it and make it easy to understand.
MORALLY EDIFYING= If something is morally edifying it helps you to live life correctly.
UR= The city of Ur, in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) is one of the oldest cities in the world, founded around 5000 B.C. by the river Euphrates.
WORSHIP= Adore a god.
HEAVENLY BODY= The sun, the moon, the stars or one of the planets.
IDOL= /aɪdəl/ a statue representing a god. The difference between an idol and a Catholic statue of a saint is that Catholic statues represent a saint, or Jesus or Mary in the same way as a modern photograph represents a person. If we look at the photograph of our girlfriend we remember her and feel closer to her, but we know the photograph is not our girlfriend. In an idol, part of the god is there, so the idol is not just a symbol, it is sacred because the god or part of the god is there.
WHAT WENT ON?= What happened?
I LEFT YOU IN CHARGE= I made you responsible, you have to take care of everything.
DON’T GET MAD AT ME= In American English, to be mad at someone is to be angry with someone. In British English to be mad is to be crazy.
WHAT ARE YOU, NUTS?= Are you crazy? (nuts = crazy).
TO VOICE HIS BELIEF= To talk about his belief.
KINDRED= Family, relatives.
I WILL MAKE YOU A GREAT NATION= You will have many descendants, and those descendants will be a new nation, and that nation will be extraordinary. Here, God is talking about the Israelites, all of them descending from Abraham.
BLESS= If something is blessed, God’s favour and protection comes to it.
CURSE= The opposite of bless, if something is cursed, evil or misfortune will come to it.
THEY WILL BLESS THEMSELVES BY YOU= They will be blessed because of you. They will be blessed because you are blessed.
CANAAN= /keɪnən/ This ancient land comprises more or less modern Israel+Palestine. It was the land that God promised to give to Abraham and his descendants.
DISTURBING= That troubles emotionally or mentally.
SACRIFICE= A sacrifice to the gods is a present you send to them usually by burning. Ancient Israelites could make sacrifices of food or animals. An animal sacrifice consists of killing the animal on an altar and then burning it so that the smoke could carry the animal up to heaven. At Abraham’s times and much later, human sacrifices were common, usually by killing war prisoners or, in special important occasions, by killing your firstborn son. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, that was not something shocking for the time, it was common practice. But God didn’t want Isaac, He wanted to teach Abraham a very important lesson. If you don’t know the end of this story continue to Part 2 of this documentary. If you know the story, continue to Part 2 all the same, new information is to come.
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