Motifs in Jewish History

"Steps of Time, The Dead Sea Scrolls", by Alex Levin. Used with permission.
"Steps of Time, The Dead Sea Scrolls", by Alex Levin. Used with permission.

In Judaism, while calendrical time is cyclical (recycling annually), historical time is linear (progressing from outset to endpoint). This stands in marked contrast to the cyclical conception of historical time maintained by numerous civilizations and philosophers throughout the ages, including Ancient Egyptians, Hindus, Buddhists, Classical Greeks, the Maya, Aztecs, Hopi, and Sikhs (and most recently, Nietzsche).

Judaic time: Linear and Cyclical?

And yet, even as Judaism eschews the notion of Eternal Return or the Wheel of Time (Kalachakra), observant students of Jewish history discern recurrence. Regarding a people with a 4,000-year history, the real surprise would be if no patterns emerged. There is no contradiction or conceptual crisis here: linear does not denote a perfectly straight line, nor does cyclical mean threadless, lacking a through-line. Linearity and cyclicality do not necessarily negate each other; they can also operate in tandem.

Consider as analogues a) a toy car race track, and b) the English alphabet. A toy car proceeds along its race track from beginning to end, though there are loops (cycles) en route (this analogy should not be conflated with that of a rollercoaster, whose many loops ultimately return riders precisely to their point of origin). Likewise, the English alphabet proceeds from A to Z, though capital R is rather reminiscent of capitals P and B, capital O resembles capital C, capital Q echoes capital O, etc.

Even though lineal history is chronological, within the spectrum of its unfolding sequence there are both instances (occurrences) and iterations (recurrences). In lineal history, then, sporadic cycles are species of adaptation—repetition with variation. In traditional Judaic parlance, this is known as shinui (alteration).

Jewish Historical Patterns

Mindful of this theoretical background, we can now perceive several unmistakable motifs in Jewish history, which for the sake of a mnemonic I term the “Three Esses”: “Second Comings”, “Servants of Two Masters”, and “Sectarianism”.

  1. Second Comings

This motif is the classic example of recurrence: a figure or phenomenon appears in history only to reappear in similar or even near-identical guise later in time. In biblical exegesis and literary criticism, this is known as “type” and “antitype”, where the type is originary and the antitype repetitive. Jewish history is replete with such débuts and encores, and the phenomenon has been so prevalent that it organically embedded itself firmly into the Judaism-derived Christian schema concerning the return of Christianity’s savior (viz. the “second coming” of Jesus Christ).

While there are already intimations of this motif as early as Abraham and Jacob, the example par excellence is that of Joseph and Daniel: an Israelite stranger taken captive to a foreign land becomes a royal courtier in the palace of an imperial potentate, interprets dreams with acumen, rises to prominence and position, and over the course of his tenure aids his fellow countrymen also consigned to exile.

Similarly, Moses the type resonates in Ezra the antitype—a wise lawgiver leads an exodus of his people out of exile and back into their ancestral homeland, where he brings the divine word to the people and institutes religious practices.

Likewise, Esther (c. fifth century BCE) reverberates across the centuries into Shushandukht (c. fourth/fifth centuries CE)—a Persian Jewess ascends the echelons of power by marrying the gentile emperor, but asserts her Jewish identity and as empress loyally serves and champions the cause of her people.

Motifs apply not only to individuals but to broader entities. In the case of Second Comings, for instance, American Jewry today recalls Babylonian Jewry in the Achaemenid Persian era (sixth/fifth centuries BCE): a sizable Jewish community preferring to live comfortable lives in exile rather than repatriating to the ancestral homeland, the Land of Israel (which is not to imply that they necessarily abjure their hereditament, even if they choose not to reside therein). In ancient times the periphery (Babylonia) deferred to the center (though not always, as the Talmud occasionally evidences), although today many in the periphery (America) not only prefer not to defer to the center but seek to refashion the center in their own peripheral image—an instantiation of repetition with variation.

  1. Servants of Two Masters

This motif refers to particular Jewish leadership types innately laden with dual duties, most notably prophets/prophetesses, courtiers, exilarchs, and patriarchs (i.e., princes/presidents of the Great Sanhedrin, not to be confused with the biblical Patriarchs).

Prophets like Moses and prophetesses like Esther had a twofold responsibility, namely to tout the divine agenda by delivering a divinely inspired moral-ethical message to the people and by speaking truth to power, and to advocate on the people’s behalf before God.

Courtiers like Joseph Nasi and Samson Wertheimer in the early modern period were beholden to their patrons (Ottoman sultans Suleiman I and Selim II, and emperors Leopold I, Joseph I, and Charles VI, respectively), while also serving as intercessors or lobbyists (shtadlanim) for their Jewish communities at the imperial court and personally supporting and sponsoring their various causes.

Exilarchs such as Mar Ukba I and Mar Zutra II represented Babylonian Jewry to the Parthian (Arsacid) or Sassanian emperors in Persia, but also had obligations to these rulers which included supplying information, helping maintain communal peace and order, and perhaps raising taxes.

Particularly in the post-Herodian era, the Great Sanhedrin’s patriarchs such as Shimon ben Gamliel I and Judah HaNasi led the Jewish populace in the Land of Israel, overseeing the council’s religious deliberations and legal rulings in addition to liaising with and placating the contemporary Roman emperors, prefects/procurators, and legionary legates in order to minimize the oppression of the imperial occupation.

  1. Sectarianism

The Jewish impulse to separate can be traced all the way back to the very beginning, to Abraham and Terah, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and the 12 tribes of Israel.

This impulse was pronounced during the reign of King Rehovo’am (r. 931–914 BCE), from whom the eight northern and Transjordanian tribes—Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Zevulun, Issachar, Joseph (Menasheh/Ephraim), Gad, and Reuven (Shimon and Benjamin had been subsumed by or allied to Judah, and Levi had no tribal territory)—seceded to form the northeastern Kingdom of Israel.

Sectarianism as such began in earnest in the wake of the Assyrian conquest, once the Kingdom of Israel and its ultimate capital, Samaria, were overrun (722 BCE) and pagan colonists from elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire (Khutah, Ava, Hamat, Sipharva’im) were resettled therein, blending with those Israelites who had not been deported (contrary to popular myth, not all Israelites were expelled and relegated to oblivion as the misnamed “Ten Lost Tribes”). This amalgamated population became known as the Samaritans, who modified the Torah into their Samaritan Pentateuch and redirected their religious worship towards Mount Gerizim (the mountain of biblical blessings that lies in western Menasheh on the border with Ephraim to the south), atop whose summit they erected their own temple and altar in the Persian era. During the period wherein the Judahite returnees from the Babylonian Captivity spurned the Samaritans’ aid in rebuilding the Temple (538–516 BCE), the divisions hardened and enmity ensued. (The “spurned-by-Jews-then embittered-then anti-Jewish” algorithm would recur over the millennia of Jewish history, most notably with Muhammad and Martin Luther.)

During the Maccabean Rebellion begun in 167 BCE, Judeans were divided into three parties: Hellenists, Hasideans, and Maccabees. Hellenists such as the high priests Jason and Menelaus had assimilated to the Hellenistic way of life, adopting the aesthetics and athletics of Greek culture. Hasideans were the pious mainstream devoted to the ancestral religion and content to live under imperial occupation so long as freedom of religion was assured. Maccabees were patriotic fighters who took up arms to restore both religious freedom and political independence to Judea and its natives.

Under Roman occupation, Jewry was riven into six sects, or what Jewish historian Flavius Josephus referred to as “philosophies”: Sadducees, priestly aristocrats based in the Temple who adhered solely to Scripture (Tanakh); Pharisees, the successors of the Hasideans, who were the popular group led by sages and scholars who believed in both the Written Law (Tanakh) and Oral Law (the originally oral tradition of interpretations of the Written Law, later codified); Essenes, ascetics who removed to desert retreats such as Qumran, fostered a dualistic theology, and emphasized ritual purity and communal cohesion; Zealots, militant patriots struggling to overthrow their brutal Roman occupiers; and Sicarii, a small but notable offshoot of the Zealots who turned to terrorism and targeted fellow Jews designated as Roman collaborators. The Nazarenes or Ebionites—the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth—formed the last sect, until their permanent detachment from Judaism after the ministry of Paul the Apostle, late in the first century CE.

Diasporic Jewry in the Middle Ages suffered from prolonged divisiveness between two factions, Rabbanites and Karaites. Rabbanites were rabbinical sages representing the mainstream of Jewry and prizing both Written and Oral Law. Karaism was a new faction founded around 760 CE by an embittered aspirant for the exilarchate, Anan ben David (c. 715–795), whose followers rehearsed the Sadducees in their strict adherence to Scripture.

Judaism in modern times is almost as divided as ever, though nowadays divisions give rise to religious and political disagreements, but very rarely violence. The two main streams, each of which comprises several denominations, are orthodox (Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Hasidic, Hareidi) and heterodox (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Humanistic).

The orthodox are Torah-observant Jews adhering to halakhah (Jewish law), whose religious practice sometimes features greater (Hasidic, Hareidi) or lesser (Modern Orthodox) stringencies. While Conservative Judaism began as a sort of Modern Orthodox denomination in America in reaction to the radicalism of the Reform movement begun in Germany, it has since drifted considerably towards the norms of Reform Judaism even as the latter reformed itself to a degree (such as regarding its relationship to Israel) from its erstwhile extremes. The Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, and Humanistic denominations are the most recently established and smallest denominations, whose impact has varied: Reconstructionism (an offshoot of Conservative Judaism) can claim influence in the adoption of some of the program (such as Judaism as a civilization and robust Jewish communal institutions) expounded by its founder Mordecai Kaplan; Jewish Renewal (an unorthodox, neo-Hasidic movement) seeks to restore ecstatic practices to Jewish worship and incorporates egalitarianism, pacifism, and liberal political preoccupations; Humanistic Judaism (an offshoot of Reform) is a nontheistic attempt at Jewish community building based on celebrating civilizational identity and culture in accordance with secular humanistic philosophy instead of with faith. The latter two denominations originate in the western counterculture of the 1960s and attempt to make Judaism palpable to secular, unaffiliated Jews in modern times.

Examining the overview, then, reveals a distinct ebb and flow of sectarianism across the entirety of Jewish history, wavering from fewer to more: 2 families (Isaac/Ishmael, Jacob/Esau), 12 tribes (tribal Israel), 1 kingdom (United Monarchy), 2 kingdoms (First Temple era), 2 divisions (Persian era), 3 parties (Hellenistic era), 6 philosophies (Roman era), 2 factions (medieval era), 7–9 denominations (modern era). Jewish sectarianism seems a muscle, alternately relaxing and contracting.

“God Works in Mysterious Ways”, by Alex Levin. Used with permission.

Joint Motifs

Jewish history evinces instances combining motifs, such as Second Comings and Sectarianism. For example, during the Great Revolt (66–73 CE) the militant Zealots (Kana’im) were divided early on between the main “philosophy” and its terroristic splinter group known as the Sicarii, whose leader Menahem ben Judah was soon slain and who fled Jerusalem back to their bastion at Masada, under the leadership of Menahem’s nephew Elazar ben Ya’ir. But this was merely the prelude to the real divisions that would plague the Zealots: even in the latter stages of the rebellion, when Vespasian and Titus with their Roman legions were closing in on Jerusalem and soon besieging its tripartite walls, the group was bitterly divided into rivalrous factions headed by Elazar ben Shimon (in the Temple complex), Yohanan of Gush Halav (on Temple Mount), and Shimon bar Giora (in the rest of Jerusalem). During the British Mandate days, the Jewish militant underground was similarly riven: the Haganah under David Ben-Gurion, the Irgun/Etzel under Menahem Begin, and the Lehi under Avraham Stern. Unlike the Zealots in the Great Revolt who were overcome, the modern Jewish freedom fighters prevailed against their imperial occupiers—repetition with variation.

An even more notable example of the joint motif combining Second Comings and Sectarianism lies at the core of contemporary Jewish concerns. Just as the medieval Karaites iterated the classical Sadducees, in the modern era the Reform movement may be construed as Neo-Samaritanism, iterating the Samaritans of the late eighth–late second centuries BCE in the Land of Israel: a prominent Judaic subsection whose members comprise Jews as well as gentiles due to pervasive intermarriage (and, from the orthodox standpoint, members who possess only Jewish patrilineal descent or who underwent unorthodox conversions); who have their own discrete sacred texts; who reorient their center of worship (temple) closer to home and away from the longstanding national center of worship; who practice the religion markedly differently from traditional Judaism; and who view themselves as authentic practitioners despite intentionally diverging, often drastically, from the historically mainstream tenets and rites.

Just as tensions between Jews and Samaritans were substantive in the Persian era during the days of the Persian-Jewish governor Nehemiah (who while rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls withstood the ridicule and hostile interference of the scorned Samaritans under their governor Sanballat I the Horonite) and in the Hellenistic era during the rule of the Hasmonean dynast and high priest Yohanan Hyrcanus (who destroyed the Samaritan temple atop Mount Gerizim c. 120 BCE), tensions between orthodoxy and heterodoxy continue to disquiet Jewish intracommunal relations in our own day.


While prominent, the “Three Esses” are not the only motifs discernible in Jewish history. Understanding that Judaic time is concurrently linear and cyclical can awaken careful observers to the reality of adaptation—repetition with variation—while simultaneously preserving the viability of hope in history’s providential progression.

About the Author
Brandon Marlon is an award-winning Canadian-Israeli author whose writing has appeared in 300+ publications in 33 countries. He is the author of two poetry volumes, Inspirations of Israel: Poetry for a Land and People and Judean Dreams, and two historical reference works, Essentials of Jewish History: Jewish Leadership Across 4,000 Years and its companion volume Essentials of the Land of Israel: A Geographical History.
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