Visual History of the World




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Dictionary of Art and Artists




Key Ideas:






Moses with the Torah, by Rembrandt van Rijn



see also:



The Bible illustrations by

Julius von Carolsfeld "Das Buch der Bucher in Bildeb"

Gustave Dore

William Blak
e "The Book of Job"

see also text

KING SOLOMON "Song of Songs"




Key Ideas:




Moses holding up his arms during the battle, assisted by Aaron and Hur, by John Everett Millais

Judaism is the oldest of the three great monotheistic religions and provides the historical background to Christianity and Islam. One characteristic of Judaism is an identity which involves membership in both a religion and a people. This complex dualism is embodied by the Jewish state of Israel, founded in 1948, where secularist Zionism and Orthodox Judaism coexist.

The Covenant with God

Jewish tradition teaches that God made a covenant exclusively with the people of Israel. The covenant is a central element of the Jewish religion. God, the creator of the world and of mankind, chose the people of Israel—beginning with the patriarch Abraham—as his people. Being the "chosen people" is at once equally a mark of honor and a burden. Man is directed to follow God's commandments, but, at the same time, is called upon to behave in an ethically responsible way and is accountable for his transgressions. The relationship to God is understood as a dialogue between God and mankind. God often revealed himself to man through prophets who proclaimed his will. Moses stands out among them as the deliverer of the Law—the Torah—which is doctrine, law, and according to Jewish tradition, the complete revelation of God in 613 commandments and prohibitions. It was Moses who transformed the belief in the Jewish tribal god—"God, the Father"— into a belief in a universal god; "Yahweh" was at first only the mightiest among the gods, but then he became the only god.


The Promised Land and the Diaspora

3 Moses not only brought God's law to the people of Israel but was also called to lead them out of captivity in Egypt to the 1 "Promised Land."

Moses with the Torah

see also:

 David Roberts

"A Journey in the Holy Land"

Promised Land

Moses sees the Promised Land


The concept of the Promised Land has played a significant role in Judaism. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with whom the history of Israel begins, were nomads in the land of Canaan. Abraham received the promise that his posterity would be a great people and that God would give them the land of Canaan. The promise was fulfilled after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt. After a long trek through the desert, they occupied and settled in Palestine.

There followed the founding of the Israelite kingdom and its capital Jerusalem, and the erection of the Jewish shrine,
4 the Temple. To this day, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are the most sacred sites of the Jewish faith.

The temple of Solomon, reconstructed mode!

Judaism was also shaped and given its decisive character by the Diaspora communities living as minorities among foreign cultures. This pattern began with the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel, which saw the Jews dispersed around the empire. In parallel to this tradition in Palestine, another tradition, the Kingdom of Judah, developed further south in Babylon. It wavered between assimilation and segregation, and had its own liturgy and literature. By the time of Roman rule, this had become the dominant form.




Moses, Michelangelo


Moses (Moshe)

Along with God, it is the figure of Moses (Moshe) who dominates the Torah. Acting at God's behest, it is he who leads the Jews out of slavery, unleashes the Ten Plagues against Egypt, guides the freed slaves for forty years in the wilderness, carries down the law from Mount Sinai, and prepares the Jews to enter the land of Canaan. Without Moses, there would be little apart from laws to write about in the last four books of the Torah.

Moses is born during the Jewish enslavement in Egypt, during a terrible period when Pharaoh decrees that all male Hebrew infants are to be drowned at birth. His mother, Yocheved, desperate to prolong his life, floats him in a basket in the Nile. Hearing the crying child as she walks by, Pharaoh's daughter pities the crying infant and adopts him (Exodus 2:1-10). It surely is no coincidence that the Jews' future liberator is raised as an Egyptian prince. Had Moses grown up in slavery with his fellow Hebrews, he probably would not have developed the pride, vision, and courage to lead a revolt.

The Torah records only three incidents in Moses' life before God appoints him a prophet. As a young man, outraged at seeing an Egyptian overseer beating a Jewish slave, he kills the overseer. The next day, he tries to make peace between two Hebrews who are fighting, but the aggressor takes umbrage and says: "Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Moses immediately understands that he is in danger, for though his high status undoubtedly would protect him from punishment for the murder of a mere overseer, the fact that he killed the man for carrying out his duties to Pharaoh would brand him a rebel against the king. Indeed, Pharaoh orders Moses killed, and he flees to Midian. At this point, Moses probably wants nothing more than a peaceful interlude, but immediately he finds himself in another fight. The seven daughters of the Midianite priest Reuel (also called Jethro) are being abused by the Midianite male shepherds, and Moses rises to their defense (Exodus 2:11-22).

The incidents are of course related. In all three, Moses shows a deep, almost obsessive commitment to fighting injustice. Furthermore, his concerns are not parochial. He intervenes when a non-Jew oppresses a Jew, when two Jews fight, and when non-Jews oppress other non-Jews.

Moses marries Tzipporah, one of the Midianite priest's daughters, and becomes the shepherd for his father-in-law's flock. On one occasion, when he has gone with his flock into the wilderness, an angel of the Lord appears to him in the guise of a bush that is burning but is not consumed (see next entry). The symbolism of the miracle is powerful. In a world in which nature itself is worshiped, God shows that He rules over it.

Once He has so effectively elicited Moses' attention, God commands-over Moses' strenuous objections-that he go to Egypt and along with his brother, Aaron, make one simple if revolutionary demand of Pharaoh: "Let my people go." Pharaoh resists Moses' petition, until God wreaks the Ten Plagues on Egypt, after which the children of Israel escape.

Months later, in the Sinai Desert, Moses climbs Mount Sinai and comes down with the Ten Commandments, only to discover the Israelites engaged in an orgy and worshiping a Golden Calf. The episode is paradigmatic: Only at the very moment God or Moses is doing something for them are they loyal believers. The instant God's or Moses' presence is not manifest, the children of Israel revert to amoral, immoral, and sometimes idolatrous behavior. Like a true parent, Moses rages at the Jews when they sin, but he never turns against them-even when God does. To God's wrathful declaration on one occasion that He will blot out the Jews and make of Moses a new nation, he answers, "Then blot me out too" (Exodus 32:32).

The law that Moses transmits to the Jews in the Torah embraces far more than the Ten Commandments. In addition to many ritual regulations. the Jews are instructed to love God as well as be in awe of Him, to love their neighbors as themselves, and to love the stranger-that is, the non-Jew living among them-as themselves as well.

The saddest event in Moses' life might well be God's prohibiting him from entering the land of Israel. The reason for this ban is explicitly connected to an episode in Numbers in which the Hebrews angrily demand that Moses supply them with water. God commands Moses to assemble the community, "and before their very eyes order the [nearby] rock to yield its water." Fed up with the Hebrews' constant whining and complaining, he says to them instead: "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" He then strikes the rock twice with his rod, and water gushes out (Numbers 20:2-13). It is this episode of disobedience, striking the rock instead of speaking to it, that is generally offered as the explanation for why God punishes Moses and forbids him to enter Israel. The punishment, however, seems so disproportionate to the offense, that the real reason for God's prohibition must go deeper. Most probably, as Dr. Jacob Milgrom, professor of Bible at the University of California, Berkeley, has suggested (elaborating on earlier comments of Rabbi Hananael, Nachmanides, and the Bekhor Shor) that Moses' sin was declaring, "Shall we get water for you out of this rock?" implying that it was he and his brother, Aaron, and not God, who were the authors of the miracle. Rabbi Irwin Kula has suggested that Moses' sin was something else altogether. Numbers 14:5 records that when ten of the twelve spies returned from Canaan and gloomily predicted that the Hebrews would never be able to conquer the land, the Israelites railed against Moses. In response, he seems to have had a mini-breakdown: "Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembled congregation of the Israelites." The two independent spies, Joshua and Caleb, both of whom rejected the majority report, took over "and exhorted the whole Israelite community" (Numbers 14:7). Later, in Deuteronomy, when Moses delivers his final summing-up to the Israelites, he refers back to this episode: "When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: "Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, none except Caleb.... Because of you, the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either. Joshua ... who attends you, he shall enter it" (1:34-38).

Despite these two sad episodes, Moses impressed his monotheistic vision upon the Jews with such force that in the succeeding three millennia, Jews have never confused the messenger with the Author of the message. As Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann has written: "in Greece, the heroes of the past were held to have been sired by a god or to have been born of a goddess ... [and] in Egypt, the Pharaoh was considered divine." But despite the extraordinary veneration accorded Moses — "there has not arisen a prophet since like Moses" is the Bible's verdict (Deuteronomy 34:10) — no Jewish thinker ever thought he was anything other than a man. See And No One Knows His Burial Place to This Day.



The Finding of Moses, by Frederick Goodall (1885)


Moses Found, by Rembrandt van Rijn


Moses Found, by Edwin Long


Moses Found, by
Paolo Veronese


Orazio Gentileschi. Finding of Moses


The Finding of the Infant Moses by Pharaoh's Daughter, by Bartholomeus Breenbergh


Claude Lorrain. Landscape with the Finding of Moses


Sebastien Bourdon. Finding of Moses


Nicolas Poussin. Pharaoh's Daughter Finds Baby Moses. 1638


Nicolas Poussin. Baby Moses Saved from River


Nicolas Poussin. Baby Moses Saved from Rive


Charles de La Fosse, Finding of Moses


Moses Brought before Pharaoh's Daughter,
William Hogarth, 1746


Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The Finding of Moses


The Torah and the Talmud: The Literature of Judaism

Judaism is the quintessential book religion, and Christianity and Islam—the other "religions of the book"—also incorporate the Torah. Christianity includes the Jewish Torah as the first five chapters of the Old Testament in its Bible, and through the founder of the religion, Jesus, it has a firm foundation in Judaism. Islam, too, recognizes many of the Jewish prophets and patriarchs. Abraham, or Ibrahim, is considered the arch-patriarch of Islam.

5 Torah comprises the absolute core of the Jewish religion. Everyday life is regulated by its laws and prohibitions. Knowledge of the Torah and Torah scholarship enjoy the greatest respect.

Since the earliest times, rabbinical commentaries and interpretations have been written down in the
2 Talmud. There are two different versions of the Talmud, the Palestinian and the Babylonian. The latter was much more influential and has been the subject of countless analyses and interpretations. In Jewish tradition, every word of the Torah has major significance.

2 The Talmud commentary by
Isaac Ben Solomon, manuscript, 16th ñ

Talmud, 1523

5 A Yemenite Jew at morning prayers,
wearing a kippah skullcap, prayer shawl and tefillin.


The Western Wall in Jerusalem is a remnant of the wall encircling the Second Temple.
The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism.


Jews place of wailing, 1860


Solomon's Wall, Jerusalem,
Jean-Leon Gerome

Jews praying in a synagogue on Yom Kippur,
from an 1878 painting by Maurice Gottlieb


Judaism under Arab and Christian Rule


In the Middle Ages, the clash with foreign cultures led to the development of various currents within Judaism. To this day, one differentiates between Oriental, Ashkenazic (Christian Europe), and Sephardic (Moorish Spain and Africa) cultures within Judaism. The influences of Islam and Christianity, as well as the circumstances in which the Jews lived in the various countries, found expression in the religious practice, theology, and self-conceptualization of the Jews.
For centuries the Jewish communities, as members of a fellow religion of the book, enjoyed tolerance under Arab rule, and this made social integration possible. Here, Jewish intellectual life experienced a golden age that radiated as far as France and Italy. The great Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides wrote an important commentary to the Talmud in Moorish Cordoba, Spain. The Kabbala, a form of Jewish mysticism, emerged in northern Spain.

In contrast to this, the relationship between the Christian and Jewish communities was strained from the outset. Christianity held the Jews responsible for the death of Jesus, for which they became scapegoats. In addition, the prosperity of individual Jews aroused
7 envy and resentment, and the Church took advantage of this.

7 Jews depicted as profiteers,
Christian book illustration, ca. 1250

In Central and Eastern Europe, the Ashkenazim were driven out of their traditional, hereditary vocations in international trade and money lending, while the skilled trades were denied to them by exclusion from the guilds. They were increasingly driver, out of the cities and into the countryside. Horrifying pogroms against the Jews took place as part of the Crusades and reoccurred repeatedly into the late Middle Ages. Out of this experience with all its suffering, the renewal movement of the Chassidim developed. It lived on primarily in Eastern European Judaism. Moreover, in Poland and Russia, where the majority of the West European Jews fled, life in the shtefl developed.

In early modern times, the Central and Eastern European Jews continued to be subjected to intense repression. They were, however, allowed to return to the professions of money-lending and merchant trading. Wealthy Jews were important participants in cultural and intellectual life. In the Age of the Enlightenment, efforts toward emancipation and enlightenment, led by
8 Moses Mendelssohn, were also made in Jewish theology.

8 Moses Mendelssohn


The Holocaust and Zionism

European anti-Semitism reached its horrendous climax in the 20th century. The Holocaust—a product of the murderous ideology of the German Nazi regime—was the attempt to eradicate European Jewry systematically and destroy their culture. Beginning in 1882 there were repeated waves of Jewish immigrants into Palestine, and that immigration increased dramatically with the rise of Fascism in Europe. Hopes for a Jewish state in Palestine were nurtured by the British Balfour Declaration of 1917. Zionism, a political movement seeking a Jewish homeland, was not a postwar phenomenon. Its roots date back to its 19th century founder,
10 Theodor Herzl, although the location was at that time subject to debate. Developments during and after World War II, however, accelerated the realization of the Zionist project.

In 1948 the
9 the State of Israel was founded. Of the roughly 14.4 million Jews in the world today, about 4.7 million reside in Israel. A still larger community is in the United States. Religion plays a significant role in the day-to-day policies of the modern state of Israel. Strict religious fractions base their nationalistic claims on their religious convictions. It has proved impossible to reconcile these claims with those of displaced Palestinian Arabs. The conflict continues to this day.

10 Theodor Herzl

9 Foundation of the State of Israel.

9 David Ben Gurion (First Prime Minister of Israel)
publicly pronouncing the
Declaration of the Establishment
of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948




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