Apart from a passage in the book of Ezra ordering the expulsion of non-Jewish women and their children, the Bible never approaches the subject of Jewish identity directly. What is clear however, is that the Bible presents the idea of covenant as the basis for the relationship that G-d establishes first with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and eventually with the entire people of Israel. The covenant establishes the identity and parameters that differentiate the children of Israel.
The covenant G-d initiated with Abraham is renewed with Isaac, and in turn with Jacob. The same is true for the covenant established with the children of Israel at Sinai. The covenant is first renewed at the plains of Moab. It is subsequently renewed shortly after Joshua’s conquest of Jericho and Ai and also near the end of Joshua’s term as leader. It also rededicated a number of times as is clear from the biblical accounts of King Asa, King Hekeziah, King Josiah, as well as Ezra, the Scribe. The importance of covenant is exemplified by its inclusion in the prophet Jeremiah’s view of eschatological restoration. The covenant forms the basis of G-d’s relationship with Israel and the point from which all other issues of Israelite/Jewish identity and practice ultimately stem from.
The Covenant Relationship with Abraham
The importance of covenant is highlighted in the relationship G-d initiated with Abraham. The patriarch Abraham, the founder of Biblical faith, does not appear until the end of chapter eleven in the book of Genesis, yet others with a relationship with G-d are mentioned before his appearance. In fact the first individual to enter into covenant with G-d is Noah. G-d reveals his plans to Noah regarding the coming deluge. In return for Noah’s righteousness, G-d promises the following:
“But I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. All of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you; they shall be male an female.”
The terms of this covenant are essentially the rescue of Noah and his family. Following the flood, G-d establishes a new covenant that He will never again doom the earth because of man nor destroy every living being. Though established with Noah, the terms of this covenant are universal in scope and are arbitrary.
In the case of Abraham, however, G-d’s relationship with him appears much more complex. While Noah’s relationship with G-d appears tied to one key event, Abraham’s life is geared toward a destiny that will transcend his own lifetime. The uniqueness of the relationship with Abraham is rooted in the fact that in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, the people groups introduced as aboriginal peoples defined by their location in a specific land. Egyptians are those who lived in Egypt, Chaldeans, those who lived in Babylon, Philistines in Philistia, etc. Abraham breaks this model and journeys to a land where he is not a native. Abraham is instructed by G-d as follows:
“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”
Abraham and his descendants are the first non-aboriginal peoples and are defined by a set of criteria distinct from their native lands. In Genesis chapter 17, G-d’s covenant with Abraham is expanded and a marker of the covenant is included:
“I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous…G-d spoke to him further, ‘As for Me this is My covenant with you; You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. I will maintain My covenant throughout the ages, to be G-d to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their G-d…Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcises…at the age of eight days…Thus shall my covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact.”
This passages demonstrates that Abraham’s descendants are a people brought into being by the establishment of a covenant. The parameters of the covenant establish the definition of who is an Israelite/Jew. While, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants is certainly key to their future identity, as is an “ethnic” component, the definition of an Israelite remains primarily a theological one. Israelites/Jews are the sons of the covenant and are a chosen group. Circumcision serves as a physical reminder and initiation rite to the covenant.
The Renewal of the Covenant with Isaac and Jacob
The covenant relationship G-d initiated with Abraham now continues with his son Isaac. Facing famine and potentially dangerous neighbors, the book of Genesis relates G-d’s instruction to Isaac:
“Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you. Reside in the land, and I will be with you and bless you; I will assign all these lands to you and to your offspring, fulfilling the oath that I swore to your father Abraham. I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and give to you descendants all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring – inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge; My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.”
Interestingly, while other passages note Abraham’s trust and obedience to G-d, this passage contains the only reference to Abraham’s “observance” of commandments in a manner which resonates with the covenant established at Sinai. Later, Genesis relates Jacob’s encounter with the Divine and the covenant established by G-d including possession of the Land:
“And the L-RD was standing beside him and He said, ‘I am the L-RD G-d of your father Abraham and the G-d of Isaac; the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south….Remember I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land…Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the L-RD is present in this place, and I did not know it.!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of G-d, and that is the gateway to heaven.”
Covenant Identity with the Children of Israel
The best understanding of who an Israelite was in the biblical period was that a an Israelite was a partner or member in a covenant community. During the Medieval period, the matter of Jewish identity was complicated by the phenomena of apostasy and conversion. Neither concept however is developed in the Bible. The Bible, particularly the Prophets, notes the existence of idolatry among the people of Israel, but strikingly does not view idolatry as the basis for negating community membership. The confrontation of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in Kings reveals that according to this account most Israelites were worshipping Baal. While Elijah challenged the priests of Baal and the people’s idolatrous behavior, the people of Israel remained within the fold.
One of the principal theological themes presented in the biblical text is the relationship and supernatural experience at Sinai between Israel and G-d. The Torah focuses on the uniqueness of G-d and His relationship with the people of Israel. The singularity of this relationship amidst surrounding polytheism is so much emphasized that Israel’s principal contribution to the world of religious ideology is regarded as uncompromising covenantal monotheism.
The comparison between the covenant at Sinai and Hittite suzerainty treaties is well known. Nahum Sarna notes:
“In the ancient word, relationships between individuals as well as between states were ordered and regulated by means of covenants, or treaties…These divide into two basic categories: (1) a parity treaty, where the contracting parties negotiate as equals; (2) a suzerain-vassal treaty, where one party transparently imposes its will on the other.”
The commonality begins with the use of the same word, berit to reference the treaties established between kings and their vassal states. The relationship established in suzerainty treaties is as Delber Hillers notes, generally one sided. The two parties entering the relationship are not equal in status or strength. A key difference in the covenant at Sinai is that G-d essentially dictates the terms of the covenant relationship.
Like Hittite treaties, the covenant at Sinai begins with a historical introduction noting what the king has accomplished on behalf of his subjects. In the case of Sinai, the historical component is quite abbreviated with a simple statement noting that it is “YHVH, your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” While the statement is short, the background events leading to Sinai are obviously referenced. The Ten Commandments provide the initial stipulations of the covenant in a manner that is quite reminiscent of a Hittite accord. Hillers points to the similarities in the treaties made between one Hittite king and three separate vassals:
“Behold, within my land are three noblemen: you, O Targashnallis, Mashhuiluwas, and Manappa-Dattas…the one of you is not to fall out with the other, and non should not seek to kill the other, or capture the other. And if you, Targashnallis, do evil against them, I will take their part, and you will be my enemy. But if they fall out with you, then I will take your part, and they shall be by my enemies. [And] because I gave [you] the same pact, be at one [among yourselves], just as you have the same pact…”
The encounter at Sinai reveals a more elaborate role G-d intends for Israel that transcends the promise of the land of Canaan. Like G-d’s revelation to Isaac regarding the exemplary life of his father Abraham, the covenant at Sinai now requires a different type of commitment in a relationship which is conditional.
“And Moses went up to G-d. The L-RD called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”
The passage continues with the people gathering at the foot of Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments being revealed. The underlying content of the covenant is the commandments, the full extent of which the children of Israel are only presented after the initial presentation by Moses. The Torah tells us in Deuteronomy that the covenant is renewed with the second generation of Israelites in the plains of Moab:
“These are the terms of the covenant which the L-Rd commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb.”
Continuing with chapter 29, an additional speech warns of severe punishment for the violation of the covenant made here in the land of Moab, as in the following verses:
“You stand this day, all of you, before the L-RD your G-d… to enter into the covenant of the L-RD your G-d, with its sanctions, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your G-d… Perchance there is among you some man or woman… whose heart turns away today from the L-rd our G-d to go and worship the gods of those nations… The L-RD will never forgive him; rather will the L-RD’s anger and passion rage against that man, till every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon him, and the L-RD blots out his name from under heaven.”
G-d’s beneficent will is implicit if the people are obedient. On the basis of this covenant Moses conveys the most important aspect of the covenant:
“You stand today, all of you, before the Lord your G-d… to enter into the covenant of the L-RD your G-d and in his oath… to the end that He may establish you today as His people and be your G-d.”
The commonality of the two covenants established at Sinai and later in the plains of Moab is ultimately found in the verses of the Psalmist :
“He gave them the lands of nations; they inherited the wealth of peoples, that they might keep His laws and observe His teachings.”
According to the Psalmist, the very purpose of the miraculous deliverance from Egypt and the conquest of the Land of Canaan is the covenant relationship which includes the observance of its commandments and teachings.
 Ezra 9:1
 Genesis 15:13-18; Genesis 26:1-5; Genesis 28:13-17.
 Joshua 8:30-35. “At that time Joshua built an altar to the L-RD, the G-d of Israel, on Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the L-RD, had commanded the Israelites – as it written in the Book of the Teaching of Moses- an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded. They offered on it burnt offerings to the L-RD, and brought sacrifies of well-being….Half of them faced Mount Gerizim and half of them faced Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the L-RD had commanded them of old, in order to bless the people of Israel…” See also Joshua 23:16-24.
 II Chronicles 15:12 “They entered into a covenant to worship the L-RD G-d of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul.”
 II Chronicles 29:10 “Now I wish to make a covenant with the L-RD G-d of Israel, so that His rage may be withdrawn from us. Now, my sons, do not be slack, for the L-Rd chose you to attend upon Him to serve Him, to be His ministers and to make offerings to Him.”
 II Chronicles 34: 31 “The king stood in his place and solemnized the covenant before the L-RD: to follow the L-RD and observe His commandments, His injunctions, and His laws with all his hear and soul, to fulfill all the terms of the covenant written in this scroll.”
 See Ezra 9-10
 Jeremiah 31:34 “See, a time is coming -declares the L-RD- when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Israel and the House of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers, when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, a covenant which they broke, so that I rejected them- declares the L-RD. But such is the covenant I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts…”
 Genesis 6:18-19
 Genesis 8:21-22
 Genesis 12:1-3
 Genesis 17:1-12
 Genesis 26:1-5
 Genesis 15:6 “And because he put his trust in the L-RD, He reckoned it to his merit.”
 Genesis 28:13-17
 “…ethical monotheism was not a ‘natural’ and universal fait accompli, destined for all mankind from the beginning…It simply represents the culmination of a historical process belonging to Israel and Israel alone….it does represent a true spiritual revolution and it continues to deserve being considered as one of the moral and intellectual bases of modern society.” Robert Karl Gnuse, No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press,1997), 275.
 Nahum Sarna, The JPS Commentary: Exodus, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 102.
 See Exodus 24:4, 7 where the term sefer ha-berit is used. Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), 49.
 Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), 49.
 Noel Weeks remarks that in reference to limited suzerain’s self-identification and historical prologue in Exodus are expanded in Joshua 24, where Joshua relates “Thus speaks YHWH, the G-d of Israel: ‘Your fathers lived on the other side of the River, (namely) Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. And I took your father Abraham from the other side of the River.’ Noel Weeks, Admonition and Curse: The Ancient Near Eastern Treaty-Covenant Form as a Problem of Intercultural Relationships, (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 151.
 Nahum Sarna relates: “A treaty between Hittite King Shuppiluliumas (ca. 1375-1335 B.C.E.) and King Mattiwaza of Mittani in Upper Mesopotamia noted that each of the contracting parties deposited a copy in his respective temple before the shrine of the deity. Similarly, when Ramses II of Egypt and the Hittite King Hattusilis concluded a treaty around the year 1269 B.C.E, the clauses were inscribed on a tablet of silver, which was placed ‘at the feet of the god.’ Nahum Sarna, The JPS Commentary: Exodus, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 108.
 Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), 50-51.
 In rabbinic literature, Israel’s creation is not a rational choice since it is based on G-d’s love and is not based on conditions or on merit. Nothing Israel does can abrogate the covenant and this relationship cannot legally end in divorce. This idea is also predicated on the view that Israel’s entry into the covenant at Sinai was not necessarily voluntary because its acceptance of the covenant of Torah was arguably under compulsion. Perhaps a better analogy is that G-d and Israel reflect the relationship of a father and a firstborn son. Regardless of behavior, the love for the child remains. The purpose of the people of Israel is the covenant/divine mission which is critical to G-d’s plan for the world.
 Exodus 19:3-6
 From a theological perspective, the concept of the “chosen people of G-d” as the basis for Jewish identity is based on the idea of a covenant people and arguably implies that this is the product of an exclusionary choice. The term used in the Bible is the word bachar which implies an exclusive choice as in the case of marriage. Chosen means exclusive chosenness and holiness of a differentiating sort. Deuteronomy 7:6 reads “You are a people holy to G-d” and explains this holiness in the context of the observance of the commandments.
 Deuteronomy 28:69
 Deuteronomy 29:9-20
 Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), 52.
 Deuteronomy 29:9-12
 Psalms 105:44-45