Keepers of Knowledge: The People of Israel, the Flood, and the Dawn of History / Ofri Ilani

Translated by: Mor Kasmy-Ilan

For over 150 years, when imagining the “Dawn of Humanity” or “Prehistoric Man”, we see in our minds eye the distinct figure of a base, unrefined and primitive creature. This image is an outcome of the assumption that technology and culture have gradually developed from complete simplicity to ever-growing complexity throughout the prehistoric centuries.

In Friedrich Schiller’s seminal lecture “What Is, and to What End do We Study, Universal History” from 1789, the German poet and thinker presented the starting point of universal historical development: The savage. “A wise hand seems to have preserved these raw tribes for us down to our times”, he claims, so we can therefore “restore out of this mirror the forgotten origin of our species”. This depiction of the savage resembles many such descriptions, in diverse variations, published in the ethnographic literature of the period:

Now what do these travelers tell us about these savages? They found some without any knowledge of the most indispensable skills, without iron, without the plow, some even without the possession of fire. Some still wrestled with wild beasts for food and dwelling, among many languages had been scarcely elevated from animal sounds to understandable signs. In some places, there was not even the simple bond of marriage, as yet no knowledge of property[1]

Schiller’s description of the savage is a prime example of the late-Enlightenment’s ethnographic mindset. As the great thinkers of the period perceived the project of Enlightenment as the gradual refinement of Man, so Schiller portrays prehistoric man as a diametrically opposed opposite: a savage creature, barely beginning its journey towards maturity.

The components of this historical conception were shaped in the second half of the 18th century, but its wholesale acceptance required overcoming several stubborn difficulties. First and foremost, this depiction stood in complete opposition to biblical text, considered to be the exclusive historical source regarding the beginnings of human history.

Fidelity to the Bible and its accounts was still wholly and prevalently accepted by the major figures of the European Republic of Letters until the early 19th century. Despite the disadvantages of using biblical descriptions as a true historical source, scholars considered it to be the almost exclusive documentation of the earliest days of history. Those choosing to dismiss this source, relying only on the fallacy of pure speculation, were doomed to grope their way in the darkness of ignorance. And so, even during the second half of the 18th century, when historical writing had already been constituted as an academic discipline with its own unique rules for establishing truth, all historical literature still begins with the Story of Genesis. History starts its course with Adam and Eve, continues to the days of the early Patriarchs of humanity, to the Flood, and the Tower of Babel.

It is not surprising that in this narrative history, the Hebrew people enjoy a privileged status; throughout the succession of nations and civilizations, the Hebrews are there from the first. In most of the German Universal History books, the People of Israel appear as the first nation, immediately after the fall of the Tower of Babel and the dispersion of nations. Only in later chapters of their work did these German historians move on to describe the early empires of the East – mainly Egypt, Assyria and Phoenicia, and later Greece.

An equally important point stems from the fact that this biblical framework of history prevented historians from sticking to the linear model of progress, whereby humanity is gradually transformed from savagery to refinement. The initial conditions of human existence immediately after the Flood are completely different from the figure of the uncultured savage.

The question arises: what manner of anthropological and historical approach was dictated by the Bible? Many studies on the Enlightenment – a period that shaped the disciplines of social and political sciences of the modern age – do not adequately address the unstable nature of key ethnographic concepts and distinctions so commonplace in the mid-18th century, such as “evolution”, “barbarity”, or “the State of Nature”. In particular, not enough attention has been directed at the clear connection between the anthropological view of the period and the biblical accounts of the beginning of history, and to the historiographical theological perceptions of the day.

As a result, attempts of 18th century anthropological depictions to reconstruct the condition of early humanity in history’s first chapter are convoluted and often contradictory. On the one hand, their accounts are clear attempts to organize biblical events in a measured and continuous stream of development from crudity to civilization. However, the modern perception of the developmental paradigm was far from coherent. Although the idea of progress already played a part in the 18th century structures of experience, it was not the sole principle in the period’s historical perception.

Although they had accepted the existence of progress, for the scholars of the century this concept was certainly not a key principle in their perception of prehistoric history. It was interwoven with more traditional accounts of degeneration and decline. History was still conceptualized as a story of a primeval tradition, transmitted through time.

Additionally, the writing on universal history placed different nations on different, often diverging, paths. Although the path of history is universal, humanity does not proceed along its route in unison; while the story of some nations is structured as a movement towards progress, other nations histories are set as a process of decline and deterioration. Thus, the picture of history produced is fragmented, with each sliver answering to its own laws.

The world after the Flood

Although accounts of “Universal History” always begin with the creation of the world, the sequence of history in its familiar form begins after the Flood. This is because the pre-diluvian “first world” was essentially different from the present world, and functioned according to an entirely different set of rules. Some authors even went so far as to claim that the very elements – earth and air – had different properties then, so that in some respects the primal world was more akin to paradise. The descendents of Adam were mortals, but their lives spanned centuries, enjoying both longevity and constant material comfort. No wonder that the world was more populated in the ancient world than in any other period after the Flood.

The German historian Johann Christoph Gatterer, considered one of the pioneers of the modern, critical approach to history, explained the patriarchs’ longevity by arguing that it was the will of God that oral tradition regarding the creation be passed down without distortions until the time of Moses[2]. According to Gatterer, it was God Himself who established the covenant of marriage, and taught the human race all the basic skills and arts.

The challenge facing the pioneers of critical history in German universities was adapting the chronological sequence of biblical events to the new theoretical framework being developed under the influence of the intellectual innovations in natural and social sciences. This was an attempt to preserve the old Bible stories in a new form, and to place metaphysical events within a context of natural causality. But this “adaptation” could not fit to every chapter of the Bible. The events occurring after the Flood may be depicted as incidents of real historic constancy but those that predate the Flood – the original sin, the exile from Eden and the early generations of men – are almost impossible to frame with this interpretation.

If such is the case, what was the state of the world in early history? Gatterer provides a general overview of the early generations after the Flood, describing the period as a time of gradual rehabilitation and recovery after the catastrophe. He paints a grim and somber image of a world reeling after disaster. Among the millions of bodies there remained a handful of cities that had flourished before the Flood. At the same time, nature itself turned hostile, and human existence was preserved only through great toil:

The air, saturated with the stench of the corpses of so many millions of humans and animals who were killed by the Flood, was not as pure and healthy as it used to be, and people could not reach the old age they previously reached … The earth was not as fertile as before, and the cities, those which were not completely ruined, were severely damaged. However, the people learned to plant vineyards, and rebuilt the devastated cities, using the instruments which were scattered around.

Noah’s descendents quickly began rebuilding the world, acquiring anew those crafts and sciences that had been lost, and even developing new skills. The “Buildung” had begun; the human race made its first steps toward civilization. But within the conceptual frame of biblical tradition, this process is not an issue of purely philosophical speculation, but rather relies on the account of events as they are described in Genesis 10-11. Accordingly, the emergence of civilization is not presented as the simple advancement from incivility to enlightenment, but rather the reestablishment of the world after its devastation in the Flood.

The People of Israel and the Dawn of History

One of the elements in the 18th century image of biblical history that undermined the narrative of progress is the special path taken by the sons of Shem, or more specifically, the Hebrews or Jews. Many philosophers and historians agreed that some legacy of the pre-Flood world remained, that not all the technological and political knowledge was erased; the “purest ideas regarding religion and creation” were passed down by the Semites.

In the traditional Christian account of the history of redemption the People of Israel are given a clearly defined and very significant role as the chosen people of God. In this view, Jews were the first nation of believers, and God’s appearance before Abraham marks the first step of humanity on the path to redemption. The transition in historical discourse that occurred during the 17th century to this historical view stripped the People of Israel of their privileged status, which did not fit in with a rationalist theology that denied the legitimacy of particularistic choice. Spinoza’s “Theological-Political Treatise” presents the Hebrews as a childish and vulgar people. Spinoza even refutes the claim that God chose the Israelites from among the nations, and claimed that this choice stood against the very essence of God. In fact, it was Moses who convinced his people that they had been chosen, in order to bind them to his laws, and to adhere to the covenant.

Spinoza’s book created an uproar in the circles of radical enlightenment, but his positions were rejected by most enlightenment scholars, especially in Germany.  These were determined not to bring about the complete collapse of the redemptive historical narrative, and the role of the Jews within it. Major essays of the period now give the ancient Israelites a new role – this time as disseminators of enlightenment.


In the first decades of the 18th century this concept appears in many variations. Some adhere more closely to the traditional Christian conventions, while others were formulated based on a “philosophical” system of concepts, relying on the authority of reason. These theories stem from the writing of scholars and Christian Hebraists of the Renaissance and the Baroque who wished to chronicle the passing of religion or ancient wisdom, prisca theologia or philosophia perennis, from the first man down through Abraham and Moses.

In 1733 Johann Christoph Gottsched, one of the leading figures in early German Classicism and Enlightenment, claimed that Hebrew philosophy was the most ancient in the world, beside that of the Chaldeans. He argued that Abraham’s family had passed on from one generation to the next many of the inventions that had been lost to the rest of the world during the Flood. This ancient lore, although not “perfectly intact”, was then brought by Abraham to Palestine. His family further developed these notions for the benefit of humanity, primarily in areas of morality and economy.

Gottsched thus trades the traditional role of the Chosen People as messengers of religious truth to that of Weltweisheit (“Worldly Wisdom”), meaning a moral philosophy not rooted in religion. In 1750 Friedrich Andreas Walther, then head of the philosophy faculty at the University of Göttingen, drafted an entire essay dedicated to the “History of the Worldly Wisdom of the Jews”. Walther describes Abraham as the first philosopher after the Flood:

If we do not limit the definition of ‘philosopher’…surely it would include Abraham also. The Bible depicts him as a man of extraordinary wisdom and intelligence… both in ancient and modern times, it has not escaped the attention of many that Abraham can be seen as one of the great philosophers, and the man who brought all wisdom to the East

With this approach, the People of Israel are portrayed as a nation of philosophers, preservers of knowledge in the post-diluvian age of ignorance.

However, such a secularized version of sacred history could not help but stir up certain difficulties with the development of biblical research emphasizing the similarity of the Hebrews to “natural peoples” and the oriental nations. The 18th century, along with the establishment of Oriaentalistik as a discrete academic discipline, saw the establishment of an Orientalist worldview. Nations of the Orient had gained a reputation, one that bound them to attributes of sensuality, crudity, and fanaticism. The Orientalischer Weisheit (“Oriental Lore”), once lauded, now gradually became an ironic expression of exaggeration and fantasy. Concurrently, discovery of the similarities between Hebrew and Arabic undermined the hypothesis that the language of the Bible was in fact the mother tongue of humanity. Subsequently, the history of ancient Israel was also marginalized, as was their privileged status in “Holy History”.

The orientalist image of the Bible forced prominent thinkers of the German Enlightenment movement to redraft their defense of the religion of revelation, about the Bible itself, and about the Hebrew people at the heart of its story. The most eloquent of these is Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s essay “The Education of the Human Race”, a text that became the canonical manifest of the German Protestant rationalistic school. Lessing reinterprets the concept of Revelation, describing it as the incremental evolution of human rationality, a process from barbarity to refinement and reason. The Renaissance-Baroque narrative of the transmission of knowledge from one sage to the other is now replaced with a story of whole nations progressing gradually. This philosophical viewpoint is now phrased as a new form of the history of Redemption, and the Hebrew People still stand at its core. It was this people, above all others, who had been chosen by God to grow a generation of humanity’s educators –

God chose a single nation to receive his particular education; it was the most brutish and savage  of nations, with which he could start from scratch… [B]ut why educate such a raw nation, one with which God had to start from scratch? I have answered: so that in the due course of time individual members of this nation could be groomed with more certainty to educate all other nations. He nurtured in them the future educators of the human race. Jews became these educators; only they could become this, only men from a nation which had been educated in this way.[3]

Lessing defends the role of Israel in the process of Revelation, but he avoids making any defense of the Israelites themselves. He maintains that God chose the Hebrews (“das Israelitische Volk”) as the first step towards universal education, specifically because they were “so raw, so incapable of abstract thoughts”, meaning in the very initial stages of education. In this it seems Lessing elected to follow Spinoza’s footsteps, such as also in the claim that “God caused Himself to be announced first, simply as ‘the God of their fathers’” because of the Hebrews incapability of abstraction, and so that they may consider Him the most powerful of all the gods.

Thus, the People of Israel were tools in the hands of divinity to refine those sensual theological concepts so prevalent among the ancient human race in the days of ignorance, and to gradually elevate those concepts to a rationalistic universal religion. The next step would be the Christian Revelation, and that in turn would be replaced with a new religion to finally bring the process of education to its completion.

Despite the diverse and dissimilar worldviews and their respective key points, all the narratives presented thus far place the ancients Hebrews as key players in the universal process of educating humanity. Regardless of their limitations, it was the Hebrews who bore the message of a rational universal religion that transcends local differences and paved the way to uniting the human race in its entirety.

The Hebrews are judged for their contribution to world education (Weltaufklärung). In this context, the conquest of Canaan and the slaughter of its inhabitants are presented as steps made to overcome barbarism for a more rational life. This is, for example, the main justification used by the philosopher and biblical scholar Johann Gottfried Herder to explain the extermination of the Canaanites: The Israelites were forced to evacuate residents of the land so that they may settle in Israel and fulfill their role in disseminating the concept of the One God. The various stages of Hebrew history, including conquest of the Land of Israel, constitute milestones on the course of humanity’s progress.

Several German researchers even describe the wanderings of Abraham as a journey to establish the settlements (“Stammcolonie”) in wild or uninhabited lands, and Abraham himself as a colony leader (“Colonienführer”). Despite being simple shepherds, the Hebrews were the representatives of progress in the dark days of early history.

The Jew’s special path

Until the 18th century historical thinking was almost completely dominated by a paradigm of decline, whereby humanity’s original generations had held divine knowledge that was then stripped from them during the Flood. As such, the Hebrews enjoyed the exalted aura of a primordial civilization, a nation bearing the ancient traditions of early generations of humanity. In the mid-18th century this paradigm was pushed aside to make room for an incremental approach of developing civilization. The establishment of political institutions and accumulation of knowledge were described as Bildung (“education”). The earliest history thus garnered a new image: a time of wild savagery when people were uncouth and ignorant creatures. John Locke’s famous quote – “In the beginning, all the world was America”[4] finally changed even this obstinate view of the biblical age, and in future years the Jews would be similarly portrayed as the Native American Indians of the New World.

Nonetheless, in the historical narrative of Herder and several of his contemporaries, the traditional role of Jews as the “Holy People” is preserved, and they retain their status as bearers of religious truth, albeit within a secularized historic framework rooted in ideas of race and culture. The violent clash between the Hebrew faithful, descendents of Shem, and the Canaanite traders, the descendents of Ham, encapsulates the conflict between two opposing ideals of historical standing, two codes of rules standing side by side within the text.

The last two decades of the 18th century, and the rest of the 19th century, tipped the scales of this European perception of civilizations history towards its Hamite orbit, a view that would steadily become Aryan and pull away from its Hebrew-Semite counterpart. As progress and cultural development as a narrative of refinement and sophistication become increasingly entrenched, so would the Hebrews lose their central and favored role in the great drama of early history.

“Holy history” became another, quite marginal, path among the many diverse byways of general history. The Hebrews-Jews would be shut out from the history of human civilization. The People of Israel may yet be acknowledged as bearers of religious traditions from before the Flood, but it is their pagan neighbors, and the descendents of Ham and Japheth, who were given the skills for developing civilization and culture. The religious simplicity, so lauded by Herder, would later be described as primitive stubbornness, as a fossilized inability to promote cultural achievement.

[1] Friedrich Schiller, “Was heißt und zu welchem Ende studiert man Universalgeschichte”, Deutschen Merkur. 1789, I, 52

[2]  Gatterer, Abriss der Universalhistorie. s. 203

[3] Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts. Berlin: [s.n.], 1780.§. 16

[4] John Locke, Second Treatise on Government.London: [s.n.], 1690, 155.