Conversion and Identity in the Hebrew Bible by Cynthia Baker

The concept of “conversion” as such does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. We associate conversion with “religion,” a term used to describe certain human experiences and behaviors; but in the worldview of the Hebrew Bible’s authors, the word “religion” would have been foreign. Collective identity, kinship, and shared traditions (notions commonly associated with “ethnicity” or “peoplehood”) were not separable from ideas about the divine.

Israelites do not appear to have sought out others to join their covenant with God, nor are they commanded to do so. Conversely, Israelite fear or honor of others’ gods are characterized as covenantal violations akin to adultery, not as “conversion.”

That said, most biblical writers take it for granted that “outsiders” can be incorporated into their populace (including its worship and common lines of descent) through marriage, bondage, alliance, residency, adoption, and the like. In addition, prophets such as Isaiah and Zechariah envision a desirable future in which many peoples come to embrace Yahweh, the god of Israel, and worship at the temple in Jerusalem.

The writers of Genesis and Exodus, for example, betray no concern about the status of Joseph’s wife, Asenath, daughter of an Egyptian priest and mother to Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen 41:45-52), nor about Moses’s wife, Zipporah, daughter of a Midianite priest (Exod 2:16-21), who performs their son’s circumcision (Exod 4:25-26). The “perpetual exclusion” of Ammonites and Moabites from the “congregation of the Lord” commanded in Deut 23:3-4 likewise presumes an openness to the inclusion of other “others.” Males enslaved to Israelites are commanded to be circumcised and to partake in the Passover meal; both these acts mark membership in the Israelite covenant community (Gen 17:10-14, Exod 12:44, Exod 12:48).

In later books of the Hebrew Bible, the incorporation of “outsiders” becomes both more explicit and more contentious. Ezra and Nehemiah, in particular, forbid the inclusion even of people not excluded elsewhere, whereas other books—in particular, Ruth and the apocryphal Judith—explicitly reject Ezra’s innovations and the exclusions demanded by Deuteronomy.

Ruth the Moabite is joined by marriage to an Israelite household in Moab and, after being widowed, marries a “redeeming kinsman,” Boaz, in Bethlehem—with whom she becomes part of the line of King David. More explicitly, Ruth joins herself to the Israelite Naomi—and to her land, people, and god—through a stirring oath that underscores the interconnection among these three elements of Israelite identity (Ruth 1:16-17).

In the book of Judith, Achior the Ammonite appears as an enemy mercenary who nonetheless extols the power and righteousness of God as he recites a capsule history of Israelite origins, exodus, conquest, exile, and restoration (Jdt 5:5-21). After the heroine Judith assassinates the Assyrian general Holofernes—casting his army into disarray and precipitating their defeat—it is reported that when the now-captive Achior “saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God. So he was circumcised, and joined the house of Israel, remaining so to this day” (Jdt 14:10).

Some scholars insist that such a change in personal “belief” as is attributed to Achior, but not to Ruth, determines “conversion.” If so, then “conversion” is not found in the Hebrew Bible, though it is found in the Apocrypha. Yet, when biblical culture is examined on its own terms, every generation of Israelites may be seen to include those neither born nor raised in—but nonetheless joined to—the house of Israel.

Cynthia Baker, "Conversion and Identity in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 28 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/conversion-and-identity-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

Cynthia Baker

Cynthia Baker
Associate Professor, Bates College

Cynthia Baker is associate professor of religious studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. She is the author of numerous publications on ancient and contemporary Jews and Judaism, including Rebuilding the House of Israel: Architectures of Gender in Jewish Antiquity (Stanford University Press, 2002) and a book on the word “Jew,” forthcoming from Rutgers University Press.

Changing one's beliefs and self-identity from one religion to another.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A group of people attending religious services, worshiping.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A general of Nebuchadnezzar who attacked Israel, according to the Book of Judith, but was ultimately beheaded by Judith.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Gen 41:45-52

45Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, as his wife. Thus Joseph gained authority over the ... View more

Exod 2:16-21

16The priest of Midian had seven daughters. They came to draw water, and filled the troughs to water their father's flock.17But some shepherds came and drove th ... View more

Exod 4:25-26

25But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched Moses' feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!”26So he let h ... View more

Deut 23:3-4

3No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly ... View more

Gen 17:10-14

10This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.11You shall circumcise t ... View more

Exod 12:44

44but any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised;

Exod 12:48

48If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he sh ... View more

Ruth 1:16-17

16But Ruth said,
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be ... View more

Jdt 5:5-21

Achior's Report
5Then Achior, the leader of all the Ammonites, said to him, “May my lord please listen to a report from the mouth of your servant, and I will te ... View more

Jdt 14:10

10When Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God. So he was circumcised, and joined the house of Israel, remaining so to this da ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.