When Was Judaism Founded According to the Bible?

Contributing Writer
When Was Judaism Founded According to the Bible?

Judaism is one of the three major religions of our world. But when was Judaism founded? Was it when Jacob’s name changed to Israel? Or when Abram was called to leave his homeland for Caanan? Was Judaism founded at the Exodus of Israel from Egypt or on Mount Sinai with Moses and the Commandments? With attention currently turned to Israel and the Jewish nation, we need to know where and when Judaism was founded.

When Was Judaism Founded Part 1: God Calls Abraham

In Genesis 11: 10-32, we are given the family tree of Abraham back to Shem, the son of Noah. We are told that Terah was his father, and they lived in Ur of the Chaldeans (northern Mesopotamia or southern Iraq) until the death of Abraham’s brother, Haran.

After this event, Terah intended to move his family to Canaan but stopped in the civilization of Haran (Genesis 11:31-32). Abram was married to a woman named Sarai. The scriptures say that Sarai could not have children—a crucial point because it meant Abraham could have no heirs through her. No descendants, and certainly no nation of descendants from his family tree.

As we enter Genesis 12, the Lord says something surprising. He tells Abraham to “leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

Many scholars called Abraham the father of the first patriarch of the Hebrew nation, as God marks the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 15). But is this when Judaism was founded? Michael Lawrence states, “The Abrahamic Covenant is the beginnings of the formal revelation of the covenant of grace, of God’s decision to reach into humanity and specifically save people for Himself.”

While Abraham did build an altar in Genesis 12:7 at the time God called him to go to Canaan, not unlike Noah in Genesis 8:20, it is unclear if this is when Judaism was founded.

But where in the historical timeline did this event happen?

The MacMillan Bible Atlas suggests that “Ur is well known as an important center in the land of Sumer; it reached its zenith under the kings of the third dynasty of Ur, who around 2060-1950 B.C. revived for the last time the ancient cultural traditions of the Sumerians.” This places many of these events during the Middle Bronze Age (circa 2000-1750 B.C.).

Dr. T.L. Constable’s Soniclight Notes suggest Abraham was born around 2166 B.C. In Genesis 12:4, we are told that Abram was 75 years old when he set out from Haran. In estimation, this would place God’s call of Abram around 2091 B.C.

If we take this to be when Judaism was founded, this estimate would make the religion over four thousand years old. But there is more to the story.

When Was Judaism Founded Part 2: Jacob Has Twelve Sons

As the Genesis account moves forward, we are introduced to Isaac’s son Jacob, grandson of Abraham. As Christianity.com contributor Annette Griffin explains, “Through one promise [the Abrahamic Covenant] God set into motion a plan that would birth a great nation. Through the 12 sons of Jacob, that promise became a reality.”

We are first introduced to Jacob’s sons in Genesis 29 after Jacob’s wedding to Leah and Rebekah.

  • Leah’s sons are Rueben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.
  • Rachel’s sons are Joseph and Benjamin.
  • Jacob also had children with Rachel and Leah’s maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah.
  • Bilhah’s sons were Dan and Naphtali.
  • Zilpah’s sons were Gad and Asher.

These sons were born in Paddan Aram while Jacob was in the service of Laban (Genesis 29-30) and returned to Canaan before moving the entire family to Egypt. After Joseph invites his family to move to Egypt, Pharoh gives Jacob’s family the land of Goshen, modern-day Faqus, in the Nile Delta (Genesis 47:5-6).

Recent archeological digs near Pi-Ramses and Avaris have revealed evidence of a Semitic population living in Avaris, which became the place where Ramses III built Pi-Rameses. Scholars debate the historic date when Jacob’s family moved to Goshen. One popular claim is that they moved in approximately 1876 B.C.E. However, Egyptologist David Rohl has suggested a New Chronology of Civilizations that moves the date to approximately 1660 B.C.E. The academic community has not fully accepted the New Chronology, but scholars continue researching and discussing it.

When Was Judaism Founded Part 3: Moses Moves the Twelve Tribes Out of Egypt

The currently accepted approximation for the Exodus is thought to be 1446 B.C.E. This estimation is often based on 1 Kings 6:1.

“In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Zic, the second month, he began to build the temple of the Lord.”

The fourth year of Solomon’s reign is suggested to be 966 B.C.E. Four hundred and eighty years before this date would be 1446 B.C.E.—during the reign of Amenhotep II in Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty.

Many scholars suggest that this is when Judaism was founded, given that God gave the Israelites a yearly ritual and feast to uphold.

Eugene Merrill states that “the Exodus also is precisely the event and the moment that coincides with the historical expression of God’s election of Israel. The choice of Israel as the special people of Yahweh occurred not at Sinai but in the land of Goshen. The Exodus was the elective event; Sinai was its covenant formalization.”

When Was Judaism Founded Part 4: God Gives Moses the Law on Mount Sinai

Christianity.com contributor Candice Lucey writes that a key shift happened with the Exodus: religion is defined as a belief system, and “Adam and Eve had a relationship with their Creator, but they did not follow a religious creed.”

When the Israelites arrive at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19), they receive the law that is the basis for the Jewish faith. Constable notes that from Exodus 15 to the end of the book are “the events associated with God’s adoption of Israel as His chosen people. Having redeemed Israel out of slavery in Egypt, the LORD now formally made the nation His privileged “son”—by covenant. Redemption is the end of one journey but the beginning of another.”

When this event occurred is just as debated as the dates of the Exodus itself. From Scripture, we are told that the Israelites camped in the desert in front of Mt. Sinai in the third month after they left Egypt. (Exodus 19:1-2) In the course of receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:22-23:19), which expands upon the nuances of the Ten Commandments, Moses spends many days on top of Mt. Sinai receiving God’s commands for the Israelite people.

This covenant is confirmed by the Israelite people in Exodus 24:7 when they say, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” Some scholars mark this moment as the official point when Judaism was founded.

The first extrabiblical mention of Judaism as a people group with a certain religious belief is in 2 Maccabees, written in the second century B.C. Here, the term describes those living in Judea, not so much their beliefs. But since many of those living in Judea did follow the Law of Moses given to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, it became a term for those who followed the Old Testament laws.

While Judaism’s exact founding date is hard to say, the scriptures make it clear that Abraham was chosen to be the father of the Hebrew people. From the lineage of Abraham’s family came a whole nation, just as God promised in the Abrahamic Covenant. From this nation, all would be blessed through the Messiah.

Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Aetam Jakob

Valerie Fentress Salem Web Network Contributing WriterValerie Fentress is the author of An Easter Bunny’s Tale and Beneath the Hood: a retelling woven with biblical truth. She aims to engage believers, especially kids, in the wonder and identity of who God is and who God made them to be. 

You can find out more about Valerie, her books, and her blog at www.valeriefentress.com.