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Does racism exist within the Dead Sea Scrolls?

A Dead Sea Scroll fragment dating between 100 BCE and 70 CE
A Dead Sea Scroll fragment dating between 100 BCE and 70 CE
Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

For many, the Dead Sea Scrolls which were discovered in the caves around Qumran have been a shedding of light due to the biblical texts that were found, stretching back about 2,000 years ago. However, were the commentaries of this Qumran community laced with nationalistic and racist sediments against other nations?

In addition to the Tanakh (Old Testament) books of the bible being discovered in various caves were also commentaries. These commentaries ranged from biblical interpretations to rules of joining this community which separated itself from other religious sects as well as people of common society.

The authors and copyists of these ancient texts are believed to be the Essenes, a separatist group who practiced a rigid form of Judaism; a form of Judaism so rigid, that it appears to overtly discriminate against anyone unaffiliated with their community and in particular, the non-Jews.

The texts refer to the community as 'The Sons of Light' and 'The Sons of Zadok' claiming blood lineage to a biblical Levite priest in the bible. A commentary found in cave 4 of what is called The Damascus Scroll reads, "No one should stay in a place close to gentiles on the Sabbath." A variety of strict laws were designated for the seventh day and not enough separation from gentiles was considered unlawful.

Another fragment found in cave 4 separate from the Damascus Scroll that deals with Jewish laws refers to food of the gentiles. Here, the lines are a bit broken but the context can still be somewhat understood, "Concerning the offering of the wheat of the gentiles which they...and they touch it...and they defile it..., you shall not eat of it." It can be assumed that the message to the community was not to eat anything that was handled by gentiles, however, the missing lines may have changed this idea.

The word Gentile comes from the Hebrew word Goy, which means nation. Typically the meaning referred to nations other than Jews from the land of Israel. However, another meaning of the word which could also explain the community's opposition to them was a non-believer in their God. By this, they wouldn't be looking at them racially, but instead as sinners.

Evidence to support this is found in a cave 6 fragment of the Damascus Scroll. A portion reads, "...strengthen the hand of the poor, the needy, and the foreigner..." The foreigner here is non-Jewish but is still able to be helped as opposed to the gentile (non-believer). Also, another piece of evidence to furnish this is found in the Damascus Scroll as well.

"All shall be enlisted by their names: the priest first, the Levites second, the children of Israel third, and the proselyte fourth." A proselyte was typically also a non-Jew who became Jewish by way of conversion. It appears that the word gentile and foreigner at times were used to distinguish one from another nation and a pagan or non-believer.

However, in a Jewish law fragment found in cave 4, the words foreigner and gentile seem to be interchangeable and referring to nation and race again.

And if he (a Jew) has become poverty stricken and sells himself to a be a day worker for a year, he (the foreigner) is not to govern him with harshness in the presence of Israel. They are not to serve gentiles..."

This now questions the non-believer theory and also questions if race and nation was in fact what the scrolls referred to in every mention of it. Concerning proselytes, the only foreigners that were accepted were those who came to the community. Since the community was so separated from the rest of society, they had no desire to go forth and make converts.

Perhaps the most blatant examples of nationalism in the Dead Sea Scrolls come from what's known as the War Scroll. With most of it being intact from cave 1, these writings illustrate just how divided from the rest of the world this community felt. The war between the community and the rest of the world was eminent in their minds, but God they believed, would give them the victory over the nations.

The sons of Levi, the sons of Judah, and the sons of Benjamin (Three tribes of Israel), the exiled of the desert will wage war against them...The sons of light and the lot of darkness will battle together for God's might..."

This community had the idea that they would bring about the return of God by waging a world war with three different continents. First would be Western Asia, stretching over the Euphrates river past Babylon (Iraq) into Eastern Asia as the text reads, "...and the eastern peoples up to the great desert." Next was the continent of Africa and then Europe.

...the war will be divided against all the sons of Ham (Mostly Africa) according to their clans, in their dwellings; and during the following ten years, the war will be divided against all the sons of Japhet (Europe) in their dwellings."

The idea seems to be that no nation was righteous of God except this small Qumran community and therefore had to be removed by way of violence and war. They had a central aim for a certain nation known as the Kittim. "The rule of the Kittim shall come to an end." The Kittim were known as the ruling power of that era, the Romans.

Eventually, the war between the Romans and Judea came to fruition. The war that the Qumran community read about in scripture was fulfilled, but did not end the way their texts said it would. The war began in the late 60s CE and by the year 70 CE, Rome had destroyed Judea and burned the temple in Jerusalem down. The Judean people of Israel were exiled into Europe.

Ironically, the only thing that remained were the scrolls themselves. One theory was that during the war, they were hidden in the caves so that the Romans would not destroy them like most if not all important documents of the time. For now, the scrolls remain a fascination of millions worldwide in modern times, and at the exposure of many gentiles to which the writers would never have imagined.

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