Our Stories

Students Delve Into the Mysteries of a Seceding Kingdom, Multiple Golden Calves, and Ten Lost Tribes

June 29, 2016 by Ronit Greenstein (Faculty and Staff) Shifra Chelst (Faculty and Staff)

This year, our sixth graders were drawn into a mystery in their Judaic Studies class. Exploring the text of Melachim Bet, Kings II, they discovered that puzzling stories abound in our past, rich with plots, lost tribes, confounding motives, and the appearance of multiple golden calves. And with these mysteries came many opportunities to question, research, analyze, and present differing perspectives. It was a rich learning experience that included examining and deconstructing evidence through textual study, proposing theories, debating, chevruta learning (learning in pairs), and reaching conclusions that balance multiple points of view. Throughout, the students also explored the themes of identity, community, leadership, loyalty, and dissent found in this dramatic story and integrated into other parts of our sixth grade curriculum.

We began the unit by examining the secession of the Northern Tribes of Israel in the 900s from the united kingdom of Judah and Israel. The new king of the Northern Tribes (calling his kingdom “Israel”) feared that his citizens would regret seceding when they went to worship at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. To prevent this, he ordered two golden calves to be built in his territory, one in the south and one in the north of his land, and he constructed temples around them so his people would have places to worship within his territory. This topic immediately engaged the students in discussions about loyalty, dissidence, and community. They approached their translation work with enthusiasm, eager to uncover the astonishing story for themselves. They read in Chapter 17 of Melachim Bet (Kings II) about the stream of endless kings and assassinations in the 700s BCE that culminated in a failed rebellion against the Assyrian Empire by the final king Hoshea, and the expulsion of the people of Israel. These tribes are never heard from again in the Bible. The students’ interest in this intriguing story continued to grow as they worked to uncover the fate of the people of the Northern Kingdom referred to as the “Lost Ten Tribes.”

Notably, the students discovered many rich aspects of the story by reading and translating the texts in the original Biblical Hebrew. Students have been engaged in a process of learning to read and translate texts since third grade. Learning the text in the original allowed them to notice specific word choices, literary devices within the text, and to appreciate the tone of the writing in a nuanced way.

This unit also benefited from the powerful synergies that emerge when there is integration across the disciplines. The book of Kings was selected both for the content about the identity of our ancient ancestors, and for its rich integration with the students’ study of the Ancient Near East in Social Studies class. At the same time the students were delving into this text, they were learning about the Assyrian Empire and its Emperor Assurbanipal in their General Studies class. They examined pictures of Emperor Assurbanipal’s palace and saw that the entrance was flanked with two lammassu (winged bull statues from ancient Assyria). Students then learned that the bull/cow represented the power and strength of the chief god of the Assyrians. Later, on our New York trip, they visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and saw these artifacts in person. Students were even more excited when they learned that there is an archeological site on the spot where the Northern city of Dan was located, and that one of the two ancient temples in our text has actually been uncovered. They studied the photos of the foundation stones of the altar and the steps leading into the temple. The students then imagined they were standing among the people of the city, looking at the new golden calf and wondering about their future as citizens in a divided country.

Throughout this unit, students raised compelling questions and engaged in deep discussions about leadership, loyalty, identity, community, and cultural appropriation. They wondered why a king of Israel would appropriate a symbol of someone else’s chief god to represent Hashem, our God who wants no statues, and why the citizens of Israel would be interested in, or tempted by, statues of animals representing God (and other gods) from the cultures and land around them. Furthermore, exploring some of the theories on the fate of the Lost Ten Tribes – from assimilation to immigration – provided students with opportunities to formulate questions, research a variety of sources, examine evidence, consider different perspectives, and articulate theories. They were able to connect what they learned from recent archaeological discoveries to enrich their understanding of text. They watched a documentary exploring the possible places the Lost Ten Tribes might still be found – including within the Bukharian Jewish community and the Bnei Menashe in India (who were recently brought to Israel under the right of return), and evaluated the evidence brought forward for each theory. These theories encouraged the students to raise remarkable questions about Jewish expression and identity, such as the nature of shared identity in instances when Jewish communities don’t share texts and oral traditions over the course of centuries. The students also discussed the notions of community and collective responsibility, beginning with a deliberation on our duty to help a people that were ‘lost’ 2000 years ago, and expanding to a broader discussion about connection, community, and citizenship within and outside the Jewish community. The dramatic story of Melachim Bet (Kings II) and the mystery of the Lost Ten Tribes, along with a lively political season, also prompted in students a desire to explore big questions such as what motivates leaders, what moves citizens, what is the nature of Jewish identity, and what do people seek and gain through religious worship in a communal sense.

In our Judaic Studies program, we don’t just recount the stories; we absorb them, we get into the people’s heads and imagine what was in their hearts. We don’t just read the debates in the commentaries; we form our own interpretations and analyze those of the mepharshim (commentators). We ask questions, look incisively at the evidence, think critically, and broaden our perspectives. In so doing, we offer students with an unparalleled opportunity to connect with our rich history and traditions, and to discover their own sense of identity, belonging, and meaning within their Jewish legacy.