The term Israel, Hebrew Yisra᾽el, was used in the Hebrew scriptures in a number of ways. It served as the collective name for the twelve tribes who traced their ancestry to Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel after he wrestled with an angel (Gn. 32.28, 35.10). The Israelites were also known as children of Israel, often translated “people of Israel.” While this term often designated the nation as a whole, during the period of the Divided Monarchy (924–721 bce) it referred only to the northern kingdom, as distinct from Judah, the southern kingdom. After the destruction of the North, the term Israel was again used for the entire people. In accord with this usage, the land occupied by the people of Israel was termed the Land of Israel in the Prophets and the Writings. In Jewish sources of the Second Temple period, Israel was synonymous with the Jewish people (or with the non-priestly and non-Levitical members of the Jewish people), and the term Land of Israel was used to denote its ancestral homeland.

These terms are used in the same sense in the Qumran scrolls and either simply continue the biblical tradition, or provide examples of uniquely sectarian understandings of the people and land of Israel. There are no significant data available in the other Judean Desert documents.

The People of Israel.

Israel had been a term for the entire nation in biblical times. From the Second Temple period on, in the absence of the old tribal system, Jews saw themselves as divided into four groupings: priests, Levites, Israelites, and proselytes. In several Qumran passages that describe the mustering ceremony and the lists of members of the sect that were kept by the examiner (mevaqqer), this division is maintained (CD xiv.3–6; Damascus Documentb, 4Q267 9.v.7–10; Damascus Documentc, 4Q268 2; cf. also Rule of the Community, 1QS ii.19–22 and War Scroll, 1QM ii.1–3 where the proselytes are not mentioned). This same division into four groups appears in Four Lots (4Q279 formerly, Purification Rules D), where each group is called a “lot” (goral). This division presumed that the tribe of Levi continued to be divided into the Aaronide priestly group and the rest of the Levites who served in the Temple as singers or assisted in various aspects of the maintenance of the sanctuary. All other born Jews, who were not immediately descended from converts to Judaism, constituted the main part of Israel—the Jewish people.

The final group, maintained as a separate group in the sectarian approach, was the converts. From their listing as a separate group, it is clear that the sectarian scrolls would have agreed with the Temple Scrolla (11Q19), which did not accord proselytes the same status as full Israelites. Thus, they were not permitted to enter the Temple until the fourth generation (11Q19 xl.5–7). This approach to the status of proselytes has some parallels in minority opinions in tannaitic literature (B.T., Qid. 5.1; Sifrei Dt. 247) but was rejected by the rabbinic tradition, which saw proselytes as full Jews with exactly the same status as born Jews.

The author of Florilegium excluded proselytes altogether from the messianic Temple (4Q174 1–2.i.4). This opinion accords well with the notion that the messianic deliverance, rather than a universal experience, was to be enjoyed by the most chosen of God's holy people, the sect alone. Despite the large wealth of Qumran literature, there is no discussion of the manner in which the sectarians determined the status of a born Jew. It is most likely that the sectarians shared the notion later codified in rabbinic literature that Jewish status was determined by birth to a Jewish mother. This approach seems to have been the norm among Jews in the Land of Israel in Second Temple times and it is in this context that we must understand the opposition to intermarriage in Jubilees (30.7–17) and the Temple Scroll.

For the sectarians, one final additional aspect must be emphasized. They understood the history of Israel in biblical times as essentially a period of religious and moral decline leading to the destruction of the First Temple. This process, described in theological terms in the Admonition at the beginning of the Damascus Document (CD i–viii), meant that God's covenant with Israel was transferred to the righteous remnant—the members of the Qumran sect and those who would join them in the End of Days. In effect, then, the sectarians saw themselves as the true Israel, the people of God. This special holiness was also manifested, according to their beliefs, in the presence of holy angels among them.

Jews and Non-Jews.

The Qumran sectarians defined themselves as separate from non- Jews in two ways. On the one hand, they condemned the practices of the nations surrounding them, specifically idolatry, and distanced themselves from these pagans. On the other hand, they identified themselves as the chosen people whose merit it was to inherit the land in the End of Days.

The most objectionable feature of pagan religion to Jews was the worship of idols or a multiplicity of gods. The Damascus Document prohibits even indirect support of idolatrous practices by outlawing the selling of kosher animals and fowl to non-Jews for pagan sacrificial purposes (CD xii.8–10), and the Temple Scroll recapitulates the law of Exodus 34.10–17 stating that idolatrous cult places must be destroyed (11Q19 ii.6–12). Similarly, any object or material once used for idolatry may not be used in Jewish worship, such as meat of idolatrous offerings. In a passage based on Deuteronomy 16.21–22 (cf. Lv. 26.1) the author of the Temple Scroll warns against the erection of Asherot, pillars, and figured stones to which to bow down (11Q19 lx.19–lii.3).

Indeed, idolaters may be put to death (Dt. 12.2–7; 11Q19 lv.15–lvi.4) if they can legally be convicted in court. The law of an idolatrous city (11Q19 lv.2–14) intends to interpret the biblical commandment (Dt. 13.13–19) that requires destruction by the sword of a Jewish city that has turned to idol worship.

The Temple Scrolla (11Q19 ii.1–15) requires that pagan cultic objects be destroyed, and this passage also invokes the biblical prohibition (Ex. 34.10–16) on making covenants with the Canaanite nations lest there be intermarriage between them and the Jewish people. Other passages in the Temple Scroll indicate that all marriage between Jews and non-Jews was prohibited (11Q19 lvii.15–17).

Idolatry carries with it an impurity that can be contracted. Therefore, the Dead Sea Scrolls recommend that the sectarians distance themselves from non-Jews. On the Sabbath, the Damascus Document recommends that Jews not spend the Sabbath “in a place close to the gentiles” (xi.14–15). Non-Jews were forbidden from entering the Temple (11Q19 xxxix.5–7) and, according to Florilegium (1Q174 1–2.i.4), will also be excluded from the Temple in the End of Days.

Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah (B3–5) prohibits the acceptance of grain offerings (terumah) from non-Jews for the Temple. Similarly, Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah (B8) condemns the acceptance of sacrifices that non-Jews bring to the Temple, a practice current in the time of the Hasmoneans. Both these laws accord with the view of the sectarians that in the End of Days the non-Jewish nations will disappear. Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition taught the opposite: that in the End of Days the nations will come to worship God and will voluntarily appear to sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple.

A poetic section of the War Scroll (1QM xii.12–14), which most probably predated its final authorship, calls upon the city of Jerusalem in the End of Days to accept the wealth of the nations who will now be subservient to Jerusalem. This poem would imply that the nations survive the final cataclysm and, based on Isaiah 60.10–14, become vassals of Israel. The same notion is found in Pesher Isaiaha (4Q161 7.25). However, the overwhelming notion of the War Scroll is the destruction of the nations of the world by the sectarians at the End of Days.

Chosen People.

The notion that Israel is God's chosen people is prominent in the sectarian documents. The War Scroll (1QM x.9–10; 4Q495 frag. 1) proclaims: “Who is like unto your people Israel which you have chosen for yourself from all the nations of the lands, a people of those holy through the covenant!” The text continues by stating that Israel has expressed its chosenness by accepting the revelation and God's commandments (lines 10–11).

Liturgical passages repeat this motif often. In a Passover prayer, God “cho[se] us from among [the] nations” (Daily Prayers [4Q503] 24–25.vii.4; cf. Noncanonical Psalms 7677 15). Similarly, “you have loved Israel more than the [other] peoples. … All the nations saw your glory in that you were sanctified among your people Israel” (Words of the Luminariesa [4Q504] 1–2.iv.4–9). The festival prayer states that God chose the Jewish people and set them apart as holy, renewing his covenant with them (1Q34bis ii.5–7 = 4Q509 97–98.i.7–10).

The Land of Israel in the Qumran Scrolls.

The biblical usage of the expression Land of Israel (Erets Yisra᾽el) became increasingly prominent in the Second Temple period and is used in the scrolls. This expression occurs only rarely in the preserved Qumran scrolls (cf. Paraphrase of Kings [4Q382] 1.4 [restored]). Often, the area of Judea is termed Land of Judah in the scrolls, apparently a reference to the present political realities of the Greco-Roman period. Two passages are significant: In Miqtsat Ma῾asei ha-Torah B 63, Land of Israel serves as a legal term for the area that is subject according to Jewish law to the laws of tithing of produce and the offering of fourth-year produce. While this legal usage certainly indicates a geographical entity, it need not assume a governmental or administrative significance. In the Temple Scroll (11Q19 lviii.6) it is used as a geographical and governmental term for the area under the sovereignty of the ideal king of Israel whose constitution is set forth in the Law of the King (11Q19 lvi–lix).

Despite the fact that the only mention of this term in the Temple Scroll is in a governmental context, this scroll presents an ideal vision of how the people of Israel should live in the Land of Israel. Throughout, the author is informed by a notion of concentric spheres of holiness, as well as by distinct concern for the sanctity of the entire Land of Israel as sacred space.

The preserved portion of the Temple Scroll begins with the assertion of God's covenant with Israel regarding the Land of Israel (col. ii). This section, adapted from Exodus 34.10–16 and Deuteronomy 7.5, 25, relates that God will expel the Canaanite nations from the Land of Israel. The Israelites, in turn, are commanded to destroy pagan cult objects and to avoid any covenants with the Canaanite nations since such alliances would lead to idolatry and intermarriage. The laws of war in the scroll (lx.9–16) concern the destruction of the pagan inhabitants of the land as well.

The notion that Israel is given the land conditionally also appears in the scroll. Bribery and corruption in judgment must be avoided, “in order that you live, and come and take (or retain) possession of the land which I am giving you as a possession for ever” (li.15–16). In other words, judicial corruption will result in the destruction of the land and exile (lxx.2–9). Only after repentance (line 11) will Israel return to its land.

For the Temple Scroll, the central point of the Land of Israel was the Temple and the surrounding complex. Here the scroll provides for a Temple plan of very different proportions from that which existed in First or Second Temple times. This new Temple plan would be characterized by the enclosure of the Temple building itself by three concentric courtyards. This entire plan has behind it the assumption that the Temple is the center of sanctity for the entire land. The scroll makes clear repeatedly that it is the indwelling of the divine presence in the Temple that imparts to the land this level of sanctity.

Beyond the Temple city which, for the scroll, symbolized the desert camp, was located the hinterland of Israel. Ezekiel 48.1–10 had adopted an ideal view of the land, seeing the tribal allotments as a series of east-west strips of land. The Temple Scroll also took an ideal view, but for its author it is most likely that the tribes were to dwell outside the respective gates through which they were to enter the Temple precincts. Indeed, it was through these gates that the tribal territory was to be tied to the sanctity of the central shrine and the divine presence, which dwelled there.

Throughout the Temple Scroll there is a persistent notion that the people of Israel will dwell in cities. The scroll envisaged the people, including priests and Levites, as living in the cities of Israel, which were to be scattered about the central sanctuary, each tribe opposite its respective gate. Burial in the cities was forbidden (11Q19 xlviii.11). Burial places were to be set aside, one for each four cities (xlviii.11–13). The limitation of burial to specified places was designed to avoid rendering the land impure (xlviii.10).

All in all, the authors of the various sectarian texts found at Qumran saw both the people and the Land of Israel in ideal terms. They expected that as the true Israel, separated from both errant Jews and from the non-Jewish world, they could live a life of perfect holiness and sanctity in their ancestral land. Yet in the eyes of the author/redactor of the Temple Scroll, this land, even before the End of Days, had to be reconfigured and idealized in order to represent the level of holiness to which the sectarians aspired.


  • Alexander, Philip S., and Geza Vermes. Qumran Cave 4, XIX: Serekh ha-Yaḥad and Two Related Texts, pp. 217–223. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 26. Oxford, 1998.
    Text and commentary on 4QFour Lots indicating division of Jewish people into priests, Levites, Israelites, and proselytes
  • Qimron, Elisha, and John Strugnell. Qumran Cave 4, V: Miqṣat Ma῾aśe ha-Torah, p. 88. Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 10. Oxford, 1994.
    Discussion of the term Land of Israel in the Dead Sea Scrolls
  • Schiffman, Lawrence H. “Sacred Space: The Land of Israel in the Temple Scroll.” In Biblical Archaeology Today, 1990: Proceedings of the Second International Congress on Biblical Archaeology, Jerusalem, June-July 1990, pp. 398–410. Jerusalem, 1993.
    A study of the idealized picture of the Temple, the city of Jerusalem, and the surrounding land as understood by the Temple Scroll
  • Schiffman, Lawrence H. Who Was a Jew? Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish Christian Schism. Hoboken, N.J., 1985.
    A study of Second Temple and early rabbinic ideas on Jewish status

Lawrence H. Schiffman