FC14: The Israelites (c.2000-500 BCE)




Another people who had an even greater impact on history without building a great empire were the Israelites, also known as the Hebrews or Jews. In the course of their history, they would establish Judaism as the first great monotheistic religion and also heavily influence Christianity and Islam. Together these are the three dominant religions throughout the Near East, Europe, much of Africa, the Western Hemisphere and Australia. In addition, these faiths have also shaped the law codes, art, culture, social customs, economics, and histories of their respective societies. Yet if it had not been for their religion, the Jews probably would not have been any more than a footnote in the history books.

The Patriarchal period (c.2000-1650 B.C.E.)

The Jews first appear as the Habiru, a Mesopotamian word referring generically to any nomads whom they came into contact with. It was only much later that the Habiru, or Hebrews, were associated specifically with the Jews. Evidence of contact between Mesopotamia and the early Hebrews can be seen in the various stories shared by the two cultures, such as the Great Flood. Around 2000 B.C.E., various groups of Habiru, known as Amorites, gradually weakened and overthrew the Sumerian empire of the Third Dynasty of Ur. Among these tribes was a patriarchal clan that would come to be known as the Jews. One leader of this clan was Abraham, whom Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look back upon as their spiritual ancestor. While many of his Amorite kinsmen and allies were settling down and adapting to the civilized ways of their subjects, Abraham continued in his nomadic ways. His travels took him over much of the civilized world from Mesopotamia to various places in Palestine, then known as Canaan. He even made his way to Egypt during a famine before returning to Canaan. Thus Abraham's travels put him in contact with the great civilizations of the ancient Near East. Several Biblical stories, such as that of the Great Flood, seem to reflect this contact.

Abraham is especially remembered for his covenant. This was an agreement with his god to follow and worship him exclusively in exchange for his protection. Such a covenant was apparently not unique among Semitic tribes. For example, Abraham refers to the god of his brother Nahor (Genesis 3l: 53), implying Nahor and his people had a similar covenant with their own particular god. This also seems to imply that Abraham and his people believed in other gods at this time, but refused to worship them. Instead, they were the "chosen people" of their god, a distinction that would grow in importance as they came to see their god in more universal and cosmic proportions as the only god.

The Egyptian Period and Exodus (c.1650-1200 B.C.E.)

Around 1650 B.C.E., the Hebrews' history became intertwined with that of Egypt. It was at this time that the Semitic people known as the Hyksos overran and ruled much of Egypt. Although the Hebrews were probably not part of the actual invasion, they do seem to have been related to the Hyksos. For example, Hyksos names with "Jacob", a Hebrew name, occur. The story of the quick rise to power of Joseph, Abraham's descendant, probably could not have occurred under native Egyptian rule. And when Joseph's family migrated to Egypt, they went to Goshen, a Hyksos city.

There is about a 400-year lapse between the end of Genesis, when Joseph is at the height of his power, and the beginning of the next book of the Bible, Exodus. At that point we find Joseph's people, the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians. What has happened in between has been a resurgence of Egyptian power that drove the Hyksos out of Egypt. Naturally, the Israelites did not fare too well in this change of masters.

It was during this time, probably in the reign of Egypt's last great warrior pharaoh, Ramses II, that the next great figure in Jewish history, Moses, was born. Although he grew up in the upper ranks of Egyptian society, Moses kept, or regained, touch with his unfortunate kinsmen. Pitying an Israelite slave who was being beaten by his Egyptian master, Moses killed the Egyptian and then fled into the desert. It was there that he found what he saw as a sign from God: a burning bush that was not consumed in its flames. This inspired him to lead his people out of Egypt.

The Exodus, as this mass migration is called, is probably the most important single event in the history of the Jews, since it won them their freedom and gave them their identity as a people. It probably occurred after Ramses II's reign, when the strain of extended warfare and the burden of supporting the powerful priesthood of Amon were starting to take their toll on Egypt. The Biblical ten plagues that forced the pharaoh to let the Israelites go may reflect Egypt's internal troubles at that time. Also, more than the Israelites escaped at this time, as reflected in the Bible's reference to a "mixed multitude".

The Exodus was also important in the development of the Jewish religion. The climactic event of the Exodus was receiving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. The revolutionary nature of these laws is easily obscured by the fact that they have become an essential part of our culture. This makes them commonplace, and thus taken for granted. However, the idea that people are morally responsible for their own actions rather than just being at the mercy of fickle gods who act unpredictably dates from the time of the Ten Commandments. Also, the idea of worshipping only one god and not making idols that one can touch and feel was a radical departure from most other peoples' practice up to that point in history. Since that time, the Ten Commandments have served as the religious, moral, and ethical foundations for the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures.

Israel (c.1200-586 B.C.E.)

The Bible tells us the Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness. This may seem like a long time, but for a nomadic people used to wandering, that might be a reasonable figure. Archaeology and the Bible tend to support each other here, giving us a date of around 1200 B.C.E. for the Israelites' entrance into the Promised Land when Jericho and other Canaanite cities seem to have been destroyed by invaders. Also the Sea Peoples, or Peleset as the Egyptians called them, probably arrived in Palestine about this time. Although they would later be the Israelites' archenemies, the Philistines, their raids at this time probably helped the Israelites by weakening the Egyptian Empire.

The Bible gives two very different versions of the conquest of Israel. One version has Joshua, Moses' successor, winning one spectacular victory that delivered the whole land into the Israelites' hands. The other version gives the impression of a piecemeal conquest. This is probably closer to the truth. The nomadic Israelites were divided into twelve tribes loosely held together by their common religion. Most likely, each tribe took over its own part of Israel independently of the other tribes. It was a fairly drawn out process that involved fighting here and peaceful absorption there. Many of the inhabitants were Habiru, akin to the Israelites, but who had stayed behind when Joseph and his clan went to Egypt.

Israel's geopolitics did not mark it out as the ideal place to settle. It was a hot dry land with scattered areas that had enough fertile soil and water to make them worth settling in. It had few natural resources besides some copper and iron in the south. Worst of all, it was in between the great empires of Egypt to the south and Mesopotamia to the north. This made it a constant battleground or highway for invading armies. That situation has not changed too much to the present day.

Settling in Israel created two very different problems for the Israelites. Like other nomadic peoples who conquered civilized areas, the Israelites found themselves drawn to adopt the ways of their more settled subjects. However, their transition to civilization was particularly difficult, because the Canaanites' polytheistic religion attracted many Israelites to its rituals. Since the Israelites saw themselves as God's chosen people, and felt that their survival and success depended on God's favor, they took very harsh measures against anyone, Israelite or Canaanite, they found practicing pagan religions.

Another problem the Israelites faced was hostile neighbors, especially the Sea Peoples, or Philistines, who had settled in the coastal areas of Palestine. These people, possibly from contact with the Hittites, whom they had conquered, had iron technology and weapons. This gave them a decisive edge in battle that allowed them to deal some fairly serious beatings to the different Israelite tribes. As long as the tribes remained separate and did not cooperate, the Philistines could do just about as they pleased. They even captured the Israelites' holiest object, the Ark of the Covenant, in battle. Because of this outrage, the Israelites started agitating for a king to unite them against the common enemy.

Up to this point, the main officials of the Israelites had been tribal leaders called judges. These men, such as Samson and Gideon, often served as military leaders as well as performing judicial functions. There was at least one woman judge, Deborah, who was renown for her wisdom. The most influential of the judges at this time was Samuel. He tried to convince the Israelites that a king would be a bad idea, since he would demand military service and forced labor, just as they had endured when in Egypt. Nevertheless, the people insisted and Samuel chose Saul as Israel's first king.

Saul's reign (c.1020-1000 B.C.E.) was not a happy one. Besides facing the formidable Philistines and other enemies in battle, he also had to deal with the different tribes refusing to cooperate with each other. He even had trouble with the judge Samuel, who may have been jealous of the power this new king was taking at the expense of the judges. In the end, Saul's reign ended in a military disaster at the hands of the Philistines. His reign was important, nonetheless, because, once the Israelites had taken that fateful step towards civilized monarchy, they never went back to their old nomadic ways.

The reigns of the next two kings, David (c.1000-96l B.C.E.) and Solomon (96l-922 B.C.E.), saw Israel's power at its height. The Israelites during this time were able to extend their sway directly or indirectly over the Eastern Mediterranean coast from the Sinai Desert in the south to the Euphrates River in the north. Much of their success was a result of timing, because both Egypt and Assyria were experiencing internal problems at the time. This created a power vacuum which the Israelites could fill.

The reigns of David and Solomon saw further signs of the transition from nomadic to civilized life. David founded, or refounded, the city of Jerusalem and built a splendid palace there. Solomon built a magnificent temple in which the Ark of the Covenant could reside rather than in a tent. Both kings built up a standing army and bureaucracy to protect and rule the land. Of course, there was a price for all this: heavy taxation and even forced labor. True to Samuel's prediction, many Israelites did grumble about how this was just like their forced labor in Egypt.

The divided kingdom (922-586 B.C.E.)

Dissatisfaction with Solomon's high taxes and forced labor led to the kingdom splitting after his death in 922 B.C.E. The ten tribes in the north, feeling they had borne more than their fair share of the burden, broke away and founded the kingdom of Israel, while David's line continued to rule the remaining two tribes in the southern kingdom of Judah. Neither kingdom had the power and resources to maintain itself in the style of David and Solomon. A growing gap between rich and poor led to social turmoil, while corruption and internal quarrels further weakened each kingdom. And all the while, the spreading shadow of the Assyrian Empire was approaching the Israelites.

Both kingdoms gave in to Assyrian rule and were allowed to govern themselves as long as they loyally supplied the Assyrians with money and troops. Unfortunately, the northern kingdom of Israel made the mistake of rebelling. The Assyrian lion descended with typical speed and ferocity, killing much of the population and dragging the rest off into mass exile. There, the ten tribes of Israel became the "ten lost tribes of Israel", being absorbed by the surrounding cultures and losing their identity as a people. The southern kingdom of Judah managed to hang on until 586 B.C.E., when it rebelled against the Babylonian successors to the Assyrian Empire. Babylonian vengeance was also swift and deadly. Jerusalem was sacked and burned, and the remaining two tribes were dragged into captivity in Babylonia. However, these two tribes managed to survive and keep their identity, largely because the Persians, who conquered the Babylonians in 539 B.C.E., allowed them to return to their homeland before they were totally absorbed and had lost their identity.

Ironically, this time of troubles saw the Jewish religion achieve new heights. Since the time of David, a succession of prophets had emerged in order to chastise the people for their sins and warn them of God's retribution. When that retribution came at the hands of outside powers, such as Assyria and Babylon, the idea emerged that the Jewish god was the god of all peoples. For example, the prophet Jonah was sent to warn the Assyrians to mend their ways, showing a concern for Gentiles (non Jewish peoples) that had not appeared previously.

Also, in the midst of all these troubles, a messianic idea evolved of a day when divine grace would put an end to human conflict and suffering. Unlike most ancient peoples, such as the Greeks and Romans, who put their golden ages in the past, the Jews saw theirs in the future. The Jews passed this idea on to Christianity and Islam. In later centuries, it would become one of the most dynamic forces in the history of human thought. The Jews were fortunate to have such an optimistic view of the future, for they would need it. Few, if any, people, have endured the suffering and displacement that they were destined to undergo in the 2500 years after the fall of Jerusalem while still maintaining their identity as a people. Although the Persians let them return home from Babylon, fate would not let them stay there.

In 66 C.E., the Jews rebelled against another master, this time Rome. Four years later, Roman legions broke into, sacked, and destroyed Jerusalem. This was the start of the Diaspora, or dispersal of the Jews. For the next 1900 years, the Jews would be a people without a home. Scattered across Europe and the Near East, they would experience alternating periods of tolerance and intense persecution at the hands of the people under whom they lived. The low point of all this was the methodical execution of 6,000,000 Jews by the Nazis in World War II. Remarkably, the Jews kept their identity as a people, and in 1948 finally regained a homeland in Israel. Seeing them through all these centuries of trials and tribulations was the vision of a better day to come when

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore.”

(Isaiah 2:4)