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Ancient Israel

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Ancient Israel History

Probably about 1800 BC, a Semitic people later called the Hebrews migrated from the Mesopotamian city of Ur to Canaan, where they settled on a narrow slice of land between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean. Very little is known about their origins. At least one group of them traveled to Egypt, possibly during the Hyskos conquest. During the thirteenth century BC, according to legend, Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt and into the Sinai Desert. They settled in the land we know today as Israel.

There is no historical record of the ancient Hebrews before about 1200 BC other than the Hebrew Bible; there is no outside evidence to confirm or disprove the stories of Abraham or Moses. Most historians have cautiously accepted that the biblical narrative of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt and settlement in Israel has a basis in fact.

Around 1200 BC, the Philistines, a neighboring tribe, occupied a tiny piece of the Mediterranean coastline on Israel’s western border. This challenge to their supremacy formed the Israelites into a kingdom by about 1020. The Kingdom of Israel lasted for about a century under three strong and charismatic rulers: Saul, David, and Solomon. Under Saul, the Philistines defeated the Israelites; under David, the Israelites fought the Philistines again and won a victory. David established Israel’s capital city in Jerusalem, where Solomon oversaw the building of the Temple.

On Solomon’s death, Israel was divided roughly in half, with the northern half called Israel and the southern half called Judah. In 721, the Assyrians under Sargon II conquered Israel and deported many of the Israelites, who apparently resettled throughout the Assyrian Empire and blended in with the local populations. Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Chaldeans, invaded Judah and led the destruction of Jerusalem in 587, during the Second Babylonian Empire. The Israelites aided Cyrus of Persia in establishing the Persian Empire. About 538 BC, they returned to Israel and built the Second Temple. Throughout this period of exile, the prophets continued to teach the precepts of the religion we now call Judaism, thus ensuring a continuum of Hebrew belief and culture.

Ancient Israel Religion

The Hebrews or Israelites—the term Jews was not used until much later—are important because, over time, they developed the first coherent, lasting mono- theistic religion. The Israelites believed in the god Yahweh, who created the world and peopled it with men and women in his own image. According to legend, Yahweh gave the Ten Commandments directly to Moses; they constituted a moral code of behavior that was equally binding on all people, from monarchs to slaves.

Both these concepts were revolutionary. The various ancient peoples of the region believed in many gods, not just one. While the idea of monotheism had been tried—under Akhenaton in Egypt, for example—it never took firm hold until the Israelites. Ancient peoples also believed in the absolute authority of their rulers. The gods could affect life on earth by whim or by force; equally, the emperors and kings could command obedience. The idea of a moral code that made the slave the equal of the master was new to the world.

The Israelites compiled their legends, religious beliefs, and early history in a series of books collectively known as the Hebrew Bible. In their present form, the books of the Bible were probably written around the seventh century BC, though the stories they tell date back much earlier.

After the rise of Christianity, the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) was combined with the later New Testament; together, they are called simply the Bible. The Bible can safely be called the most important literary work in the history of the Western world.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Ancient Middle East Practice Test

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