Lecture 3: The Ancient Hebrews and the Origins of Judaism

Over the last two lectures, we noted a significant pattern: as a society’s military and economic reach expanded, it set other peoples in motion, which either borrowed or improved upon existing practices. This process then brought new peoples into historical view. One people of great historical importance that would emerge from Sumer and Egypt’s shadow were the ancient Hebrews, whom the world would one day call Jews. The distinction between Hebrew and Jew is important, because Judaism as a system of belief was, in part, a product of the Hebrews’ experiences. At a certain point, Hebrews, who were one of many Semitic tribes living in ancient Mesopotamia, became Jews. The Bible says that they originally lived in the Mesopotamian town of Harran, which belonged to a long gone kingdom of Mitanni, before moving to the land of Canaan, which comprised today’s Israel and Lebanon. They are notable for three contributions to world civilization: 1) Absolute monotheism. 2) The notion of a covenant between the only God and his people. (Remember that the Sumerian gods had been angry and capricious.) 3) The notion that God acts in history. (This is extremely important, because it allowed people to ascribe meaning to historical events.) These three religious innovations were of enormous importance for the later development of a Jewish state in ancient times, a process that we will discuss, but you can also probably already see how important these ideas were for Christianity.
I will divide the ancient history of Judaism into five periods. 1) Time of the Patriarchs. 2) The Mosaic period. 3) Conquest and Settlement. 4) Monarchy. 5) Destruction and Dispersal. These five stages run from about 2000 BC until 600 BC, so we have a great deal of ground to cover. Before we continue, we should also take a moment to consider the sources for this history. Last time, I noted that many of our sources for Sumerian history were carved in clay. Business ledgers, tax records, and even literature appeared here. The situation with the Hebrews is, however, different. Until about 1200 BC, the only source for Judaism’s history is the Bible. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The Bible can be read as a history book, but it should remind us that much of this story is shaped by the Bible’s religious and theological concerns. The events the Hebrews wrote down were, thus, those that related directly to those concerns. The ancient Hebrews were a religious people, but we must also remember that the sources we use to understand that religion may make their history seem more starkly opposed to that of other peoples than it really was.
We will begin with the time of the Patriarchs. The period begins around 1900 BC. You may already be familiar with some of the names involved, Abraham, who begat Isaac, who begat Jacob, who had twelve sons, who in turn founded the twelve tribes of Israel. Abraham lived in the Mesopotamian city of Harran, where he had some kind of religious experience that led him to announce that God had made a covenant with his people, promising them the land of Canaan, in exchange for their obedience to his law. Abraham then led a migration to the land of Canaan, which is, as I have noted before, modern Israel and Lebanon.
The people Abraham led to the Promised Land comprised a group of Semitic tribes, whose laws and customs were a mixture of ideas taken from four different cultures. 1) From the Amorites, another Semitic people that we noted in the lecture on Sumer, the Hebrews took the notion that God was a messenger. 2) They took their Cosmogony (explanation for the structure of the universe) from the Mesopotamians. The flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh is an example. 3) From Canaan came the Hebrew language, as the local tongue, called Ugarit, became a source for the Bible’s original poetry. 4) And finally, the Hebrews likely took from Egypt the tradition of hymnals and the emphasis on didactic literature.
In this context, it is important to note that Abraham did not invent the single God. He merely announced that the Hebrew God had announced a special covenant to him, which he passed on to his people. (Note the language of the First Commandment: it does not say “I am the only god,” but “thou shalt have no other God before me.”) This Hebrew God’s people then settled in Canaan, but were forced to leave by a famine. They migrated to Egypt, where the Bible tells us that they were enslaved. This may have occurred around 1600 BC.
(We should note, at this point, that archeologists have found no evidence to support the idea that the Hebrews were ever in Egypt. In spite of extensive digging all around the Egyptian Sinai, Israeli archeologists found no trace of a Hebrew presence. An official Israeli government report on the question concluded, as a result, that there was no Exodus.)
The Hebrew’s supposed captivity leads us to the beginning of the second, or Mosaic, period. Around 1200 BC, as the Book of Exodus relates, a charismatic leader named Moses appeared among the Hebrews and led his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land. Even if it is untrue, the story of Exodus is important for our purposes, because it is here that we can begin to talk about Jews, rather than Hebrews. With Exodus, we see Jews beginning to think of themselves not only as chosen people, but also as people directly under God’s supervision. You have heard some of the stories about how Moses called down a plague on Egypt, because God wanted his people freed. Then, of course, there is the famous story of Moses parting the Red Sea, so that his people could cross. These events may not have occurred, but the story itself was crucial for creating a common sense of origins and purpose among the very early Hebrews. This sense of connection is what transformed the Hebrews into Jews. Moreover, it is about this time that the Hebrew word for God, YHWH, finally appears. Until this time, God had been referred to in a variety of ways. Now he only had one name and one people under him.
This marks an enormously important period for the Jews on two levels. First, God now performed miracles in their name, which cemented the covenant and led the Jews to understand history even more clearly in terms of divine intervention. Second, Moses—if, indeed, he was a single person—became a religious-political figure, uniting law, morality, oracular vision, and military conquest in one person. This Moses, in effect created, the institutions of the future kingdom of Israel, and under his supervision the role of shrines and the priesthood were fixed. Moreover, Moses renewed Abraham’s covenant with God, through the Ten Commandments, and he changed the Hebrew administrative structure, pulling his people away from the tribalism of old and toward a centralized ruling structure.
Moses also secured the structures of the Jewish faith. Under Moses it became clear that God actually ruled, that He directed his commands to each individual, and that He punished all his people for the transgressions of one person among them. This sounds a bit unfair to the modern viewer, but the historical significance of this arrangement lies in the moral impulse that this sense of common destiny created within Judaism. At this moment, Judaism became a moral religion that exhorted its people to act in accordance with a strict moral code, including the requirement that each Jew care for the poor and the helpless. (As an aside, I should note that this moral impulse is the central aspect of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus did not consider himself to a revolutionary who overturned Jewish law, but as the New Testament relates, he came to fulfilling the law.).
This Mosaic mixture of religion and state leads us to the next period of Judaic history, conquest and settlement. The Book of Exodus asserts that Moses led his people through the desert for forty years, before they return to Canaan, the Promised Land. Some time after 1200 (again, the dates are far from clear) the Jews arrived in Canaan, seeking to conquer the soil that had been promised to them by God. What ensued, unlike what the Old Testament tells us, was a complicated situation of annihilation and cooperation. Led by the great Joshua, who supposedly smote the Lord’s enemies with the jawbone of an ass, the Jews destroyed those Canaanite settlements that would not yield to them and cut deals with others. The Bible also tells us that all the Jews returned, as a group, from Egypt to fight this war. This is unlikely. Scholars now believe that some Jews must have remained behind in Canaan after the famine, and these people then joined up with their returning brethren to create a new state. The “returning” tribes probably never made it to Egypt, though we cannot be completely certain of this.
The Jewish victory over the Canaanites allows us to return to one big theme that I mentioned earlier. First, for the Jews the battle for Canaan was yet more evidence of God’s divine role in historical events. According to the Bible, the great city of Jericho fell, because its thick walls crumbled before the Jews’ upraised voices, and the Jews’ enemies cowered before Jewish armies, because God made them fear. In addition, the Bible tells us that God stopped the midday sun, so that the Jews could exploit advantages gained on the battlefield. Second, the Jews now combined their beliefs and structures with some of those that they found around them. Borrowing heavily from the Canaanite’s religion, Jews began to use idols in worship. They did not officially demote God, but as later prophets argued, they began to worship a private religion. Moreover, the Jews also took from the Canaanites the practice of building religious sanctuaries and having a priestly class serve in them. In this case, conquest really did create new historical possibilities.
One of the most important possibilities that the Jews exploited was the development of a monarchical state. This leads us to the next phase of Jewish history. Some time during the twelfth century BC, the Jewish tribes united against external enemies. A people known as the Philistines arrived in the land of Israel, using iron weapons and riding on camels to maraud in Jewish territory. This external threat ended the domination of charismatic religious leaders in Jewish history and called into being a large state apparatus.
Around 1020, we the first great Jewish king, Saul, appeared. Saul became famous among Jews for his great military exploits, particularly for a great victory over the Amorites, a people we have mentioned before. As a result, he was chosen king, though not without controversy, as we will see, and he built a powerful Jewish kingdom, which he passed to David, who cemented the new institutions in place and created a true royal tradition. With David appears the idea that not only was the king divinely elected, but also that God extended his protection over the ruling dynasty as a whole. Under David this new state took its seat in Jerusalem, a city the Jews had conquered, and with that the Jews finally took leave of their old nomadic traditions. Now Judaism was located in a particular place. It cherished particular shrines (David built an enormous temple for sacred items) and had a specific dynasty that protected those holy places. This tradition then extended through the reign of Solomon, with God, of course, overseeing everything.
There were, however, tensions in this arrangement. The new Jewish kingdom had to make compromises with non-Jewish locals. Solomon married princesses from other kingdoms, who brought their own cults to Israel. Then a split emerged within the Jewish people over the notion of kingship. On the one hand, a “conservative” tradition appeared that was opposed to the new monarchical state and its immorality. On the other hand, a “progressive” tradition appeared that supported the monarchy as the best way to protect God’s people. Both traditions appear in the book of Samuel, which tells us that the Jewish religious leader Samuel was in constant conflict with David over his behavior. After Solomon’s death, these tensions broke open in a political secession, as the northern tribes seceded over religious grievances and in opposition to the use of forced labor for building temples.
During the 10th century BC, the Jewish state split into two kingdoms. In the north was the kingdom of Israel. Its first King was Jeroboam I. In the south was the Kingdom of Judah, which was the Davidic successor. The northern kingdom followed a similar model to the south, setting up shrines in Dan an Bethel to rival Jerusalem, in which people worshipped a golden calf as the image of the divine God. During this period, we begin to see the rise of the quintessential Jewish figure, the angry prophet. During the 9th century, prophets Elijah and Elisha begin to engage in moral/political criticism evaluating each state in accord with whether it followed God’s law. In neither case did things look good. Judah continued to tolerate pagan cults until the end of the tenth century, when King Asa (c. 987-867) purged paganism from Jerusalem. In the north, pagan cults flourished, especially with King Ahab’s marriage to the Tyrian princess Jezebel, who brought with her a series of pagan cults. The prophet Elijah was motivated to claim that the entire land of Israel was mired in apostasy.
Moral-based criticism of politics became a religious staple for the Jews. During the ninth century, the north was forced to make series of political compromises in its attempt to stave off attacks from another people called the Aramaeans. The stress of this war undermined Israeli society, making the rich more ostentatious and making life more difficult for the poor. For a moral community, such behavior was contrary to God’s will. By the 8th century, the prophet Amos was arguing that the apostasy of the Jews would turn God against the community.
In a sense, the prophets’ dire predictions proved true. In the 8th century the Assyrian empire attacked Israel, taking Gilead and Galilee around 732 BC. In 721, they took Samaria, which was the Israelite capital. The Assyrians then put their own rulers over the region and dispersed the people’s in the area. These are the famous 10 lost tribes of Israel. Hosea saw these difficulties as further proof that the Jews had strayed from God’s path. A similar dynamic appeared in the south, where the kingdom of Judah submitted to the Assyrians, in an attempt to survive. The prophet Isaiah saw Assyria’s menace as justified punishment, and the prophet Micah, even predicted that the Jews’ wickedness would cause Jerusalem to be left in ruins.
During the eight century, partly in response to the prophets, there were some attempts to get back on the religious path. King Hezekiah (c. 715-686 BC) tried to remove various pagan practices from Judah. King Hezekiah was also part of a major uprising against the Assyrians in 705 BC. The rebellion was crushed by 701, but the Assyrian king Sennacherib did not take the city of Jerusalem, which made the prophets seem even more powerful. Only divine intervention could have caused the victorious king to remove is forces, or so it was thought. The Assyrian empire fell after 627, with the death of its last great king. Judah enjoyed a period of autonomy after that. By this point, however, a new power arose to threaten Judah, Babylon. Babylon defeated Egypt in battle and assumed control over Judah. The prophet Jeremiah saw Babylon as a scourge that punished Judaism’s sins. The Jews attempted a number of revolts, but Babylon responded harshly, exiling Judah’s kings and the entire politico-religious elite. The Jews would now have to submit to the will of a foreign monarch by the name of Nebuchadnezzar. Anger at having to submit to this foreign dynasty led to another uprising in 587/6 BC, which was also put down. Only this time, Nebuchadnezzar reduced Jerusalem and destroyed its holy temple, while having much of the population deported to Babylon. These Jews in exile were eventually allowed to return to Judah after the Babylonian empire fell to the Persians in the period after 550. The Jews remained around Jerusalem until finally dispersed by the Romans after the final great revolt (AD 66-70).
You will note that I have spent a good deal of time talking about Jewish prophets. The reason for this is that they encapsulate the themes we have been discussing. For every historical event, there was a theological explanation. Historical events took their meaning from being part of a divine order. This order was based on a covenant with God, and those who failed to live up to its strictures brought destruction down on everyone. This approach to history became the key element of the Jewish contribution to ancient history. We will talk more about this contribution when we consider the rise of Christianity.