On the plains of Mesopotamia, a young man stood gazing up at the stars that glittered from the dark sky of night. He was Abraham, a native of the Sumerian city of Ur. Abraham was a Hebrew, one of the many tribes of Semites said to have been descended from Shem, the son of Noah who had been saved from a great flood many years before. Like all people of his time, Abraham believed in many gods throughout nature. As he studied the pattern of the great stars for the god’s message, Abraham began to feel he was in the presence of a Lord God who was above all gods with idols and temples and sacrifices. Abraham felt, too, that this Lord God would take special care of those who lived up to his demands.
Abraham became so devoted to this idea that years later he was inspired to leave Mesopotamia and start a new nation whose people would worship only the Lord God. With his family and tents and flocks, he made his way westward to the land of Canaan. After many setbacks, Abraham died there, content to know that his son Isaac would carry on the family. Isaac prospered and was followed by his son Jacob, whose life was such a struggle that he was honoured with the name Israel, meaning “struggler of god”. Jacob had twelve sons, each of whom founded a tribe and they and all their descendants became known as Israelites. One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, became an important official in the Egyptian court and when a famine in the land of Canaan threatened to wipe out the Hebrews, they all joined Joseph in Egypt.
This was the story told in the Bible and the traditions of the people who honoured Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as their patriarchs, or the founding fathers of their people and religion. Long before the stories were written down, they were passed on from generation to generation and many details were added. Still, the stories kept alive the basic truth of this people’s past. Since at least 3000 B. C., nomadic Semite tribes had been moving out of the Arabian deserts to settle in more prosperous lands. Each tribe was headed by one man, usually the oldest in the tribe, each tribe worshipped many gods, but had one particular god who especially looked after its people. Among these tribes were the Hebrews and about 1650 B. C., the ones known as Israelites seem to have settled in the land of Goshen, in the eastern part of the Nile Delta.
On Egypt’s fertile meadows, the Israelites and their flocks grew in numbers. Not all the Israelites kept up their faith in the Lord God of the patriarchs, but they stayed together as a people and enjoyed their freedom. The new Pharaohs came to the throne and the Israelites were forced into slavery. Instead of tending their flocks, they had to work in the fields or on the Pharaoh’s great building projects. The Israelites were broken in spirit and Abraham’s vision of a nation under the Lord God seemed to be ended.
One day, some of the Israelite slaves were at work when an Egyptian began to beat one of them. as it happened, a man by the name of Moses was passing by at that moment. Although of Hebrew descent, Moses had been raised in the Egyptian court and he had never been sure of his feelings about the Israelites. Now he leaped forward and killed the Egyptian. From that time on, Moses was to live as an Israelite. At first he had to flee Egypt and he spent some time with a Semitic tribe, whose god Yahweh aroused his faith. Moses then returned to Egypt and after many difficulties, led the Israelites out of Egypt.
The Exodus from Egypt
Their plan was to make their way to Canaan, the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. While crossing the Sinai Peninsula, the Israelites became discouraged, but Moses did not lose faith. He led them to Mount Sinai and there they accepted Yahweh, the god he had come to know in exile as their own. Yahweh, Moses assured them, was the Lord God of the Patriarchs and would treasure the Israelites above all people.
In return, however, the Israelites had to enter into an agreement called the covenant. They had to agree to obey certain laws, which later became known as the Ten Commandments. Among them were laws that said the Israelites should worship their Lord God above all other gods; they should not make any idols or worship; they should not take an oath in the name of the Lord God unless they honestly meant it; they should observe the Sabbath as a day of rest; they should honour their parents; they should not kill anyone; they should not steal; they should not lie about their neighbours; and they should not be envious of their neighbours possessions.
Many other people of that time had laws, but there was something quite different about their laws the Israelites were asked to accept. Most laws upto that time were concerned largely with keeping order in society. Furthermore, they were based on the power of rulers, who themselves were above the laws. Now however, for the first time, there were laws that applied to rulers as well as to everyone else. For the first time, too, laws were based on religious ideals. The laws of the Israelites connected men’s relations with all other men to men’s devotion to a god.
The Land of Canaan
Such an idea was new and it was not easy for the Israelites to live up to it. At the same time, they suffered great hardships as they made their way to Canaan. For many years, led by Moses, they wandered in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. During these years their religion began to develop, so that when they finally reached Canaan they were more secure in their faith. Moses himself died just as they were about to reach Canaan.
It was a bad time for the Israelites to be without a leader, for the territory they considered their promised land was already inhabited by many people. It was only a small area, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea – in many ways it was an uninviting land, with barren mountain ridges and hot, dry lowlands. Even so, Semitic tribes had been migrating there for many hundreds of years and they had managed to make a good life for themselves with their farms and flocks.
Chief among the settled people were the Canaanites, who gave their name to the land. They had built up many towns and fortified cities and the Canaanites along the coast, known as Phoenicians, had rich trading ports. There were many other tribes in and around the land of Canaan and some of them were close relatives of the Israelites, but none of them welcomed the new settlers.
Fortunately, the Israelites found a new leader in Joshua, who was not only a student of Moses but a good soldier as well. After they had crossed the Jordan River into Canaan, Joshua led the Israelites to their first victory against the strongly fortified city of Jericho. This gave the Israelites courage and they moved on to conquer other cities and tribes. Many years of fighting, however, lay before them.
As they began to settle on the land, the Israelites became separated and their dream of a nation began to fade. They adopted the ways of the Canaanites, who were much more advanced people and had weapons, tools, metal, pottery and drainage systems. The Canaanites even had a new way of writing, using a few signs to indicate all sounds and the Israelites began to use this script as their alphabet. Some of the Israelites even turned away from Yahweh and worshipped the gods of the Canaanites.
Meanwhile, Joshua had died and no single strong leader came forward to hold the scattered tribes together. New leaders arose in various tribes, however, usually commanding the tribe in its fights with enemies. Because they were all allowed to sit in judgement over people and settle disputed within the tribe, these men were called judges. For many years the Israelites depended on the judges to lead them in their struggle to survive in Canaan.
Their worst enemy was now the Philistines, a non-Semitic people from the eastern Mediterranean who had settled on the coastal plain between Egypt and the Phoenician ports. The disorganized peoples of Canaan were no match for the Philistine warriors, who had iron weapons and disciplined battle tactics. One of the tribal judges, Samson, had some success against them, but he was captured and killed. The Philistines came to control so much of the land of Canaan that it was known as Palestine.
The Israelites were desperate for a leader. They thought of using Samuel, a wise man respected by all the people but he could not lead them into battle. Samuel said, rather, that they must give up worshipping the Canaanite gods and renew their faith in Yahweh, the Lord God of the patriarchs. Samuel’s teachings brought some unity to the Israelites, but they still insisted they needed a stronger ruler. Just then, as it happened, a brave farmer named Saul led his tribe to victory over some neighbouring raiders. This was what the Israelites needed to revive their courage and they appointed Saul king over all their tribes. At last the Israelites felt they were on their way to becoming a nation.
Using guerrilla tactics, Saul led the fight against the Philistines. As the Philistines began to retreat, the Israelites rallied around Saul and yet they were not completely satisfied with him. He was a rough, simple man, who held his council meetings under a tree in the fields. As soon as he won more victories, he became proud. He was a moody man, too, unpredictable in his actions and the Israelites began to wonder if they had made the right choice.
The Glory of Solomon
One of Saul’s attendants in camp at the time was a young man named David. David was a handsome, gracious youth and after proving himself in battle against the Philistines he became popular with all the Israelites. Saul was so crazed with jealousy that David had to flee and live with the people in the distant hills. After Saul died, David became known as a warrior and in time, all the tribes recognized him as king. David came from the tribe of Judah, whose members were called Jews. They became so powerful that later all the Israelites were known by this name.
David chose Jerusalem as a new capital and there he built great walls and a palace. He led his people in driving out the Philistines for the last time and he made the borders safe against neighbouring tribes and foreign powers. He reorganized the priesthood, the army and the civil services and established the Israelites’’ first truly national government.
David himself was an unusual man. He could fight and kill his enemies, yet he was a fine musician and poet. He was often selfish, yet in the end he knew he was bound by the laws of his people and their agreement with the Lord God Yahweh. As he grew older, he became more gentle and humble. His greatest sorrow came when his son Absalom led a revolt against him and was killed in battle. The only satisfaction left for David was to see another son, Solomon, named as heir to the throne.
Solomon was no warrior like his father, nor did he have any of David’s simple ways. Solomon built up the kingdom by trade and diplomacy. He brought peace to his people and became known far beyond the borders of his little kingdom. The Israelites, however, knew that there was another side to Solomon’s glory. It was true that he made his land prosper, but much of the wealth went to satisfy Solomon’s own vanity and ambitions. He strengthened the government, but he did away with many of the traditional rights of the tribes. Although he built a magnificent temple to the Lord God Yahweh in Jerusalem, Solomon himself turned to worshipping foreign idols.
The Israelites felt that Solomon was a wise man but that he lived foolishly. They began to grow restless, objecting to high taxes and to the forced labour of his building projects. The tribes in the north were especially resentful, for they felt no strong attachment to the royal house of Judah. When Solomon died, they demanded certain rights from Solomon’s son. He refused them, and so, about 930 B. C., ten tribes in the north revolted against the Kingdom of Judah and set up their own kingdom of Israel.
Once more the Israelites’ dream of a kingdom under the Lord God Yahweh was shattered. The two kingdoms began to fight their neighbours and each other and the people even fought among themselves. In the northern Kingdom of Israel, there were assassinations and plots to seize the throne. In two centuries, Israel had nineteen kings. At times, Israel seemed to be prospering and often it held power over the kingdom of Judah. This however, was not real power, for the existence of the Kingdom of Israel depended on the truly great powers, such as Egypt and Assyria. By 715 B. C., the Assyrians had completely conquered the Kingdom of Israel. Its ten tribes were led away to be resettled and became lost in the great deserts and cities of Near East. The Kingdom of Judah survived, but only by paying tribute to the Assyrians.
The Babylonian Captivity
During the five centuries the Israelites had been in Canaan, it often seemed that they had forgotten the teachings of Moses. Yet all this time there men who reminded them of their duty to the Lord God Yahweh and to each other. These men were the nebiim, the spokesmen of God – the prophets. These prophets did not try to predict the future. Instead, they criticized the way the Israelites behaved in the present. When the prophets spoke of the future, it was to warn the Israelites that their troubles would continue until they returned to the faith of the patriarchs.
Century after century, the prophets spoke out, never fearing the rich or the mighty. Nahum, Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah – some were educated and respected men, some were plain men of the hills. Whether they spoke with great style or in simple words, with bitterness or with tenderness, the prophets tried to make the Israelites renew their agreement with the Lord God Yahweh. “Let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness kike an ever-flowing stream,” cried one prophet, who also wanted that “the end has come upon my people Israel.” Another said, “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”
Although they never stopped reminding the Israelites of their covenant with the Lord, the prophets carried the idea of the law far beyond anything foreseen by Moses. Indeed, the prophets put forth ideas of justice and responsibility to all men that were beyond anything conceived of by any people of that time. Here again the Israelites were introducing something new, an idea that came to be called social justice. In some of the prophets’ teachings, moreover, the Yahweh of the Israelite tribes became the Lord God of all men. In the centuries to come, men of many faiths would find inspiration in the words of the prophets.
At the time when the prophets spoke out, however, most of the Israelites paid no attention until it was too late. The Babylonians had taken over the Assyrian Empire and in 597 B. C. the dreaded King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captured Jerusalem and took the king and his leading citizens back to Babylon as prisoners. The Jews who remained in the kingdom of Judah later revolted, but the Babylonians returned in 586 B. C. This time Jerusalem was destroyed and many more Jews were led off to Babylon. The Israelites were now scattered all over the Near East. The temple and the nation of Abraham and Moses were in ruins.
To the Jews captive in Babylon, it seemed that the prophets had been right. The Israelites were being punished for breaking their agreement with their Lord God Yahweh. In their despair, they began to revive their old faith and traditional ways. They also started some new practices that were to have great effect on other religions as well as their own.
For one thing, their religion had come to be bound up with the great temple at Jerusalem, with its ceremonies and its powerful priests. In Babylon, where there was no temple, the Israelites gathered in meeting houses to pray and tell stories of their past. Out of this was to come the synagogue and the idea that religious services could be held wherever a congregation of the faithful gathered. Scribes, priests and students collected and wrote down the history, laws and stories on scrolls. From this would grow a respect for learning and for the wise teachers, or rabbis.
Perhaps most important, the Jews in Babylon came to realize that their Lord God Yahweh could exist away from the temple and outside their land. The Lord God in other words, was not restricted to any one place or to any one people. This discovery was the greatest contribution of the ancient Jews to religious thought. Later it would be called monotheism, “the idea of one god.” Monotheism meant more than just worshipping one god. It meant that the Lord God was within all men and above all creation. Beyond this, the Jews believed that the way to serve the Lord God was to serve all their fellow men.
For all its hardships, the Babylonian captivity left the Jews a much stronger people. Their faith was rewarded when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 538 B. C. and gave the Jews their freedom. Not all of them wanted to leave, but a small group set out carrying some of the treasures of the temple their parents had brought with them some forty years before. After a journey of several weeks, they arrived in Jerusalem, only to find ruins and weeds. For many years they could barely survive, but finally they rebuilt their temple. Those who still remembered the great temple of Solomon wept because it was so small and plain, but others saw the temple as the seed of a new Jerusalem.
The kingdom of Judah at this time was less than 200 square miles in area and the small colony of Jews were often defenseless against the many hostile tribes around them. As it happened, a high official at the court of the Persian Emperor was a Jew, Nehemiah. He heard of the Jews’ difficulties and got permission to go to Jerusalem to help them. Soon Nehemiah had the Jews rebuilding the walls and defending themselves and when he saw that they were settled he began to encourage them to live according to the teachings of Moses.
Nehemiah was aided in his reforms by Ezra, a scribe and scholar who had recently arrived from Mesopotamia with a band of Jews sent to colonize the new Kingdom of Judah. Ezra gathered together all the learned men familiar with the history, religion and laws of the Jews. Working under Ezra, they collected the writings and traditions that had been handed down since the time of the patriarchs and Moses. These were written down in five books, the Pentateuch that made up the first five books of the Bible. In a special ceremony, Ezra read them to the people. Now the Jews had their Torah, or law, which they promised to study and live up to.
As the years passed, other sacred writings were added to the first five books. All together, they made up the Torah that kept the Jewish religion and community alive in Palestine. Palestine itself remained a minor province of the Persian Empire until 323 B. C., when Alexander the Great took control of that empire. For the first time, the Jews found themselves facing the world to their west and they became caught up in the conflicts of the Greeks and Romans. New masters appeared in Palestine and the Jews themselves once again became scattered in many lands.
Throughout all this, the Jews kept their respect for the Torah and their faith in the covenant with God. Such beliefs would help the Jews to survive as a people long after the empires of the ancient world had disappeared. Out of their teachings, moreover, were to come two religions, Christianity and Islam, which would have a still further influence on the world.