Hebrew History and People

The ancient Middle East and Mesopotamia was a dynamically multicultural society composed of small, often insignificant kingdoms frequently torn between the forces of mighty empires, from Babylon to Egypt to Greece to Rome. But one of these small kingdoms, for the most part utterly insignificant in the drama of early civilization, became through its religion, philosophy, and law an important culture in Middle Eastern and Western history. Beginning inauspiciously as a closely-knit, war-like group of wandering tribes, this culture enjoyed for a blink of a historical eye an empire, but it soon lapsed into a small and besieged state. Curiously, it was in defeat, dominated over by foreigners whose fathers came from across the Mediterranean sea, that the Hebrews would emerge as a significant progenitor of the culture of the West and Middle East, giving us monotheism, law, and a new history for the west. The journey is an epic one, from dim and unpromising beginnings to empire to the loss of home and dispersion throughout the world, from Hebrew to Israelite to Jew, carrying with them always the promise that the one god would protect and preserve them over all others.


History is filled with enigmas and accidents, of great empires and cultures that last for millennia only to fade into the soil on which they arose, and small and insignificant cultures, mere specks on the world in their time, which profoundly alter the course of human history forever. The Hebrews are in the latter category. The Hebrews, their religion, and their brief state, could easily have faded away from history in the same way their close neighbors did. They all had profound religions, powerful states, and a highly developed civilization. So why have we forgotten them? What happened in history that elevated the Hebrews to such a role in the cultures of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, indeed, of the whole world because of the spread of Christianity and Islam.
The answer lies in a few accidents in history. They begin in utter obscurity as laborers on the Nile delta, remain in obscurity as a loose band of tribal groups scratching out a living in the least hospitable areas of Palestine, emerge for the blink of an eye as a empire, and fall back again under the yoke of foreign domination. However, during that domination by foreign powers, the books of their history are translated into Greek and the unique Hebrew vision of history becomes a permanent fixture of human experience. For not only was the Hebrews one of the first to develop a monotheistic religion, they believed that the one and only one god had especially selected their people to work out his intentions for the world. That vision of God, as singular and as operating purposefully in history to intervene for his people, would form the core of later European and Islamic worldviews.
It's an odd history, filled with brief glories and multiple disappointments, and it begins in the soil of the biblical lands. For no aspect of Hebrew history can be understood without fully appreciating the geographical uniqueness of the ground on which it took place.

The Land

The stage on which Hebrew history takes place is a varied and a troubled place. Hebrew history, as told by the Hebrews, begins in Mesopotamia, in the cities of Ur in the south and Haran in the north. Mesopotamia was a rich agricultural area, fed by irrigation from the two rivers which give it its name: the Tigris and the Euphrates. Powerful city-states, such as Ur, rose up in this fertile area, and these city-states would eventually become the foundation of mighty empires, such as the Akkadian and Amorite empires.
The Hebrews become a nation in another foreign land, Egypt. Rich with the water and soil carried by the Nile River, Egypt grew quickly into a great commercial and military power; the Egyptians created the longest continual culture outside of Asia. Punctuated by periods of decline and even foreign rule, the Egyptians had learned by the New Kingdom to ruthlessly control and subdue the foreign peoples surrounding their country. The Hebrews come into existence during this last powerful burst of power and creativity in Egypt.
Between this period, that is, the origins in Mesopotamia and the creation of the new nation in Egypt, Hebrew history centered around Palestine. This area was the special area of Hebrew history, for it was this area that the Hebrew god promised to his chosen people. In the Hebrew world view, this was their land given to them by the one and only one god, and it was to this land that the Hebrews would migrate to out of Egypt. On this land the various tribes would fight difficult and often losing battles of occupation, set up a kingdom, and then the briefest of empires.
What was this land? Its most salient geographical fact was that it lay between Mesopotamia and Egypt. It was the land bridge that carried all the commercial goods between these two wealthy and powerful areas; it was also the highway on which armies would travel, whether Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, or Roman. More than anything else, this fact of geography determined the course of Hebrew history. Like a moon caught between the massive gravitational forces of two large planets, Palestine was in constant turmoil and under constant threat.
Although the Hebrews called it the "land of milk and honey," Palestine (named after the group that dominated it for much of its early history, the Philistines) was in fact a harsh environment. It appeared to be the land of milk and honey only to a group of people that had been, after all, living in the desert for several generations. The land itself is composed of four geographically self-contained longitudinal strips; the self-containment of these areas always made it difficult throughout history to create a unified state out of the entire area. The richest agricultural areas are along the Mediterranean coast, but this area was dominated fist by Canaanites and then Philistines for a large part of Hebrew history. The Hebrews controlled this area for only a very brief time during the monarchy. Because they could not dislodge these people, the Hebrews settled in the second area, the central hill country, a backbone of mountains running from north to south between the coastal areas and the Jordan River valley. Dry and rocky, the central hills are a very difficult place to live, but the spectacle of Hebrew history mainly takes place in this hill country: Galilee, Samaria, Megiddo, Shechem, Judah, Jerusalem, Hebron, Beer-sheba. To the west of the hills is the Jordan River valley. In Hebrew, the word Jordan means "the descender," for it begins at Mount Hermon in the north at about 200 feet above sea level, and literally plummets to the Sea (actually a lake) of Galilee ten miles south at 700 feet below sea level, and from there another two hundred miles to the Dead or Salt Sea at 1300 feet below sea level (the lowest piece of land on earth and a mightily inhospitable place to live). Along this valley and around the Sea of Galilee are rich farmlands yielding grains and fruit as well as wealthy fishing in the river and the Sea of Galilee. To the west of the Jordan River valley are the Transjordan Highlands (about 1500 feet above sea level). The climate can be harsh, but several rivers allow for rich agriculture. This area was largely occupied by non-Hebrews; in the Transjordan Highlands were the kingdoms of Edom (south), Moab (center), and Ammon (center). For most of its history, these lands were out of Hebrew control.

The Age of the Patriarchs, 1950-1500 BC

For the most part, the people surrounding the Hebrews took little interest in them for much of Hebrew history. The Hebrews themselves don't actually appear in history until the reign of Marniptah, king of Egypt from about 1224-1211 BC. The son of Raamses I (1290-1224 BC), generally taken to be the king of Egypt at the time of the Hebrew exodus, Marniptah undertakes a military campaign in Asia in 1220 BC. In an account of the campaign inscribed in granite, a list of all the conquered peoples includes the Israelites who are mentioned as "now living in Canaan."
Before this point, the only history of the Hebrews we have are written by the Hebrews themselves, in Genesis 12-50. In the Hebrew account of their own history, they trace their origins back to a single individual, Abraham, who comes originally from Mesopotamia. The histories of the pre-Egyptian Hebrews is generally called the age of the patriarchs (patriarch means "father-ruler"); while it is virtually impossible to date this age since a.) the Hebrew history of the age is written down after more than a thousand years had passed and b.) no-one else was interested in the history, scholars place this age roughly between 1950 and 1500 BC.
Several aspects emerge from this history. First, the history of the patriarchs indicates that the special election of the Hebrews, made manifest in the delivery from Egypt, begins before the Egyptian sojourn and delivery. In Hebrew history, Abraham and his descendants are selected by Yahweh to be his chosen people over all other peoples. Abraham, who is a Semite living in Haran, a city in northern Mesopotamia, and whose father, Terah, comes from the city Ur in southern Mesopotamia, is visited suddenly by Yahweh and told to move his family. If Abraham's migration can be dated to around 1950 BC, this means that his migration from Mesopotamia would make sense, since the region was collapsing into chaos. Migrating to the west, Abraham stops at Shechem and is again visited by Yahweh, who then tells him that all this land will be given to him and his descendants. So the election of the Hebrews involves a certain unexplained quality (why pick Abraham) that is partially answered by Abraham's unswerving obedience when Yahweh asks him to sacrifice his son. But more importantly, the foundation of the Hebrew view of history is contained in these patriarchal stories. Yahweh has a special purpose in history and has chosen the Hebrews and the Hebrews alone to fulfill this purpose. In order to fulfill this purpose, Yahweh has entered into a covenantal relationship with the Hebrews and promises to protect them as a lord protects his servants. As servants, then, the principle duty that Abraham and his descendants owe to god is obedience.
The second aspect that emerges is that the early Hebrews are nomads, wandering tribal groups who are organized along classic tribal logic. Society is principally organized around kinship with a rigid kinship hierarchy. The relationship with god is also a kinship relationship: anybody outside the kinship structure (anybody who isn't a descendant of Abraham) is not included in the special relationship with Yahweh. At the top of the kinship hierarchy is a kind of tribal leader; we use the Greek word, "patriarch," which means "father-ruler." Well into the monarchical period and beyond, the Hebrews seem to dynamically remember their tribal character, for Genesis associates civilization with Cain and his descendants (meaning that civilization is not a good thing) and the history of the monarchy is clearly written from an anti-monarchical stance, since it is made clear that desiring a king is disobedience to Yahweh.
The third aspect that emerges is that these tribal groups of early Hebrews wandered far and wide, that is, that they did not occupy the lands around Palestine; this occupation would come considerably later. They seem to freely move from Palestine, across the deserts, and as far as Egypt. At several points in the narrative, Hebrew tribes move to Egypt in order to find a better life. It would not be unfair to imagine that the Hebrews were among the infinite variety of foreigners who overwhelmed Egypt at the end of the Middle Kingdom. Beyond this it is difficult to come to certain conclusions. As far as the religion of the early Hebrews are concerned, it is generally believed that it had nothing to do with the Yahweh cult which is introduced by Moses, for Exodus asserts that Moses is the first to hear the name of god, Yahweh. The Hebrew accounts of the patriarchs generally use the term "El Shaddai" (God Almighty), and other variants. Several religious practices described in Genesis indicate a belief in animistic forces and even, polytheism.
All we know for certain is that by the end of the patriarchal age, several tribes identified with one another as having a common ancestor and a common identity. We don't even know what they called themselves; we haven't successfully figured out where the term "Hebrew" comes from, although the best guess is that it comes from the Egyptian word, "apiru," or "habiru." Several members of these tribes, whatever they called themselves, at some point migrated to Egypt, and Egypt would be the crucible in which would form the people and nation of Israel.

Egypt and the Wanderings, 1500-1250 BC

The Children of Israel in Egypt

However dim and uncertain Hebrew history is in the age of the patriarchs, there is no question that the migration out of Egypt around 1250 BC is the single most important event in Hebrew history. More than anything else in history, this event gave the Hebrews an identity, a nation, a founder, and a name, used for the first time in the very first line of Exodus , the biblical account of the migration: "bene yisrael," "the children of Israel."
How did this happen? How did this diverse set of tribal groups all worshipping a god they called "god," suddenly cohere into a more or less unified national group? What happened in Egypt that didn't happen with other foreigners living there?
Well, we really can't answer that question, for we have almost no account whatsoever of the Hebrews in Egypt, even in Hebrew history. For all the momentousness of the events of the migration for the Hebrews and the dramatic nature of the rescue, including plagues and catastrophes raining down on Egypt, the Egyptians do not seem to have noticed the Hebrews or to even know that they were living in their country. While we have several Egyptian records of foreign groups during the New Kingdom, they are records of actively expelling groups they feel are threatening or overly powerful. The Hebrews never appear in these records, nor do any of the events recounted in the Hebrew history of the event. The Hebrews themselves are only interested in the events directly leading up to the migration; all the events in the centuries preceding are passed over in silence.
We can make some guesses about the Hebrews in Egypt, though. It isn't unreasonable to believe that a sizable Hebrew population lived in the north of Egypt from about 1500-1250 BC; enormous numbers of tribal groups, most of them Semitic, had been settling in northern Egypt from about 1800 BC. These foreigners had grown so powerful that for a short time they dominated Egypt, ruling the Egyptians themselves; this period is called the Third Intermediate Period in Egyptian history. When the Egyptians reasserted dominance over Egypt at the start of the New Kingdom, they actively expelled as many foreigners as they could. Life got fairly harsh for these foreigners, who were called "habiru," which was applied to landless aliens (taken from the word, "apiru," or foreigner). Is this where the Hebrews got their name? Nevertheless, the New Kingdom kings also began to garrison their borders in the north and east in order to prevent foreigners from entering the country in the first place. In particular, the Egyptian king, Seti I (1305-1290), moved his capital to Avaris at the very north of the Nile delta. This move was a shrewd move, for it established a powerful military presence right at the entrance to Egypt.
Garrisoned cities, however, don't pop into existence at a whim; they are labor intensive affairs. Typically, building projects involved heavy taxation of local populations; these taxes took the form of labor taxes. It isn't unreasonable to guess that the heaviest burden of these taxes fell on the foreigners living in the area, which would include the Hebrews. As best as we can guess, we believe that these building projects form the substance of the oppression of the Hebrews described in Exodus.

Moses and the Yahweh Cult

Nothing, however, should have prevented these oppressed and miserable foreigners from spilling into the anonymity of history—as so many had done before and since. One figure, however, changed the course of this history and united some of these foreigners into a distinct people; he also gave them a religion and a theology that would forever unite them in a singular purpose in history. That person was Moses. In spite of the masterful portrayal of him in Exodus , he is a difficult figure to pin down. Few people dispute that Moses was a reality in history, whether as an individual or a group of individuals, but there are several perplexing aspects of the man. First, he has an Egyptian name (as do many of his relatives). Second, he seems to spend a large amount of time among a non-Hebrew people, the Midianites, where he marries and seems to learn the Yahweh religion, and some of its cultic practices, from the Midianites. Are there two Moses, an Egyptian and a Hebrew? Or an Egyptian and a Midianite? And are the Midianites the first peoples to worship Yahweh and who then transmit this religion to the Hebrews? The question is complicated by the presence of Miriam, Moses' sister, in the migration. For she is the first individual in the Hebrew bible to be called a "prophet," and seems to have been an important player in the migration, possibly even being the principle figure in the climactic battle between the Egyptians and the Hebrews at the Sea of Reeds. At some point, however, there was a falling out between Miriam and Moses, and Miriam gets lost to history.
It is equally difficult to pinpoint exactly who participated in the migration. Although the focus is on the Hebrews, Exodus claims that a "diverse group of peoples" left Egypt with Moses. Who were these? Did they include other Semites? Was the migration to Egypt a staggered affair, or was it a single, heroic migration as indicated in Exodus? What resistance did the Egyptians put up? What was the nature of their battle with the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds? The account of this battle is vitally important to Hebrew history, for the deliverance of the Hebrews at the Sea of Reeds stands as the single most powerful symbol of Yahweh's protection of the Hebrews. Exodus gives two accounts; in the first, Yahweh blows the water away to create a ford, and the Egyptians get stuck in the mud and go home. In the second, Yahweh separates the waters and drowns the Egyptians when they try to cross. Which is the correct account?
It's difficult to answer any of these questions. In the end, the only account we have of the migration from Egypt is the Hebrew account. Several salient aspects give this narrative its foundational role in the Hebrew view of history. First, Moses is especially chosen by Yahweh to deliver Yahweh's people. In other words, Yahweh directly intervenes in history in order to bring about his purposes for his people. Second, the people of Yahweh become a national entity, identified by the name, "bene yisrael," rather than simply being a diverse group of tribes. They are united around a specific leader, Moses. Third, the events in Egypt, including the plagues and the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds when pursued by the king's army, are meant to serve as the primary proof of God's election of the Hebrews. There's no question that these stories were told and retold among the Hebrews as the most important events of their history. For in the events leading up to and involving the migration from Egypt, Yahweh proved once and for all that he would use and protect the Hebrews as the people, and the only people, selected by Yahweh. Third, Hebrew religion became the Yahweh religion. The Hebrews did not worship "Yahweh" before the migration, but learned the cult, according to Exodus , from Moses during the migration.
This introduction to Yahweh and the Yahweh cult occured in the southernmost region of the Arabian Peninsula, in an area around Mount Sinai. This area had been occupied by a nomadic, tribal people called Midianites. They seem to have worshipped a kind of nature god which they believed lived on Mount Sinai. It is here, living with a priest of the Midianites, called Jethro, that Moses first encounters Yahweh (on Mount Sinai) and learns his name for the first time. The name of god, which in Hebrew is spelled YHWH, is difficult to explain. Scholars generally believe that it derives from the Semitic word, "to be," and so means something like, "he causes to be." Nevertheless, when Moses returns to Sinai with the people of Israel and stays in the area (this period is called the Sinai pericope), Jethro declares that he has always known Yahweh to be the most powerful of all gods (was the Midianite religion, then, a religion of Yahweh?). During the Sinai pericope, all the laws and cultic practices of the new Yahweh religion are set down. The laws themselves come directly from Yahweh in the Decalogue, or "ten commandments." The Decalogue is a unique part of the Hebrew Torah in that it is the only part of Hebrew scriptures which claims to be the words of god written down on the spot .
Whatever happened in the migration from Egypt to Canaan, it is clear that somewhere in this period the general laws and cultic practices of the Hebrews settled down into a definite form. These laws and this new cult of Yahweh would form the eternal character of the Hebrews down to the present day. What began as a "diverse group of peoples" has become one people, who then systematically begin to settle the land of the Canaanites.

The Occupation of Canaan, 1250-1050 BC

When the Hebrews arrive at Canaan, the land promised to them millennia earlier when God told Abraham at Shechem that the land would belong to his descendants, they begin the long, painful, and disappointing process of setting the land. There were, after all, people already living there. These people, the Canaanites, were a Semitic people speaking a language remarkably close to Hebrew. They were farmers, some were nomads, but they were also civilized. They used the great Mesopotamian cities as their model and had built modest imitations of them. They had also learned military technology and tactics from the Mesopotamians, as well as law. So the Hebrews, uncivilized, tribal, and nomadic, found themselves facing a formidable enemy. Even the accounts of this period in the Hebrew bible, the books of Joshua and Judges paint a pretty dreary picture of the occupation.
After a few spectacular victories and some impressive territorial gains along the coastal plains, the Hebrews are eventually driven out of these areas and settle in the central hill country and a few places in the Jordan River valley. While they held their own against the Canaanites, a new player had arrived on the scene. These people, the Philistines, had rushed down from the north and overwhelmed everyone in their path. They had chariots and iron weapons and few could stand against these new technologies.
So the Hebrews found themselves living in the worst areas of Canaan, spread thinly across the entire region. The balance of power constantly shifted as local kingdoms would grab and then lose territory, and the Hebrews would find themselves first under one and then another master.

The Judges and the Deliverers

All during this period, the Hebrews rarely if ever organized into a single group. They were divided, rather, into separate tribes which administered themselves using tribal logic. There was no center of Yahweh worship (as there would be in later years), and no central government. There are, however, two types of figures that regularly dominate the landscape: the judges and the deliverers.
The judges are a curious sort and we're not sure what the office involved. What we do know is that they exercised some authority over all the tribes of Israel and were generally recognized by all the tribes. While the translation of the term, "judges," seems to imply judicial activities, that is, deciding disputes between tribes, the word in Hebrew, "shopetim" (-im is the plural), implies legislative duties as well. So its possible that these "judges" exercised some kind of legislative and judicial control over matters involving all the tribes of Israel. Unlike the patriarchal age in which the "father" was the ruler, "judges" weren't gender specific. The most important "judge" of this period is, in fact, a woman: Deborah.
The deliverers (in Hebrew, "moshia") were specifically military commanders. They organized intertribal armies and led them into battle against foreigners: Philistines, Canaanites, Moabites, Ammonites, etc. They arose in times of the greatest oppression of the Hebrews and, in the Hebrew account of them, specifically elected by Yahweh to free the Hebrews from oppression. Most of the names are familiar: Gideon, Samson, etc.
The Hebrews themselves, however, do not seem to have settled comfortably into the Yahweh religion. According to Hebrew history, the Hebrews regularly abandon the Yahweh religion for local cults, particularly Canaanite cults. The Canaanite religion focussed on the god Baal, and the Hebrews frequently disassemble their Yahweh altars and build Baal altars. Those Hebrews that settle in the Canaanite cities literally disappear into the Canaanite religion; the Yahweh religion seems to have been largely maintained among the nomadic groups in the hill country.
Uncertain of their future, wracked by constant warfare and even civil war, and barely holding on to their Yahweh religion, the Hebrews would eventually long for the identity and stability of a unified nation and a monarchy. This act of disobedience towards Yahweh (according to the Hebrew account) would turn this scattered group of tribes into a briefly glorious kingdom and empire.

The Monarchy, 1050-920 BC

After two hundred years of only marginal success in occupying and holding lands in Palestine, the Hebrews united to form a single state under a single monarch. During the early centuries in Palestine, the Hebrews were ruled loosely by "judges," who seemed to exercise a limited amount of judicial, legislative, and even military control over the otherwise independent Hebrew tribes. At times, various "deliverers" would lead some or all of the tribes against non-Hebrew oppressors or aggressors, and then fade again into history. Still, the tribes faced down the constant threat of invasion and oppression, and they still had not even remained firm in their Yahweh religion.


The Hebrews, however, began to desire more permanent solutions to their political and military troubles. Looking to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian models of monarchy, particularly among their neighbors the Canaanites, Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites, the Hebrew tribes began agitating for a king. As recounted in the I Samuel and II Samuel, the Hebrews approached Samuel, the "judge" of Israel, and demanded a king. The account makes clear that both Samuel and Yahweh considered the desire for a king to be an act of disobedience towards Yahweh; the Hebrew people, according to Samuel, would greatly suffer for this disobedience. However, Yahweh, as happened with Moses and all other deliverers in Hebrew history, selected a king for the Hebrews and Samuel formerly anointed this new king with oil to symbolize his election as monarch. This was Saul; according to Hebrew history, he was chosen by popular acclaim by the Hebrew people (which seems likely among a group without a king). He was chosen for his height and his good looks, but soon proved to be ineffectual. Saul was not, however, a standard Near Eastern king; he seems to have been largely a military leader. There are no accounts of him exercising monarchical power outside of military exploits. The Hebrews, after all, were still tribal people, so the transition to a monarchy must have been slow.
Saul was certainly not a wealthy monarch; the accounts of his kingship imply that he was no wealthier than any tribal leader. The Hebrew history of Saul, however, emphasizes his disobedience; because he repeatedly fails to carry out Yahweh's instructions as spoken by Samuel, Yahweh immediately chooses another king, David. Saul ruled as king only two years. While it's hard to assess Saul's monarchy, one very important pattern emerges. It's clear that the monarchy is viewed as a negative development in Hebrew history—this is amazing considering that the account is written after centuries of Israelite and Jewish monarchs. In the Hebrew view of history, it represents the Hebrew refusal to be ruled by Yahweh in favor of a human ruler. In the history of the settlement of Canaan, the book of Judges , when Gideon is offered the monarchy, he replies, "You have no king but Yahweh." So the institution of the monarchy creates a new conflict: the conflict between Yahweh and the Hebrew monarchs. This conflict first rears its head in the relationship of Samuel, as judge of Israel, and Saul, as king of Israel. Samuel speaks the words of Yahweh; Saul disobeys them. This conflict would form the basis of a massive change in the nature of Hebrew religion, the "prophetic revolution," which is played out against the backdrop of the incongruence between rule by Yahweh and rule by a king. The most far-reaching, however, of the innovations of the monarchy was the centralization of government in Jerusalem, which had been unimportant up until that point. Under Solomon, Jerusalem would become the cultic center of the Yahweh religion; sacrifice to Yahweh would now only be possible in Jerusalem's temple and no-where else.


The most difficult king to assess in the Hebrew monarchy is the second one, David. Before Saul has even become king, Yahweh chooses another candidate on account of Saul's disobedience. He is a young and beautiful adolescent who becomes wildly popular in the court of Saul. Deeply suspicious, Saul at several times tries to kill the young David, but the youth flees into the hills. When Saul kills himself, David returns and becomes king. The account of his kingship, however, is deeply ambivalent. While David is clearly a hero during the reign of Saul, his character gradually changes as king, until he commits a crime greater than any Saul had committed: he murders a man in order to marry his wife.
While the Hebrew judgement of David seems to be ambivalent, his accomplishments in his forty-year reign are undeniable. After centuries of losing conflict, the Hebrews finally defeat the Philistines unambiguously under the brilliant military leadership of David. His military campaigns transform the new Hebrew kingdom into a Hebrew empire. An empire is a state that rules several more or less independent states. These independent states never fully integrate themselves into the larger state, but under the threat of military retaliation send tribute and labor to the king of the empire.
Most importantly, David unites the tribes of Israel under an absolute monarchy. This monarchical government involved more than just military campaigns, but also included non-military affairs: building, legislation, judiciaries, etc. He also built up Jerusalem to look more like the capitals of other kings: rich, large, and opulently decorated. Centralized government, a standing army, and a wealthy capital do not come free; the Hebrews found themselves for the first time since the Egyptian period groaning under heavy taxes and the beginnings of forced labor.


It is the third and last king of a united Hebrew state, however, that turned the Hebrew monarchy into something comparable to the opulent monarchies of the Middle East and Egypt. The Hebrew account portrays a wise and shrewd king, the best of all the kings of Israel. The portrait, however, isn't completely positive and some troubling aspects emerge.
What emerges from the portrait of Solomon is that he desired to be a king along the model of Mesopotamian kings. He built a fabulously wealthy capital in Jerusalem with a magnificent palace and an enormous temple attached to that palace (this would become the temple of Jerusalem). He took 700 wives and over 300 concubines, most of whom were non-Hebrew (in the book of Judges , Yahweh forbids all male Hebrews to marry non-Hebrews). All of this building and wealth involved imported products: gold, copper, and cedar, which were unavailable in Israel. So Solomon taxed his people heavily, and what he couldn't pay for in taxes, he paid for in land and people. He gave twenty towns to foreign powers, and he paid Pheonicia in slave labor: every three months, 30,000 Hebrews had to perform slave labor for the King of Tyre. This, it would seem, is what Samuel meant when he said the people would pay dearly for having a king.
While the author of II Samuel, the biblical account of Solomon's reign, portrays Solomon as a good king it's clear from the account that the Hebrews living under him did not think so. Groaning under the oppression of Solomon, the Hebrews became passionately discontent, so that upon Solomon's death (around 926 to 922 BC) the ten northern tribes revolted. Unwilling to be ruled by Solomon's son, Rehoboam, these tribes successfully seceded and established their own kingdom. The great empire of David and Solomon was gone never to be seen again; in its place were two mighty kingdoms which lost all the territory of David's once proud empire within one hundred years of Solomon's passing.

The Two Kingdoms, 920-597 BC

The experiment with the opulence and power of the great eastern kingdoms had ended in disaster for Israel. Solomon created the wealthiest and most powerful central government the Hebrews would ever see, but he did so at an impossibly high cost. Land was given away to pay for his extravagances, and people were sent into forced labor into Tyre in the north. When Solomon died (between 926-922 BC), the ten northern tribes refused to submit to his son, Rehoboam, and revolted. From this point on, there would be two kingdoms of Hebrews: in the north, Israel, and in the south, Judah. The Israelites formed their capital in the city of Samaria, and the Judaeans kept their capital in Jerusalem. These kingdoms remained separate states for over two hundred years.
Their history is a litany of ineffective, disobedient, and corrupt kings. When the Hebrews had first asked for a king, in the book of Judges , they were told that only Yahweh was their king. When they approached Samuel, he told them the desire for a king was an act of disobedience. They would pay dearly if they established a monarchy. The history told in the Hebrew books, I and II Kings, bears out Samuel's warning. The Hebrew empire soon collapses; Moab soon successfully revolts against Judah, and Ammon successfully secedes from Israel. Within a century of Solomon's death, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are tiny little states, each no bigger than Connecticut, on the larger map of the Middle East.
The bad news, of course, is that tiny states never survived in that region. Located directly between the Mesopotamian kingdoms in the northeast and the powerful state of Egypt in the southwest, Israel and Judah were of the utmost commercial and military importance to all these warring powers. Being small and weak was a liability, and Israel was the first to learn this lesson.

The Conquest of Israel

In 722 BC, the Assyrians conquered Israel. The Assyrians were aggressive and effective; the history of their dominance over the Middle East is a history of constant warfare. In order to assure that conquered territories would remain pacified, the Assyrians would force many of the native inhabitants to relocate to other parts of their empire. They almost always chose the upper and more powerful classes, for they had no reason to fear the general mass of a population. They would then send Assyrians to relocate in the conquered territory.
When they conquered Israel, they forced the ten tribes to scatter throughout their empire. For all practical purposes, you might consider this a proto-Diaspora ("diaspora"="scattering"), except that these Israelites disappear from history permanently; they are called "the ten lost tribes of Israel." Why this happened is difficult to assess. The Assyrians did not settle the Israelites in one place, but scattered them in small populations all over the Middle East. When the Babylonians later conquered Judah, they, too, relocate a massive amount of the population. However, they move that population to a single location so that the Jews can set up a separate community and still retain their religion and identity. The Israelites deported by the Assyrians, however, do not live in separate communities and soon drop their Yahweh religion and their Hebrew names and identities.

The Samaritans

One other consequence of the Assyrian invasion of Israel involved the settling of Israel by Assyrians. This group settled in the capital of Israel, Samaria, and they took with them Assyrian gods and cultic practices. But the people of the Middle East were above everything else highly superstitious. Even the Hebrews didn't necessarily deny the existence or power of other peoples' gods—just in case.
Conquering peoples constantly feared that the local gods would wreak vengeance on them. Therefore, they would adopt the local god or gods into their religion and cultic practices. Within a short time, the Assyrians in Samaria were worshipping Yahweh as well as their own gods; within a couple centuries, they would be worshipping Yahweh exclusively. Thus was formed the only major schism in the Yahweh religion: the schism between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans, who were Assyrian and therefore non-Hebrew, adopted almost all of the Hebrew Torah and cultic practices; unlike the Jews, however, they believed that they could sacrifice to God outside of the temple in Jerusalem. The Jews frowned on the Samaritans, denying that a non-Hebrew had any right to be included among the chosen people and angered that the Samaritans would dare to sacrifice to Yahweh outside of Jerusalem. The Samaritan schism played a major role in the rhetoric of Jesus of Nazareth; and there are still Samaritans alive today around the city of Samaria.

The Conquest of Judah

"There but for the grace of god go I." Certainly, the conquest of Israel scared the people and monarchs of Judah. They barely escaped the Assyrian menace, but Judah would be conquered by the Chaldeans about a century later. In 701, the Assyrian Sennacherib would gain territory from Judah, and the Jews would have suffered the same fate as the Israelites. But by 625 BC, the Babylonians, under Nabopolassar, would reassert control over Mesopotamia, and the Jewish king Josiah aggressively sought to extend his territory in the power vacuum that resulted. But Judah soon fell victim to the power struggles between Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians. When Josiah's son, Jehoahaz, became king, the king of Egypt, Necho (put into power by the Assyrians), rushed into Judah and deposed him, and Judah became a tribute state of Egypt. When the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians in 605 BC, then Judah became a tribute state to Babylon. But when the Babylonians suffered a defeat in 601 BC, the king of Judah, Jehoiakim, defected to the Egyptians. So the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, raised an expedition to punish Judah in 597 BC. The new king of Judah, Jehoiachin, handed the city of Jerusalem over to Nebuchadnezzar, who then appointed a new king over Judah, Zedekiah. In line with Mesopotamian practice, Nebuchadnezzar deported around 10,000 Jews to his capital in Babylon; all the deportees were drawn from professionals, the wealthy, and craftsmen. Ordinary people were allowed to stay in Judah. This deportation was the beginning of the Exile.
The story should have ended there. However, Zedekiah defected from the Babylonians one more time. Nebuchadnezzar responded with another expedition in 588 and conquered Jerusalem in 586. Nebuchadnezzar caught Zedekiah and forced him to watch the murder of his sons; then he blinded him and deported him to Babylon. Again, Nebuchadnezzr deported the prominent citizens, but the number was far smaller than in 597: somewhere between 832 and 1577 people were deported.
The Hebrew kingdom, started with such promise and glory by David, was now at an end. It would never appear again, except for a brief time in the second century BC, and to the Jews forced to relocate and the Jews left to scratch out a living in their once proud kingdom, it seemed as if no Jewish nation would ever exist again. It also seemed as if the special bond that Yahweh had promised to the Hebrews, the covenant that the Hebrews would serve a special place in history, had been broken and forgotten by their god. This period of confusion and despair, a community together but homeless in the streets of Babylon, makes up one of the most significant historical periods in Jewish history: the Exile.

Exile, 597-538 BC

The Chaldeans, following standard Mesopotamian practice, deported the Jews after they had conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC. The deportations were large, but certainly didn't involve the entire nation. Somewhere around 10,000 people were forced to relocate to the city of Babylon, the capital of the Chaldean empire. In 586 BC, Judah itself ceased to be an independent kingdom, and the earlier deportees found themselves without a homeland, without a state, and without a nation. This period, which actually begins in 597 but is traditionally dated at 586, is called the Exile in Jewish history; it ends with an accident in 538 when the Persians overthrow the Chaldeans.
Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Chaldeans, only deported the most prominent citizens of Judah: professionals, priests, craftsmen, and the wealthy. The "people of the land" (am-hares ) were allowed to stay. So Jewish history, then, has two poles during the exile: the Jew in Babylon and the Jews who remain in Judah. We know almost nothing of the Jews in Judah after 586. Judah seems to have been wracked by famine, according the biblical book, Lamentations , which was written in Jerusalem during the exile. The entire situation seemed to be one of infinite despair. Some people were better off; when Nebuchadnezzar deported the wealthy citizens, he redistributed the land among the poor. So some people were better off. In addition, there were rivalries between the two groups of Jews. It is clear that the wealthy and professional Jews in Babylon regarded themselves as the true Jewish people.
The salient feature of the exile, however, was that the Jews were settled in a single place by Nebuchadnezzar. While the Assyrian deportation of Israelites in 722 BC resulted in the complete disappearance of the Israelites, the deported Jews formed their own community in Babylon and retained their religion, practices, and philosophies. Some, it would seem, adopted the Chaldean religion (for they name their offspring after Chaldean gods), but for the most part, the community remained united in its common faith in Yahweh.
They called themselves the "gola," ("exiles"), or the "bene gola" ("the children of the exiles"), and within the crucible of despair and hopelessness, they forged a new national identity and a new religion. The exile was unexplainable; Hebrew history was built on the promise of Yahweh to protect the Hebrews and use them for his purposes in human history. Their defeat and the loss of the land promised to them by Yahweh seemed to imply that their faith in this promise was misplaced. This crisis, a form of cognitive dissonance (when your view of reality and reality itself do not match one another), can precipitate the most profound despair or the most profound reworking of a world view. For the Jews in Babylon, it did both.
From texts such as Lamentations , which was probably written in Jerusalem, and Job , written after the exile, as well as many of the Psalms , Hebrew literature takes on a despairing quality. The subject of Job is human suffering itself. Undeserving of suffering, Job, an upright man, is made to suffer the worst series of calamities possible because of an arbitrary test. When he finally despairs that there is no cosmic justice, the only answer he receives is that humans shouldn't question God's will. Many of the psalms written in this period betray an equal hopelessness.
But the Jews in Babylon also creatively remade themselves and their worldview. In particular, they blamed the disaster of the Exile on their own impurity. They had betrayed Yahweh and allowed the Mosaic laws and cultic practices to become corrupt; the Babylonian Exile was proof of Yahweh's displeasure. During this period, Jewish leaders no longer spoke about a theology of judgement, but a theology of salvation. In texts such as Ezekiel and Isaiah , there is talk that the Israelites would be gathered together once more, their society and religion purified, and the unified Davidic kingdom be re-established.
So this period is marked by a resurgence in Jewish tradition, as the exiles looked back to their Mosaic origins in an effort to revive their original religion. It is most likely that the Torah took its final shape during this period or shortly afterward, and that it became the central text of the Jewish faith at this time as well. This fervent revival of religious tradition was aided by another accident in history: when Cyrus the Persian conquered Mesopotamia, he allowed the Jews to return home. This was no ordinary event, though. Cyrus sent them home specifically to worship Yahweh—what was once only a kingdom would become a nation of Yahweh.

After the Exile, 538-332 BC

When Cyrus the Persian conquered Mesopotamia and the whole of the Middle East, he did so for religious reasons. Unlike any conqueror before him, Cyrus set out to conquer the entire world. Before Cyrus and the Persians, conquest was largely a strategic affair; you guaranteed your territorial safety by conquering potential enemies. But Cyrus wanted the whole world and he wanted it for religious reasons. Barely a century before, the Persians were a rag-tag group of tribes living north of Mesopotamia. They were Indo-European—they spoke a language from the Indo-European family, which includes Greek, German, and English. To the Mesopotamians, they were little better than animals and so went largely ignored. But in the middle of the seventh century BC, a prophet, Zarathustra, appeared among them and preached a new religion. This religion would become Zoroastrianism (in Greek, Zarathustra is called "Zoroaster"). The Zoroastrians believed that the universe was dualistic, that it was made up of two distinct parts. One was good and light and the other evil and dark. Cosmic history was simply the epic battle between these two divine forces; at the end of time, a climactic battle would decide once and for all which of the two would dominate the universe. Human beings, in everything they do, participated in this struggle; all the gods and all the religions were part of this epic, almost eternal battle.
Cyrus believed that the final battle was approaching, and that Persia would bring about the triumph of good. To this end, he sought to conquer all peoples and create the stage for the final triumph of good. He was the greatest conqueror that had ever been seen; at his death, his empire was exponentially larger than any other empire that had ever existed. His son, Cambyses, conquered Egypt; the Persians, it seemed at the time, were on their way to world domination.
Although Zoroastrianism involved two gods—one good and one evil—all other gods were ranged on one side or the other of this equation. Cyrus believed Yahweh was one of the good gods, and he claimed that Yahweh visited him one night. In that vision, Yahweh commanded him to re-establish Yahweh worship in Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. Cyrus ordered the temple rebuilt. But what good is a temple without worshippers? To this end, he ordered that the Jews in Babylon return to Jerusalem. In fact, Cyrus sent many people back to the native lands in order to worship the local gods there, so the situation with the Jews was not unique. Not all of the Jews went home; a large portion stayed in Babylon and some had converted to Babylonian religions.

The Rebuilding of the Temple

The salient feature to keep in mind, however, is that Cyrus sent the Jews home for religious purposes only. Judah was re-established only so Yahweh could be worshipped, and the Jews were sent to Judah for the express purpose of worshiping Yahweh. Before the Exile, Judah and Israel were merely kingdoms; now Judah was a theological state . The shining symbol of this new state dedicated to Yahweh was the temple of Solomon, which had been burned to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. Under the direction of Zerubabbel and later Ezra, the temple is rebuilt and the walls of the city rebuilt by Nehemiah. The rebuilding of the temple was difficult; very few Jews actually returned home, so the effort was monumental.
During the Exile, the Jews set about "purifying" their religion; they attempted to return their laws and cultic practices to their Mosaic originals. This new-found concern with cultic purity and the Mosaic laws, combined with the re-establishment of Judah as a theological state, produced a different society. Hebrew society was almost solely concerned with religious matters in the Persian period; foreign religions were not tolerated as they had been before. Non-Jews were persecuted, and foreign religious expelled. During the Persian period and later, Judah was the state where Yahweh and only Yahweh was worshipped. Both the Persians and the Greeks respected this exclusivity, but the Romans would greatly offend the Jews when they introduced foreign gods.
The Jews had learned many things from the Persians and actively included Persian elements in their religion. It's important to note that this occurred side by side with the effort to purify the religion! Most of these elements were popular elements rather than official beliefs; they would persist only in Christianity which arose among the people rather than the educated and priestly classes. Among these were:

  • adoption of a dualistic universe. In early Hebrew belief, the universe was dominated only by Yahweh. All history was the result of two forces: Yahweh and human will. Perhaps in an effort to make sense of the Exile, the Hebrews gradually adopted the Persian idea that the universe is composed of two diametrically opposed forces, one good, and the other evil. So, after the Babylonian exile, the Hebrews, in their popular religion, talk about an evil force opposed to Yahweh, which becomes the "devil" in Christianity. (Satan in the Hebrew story, Job, is actually a member of Yahweh's circle; he seems to be some kind of itinerant prosecuting attorney.)
  • belief in a dualistic afterlife. Before the Exile, the Hebrews believed that the soul after death went to a house of dust which they called "Sheol," to abide for a brief time before fading completely from existence. This belief was identical to all other Semitic versions of the afterlife. Therefore, Hebraism was primarily a this-world religion before the Exile. The Persians, though, believed that the souls of the good would reunite with the principle of good in eternal bliss; the souls of the evil would reunite with the principle evil to suffer until the final defeat of evil. In popular religion, the Hebrews adopted this view of the afterlife. This view of the afterlife powerfully explains suffering in this life, such as the Exile; cosmic justice is apparent only at one's death rather than during one's life. Again, it is only in the popular Jewish religions, such as the Essenes and the Christians, where this view becomes orthodox.
    For another two hundred years, Persia dominated all of the Middle East and Egypt, and came within a hair's breadth of conquering Greece. During all this time Palestine was a tribute state of Persia. However, in the late fourth century BC, another man got the idea of conquering the world and set about doing it with ruthless efficiency. He was a Greek: Alexander of Macedon. When he conquered Persia in 332 BC, Palestine became a Greek state, and the children of Yavan would mix once again with the children of Shem.
Yavan in the House of Shem: Greeks and Jews 332-63 BC

In the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.1-32, which lists the descendants of Noah and the nations they founded, the Greeks appear under the name "Yavan," who is a son of Yaphet. Yavan is parallel with the Greek word, "Ionia," the Greek region of Asia Minor; "Yaphet" is parallel with the Greek word, "Iapetus," who is the mythological father of Prometheus in Greek legend. Two other Greek nations appear in the table: Rhodes (Rodanim) and Cyprus (Kittim and Elishah). The sons of Shem, brother to Yaphet, are the Semitic (named after Shem) nations, including the Hebrews. Imagine, if you will, the Hebrew vision of history. At some point, in the dim recesses of time, after the world had been destroyed by flood, the nations of the earth were all contained in the three sons of Noah. Their sons and grandsons all knew one another, spoke the same language, ate the same meals, worshipped the same god. How odd and unmeasurably strange it must have been, then, when after an infinite multitude of generations and millenia of separation, the descendants of Yavan moved among the descendants of Shem!
They came unexpectedly. After two centuries of serving as a vassal state to Persia, Judah suddenly found itself the vassal state of Macedonia, a Greek state. Alexander the Great had conquered Persia and had, in doing so, conquered most of the world. For most of the world belonged to Persia; in a blink of an eye, it now fell to the Greeks.
This great Greek empire would last no longer than Alexander's brief life; after his death, altercations between his generals led to the division of his empire among three generals. One general, Antigonus and then later Ptolemy, inherited Egypt; another, Seleucus, inherited the Middle East and Mesopotamia. After two centuries of peace under the Persians, the Hebrew state found itself once more caught in the middle of power struggles between two great empires: the Seleucid state with its capital in Syria to the north and the Ptolemaic state, with its capital in Egypt to the south. Once more, Judah would be conquered first by one, and then by the other, as it shifted from being a Seleucid vassal state to a Ptolemaic vassal state. Between 319 and 302 BC, Jerusalem changed hands seven times.
Like all others in the region, the Jews bitterly resented the Greeks. They were more foreign than any group they had ever seen. In a state founded on maintaining the purity of the Hebrew religion, the gods of the Greeks seemed wildly offensive. In a society rigidly opposed to the exposure of the body, the Greek practice of wrestling in the nude and deliberately dressing light must have been appalling! In a religion that specifically singles out homosexuality as a crime against Yahweh, the Greek attitude and even preference for homosexuality must have been incomprehensible.
In general, though, the Greeks left the Jews alone; adopting Cyrus's policy, they allowed the Jews to run their own country, declared that the law of Judah was the Torah, and attempted to preserve Jewish religion. When the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, desecrated the Temple in 168 BC, he touched off a Jewish revolt under the Maccabees; for a brief time, Judah became an independent state again.
During this period, Jewish history takes place in several areas: in Judah, in Mesopotamia and other parts of the Middle East, and Egypt. For the dispersion of the Jews had begun during the Exile, and large, powerful groups of Jews lived all throughout the Persian empire and later the Hellenistic kingdoms ("Hellenistic"="Greek"). The Greeks brought with them a brand new concept: the "polis," or "city-state." Among the revolutionary ideas of the polis was the idea of naturalization . In the ancient world, it was not possible to become a citizen of a state if you weren't born in that state. If you were born in Israel, and you moved to Tyre, or Babylon, or Egypt, you were always an Israelite. Your legal status in the country you're living in would be "foreigner" or "sojourner." The Greeks, however, would allow foreigners to become citizens in the polis ; it became possible all throughout the Middle East for Hebrews and others to become citizens of states other than Judah. This is vital for understanding the Jewish dispersion; for the rights of citizenship (or near-citizenship, called polituemata ), allowed Jews to remain outside of Judaea and still thrive. In many foreign cities throughout the Hellenistic world, the Jews formed unified and solid communities; Jewish women enjoyed more rights and autonomy in these communities rather than at home.
The most important event of the Hellenistic period, though, is the translation of the Torah into Greek in Ptolemaic Egypt. The Greeks, in fact, were somewhat interested (not much) in the Jewish religion, but it seems that they wanted a copy of the Jewish scriptures for the library at Alexandria. During the Exile, the Exiles began to purify their religion and practices and turned to the Mosaic books as their model. After the Exile, the Torah became the authoritative code of the Jews, recognized first by Persia and later by the Greeks as the Hebrew "law." In 458 BC, Artaxerxes I of Persia made the Torah the "law of the Judaean king."
So the Greeks wanted a copy and set about translating it. Called the Septuagint after the number of translators it required ("septuaginta" is Greek for "seventy"), the text is far from perfect. The Hebrew Torah had not settled down into a definitive version, and a number of mistranslations creep in for reasons ranging from political expediency to confusion. For instance, the Hebrew Torah is ruthlessly anti-Egyptian; after all, the founding event of the Hebrew people was the oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians and the delivery from Egypt. The Septuagint translators—who are, after all, working for the Greek rulers of Egypt—go about effacing much of the anti-Egyptian aspects. On the other hand, there are words they can't translate into Greek, such as "berit," which they translate "diatheke," or "promise" (in Latin and English, the word is incorrectly translated "covenant").
Despite these imperfections, the Septuagint is a watershed in Jewish history. More than any other event in Jewish history, this translation would make the Hebrew religion into a world religion. It would otherwise have faded from memory like the infinity of Semitic religions that have been lost to us. This Greek version made the Hebrew scriptures available to the Mediterranean world and to early Christians who were otherwise fain to regard Christianity as a religion unrelated to Judaism. Even with a Greek translation, the Hebrew scriptures came within a hair's breadth of being tossed out of the Christian canon. From this Greek translation, the Hebrew view of God, of history, of law, and of the human condition, in all its magnificence would spread around the world. The dispersion, or Diaspora, of the Jews would involve ideas as well as people.

The Diaspora

The Jewish state comes to an end in 70 AD, when the Romans begin to actively drive Jews from the home they had lived in for over a millennium. But the Jewish Diaspora ("diaspora" ="dispersion, scattering") had begun long before the Romans had even dreamed of Judaea. When the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722, the Hebrew inhabitants were scattered all over the Middle East; these early victims of the dispersion disappeared utterly from the pages of history. However, when Nebuchadnezzar deported the Judaeans in 597 and 586 BC, he allowed them to remain in a unified community in Babylon. Another group of Judaeans fled to Egypt, where they settled in the Nile delta. So from 597 onwards, there were three distinct groups of Hebrews: a group in Babylon and other parts of the Middle East, a group in Judaea, and another group in Egypt. Thus, 597 is considered the beginning date of the Jewish Diaspora. While Cyrus the Persian allowed the Judaeans to return to their homeland in 538 BC, most chose to remain in Babylon. A large number of Jews in Egypt became mercenaries in Upper Egypt on an island called the Elephantine. All of these Jews retained their religion, identity, and social customs; both under the Persians and the Greeks, they were allowed to run their lives under their own laws. Some converted to other religions; still others combined the Yahweh cult with local cults; but the majority clung to the Hebraic religion and its newfound core document, the Torah.
In 63 BC, Judaea became a protectorate of Rome. Coming under the administration of a governor, Judaea was allowed a king; the governor's business was to regulate trade and maximize tax revenue. While the Jews despised the Greeks, the Romans were a nightmare. Governorships were bought at high prices; the governors would attempt to squeeze as much revenue as possible from their regions and pocket as much as they could. Even with a Jewish king, the Judaeans revolted in 70 AD, a desperate revolt that ended tragically. In 73 AD, the last of the revolutionaries were holed up in a mountain fort called Masada; the Romans had besieged the fort for two years, and the 1000 men, women, and children inside were beginning to starve. In desperation, the Jewish revolutionaries killed themselves rather than surrender to the Romans. The Romans then destroyed Jerusalem, annexed Judaea as a Roman province, and systematically drove the Jews from Palestine. After 73 AD, Hebrew history would only be the history of the Diaspora as the Jews and their worldview spread over Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Hebrew Religon

The Hebrew religion gave us monotheism; it gave us the concept of rule by law; it gave us the concept that the divine works its purpose on human history through human events; it gave us the concept of the covenant, that the one god has a special relationship to a community of humans above all others. In the West, in the Middle East, in most of Africa and Asia, the legacy of Hebrew religion permeates nearly everything you see.
The Hebrew religion, so important and far-reaching in its influence on human culture, did not spring up overnight. Along with the Hebrew history, the development of Hebrew religion was a long and rocky road. Major shifts in the Hebrew fate inspired revolutions in the religion itself; it wasn't until sometime after the Exilic period that the central document of Hebrew faith, the Torah, took its final and orthodox shape.
Through archaeology and through analysis of the Hebrew scriptures, scholars have divided the development of the Hebrew religion into four main periods:

  • The Pre-Mosaic Stage The Hebrew faith is marked by possible polytheism and animistic practices; it is generally believed that the introduction of Yahweh worship and monolatry occurs during the migration from Egypt.
  • National Monolatry and Monotheism The Hebrews adopt a single, local god as their god; eventually this religion evolves into a monotheistic religion.
  • The Prophetic Revolution The cultural shock of the monarchy inspires a radically new religion under the intellectual leadership of a few "prophets" or "prophetic" writers.
  • Post-Exilic Revolution The disaster of the Exile led to a radical rethinking of the Yahweh relgion and the elevation of the Torah as the single, unsullied law for the Hebrews.

In the dimmest beginnings of Hebrew history, we can barely glimpse the original Hebrew religion. However, we'll begin our journey in the mystery at the beginning of Jewish history.
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The Pre-Mosaic State, 1950-1300 BC

Little or nothing can be known for certain about the nature of Hebrew worship before the migration from Egypt. In Hebrew history, Abraham is already worshipping a figure called "Elohim," which is the plural for "lord." This figure is also called "El Shaddai" ("God the Mountaineer (?)," translated as "God Almighty"), and a couple other variants. The name of God, Yahweh, isn't learned by the Hebrews until Moses hears the name spoken by God on Mount Sinai. This god requires animal sacrifices and regular expiation. He intrudes on human life with astonishing suddenness, and often demands absurd acts from humans. The proper human relationship to this god is obedience, and the early history of humanity is a history of humans oscillating between obedience to this god and autonomy. This god is anthropomorphic: he has human qualities. He is frequently angered and seems to have some sort of human body. In addition, the god worshipped by Abraham and his descendants is the creator god, that is, the god solely responsible for the creation of the universe. The god of Genesis is bisexual: he/she is often referred to in female as well as male terms. For instance, this god is represented frequently as "mothering" or "giving birth through labor pains" to the world and humans (these passages are universally mistranslated in English as "fathering"—this god is only referred to as a "father" twice in Genesis ). In Genesis , Elohim or El Shaddai functions as a primitive law-giver; after the Flood, this god gives to Noah those primitive laws which apply to all human beings, the so-called Noachite Laws. Nothing of the sophistication and comprehensive of the Mosaic laws is evident in the early history of the human relationship to Yahweh as outlined in Genesis.
Scholars have wracked their brains trying to figure out what conclusions might be drawn about this human history. In general, they believe that the portrait of Hebrew religion in Genesis is an inaccurate one. They conclude instead that Hebrew monolatry and monotheism began with the Yahweh cult introduced, according to Exodus , in the migration from Egypt between 1300 and 1200 BC. The text of Genesis in their view is an attempt to legitimate the occupation of Palestine by asserting a covenantal relationship between Yahweh and the Hebrews that had been established far in the distant past.
All these conclusions are brilliant but tentative, for we'll never know for sure much of anything substantial about Hebrew history and religion during the age of the patriarchs or the sojourn in Egypt. Nevertheless, scholars draw on the text of Genesis to conclude the following controversial ideas about early Hebrew religion:

  • Early Hebrew religion was polytheistic; the curious plural form of the name of God, Elohim rather than El, leads them to believe that the original Hebrew religion involved several gods. This plural form, however, can be explained as a "royal" plural. Several other aspects of the account of Hebrew religion in Genesis also imply a polytheistic faith.
  • The earliest Hebrew religion was animistic, that is, the Hebrews seemed worship forces of nature that dwelled in natural objects.
  • As a result, much of early Hebrew religion had a number of practices that fall into the category of magic: scapegoat sacrifice and various forms of imitative magic, all of which are preserved in the text of Genesis.
  • Early Hebrew religion eventually became anthropomorphic, that is, god or the gods took human forms; in later Hebrew religion, Yahweh becomes a figure that transcends the human and material worlds. Individual tribes probably worshipped different gods; there is no evidence in Genesis that anything like a national God existed in the time of the patriarchs.

The most profound revolution in Hebrew thought, though, occurred in the migration from Egypt, and its great innovator was Moses. In the epic events surrounding the flight from Egypt and the settling of the Promised Land, Hebrew religion became permanently and irrevocably, the Mosaic religion.

The Monolatry, 1300-1000 BC

According to Hebrew history narrated in Exodus , the second book of the Torah, the Hebrews became a nation and adopted a national god on the slopes of Mount Sinai in southern Arabia. While we know nothing whatsoever of Hebrew life in Egypt, the flight from Egypt is described in Hebrew history with immense and powerful detail. The migration itself creates a new entity in history: the Israelites; Exodus is the first place in the Torah which refers to the Hebrews as a single national group, the "bene yisrael," or "children of Israel." The flight from Egypt itself stands as the single greatest sign from Yahweh that the Israelites were the chosen people of Yahweh; it is the event to be always remembered as demonstrating Yahweh's purpose for the Hebrew people. It is the point in history that the scattered tribes descended from Abraham become a single unit, a single nation. It is also the crucial point in history that the Hebrews adopt Yahweh as their national god.
Hebrew history is absolutely silent about Hebrew worship during the sojourn in Egypt. A single religious observance, the observation of Passover, originates in Egypt immediately before the migration. This observance commemorates how Yahweh spared the Hebrews when he destroyed all the first born sons in the land of Egypt. The Yahweh religion itself, however, is learned when the mass of Hebrews collect at Mount Sinai in Midian, which is located in the southern regions of the Arabian peninsula. During this period, called the Sinai pericope, Moses teaches the Hebrews the name of their god and brings to them the laws that the Hebrews, as the chosen people, must observe. The Sinai pericope is a time of legislation and of cultural formation in the Hebrew view of history. In the main, the Hebrews learn all the cultic practices and observances that they are to perform for Yahweh.
Scholars are in bitter disagreement over the origin of the the Yahweh religion and the identity of its founder, Moses. While Moses is an Egyptian name, the religion itself comes from Midian. In the account, Moses lives for a time with a Midianite priest, Jethro, at the foot of Mount Sinai. The Midianites seem to have a Yahweh religion already in place; they worship the god of Mount Sinai as a kind of powerful nature deity. So it's possible that the Hebrews picked up the Yahweh religion from another group of Semites and that this Yahweh religion slowly developed into the central religion of the Hebrews. All scholars are agreed, however, that the process was slow and painful. In the Hebrew history, all during the migration and for two centuries afterwards, the Hebrews follow many various religions unevenly.
The Mosaic religion was initially a monolatrous religion; while the Hebrews are enjoined to worship no deity but Yahweh, there is no evidence that the earliest Mosaic religion denied the existence of other gods. In fact, the account of the migration contains numerous references by the historical characters to other gods, and the first law of the Decalogue is, after all, that no gods be put before Yahweh, not that no other gods exist. While controversial among many people, most scholars have concluded that the initial Mosaic religion for about two hundred years was a monolatrous religion. For there is ample evidence in the Hebrew account of the settlement of Palestine, that the Hebrews frequently changed religions, often several times in a single lifetime.
The name of god introduced in the Mosaic religion is a mysterious term. In Hebrew, the word is YHWH (there are no vowels in biblical Hebrew); we have no clue how this word is pronounced. Linguists believe that the word is related to the Semitic root of the verb, "to be," and may mean something like, "he causes to be." In English, the word is translated "I AM": "I AM THAT I AM. You will say to the children of Israel, I AM has sent you."
For a few centuries, Yahweh was largely an anthropomorphic god, that is, he had human qualities and physical characteristics. The Yahweh of the Torah is frequently angry and often capricious; the entire series of plagues on Egypt, for instance, seem unreasonably cruel. In an account from the monarchical period, Yahweh strikes someone dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant; that individual, Uzza, was only touching the ark to keep it from falling over (I Chronicles 13.10).
But there are some striking innovations in this new god. First, this god, anthropomorphic or not, is conceived as operating above and outside nature and the human world. The Mosaic god is conceived as the ruler of the Hebrews, so the Mosaic laws also have the status of a ruler. The laws themselves in the Torah were probably written much later, in the eighth or seventh centuries. It is not unreasonable, however, to conclude that the early Mosaic religion was a law-based religion that imagined Yahweh as the author and enforcer of these laws. In fact, the early Hebrews seemed to have conceived of Yahweh as a kind of monarch. In addition, Yahweh is more abstract than any previous gods; one injunction to the Hebrews is that no images of Yahweh be made or worshipped. Finally, there was no afterlife in the Mosaic religion. All human and religious concerns were oriented around this world and Yahweh's purposes in this world.
As the Hebrews struggled with this new religion, lapsing frequently into other religions, they were slowly sliding towards their first major religious and ethical crisis: the monarchy. The Yahweh religion would be shaken to its roots by this crisis and would be irrevocably changed.

The Prophetic Revolution, 800-600 BC

Wearied from over two centuries of sporadic conflict with indigenous peoples, broken by a ruinous civil war, and constantly threatened on all sides, the disparate Hebrew settlers of Palestine began to long for a unified state under a single monarch. Such a state would provide the organization and the military to fend off the war-like peoples surrounding them. Their desire, however, would provoke the first major crisis in the Hebrew world view: the formation of the Hebrew monarchy.
In the Hebrew account of their own history, the children of Israel who settled Palestine between 1250 and 1050 BC, believed Yahweh to be their king and Yahweh's laws to be their laws (whether or not this is historically true is controversial). In desiring to have a king, the tribes of Israel were committing a grave act of disobedience towards Yahweh, for they were choosing a human being and human laws of Yahweh and Yahweh's laws. In the account of the formation of the monarchy, in the books of Samuel , the prophet of Yahweh, Samuel, tells the Israelites that they are committing an act of disobedience that they will dearly pay for. Heedless of Samuel's warnings, they push ahead with the monarchy. The very first monarch, Saul, sets the pattern for the rest; disobedient towards Yahweh's commands, Saul falls out with both Samuel and Yahweh and gradually slips into arbitrary despotism. This pattern—the conflict between Yahweh and the kings of Israel and Judah—becomes the historical pattern in the Hebrew stories of the prophetic revolution.
Whatever the causes, a group of religious leaders during the eighth and seventh centuries BC responded to the crisis created by the institution of the monarchy by reinventing and reorienting the Yahweh religion. In Hebrew, these religious reformers were called "nivea," or "prophets." The most important of these prophets were Amos, Hosea, Isaiah (who is actually three people: Isaiah and "Second Isaiah" [Deutero-Isaiah], and a third, post-exilic Isaiah), and Micah. These four, and a number of lesser prophets, are as important to the Hebrew religion as Moses.

The innovations of the prophets can be grouped into three large categories:

Whatever the character of Mosaic religion during the occupation and the early monarchy, the prophets unambiguously made Yahweh the one and only one god of the universe. Earlier, Hebrews acknowledged and even worshipped foreign gods; the prophets, however, asserted that Yahweh ruled the entire universe and all the peoples in it, whether or not they recognized and worshipped Yahweh or not. The Yahweh religion as a monotheistic religion can really be dated no earlier than the prophetic revolution.

While Yahweh is subject to anger, capriciousness, and outright injustice in the earlier Mosaic religion, the Yahweh of the prophets can do nothing but good and right and justice. Yahweh becomes in the prophetic revolution a "god of righteousness"; historical events, no matter how arbitrary or unjust they may seem, represent the justice of Yahweh. The good and the just are always rewarded, and the evil are always punished. If there is any evil in the world it is through the actions of men and women, not through the actions of Yahweh, that it is committed.

While the Mosaic religion was overwhelmingly concerned with the cultic rules to be followed by the Israelites, the prophets re-centered the religion around ethics. Ritual practices, in fact, become unimportant next to ethical demands that Yahweh imposes on humans: the necessity of doing right, showing mercy, punishing evil, and doing justice.

There still, however, is no afterlife of rewards and punishments in the prophets, but a kind of House of Dust, called Sheol, to which all souls go after their death to abide for a time before disappearing from existence forever. There is no salvation, only the injunctions to do justice and right in order to produce a just and harmonious society.
The historical origins of these innovations are important to understand. The monarchy brought with it all the evils of a centralized state: arbitrary power, vast inequality of wealth, poverty in the midst of plenty, heavy taxation, slavery, bribery, and fear. The prophets were specifically addressing these corrupt and fearsome aspects of the Jewish state. They believed, however, that they were addressing these problems by returning to the Mosaic religion; in reality, they created a brand new religion, a monotheistic religion not about cultic practices, but about right and wrong.

The Prophetic Revolution

The most profound spiritual and cognitive crisis in Hebrew history was the Exile. Defeated by the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC, the Judaean population was in part deported to Babylon, mainly the upper classes and craftsmen. In 586, incensed by Judaeans shifting their loyalty, Nebuchadnezzar returned, lay siege to Jerusalem, and burned it down along with the Temple. Nothing in the Hebrew worldview had prepared them for a tragedy of this magnitude. The Hebrews had been promised the land of Palestine by their god; in addition, the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham promised Yahweh's protection. The destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the deportation of the Judaeans, shook the Hebrew faith to its roots.
The literature of the Exile and shortly after betrays the despair and confusion of the population uprooted from its homeland. In Lamentations and various Psalms , we get a profound picture of the sufferings of those left in Judaea, who coped with starvation and massive privation, and the community of Hebrews wandering Babylon. In Job , a story written a century or so after the Exile, the central character suffers endless calamities— when he finally despairs of Yahweh's justice, his only answer is that Yahweh is not to be questioned.
But Hebrew religion shifted profoundly in the years of Exile. A small group of religious reformers believed that the calamities suffered by the Jews were due to the corruption of their religion and ethics. These religious reformers reoriented Jewish religion around the Mosaic books; in other words, they believed that the Jews should return to their foundational religion. While the Mosaic books had been in existence since the seventh or eighth centuries BC, they began to take final shape under the guidance of these reformers shortly after the Exile. Above everything else, the Torah, the five Mosaic books, represented all the law that Hebrews should follow. These laws, mainly centered around cultic practices, should remain pure and unsullied if the Jews wished to return to their homeland and keep it.
So the central character of post-Exilic Jewish religion is reform, an attempt to return religious and social practice back to its original character. This reform was accelerated by the return to Judaea itself; when Cyrus the Persian conquered the Chadeans in 539, he set about re-establishing religions in their native lands. This included the Hebrew religion. Cyrus ordered Jerusalem and the Temple to be rebuilt, and in 538 BC, he sent the Judaeans home to Jerusalem for the express purpose of worshipping Yahweh . The reformers, then, occupied a central place in Jewish thought and life all during the Persian years (539-332 BC).
Beneath the surface, though, foreign elements creeped in to the Hebrew religion. While the reformers were busy trying to purify the Hebrew religion, the Persian religion, Zoroastrianism, creeped into it among the common run of people. Why this happened is anyone's guess, but Zoroastrianism offered a worldview that both explained and mollified tragedies such as the Exile. It seems that the Hebrews adopted some of this world view in the face of the profound disasters they had weathered.
Zoroastrianism, which had been founded in the seventh century BC by a Persian prophet name Zarathustra (Zoroaster is his Greek name), was a dualistic, eschatological, and apocalyptic religion. The universe is divided into two distinct and independent spheres. One, which is light and good, is ruled by a deity who is the principle of light and good; the other, dark and evil, is ruled by a deity who is the principle of dark and evil. The whole of human and cosmic history is an epic struggle between these two independent deities; at the end of time, a final battle between these two deities and all those ranged on one side or the other, would permanently decide the outcome of this struggle. The good deity, Ahura-Mazda, would win this final, apocalyptic battle, and all the gods and humans on the side of good would enjoy eternal bliss.
Absolutely none of these elements were present in Hebrew religion before the Exile. The world is governed solely by Yahweh; evil in the world is solely the product of human actions—there is no "principle of evil" among the Hebrews before the Exile. The afterlife is simply a House of Dust called Sheol in which the sould lasts for only a brief time. There is no talk or conception of an end of time or history, or of a world beyond this one. After the Exile, however, popular religion among the Judaeans and the Jews of the Diaspora include several innovations:

After the Exile, the Hebrews invent a concept of a more or less dualistic universe, in which all good and right comes from Yahweh, while all evil arises from a powerful principle of evil. Such a dualistic view of the universe helps to explain tragedies such as the Exile.

Eschatology and Apocalypticism
Popular Jewish religion begins to form an elaborate theology of the end of time, in which a deliverer would defeat once and for all the forces of evil and unrighteousness.

Concurrent with the new eschatology, there is much talk of a deliverer who is called "messiah," or "anointed one." In Hebrew culture, only the head priest and the king were anointed, so this "messiah" often combined the functions of both religious and military leader.

Popular Judaism adopts an elaborate after-life. Since justice does not seem to occur in this world, it is only logical that it will occur in another world. The afterlife becomes the place where good is rewarded and evil eternally punished.
While the reformers resist these innovations, they take hold among a large part of the Hebrew population. And it is from this root—the religion of the common person— that a radical form of Yahwism will grow: the religion of Jesus of Nazareth.


The foundation of Hebrew and Jewish religion, thought, law, and society is the Torah. The Torah, consisting of five books, lays down the central events of Hebrew history: the beginning of time, the election of Abraham, the history of the patriarchs, and the monumental history of the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. The Torah overwhelmingly concerns this last historical event, the event that gave the Hebrews a religion, a nation, and an identity: the "bene yisrael," the "children of Israel." The migration from Egypt involved two crucial events: the introduction to Yahweh on Mount Sinai and the receiving of Yahweh's religious and social instructions.
Torah is typically translated "law," but it also means something like "instructions" or "directions." For these five books are Yahweh's rules or directions for life and worship. The bulk of the books consist of cultic rules, but the whole of Hebrew law is contained in these books. Above these laws tower the laws given by Yahweh directly to his people: the Decalogue or ten commandments. This is the only part of the Hebrew scriptures that purports to be the direct speech of Yahweh written down on the spot . The decalogue forms the center of all the rules and laws developed out of them.
The salient feature of the Torah as the law of the Hebrews is its divine origins and its immutability. The Torah as law is seen as the instructions given to the chosen people by the one and only one God, Yahweh. The special relationship between the Hebrews and Yahweh is predicated on obedience ; the Torah itself stands in for Yahweh. In every sense of the word, if Yahweh is the ruler of the Hebrews, then the Torah is the leader of the Hebrews. This is a remarkably new concept in the ancient world, and a concept of profound brilliance. For this concept of the Torah is the foundation of the Western notion of "rule by law," in which the law is seen as superior to all temporal rulers, that is, that rulers are ruled by law. This notion, so common in Western culture, ultimately owes its origin to the Hebrew Torah.
Despite this, the Torah was not the central document of Hebrew history for much of Hebrew history. During the period of the judges, the Hebrews seem to constantly forget their recent past, and the monarchy is a hodge-podge of cultic practices. It was only during Exile, that the Torah came to the forefront of the Hebrew world view again. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple caused a great crisis of faith among the Judaeans; some gave into despair while others imaginatively recreated their religion. In their view, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile were the results of Jewish disobedience and corruption; these religious leaders sought to purify the Hebrew religion and return it to its roots. In order to do this, they turned to the Mosaic books of the Torah. The Torah, they asserted, was the law of the Hebrews; social and cultic practice must be based on the Torah rather than later innovations. After the Exile, the Torah became the normative law of Judaea, which became a vassal state first of Persia and then the Greeks. Both the Persians and the Greeks recognized the Torah as the "law of the Judaeans," and the Hebrews actively began to build a society based on the strictures of the Torah.
The Torah, however, is more than simply rules. It is the foundational history of the Hebrews and their origins. The single most important event of this history is the delivery of the Hebrews from Egyptian oppression; this event is meant to serve as the single reminder that Yahweh has elected the Hebrews as his special people and will protect them from their oppressors.
The Torah is made up of five books, known in Hebrew by the first words of the books, and known in English by the titles given to the books by the Greek translators of the Septuagint. These books are:

"In the beginning" (Bereshit ; in Greek, Genesis , or "Origin, Beginning")
Bereshit narrates the creation of the world, the first humans, their disobedience and exile from Eden, the early history of humanity and its destruction in a flood, and the history of the patriarchs ("father-rulers") of the Hebrews (12-50), and in particular, the covenant between God and Abraham in which God selects Abraham and his descendants as his "chosen" people.

"Names" (Shemot; in Greek, Exodos , or "Going Out").
Shemot narrates the delivery of the Hebrews from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and the introduction to Yahweh and the receiving of the decalogue at Mount Sinai.

"Then he called" (Wayyiqra; in Greek, Leuitikon , or "The Levitical [Book of Law])
Wayyiqra is a book of laws and instructions specifically relating to the cultic practices associated with Yahweh.

"In the wilderness" (Bemidbar; in Greek, Arithmoi , or "Numbers")
Bemidbar in part narrates the history of the wanderings through the wilderness after the Hebrews leave Sinai; the first part of the book involves more cultic regulations.

"Words" (Debarim; in Greek, Deuteronomion , or "The Second Law")
Debarim is a speech by Moses, and contains a recapitulation of the laws assigned to the Hebrews as well as a few additional ones; it's primary message is a.) cultic purity and b.) cultic unity—the Hebrews are enjoined to maintain the cultic practices without corruption and to do so as a single community.