Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Ancient Israel

Steve Muhlberger

In connection with ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt we have mentioned the uncivilized peoples from the desert or the mountain who lived on the margins of the civilized states, peoples who were often attracted to the bright lights and glitter, not to mention fertile, well-watered lands.

 These outsiders sometimes seized the opportunity to control the more complex civilizations they usually served -- using talents they had acquired as enforcers, they became conquerors. Thus Amorites ruled Babylon, and Hyksos became Egyptian pharoahs.

So far we've seen these outsiders only from the point of view of their civilized neighbors who may have feared them but also looked down on them, and who certainly saw them as a lesser form of life.  But it is a mistake to adopt that viewpoint uncritically. The marginal people were quite capable of making an impact on history, and not merely a negative, destructive one.

This point is easily illustrated. The one people from the ancient Middle East that is at all likely to be familiar to the average person is the ancient Israelites. And they are a perfect example of a people who came in from the desert and made a place for them in the civilized worlds. And unlike almost all the rest, the people of Israel keep alive their very ancient traditions today.

For our purposes, it is expecially interesting that the people of Israel have left us an entire historical library, known to them as the Bible and to others as the Old Testament, a library written and pulled together between about 900 and 300 B.C. which anyone who can read can read today.

I am going to begin this lecture by outlining the Biblical history of Israel. Then I will go back and discuss some aspects of that story in more detail, to see what it can tell us about the ancient Middle East in general and about the historical character of this particularly interesting people.


The first section of the story of Israel (1900 B.C. ?) is the story of Abraham,  a herder and the leader of a clan of herders, from Harran  to Canaan (modern Palestine or Israel) to Egypt and back to Canaan. In the course of these wanderings, Abraham comes to recognize the power of God, called Yahweh in the oldest Hebrew, and submits to his power. In return for this total submission, God promises him great things: (Genesis 17, in handout), especially the land of Canaan (now Palestine or Israel)..

Second section:  Abraham's descendents (the sons of Jacob, also known as Israel) are driven by famine into Egypt. This took place about 1300. The sons of Jacob are received there with honor because one of their brothers, Joseph, is already there, and has high office under Pharoah. Unfortunately, kings have short memories, and eventually "there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph {Ex. 1:8}." The reaction of this king to the Israelite presence was to enslave them, and they remained as slaves until Moses was appointed by God to rescue them.

Third section: is the Exodus from Egypt, which led to the Covenant of Israel with God at Mt. Sinai, and the propounding of God's laws for his people. The Exodus may have taken place in 1200 B.C. For 40 years, the Israelites wandered in the desert, until finally they were ready in God's eyes to take what he had promised them: the land of Canaan.

Fourth section:   Israelites struggle under leaders called judges to defeat first the Canaanites and then the invading Philistines and make a place for themselves in Canaan. This struggle was a hard one, and covered over a century, say 1150 to 1000. The struggle persuaded the Israelites to establish a monarchy for themselves:  King Saul, followed by David (c. 1000) and then by David's son Solomon..

Fifth section:  David  and  Solomon succeeded in building a great monarchy that dominated it neighbors for about a century. A great temple was built for God at Jerusalem.

Sixth section:  After Solomon's death about 927, Israel split into two kingdoms, one in the north called Israel, a smaller one around Jerusalem called Judah, from the tribe that dominated it. These two kingdoms had a hard time of it.  Eventually the independence of all the Israelites was destroyed. The Kingdom of Israel fell victim to Assyria in 722, and its people were scattered. Later, between 597 and 587, Babylon did the same to Judah, whose people either fled to Egypt or were deported to Mesopotamia, to undergo the famous Babylonian Captivity.

The detailed discussion:

Abraham was a "Hebrew" -- perahps from apiru or habiru, a term used by more civilized writers to
identify wandering, stateless people on the fringes of civilization. Abraham, a herder, was one of these.

Abraham a symbol of the pure desert past.  There is an opposition between the desert life and the corrupt life of the cities: it was during Abraham's time that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their wicked ways.

The time of the patriarchs is the time of antique virtue. Abraham, as the representative of that virtues, is the first to enter into a covenant with God. But it would probably be wrong to say that Abraham was a monotheist, or that his early descendants believed him to be one.  The connection between God and Abraham does not grow out of Abraham's recognition of God as the God of the whole universe, but from God's choice of Abraham's progeny as his chosen people, whom he is unwilling to share with other deities.

Abraham and people like him were certainly marginal in one sense of the word: they were all trying to make a living on marginal land, land not fertile enough to support a civilized state. This was hard, and sometimes drought and famine would force them into the civilized zone to beg for food. This happened to Abraham, and it happened to Jacob, his grandson. Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain. There they had an amazing experience. Jacob had once had a young son named Joseph, of whom the others had been jealous. The brothers had disposed of Joseph by selling him into slavery, and telling their father that he was dead. When the brothers went to Egypt, they were faced with an imposing official who turned out to be no other than Joseph, the ruler of all Egypt under Pharoah. Fortunately, he forgave them and honored them, and even browbeat them into relocating into Egypt.

Were Joseph and his families the Hyksos of Egyptian history?  Perhaps one of the Asiatic groups who found themselves welcomed into Lower Egypt while the Hyksos ruled, a time, you will recall, when Egypt experienced more foreign influence than it had for 1500 years.

The escape of the Isrealites is a very interesting episode for a number of reasons. The man who led them out of Egypt, Moses, was a man of two worlds, and uncomfortable with it. He had an Egyptian name and upbringing, but knew himself to be a blood relative of the despised habiru. When he turned his back on his Egyptian heritage, he found it quite easy to re-enter the nomadic world. Moses and his kin were, even when enslaved, connected to a whole world of people like themselves.

With supernatural help, the people of Israel left Egypt and crossed into the Sinai. Perhaps that is inaccurate: it is extremely unlikely that all who left Egypt were descendents of Jacob. But during the 40 years in the desert, they all became Israelites. The key event was the reaffirmation of the Covenant with God at Mount Sinai. On this occasion God gave Israel a law, a very detailed one.

Even at this point it might be difficult to say that the Israelites had become monotheists, that is, that they believed there was only one God. Certainly they had only one God (and sometimes they forgot)--  but his does not mean they thought him the only god.

The law, the covenant, the establishment of a priesthood, and the 40 years of the desert welded the people of Israel into a nation -- or at least a core of a nation.Some of the traditional 12 tribes may  never have gone to Egypt, but they were swept up into the new identity. This identity became useful when these desert dwellers, in the 13th or 12th century decided to seize the land God had promised them -- Canaan.

A few words should be said about Canaan.  It was suitable for agriculture in many places, and Canaan was full of cities -- not very big ones, but  comparable to those of Mesopotamia. By this time, the Canaanites were already working on the alphabet. In some ways they were like the Israelites, in that they spoke a similar Semitic language; the big difference is that the Canaanites were rich and established, and the Israelites were still habiru, who looked on their land with envy.

Despite stories of great dramatic victories (Joshua), we must in fact visualize a slow infiltration of normally disunited Israelite tribes, punctuated only occasionally by dramatic incidents like the fall of Jericho.

There was also mutual adaptation, and it seems as if the Israelites adapted more. They became a largely agricultural people, influenced by the Canaanite language, script, and even religion  -- a process that not all were happy with, since there was always a danger of religious apostasy.

Long before the contest between Israel and Canaan could be resolved, the Israelites faced another threat, the Philistines -- one of the Sea Peoples who had been set in motion by the overthrow of Mycenae and gave  the New Kingdom of Egypt so much trouble. They established themselves in the cities of the coast and, with their iron weapons, perhaps the first seen in this part of the world, came close to taking the entire country. Gave the country the name of "Palestine."

Israel fought the Philistines sporadically under leaders called judges: Sampson is the most famous of the judges. This resistance was fueled, in part, by the memory of the compact with God struck on Sinai, the consciousness that Israel was a people apart, and that this was their land, by divine mandate. Judges not only fought the enemies of Israel, but their gods as well.

But a policy of complete separatism was difficult to maintain in multicultural Canaan. There is no better proof of this than Sampson's career. Though the great champion of Israel against Philistia, it was his affair with the Philistine woman Delilah that brought him down.

Eventually the Israelites tired of the inconclusive struggle against their enemies. They decided that they needed an undisputed leader, a leader like other nations had: a king. In one version of the story, their prophet, Samuel, warned them against this notion:

These are the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cook and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom your have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
Saul, the first king,  had his victories and his losses, but he was overshadowed by his rival and successor David, whose partisans wrote the records. The story of David, if looked at in cold blood, shows him as something of a shifty character but he eventually  became the ruler of almost all Canaan.

 Under David and his son Solomon, Israel passed for a great kingdom -- in part because the usual great powers had internal troubles and could not dominate Syria and Palestine as they usually did. Because of their astonishing success, the Biblical tradition has high praise for these two monarchs. Their victories  and prosperity were attributed to God's favor, and in places they are presented as the most pious of men.

There is also a lot of detail that makes clear how strong the rule of David and Solomon was -- they built up around themselves a palace bureaucracy that superceded the old loose tribal structure. And of course there was the Temple. The God of Israel, who had formerly made do with a portable shrine suitable for a nomadic people, got a temple comparable to others in the Fertile Crescent.

All of this was proof of the glory and favor of God, right?

The biblical writers were scarcely unanimous on this point. In some ways, Solomon in particular was too much like any other king. And understandably so. The Israelites were still just one people among many in Canaan; Solomon, wishing to rule them all, quite naturally became the patron of their religions as well. His many foreign wives -- the symbol of a successful foreign policy -- got the blame for this, but maybe the success should have been blamed

Solomon's kingdom broke up after his death, in part because his demands on the people had become very heavy.  A successful revolt split the kingdom. was split. Solomon's dynasty held onto the land of Judah and Jerusalem with its citadel and temple; almost all the rest of Israelites separated into a new kingdom, called Israel.

The dilemma that Solomon presented to true believers in the God of Israel was sharpened in the era of the divided kingdoms. In both realms, kings commonly worshipped not only Yahweh but the various local manifestations of Baal.  Some Israelite kings went so far as to sacrifice their children, an old and despicable Canaanite custom rightly condemned by the Yahwists. In Judah, altars and dedications to Baal infiltrated the temple itself.

If the kings and the high priests had betrayed the Covenant, there were still leaders of the rigorist party willing denounce their treason and to remind them of their duty. These were the prophets. There had long been prophets in Israel.  Now, because the official religion was regarded as corrupt, and the kings unjust, a line of dissident Israelite prophets appeared to force themselves on the kings and combat the "false" prophets of Baal.

Elijah, one of the first of the prominent prophets, was involved in a dramatic confrontation with Ahab, king of Israel, who favored Baal, in part because he was married to the Phoenician princess Jezebel. Elijah challenged Ahab to send all his prophets against him, and they would see whose God was the real one. As Elijah said to the people: "How long will you go limping with two opinions. If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him {1 Kings 18:21}." Elijah devised a test to answer this dilemma:   He and the prophets of Baal would pray for fire from heaven to burn one of two  sacrificial bulls dedicated to their deities. The prophets of Baal prayed in vain.  When it was Elijah's turn, he got fire from heaven immediately. When the burnt offering was consumed, he had the crowd massacre the false prophets.

A new conception of Israelite religion has emerged by the 9th century: not only are the gods of the gentiles the wrong gods, they are not gods at all.

The prophets had their victories, and occasionally inspired a king to a thorough-going reformation, but others continued to worship other gods, which served as an explanation for various defeats by external enemies.

The divided kingdoms lasted for hundreds of years, but they never saw the glory days of Solomon again. Disunited as they were, the Israelite kingdoms had a hard time dominating their immediate neighbors, and very little luck resisting the aggression of the great powers.

In particular, the rise of Assyria put the people of Israel on the spot. It was Mesopotamian conquerors who gave them their greatest test. Would they, in the face of superior power, disappear like the Amorites or the Hyksos? Or would the tradition of God's chosen people somehow survive? We know the answer, but the extent of the challenge they faced is harder to appreciate. Next time we will look at the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, which will give us some idea.



Michael Grant, The History of Ancient Israel (NU)
Harry Orlinsky, Ancient Israel (NU)

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.