I start my Western Civlization classes by saying, "Welcome to the most wonderful, most interesting, and most exciting class taught at Northern State University."  This class I have to start a bit differently.  I welcome you to the strangest, oddest, most unique class taught at NSU.

What's so strange about this class?  Well, we'll do all sorts of things.  We'll write backwards in this class.  We'll dance in this class.  We'll sing in this class.

Also, instead of talking to the hand, this is a class where the hand talks to you.  Some of you have met Harry the Talking Hand in my History 121 and 122 classes.  Harry is my assistant here too--and, every once in a while, he'll have a joke for you.

It's also strange that in a society that more and more frowns on things like Bible reading and the discussion of religious issues, we'll be spending much of the class looking at an often-banned book and often-taboo subjects.

But perhaps the oddest thing about the class is that, at a university our size, such a class exists at all. 

The people of Ancient Israel were not great empire builders like the Egyptians, several of the Mesopotamian peoples, and the Persians. We don't have whole classes on Egypt, Mesopotamia or Persia at Northern.  Egypt gets here 3 lectures in my History 121 class--and that's about it except for occasional mentions in anthropology or art history.  I don't think the Persians get much attention in any of our classes either. 

You would think it enormously strange if our history department offered courses on the Kassites, the Mitanni, or the Hittites--yet all these people were considerably more important that the people of ancient Israel in terms of political strength.

But, of course, a nation might be great for something other than empire-building.  The Greeks, for instance, even if they had never developed into an imperial power, would have merited a class to themselves because of their many contributions to art, theater, philosophy, mathematics, science, and history.

Ancient Israel didn't add much of anythng in any of these areas.  They didn't contribute nearly what the Sumerians, Babylonians, or Egyptians did in any of these areas.  No great works of art.  No theater. No great contributions to math, science, medicine, or astronomy.

As we will see, the history of ancient Israel is a strange one, not following the patterns of any of the other great civilizations of the ancient world.

Further, it's strange how much of this history many of you already know. 

Most of you can pinpoint the figures who touch off our history: Abraham and his immediate descendents, the figures we call the Patriarchs (1900--1600 BC).  You can tell me that Abraham's wife was Sarah, that their son was Isaac, the Isaac married Rebekah, and that Isaac and Rebekah had two sons, Jacob and Esau.  You can tell me that Jacob gets his name change to Israel, that he has twelve sons, and maybe you can even name them all!

But can you tell me who Hammurabi's wife was, who his son was, or anything else about his life?  How about Egyptian Pharaohs like Thutmose I?  Can you tell me his son's name?  (Well, I bet you can guess). 

With ancient Israel, though, many of you can continue the story in some detail.  You'd be able to tell me that one of Jacob's sons gets sold into slavery, but that he rises to high position in Egypt and (eventually) makes a place for all of Jacob's family.  You can tell me the Israelites have a change in fortune and are reduced to slavery until they get a liberator--Moses.

Most of you can tell me at least something about the Exodus (around 1300 BC), the advent of Mosaic law, and the wandering in the wilderness.  You can tell about about Moses successor Joshua, and the partial conquest of the promised land. 

I suspect many of you also have a general picture of the ups and downs, the "down" period of the Judges (1200-1050), a time when there was "no kind and everyone did that which was right in their own eyes."   You're probably familiar with the United Monarchy ushered in by Samuel the time when Saul, David, and Solomon created Israel's one moment as a potentially important player in the political game (1020-922 BC).  A few of you might even know already the story of the divided monarchy which followed when the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah went their separate ways, Israel eventually falling to the Assyrians (722 BC) and Judah to the Babylonians (622 BC). 

Seventy years of Babylonian captivity and then--favored by the Persians--a return to the promised land.

Here's where the Biblical narrative leaves off: but you may still know about the Greek conquest of Judea (c. 330 BC), the struggle for independence under the Maccabbees (c. 166 BC), and the period of Roman dominance (c. 64-70 AD). 

Even though we have a class full of history majors, I rather doubt anyone could come up with a similar historical summary for any other ancient people--and, just maybe, some of you know the outlines of this history better than you know the outline of American history!

So why is this?  Why do we tend to know this history so well?

Professor Harry Orlinsky said that, in understanding Western civlization the Bible is the single most important text, that no heir to this tradition can consider himself educated if he hasn't read it.  And how strange that this relatively insignificant people should become so important because of single work.