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