[Partly edited, 1/31/2014]


We have looked so far at two very successful civilizations that came out of the Ancient Near East, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  We are now going to look at another people from the Ancient Near East, Ancient Israel (the Hebrews).

The Israelites would at first seem an insignificant people.  they left no great works of art and architecture.  They made no great contributions to math or science.  They never established a great empire.  Still, the Israelites had a major impact on Western civilization.  In addition, the history of Ancient Israel (the Hebrews) is an excellent example of the importance of physical security, ethical guidance, and emotional fulfillment to the success of a civilization, lessons often remembered by subsequent peoples.  In many ways, the people of Ancient Israel taught the world new ways to dream.

The dream began with a man named Abraham.  According to the story in Genesis, Abraham initially lived in Mesopotmia.  He was closely associated with the Amorites who had begun to dominate Mesopotamia about this time (c. 1900 BC).  Abraham left Mesopotamia, settled for a time in what is today Syria, and then moved in to the "promised" land.  According to the Genesis story, Abraham made a covenant with God: he would leave behind the worship of other gods, and, in return, he and his decendents would acquire the land from between the "river of Egypt" to the Euphrates.  In addition, Abraham was promised that in his seed "all nations of the earth would be blessed."  In other words, the entire world was going to be changed for the better through Abraham and his decendents.

Right from the beginning, then, the Hebrews seem to have had a special sense of emotional fulfillment.  They had the idea that, somehow, they were God's chosen people.  The Romans also had something of this attitude and, in both cases, this view that the nation/people had a divine destiny to fulfill proved particularly helpful in getting through rough times.

And it is interesting how much impact Abraham and his immediate family have had on subsequent history.  The stories of Abraham and his family have been told again and again and again, and they are much more familiar to the average person than (say) the stories of the families of Sargon, of Raamses, or Hammurabi.  Jews, Christians, and Moslems all look back to Abraham as the father of their faith, so for half the world's people Abraham remains an important figure while figures who, at the time, were much greater in power and influence have, for the most part, been forgotten.

Many of you are familiar with the stories of Abraham, his wife Sarah, their son Isaac, Isaac's wife Rebecca, the two sons of Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and some of you might even be able to name all 12 sons of Jacob!  It's very unlikely that any of you would be able to do anything similar with the families of, say, Ahmose or Thutmose.

According to the Biblical story, one of the sons of Jacob, Joseph, is sold into slavery in Egypt.  Joseph, though, rises from slavery until he becomes 2nd in command to Pharaoh.  Unfortunately, there are no contemporary Egyptian records that would give us any extra light on this story.  It seems possible, certainly, that Joseph and (eventually) the rest of his family settle in Egypt during the time of the Hyksos, perhaps around 1700 BC.  The Hyksos, "shepherd kings," would have been very similar in culture to the Hebrews, and it does seem somewhat more likely that an outsider like Joseph would have the opportunity to advance during the Hyksos period than during a time when native Egyptians were in control. 

Eventually, though, the situation changes.  The Bible says that there arose a pharaoh who "knew not Joseph."  This may mean the return of native Egyptian rulers who didn't recognize any of the agreements made by the pharaohs of the Hyksos period.  In any case, the Hebrews somehow undergo a reversal of fortune and end up as slaves, perhaps during the reign of Ahmose around 1570 BC. 

Eventually, the Hebrews get a leader to deliver them from slavery: Moses.

According to the Biblical story, the Egyptians launched a program of infanticide to keep the number of male slaves at a minimum.  Moses was abandoned to the river, but rescued by Pharaoh's daughter who adopted him as her son.  Interestingly, the name Moses is in some ways appropriate to a member of the royal family.  Moses (Moshe in Hebrew) means "out of."  Egyptian Pharaohs of the time had this "moshe/mose" word as part of their names.  Raamses = Ra Mose, out of (or son of) the Egyptian god Ra.  Thutmose = Toth Mose, out of (or son of) the Egyptian god Toth.  Moses has only the "out of" part of the name, and it's interesting to speculate why that might be.

In any case, around 1300 BC or so, Moses, after a series of adventures (!), led the Israelites out of slavery in what is called the Exodus (a Greek name once again = the road out).  Moses gave them some important sources of ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment.  Moses gives them perhaps the finest law coded to come out of the Ancient Near East.  He also sets up the worship in the Tabernacle, uniting the people and giving them the sense that they are worshipping the one true god.  In general, the rest of the story is a story of ups and downs: up when the people of Israel follow Moses' laws and worship only the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, down when they start worshipping other gods and departing from the law.

Moses successor Joshua, for instance, challenges his people to serve God only ("Choose you this day whom ye will serve...as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord).  They agree, and, while Joshua leads them, they appear to be on the road to success, crossing over the Jordan and conqurering much of the Promised Land.

After Joshua's death, though, the people of Israel begin intermarrying with the Canaanites and adopting Canaanite religious practices including temple prostitution and child sacrifice.  This breaks down both ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment, and it's not surprising that during this eara (the time of the Judges, roughtly 1250-1020 BC),  the Israelites suffer setback after setback, conqured and oppressed by Amalekites, Midianites, and, ultimately, the Philistines.  There are some bright spots under judges like Gideon, Deborah, and Samson, but the writer of the book of Judges talks about this period as a time of breakdown: "there was no king in those days and every man did that which was right in his own eyes."

Under Samuel, the last of the judges, things begin to shape up once again.  Eventually, Samuel, somewhat reluctantly, annoints a king for the Israelites--first Saul, and then David.  This is the beginning of the United Monarchy, a period when the 12 tribes of Israel are united under Saul, David, and David's son Solomon (1020-922 BC).

Under David and Solomon particularly, things seem to go well.  David is a great fighting king, and, by the end of his reign, Israel controlled most of the Promised Land.  Solomon takes the kingdom left by his father and makes it more splendid.  He constructs a huge temple in Jerusalem, and this becomes the focus of Hebrew worship, replacing the old tabernacle.  Solomon chooses diplomacy over warfare, and, during his reign, Israel becomes much wealthier than it had been before.

But Solomon, for all his wisdom, made some bad mistakes.  His basic policy: make marriages, not war.  He married women from leading families throughout Israel, trying to unite the nation with these family connections.  He also married women from surrounding nations, some nations subject to Israel at the time (Ammon, Edom, Moab) and some allied to Israel (Egypt).  Solomon ended up with 700 wives and 300 concubines, secondary wives.  But for Solomon's strategy to work, he has to keep these women happy.  It does no good to be married to Pharaoh's daughter if she is unhappy.  So how does one man keep 1000 women happy?  Well, you buy them things.  Solomon builds a temple for Pharaoh's daughter.  And then, of course, he has to build temples for all his other foreign wives.  And the wives want something more: they want Solomon to worship with them.  And he does.  This wrecks the main source of Israelite emotional fulfillment.  When they king himself starts turning to other gods, the unity created by the exclusive worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is broken.

Also, all this building is expensive.  Solomon has to raise taxes to sky-high levels, and he has to resort to forced labor to get all his building projects done.  This makes the people unhappy, and,  after Solomon's death, the northern ten tribes break away and form the separate nation, Israel.  Judah remains loyal to the house of David, and so there are now two nations: Israel and Judah.  From this point onward, there's not much hope of political greatness.  The two nations are frequently at war with one another, and they have much more difficulty when wars with neighboring countries arise.

Eventually, Israel is defeated by the Assyrians (722 BC).  The Assyrians deport the people and bring in others.  This is when the northern ten tribes become the "lost" tribes of Israel.-

Judah survives the Assyrian assault, but, aroung 600 BC, the Chaldaens (Neo-Babylonians, or, in the Bible, just Babylonians) conquer them and, after putting down several revolts, decide to destroy Jerusalem and the temple and take the leading citizens captive into Babylon itself.

This could (and perhaps should) have been the end.  But during the Babylonian captivity, at least some of the Jews seemed to have learned the lesson.  They gave up the worship of other gods, and began focusing intently on the study of the scriptures.  In 536 BC, when the Persians conquereed the Chaldaeans, they began going back to Judea.  They rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple and, for a time under Persian rule, things seemed to be on the right track.

But around 330 BC the Greeks under Alexander conquered the Persians and took over Judea.  Alexander's successors, trying to imitate Alexander himself, wanted to create great empires and to consolidate their empires.  Some of them worked hard to try to get the Jews to assimilate, to become just like the other peoples of the empire.   This would have meant giving up the law of Moses and the worship of one god only. 

Many Jews were tempted: Greek culture had much to offer.  But one of the successors of Alexander's general Seleucus, Antiochus Epiphanes, went too far, too fast.  He wanted to be worshipped as if he were the god Zeus.  He set up an image of himself in the temple, sacrificed a pig on the altar, and forbid things like circumcision.  This provoked a revolt, a revolt led by the Maccabees (c. 160 BC).  For 100 years, Judea was independent, but around 60 BC, the Romans expanded into the eastern Mediterranean, taking over Judea.  The Romans tried various experiments in trying to govern the Jews, none of them very successful.  Ultimately, in 66 AD, the Jews began another revolt.  This culminated in another destruction of Jerusalem and a destruction of the rebuilt temple.  More than a million Jews were killed.

This marks the beginning of the Great Diaspora, the great dispersion of the Jewish people.  In 135 AD, the Jews staged yet another revolt.  This time, the Romans decided to keep them from going anywhere near Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman city (Aelia Capitolina), and the remaining Jewish population of Judea was scattered in various places.

And this should have been the end.  Like the Hittites, the Mitanni, and so many other ancient peoples, the Jews should simply have disappeared from history.  But they didn't.  Why?  Because, although much had gone wrong, the Jews had perhaps the greatest source of ethical guidance and emotional fulfillment any people have ever had.  A book: what the Jews call the Tanak, and Christians call the Old Testament.  Held together by this book, the Jews survived as a people for nearly 1900 years of the dispersion.  And then, in an event unique to history, in 1948 the Jews went back to their Promised Land and re-established a nation, the nation we today call Israel.   Such a thing could only be possible for a people truly convinced that there was something special about them, something worth sacrificing for and preserving.  Once again, I think, an example of how much giving people a sense of emotional fulfillment might aid in the preservation of a society.