Ancient Israel

Ancient Israel is the terminology referring to the ancient status of the Israelite people (or peoples) and their political fortunes. It is perhaps the most controversial history to study, considering the strong influence on scholars of religious groups biased either toward or against the conclusions that researchers of the history could reach. For this reason, virtually all historical studies provoke emotional reactions from religious communities that either revile or celebrate their conclusions. So too, it has been said that nonreligious scholars have a vested interest in establishing that history is not accurately reflected in the Hebrew Bible and thus might undermine the historicity of the legends and myths its books contain that preface religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

According to the Bible, the Israelites' ancestors came out of the Levant in the middle of the second millennium B.C., moving to Egypt during a famine. Over the course of 200 years, their numbers increased so exponentially that the native Egyptians enslaved them out of fear. At the culmination of this period, a prophet named Moses, who had fled Egypt to exile in the desert domain of Midian some decades earlier, returned on a mission from the Israelites' God to free them and bring them back to the Levant. The biblical narrative records divinely instigated phenomena, known as the Ten Plagues, which intimidated Egypt into releasing them from servitude. The Israelites are said to have left Egypt miraculously and then been led on an up-and-down physical and spiritual journey through the Sinai desert, where they received a regime of laws today referred to as the Torah -- the Teaching.

Afterward, the Israelites conquered several small kingdoms in Transjordan and then conquered the central parts of the southern Levant, the former land of Canaan. What followed would be centuries of division among Israel's tribes and intermittent wars with rival Canaanite tribes and invaders. For several centuries, the tribes were ruled by what the Bible refers to as Judges, who were usually prophetic and empowered to be a major threat to the Israelites.

Scholars differ highly on the authenticity of the biblical narrative. Some scholars have attempted to verify the biblical plagues by connecting them to natural phenomena, such as volcanic eruptions and linked seismic activity. Other scholars explicitly dismiss the story of the Exodus from Egypt as a myth that is at once not verifiable and, secondly, probably untrue. An absence of records or archaeological evidence, aside from the Bible, has empowered scholars who do not believe the Israelites experienced such an exodus, rather that they were natives to the region and eventually consolidated a collective identity with a fabricated myth about their origins. This theory has gained traction among scholars over the years, but it is highly criticized for ignoring other events in the histories of neighboring countries.

One theory links the biblical Israelites to the Hyksos of Egypt, literally "foreign rulers," whose names strongly indicate they were Canaanite. It seems they gradually came into the country and eventually assumed control of the eastern Nile Delta -- correlating with the region known as Goshen in the Bible, where the Israelites resided during servitude.

After the period of the Judges, the Israelites of the Bible were unified under the leadership of divinely crowned Saul, who was eventually dismissed by God because of greed and narcissism, and his crown transferred to David, son of Jesse of Bethlehem. David is a prodigy who attacks and conquers Israel's neighbors and extends his imperial reach into modern Syria. His son Solomon ushers in an era of cultural openness and prosperity. Following Solomon's death, his largess is considered responsible for the breakup of the kingdom into the northern tribes' Kingdom of Israel and the southern tribes' Kingdom of Judah.

There are also several stelae from Egypt and the Kingdom of Moab that name Israel as an entity and explicitly mention several of its later biblical kings. These facts have cast doubt on the theory of Israel's emergence rather than its conquest.

The Kingdom of Israel is eventually conquered by the Assyrian empire and its inhabitants dispersed in 722 B.C. Both the Bible and Assyrian histories record this. Later, the Kingdom of Judah is toppled after its revolt as a vassal state against its patron Babylon. The Temple of Solomon is destroyed, and many inhabitants are led into exile to Babylon. Shortly afterward, the Jewish royal governor was assassinated, and in the Book of Jeremiah, many of the remaining Jews are said to have fled to Egypt. How many Jews remained in the country is unclear. Jews returned in small numbers to the area around Jerusalem following the conquest of the Babylonians by the Persians. Later, Alexander the Great's conquests brought the region under Greek influence, eventually sparking a successful rebellion by members of the priestly caste, the Maccabees. Their kingdom would enjoy short-term independence until the arrival of the Romans, who ruled the region through several unsuccessful Jewish rebellions, resulting in the ultimate dispersal of the Jews in the region and the beginning of the so-called Fourth Exile.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Ancient Israel
Harry M. Orlinsky.
Cornell University Press, 1954
Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions
Roland De Vaux; John McHugh.
McGraw-Hill, 1961
Ancient Israel and Ancient Greece: Religion, Politics, and Culture
John Pairman Brown.
Fortress Press, 2003
Early History of the Israelite People: From the Written and Archaeological Sources
Thomas L. Thompson.
Brill, 2000
Zadok's Heirs: The Role and Development of the High Priesthood in Ancient Israel
Deborah W. Rooke.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Land and Economy in Ancient Palestine
Jack Pastor.
Routledge, 1997
Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition
James K. Hoffmeier.
Oxford University Press, 2005
Judaic Religion in the Second Temple Period: Belief and Practice from the Exile to Yavneh
Lester L. Grabbe.
Routledge, 2000
Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context
Carol Meyers.
Oxford University Press, 1991
The Creation of History in Ancient Israel
Marc Zvi Brettler.
Routledge, 1998
The Jews from Cyrus to Herod
Norman H. Snaith.
Religious Education Press, 1949
The Biography of Ancient Israel: National Narratives in the Bible
Ilana Pardes.
University of California Press, 2000
The Geography of the Mediterranean Region: Its Relation to Ancient History
Ellen Churchill Semple.
Henry Holt, 1931
The Oxford History of the Biblical World
Michael D. Coogan.
Oxford University Press, 2001
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