1.4 The Hebrews


Year(s) Event(s)
c. 1300 – 1200 BCE Israelites leave Egypt (the Exodus)
c. 1050 – 1010 BCE Israelites establish a kingdom
c. 1000 – 970 BCE Reign of King David
c. 970 – 930 BCE Reign of King Solomon
931 BCE Israel divides into two kingdoms
586 – 539 BCE The Babylonian Captivity

Many argue that it is the Hebrews who exerted the greatest influence on Western society. The Hebrews began as a Semitic-speaking people with origins in the Mesopotamian city of Ur. Hebrew tradition begins their history with Abraham’s departure from Ur in southern Mesopotamia. According to their stories, Abraham led the Hebrews to found their own society in Canaan.  Therefore, Abraham is important in Jewish tradition, as he has been recognized as the first Jew, the patriarch from whom all Jews trace their descent, and a role model. As described in the Hebrew Scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament, Abraham also made a covenant with God, which blessed his descendants. Jews, Christians, and Muslims of today all recognize Abraham as a significant figure, though these major monotheistic religions view him a little differently. Respect for Abraham by believers in all three of these religions is just one indication that the world’s three major monotheistic religions are connected. Examining these connections reveals the extraordinary contributions that the Israelites made to World History. The Israelites were highly influential in developing the idea of monotheism, or belief in one god. Furthermore, they recorded their history orally at first, until their tradition was written down in the Hebrew Scriptures (alternatively referred to as the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament of the Christian Bible). The Hebrew Scriptures has been one of the most important texts ever written.

Eventually, by the end of the second millennium BCE (likely between 1200 and 1000 BCE), the Israelites established small kingdoms in the Levant. The Levant refers to areas adjacent to the eastern Mediterranean; in the ancient world, it comprised roughly the area from southern Anatolia through coastal areas of the eastern Mediterranean south and westward to the Egyptian delta. The Israelite kingdoms were concentrated along the Mediterranean coast in what are today Israel and the contested territory of the West Bank/Palestine.

Much debate exists amongst scholars about the sources used to reconstruct the history of the Israelites with much of the debate revolving around the use and interpretation of religious texts, particularly the Hebrew Scriptures. Right now, scholars rely fairly heavily on the Hebrew Scriptures to discuss periods before about 1200 BCE because other sources just do not exist. Some main points of contention have centered on dates, the purpose of religious texts, the reality that the Hebrew Scriptures were written centuries after the events they described, and the relationship between the scriptures and historical fact. Additionally, there has been back and forth discussion about whether archaeological finds confirm or disprove the narrative in the religious texts. These heated debates have led some scholars to question whether it is even possible to write a history of the ancient Israelites. For our purposes, this section will give an overview of Hebrew tradition and, using archaeological and collaborating evidence when possible, describe the development of the Israelite civilization.

“Land of Canaan to Abraham and Monotheism.”Judaism. 1999. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=11958&loid=610360 5:50.

Early Israelites

By leading people out of Ur, his homeland in Southern Mesopotamia, to eventually settle in Canaan, later called Palestine, Abraham began the traditional history of the Israelites. According to Hebrew tradition, even before leaving Ur, Abraham taught his followers about the existence of a single, creator god and rejected the idol-worship and sin of Ur. The narrative continues to explain how when Abraham agreed to God’s directive to leave his homeland, God blessed him and all of his descendants. God entered into a covenant with Abraham, saying, “…And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great…and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”[1] Jews recognize this covenant as indicating their special relationship with God, and it remains one of the most important aspects of the Jewish faith.

Tradition recounts how several generations later Abraham’s grandson, Israel (also called Jacob), had twelve sons, who became the ancestors of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. One of these twelve sons, Joseph, led followers from Canaan during a famine to settle in Egypt. As the biblical text describes, the Israelites were prosperous at first and were becoming powerful, leading the Egyptian pharaoh to fear their influence. To try to stem the Israelite influence, the pharaoh put restrictions on births and forced them into slave labor. Then, Moses, whose mother had secreted him away in a waterproof basket on the Nile River, played an important role in delivering his people from subjugation. According to Hebrew tradition, God tasked Moses with leading his people out of Egypt, a flight to freedom called Exodus around 1400 BCE. Moses led “the children of Israel” into Sinai, where they entered into the Sinai Covenant. This covenant bound all Israelites into a pact with God. Israelites agreed to worship God alone and obey his law, while God confirmed the place of the Israelites as his “Chosen People,” whom he would protect. As part of the covenant, Israelites agreed to follow the Ten Commandments. According to Hebrew tradition, God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, instructing the Israelites to worship only him, keep the Sabbath, and honor their parents. The Ten Commandments also prohibit idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, dishonesty, and coveting.

These written traditions established important elements of the Jewish faith. For example, the Hebrew Scriptures trace Jewish descent from the Hebrew patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Israel (alternatively known as Jacob), and the twelve sons of Israel. They also describe the transition to monotheism and the covenant relationship between God and “the children of Israel.” Israelites believed in one god, Yahweh, who created and ruled over everything in the universe, and overall, they perceived Yahweh as being just and merciful. The ideas that there is a single, universal god and that his laws apply to everyone have been defining tenets of other monotheistic religions. Subsequent written and oral traditions, like the Talmud, reflect further development of Jewish beliefs, ethics, laws, and practice.


“Jewish History: Moses and the Passover.” The Jewish People: A Story of Survival—Educator’s Edition. 2007. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=39716&loid=60730. 3:18.

The United Kingdom of Israel

Following the orders of Yahweh as communicated through Moses, the Israelites wandered the desert of the Sinai Peninsula for several decades before settling in the promised land, Canaan (Palestine).  They formed kingdoms in the Levant just prior to 1000 BCE. King Saul (c. 1030 – 1009 BCE), a member of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, established the first Israelite monarchy, but ruled over a fairly limited territory and died in battle with the Philistines. He was crowned king and began the process of unification, but did not completely defeat his enemies and finish unification before he died. His son, King David, (d. 969 BCE), is often portrayed as Israel’s greatest ruler or a model king. He established the United Kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Jerusalem. King David’s successor, his son Solomon, further shaped the kingdom.


Map 2.5 | The United Kingdom of Israel | The map shows the unified state in blue, as well as the surrounding territories that paid tribute to the United Kingdom of Israel. Author: Regno di Davide Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In popular memory, King David is probably most remembered for defeating Goliath. Historical traditions also celebrate him for expanding the borders of a newly unified Israel, contributing to the Book of Psalms, and, in Christian tradition, for being a forbear of Jesus. David was a “warrior king,” who defeated both internal and external enemies to unite Israel. He maintained a large standing army that helped extend his influence and create neighboring tributary states. With control of trade routes and tribute coming in from neighboring territories, Israel became a wealthy state under David. With this wealth, David began to build Jerusalem into the capital city of the Israelites, with further plans to build a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant (which according to Hebrew tradition held the Ten Commandments). David died before building this temple, but tradition credits him with other achievements, including composing many of the hymns and prayers in the Book of Psalms. Like Abraham, David is considered an important figure by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

King Solomon, David’s son, ruled a mostly peaceful realm. He accomplished his father’s goal of building the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The temple exemplified monumental architecture and became a focal point for the Jews of Jerusalem. Its ruins, known as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall, are still a site of Jewish prayer and pilgrimage. Solomon also directed the building of a royal palace, a defensive wall around the city of Jerusalem, and fortresses along the kingdom’s frontier. Administratively, Solomon set up twelve districts, overseen by purveyors, who collected tribute in kind (usually as crops or foodstuffs). Each of the twelve districts was charged with supplying the king and the court for one month a year. Finally, Solomon used treaties and reciprocal trade agreements to maintain relatively peaceful relationships with Israel’s neighbors. He also forged diplomatic relations through marriage; according to scripture, he had 700 wives! After Solomon’s death, what had been the United Kingdom of Israel split into two pieces: Israel and Judah. Over the long term, some of Solomon’s policies, including forced labor and tributary payments, likely contributed to the divide.

“King Solomon.” Wellspring of Holiness: Jerusalem—The Making of a Holy City. 2011. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=52513&loid=182627. 2:56.

After the decline of the United Kingdom of Israel, Hebrew tradition describes the significance of great prophets or teachers, who spoke on behalf of god and set moral and ethical standards for the whole community. Yahweh sent these prophets to warn the Israelites that they were not abiding by their covenant. The prophets during this later period, especially Jeremiah and Second Isaiah, cultivated a new conceptualization of the covenant, which was much more personal as it was a relationship between Yahweh and each individual.

The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE.  By 720 BCE, the ten tribes of Israel had been dispersed amongst the neighboring region; only the tribes of Judah and Levi remained. There is much debate and many stories of what happened to the Lost Tribes of Israel, but historically there is no evidence to indicate their fate.

In 586 BCE, the destruction of the Israelites as a political power was complete when the Chaldeans, also known as the Neo-Babylonians, attacked and destroyed of the kingdom of Judah. In a move designed to both punish and enforce control over the new area, the Temple of Solomon was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from their homeland. This is a period known as the Babylonian Captivity. After Judah’s defeat, most of the survivors were exiled to Babylon. The Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah declared that the captivity was God’s punishment because the Israelites had strayed away from the covenant with God.  Even today, the Babylonian Captivity holds much symbolism for those of the Jewish faith.  Complete the readings on the destruction of Judah, the creation of the Torah, and watch the video segments on the Babylonian Captivity to get a better understanding of this period.

“Jewish History: Babylonian Conquest.” The Jewish People: A Story of Survival—Educator’s Edition. 2007. Accessed April 8, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=39716&loid=60733. 2:39.

The Assyrians and later the Greeks and then the Romans brought parts of the former United Kingdom of Israel under their rule. These conquests and persecution forced members of the Jewish population into exile. This conceptualization of being members of a diaspora, that is, a scattered people who desire to return to their homeland, has played an important part in the formation of a Jewish identity. Also, in part, due to this history, preservation of cultural and religious heritage has become an enduring objective of Jews.

Despite the calamity of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Captivity, the Hebrews survived as a people.  In 539 BCE, after the Neo-Babylonians had been defeated by the Persians (Achaemenids), they were allowed to return to Palestine. Upon their return, the remaining Israelites rebuilt Jerusalem and a second temple was erected.  Although the Israelites would never create a new kingdom, they were able to maintain their identity under the domination of other peoples.

Key Questions

  • What made Judaism so sustainable in the face of political domination, terror and persecution?

[1] As quoted in “Abraham and the Covenant,” Israel and Judaism Studies. https://www.ijs.org.au/abraham-and-the-covenant/.