Israelite History in the Context of the Ancient Near East
* Geographical background
The Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean, including the regions that are now the location of the following states: Greece, Turkey, Iran (earlier called Persia), Iraq (the ancient Mesopotamia), Lebanon (the ancient Ugarit north of Canaan), Jordan (east of Canaan, across the Jordan river), Syria (related to ancient Assyria), Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel (the ancient Canaan, then Israel/Judah, then Judæa, then Palestine).
* Historical background
Historians call the location of the stories told in the Bible the Ancient Near East ANE). The ANE was the location of the first urban high cultures and of major empires vying for control over the “Fertile Crescent,” the agricultural heart-land of Mesopotamia and Canaan.
* Cultural background
Israel’s culture, including its cultic institutions and its literature, draws on sources common to its environment. Out of her specific cultural heritage and political-historical experience, however, Israelite prophets, wisdom teachers, and priests developed a monotheistic system, a unique form of religious, legal, and political thought which was to become the fundamental creed of several subsequent cultures, including Byzantine and Western Christendom and Islam.
The Bible still retains traces of the development of monotheism which was not instituted without a struggle against more traditional forms of religion.
Egypt: Our look at the powers surrounding and influencing ancient Israelite history at various times begins with Egypt, because it is the memory of the exodus of the Hebrews from slavery to Pharao in Egypt that constitutes the founding myth of the nation. (Cf. Deuteronomy 26:5-10 and elsewhere).
As ancient and sophisticated as, but quite distinct from, the culture of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the Old Kingdom (2850-2200) already establishes the basic forms of social hierarchy and religion, dominated by the agricultural rhythm based on the flooding periods of the river Nile, that were to determine the Egyptian world view and life style until the Hellenistic period and even into the periods of Christianization and, subsequently, Islamization of Egypt (7th cent CE).
The Middle Kingdom (2000-1750), arising after a period of disorder and unrest, establishes its power by restoring the patterns, mythologies, etc of the Old Kingdom, giving those archaic forms and myths canonical status. It is from this type of conservation of its cultural memory that Egyptian culture derived its centuries-lasting stability and continuity.
In biblical literature, Israel’s sentiments towards Egypt range from the negative depiction of the Pharao in the Exodus narrative (Exodus 1-15), to testimony to the political partnership between Egypt and Israel, a partnership upon which the independence of the Israelite and later the Judahite states depended.
The negative stereotype of the oppressive Pharaoh reflects the sentiments harbored by the pre-monarchic Hebrew tribes that consolidated in Canaan approximately between 1300 and 1000 BCE against the resistance of the Egyptian overlords and their allies, the Canaanite city states.
Once Israel established its monarchy on a par with the Egyptians and other smaller neighboring states, attitudes towards Egypt change. So, for example, the first Israelite monarchy, established by King David, is further maintained by his son, Solomon, through political marriages, including the marriage a Pharao’s daughter (cf. 1Kings 3:1)
In the years leading up to the destruction of the State of Judah in 586, the Judahite kings allied themselves with the Egyptians in order to resist the pressure of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (called “Assyrians” because of fear of censorship?) under Nebuchadnezzar II. (See 2 Kings 24-25) This proved a fatal tactical error, foreseen only by some of the prophets (cf. Jeremiah 26:20-24; 37:3-16). The ensueing Babylonian captivity or exile is the decisive catastrophy in Israelite history, and was considered as more desastrous than the slavery in Egypt of old (cf. Isaiah 52:4).
The southern Egyptian border city of Elephantine (Asswan) was the site of a Jewish place of worship (first an altar, then a temple), built perhaps as early as the late-7th century BCE (cf. Isaiah 19:19), to serve the needs of the members of a Jewish garrison of mercenaries as well as of Jewish traders settling there (rebuilt again under Persian rule after 525BCE).
In sum: The relationship between Israel and Egypt is complex and multifacetted. Egypt also saw the first attempts at monotheistic reform of a religion under Akhenaton (1364–1347), at a time when ties between Egypt and Canaan where close and when the later “Exodus” group of Hebrews supposedly resided in Egypt.
Mesopotamia: Israelite pre-history, the legendary era of the patriarchs, and the fate of the Israelite and Judahite monarchies are inextricably linked to the rise and decline of the major empires controlling Mesopotamia. Even in post-Biblical Jewish history, Mesopotamia is again the location of one of the most important centers of the Jewish diaspora.
Following is a schematic list of the empires of the “Land between the two Rivers” (i.e., the land between Euphrates and Tigris), highlighting their major impact on the political and cultural history of Israel.
— Sumer (ca. 3000BCE; non-Semitic; invention of cuneiform alphabet)
— Akkad (from 2300BCE; Semitic)
— Old Babylonian (from 1830BCE; Hammurabi’s code of law 1750); The age of the biblical Patriarchs. See Genesis 11:31-12:9 — semi-nomadic Aramean wanderings.
(ca. 1300-631; in 722 the Neo-Assyrian king Sargon II. destroys the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital Samaria; dispersion of the ten Northern Tribes; Sanherib laying siege to Jerusalem in 701), displaced by the
— Neo-Babylonian or Chaldeen Empire (ca. 626-539, with Nebukadnezzar II. of Babylon, the destroyer of the Salomonic Temple in Jerusalem and of the State of Judah; leading to the Babylonian Exile of the Jews in 586 BCE)
— Persian World Empire (beginning with Cyrus the Great, 539-529, who restored the Jews and other displaced ethno-political groups to their place of origin, reinstituting and reforming local religious observances; hence: sacrificial altar in Jerusalem rededicated ca. 515; Beginning of the Second Temple Period in Jewish History). Zoroastrian influences!
Greece: The Persian World Empire is conquered by Alexander the Macedonian in 333 (Battle of Issus), inaugurating the Age of Hellenism that united culturally and politically the whole Eastern Mediterranean, the the Near East, and Egypt, under Greek cultural influence. After the death of Alexander the Great, this policital conglomerate is organized in four smaller empires, distributed among the four generals of Alexander’s army.
Among these successor states Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria are of relevance for Jewish history. The Ptolemees ruled Judah from Egypt from 323 until 198 BCE, when Judah is taken over by the Seleucids who control Syro-Phoenicia (to the North-East of Judah).
The Hellenistic period saw a florishing of Greek speaking Jewish communities in Egypt, especially in the newly founded port city of Alexandria. Here, the first sacred Jewish scriptures were translated into Greek, the so-called Septuagint (LXX; beginning with the Pentateuch in 250 BCE). Greek speaking Jews wrote many works of religious literature. Most significant is the philosopher Philo of Alexandria (ca. 20 BCE – 50 CE).
Greek language and culture, however, became the mainstay of the emerging Christian community which originates mainly among those Greeks attracted to Jewish monotheism without making a full conversion (seboumenoi, “God-fearers”). Greek was understood also in Palestine, and the extend to which Jews and non-Jews exchanged ideas beyond the barriers of language is probably far greater than hitherto assumed. Yet, perhaps because nascent Christianity grafted Greek ideas onto a Greek translation of the Bible, the rabbinic leadership discouraged the study of Greek wisdom and culture, including Jewish works composed in Greek.
Rome: Rivalries in and around Judah lead to an insurrection against the Syrian overlords, and to the establishment of the Hasmonean Kingdom, a dynasty that lasted from 104 until the 63 when the Romans began to curtail Jewish independence.
The Hellenistic Diadochai (Alexander’s successor states) were too weak to withstand the pressure of this next great military power which began its series of conquests with the victory over Hannibal (202), the destruction of the Macedonian State, Alexander the Great’s erstwhile home-base (168), and the destruction of Carthage (North Africa, 146).
In the year 64 BCE, Pompeius vanquishes the Seleucid State and Judah comes under Roman influence (Roman province of Syria). From 4BCE to 6CE Judæa is part of a “Tetrarchy” (one of three autonomous regional provinces in Roman Syria), then reduced to a procuratorial province (6-41CE), shortly a kingdom again (under Herod Agrippa I., 41-44CE), again a province (44-50), a kingdom (50-68), and finally a province at war with the Empire.
66-74 The Jewish War.
Last Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire: Bar Kokhba revolt 132-135. Jerusalem (renamed Ælia Capitolina) becomes forbidden territory to the Jews. Judah renamed Philistaea/Palestine. Still, Jewish life does not end with these events. The rabbinic movement with new centers on the Mediterranean coast and in the Galilee establishes itself as the new leadership of the Jewish people throughout the diaspora. In response to the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis institute the prayer and holiday liturgies in use until today. Their legal scholarship culminates in the production in the major works of Jewish law, the Mishnah and the Talmud.
Summary: Key Dates in Ancient Israelite History
ca. 1200 Consolidation of Hebrew tribes as a confederacy in Canaan
ca. 1000 First Israelite Monarchy under David (Jerusalem capital)
965-926 King Solomon establishes a religious sanctuary
926 The united kingdom is divided into two states (cf. 1 Kings 12)
Israel to the North (capital: Samaria)
Judah to the South (capital: Jerusalem)
722 Israel destroyed by the Neo-Assyrians (cf. 2 Kings 17)
Dispersion of the ten northern tribes
701 Siege of Jerusalem, conquest miraculously averted
622 Josiah’s reform (2 Kings 22-23)
597 Jerusalem first attacked by the Neo-Babylonians
586 Jerusalem sacked. Temple destroyed. Babylonian Exile
539 Cyrus the Persian conquers Babylonia; end of the exile
515 Reinstitution of the sacrifical cult in Jerusalem
(Begin of the Second Temple period)
333 Alexander the Great defeats Persian Empire
167-164 Maccabean revolt
104-64 Hasmonean Kingdom
64 Roman conquest of Syro-Palestine
37-4BCE Herod the Great (Temple rebuilt in grand proportions)
66-74CE Jewish war against Rome
70 Jerusalem conquered and Temple destroyed
132-135 Revolt against Rome under Bar Kokhva
200-220 Redaction of the Mishnah (first Code of Rabbinic Law)
400 Palestinian (Jerusalem) Talmud
600 Babylonian Talmud