A potted history of Israel

The history of Israel strictly begins with Jacob, whose sons formed the nucleus of the nation of Israel, and with Jacob’s grandsons can be considered to be directly or indirectly responsible for ensuring the stories of the ancient patriarchs were initially recorded.

Our knowledge of Israel’s history is gathered from many sources, most of which are to be found in the Old Testament, and only loosely supplemented from external sources.

Our earliest account of Israel is to be found in the story that can be reasonably considered to have been caused to be recorded in Akkadian by Jacob’s grandchildren / great grandchildren, and is found embedded within Genesis, along with other versions of this story.

Our next accounting comes from the Israelite scribal tribe, the Levites, who we can surmise kept the records of the exodus from Egypt in Akkadian. This is found embedded in Genesis and Numbers, along with other versions of this story.

The first accounting from oral traditions is likely to have come from the descendents of Aaron, the high priest under Moses, and also from the Levite tribe. They were primarily located in the city of Hebron, the first city of the tribe of Judah, in southern Israel. This was supplemented by excapsulations of the oral traditions of the tribes of northern Israel.

We can date the entry of the Israelites into Canaan with considerable confidence, since their existence in the land (but not in cities) is recorded in the Egyptian Merneptah stele, dated to 1208 BC. The Eqyptians had already lost their dominance in Canaan during the latter years of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC), and Merneptah’s excursion does not seem to have re-establishing their authority in the land. It was briefly and tenuously reasserted in the reign of Ramesses III (1186-1155 BC).

The Israelites were most firmly settled in the hill-country of Canaan, but they had trouble establishing their dominance in the plains next to the sea, where the people had longstanding and well-established cities. The Israelite occupation of the land also suffered from the settlement of the Sea Peoples in Canaan. These people had caused the Egyptians much grief, but were finally defeated by Ramesses III. They appear in the Bible under the name of one of these tribes of people, namely  the Philistines.

For the first two hundred years of Israelite occupation of Canaan the people were organized under a tribal structure, particularly in the northern parts of Israel. In the south, the tribes of Judah and Simeon were ruled by the tribal chief of the tribe of Judah, initially Caleb, with his descendants probably retaining dynastic power even under King Saul.

The rule of King David (ca. 1000 BC) was the high point of Israelite power in the region. The reign of his son, King Solomon, saw Israel aspire to be an intellectual leader in the world of those days. This intellectual activity followed the invention of writing in the Hebrew script. This can be dated around the time of King David. The intellectual re-birth of the nation was built on the beauty of the psalms written by and inspired by David. In Solomon’s time, this flowering of intellectual activity led to the collection of wisdom literature found in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the transformation of an Ishtar myth into the celebration of sex in the Song of Songs, and possibly even the composition of the book of Job as a reflective work on the nature of suffering.

Despite his reputed (acquired) wisdom, Solomon was not a wise king. His reign brought about the centralization of power in his capital of Jerusalem and the collapse of the old tribal structure. Indeed, the united kingdom established by Saul and then David did not survive after Solomon’s death, with the northern tribes rejecting autocratic rule from Jerusalem. Despite the fact that the northern kingdom is depicted in 2 Kings and Chronicles as idolatrous, most prophetic activity seems to have taken place in the northern kingdom. We know little of religious life in the southern kingdom, but one suspects that it ossified around worship in the Jerusalem temple.

In ca. 740 BC, the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians, and was never restored. In 587 BC the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the southern kingdom came to an abrupt end. The kingdom was partially restored under the Persian king, Cyrus (ca. 536), and later Persian kings, with a small new temple being build. The resettlement under Cyrus was strengthened new arrivals, and eventually by the activities of Nehemiah and Ezra. However, during this entire period, until the revolt under the Maccabees (166 BC), the rulers of the nation only held power under the grant of authority, firstly by the Persians, and then by the Greeks.

The Maccabees seized power, and ruled the nation for a number of generations. Rule by the successors of the Maccabees came to end when the Roman general, Pompey, conquered Jerusalem (63 BC). In ca. 40 BC, Herod the Great became the client king of Israel, under the Romans. It was under his autocratic regime that the second temple was greatly extended and enhanced.

Jesus was born during the final years of Herod the Great, in ca. 4 BC. His life and teachings represented a point of a second dividing of Israel’s history, the first being after the death of King Solomon.