Monday, March 26, 2007

The Historical Development of Ancient Israel

The Hapiru who entered Canaan around 1200 B.C. came from Egypt. The name is thought to mean outsider or marauder and is the probable root of the term Hebrew. The invaders were a Semitic group of mixed ancestry whose forebears had left Mesopotamia some six hun­dred years earlier during the conquest of Sumeria by Babylon. According to tradition, their patriarch Abra­ham came from Ur. They lived for several generations as pastoralists in the trans–Jordan highlands and then emigrated to Egypt, probably at about the time of the Hyksos domination. With the revival of the New King­dom under native Egyptian dynasties, the situation of the Semitic immigrants became more difficult. Op­pressed by a pharaoh (or pharaohs) whose identity re­mains the subject of controversy, a group of them fled to Sinai under the leadership of Moses. Moses, whose Egyptian name helps to confirm the biblical story of his origins, molded the refugees into the people of Israel and transmitted to them the Ten Commandments, the ethical code that forms the basis of Judaism, Christian­ity, and Islam.
The Israelites conquered their new homeland with great difficulty. The period between 1200 and 1020
B.C. appears to have been one of constant struggle. As described in the Book of Judges, the people of Israel were at this time a loose confederacy of tribes united by a common religion and by military necessity. Saul (reigned c. 1020–1000 B.C.) established a monarchy of sorts in response to the Philistine threat, but it was not until after his death that David (ruled 1000–961 B.C.)
consolidated the territories between Beersheba and the Galilee into the kingdom of Israel.
Under David’s son Solomon (reigned 961–922 B.C.), Israel became a major regional power. Commerce flourished, and the king used his wealth to construct a lavish palace as well as the First Temple at Jerusalem, a structure heavily influenced by Phoenician models. But Solomon’s glory came at a price. Heavy taxation and religious disputes led to rebellion after his death, and Is­rael divided into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Israel was a loosely knit, aristocratic monarchy occupying the land later known as Samaria. Judah, with its walled capital of Jerusalem, was poorer but more cohesive. Both, in the end, would fall prey to more powerful neighbors.
The danger came from the north. In what is now Syria, remnants of the Hittite empire had survived as petty states. Many of them were annexed in the twelfth century by the Aramaeans, a Semitic people whose most important center was Damascus. The Aramaic lan­guage would become the vernacular of the Middle East—it was the language, for example, in which Jesus preached. However, Syria remained politically unsta­ble. Assyria, once more in an expansionist phase and enriched by the conquest of Mesopotamia, filled the vacuum. The ministates of the region could not long expect to resist such a juggernaut. For a time, an al­liance between Israel and Damascus held the Assyrians at bay, but by 722 B.C., both had fallen to the armies of the Assyrian conquerors Tiglath-pileser and Sargon II. Sennacherib (ruled 705–682 B.C.) annexed Philistia and Phoenicia, after which Esarhaddon (ruled 680–689 B.C.) and Assurbanipal (reigned 669–c.627 B.C.), the greatest and most cultivated of the Assyrian emperors, con­quered Egypt. The tiny kingdom of Judah survived only by allying itself with the conquerors.
The end came in 587 B.C. A resurgent Babylonia had destroyed Assyria by allying itself with the Medes and adopting Assyrian military tactics. In a general set­tling of scores the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar II then sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and car­ried the Judaean leadership off to captivity in Babylon. Many of these people returned after Babylon was con­quered by the Persians in 539 B.C., but the Israelites or Jews, a name derived from the kingdom of Judah, did not establish another independent state until 142 B.C. Judaea and Samaria would be ruled for four hundred years by Persians and by Hellenistic Greeks, while thousands of Jews, faced with the desolation of their homeland, dispersed to the corners of the known world.

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