Ancient Israel possessed a unique civilization. It shared much of its culture with neighbouring peoples, but at its heart was a unique, monotheistic religion which embodied a unique moral teaching. It was also unique in that, tiny though ancient Israel was, it has had a greater, more direct impact on world history than almost any other ancient civilization. Only those of ancient India and ancient China can match it, and they were of incomparably greater size.
c. 1300-1200 BCE: The Israelites enter the land of Canaan: the age of the Judges starts
c. 1050-1010: The Israelites establish a kingdom, first under Saul (c.1050-1010) and then under David (c.1010-970)
c. 970: David’s son Solomon becomes king. He builds the Temple in Jerusalem
c. 931: After Solomon’s death, Israel divides into two kingdoms: Judah in the south, Israel in the north
722: The northern kingdom of Israel is dstroyed by the Assyrians
c. 620: A major religious revival takes place in the southern kingdom of Judah
597-582: Judah and Jerusalem are destroyed in a series of invasions by king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The leading men of Judah are taken into exile in Babylon
538: The Persian king Cyrus allows the exiles back, and encourages them to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem
164: The Jews revolt against the Seleucid kings under the leadership of the Maccabbees brothers
63: The Romans conquer Judaea and soon install the family of Herod the Great as rulers of Judaea
66-73 and 132-5 CE: Two great Jewish rebellions against the Romans end in the destruction of the Temple (70) and the expulsion of the Jews from near Jerusalem (135)
The Ancient Israelites settled the land of Canaan sometime between 1300 and 1200 BCE. They traced their descent to a nomadic clan chief called Abram, several centuries before, who had migrated to Canaan from Mesopotamia. His descendants had then migrated on to Egypt. Here, according to their ancestral records, they had been mistreated and enslaved, before escaping en masse and moving back up to Canaan.
When they arrived in Canaan, the Israelites brought with them a unique cultural facet, monotheism. For the first time in history, as far as we know, a religion had appeared which concerned the worship of only one god. By implication, this god was the universal God, the One who controlled all things.
The only possible rival to the Israelite claim to have the first monotheistic religion in world history is found in the reforms of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaton (died c.1335 BCE). These have often been interpreted to have promoted the worship of the Sun god, Aton, as the one god. However the information on these reforms is patchy, and it may have been as much a political revolution to undercut the power of the traditional priests as it was a religious one. In any case, it barely outlasted Akhenaton’s death.
The Israelite religion was not just unique at that time in recognizing a single god. It also promoted an ethical system which required high standards of behaviour from the people. In short, they were required to treat each other – including women and foreigners – with respect and consideration.
An elaborate code of law would build up over time, constructed around ideas of fairness and justice. At the heart of this code lay the Ten Commandments, which have formed the foundation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim ethics ever since.
Initially, the Israelites formed a loose confederation of twelve tribes. National leaders, called judges, emerged from time to time to deal with particular crises. However, by 1000 BCE the Israelites had established a kingdom, under their famous king, David. He and his son, Solomon, established their capital at Jerusalem, which also became the chief centre of the Israelite religion after Solomon built the only permitted temple there.
One Plan of Solomon’s Temple, as reconstructed from indications in the Bible
The kingdom shortly divided into two halves, and, thus weakened, the Israelites fell victim to the great powers of the region. The northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE.
During this period of division and decline, the Israelites developed a tradition of prophecy whereby a succession of men felt that they had been called by God to speak his messages to the people. These men came from different backgrounds, and clearly had different levels of education; but, in the course of warning the Israelites of impending doom unless they returned to obeying God, they developed a consistent religious philosophy. This revolved around a set of ideas based on the proposition that God was not just the one true God; he was also a God of love; that he required, not just religious ceremonial, but a worship of the heart, and one rooted in the “good life” – a life lived with generosity, mercy and love.
After the destruction of the kingdom of Judah, many of its inhabitants – thenceforth known to history as the “Jews” – were taken off to exile in Babylonia. There, the prophetic tradition continued, and the Bible (or Old Testament, as Christians know it), began to take shape as the Jewish laws, prophecies, psalms and other literature were written down. When the Persians conquered the Babylonians, their king, Cyrus, restored the Jews to their homeland (538 BCE), and allowed them to rebuild their temple.
Within a hundred years or so of the return from exile, the Jews had completed their scriptures, and so laid the foundations for later Judaism. Out of Judaism sprang Christianity, the main religion of Western civilization.
The Jews themselves remained in their homeland until the Roman period. Indeed, for a period, they ruled their own independent kingdom (164-63 BCE). However, the Romans placed them under the control of the family of Herod, who, although Jewish by religion, was of foreign origin. This, and the fact that the Herodians lived lives more like pagan Romans than pious Jews, meant that they were never truly accepted by the Jews as their rightful rulers. In any case, around 6BCE, Judaea was placed under direct Roman rule (though outlying regions remained under the rule of Herodian puppets).
The Jews deeply resented being under Roman power, and in 66 CE, rose in revolt. This was an unmitigated disaster, leading to complete defeat and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Another revolt in 115 CE led to the Jews being prohibited from living in Judaea. By that time, in fact, there were many more Jews living outside Judaea than inside it; however, this prohibition marks the true start of the “Diaspora”, the scattering of the Jews amongst the nations.
Ancient Israel was just a small nation in its day, but it has left a greater mark on the modern world than virtually any other.
1. Ancient Israel’s history can be tracked on the maps of Syria:
2. Maps of the ancient Middle East, which give the broader context within which Ancient Israel’s history (and before it, that of the Canaanites) took place:
3. Maps of the World during the period when Ancient Israelite civilization flourished, and showing what else was happening in the world:
The History of Ancient Palestine – an in-depth survey of the history of Palestine. This focuses particularly on the history of ancient Israel, but also covers the other peoples of the region.
The History of the Ancient Middle East – placing the history of Israel and Palestine in a regional context.
References to ancient Israel can be found in The History of Ancient Egypt.