Thursday, November 22, 2007

The History of Civilization

Chapter Six: The Ancient Hebrews

Whether we call it Israel, Canaan, or Palestine, the land of the ancient Hebrews was doomed by its lack of geographical unity to be the meeting-place and battlefield of great empires. It was only, therefore, for brief periods, and in precarious fashion, that Israel became its own master, enjoying political independence and power.
The first Hebrews were probably not a homogeneous group, but of extremely mixed race. Abraham, the nation's legendary founder, came to be regarded as a figure of overwhelming religious significance, the first man to renounce idolatry and recognize one God.

By 1900 BC, large groups of Semitic people had moved into Egypt. Hebrew writers who reported being enslaved in Egypt are unlikely to have made it all up. People do not invent stories of their ancestors' shameful and dishonorable foreign servitude out of nothing at all.

Around 1200 BC, the Hebrews began escaping from slavery in Egypt. No archaeological records of the exodus exist, even in Egyptian monuments, probably because the Egyptian Hebrews numbered at most a few thousand. Their flight, apparently, caused no great concern in Egypt. This original kernel grew, and established an independent kingdom in nearby Canaan. To what extent the Canaanites influenced the culture of their conquerors is widely disputed.

With the accession of Saul, the first Israelite king, about 1020 BC, the Israelites became truly united as a political entity. With David, Saul's successor, the kingdom acquired greatness. He captured Jerusalem, the strongest fortress in the region, and made it his capital. At his death, all the countries surrounding the Israelite Kingdom were either subjugated or bound by treaties of friendship.

David's son and successor, Solomon, is known as the builder of the Temple of Jerusalem, which became a symbol of Israelite glory and splendor. Alas, it didn't last: the next two centuries became a series of struggles against petty states, followed by conquest by the late Bronze Age's superpowers. Northern Israel was conquered by the mighty and ravenous Assyrian Empire, while the South held out a few more years before being conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. The entire region was then captured by Alexander the Great, and finally, by Rome.

Although her political systems didn't endure, there is no doubt that the most outstanding contribution of the ancient Hebrews was the exquisite religion of the Jews.
Most people at this time worshipped some kind of idol. When their town was defeated and the idol destroyed, their religion ceased to exist. Contrariwise, the God of the Jews was far more abstract, and followed his worshippers wherever he went.

Pagan religions also offer no moral code, and generally do not deal with what we would call "the Big Questions". Through Moses, God brought the Ten Commandments which would serve as the basis for three great religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Pointless local superstitions and bloody animal sacrifices would soon be replaced with notions of justice, universal brotherhood, forgiveness, and peace.

The story so far... My previous posts on civilization are here.

There's an excellent book on The History of Ancient Israel, by Michael Grant. It's a bit scholarly, but runs the full gamut.


Adam said...

Up to today I had missed your "The History of Civilization" series, but after reading the latest entry I had to go back and peruse the previous editions. I found them all very interesting and quite informative. Keep up the good work. By the way the eye candy is great too.

Hansisgreat said...

Thanks, Adam. You rock!

Meeg said...

Interesting post.
Did you know a lot of archaeologists and historians say there is no evidence of the exodus or the Israelites' conquest of canaan under Joshua? They think the Israelites were just one of indigenous people of the region.
There also isn't any historical evidence from the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon the king of the united kingdom of Judea and Israel.

Hansisgreat said...

Well, there is the written record of their existence. It seems unlikely that the historians who wrote about the lives of these early kings just made it all up.

Nothing in life is certain. For all we know, there was no such person as George Washington.

Meeg said...

No George Washington? Then who slept in all those inns. ;)

Some people have suggested that David and Shlomo are just mythical which is possible or maybe they ruled over much smaller kingdom's in Canaan.