Land of IsraelThe Jews emerged quietly from the early confines of recorded history, over three thousand five hundred years ago. As a small family, the first Jews emigrated from Mesopotamia to Israel many centuries before Buddha spoke half a continent away, and hundreds of years before Homer was to compose the classics of Greek literature. The daughter religions were yet to appear on the horizon. Over a millennium and a half would pass before Jesus would speak in Jerusalem; over two millennia before Mohammed would be born. The Jewish family, a small band of relatives, removed themselves from Mesopotamia, which once had given birth to recorded history and Western civilization, and entered Canaan, later to be known as Israel. There they settled briefly, shepherds among other peoples. Two generations later, the growing clan was already headed for Egypt, and a steady descent into slavery there.

The family emerged from Egypt a people, conquering the land of Canaan as their own, and eventually giving birth to a new kingdom. Caught between the world power centers of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the fortunes of the country waxed and waned across the decades, often in terms of the neighboring “super-powers’“ desires and strengths. The height of Jewish power and achievement was King David’s. Crowned about 1,000 B.C.E., he extended his rule over wide territory, while internally establishing new patterns of cultural, political, and religious life. Just four hundred years later, all lay in ruins. Babylonia, the dominant force in Mesopotamia, had captured the country, had destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple, and had taken the Jews into their first exile. Full independence had come and gone.

As the people changed across those years, so did the type and style of leadership. The patriarchal authority exercised by the forefathers over the small Jewish clan receded, as the Jews became a nation, before individual charismatic leadership. First this appeared on a national scope, as Moses led the people out of Egypt and through the desert, and as Joshua led them in their conquest of the promised land. Later, as the tribes settled each in its own area, individual “judges” arose to lead the loose confederation when times demanded. This type of rule, in turn, had to give way before the growing need for federation and permanence. The kingship was born, under the threatening shadow of the presence of another strong nation in the land—the Philistines. The kingship survived, despite a political north-south division just forty years after King David’s death. For most of its history as an independent nation, two kings ruled over the people Israel, one from the north and one from the south.

The religious leadership, too, was split, though in a different way. The priests, understood to be the descendents of Moses’ brother Aaron, were entrusted with carrying out the Temple service. Simultaneously with the kingship, however, there arose leaders independent of cult and of monarchy, individuals who could often criticize priest or king in the name of God and escape unharmed—the prophets. These men and women, considered divine emissaries, were charged with carrying both the word of God to the people and the word of the people to God. In the process, they recorded and left for future generations some of the world’s greatest religious poetry.

The literature inherited from all this period is the Bible, a collection of histories, prophecies, prayers, poems, and laws spanning more than a thousand years. The holiness accorded the text guaranteed both its survival and its careful transmission, preserving a relatively clear window to the past. The earliest histories are there recorded- as stories in the age of the patriarchs, and as a combination of narrative and documents, from the exodus from Egypt through the destruction of the First Temple. The prophecies are contained in the books bearing the prophets’ names. Prayer, wisdom literature, and instructive stories constitute the rest of the Bible.

Reading such texts bears some semblance to witnessing a birth. This was the formative age of the Jewish people, politically, religiously, and institutionally. It was also the age that witnessed the first contacts of the people and the Land that were to share the same name—Israel. In the Bible we find not only the accounts of these first contacts, but also reflections of the first struggles in this developing relationship, one that was to continue across the millennia.

The Biblical Age—A Chronology


1800? First Jews move to Canaan and eventually to Egypt.

c.-1280 Exodus from Egypt

-1250 to -1020 Conquest of most of the Land by the Tribes under Joshua. Tribes settle, each in its territory. Loose confederation exists between them. Leadership by “Judges.”

-1020 to -920 United monarchy.

a. Saul (1020-1000). First steps to unity.

b. David (1000-960). Period of greatest expansion, defeat of all enemies, birth of new political, cultural, and religious institutions.

c. Solomon (960-920). Period of tranquility, wealth, and much construction, including the Temple.
-920 Monarchy splits, North and South.

c.-750 Age of the great literary prophets begins.

-720 North is defeated, population exiled by Assyria.

-621 Religious reform under King Josiah, accentuating the centrality of Jerusalem.

-586 Fall of Jerusalem and South. Exile of southern tribes.

-538 Edict of Cyrus, allowing Jews to return to Israel from Babylonia.

-520 to –515 Second Temple built by small group of Jews living around Jerusalem. Most Jews still in Babylonia.

-450 to –485 Ezra and Nehemiah lead a return to Israel. Reorganization of religious and political life.