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History of ancient Israel and Judah
Israel and Judah were Iron Age kingdoms of the old Near East. The area of time covered in this page is from the first mention of the name Israel in the archaeological record (1200 BCE) to the end of a independent Judean kingdom near the time of Jesus Christ.
The two kingdoms arose on the most eastern coast of the Mediterranean, the most western part of the Fertile Crescent, between the old empires of Egypt to the south, Assyria, Babylonia, later Persia to the north and east, Greece and later Rome across the sea to the west. The area is small, maybe only 100 miles north to south and 40 or 50 miles east to west.
Israel and Judah were from the Canaanite culture of the late Bronze Age, and were based on villages that formed and grew in the southern Levant highlands (today for the region between the coastal plain and the Jordan Valley) between c. 1200-1000 BCE. Israel became an important local power in the 9th and 8th centuries BCE before falling to the Assyrians. The southern kingdom, Judah, became rich inside the greater empires of the region before a revolt against Babylon led to it being destroyed early in the 6th century.
Judean exiles returned from Babylon early in the following Persian period, starting a Judahite presence in the province of Yehud, as Judah was now called. Yehud was absorbed into the subsequent Greek-ruled kingdoms which followed the conquests of Alexander the Great. In the 2nd century BC, the Jews went up against Greek rule and created the Hasmonean kingdom, which became first a Roman dependency and soon went under the rule of the Roman Empire.
- 1 Late Bronze Age background (1550-1200 BCE)
- 2 Pre-Exilic period
- 3 Exilic and Post-Exilic period
- 4 Religion
- 5 Related pages
- 6 References
Late Bronze Age background (1550-1200 BCE)
Geography and human settlement
The eastern Mediterranean seaboard - the Levant - goes 400 miles north to south from the Taurus Mountains to the Sinai desert, and 70 to 100 miles east to west between the sea and the Arabian desert. The coastal area of the southern Levant, large in the south and becoming short to the north, the southernmost part has a zone of foothills, the Shephalah; like the plain this area narrows as it goes northwards, ending at Mount Carmel. East of the plain and the Shephalah is a mountainous ridge, the "hill country of Judah" in the south, the "hill country of Ephraim" north of that, then Galilee and the Lebanon mountains. To the east again lie the steep-sided valley occupied by the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the wadi of the Arabah, which continues down to the eastern arm of the Red Sea. Beyond the plateau is the Syrian Desert, separating the Levant from Mesopotamia. To the southwest is Egypt, to the northeast Mesopotamia. "The Levant thus constitutes a narrow corridor whose geographical setting made it a constant area of contention between more powerful entities".
The central and northern part of the Levantine coast was known in Classical times as Phoenicia; the southernmost portion was known to the Egyptians as Canaan, by which they seem to have meant all their Asian possessions. In the bible Canaan can mean all of the land west of the Jordan river, or, more narrowly, the coastal strip. By Classical times the name Canaan had been dropped in favour of "Philistia", "Land of the Philistines", despite the fact that the Philistines had long since disappeared. The modern name "Palestine" is derived from this. Northeast of Canaan/Palestine was Aram, later called Syria after the Assyrians, who had likewise long since vanished. 
Settlement during the Late Bronze Age was concentrated in the coastal plain and along major communication routes, with the central hill-country only sparsely inhabited; each city had its own ruler, constantly at odds with his neighbours and appealing to the Egyptians to adjudicate his differences. One of these Canaanite states was Jerusalem: letters from the Egyptian archives indicate that it followed the usual Late Bronze pattern of a small city with surrounding farmlands and villages; unlike most other Late Bronze city-states, there is no indication that it was destroyed at the end of the period.
Canaan and the Late Bronze collapse
Canaan in the 13th and early 12th centuries had people of various origins, united by a common socioeconomic system of city-states administered and controlled by Egypt. Egyptian power and the Canaanite city-state system collapsed. From the collapse two new communities emerged in the 12th century BCE, the Israelites in the hill country and the Philistines in the southern part of the coastal plain. The Philistines clearly represent the arrival of a considerable number of outsiders, probably from Cyprus, with their own non-indigenous culture. The Israelites are just as clearly indigenous to Canaan: to take linguistics as just one indicator, Judahite and Israelite Hebrew of the early 1st millennium BCE group with Phoenician, Ammonite, Moabite and Edomite; and within that grouping a "core Canaanite" of Israelite and Phoenician can be distinguished from a "fringe Canaanite" of Judahite, Ammonite, Moabite and Edomite.
The causes of the Bronze Age collapse - which extended throughout the eastern Mediterranean - are obscure. Drought, famine and other stresses may be behind the widespread population movements of the time. Whatever the cause, several important Canaanite cities were destroyed at the end of the Bronze Age (over a period of more than a century), and Canaanite culture was gradually absorbed into that of the Philistines, Phoenicians and Israelites.
Iron Age I (1200-1000 BCE)
The Merneptah stele, erected by an Egyptian pharaoh about 1200 BC, contains the first record of the name Israel: "Israel is laid waste and his seed is not." This Israel, identified as a people, were probably in the northern part of the central highlands. As chaos spread, people went to live in the previously unsettled highlands: surveys have identified more than 300 small settlements, most of them new and the largest with a population of no more than 300, in the Palestinian highlands during Iron Age I. The villages were bigger and more numerous in the northern regions (biblical Manasseh and Ephraim), although no settlements can be described as urban. The total settled population at the beginning of the period was about 20,000, and double this number by the end. Nevertheless, while Iron Age I villages with features such as four-roomed houses, collar-rim store jars, and hewn water-cisterns are counted as Israelite when found in the highlands, it is in fact impossible to differentiate these from Canaanite sites of the same period; nor is it possible to distinguish between Hebrew and Canaanite inscriptions down to the 10th century.
In Iron Age I the highlands lack any sign of centralised authority, or of temples, shrines, or centralised worship in general (although cult-objects associated with the Canaanite god El have been found); almost the sole marker distinguishing the highland "Israelite" villages from Cannanite sites is an absence of pig bones, although whether this can be taken as an ethnic marker or is due to other factors remains a matter of dispute.
The same period saw the rise of the kingdoms of the kingdoms of Aram Damascus and Ammon to the east of the northern hill country, Moab (east of the Dead Sea), and Edom (in the Arabah south of the Dead Sea), in that order.
Iron Age II (1000-586 BCE)
An inscription of the Egyptian pharaoh Shoshenq I, probably identical with the biblical Shishak, record a series of campaigns apparently directed at the area immediately north of Jerusalem in the second half of the 10th century BCE. About a hundred years later, in the 9th century BCE, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III names Ahab of Israel among his enemies at the battle of Qarqar (853 BCE), while in the Mesha stele (c.830 BCE) a king of Moab celebrates his success in throwing off the oppression of the "House of Omri" (i.e. Israel). Similarly, the Tel Dan stele tells of the death of a king of Israel, probably Jehoram, at the hands of an Aramaen king about 841 BCE. Excavations at Samaria, the Israelite capital, further reinforce the impression of a powerful, centralised kingdom in the northern highlands during the 9th and 8th centuries. In the second half of the 8th century king Hoshea of Israel revolted against the Assyrians, and was crushed (c.722 BCE). Part of the population was deported, outside settlers were brought in to replace them, and Israel became an Assyrian province.
The first evidence for the existence of an organised kingdom in the southern region comes from the mid 9th century Tel Dan stele, which mentions the death of a king of the "House of David" alongside the king of Israel; the contemporary Mesha stele may also mention the House of David, although the reconstruction which allows this reading is disputed. It is generally assumed that this "House of David" is identical with the biblical dynasty, but the archaeological evidence from surface surveys indicates that during the 10th and 9th centuries Jerusalem was only one of the four large villages in the area, with no sign of primacy over its neighbours. It was only in the last part of the 8th century that Jerusalem experienced a period of rapid growth, achieving a population far greater than at any time before and clear primacy over the surrounding towns. The older scholarly reconstruction of events is that this was due to an influx of refugees from Israel following its conquest by the Assyrians (c.722 BC), but the newer view is that it reflects a cooperative effort between Assyria and the kings of Jerusalem to establish Judah as a pro-Assyrian vassal state exercising control over the valuable olive industry. The sudden collapse of the Assyrian power in the last half of the 7th century led to an unsuccessful bid for independence under king Josiah, followed by the destruction of Jerusalem by Assyria's successor, the neo-Babylonian empire (587/586 BCE).
Exilic and Post-Exilic period
Babylonian and Persian periods (586-333 BCE)
In 586 BCE, the Babylonians, under king Nebuchadnezzar II captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple of Solomon, ended the Davidic kingship, and carried the people into captivity. Only the poorest were left behind in Judah, now the Babylonian province of Yehud with its capital at Mizpah in the former territory of Benjamin, north of Jerusalem. A few years later, again according to the bible, the governor of Yehud was murdered by rivals, triggering another exodus of refugees, this time to Egypt. Thus by about 580 the people of Judah were to be found in three separate locations, the elite in Babylon (where, incidentally, they appear to have been well treated), a large community in Egypt, and a remnant in Judah. The Exile ended when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon (traditionally 538 BCE). The Persians reconstituted Judah/Yehud as a province ("Yehud medinata") within the satrapy "Beyond the River", and over the following century some of the exiles returned to Jerusalem. There they eventually rebuilt the Temple (traditionally 516/515 BCE), but for over a century the administrative capital remained at Mizpah. Samaria, meanwhile, continued as the province of Semarina within the same satrapy as Yehud.
The Persian Period
In 539 BCE the Persians conquered Babylon and in 537 BCE, inaugurated the Persian period of Jewish history. In 520 BCE Cyrus the Great allowed Jews to return to Judea and rebuild the Temple (completed 515 BCE). He appointed Zerubbabel (the grandson of the second to last Judean king, Jehoiachin) governor, but did not allow the restoration of the kingdom. The influence of Zoroastrianism on monotheism, Judaism, as well as Christianity are still the subject of academic debate.
Without a powerful king, the Temple became more powerful, and priests became the dominant authority. However, the Second Temple had been constructed under a foreign power, and there were lingering questions about its legitimacy. This provided the condition for various sects to develop within Judaism over the coming centuries, each of which claimed to represent "Judaism". Most of these typically discouraged social intercourse, especially marriage, with members of other sects.
The end of the Babylonian Exile saw not only the construction of the Second Temple, but, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, the final version ion of the Torah as well. Although the priests controlled the monarchy and the Temple, scribes and sages (who later became the rabbis) monopolized the study of the Torah, which (starting from the time of Ezra) was read publicly on market-days. These sages developed and maintained an oral tradition alongside of the Holy Writ, and identified with the prophets. According to Geza Vermes, such scribes were often addressed using a basic term of respect, "lord."
Hellenistic and Roman periods (333 BCE-70 CE)
The Hellenistic period began in 332 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered Persia. Upon his death in 323 BCE, his empire was divided among his generals. At first, Judea was ruled by the Egyptian-Hellenic Ptolemies, but in 198 BCE, the Syrian-Hellenic Seleucid Empire, under Antiochus III, seized control over Judea.
The Hellenistic Period saw the canonization of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), according to one theory, and the emergence of extra-Biblical sacred traditions. The earliest evidence of a Jewish mysticism tradition surrounds the book of Ezekiel, written during the Babylonian Exile. Virtually all known mystical texts, however, were written at the end of the Second Temple period. Some scholars think the esoteric traditions of the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), were influenced by Persian beliefs, Platonic philosophy and Gnosticism.
2 Esdras 14:45-46, which was written in the second century CE, declares: "Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people." This is the first known reference to the canonized Hebrew Bible, and the seventy non-canonical texts may have been mystical; the Talmud suggests other mystical traditions which may have their roots in Second Temple Judaism.
The Near East was cosmopolitan, especially during the Hellenistic period. Several languages were used, and the matter of the lingua franca is still subject of some debate. The Jews almost certainly spoke Aramaic among themselves. Greek was often used throughout the entire eastern portion of the Mediterranean. Judaism was rapidly changing, reacting and adapting to a larger political, cultural, and intellectual world, and in turn drawing the interests of non-Jews. Historian Shaye Cohen observed:
- All the Judaisms of the Hellenistic period, of both the diaspora and the land of Israel, were Hellenized, that is, were integral parts of the culture of the ancient world. Some varieties of Judaism were more hellenized than others, but none was an island unto itself. It is a mistake to imagine that the land of Palestine preserved a "pure" form of Judaism and that the diaspora was the home of adulterated or diluted forms of Judaism. The term "Hellenistic Judaism" makes sense, then, only as a chronological indicator for the period from Alexander the Great to the Macabees or perhaps to the Roman conquests of the first century BCE. As a descriptive term for a certain type of Judaism, however, it is meaningless because all the Judaisms of the Hellenistic period were "Hellenistic." (Cohen 1987: 37)
Cultural Struggles with Hellenism
Many Jews lived in the Diaspora, and the Judean provinces of Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee were populated by many Gentiles (who often showed an interest in Judaism). Jews had to live with the values of Hellenism and Hellenistic philosophy, which were often directly at odds with their own values and traditions. Broadly, Hellenistic culture saw itself as a civilizor, bringing civilized values and ways to peoples they thought of as insular or either backwards or degenerate.
For example, Greek-style bath houses were built in sight of the Temple in Jerusalem, for instance, and even in that city the gymnasium became a center of social, athletic, and intellectual life. Many Jews, including some of the more aristocratic priests, embraced these institutions, although Jews who did so were often looked down upon due to their circumcision, which Jews saw as the mark of their covenant with God, but which Hellenistic culture viewed as an aesthetic defacement of the body. Consequently, some Jews began to abandon the practice of circumcision (and thus their covenant with God), while others bridled at Greek domination.
At the same time that Jews were confronting the cultural differences at their door, they had to confront a paradox in their own tradition: their Torah laws applied only to them, and to proselytes, but their God, they believed, was the one and only God of all. This situation led to new interpretations of the Torah, some of which were influenced by Hellenic thought and in response to Gentile interest in Judaism. It was in this period that many concepts from early Greek philosophy entered or influenced Judaism, as well as debates and sects within the religion and culture of the time.
In 331 BCE Alexander the Great took over the Persian Empire. Upon his death in 323 BCE his empire crumbled, and the province of Yehud became part of the kingdom of Egypt, ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty. Ptolemaic rule was mild: Alexandria became the largest Jewish city in the world, and Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt (281-246 BCE) promoted Jewish culture, sponsoring the Septuagint translation of the Torah. This period also saw the beginning of the Pharisees and other Jewish Second Temple parties such as the Sadducees and Essenes. But in the early 2nd century BCE Yehud fell to the Seleucid Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (174-163 BCE), who, in contrast to the tolerance shown by the Ptolemids, attempted complete Hellenization of the Jews. His desecration of the Temple sparked a national rebellion, which ended in the expulsion of the Syrians and the re-consecration of the Temple under the Maccabees
The kingdom established by the Maccabees was a conscious attempt to revive the Judah described in the bible: a Jewish monarchy ruled from Jerusalem and stretching over all the territories once ruled by David and Solomon. In order to carry out this project the Hasmonean kings conquered (and forcibly converted to Judaism) the one-time Moabites, Edomites and Ammonites, as well as the lost kingdom of Israel.
Generally, the Jews accepted foreign rule when they were only required to pay tribute, and otherwise allowed to govern themselves internally. Nevertheless, Jews were divided between those favoring hellenization and those opposing it, and were divided over allegiance to the Ptolemies or Seleucids. When the High Priest Simon II died in 175 BCE, conflict broke out between supporters of his son Onias III (who opposed hellenization, and favored the Ptolemies) and his son Jason (who favored hellenization, and favored the Seleucids). A period of political intrigue followed, with priests such as Menelaus bribing the king to win the High Priesthood, and accusations of murder of competing contenders for the title. The result was a brief civil war.
Huge numbers of Jews flocked to Jason's side, and in 167 BCE the Seleucid king Antiochus IV invaded Judea, entered the Temple, and stripped it of money and ceremonial objects. Jason fled to Egypt, and Antiochus imposed a program of forced hellenization, requiring Jews to abandon their own laws and customs under threat of slaughter. At this point Mattathias and his five sons, John, Eleazar, Simon, Jonathan, and Judah Maccabee, priests of the Hasmon family living in the rural village of Modein (pronounced "Mo-Ah-Dein"), assumed leadership of a bloody and ultimately successful revolt against the Seleucids.
Judah liberated Jerusalem in 165 BCE and restored the Temple. Fighting continued, and Judah and his brother Jonathan were killed. In 141 BCE an assembly of priests and others affirmed Simon as high priest and leader, in effect establishing the Hasmonean dynasty. When Simon was killed in 135 BCE, his son (and Judah's nephew) John Hyrcanus took his place as high priest and king.
The Hasmonean kingdom
After defeating the Seleucid forces, John Hyrcanus established a new monarchy in the form of the priestly Hasmonean dynasty in 152 BCE — thus making priests as political as well as religious authorities. Although the Hasmoneans were popularly seen as heroes and leaders for resisting the Seleucids, some regarded their reign as lacking the religious legitimacy conferred by descent from the Davidic dynasty of the First Temple Era.
Sadducees, Essenes, and Pharisees
The rift between the priests and the sages grew during the Hellenistic period, when the Jews faced new political and cultural struggles. Around this time the Sadducee party emerged as the party of the priests and allied elites (the name Sadducee comes from Zadok, the high priest of the first Temple).
The Essenes were another early mystical-religious movement, who are believed to have rejected either the Seleucid appointed high priests, or the Hasmonean high priests, as wrong. But they soon rejected the Second Temple, arguing that the Essene community was itself the new Temple, and that obedience to the law represented a new form of sacrifice.
Although their lack of concern for the Second Temple alienated the Essenes from the great mass of Jews, their notion that the sacred could exist outside of the Temple was shared by another group, the Pharisees ("separatists"), based within the community of scribes and sages. The meaning of the name is unclear, though.
During the Hasmonean period, the Sadducees and Pharisees functioned primarily as political parties (the Essenes not being as politically oriented). The political differences between the Sadducees and Pharisees became evident when Pharisees demanded that the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannai choose between being king and being High Priest in the traditional manner. This demand led to a brief civil war that ended with a bloody repression of the Pharisees, although at his deathbed the king called for a reconciliation between the two parties. Alexander was succeeded by his widow, whose brother was a leading Pharisee. Upon her death her elder son, Hyrcanus II, sought Pharisee support, and her younger son, Aristobulus, sought the support of the Sadducees.
In 64 BCE the Roman general Pompey took over Jerusalem and made the Jewish kingdom a client of Rome. In 57-55 BCE Aulus Gabinius, proconsul of Syria, split it into Galilee, Samaria & Judea, with 5 district Sanhedrin/Synedrion (councils of law). In 40-39 BCE Herod the Great was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate, but in 6 CE his successor, Herod Archelaus, ethnarch of Judea, was deposed by the emperor Augustus and his territories annexed as Iudaea Province under direct Roman administration: this marked the end of Judah as an even theoretically independent kingdom.
Israel and Judah inherited the religion of late first-millennium Canaan, and Canaanite religion in turn had its roots in the religion of second-millennium Ugarit. In the 2nd millennium, polytheism was expressed through the concepts of the divine council and the divine family.
|Kings of Israel|
|Main: List of the Kings of Israel|
Saul, Ish-bosheth, David, Solomon, Jeroboam, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, Ahab, Ahaziah, Jehoram, Jehu, Elisha, Jehoahaz, Jehoash, Jeroboam II, Zachariah, Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah, Hoshea
|Kings of Judah|
|Main: List of the Kings of Judah|
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- Thomas L. Thompson, "Early History of the Israelite People" p.413
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- Killebrew, Ann E. (2005). Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, and Early Israel, 1300–1100 B.C.E. Society of Biblical Lit. . https://books.google.com/?id=VtAmmwapfVAC.
- Israel Finkelstein, Amihay Mazar, International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism. Colloquium (2007). The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel : Invited Lectures Delivered at the Sixth Biennial Colloquium of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, Detroit, October 2005. Society of Biblical Lit. p. 163. . https://books.google.com/?id=jpbngoKHg8gC.
- Professor of the History of Mathematics and Classics David Pingree, David Pingree, Alison Salvesen, Teacher of Greek and Latin A T Reyes, Henrietta McCall (1998). The Legacy of Mesopotamia. Oxford University Press. p. 85. . https://books.google.com/?id=UhVfijsPxOMC&pg=PA85.
- Pierre Bordreuil, "A propos de l'inscription de Mesha': deux notes," in P. M. Michele Daviau, John W. Wevers and Michael Weigl [Eds.], The World of the Aramaeans III, pp. 158-167, especially pp. 162-163 [Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001]
- Vaughn, Andrew G.; Killebrew, Ann E. (2003). Jerusalem in Bible and Archaeology: The First Temple Period. Society of Biblical Lit. p. 149. . https://books.google.com/?id=yYS4VEu08h4C.
- Thomas L. Thompson, "The Early History of Israel" pp.410-412
- Kenneth Kitchen, "On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003) pp.66-70
- Matthews, Victor Harold (2002). A Brief History of Ancient Israel. Westminster John Knox Press. . https://books.google.com/?id=XNF0GuRM1KkC.
- [Lester L. Grabbe, "A history of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period, Volume 1: Yehud: A History of the Persian Province of Judah" (T&T Clarke International, 2004) p.134]
- Jewish Virtual Library
- Davies, Philip R. (1995). In Search of "Ancient Israel": A Study in Biblical Origins. A&C Black. . https://books.google.com/?id=pMcM8GGO_n8C.
- Josephus traces the term "Hasmonean" to the great grandfather of Mattathias, known as hasmon.
- "Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1, Whiston chapter pr.". http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0146&redirect=true.
- Jewish War 1.14.4
- Malamat, Abraham; Ben-Sasson, Haim Hillel (1976). A History of the Jewish People. Harvard University Press. p. 246. .
- Karel van der Toorn, editor, "Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible" (second edition, Eerdmans, 1999)
- Robert Karl Gnuse, "No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel" (Sheffield Academic Press, 1997)