Jewish history began about 4,000 years ago (c. 17th
century B.C.E.) with the
patriarchs-Abraham, his son Isaac and grandson Jacob. Documents unearthed
in Mesopotamia, dating back to 2000-1500 B.C.E., corroborate aspects of
their nomadic way of life as described in the Bible. The Book of Genesis
relates how Abraham was summoned
from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan to bring about the formation of a people
with belief in the One God. When a famine spread through Canaan, Jacob (Israel), his twelve sons and
their families settled in Egypt, where their descendants were reduced to
slavery and pressed into forced labor.
Exodus and Settlement
After 400 years of bondage, the Israelites were led to
freedom by Moses who, according to the biblical narrative, was chosen by
God to take his people out of Egypt and back to the Land of Israel promised
to their forefathers (c. 13th-12th centuries B.C.E.). They wandered for 40
years in the Sinai desert, where they were forged into a nation and
received the Torah (Pentateuch), which included the Ten
Commandments and gave form and content to their monotheistic faith. The
exodus from Egypt (c.1300 B.C.E.) left an indelible imprint on the national
memory of the Jewish people and became a universal symbol of liberty and
freedom. Every year Jews celebrate Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost) and Succot (Feast of Tabernacles),
commemorating events of that time.
During the next two centuries, the Israelites conquered
most of the Land of Israel and relinquished their nomadic ways to become
farmers and craftsmen; a degree of economic and social consolidation
followed. Periods of relative peace alternated with times of war during
which the people rallied behind leaders known as 'judges,' chosen for their
political and military skills as well as for their leadership qualities.
The weakness inherent in this tribal organization in face of a threat posed
by the Philistines (seagoing people from Asia Minor who settled on the
country's Mediterranean coast) generated the need for a ruler who would
unite the tribes and make the position permanent, with succession carried
on by inheritance.
The first king, Saul (c. 1020 B.C.E.), bridged the
period between loose tribal organization and the setting up of a full
monarchy under his successor, David. King David (c.1004-965 B.C.E.)
established Israel as a major power in the region by successful military
expeditions, including the final defeat the region by successful military
expeditions, including the final defeat of the Philistines, as well as by
constructing a network of friendly alliances with nearby kingdoms.
Consequently, his authority was recognized from the borders of Egypt and
the Red Sea to the banks of the Euphrates. At home, he united the twelve
Israelite tribes into one kingdom and placed his capital, Jerusalem, and
the monarchy at the center of the country's national life. Biblical
tradition describes David as a poet and musician, with verses ascribed to
him appearing in the Book of Psalms.
David was succeeded by his son Solomon (c.965-930 B.C.E.)
who further strengthened the kingdom. Through treaties with neighboring
kings, reinforced by politically motivated marriages, Solomon ensured peace
for his kingdom and made it equal among the great powers of the age. He
expanded foreign trade and promoted domestic prosperity by developing major
enterprises such as copper mining and metal smelting, while building new
towns and fortifying old ones of strategic and economic importance.
Crowning his achievements was the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, which became the center
of the Jewish people's national and religious life. The Bible attributes to
Solomon the Book of Proverbs and the Song of Songs.
religious sages and charismatic figures, who were perceived as endowed with
a divine gift of revelation, preached during the period of the monarchy
until a century after the destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.). Whether as
advisers to kings on matters of religion, ethics and politics, or as their
critics, under the primacy of the relationship between the individual and
God, the prophets were guided by the need for justice and issued powerful
commentaries on the morality of Jewish national life. Their revelatory
experiences were recorded in books of inspired prose and poetry, many of
which were incorporated into the Bible.
The enduring, universal appeal of the prophets derives
from their call for a fundamental consideration of human values. Words such
as those of Isaiah (1:17) -- "Be good, devote yourselves to justice;
aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the
widow" -- continue to nourish humanity's pursuit of social justice.
The end of Solomon's rule was marred by discontent on
the part of the populace, which had to pay heavily for his ambitious
schemes. At the same time, preferential treatment of his own tribe
embittered the others, which resulted in growing antagonism between the
monarchy and the tribal separatists. After Solomon's death (930 B.C.E.),
open insurrection led to the breaking away of the ten northern tribes and division of the country into a
northern kingdom, Israel, and a southern kingdom, Judah, on the territory
of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
The Kingdom of Israel, with its capital Samaria, lasted
more than 200 years under 19 kings, while the Kingdom of Judah was ruled
from Jerusalem for 350 years by an equal number of kings of the lineage of
David. The expansion of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires brought first
Israel and later Judah under foreign control. The Kingdom of Israel was
crushed by the Assyrians (722 B.C.E.) and its people carried off into exile
and oblivion. More than a hundred years later, Babylonia conquered the
Kingdom of Judah, exiling most of its inhabitants as well as destroying Jerusalem and the Temple (586 B.C.E.).
The First Exile
The Babylonian conquest brought an end to the First
Jewish Commonwealth (First Temple period) but did not sever the Jewish
people's connection to the Land of Israel. Sitting by the rivers of
Babylon, the Jews pledged to remember their homeland: "If I forget
you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my
palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour" (Psalms 137:56).
The exile to Babylonia, which followed the destruction
of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.),
marked the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora. There, Judaism began to
develop a religious framework and way of life outside the Land, ultimately
ensuring the people's national survival and spiritual identity and imbuing
it with sufficient vitality to safeguard its future as a nation.