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Ancient Jewish History: The Land of the Hebrews

The stage on which Hebrew history takes place is a varied and a troubled place. Hebrew history, as told by the Hebrews, begins in Mesopotamia, in the cities of Ur in the south and Haran in the north. Mesopotamia was a rich agricultural area, fed by irrigation from the two rivers which give it its name: the Tigris and the Euphrates. Powerful city-states, such as Ur, rose up in this fertile area, and these city-states would eventually become the foundation of mighty empires, such as the Akkadian and Amorite empires.

The Hebrews become a nation in another foreign land, Egypt. Rich with the water and soil carried by the Nile river, Egypt grew quickly into a great commercial and military power; the Egyptians created the longest continual culture outside of Asia. Punctuated by periods of decline and even foreign rule, the Egyptians had learned by the New Kingdom to ruthlessly control and subdue the foreign peoples surrounding their country. The Hebrews come into existence during this last powerful burst of power and creativity in Egypt.

Between this period, that is, the origins in Mesopotamia and the creation of the new nation in Egypt, Hebrew history centered around Palestine. This area was the special area of Hebrew history, for it was this area that the Hebrew god promised to his chosen people. In the Hebrew world view, this was their land given to them by the one and only one god, and it was to this land that the Hebrews would migrate to out of Egypt. On this land the various tribes would fight difficult and often losing battles of occupation, set up a kingdom, and then the briefest of empires.

What was this land? Its most salient geographical fact was that it lay between Mesopotamia and Egypt. It was the land bridge that carried all the commercial goods between these two wealthy and powerful areas; it was also the highway on which armies would travel, whether Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek, or Roman. More than anything else, this fact of geography determined the course of Hebrew history. Like a moon caught between the massive gravitational forces of two large planets, Palestine was in constant turmoil and under constant threat.

Although the Hebrews called it the land of milk and honey, Palestine (named after the group that dominated it for much of its early history, the Philistines) was in fact a harsh environment. It appeared to be the land of milk and honey only to a group of people that had been, after all, living in the desert for several generations. The land itself is composed of four geographically self-contained longitudinal strips; the self-containment of these areas always made it difficult throughout history to create a unified state out of the entire area. The richest agricultural areas are along the Mediterranean coast, but this area was dominated fist by Canaanites and then Philistines for a large part of Hebrew history.

The Hebrews controlled this area for only a very brief time during the monarchy. Because they could not dislodge these people, the Hebrews settled in the second area, the central hill country, a backbone of mountains running from north to south between the coastal areas and the Jordan River valley. Dry and rocky, the central hills are a very difficult place to live, but the spectacle of Hebrew history mainly takes place in this hill country: Galilee, Samaria, Megiddo, Shechem, Judah, Jerusalem, Hebron, Beersheba. To the west of the hills is the Jordan River valley. In Hebrew, the word Jordan means the descender, for it begins at Mount Hermon in the north at about 200 feet above sea level, and literally plummets to the Sea (actually a lake) of Galilee ten miles south at 700 feet below sea level, and from there another two hundred miles to the Dead or Salt Sea at 1300 feet below sea level (the lowest piece of land on earth and a mightily inhospitable place to live). Along this valley and around the Sea of Galilee are rich farmlands yielding grains and fruit as well as wealthy fishing in the river and the Sea of Galilee. To the west of the Jordan River valley are the Transjordan Highlands (about 1500 feet above sea level). The climate can be harsh, but several rivers allow for rich agriculture. This area was largely occupied by non-Hebrews; in the Transjordan Highlands were the kingdoms of Edom (south), Moab (center), and Ammon (center). For most of its history, these lands were out of Hebrew control.

Source: The Hebrews: A Learning Module from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission.