The present-day nation of Israel lies at the far western end of the Fertile Crescent, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. About 4,000 years ago, the ancient Israelites developed the religion of Judaism, which became a defining feature of their culture. Today, Judaism is one of the world’s major faiths.
The Ancient Israelites Shape a Unique Belief System
The beliefs of the ancient Israelites, also called the Hebrews, differed in basic ways from those of nearby peoples. The Israelites were monotheistic, believing that there was only one god. At the time, all other peoples worshiped many gods. A few religious leaders, such as the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton, spoke of a single powerful god. However, such ideas did not have the lasting impact that Israelite beliefs did.
The Israelites believed in an all-knowing, all-powerful god who was present everywhere. In their views, history and faith were interconnected. Each event reflected God’s plan for the people of Israel. As a result, they recorded events and laws in the Torah (toh ruh), their most sacred text. The Torah includes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—that is, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Hebrew Bible includes a total of 24 books. Additional laws and customs written down much later make up another important text, the Talmud.
The Ancient Israelites
According to the Torah, a man named Abraham lived near Ur in Mesopotamia. About 2000 B.C., he and his family migrated, herding their sheep and goats into a region called Canaan (kay nun). (Centuries later, under Roman rule, this land became known as Palestine.) Abraham is considered the father of the Israelite people.
God Makes a Covenant With the Israelites
The Israelites believed that God had made the following covenant, or binding agreement, with Abraham:
“You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. . . . I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings [short stay], all the land of Canaan. . . .”
God’s covenant with Abraham included two declarations that became the basis of two key beliefs of Judaism. First, God declared that He would have a special relationship with Abraham and his descendants. Because of this, the Israelites viewed themselves as God’s “chosen people.” Second, God declared that Canaan would one day belong to the Israelites. As a result, the Israelites viewed Canaan as their “promised land.”
An Israelite named Moses later renewed God’s covenant with the Israelites. Genesis tells that a famine forced many Israelites to migrate to Egypt. There, they were eventually enslaved. In the book of Exodus, Moses tells the Israelites that in return for faithful obedience to God, God will lead them out of bondage and into the promised land. In time, Moses led the Israelites in their exodus, or departure, from Egypt. After 40 years, they reached Canaan, although Moses died just before they arrived.
The Kingdom of Israel Established
By 1000 B.C., the Israelites had set up the kingdom of Israel. The Torah tells of twelve separate tribes of Israel that had feuded up until this time. Then David, the strong and wise second king of Israel, united these tribes into a single nation.
According to the Torah, David’s son Solomon followed him as king. Solomon undertook the task of turning the city of Jerusalem into an impressive capital. Jerusalem was praised for its splendid temple dedicated to God, which David had begun constructing and Solomon completed. Solomon also won fame for his wisdom and understanding. Additionally, he tried to increase Israel’s influence around the region by negotiating with powerful empires in Egypt and Mesopotamia
Israel Suffers Division and Conquest
Israel paid a heavy price for Solomon’s ambitions. His building projects required such high taxes and so much forced labor that revolts erupted after he died about 922 B.C. The kingdom then split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
The Israelites remained independent for 200 years but eventually fell to more powerful peoples. In 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered Israel. In 586 B.C., Babylonian armies captured Judah. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the great temple and forced many of those he defeated into exile in Babylon. This period of exile, called the Babylonian Captivity, lasted about 50 years.
In 539 B.C., the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and soon freed the Israelites. Since most of them had come from the kingdom of Judah, they became known as Jews. Many Jews returned to their homeland, where they rebuilt a smaller version of Solomon’s temple. However, like other groups in the region, they lived under Persian rule.
Judaism Teaches About Law and Morality
From early times, the concept of law was central to the Israelites. The Torah includes many laws and is thus often referred to as the Books of the Law. Some of the laws deal with everyday matters such as cleanliness and food preparation. Others deal with criminal behavior.
Israelite society was patriarchal, which means that men held the greatest legal and moral authority. A family’s oldest male relative was the head of the household and arranged marriages for his daughters. Women had few legal rights. Still, in early times, a few outstanding women, such as the judge Deborah, won great honor.
The Ten Commandments as a Guide
At the heart of Judaism are the Ten Commandments, a set of laws that Jews believe God gave to them through Moses. The first four commandments stress religious duties toward God, such as keeping the Sabbath, a holy day for rest and worship. The rest address conduct toward others. They include “Honor your father and mother,” “You shall not kill,” and “You shall not steal.”
Teaching an Ethical Worldview
Often in Jewish history, spiritual leaders emerged to interpret God’s will. These prophets, such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, warned that failure to obey God’s law would lead their people to disaster.
The prophets also taught a strong code of ethics, or moral standards of behavior. They urged both personal morality and social justice, calling on the rich and powerful to protect the poor and weak. All people, they said, were equal before God. Unlike many ancient societies in which the ruler was seen as a god, Jews saw their leaders as fully human and bound to obey God’s law.
Jews Maintain Their Beliefs Over Time and Place
For a 500-year period that began with the Babylonian Captivity, many Jews left their homeland and moved to different parts of the world. This spreading out of the Jewish people was called the Diaspora (dy as pur uh). Some Jews were exiled, others moved to farther reaches of the empires that controlled their land, and yet others moved because of discontent with political rulers. Wherever Jews settled, many maintained their identity as a people by living in close-knit communities and obeying their religious laws and traditions. These traditions helped them survive centuries of persecution, or unfair treatment inflicted on a particular group of people, which you will read about in later chapters.
Today, Judaism is considered a major world religion for its unique contribution to religious thought. It influenced both Christianity and Islam, two other monotheistic faiths that also arose in the Middle East. Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike honor Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, and they all teach the ethical worldview developed by the Israelites. In the West, this shared heritage of Jews and Christians is known as the Judeo-Christian tradition.