History of ancient Israel and Judah
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Israel and Judah were related Iron Age kingdoms of the ancient Levant. The Kingdom of Israel emerged as an important local power by the 9th century BCE before falling to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE. Israel's southern neighbor, the Kingdom of Judah, emerged in the 8th century BCE and enjoyed a period of prosperity as a client-state of first Assyria and then Babylon before a revolt against the Neo-Babylonian Empire led to its destruction in 586 BCE. Following the fall of Babylon to the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, some Judean exiles returned to Jerusalem, inaugurating the formative period in the development of a distinctive Judahite identity in the Persian province of Yehud. Yehud was absorbed into the subsequent Hellenistic kingdoms that followed the conquests of Alexander the Great, but in the 2nd century BCE the Judaeans revolted against the Hellenist Seleucid Empire and created the Hasmonean kingdom. This, the last nominally independent Judean kingdom, came to an end in 63 BCE with its conquest by Pompey of Rome. With the installation of client kingdoms under the Herodian Dynasty, the Kingdom of Israel was wracked by civil disturbances which culminated in the First Jewish–Roman War, the destruction of the Temple, the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity.
- Iron Age I: 1200–1000
- Iron Age II: 1000–586
- Neo-Babylonian: 586–539
- Persian: 539–332
- Hellenistic: 332–53
Late Bronze Age background (1600–1200 BCE)
The eastern Mediterranean seaboard – the Levant – stretches 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 plain of the southern Levant, broad in the south and narrowing to the north, is backed in its southernmost portion by a zone of foothills, the Shephelah; like the plain this narrows as it goes northwards, ending in the promontory of Mount Carmel. East of the plain and the Shephelah 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 location and geographical characteristics of the narrow Levant made the area a battleground among the powerful entities that surrounded it.
Canaan in the Late Bronze Age was a shadow of what it had been centuries earlier: many cities were abandoned, others shrank in size, and the total settled population was probably not much more than a hundred thousand. Settlement was concentrated in cities along the coastal plain and along major communication routes; the central and northern hill country which would later become the biblical kingdom of Israel was only sparsely inhabited although letters from the Egyptian archives indicate that Jerusalem was already a Canaanite city-state recognising Egyptian overlordship. Politically and culturally it was dominated by Egypt, each city under its own ruler, constantly at odds with its neighbours, and appealing to the Egyptians to adjudicate their differences.
The Canaanite city-state system broke down at the end of the Late Bronze period, and Canaanite culture was then gradually absorbed into that of the Philistines, Phoenicians and Israelites. The process was gradual, rather than swift, and a strong Egyptian presence continued into the 12th century BCE, and, while some Canaanite cities were destroyed, others continued to exist in Iron Age I.
Iron Age I (1200–1000 BCE)
The name "Israel" first appears in the stele of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah c. 1209 BCE: "Israel is laid waste and his seed is no more." This "Israel" was a cultural and probably political entity of the central highlands, well enough established for the Egyptians to perceive it as a possible challenge to their hegemony, but an ethnic group rather than an organised state; Archaeologist Paula McNutt says: "It is probably ... during Iron Age I [that] a population began to identify itself as 'Israelite'," differentiating itself from its neighbours via prohibitions on intermarriage, an emphasis on family history and genealogy, and religion.
In the Late Bronze Age there were no more than about 25 villages in the highlands, but this increased to over 300 by the end of Iron Age I, while the settled population doubled from 20,000 to 40,000. The villages were more numerous and larger in the north, and probably shared the highlands with pastoral nomads, who left no remains. Archaeologists and historians attempting to trace the origins of these villagers have found it impossible to identify any distinctive features that could define them as specifically Israelite – collared-rim jars and four-room houses have been identified outside the highlands and thus cannot be used to distinguish Israelite sites, and while the pottery of the highland villages is far more limited than that of lowland Canaanite sites, it develops typologically out of Canaanite pottery that came before. Israel Finkelstein proposed that the oval or circular layout that distinguishes some of the earliest highland sites, and the notable absence of pig bones from hill sites, could be taken as markers of ethnicity, but others have cautioned that these can be a "common-sense" adaptation to highland life and not necessarily revelatory of origins. Other Aramaean sites also demonstrate a contemporary absence of pig remains at that time, unlike earlier Canaanite and later Philistine excavations.
In The Bible Unearthed (2001), Finkelstein and Silberman summarised recent studies. They described how, up until 1967, the Israelite heartland in the highlands of western Palestine was virtually an archaeological terra incognita. Since then, intensive surveys have examined the traditional territories of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh. These surveys have revealed the sudden emergence of a new culture contrasting with the Philistine and Canaanite societies existing in the Land of Israel earlier during Iron Age I. This new culture is characterised by a lack of pork remains (whereas pork formed 20% of the Philistine diet in places), by an abandonment of the Philistine/Canaanite custom of having highly decorated pottery, and by the practice of circumcision. The Israelite ethnic identity had originated, not from the Exodus and a subsequent conquest, but from a transformation of the existing Canaanite-Philistine cultures.
These surveys revolutionized the study of early Israel. The discovery of the remains of a dense network of highland villages — all apparently established within the span of few generations — indicated that a dramatic social transformation had taken place in the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE. There was no sign of violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group. Instead, it seemed to be a revolution in lifestyle. In the formerly sparsely populated highlands from the Judean hills in the south to the hills of Samaria in the north, far from the Canaanite cities that were in the process of collapse and disintegration, about two-hundred fifty hilltop communities suddenly sprang up. Here were the first Israelites.
From then on, over a period of hundreds of years until after the return of the exiles from Babylon, the Israelites and other tribes gradually absorbed the Canaanites. After the period of Ezra (~450 BCE) there is no more biblical record of them. The Hebrew language, a dialect of Canaanite, became the language of the hill country, and later of the valleys and plains.
Iron Age II (1000–587 BCE)
Unusually favourable climatic conditions in the first two centuries of Iron Age II brought about an expansion of population, settlements and trade throughout the region. In the central highlands this resulted in unification in a kingdom with the city of Samaria as its capital, possibly by the second half of the 10th century BCE when an inscription of the Egyptian pharaoh Shoshenq I, the biblical Shishak, records a series of campaigns directed at the area. Israel had clearly emerged by the middle of the 9th century BCE, when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III names "Ahab the Israelite" among his enemies at the battle of Qarqar (853). At this time Israel was apparently engaged in a three-way contest with Damascus and Tyre for control of the Jezreel Valley and Galilee in the north, and with Moab, Ammon and Damascus in the east for control of Gilead; the Mesha stele (c. 830), left by a king of Moab, celebrates his success in throwing off the oppression of the "House of Omri" (i.e., Israel). It bears what is generally thought to be the earliest extra-biblical Semitic reference to the name Yahweh (YHWH), whose temple goods were plundered by Mesha and brought before his own god Kemosh.
French scholar André Lemaire has reconstructed a portion of line 31 of the stele as mentioning the "House of David". Other scholars disagree, saying that BYTDWD is a place name not a dynasty. The Tel Dan stele (c. 841) tells of the death of a king of Israel, probably Jehoram, at the hands of a king of Aram Damascus. A century later Israel came into increasing conflict with the expanding neo-Assyrian empire, which first split its territory into several smaller units and then destroyed its capital, Samaria (722). Both the biblical and Assyrian sources speak of a massive deportation of people from Israel and their replacement with settlers from other parts of the empire – such population exchanges were an established part of Assyrian imperial policy, a means of breaking the old power structure – and the former Israel never again became an independent political entity.
Judah emerged somewhat later than Israel, probably during the 9th century BCE, but the subject is one of considerable controversy. There are indications that during the 10th and 9th centuries BCE, the southern highlands had been divided between a number of centres, none with clear primacy. During the reign of Hezekiah, between c. 715 and 686 BCE, a notable increase in the power of the Judean state can be observed. This is reflected in archaeological sites and findings, such as the Broad Wall; a defensive city wall in Jerusalem; and the Siloam Tunnel, an aqueduct designed to provide Jerusalem with water during an impending siege by the Assyrians led by Sennacherib; and the Siloam Inscription, a lintel inscription found over the doorway of a tomb, has been ascribed to comptroller Shebna. LMLK seals on storage jar handles, excavated from strata in and around that formed by Sennacherib's destruction, appear to have been used throughout Sennacherib's 29-year reign, along with bullae from sealed documents, some that belonged to Hezekiah himself and others that name his servants;
King Ahaz's Seal is a piece of reddish-brown clay that belonged to King Ahaz of Judah, who ruled from 732 to 716 BCE. This seal contains not only the name of the king, but the name of his father, King Yehotam. In addition, Ahaz is specifically identified as "king of Judah." The Hebrew inscription, which is set on three lines, reads as follows: "l'hz*y/hwtm*mlk*/yhdh", which translates as "belonging to Ahaz (son of) Yehotam, King of Judah."
In the 7th century Jerusalem grew to contain a population many times greater than earlier and achieved clear dominance over its neighbours. This occurred at the same time that Israel was being destroyed by Assyria, and was probably the result of a cooperative arrangement with the Assyrians to establish Judah as an Assyrian vassal controlling the valuable olive industry. Judah prospered as an Assyrian vassal state (despite a disastrous rebellion against Sennacherib), but in the last half of the 7th century BCE Assyria suddenly collapsed, and the ensuing competition between the Egyptian and Neo-Babylonian empires for control of the land led to the destruction of Judah in a series of campaigns between 597 and 582.
Babylonian Judah suffered a steep decline in both economy and population and lost the Negev, the Shephelah, and part of the Judean hill country, including Hebron, to encroachments from Edom and other neighbours. Jerusalem, while probably not totally abandoned, was much smaller than previously, and the town of Mizpah in Benjamin in the relatively unscathed northern section of the kingdom became the capital of the new Babylonian province of Yehud Medinata. (This was standard Babylonian practice: when the Philistine city of Ashkalon was conquered in 604, the political, religious and economic elite [but not the bulk of the population] was banished and the administrative centre shifted to a new location). There is also a strong probability that for most or all of the period the temple at Bethel in Benjamin replaced that at Jerusalem, boosting the prestige of Bethel's priests (the Aaronites) against those of Jerusalem (the Zadokites), now in exile in Babylon.
The Babylonian conquest entailed not just the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, but the liquidation of the entire infrastructure which had sustained Judah for centuries. The most significant casualty was the state ideology of "Zion theology," the idea that the god of Israel had chosen Jerusalem for his dwelling-place and that the Davidic dynasty would reign there forever. The fall of the city and the end of Davidic kingship forced the leaders of the exile community – kings, priests, scribes and prophets – to reformulate the concepts of community, faith and politics. The exile community in Babylon thus became the source of significant portions of the Hebrew Bible: Isaiah 40–55; Ezekiel; the final version of Jeremiah; the work of the hypothesized priestly source in the Pentateuch; and the final form of the history of Israel from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings. Theologically, the Babylonian exiles were responsible for the doctrines of individual responsibility and universalism (the concept that one god controls the entire world) and for the increased emphasis on purity and holiness. Most significantly, the trauma of the exile experience led to the development of a strong sense of Hebrew identity distinct from other peoples, with increased emphasis on symbols such as circumcision and Sabbath-observance to sustain that distinction.
The concentration of the biblical literature on the experience of the exiles in Babylon disguises the fact that the great majority of the population remained in Judah; for them, life after the fall of Jerusalem probably went on much as it had before. It may even have improved, as they were rewarded with the land and property of the deportees, much to the anger of the community of exiles remaining in Babylon. The assassination around 582 of the Babylonian governor by a disaffected member of the former royal House of David provoked a Babylonian crackdown, possibly reflected in the Book of Lamentations, but the situation seems to have soon stabilised again. Nevertheless, those unwalled cities and towns that remained were subject to slave raids by the Phoenicians and intervention in their internal affairs by Samaritans, Arabs, and Ammonites.
When Babylon fell to the Persian Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, Judah (or Yehud medinata, the "province of Yehud") became an administrative division within the Persian empire. Cyrus was succeeded as king by Cambyses, who added Egypt to the empire, incidentally transforming Yehud and the Philistine plain into an important frontier zone. His death in 522 was followed by a period of turmoil until Darius the Great seized the throne in about 521. Darius introduced a reform of the administrative arrangements of the empire including the collection, codification and administration of local law codes, and it is reasonable to suppose that this policy lay behind the redaction of the Jewish Torah. After 404 the Persians lost control of Egypt, which became Persia's main rival outside Europe, causing the Persian authorities to tighten their administrative control over Yehud and the rest of the Levant. Egypt was eventually reconquered, but soon afterward Persia fell to Alexander the Great, ushering in the Hellenistic period in the Levant.
Yehud's population over the entire period was probably never more than about 30,000 and that of Jerusalem no more than about 1,500, most of them connected in some way to the Temple. According to the biblical history, one of the first acts of Cyrus, the Persian conqueror of Babylon, was to commission Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple, a task which they are said to have completed c. 515. Yet it was probably not until the middle of the next century, at the earliest, that Jerusalem again became the capital of Judah. The Persians may have experimented initially with ruling Yehud as a Davidic client-kingdom under descendants of Jehoiachin, but by the mid–5th century BCE, Yehud had become, in practice, a theocracy, ruled by hereditary high priests, with a Persian-appointed governor, frequently Jewish, charged with keeping order and seeing that taxes (tribute) were collected and paid. According to the biblical history, Ezra and Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem in the middle of the 5th century BCE, the former empowered by the Persian king to enforce the Torah, the latter holding the status of governor with a royal commission to restore Jerusalem's walls. The biblical history mentions tension between the returnees and those who had remained in Yehud, the returnees rebuffing the attempt of the "peoples of the land" to participate in the rebuilding of the Temple; this attitude was based partly on the exclusivism that the exiles had developed while in Babylon and, probably, also partly on disputes over property. During the 5th century BCE, Ezra and Nehemiah attempted to re-integrate these rival factions into a united and ritually pure society, inspired by the prophecies of Ezekiel and his followers.
The Persian era, and especially the period between 538 and 400 BCE, laid the foundations for the unified Judaic religion and the beginning of a scriptural canon. Other important landmarks in this period include the replacement of Hebrew as the everyday language of Judah by Aramaic (although Hebrew continued to be used for religious and literary purposes) and Darius's reform of the empire's bureaucracy, which may have led to extensive revisions and reorganizations of the Jewish Torah. The Israel of the Persian period consisted of descendants of the inhabitants of the old kingdom of Judah, returnees from the Babylonian exile community, Mesopotamians who had joined them or had been exiled themselves to Samaria at a far earlier period, Samaritans, and others.
On the death of Alexander the Great (322 BCE), Alexander's generals divided the empire among themselves. Ptolemy I, the ruler of Egypt, seized Yehud Medinata, but his successors lost it in 198 to the Seleucids of Syria. At first, relations between Seleucids and Jews were cordial, but the attempt of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (174–163) to impose Hellenic cults on Judea sparked a national rebellion that ended in the expulsion of the Seleucids and the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom under the Hasmonean dynasty. Some modern commentators see this period also as a civil war between orthodox and hellenized Jews. Hasmonean kings attempted to revive the Judah described in the Bible: a Jewish monarchy ruled from Jerusalem and including all territories once ruled by David and Solomon. In order to carry out this project, the Hasmoneans forcibly converted one-time Moabites, Edomites, and Ammonites to Judaism, as well as the lost kingdom of Israel. Some scholars argue that the Hasmonean dynasty institutionalized the final Jewish biblical canon.
In 63 BCE the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem and made the Jewish kingdom a client state of Rome. In 40–39 BCE, Herod the Great was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate, and in 6 CE the last ethnarch of Judea was deposed by the emperor Augustus, his territories combined with Idumea and Samaria and annexed as Iudaea Province under direct Roman administration. The name Judea (Iudaea) ceased to be used by Greco-Romans after the revolt of Simon Bar Kochba in 135 CE; the area was henceforth called Syria Palaestina (Greek: Παλαιστίνη, Palaistinē; Latin: Palaestina).
Iron Age Yahwism
The religion of the Israelites of Iron Age I, like the Ancient Canaanite religion from which it evolved and other religions of the ancient Near East, was based on a cult of ancestors and worship of family gods (the "gods of the fathers"). With the emergence of the monarchy at the beginning of Iron Age II the kings promoted their family god, Yahweh, as the god of the kingdom, but beyond the royal court, religion continued to be both polytheistic and family-centered. The major deities were not numerous – El, Asherah, and Yahweh, with Baal as a fourth god, and perhaps Shamash (the sun) in the early period. At an early stage El and Yahweh became fused and Asherah did not continue as a separate state cult, although she continued to be popular at a community level until Persian times.
Yahweh, the national god of both Israel and Judah, seems to have originated in Edom and Midian in southern Canaan and may have been brought to Israel by the Kenites and Midianites at an early stage. There is a general consensus among scholars that the first formative event in the emergence of the distinctive religion described in the Bible was triggered by the destruction of Israel by Assyria in c. 722 BCE. Refugees from the northern kingdom fled to Judah, bringing with them laws and a prophetic tradition of Yahweh. This religion was subsequently adopted by the landowners of Judah, who in 640 BCE placed the eight-year-old Josiah on the throne. Judah at this time was a vassal state of Assyria, but Assyrian power collapsed in the 630s, and around 622 Josiah and his supporters launched a bid for independence expressed as loyalty to "Yahweh alone". Judah's independence was expressed in the law-code in the Book of Deuteronomy, written as a treaty between Judah and Yahweh to replace the vassal-treaty with Assyria.
The Babylonian exile and Second Temple Judaism
According to the Deuteronomists, as scholars call these Judean nationalists, the treaty with Yahweh would enable Israel's god to preserve both the city and the king in return for the people's worship and obedience. The destruction of Jerusalem, its Temple, and the Davidic dynasty by Babylon in 587/586 BCE was deeply traumatic and led to revisions of the national mythos during the Babylonian exile. This revision was expressed in the Deuteronomistic history, the books of Joshua. Judges, Samuel and Kings, which interpreted the Babylonian destruction as divinely-ordained punishment for the failure of Israel's kings to worship Yahweh to the exclusion of all other deities.
The Second Temple period (520 BCE – 70 CE) differed in significant ways from what had gone before. Strict monotheism emerged among the priests of the Temple establishment during the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, as did beliefs regarding angels and demons. At this time, circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath-observance gained more significance as symbols of Jewish identity, and the institution of the synagogue became increasingly important. According to the documentary hypothesis, most of the Torah was written during this time.
- Biblical archaeology
- Chronology of the Bible
- Early Israelite campaigns
- History of Israel
- History of the Jews in Egypt
- History of the Jews in Iran
- History of the Jews in the Roman Empire
- History of the Southern Levant
- Intertestamental period
- Jewish diaspora
- Lachish relief
- Kings of Israel and Judah
- Kings of Judah
- Old Testament
- United Monarchy
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