Day 5 - History

Day 5: The early story of the people of Israel, of the initial settlement of Jacob’s sons in the land of Canaan, their movement to Egypt and their subsequent captivity there, are well known to readers of Genesis.  The historical existence of the people of Israel in the late Bronze age is attested in an Egyptian inscription of the late thirteenth century B.C.E., the Merneptah Stele, named for the Egyptian Pharaoh whose military victory it celebrates.  During the next two centuries this people made its presence felt in the Land between the Jordan and the Sea. The Biblical account of the “conquest,” in the books of Joshua and Judges, offers an idealized version of what was no doubt a complicated process through which the “twelve tribes” came to be a major factor in what remained a contested space. 

A major development took place when the loose tribal confederacy of early Israel formed a tighter unity under the leadership of a king around 1000 B.C.E. The books of Samuel tell the story of the rise of Saul and his rival and successor, David.  Both led the Israelites, inhabiting principally the hill country in the center of the Land, against the political and military power of the Philistines, who inhabited the city states along the Mediterranean coastline.  One of David’s most important contributions to later history was the establishment of a new capital for his kingdom in an old Jebusite city, Jerusalem.  There he not only made his own home, but he also established, not without some criticism, a house in which the God of Israel would be worshipped, the first Temple that lasted until the Babylonian conquest in 586 B.C.E.

David’s son Solomon inherited his father’s kingdom, but it did not last long as a unified entity. After Solomon’s death it was divided into two realms, Israel, comprised of 10 tribes with a political and religious center at Samaria, and Judah, comprising the remaining two tribes, which maintained the Davidic tradition in Jerusalem.   The story of the rival monarchies takes up the pages of the books of Kings and Chronicles.

These two political entities were small players in the geopolitics of the iron age, able to maintain a degree of independence when Egypt to the south and the Mesopotamian kingdoms to the east were weak.  Eventually those conditions changed.  The powerful neo-Assyrian empire absorbed the kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E. and the neo-Babylonian empire annexed the kingdom of Judah at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E. and took many of the leading inhabitants of Jerusalem into captivity. Those last centuries of the divided kingdom were a productive period for ancient Israel’s culture, and prophets such as Amos, Hosea, and the historical Isaiah produced poetry that vigorously criticized their fellow Israelites while holding out hope for a future of fidelity to Israel’s God.

The period of Babylonian captivity in the sixth century called forth new prophetic voices, particularly Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who continued the combination of critique and visionary hope of the classical prophets. Their predictions of a restored people centered on a renewed temple and holy city were fulfilled when the Persian empire conquered the Middle East and changed the way subject peoples were managed.  Under the king Cyrus, hailed as an anointed one (Messiah) in Isaiah 45:1, a remnant returned to Jerusalem, carrying with them the vision for a new Temple sketched in Ezekiel 40-48.  The process of restoration was not an easy one, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the prophet Zachariah attest, but a new Temple and a new city state focused on that sacred space emerged.  The future of Jerusalem as a holy place was assured.

--By Dean Harold Attridge