Historical Overview of Ancient Israel

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  • 0:02 Mesopotamia to Egypt
  • 2:36 Egypt to the Promised Land
  • 4:55 Promised Land to the Kingdom
  • 6:42 Kingdom to Conquered
  • 8:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

This lesson follows the history of ancient Israel from its earliest patriarch, Abraham, through the Egyptian period with Moses and finally to the establishment of the kingdom and rule of David and Solomon.

Mesopotamia to Egypt

Like many cultures, the earliest days of the Israelites are shrouded in a mix of religious tradition and actual history. Unlike other cultures, most people have relatively easy access to translations of the historical texts of these people in the form of the Bible. However, as historians, we are forced to look at multiple sources. To that end, this lesson will provide not only the traditional narrative, according to the Bible and Abrahamic tradition, but also information about what can be reasonably confirmed through other sources.

According to Jewish tradition, the story of Israel doesn't begin in the kingdom of Israel, nor the lands it would occupy. In fact, it would take hundreds of years to establish rule there. Instead, the story of the Israelites begins in Mesopotamia near the city of Ur. Here, a man who would be later called Abraham was told by God to leave everything he knew and travel west to Canaan, modern-day Israel and Palestine. The man was hesitant because he was already quite old, but Abraham did as he was told. Ultimately, his son Isaac, whom Jews and Christians believe Abraham had almost sacrificed in order to prove his faith in God, had a son named Jacob. Jacob would have numerous sons, but by far his favorite was Joseph. Joseph was, needless to say, hated by his brothers for this, and one day they sold him to slave traders headed to Egypt. Once there, Joseph proved his wisdom as an advisor for the Pharaoh and soon sent for the rest of his family to join him.

Of course, we have no real way of proving that any of this happened. What we can do, however, is use other historical facts and old fashioned common sense. As you may remember, many of the world's first big towns were in Mesopotamia, so it makes sense that there was a population shift out of there. Also, think about a map of the Middle East - the Eastern Mediterranean is right next to Egypt, and we know that the Egyptians traded with the Phoenicians to the north of where Abraham supposedly settled. As a result, we can say that there was definitely movement between the two areas, and if someone particularly smart caught the eye of the Egyptian pharaoh, you can bet that the Pharaoh would have made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

Egypt to the Promised Land

The Abrahamic narrative continues with sayings that things in Egypt were not destined to be peaceful. Soon, more and more Israelites were being born, so many in fact that it made the Egyptians feel like a minority. The new Pharaoh began to enslave the Israelites until a man named Moses opposed him, demanding freedom for his people. After a number of plagues, Moses got his wish, but he would end up having to part the sea in order to complete the escape. This escape from Egypt is known as the Exodus. Now free, the Israelites would spend 40 years wandering through the desert, all the while having their faith tested. After all, this was to be God's Chosen people. Given a religious identity within Judaism via the Ten Commandments and many other laws, the descendants of those who left Egypt were told to travel to territories in Canaan, where their ancestor Joseph had left so far ago.

There's a lot of legend to unpack in this part of Jewish history. We can't say if Moses parted the Red Sea, the sea of reeds, or any other body of water. If he did, the Egyptians didn't write about it. If he didn't, then, well, would you write about someone not parting a body of water?

Likewise, we can't guarantee that the Israelites wandered for 40 years. However, we can definitely point to two distinct historical events. First of all, around the time that we think this happened, the world was a crazy place. Invaders, known as the Sea Peoples, were raiding much of the known world, causing a lot of people to migrate. Additionally, this is about the time that something remarkable happened to the Israelites. Before, they were really similar to any other ethnic group in the region. After this period, they were definitely different. Suddenly, they sought to separate themselves from others with a very strict legal code. While other religions of the time didn't care how you acted as long as you made the proper sacrifices, suddenly behaving was the best way that one could make God happy.

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