Hebrew Civilization

Title: Civilization Of the Hebrews

Along The Banks Of Rivers

Edited By: Robert Guisepi

The Hebrew Kingdoms

In war, diplomacy, inventions, and art, the Hebrews made little splash in

the stream of history. In religion and ethics, however, their contribution to

the world civilization was tremendous. Out of their experience grew three

great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Much of Hebrew experience is recorded in the Holy Writ of Israel, the Old

Testament of the Christian Bible, whose present content was approved about

A.D. 90 by a council of rabbis. Asa work of literature it is outstanding; but

it is more than that. "It is Israel's life story - a story that cannot be told

adequately apart from the conviction that God had called this people in his

grace, separated them from the nations for a special responsibility, and

commissioned them with the task of being his servant in the accomplishment of

his purpose." ^26

[Footnote 26: B. W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 2nd ed.

(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966), p. 559.]

The Biblical account of the history of the Hebrews (later called

Israelites and then Jews) begins with the patriarchal clan leader Abraham,

called in Genesis 14:15 "the Hebrew" (Habiru). About 1800 B.C. Abraham led his

people out of Ur in Sumer, where they had settled for a time in their

wanderings, and eventually they arrived in the land of Canaan, later called


About 1700 B.C., driven by famine, some Hebrews followed Abraham's

great-grandson Joseph, son of Israel (also called Jacob), into Egypt. Joseph's

rise to power in Egypt, and the hospitable reception of his people there, is

attributed to the presence of the largely Semitic Hyksos, who had conquered

Egypt about 1720 B.C. Following the expulsion of the Hyksos by the pharaohs of

the Eighteenth Dynasty, the Hebrews were enslaved by the Egyptians. Shortly

after 1300 B.C. Moses led them out of bondage and into the wilderness of

Sinai, where they entered into a pact or covenant with their God, Yahweh. The

Sinai Covenant bound the people as a whole - the nation of Israel, as they now

called themselves - to worship Yahweh before all other gods and to obey his

Law. In return, Yahweh made the Israelites his chosen people whom he would

protect and to whom he granted Canaan, the Promised Land "flowing with milk

and honey." The history of Israel from this time on is the story of the

working out of this covenant.

The Israelites had to contend for Palestine against the Canaanites, whose

Semitic ancestors had migrated from Arabia early in the third millennium B.C.

Joined by other Hebrew tribes already in Palestine, the Israelites formed a

confederacy of twelve tribes and, led by war leaders called judges, in time

succeeded in subjugating the Canaanites.

The decisive battle in 1125 B.C. at Megiddo, called Armageddon ("Hill of

Megiddo") in the New Testament, owed much to Deborah the prophetess who

"judged Israel at that time" (Judges 4:4). God bade Deborah, already famed

throughout Israel for her wisdom, to accompany the discouraged war leaders and

stir them to victory. For this reason she has been called the Hebrew Joan of


The vigorous and decisive role played by Deborah and other Israelite

women (Moses' sister Miriam, for example), reflects the absence of female

inferiority in early Israel. Genesis describes the two sexes as being equal

and necessary for human livelihood: "So God created mankind in his image,

...male and female he created them. And God blessed them and said to them, 'Be

fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it [together]'" (1:27-28).

And in the Song of Songs the maiden and the youth share equally in the desire

and expression of love; there is no sense of subordination of one to the

other. But the continuing dangers that faced the nation led to the creation of

a strong centralized monarchy, and with it came male domination and female

subordination. Deborah was the last Israelite woman upon whom God's spirit and

wisdom descended.

Soon after the Canaanites were defeated, a far more formidable foe

appeared. The Philistines, part of the Sea Peoples who had tried

unsuccessfully to invade Egypt and from whom we get the word Palestine,

settled along the coast about 1175 B.C. Aided by the use of iron weapons,

which were new to Palestine, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant,

the sacred chest described as having mysterious powers, in which Moses had

placed the Ten Commandments. By the middle of the eleventh century B.C., were

well on their way to dominating the entire land.

The loose twelve-tribe confederacy of Israel could not cope with the

Philistine danger. "Give us a king to govern us," the people demanded, "that

we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go

before us and fight our battles." This move was strongly opposed by the

conservative upper class, led by the prophet-judge Samuel. He warned the

assembled Israelites that if they set up a king they would "reject the rule of

God" and incur divine disapproval. He predicted that a king would subject them

to despotic tyranny. But the Israelite assembly rejected Samuel's advice and

elected Saul as their first king. Thereupon "the Lord said to Samuel, 'Hearken

to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not

rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them'" (1 Samuel

8:7). This appears to have been a grudging concession on God's part - like that

of a father who allows his wayward son to learn from experience the folly of

his ways.

Saul's reign (1020-1000 B.C.) was not successful. Continuously undercut

by the conservatives led by Samuel and overshadowed by the fame of the

boy-hero David, who had slain the Philistine giant Goliath in single combat,

Saul made no attempt to transform Israel into a centralized state. He

collected no taxes, and his army was composed of volunteers. A victim also of

his own tempestuous and moody nature, Saul finally committed suicide after an

unsuccessful battle with the Philistines. "How are the mighty fallen," the Old

Testament concludes the story of Saul - a story with all the pathos of a Greek


Saul's successor, the popular David (1000-961 B.C.), not only restricted

the Philistines to a narrow coastal strip but became the ruler of the largest

state in the ancient history of the area, stretching from the Euphrates to the

Gulf of Aqaba. David also conquered Jerusalem from the Canaanites and made it

the private domain of his royal court, separate from the existing twelve

tribes. His popularity was enhanced when he deposited the recovered Ark of the

Covenant in his royal chapel, to which he attached a priesthood. The priests

in turn proclaimed that God had made a special covenant with David as "the

Lord's servant," and with the throne of David through all generations to


David's work was completed by his son Solomon (961-922 B.C.), under whom

Israel reached a pinnacle of worldly power and splendor as an oriental-style

monarchy. In the words of the Bible:

Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to

the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt; they

brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life....

And Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba,

every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of

Solomon....And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond

measure, and largeness of mind....Now the weight of gold that

came to Solomon in one year was six hundred and sixty-six talents

of gold, besides that which came from the traders and from the

traffic of the merchants, and from all the kings of Arabia and

from the governors of the land....The king also made a great

ivory throne, and overlaid it with the finest gold....

(1 Kings 4:20 f.; 10:14 f.)

But the price of Solomon's vast bureaucracy, building projects (especially the

palace complex and the Temple at Jerusalem), standing army (1400 chariots and

12,000 horses), and harem (700 wives and 300 concubines) was great. High

taxes, forced labor, and the loss of tribal independence led to dissension.

The Old Testament attributed this dissension to Solomon's feeble old age, "For

when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and

his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David

his father....Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, 'Since...you have not kept

my covenant and my statutes which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the

kingdom from you'" (1 Kings 11: 4-11).

When Solomon died in 922 B.C., the realm split into two kingdoms - Israel

in the north and Judah in the south. These two weak kingdoms were in no

position to defend themselves when new, powerful empires rose again in

Mesopotamia. In 721 B.C. the Assyrians captured Samaria, the capital of the

northern kingdom, taking 27,290 Israelites into captivity (the "ten lost

tribes") and settling foreign peoples in their place. The resulting mixed

population, called Samaritans, made no further contribution to Hebrew history

or religion.

The southern kingdom of Judah held out until 586 B.C. when

Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean ruler of Babylonia, destroyed Jerusalem and

carried away an estimated 15,000 captives; "none remained, except the poorest

people of the land" (2 Kings 25:14). Thus began the famous Babylonian Exile of

the Jews (Judeans), which lasted until 538 B.C. when Cyrus the Persian, having

conquered Babylon, allowed them to return to Jerusalem where they rebuilt the

Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.

Persian rule was followed by that of the Hellenistic Greeks and Romans.

From A.D. 66 to 70, the Jews rebelled against Rome, and Jerusalem was largely

destroyed in the savage fighting that ensued. The Jews were again driven into

exile, and the Diaspora - the "scattering"was at its height.

[See Ancient Israel: 8th Century BC]

Hebrew Religion

From the time of Abraham the Hebrews worshiped one god, a stern, warlike

tribal deity whose name Yahweh (Jehovah) was first revealed to Moses. Yahweh

differed from the many Near Eastern nature gods in being completely separate

from the physical universe which he had created. This view of Yahweh as the

Creator of all things everywhere was inevitably to lead to the monotheistic

belief that Yahweh was the sole God in the universe.

After their entrance into Palestine, many Hebrews adopted the fertility

deities of the Canaanites as well as the luxurious Canaanite manner of living.

As a result, prophets arose who "spoke for" (from the Greek word prophetes)

Yahweh in insisting on strict adherence to the Sinai Covenant and in

condemning the "whoring" after other gods, the selfish pursuit of wealth, and

the growth of social injustice.

Between roughly 750 and 550 B.C. appeared a series of great prophets who

wrote down their messages. They sought to purge the religion of Israel of all

corrupting influences and to refine the concept of Yahweh. As summed up by

Micah (c. 750 B.C.) in a statement often cited as the essence of all advanced

religions, "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord

require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly

with your God" (Micah 6:8)? Micah's contemporary, the shepherd-prophet Amos,

stressed the need for social justice: "Thus saith the Lord:...[the rich and

powerful] sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.

They trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside

the way of the afflicted...so that they have profaned my holy name" (Amos


The prophets viewed the course of Hebrew history as being governed by the

sovereign will of Yahweh, seeing the Assyrians and the Chaldeans as "the rod

of Yahweh's anger" to chastise his stubborn, wayward people. They also

developed the idea of a coming Messiah (the "anointed one" of God), a

descendant of King David. As "a king in righteousness," the Messiah would

inaugurate a reign of peace and justice. This ideal would stir the hopes of

Jews for centuries.

Considered the greatest of the Hebrew prophets are Jeremiah and the

anonymous Second Isaiah, so-called because his message was incorporated in the

Book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55). Jeremiah witnessed the events that led to

Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and to the Babylonian

Captivity of the Jews. He prepared the people for these calamities by

affirming that Yahweh would forgive their sins and restore "a remnant" of his

people by proclaiming a "new covenant." The old Sinai Covenant had been

between Yahweh and the nation, which no longer existed. It had become overlaid

with ritual and ceremony and centered in the Temple, which had been destroyed.

The new covenant was between Yahweh and each individual; religion was now a

matter of one's own heart and conscience, and both the nation and the Temple

were considered superfluous. Second Isaiah, who lived at the end of the

Babylonian Captivity, capped the work of his predecessors by proclaiming

Israel to be Yahweh's "righteous servant," purified and enlightened by

suffering and ready to guide the world to the worship of the one, eternal,

supreme God. Thus the Jews who returned from the Exile were provided with a

renewed faith in their destiny and a new comprehension of their religion that

would sustain them through the centuries.

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