Ancient Israel

The lands of Judea and Israel were the ancient worlds first Jewish kingdoms, the land where David and Solomon were kings, and the Romans battled for control in the Jewish revolts.

Greek Warriors via Costumes of All Nations (1882)
The Ancient Jewish World

A Canaanite figure from Israel, 3rd Century BCE

The land known as Canaan was situated in the territory of the southern Levant, which today encompasses Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan, and the southern portions of Syria and Lebanon. Throughout time, many names have been given to this area including Palestine, Eretz-Israel, Bilad es-Shem, the Holy Land and Djahy. The earliest known name for this area was “Canaan.” The inhabitants of Canaan were never ethnically or politically unified as a single nation. They did, however, share sufficient similarities in language and culture to be described together as “Canaanites.” Israel refers to both a people within Canaan and later to the political entity formed by those people. To the authors of the Bible, Canaan is the land which the tribes of Israel conquered after an Exodus from Egypt and the Canaanites are the people they disposed from this land. The Old Testament of the Bible (also known as Tanak) is principally concerned with the religious history of Israel in Canaan. In addition to the stories of the Bible, archaeology has provided us with another perspective for viewing the cultures of Canaan and Ancient Israel. This perspective is built upon the social and historical context of the material remains which these peoples have left behind. Through studying these remains, we may better understand the cultures of the ancient Canaanites and Israelites.


Masada, the fortress used by the Jews in the last revolt

The history of the evolving relationship between God and the Jewish people set forth in the the Hebrew Bible–the five books of the Torah, neviim (prophets), and ketuvim (writings)–known to Christians as the Old Testament, begins with myths.

The stories of creation, the temptation and sin of the first humans, their expulsion from an idyllic sanctuary, the flood, and other folkloric events have analogies with other early societies. With the appearance of Abraham, however, the biblical stories introduce a new idea–that of a single tribal God. Over the course of several centuries, this notion evolved into humanity’s first complete monotheism. Abraham looms large in the traditions of the Jewish people and the foundation of their religion. Whether Jews by birth or by conversion, each male Jew is viewed as “a son of Abraham.”

It was with Abraham that God, known as Yahweh, made a covenant, promising to protect Abraham and his descendants, to wage wars on their behalf, and to obtain for them the land of Canaan, an area roughly approximate to modern Israel and the occupied West Bank (in another part of the Torah, God pledges to Abraham’s descendants “the land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,” an area much larger than historic Canaan). In exchange, the ancient Hebrews were bound individually and collectively to follow the ethical precepts and rituals laid down by God.

The historical and Biblical King David, Playing a harp, Fringford Cathedral, England

The historical and Biblical King David, Playing a harp, Fringford Cathedral, England

Canaan, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, was a narrow strip, 130 kilometers wide, bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, the Arabian Desert to the east, Egypt to the south, and Mesopotamia to the north. Situated between the great Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, Canaan served as a burgeoning trading center for caravans between the Nile Valley and the Euphrates and as a cultural entrepôt. The clash of cultures and the diverse commercial activities gave Canaan a dynamic spiritual and material creativity. Prior to the emergence of Abraham, however, Egyptian and Mesopotamian hostility, continuous invasions of hostile peoples, and Canaan’s varied topography had resulted in frequent fighting and general instability.

In the last quarter of the second millennium B.C., the collapse of the Hittite Empire to the north, and the decline of Egyptian power to the south at a time when the Assyrians had not yet become a major force set the stage for the emergence of the Hebrews. As early as the latter part of the third millennium B.C., invasions from the east significantly disrupted Middle Eastern society. The people who moved from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean spoke western Semitic languages of which Hebrew is one. The term Hebrew apparently came from the word habiru (also hapiru or apiru), a term that was common to the Canaanites and many of their neighbors. The word was used to designate a social class of wanderers and seminomads who lived on the margins of, and remained separate from, sedentary settlements. Abraham was the leader of one of these immigrant habiru groups. He is depicted as a wealthy seminomad who possessed large flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle, and enough retainers to mount small military expeditions.

The Canaanite chieftains urged Abraham to settle and join with them. Abraham remained in the land, but when it came time to select a wife for his and Sarah’s son Isaac, the wife was obtained from their relatives living in Haran, near Urfa in modern Turkey. This endogamous practice was repeated by Isaac’s son Jacob, who became known as Israel because he had wrestled with God (Gen. 32:28).

During Jacob-Israel’s lifetime the Hebrews completely severed their links with the peoples of the north and east and his followers began to think of themselves as permanently linked to Canaan. By his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and their two serving maids, Bilhah and Zilpah, Israel fathered twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, the “children of Israel.” The term Jew derives from the name of one of the tribes, Judah, which was not only one of the largest and most powerful of the tribes but also the tribe that produced David and from which, according to biblical prophecy and post biblical legend, a messiah will emerge.

Some time late in the sixteenth or early in the fifteenth century B.C., Jacob’s family–numbering about 150 people–migrated to Egypt to escape the drought and famine in Canaan. Beginning in the third millennium B.C. large numbers of western Semites had migrated to Egypt, usually drawn by the richness of the Nile Valley. They came seeking trade, work, or escape from hunger, and sometimes they came as slaves. The period of Egyptian oppression that drove the Israelites to revolt and escape probably occurred during the reign of Ramses II (1304-1237 B.C.). Most scholars believe that the Exodus itself took place under his successor Merneptah. A victory stela dated 1220 B.C. relates a battle fought with the Israelites beyond Sinai in Canaan. Taken together with other evidence, it is believed that the Exodus occurred in the thirteenth century B.C. and had been completed by about 1225 B.C.

A reconstruction of Jerusalem, as it looked under Herod

A reconstruction of Jerusalem, as it looked under Herod

The Book of Exodus describes in detail the conditions of slavery of the Jews in Egypt and their escape from bondage. The Exodus episode is a pivotal event in Jewish history. The liberation of a slave people from a powerful pharaoh–the first such successful revolt in recorded antiquity–through divine intervention tied successive generations of Hebrews (Jews) to Yahweh. The scale of the revolt and the subsequent sojourn in Sinai created a self-awareness among the Hebrews that they were a separate people sharing a common destiny. Moreover, the giving of the Law to Moses at Mount Sinai set down a moral framework that has guided the Jewish people throughout their history. The Mosaic Code, which includes the Ten Commandments and a wide body of other laws derived from the Torah, not only proclaimed the unity of God but also set forth the revolutionary idea that all men, because they were created in God’s image, were equal. Thus, the Hebrews believed that they were to be a people guided by a moral order that transcended the temporal power and wealth of the day.

The conquest of Canaan under the generalship of Joshua took place over several decades. The biblical account depicts a primitive, outnumbered confederation of tribes slowly conquering pieces of territory from a sedentary, relatively advanced people who lived in walled cities and towns. For a long time the various tribes of Israel controlled the higher, less desirable lands, and only with the advent of David did the kingdoms of Israel and Judah come into being with a capital in Jerusalem.

Prior to the emergence of David, the Hebrew tribes, as portrayed in the last three chapters of the Book of Judges, were fighting among themselves when the Philistines (whence the term Palestine) appeared on the coast and pushed eastward. The Philistines were a warlike people possessing iron weapons and organized with great discipline under a feudal-military aristocracy. Around 1050 B.C., having exterminated the coastal Canaanites, they began a large-scale movement against the interior hill country, now mainly occupied by the Israelites. To unify the people in the face of the Philistine threat, the prophet Samuel anointed the guerrilla captain Saul as the first king of the Israelites. Only one year after his coronation, however, the Philistines destroyed the new royal army at Mount Gilboa, near Bet Shean, southeast of the Plain of Yizreel (also known as the Plain of Jezreel and the Plain of Esdraelon), killing Saul and his son Jonathan.

A map of ancient Palestine

A map of ancient Palestine

Facing imminent peril, the leadership of the Israelites passed to David, a shepherd turned mercenary who had served Saul but also trained under the Philistines. Although David was destined to be the most successful king in Jewish history, his kingdom initially was not a unified nation but two separate national entities, each of which had a separate contract with him personally. King David, a military and political genius, successfully united the north and south under his rule, soundly defeated the Philistines, and expanded the borders of his kingdom, conquering Ammon, Moab, Edom, Zobah (also seen as Aram-Zobah), and even Damascus (also seen as Aram-Damascus) in the far northeast. His success was caused by many factors: the establishment of a powerful professional army that quelled tribal unrest, a regional power vacuum (Egyptian power was on the wane and Assyria and Babylon to the east had not yet matured), his control over the great regional trade routes, and his establishment of economic and cultural contacts with the rich Phoenician city of Tyre. Of major significance, David conquered from the Jebusites the city of Jerusalem, which controlled the main interior north-south route. He then brought the Ark of the Covenant, the most holy relic the Israelites possessed and the symbol of their unity, into the newly constituted “City of David,” which would serve as the center of his united kingdom.

Despite reigning over an impressive kingdom, David was not an absolute monarch in the manner of other rulers of his day. He believed that ultimate authority rested not with any king but with God. Throughout his thirty-three-year reign, he never built a grandiose temple associated with his royal line, thus avoiding the creation of a royal temple-state. His successor and son Solomon, however, was of a different ilk. He was less attached to the spiritual aspects of Judaism and more interested in creating sumptuous palaces and monuments. To carry out his large-scale construction projects, Solomon introduced corvées, or forced labor; these were applied to Canaanite areas and to the northern part of the kingdom but not to Judah in the south. He also imposed a burdensome tax system. Finally, and most egregious to the northern tribes of Israel, Solomon ensured that the Temple in Jerusalem and its priestly caste, both of which were under his authority, established religious belief and practice for the entire nation. Thus, Solomon moved away from the austere spirituality founded by Moses in the desert toward the pagan cultures of the Mediterranean Coast and Nile Valley.

When Solomon died in 925 or 926 B.C., the northerners refused to recognize his successor Rehoboam. Subsequently the north broke away and was ruled by the House of Omri. The northern kingdom of Israel, more populous than the south, possessing more fertile land and closer to the trading centers of the time, flourished until it was completely destroyed and its ten tribes sent into permanent exile by the Assyrians between 740 and 721 B.C. The destruction of the north had a sobering effect on the south. The prophet Isaiah eloquently proclaimed that rather than power and wealth, social justice and adherence to the will of God should be the focus of the Israelites.

At the end of the sixth century B.C., the Assyrian Empire collapsed and the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city of Jerusalem, captured the king, and ended the first commonwealth. Even before the first Exile, the prophet Jeremiah had stated that the Israelites did not need a state to carry out the mission given to them by God. After the Exile, Ezekiel voiced a similar belief: what mattered was not states and empires, for they would perish through God’s power, but man.

From the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C., the majority of Jews have lived outside the Holy Land. Lacking a state and scattered among the peoples of the Near East, the Jews needed to find alternative methods to preserve their special identity. They turned to the laws and rituals of their faith, which became unifying elements holding the community together. Thus, circumcision, sabbath observance, festivals, dietary laws, and laws of cleanliness became especially important.

In the middle of the sixth century B.C., the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians and permitted the Jews to return to their homeland “to rebuild the house of the Lord.” The majority of Jews, however, preferred to remain in the Diaspora, especially in Babylon, which would become a great center of Jewish culture for 1,500 years. During this period Ezra, the great codifier of the laws, compiled the Torah from the vast literature of history, politics, and religion that the Jews had accumulated. The written record depicting the relationship between God and the Jewish people contained in the Torah became the focal point of Judaism.

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King Herod Archelaus

Herod Archelaus, Jewish leader, ruler of Samaria, Judaea and Idumea between 4 BCE and 6 CE.

Herod’s rule was disastrous and he was sent into exile by the Roman emperor Augustus. Herod Archelaus was born in 23 BCE as the son of king Herod and his wife Malthace; he was full brother of Herod Antipas and a half brother of Philip. With these brothers, he was sent as a hostage to Rome, where he received his education. In his father’s testament, Herod Archelaus was appointed king, but the Roman emperor Augustus wrote him that he had to contend himself with the title of ethnarch (‘national leader’) of Samaria, Judaea and Idumea. Immediately after his accession in 4 BCE, things went wrong. When Herod had fallen ill, two popular teachers, Judas and Matthias, had incited their pupils to remove the golden eagle from the entrance of the Temple. After all, according to the Ten Commandments, it was a sin to make idols. The teachers and their pupils had been burned alive.

The new king had to face an angry crowd that demanded rehabilitation of these martyrs; some three thousand Jews were killed during the celebration of Passover. For a moment, all seemed quiet, and Archelaus traveled to Rome, to have himself crowned by the emperor Augustus. Herod the Great I Herod the Great II Herod Archelaus Herod Antipas Philip Herod Agrippa Julius Marcus Agrippa Coin of Herod Archelaus (©!!) In his absence, there were fresh riots. The leaders were a robber named Judas, a royal slave called Simon, a shepherd named Athronges and his brothers. Perhaps, they were all messianic claimants; in case of Athronges, this is even probable. Archelaus’ troops were unable to cope with them, and the Roman governor of Syria, Publius Quinctilius Varus, had to intervene. It was a major operation, which probably involved three of the four Syrian legions (III Gallica, VI Ferrata, X Fretensis, and XII Fulminata).

Two thousand people were crucified, but not all leaders were caught. Ultimately, Archelaus came to terms with one of Athronges’ brothers, something that will not have made a good impression. Matthew implies that Jesus’ parents Joseph and Mary were afraid to go to the territories ruled by Archelaus, and therefore settled in Galilee (Matthew 2.22). Herod Archelaus ruled so badly that the Jews and Samarians unitedly appealed to Rome to request that he should be deposed. In 6 CE, Archelaus was banished to Vienne in Gaul (pictures) and after a bloody revolt led by Judas the Galilean, Judaea became a province of the Roman Empire. Archelaus must have died before 18. Several of his coins show a bunch of grapes. This was the most common picture on a Jewish coins, reminding the user of the coin of the fabulous fertility of the country (the image is derived from Numbers 13.23). A crested morion was shown on the reverse; its significance is unclear to us, although it must be pointed out that this ‘boeotian helmet’ was very un-Roman. Other coins showed the bow of a ship and a laurel wreath.

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Jewish Religion: Early Beliefs

The Canaanite god Baal

The Canaanite god Baal

Canaanite religion was based on the worship of local deities in local temples, but included widely held myths and rituals. Local gods and goddesses were special manifestations of the great deities of religious epics.

Canaanite deities were organized in a pantheon: El the creator, his consort Athirat (Asherah), the storm god Ba’al, and his sister Anat, a goddess of hunting and warfare. El, the chief god of the pantheon, is identified in Canaanite art as a seated male figure with arms raised as if about to give a blessing. In myths from Ugarit (in Syria) he is described as sitting enthroned in his palace, where he gives his sanction to all decisions among the gods affecting nature and society.

El’s female counterpart in myth is the mother-goddess Asherah. As consort to El, Asherah is associated with a cult of fertility and eroticism. Her sacred animal is the lion. Ba’al (“Master”) is one of the major gods of the Canaanite cult and is associated with a holy mountain called Zaphon. Numerous bronze votives show him as a young man with his hand raised in a gesture of victory. The bull was a major symbol of this god. Ba’al was the owner and defender of fertile lands as well as the gods of storms. A popular Canaanite myth describes the battle between Ba’al and a monstrous sea god, Yam. Another myth involves a struggle between Ba’al and Mot, the god of Death and Sterility.

Ba’al is closely associated with the goddess Anat (or Astarte), who is his sister, and in some myths, his consort. Anat is a warlike and often cruel goddess. These mythic deities appear as local deities of Canaanite cities in the southern Levant, both in the Bible and in inscriptions. On the international scene, Canaanite gods and goddesses were equated with their counterparts in Egypt and Mesopotamia. For example, Ba’al is equated with the Egyptian god Seth, since they are both storm gods, and the Egyptian goddess Hathor is equated with a number of Canaanite goddesses, including Anat and Qudushu (“the holy one,” a voluptuous goddess of love, lions and snakes). Overall, precise identification of Canaanite gods and goddesses is difficult due to the fact that depictions of the deities are scarce, found mainly in the form of votives: small bronze statues and ceramic plaques. Inscriptions and texts concerning Canaanite divinities are still more rare.

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The Old Testamant

The Tanak or Old Testament, as we know it today, took shape over a long period of time. In part, scholars have traced this development by studying early manuscripts, which themselves often are archaeological artifacts.

The two most important traditions in the transmission of the Bible are the 10th and 11th century CE Masoretic Hebrew texts and the Septuagint Greek text. The Masoretic manuscripts resulted from generations of careful copying of older Hebrew manuscripts. The Septuagint is a Greek translation which originally was made in Egypt in the third century BCE and seems to reflect a different original Hebrew text than that used by the Masoretes.

The earliest extant biblical texts are two inscribed sheets of silver foil found in a 600 BCE tomb at Ketef Hinnom, outside the walls of Jerusalem. They were inscribed with identical passages, close to the “priestly benediction” in Numbers 6:24-26:

YHWH bless you
and keep you
YHWH shine his face upon you
and be gracious to you

– Ketef Hinnom,
Plaque 1:14-19

The next earliest group of biblical texts are the 250 BCE-70 CE Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947 near Khirbet Qumran in Israel. Of approximately 825 extant documents, only one was complete. They contain sections of every Old Testament book except Esther and include more than 600 non-biblical texts. The scrolls reflect both the Masoretic and the Septuagint textual traditions.

After the 7th century CE, as biblical manuscripts were preserved in scroll repositories (geniza) of synagogues and in Christian libraries, archaeological finds have less importance. After 1477 CE, the printing press revolutionized the production and dissemination of a standardized text of the Tanak/ Old Testament.

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The Temple of Jerusalem

The Second Temple of Jersusalem

The crowning achievement of King Solomon’s reign was the erection of a magnificent Temple (Beit ha-Midkash) in Jerusalem. His father, King David, had wanted to build a great Temple for God a generation earlier, as a permanent resting place for the Ark containing the Ten Commandments. A divine edict, however, had forbidden him from doing so. “You will not build a house for My name,” God said to him, “for you are a man of battles and have shed blood” (I Chronicles 28:3).

The Bible’s description of Solomon’s Temple suggests that the inside ceiling was was 180 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 50 feet high. The highest point on the Temple that King Solomon built was actually 120 cubits tall (about 20 stories or about 207 feet). According to the Tanach (II Chronicles):

3:3 The length by cubits after the ancient measure was threescore cubits, and the breadth twenty cubits.

3:4 And the porch that was before the house, the length of it, according to the breadth of the house, was twenty cubits, and the height a hundred and twenty; and he overlaid it within with pure gold.

He spares no expense in the building’s creation. He orders vast quantities of cedar from King Hiram of Tyre (I Kings 5:20­25), has huge blocks of the choicest stone quarried, and commands that the building’s foundation be laid with hewn stone. To complete the massive project, he imposes forced labor on all his subjects, drafting people for work shifts lasting a month at a time. Some 3,300 officials are appointed to oversee the Temple’s erection (5:27­30). Solomon assumes such heavy debts in building the Temple that he is forced to pay off King Hiram with twenty towns in the Galilee (I Kings 9:11).

When the Temple is completed, Solomon inaugurates it with prayer and sacrifice, and even invites non­ Jews to come and pray there. He urges God to pay particular heed to their prayers: “Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built” (I Kings 8:43).

The destruction of the second temple by the Romans

The destruction of the second temple by the Romans

Until the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians some four hundred years later, in 586 B.C.E., sacrifice was the predominant mode of divine service there. Seventy years later, a second Temple was built on the same site, and sacrifices again resumed. During the first century B.C.E., Herod greatly enlarged and expanded this Temple. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., after the failure of the Great Revolt.

As glorious and elaborate as the Temple was, its most important room contained almost no furniture at all. Known as the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Kodashim), it housed the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, the tablets disappeared when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple, and during the Second Temple era, the Holy of Holies was a small, entirely bare room. Only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter this room and pray to God on Israel’s behalf. A remarkable monologue by a Hasidic rabbi in the Yiddish play The Dybbuk conveys a sense of what the Jewish throngs worshiping at the Temple must have experienced during this ceremony:

God’s world is great and holy. The holiest land in the world is the land of Israel. In the land of Israel the holiest city is Jerusalem. In Jerusalem the holiest place was the Temple, and in the Temple the holiest spot was the Holy of Holies…. There are seventy peoples in the world. The holiest among these is the people of Israel. The holiest of the people of Israel is the tribe of Levi. In the tribe of Levi the holiest are the priests. Among the priests, the holiest was the High Priest…. There are 354 days in the [lunar] year. Among these, the holidays are holy. Higher than these is the holiness of the Sabbath. Among Sabbaths, the holiest is the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath of Sabbaths…. There are seventy languages in the world. The holiest is Hebrew. Holier than all else in this language is the holy Torah, and in the Torah the holiest part is the Ten Commandments. In the Ten Commandments the holiest of all words is the name of God…. And once during the year, at a certain hour, these four supreme sanctities of the world were joined with one another. That was on the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and there utter the name of God. And because this hour was beyond measure holy and awesome, it was the time of utmost peril not only for the High Priest but for the whole of Israel. For if in this hour there had, God forbid, entered the mind of the High Priest a false or sinful thought, the entire world would have been destroyed.

To this day, traditional Jews pray three times a day for the Temple’s restoration. During the centuries the Muslims controlled Palestine, two mosques were built on the site of the Jewish Temple. (This was no coincidence; it is a common Islamic custom to build mosques on the sites of other people’s holy places.) Since any attempt to level these mosques would lead to an international Muslim holy war (jihad) against Israel, the Temple cannot be rebuilt in the foreseeable future.

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The most important of the Jewish Prophets, Moses

The most important figure in Judaism, Moses parted the Red Sea to free his people and brought them the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. His story appears early in the Bible and is filled with miracles and talks with God.

At his birth, the Hebrews, descendants of Abraham and Jacob (Israel), are slaves to Egypt’s king (Pharaoh) who has ordered newborn males killed. Moses’ mother hides him in a papyrus basket among the Nile’s reeds; Pharaoh’s daughter finds him, takes pity and adopts him. He flees as a young man, but God appears to him in a burning bush years later and sends him back with his brother, Aaron, to demand the Israelites’ release. Plagues arrive, the Hebrews escape, and Egypt’s army drowns in the Red Sea. A wilderness sojourn follows, in which God, through Moses, makes a covenant with the Hebrews and lays out rites of worship and laws of communal and personal behavior. At age 120, Moses dies by God’s decree just before the people enter the land known in recent centuries as Palestine and Israel.

His Hebrew name, Moshe, means “the one who draws out”… His story starts in Exodus and ends in Deuteronomy, two of the “five books of Moses” or, in Hebrew, the Torah (“law”). It includes the first Passover, just before the escape from Egypt… The burning bush and stone tablets appear on Mt. Sinai. Its precise location on the Sinai Peninsula is uncertain… Moses is also a figure of faith in Christianity and a prophet in Islam; the Koran’s account is similar to the Bible’s but less detailed.

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