The history of the evolving relationship between God and the Jewish people set forth in 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.
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 centre 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 2nd millennium BC, 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 3rd millennium BC, 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 neighbours. The word was used to designate a social class of wanderers and semi-nomads 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 semi-nomad 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.
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 16th or early in the 15th century BC, Jacob's family – numbering about 150 people – migrated to Egypt to escape the drought and famine in Canaan. Beginning in the 3rd millennium BC 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 BC). Most scholars believe that the Exodus itself took place under his successor Merneptah. A victory stela dated 1220 BC 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 13th century BC and had been completed by about 1225 BC.
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.
See more information on the next page... (next)