A History of Ancient Israel and Judah
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
The Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah were related kingdoms from the Iron Age period of the ancient Levant. The Kingdom of Israel emerged as an important local power by the 10th century BCE before falling to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE. Israel’s southern neighbor, the Kingdom of Judah, emerged in the 9th or 8th century BCE and later became a client state of first the Neo-Assyrian Empire and then the Neo-Babylonian Empire before a revolt against the latter led to its destruction in 586 BCE. Following the fall of Babylon to the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, some Judean exiles returned to Jerusalem, inaugurating the formative period in the development of a distinctive Judahite identity in the province of Yehud Medinata.
During the Hellenistic classic period, Yehud was absorbed into the subsequent Hellenistic kingdoms that followed the conquests of Alexander the Great, but in the 2nd century BCE the Judaeans revolted against the Seleucid Empire and created the Hasmonean kingdom. This, the last nominally independent kingdom of Israel, gradually lost its independence from 63 BCE with its conquest by Pompey of Rome, becoming a Roman and later Parthian client kingdom. Following the installation of client kingdoms under the Herodian dynasty, the Province of Judea was wracked by civil disturbances, which culminated in the First Jewish–Roman War, the destruction of the Second Temple, the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. The name Judea (Iudaea) then ceased to be used by Greco-Romans. After the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 CE, the Romans expelled most Jews from the region and renamed it Palestine (Palaestiane).
Late Bronze Age Background (1600–1150 BCE)
The eastern Mediterranean seaboard – the Levant – stretches 400 miles north to south from the Taurus Mountains to the Sinai Peninsula, and 70 to 100 miles east to west between the sea and the Arabian Desert. The coastal plain of the southern Levant, broad in the south and narrowing to the north, is backed in its southernmost portion by a zone of foothills, the Shfela; like the plain this narrows as it goes northwards, ending in the promontory of Mount Carmel. East of the plain and the Shfela is a mountainous ridge, the “hill country of Judah” in the south, the “hill country of Ephraim” north of that, then Galilee and Mount Lebanon. To the east again lie the steep-sided valley occupied by the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the wadi of the Arabah, which continues down to the eastern arm of the Red Sea. Beyond the plateau is the Syrian desert, separating the Levant from Mesopotamia. To the southwest is Egypt, to the northeast Mesopotamia. The location and geographical characteristics of the narrow Levant made the area a battleground among the powerful entities that surrounded it.
Canaan in the Late Bronze Age was a shadow of what it had been centuries earlier: many cities were abandoned, others shrank in size, and the total settled population was probably not much more than a hundred thousand. Settlement was concentrated in cities along the coastal plain and along major communication routes; the central and northern hill country which would later become the biblical kingdom of Israel was only sparsely inhabited although letters from the Egyptian archives indicate that Jerusalem was already a Canaanite city-state recognising Egyptian overlordship. Politically and culturally it was dominated by Egypt, each city under its own ruler, constantly at odds with its neighbours, and appealing to the Egyptians to adjudicate their differences.
The Canaanite city state system broke down during the Late Bronze Age collapse, and Canaanite culture was then gradually absorbed into that of the Philistines, Phoenicians and Israelites. The process was gradual and a strong Egyptian presence continued into the 12th century BCE, and, while some Canaanite cities were destroyed, others continued to exist in Iron Age I.
The name “Israel” first appears in the Merneptah Stele c. 1209 BCE: “Israel is laid waste and his seed is no more.” This “Israel” was a cultural and probably political entity, well enough established for the Egyptians to perceive it as a possible challenge, but an ethnic group rather than an organised state.
Iron Age I (1150–950 BCE)
Archaeologist Paula McNutt says: “It is probably … during Iron Age I [that] a population began to identify itself as ‘Israelite’,” differentiating itself from its neighbours via prohibitions on intermarriage, an emphasis on family history and genealogy, and religion.
In the Late Bronze Age there were no more than about 25 villages in the highlands, but this increased to over 300 by the end of Iron Age I, while the settled population doubled from 20,000 to 40,000. The villages were more numerous and larger in the north, and probably shared the highlands with pastoral nomads, who left no remains. Archaeologists and historians attempting to trace the origins of these villagers have found it impossible to identify any distinctive features that could define them as specifically Israelite – collared-rim jars and four-room houses have been identified outside the highlands and thus cannot be used to distinguish Israelite sites, and while the pottery of the highland villages is far more limited than that of lowland Canaanite sites, it develops typologically out of Canaanite pottery that came before. Israel Finkelstein proposed that the oval or circular layout that distinguishes some of the earliest highland sites, and the notable absence of pig bones from hill sites, could be taken as markers of ethnicity, but others have cautioned that these can be a “common-sense” adaptation to highland life and not necessarily revelatory of origins. Other Aramaean sites also demonstrate a contemporary absence of pig remains at that time, unlike earlier Canaanite and later Philistine excavations.
In The Bible Unearthed (2001), Finkelstein and Silberman summarised recent studies. They described how, up until 1967, the Israelite heartland in the highlands of western Palestine was virtually an archaeological terra incognita. Since then, intensive surveys have examined the traditional territories of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, and Manasseh. These surveys have revealed the sudden emergence of a new culture contrasting with the Philistine and Canaanite societies existing in the Land of Israel earlier during Iron Age I. This new culture is characterised by a lack of pork remains (whereas pork formed 20% of the Philistine diet in places), by an abandonment of the Philistine/Canaanite custom of having highly decorated pottery, and by the practice of circumcision. The Israelite ethnic identity had originated, not from the Exodus and a subsequent conquest, but from a transformation of the existing Canaanite-Philistine cultures.
These surveys revolutionized the study of early Israel. The discovery of the remains of a dense network of highland villages – all apparently established within the span of few generations – indicated that a dramatic social transformation had taken place in the central hill country of Canaan around 1200 BCE. There was no sign of violent invasion or even the infiltration of a clearly defined ethnic group. Instead, it seemed to be a revolution in lifestyle. In the formerly sparsely populated highlands from the Judean hills in the south to the hills of Samaria in the north, far from the Canaanite cities that were in the process of collapse and disintegration, about two-hundred fifty hilltop communities suddenly sprang up. Here were the first Israelites.
Modern scholars therefore see Israel arising peacefully and internally from existing people in the highlands of Canaan.
Iron Age II (950–587 BCE)
Unusually favourable climatic conditions in the first two centuries of Iron Age II brought about an expansion of population, settlements and trade throughout the region. In the central highlands this resulted in unification in a kingdom with the city of Samaria as its capital, possibly by the second half of the 10th century BCE when an inscription of the Egyptian pharaoh Shoshenq I, the biblical Shishak, records a series of campaigns directed at the area. Israel had clearly emerged by the middle of the 9th century BCE, when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III names “Ahab the Israelite” among his enemies at the battle of Qarqar (853). At this time Israel was apparently engaged in a three-way contest with Damascus and Tyre for control of the Jezreel Valley and Galilee in the north, and with Moab, Ammon and Aram Damascus in the east for control of Gilead; the Mesha Stele (c. 830), left by a king of Moab, celebrates his success in throwing off the oppression of the “House of Omri” (i.e., Israel). It bears what is generally thought to be the earliest extra-biblical reference to the name Yahweh.
A century later Israel came into increasing conflict with the expanding Neo-Assyrian Empire, which first split its territory into several smaller units and then destroyed its capital, Samaria (722). Both the biblical and Assyrian sources speak of a massive deportation of people from Israel and their replacement with settlers from other parts of the empire – such population exchanges were an established part of Assyrian imperial policy, a means of breaking the old power structure – and the former Israel never again became an independent political entity.
Judah emerged as an operational kingdom somewhat later than Israel, probably during the 9th century BCE, but the subject is one of considerable controversy. There are indications that during the 10th and 9th centuries BCE, the southern highlands had been divided between a number of centres, none with clear primacy. During the reign of Hezekiah, between c. 715 and 686 BCE, a notable increase in the power of the Judean state can be observed. This is reflected in archaeological sites and findings, such as the Broad Wall; a defensive city wall in Jerusalem; and the Siloam tunnel, an aqueduct designed to provide Jerusalem with water during an impending siege by the Neo-Assyrian Empire led by Sennacherib; and the Siloam inscription, a lintel inscription found over the doorway of a tomb, has been ascribed to comptroller Shebna. LMLK seals on storage jar handles, excavated from strata in and around that formed by Sennacherib’s destruction, appear to have been used throughout Sennacherib’s 29-year reign, along with bullae from sealed documents, some that belonged to Hezekiah himself and others that name his servants.
In the 7th century Jerusalem grew to contain a population many times greater than earlier and achieved clear dominance over its neighbours. This occurred at the same time that Israel was being destroyed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire, and was probably the result of a cooperative arrangement with the Assyrians to establish Judah as an Assyrian vassal state controlling the valuable olive industry. Judah prospered as a vassal state (despite a disastrous rebellion against Sennacherib), but in the last half of the 7th century BCE, Assyria suddenly collapsed, and the ensuing competition between Egypt and the Neo-Babylonian Empire for control of the land led to the destruction of Judah in a series of campaigns between 597 and 582.
Babylonian Judah suffered a steep decline in both economy and population and lost the Negev, the Shephelah, and part of the Judean hill country, including Hebron, to encroachments from Edom and other neighbours. Jerusalem, while probably not totally abandoned, was much smaller than previously, and the town of Mizpah in Benjamin in the relatively unscathed northern section of the kingdom became the capital of the new Babylonian province of Yehud Medinata. (This was standard Babylonian practice: when the Philistine city of Ashkalon was conquered in 604, the political, religious and economic elite [but not the bulk of the population] was banished and the administrative centre shifted to a new location). There is also a strong probability that for most or all of the period the temple at Bethel in Benjamin replaced that at Jerusalem, boosting the prestige of Bethel’s priests (the Aaronites) against those of Jerusalem (the Zadokites), now in exile in Babylon.
The Babylonian conquest entailed not just the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, but the liquidation of the entire infrastructure which had sustained Judah for centuries. The most significant casualty was the state ideology of “Zion theology,” the idea that the god of Israel had chosen Jerusalem for his dwelling-place and that the Davidic dynasty would reign there forever. The fall of the city and the end of Davidic kingship forced the leaders of the exile community – kings, priests, scribes and prophets – to reformulate the concepts of community, faith and politics. The exile community in Babylon thus became the source of significant portions of the Hebrew Bible: Isaiah 40–55; Ezekiel; the final version of Jeremiah; the work of the hypothesized priestly source in the Pentateuch; and the final form of the history of Israel from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings. Theologically, the Babylonian exiles were responsible for the doctrines of individual responsibility and universalism (the concept that one god controls the entire world) and for the increased emphasis on purity and holiness. Most significantly, the trauma of the exile experience led to the development of a strong sense of Hebrew identity distinct from other peoples, with increased emphasis on symbols such as circumcision and Sabbath-observance to sustain that distinction.
The concentration of the biblical literature on the experience of the exiles in Babylon disguises the fact that the great majority of the population remained in Judah; for them, life after the fall of Jerusalem probably went on much as it had before. It may even have improved, as they were rewarded with the land and property of the deportees, much to the anger of the community of exiles remaining in Babylon. The assassination around 582 of the Babylonian governor by a disaffected member of the former royal House of David provoked a Babylonian crackdown, possibly reflected in the Book of Lamentations, but the situation seems to have soon stabilised again. Nevertheless, those unwalled cities and towns that remained were subject to slave raids by the Phoenicians and intervention in their internal affairs by Samaritans, Arabs, and Ammonites.
When Babylon fell to the Persian Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, Judah (or Yehud medinata, the “province of Yehud”) became an administrative division within the Persian empire. Cyrus was succeeded as king by Cambyses, who added Egypt to the empire, incidentally transforming Yehud and the Philistine plain into an important frontier zone. His death in 522 was followed by a period of turmoil until Darius the Great seized the throne in about 521. Darius introduced a reform of the administrative arrangements of the empire including the collection, codification and administration of local law codes, and it is reasonable to suppose that this policy lay behind the redaction of the Jewish Torah. After 404 the Persians lost control of Egypt, which became Persia’s main rival outside Europe, causing the Persian authorities to tighten their administrative control over Yehud and the rest of the Levant. Egypt was eventually reconquered, but soon afterward Persia fell to Alexander the Great, ushering in the Hellenistic period in the Levant.
Yehud’s population over the entire period was probably never more than about 30,000 and that of Jerusalem no more than about 1,500, most of them connected in some way to the Temple. According to the biblical history, one of the first acts of Cyrus, the Persian conqueror of Babylon, was to commission Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple, a task which they are said to have completed c. 515. Yet it was probably not until the middle of the next century, at the earliest, that Jerusalem again became the capital of Judah. The Persians may have experimented initially with ruling Yehud as a Davidic client-kingdom under descendants of Jehoiachin, but by the mid–5th century BCE, Yehud had become, in practice, a theocracy, ruled by hereditary high priests, with a Persian-appointed governor, frequently Jewish, charged with keeping order and seeing that taxes (tribute) were collected and paid. According to the biblical history, Ezra and Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem in the middle of the 5th century BCE, the former empowered by the Persian king to enforce the Torah, the latter holding the status of governor with a royal commission to restore Jerusalem’s walls. The biblical history mentions tension between the returnees and those who had remained in Yehud, the returnees rebuffing the attempt of the “peoples of the land” to participate in the rebuilding of the Temple; this attitude was based partly on the exclusivism that the exiles had developed while in Babylon and, probably, also partly on disputes over property. During the 5th century BCE, Ezra and Nehemiah attempted to re-integrate these rival factions into a united and ritually pure society, inspired by the prophecies of Ezekiel and his followers.
The Persian era, and especially the period between 538 and 400 BCE, laid the foundations for the unified Judaic religion and the beginning of a scriptural canon. Other important landmarks in this period include the replacement of Hebrew as the everyday language of Judah by Aramaic (although Hebrew continued to be used for religious and literary purposes) and Darius’s reform of the empire’s bureaucracy, which may have led to extensive revisions and reorganizations of the Jewish Torah. The Israel of the Persian period consisted of descendants of the inhabitants of the old kingdom of Judah, returnees from the Babylonian exile community, Mesopotamians who had joined them or had been exiled themselves to Samaria at a far earlier period, Samaritans, and others.
The beginning of the Hellenistic Period is marked by the conquest of Alexander the Great (333 BCE). When Alexander died in 323, he had no heirs that were able to take his place as ruler of his empire, so his generals divided the empire among themselves. Ptolemy I asserted himself as the ruler of Egypt in 322 and seized Yehud Medinata in 320, but his successors lost it in 198 to the Seleucids of Syria. At first, relations between Seleucids and Jews were cordial, but the attempt of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (174–163) to impose Hellenic cults on Judea sparked the Maccabean Revolt that ended in the expulsion of the Seleucids and the establishment of an independent Jewish kingdom under the Hasmonean dynasty. Some modern commentators see this period also as a civil war between orthodox and hellenized Jews. Hasmonean kings attempted to revive the Judah described in the Bible: a Jewish monarchy ruled from Jerusalem and including all territories once ruled by David and Solomon. In order to carry out this project, the Hasmoneans forcibly converted one-time Moabites, Edomites, and Ammonites to Judaism, as well as the lost kingdom of Israel. Some scholars argue that the Hasmonean dynasty institutionalized the final Jewish biblical canon.
Ptolemy I took control of Egypt in 322 BCE after the death of Alexander the Great. He also took control of Yehud Medinata in 320 because he was very aware that it was a great place to attack Egypt from and was also a great defensive position. However, there were others who also had their eyes on that area. Another former general, Antigonus Monophthalmus, had driven out the satrap of Babylon, Seleucus, in 317 and continued on towards the Levant. Seleucus found refuge with Ptolemy and they both rallied troops against Antigonus’ son Demetrius, since Antigonus had retreated back to Asia Minor. Demetrius was defeated at the battle of Gaza and Ptolemy regained control of Yehud Medinata. However, not soon after this Antigonus came back and forced Ptolemy to retreat back to Egypt. This went on until the Battle of Ipsus in 301 where Seleucus’ armies defeated Antigonus. Seleucus was given the areas of Syria and Palestine, but Ptolemy would not give up those lands, causing the Syrian Wars between the Ptolemies and Seleucids. Not much is known about the happenings of those in Yehud Medinata from the time of Alexander’s death until the Battle of Ipsus due to the frequent battles.
At first, the Jews were content with Ptolemy’s rule over them. His reign brought them peace and economic stability. He also allowed them to keep their religious practices, so long as they paid their taxes and didn’t rebel. After Ptolemy I came Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who was able to keep the territory of Yehud Medinata and brought the dynasty to the peak of its power. He was victorious in both the first and second Syrian Wars, but after trying to end the conflict with the Seleucids by arranging a marriage between his daughter Berenice and the Seleucid king Antiochus II, he died. The arranged marriage did not work and Berenice, Antiochus, and their child were killed from an order of Antiochus’ former wife. This was one of the reasons for the third Syrian War. Before all of this, Ptolemy II fought and defeated the Nabataeans. In order to enforce his hold on them, he reinforced many cities in Palestine and built new ones. As a result of this, more Greeks and Macedonians moved to those new cities and brought over their customs and culture, or Hellenism.
The Ptolemaic Rule also gave rise to ‘tax farmers’. These were the bigger farmers who collected the high taxes of the smaller farmers. These farmers made a lot of money off of this, but it also put a rift between the aristocracy and everyone else. During the end of the Third Syrian War, the high priest Onias II would not pay the tax to the Ptolemy III Euergetes. It is thought that this shows a turning point in the Jew’s support of the Ptolemies. The Fourth and Fifth Syrian Wars marked the end of the Ptolemaic control of Palestine. Both of these wars hurt Palestine more than the previous three. That and the combination of the ineffective rulers Ptolemy IV Philopater and Ptolemy V and the might of the large Seleucid army ended the century-long rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty over Palestine.
Seleucid Rule and the Maccabean Revolt
The Seleucid Rule of Palestine began in 198 BCE under Antiochus III. He, like the Ptolemies, let the Jews keep their religion and customs and even went so far as to encourage the rebuilding of the temple and city after they welcomed him so warmly into Jerusalem. However, Antiochus owed the Romans a great deal of money. In order to raise this money, he decided to rob a temple. The people at the temple of Bel in Elam were not pleased, so they killed Antiochus and everyone helping him in 187 BCE. He was succeeded by his son Seleucus IV Philopater. He simply defended the area of Palestine from Ptolemy V before being murdered by his minister in 175. His brother Antiochus IV Epiphanes took his place. Before he killed the king, the minister Heliodorus had tried to steal the treasures the temple in Jerusalem. He was informed of this knowledge by a rival of the current High Priest Onias III.
Heliodorus was not allowed into the temple, but it required Onias to go explain to the king why one of his ministers was denied access somewhere. In his absence, his rivals put up a new high priest. Onias’ brother Jason (a Hellenized version of Joshua) took his place. Now with Jason as high priest and Antiochus IV as king, many Jews adopted Hellenistic ways. Some of these ways, as stated in the Book of 1 Maccabees, were the building of a gymnasium, finding ways to hide their circumcision, and just generally not abiding by the holy covenant. This led to the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt.
According to the Book of Maccabees, many Jews were not happy with the way Hellenism had spread into Judea. Some of these Jews were Mattathias and his sons. Mattathias refused to offer sacrifice when the king told him to. He killed a Jew who was going to do so as well as the king’s representative. Because of this, Mattathias and his sons had to flee. This marks the true beginning of the Maccabean Revolt. Judas Maccabeus became the leader of the rebels. He proved to be a successful general, defeating an army lead by Apollonius. They started to catch the attention of King Antiochus IV in 165, who told his chancellor to put an end to the revolt. The chancellor, Lysias, sent three generals to do just that, but they were all defeated by the Maccabees. Soon after, Lysias went himself but, according to 1 and 2 Maccabees he was defeated. There is evidence to show that it was not that simple and that there was negotiation, but Lysias still left. After the death of Antiochus IV in 164, his son, Antiochus V, gave the Jews religious freedom. Lysias claimed to be his regent. Around this time was the re-dedication of the temple.
During the siege of the Acra, one of Judas’ brothers, Eleazor, was killed. The Maccabees had to retreat back to Jerusalem, where they should have been beaten badly. However, Lysias had to pull out because of a contradiction of who was to be regent for Antiochus V. Shortly after, both were killed by Demetrius I Soter who became the new king. The new high priest, Alcimus, had come to Jerusalem with the company of an army lead by Bacchides. A group of scribes called the Hasideans asked him for his word that he would not harm anyone. He agreed, but killed sixty of them. Around this time Judas was able to make a treaty with the Romans. Soon after this, Judas was killed in Jerusalem fighting Bacchides’ army. His brother Jonathan succeeded him. For eight years, Jonathan didn’t do much. However, in 153 the Seleucid Empire started to face some problems. Jonathan used this chance to exchange his services of troops for Demetrius so that he could take back Jerusalem. He was appointed high priest by Alexander Balas for the same thing. When conflicts between Egypt and the Seleucids arose, Jonathan occupied the Acra. As conflicts over the throne arose, he completely took control of the Acra. But in 142 he was killed. His brother Simon took his place.
The Hasmonean Dynasty
Simon was nominated for the title of high priest, general, and leader by a “great assembly”. He reached out to Rome to have them guarantee that Judea would be an independent land. Antiochus VII wanted the cities of Gadara, Joppa, and the Acra back. He also wanted a very large tribute. Simon only wanted to pay a fraction of that for only two of the cites, so Antiochus sent his general Cendebaeus to attack. The general was killed and the army fled. Simon and two of his sons were killed in a plot to overthrow the Hasmoneans. His last remaining son, John Hyrcanus, was supposed to be killed as well, but he was informed of the plan and rushed to Jerusalem to keep it safe. Hyrcanus had many issues to deal with as the new high priest. Antiochus invaded Judea and besieged Jerusalem in 134 BCE. Due to lack of food, Hyrcanus had to make a deal with Antiochus. He had to pay a large sum of money, tear down the walls of the city, acknowledge Seleucid power over Judea, and help the Seleucids fight against the Parthians. Hyrcanus agreed to this, but the war against the Parthians didn’t work and Antiochus died in 128. Hyrcanus was able to take back Judea and keep his power.
John Hyrcanus also kept good relations with the Roman and the Egyptians, owing to the large number of Jews living there, and conquered Transjordan, Samaria, and Idumea (also known as Edom). Aristobulus I was the first Hasmonean priest-king. He defied his father’s wishes that his mother should take over the government and instead had her and all of his brothers except for one thrown in prison. The one not thrown in prison was later killed on his orders. The most significant thing he did during his one-year-reign was conquer most of Galilee. After his death, he was succeeded by his brother Alexander Jannaeus, who was only concerned with power and conquest. He also married his brother’s widow, showing little respect for Jewish law.
His first conquest was Ptolemais. The people called to Ptolemy IX for aid, as he was in Cyprus. However, it was his mother, Cleopatra III, who came to help Alexander and not her son. Alexander was not a popular ruler. This caused a civil war in Jerusalem that lasted for six years. After Alexander Jannaeus’ death, his widow became ruler, but not high priest. The end of the Hasmonean Dynasty was in 63 when the Romans came at the request of the current priest-king Aristobulus II and his competitor Hyrcanus II. In 63 BCE the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem and the Romans put Hyrcanus II up as high priest, but Judea became a client-kingdom of Rome. The dynasty came to an end in 40 BCE when Herod was crowned king of Judah by the Romans. With their help, Herod had seized Jerusalem by 37.
The Herodian Dynasty
In 40–39 BCE, Herod the Great was appointed King of the Jews by the Roman Senate, and in 6 CE the last ethnarch of Judea, a descendant of Herod’s, was deposed by Emperor Augustus, his territories combined with Idumea and Samaria and annexed as Iudaea Province under direct Roman administration.
Henotheism is defined in the dictionary as adherence to one god out of several. Many scholars believe that before monotheism in ancient Israel came a transitional period in between polytheism and monotheism. In this transitional period many followers of the Israelite religion worshiped the god Yahweh but did not deny the existence of other deities accepted throughout the region. Some scholars attribute this henotheistic period to influences from Mesopotamia. There are strong arguments that Mesopotamia, particularly Assyria shared the concept of the cult of Ashur with Israel.
This concept entailed adopting the gods of other cultures into their pantheon, with Ashur as the supreme god of all the others. This concept is believed to have influenced the transitional period in Israelite religion in which many people were henotheists. Israelite religion shares many characteristics with Canaanite religion, which itself was formed with influence from Mesopotamian religious traditions. Using Canaanite religion as a base was natural due to the fact that the Canaanite culture inhabited the same region prior to the emergence of Israelite culture. Canaanite religion was a polytheistic religion in which many gods represented unique concepts. Many scholars agree that the Israelite god of Yahweh was adopted from the Canaanite god El. El was the creation god and as such it makes sense for the Israelite supreme god to have El’s characteristics. Monotheism in the region of ancient Israel and Judah did not take hold over night and during the intermediate stages most people are believed to have been henotheistic. Before the emergence of Yahweh as the patron god of the region of ancient Israel and Judah not all worshiped him alone, or even at all. The word “Israel” is based on the name El rather than Yahweh.
During this intermediate period of henotheism many families worshiped different gods. Religion was very much centered around the family, as opposed to the community. People sparsely populated the region of Israel and Judah during the time of Moses. As such many different areas worshiped different gods, due to social isolation. It was not until later on in Israelite history that people started to worship Yahweh alone and fully convert to monotheistic values. That switch occurred with the growth of power and influence of the Israelite kingdom and its rulers and can be read about further in the Iron Age Yahwism section below. Evidence from the bible suggests that henotheism did exist: “They [the Hebrews] went and served alien gods and paid homage to them, gods of whom they had no experience and whom he [Yahweh] did not allot to them” (Deut. 29.26). Many believe that this quote goes to show that the early Israelite kingdom followed similar traditions as ancient Mesopotamia, where each major urban center had a supreme god. Each culture then embraced their patron god but did not deny the existence of other cultures’ patron gods. In Assyria, the patron god was Ashur, and in ancient Israel, it was Yahweh; however, both Israelite and Assyrian cultures recognized each other’s deities during this period.
Some scholars have used the Bible as evidence to argue that most of the people alive during the events recounted in the Old Testament, including Moses, were most likely henotheists. There are many quotes from the Old Testament support this point of view. One quote from Jewish and Christian tradition that supports this claim is the first commandment which in its entirety reads “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” This quote does not deny the existence of other gods; it merely states that Jews and Christians should consider Yahweh or God the supreme god, incomparable to other supernatural beings. Some scholars attribute the concept of angels and demons found in Judaism and Christianity to the tradition of henotheism. Instead of completely getting rid of the concept of other supernatural beings, these religions changed former deities into angels and demons. Yahweh became the supreme god governing angels, demons and humans, with angels and demons considered more powerful than the average human. This tradition of believing in multiple forms of supernatural beings is attributed by many to the traditions of ancient Mesopotamia and Canaan and their pantheons of gods. Earlier influences from Mesopotamia and Canaan were important in creating the foundation of Israelite religion consistent with the Kingdoms of ancient Israel and Judah, and have since left lasting impacts on some of the biggest and most widespread religions in our world today.
Iron Age Yahwism
The religion of the Israelites of Iron Age I, like the Ancient Canaanite religion from which it evolved and other religions of the ancient Near East, was based on a cult of ancestors and worship of family gods (the “gods of the fathers”). With the emergence of the monarchy at the beginning of Iron Age II the kings promoted their family god, Yahweh, as the god of the kingdom, but beyond the royal court, religion continued to be both polytheistic and family-centered. The major deities were not numerous – El, Asherah, and Yahweh, with Baal as a fourth god, and perhaps Shamash (the sun) in the early period. At an early stage El and Yahweh became fused and Asherah did not continue as a separate state cult, although she continued to be popular at a community level until Persian times.
Yahweh, the national god of both Israel and Judah, seems to have originated in Edom and Midian in southern Canaan and may have been brought to Israel by the Kenites and Midianites at an early stage. There is a general consensus among scholars that the first formative event in the emergence of the distinctive religion described in the Bible was triggered by the destruction of Israel by Assyria in c. 722 BCE. Refugees from the northern kingdom fled to Judah, bringing with them laws and a prophetic tradition of Yahweh. This religion was subsequently adopted by the landowners of Judah, who in 640 BCE placed the eight-year-old Josiah on the throne. Judah at this time was a vassal state of Assyria, but Assyrian power collapsed in the 630s, and around 622 Josiah and his supporters launched a bid for independence expressed as loyalty to “Yahweh alone”.
The Babylonian Exile and Second Temple Judaism
According to the Deuteronomists, as scholars call these Judean nationalists, the treaty with Yahweh would enable Israel’s god to preserve both the city and the king in return for the people’s worship and obedience. The destruction of Jerusalem, its Temple, and the Davidic dynasty by Babylon in 587/586 BCE was deeply traumatic and led to revisions of the national mythos during the Babylonian exile. This revision was expressed in the Deuteronomistic history, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, which interpreted the Babylonian destruction as divinely-ordained punishment for the failure of Israel’s kings to worship Yahweh to the exclusion of all other deities.
The Second Temple period (520 BCE – 70 CE) differed in significant ways from what had gone before. Strict monotheism emerged among the priests of the Temple establishment during the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, as did beliefs regarding angels and demons. At this time, circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath-observance gained more significance as symbols of Jewish identity, and the institution of the synagogue became increasingly important, and most of the biblical literature, including the Torah, was written or substantially revised during this time.
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Originally published by Wikipedia, 10.07.2001, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.