The Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your native land and from your fathers house
to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation...."
Where and how are we to discover the origins of the Jewish people? Until the 20th century, most people would have replied that one
need only open the Bible and read. The modern inquirer, however,
has new information available drawn from archaeology and recently
discovered ancient Near Eastern literature. These new sources
help deepen our understanding of Israelite history as told in
the Bible. They help us understand to what extent the early Israelites
were a typical Near Eastern people and to what extent they were
Book of Genesis is set in the Fertile Crescent between 2000 and
1000 B.C.E. It places Israelite origins in Mesopotamia, the "land
between" the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. By the 3rd millennium
B.C.E., people speaking Semitic languages had settled in this
"cradle of civilization," founding city-states such
as Abrahams birthplace Ur, from whence he set out for Canaan.
We know from recently uncovered sources that Canaanites occasionally
fled from famine in their own land and took refuge in Egypt. According
to the first chapter of the Book of Exodus, it was during one
of these sojourns that the ancestors of the Israelites were enslaved.
Later chapters of Exodus show that they regarded their escape
from slavery and their subsequent desert wandering as the decisive
moments in their collective existence. They bound themselves in
a covenant with the invisible God to whom they attributed their
After their settlement in Canaan in the 13th century B.C.E., the
Israelite tribes went through a period of political and religious
disarray until a monarchy was finally established. Under David
and Solomon in the 10th century B.C.E., the kingdom became an
empire. At its height, it was said to have extended from Sinai
to the Euphrates River. Upon Solomons death, however, the
kingdom split apart. The ten northern tribes formed the kingdom
of Israel, while the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem, supported by
the tribe of Judah, continued to rule in the south.
In 722 B.C.E., Assyria, the rising power in Mesopotamia, conquered
the northern kingdom and exiled its people. The captives, the
so-called "Ten Lost Tribes," were probably absorbed
into the general population. The kingdom of Judah survived until
586 B.C.E., when it fell victim to Nebuchadnezzar, king of the
new Mesopotamian empire of Babylonia. Jerusalem and Solomons
Temple (also known as the First Temple) were destroyed and many
Judeans were exiled to Babylonia.
The religion of the Israelites during this period was characterized
by prophets and by a Temple cult administered by a hereditary
priestly caste. The revolutionary aspects of the religion, however,
were also much in evidence: the worship of one God, the rejection
of idols, the link between God and ethics, and the certainty that
Gods will was evident in the course of history. These beliefs
found their fullest expression in the words of the classical prophets.