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A People is Born Collage The Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation...."

Genesis 12:1-2

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 unique.

The 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 Abraham’s 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 deliverance.

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 Solomon’s 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 Solomon’s 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 God’s will was evident in the course of history. These beliefs found their fullest expression in the words of the classical prophets.

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