The history of Israel and Judah unfolds in the geographic context of the Levant, corresponding to the present-day countries of Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
Maps of the Levant generally don’t show an absolute boundary because at no time in the past was it a single political unit. Rough boundaries are generally west of the Zagros mountains, south of the Taurus mountains, and north of the Sinai peninsula.
Throughout its history this region was much coveted by the surrounding empires and was often controlled by them, first by the Egyptians in the second millennium, then by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans in the first millennium. Geographically and politically the history of the Levant is intrinsically tied to that of the “Fertile Crescent,” an expression referring to the fertile territory with ample rainfall that stretches from Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq and Iran) to Egypt, including the areas around the Tigris and Euphrates.
It’s worth noting that from the very beginning the biblical narrative tells of the travels of the patriarch Abraham throughout the whole of the Fertile Crescent. His family originally leaves from the city of Ur and then settles in Harran in Syria; from there Abraham wanders through the land of Canaan, stopping at strategic places such as Shechem and Bethel, then going down into the Negev to the south, and from there finally to Egypt (Gen. 11–12). Geographically this covers the whole of the Fertile Crescent; historically the territories Abraham visits are places where in the Persian era (fifth and fourth centuries) there were existing populations of Judean exiles or émigrés.
Putting things in an archaeological context, the beginnings of the history of Israel in the thirteenth century fall into the time of transition from the Late Bronze to the Iron Age. The Iron Age ends for the archaeologists of the Levant with the Persian era.
In the middle of the second millennium the Levant was controlled by Egypt. It was organized politically into city-states whose minor kings were vassals of the pharaoh. There also existed some groups with minimal integration, notably the ̒apiru, who lived on the margins of the political system, in conflict with one or the other of the minor Canaanite kings or chiefs or serving as potential forced laborers for the Egyptians. Egyptian texts also mention “shasu” (šзśw) nomads, and they sometimes use the term Yhw(з) to characterize them. Scholars have often tried to connect this term – probably a toponym – with the name Yahweh (Yahua?), which was to become the name of the god of Israel.
The end of the thirteenth century was marked by upheavals during which the city-states collapsed. New populations, “people of the sea” arriving from the Aegean Sea or from Anatolia, the Philistines as the Hebrew Scriptures and we call them, established themselves on the southern coast of Canaan in cities like Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Ekron. Their material culture was markedly different from that of the other inhabitants of the land, but they assimilated themselves quickly. The biblical texts call them “the uncircumcised” because, in contrast to the populations of the Levant, they didn’t practice circumcision.
Whereas most of the cities of the Late Bronze Age suffered depopulation, the mountainous zone of Ephraim and Judah experienced a notable increase in its population. This is the context within which we find the first traces of the genesis of the “Israel” that is mentioned in about 1210 BCE on the victory stele of Pharaoh Merneptah. This “Israel” must have been a quite powerful grouping, because the Egyptian king thinks it worth mentioning among the people he boasts of having conquered. Although he proclaims that he has put an end to Israel, in fact that entity was about to embark on a course of growth and development. Its origins do not lie, as the book of Joshua claims, in the military conquest of a territory by a population invading from somewhere else; rather “Israel” resulted from a slow process that took place gradually within the framework of the global upheavals of the Late Bronze Age – that is, it had its origin in indigenous populations.
The opposition we find in the Hebrew Scriptures between “Israelites” and “Canaanites” was in no way based on an existing ethnic difference, but is a much later theoretical construction in the service of a segregationist ideology.
“Israel” is in the first instance a kind of clan or tribal confederation, joining together groups that probably thought they already belonged to the same ethnic grouping. This is suggested, for instance, by the virtual absence of the raising of pork for consumption, and by a distinct material culture. However, the idea that Israel before the monarchy was composed of twelve tribes is an invention of the biblical authors of the Persian and Hellenistic periods, when this idea came to play an important role in attempts to affirm the religious unity of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee.
At the beginning of the first millennium in the whole of the Levant there gradually came into being an exchange economy that replaced the previously existing subsistence economy. This transformation was accompanied by a parallel development in the forms of political organization, which tended in the direction of monarchy. One can observe this phenomenon, for instance, not only west of the Jordan river but also to the east in the creation of the kingdoms of Moab and Ammon.
The biblical narrative in the books of Samuel centers the story of the origins of the monarchy around three exemplary figures: Saul, David, and Solomon. This is mostly legendary material, but the narrative does contain some traces of historical events. Saul, who is presented as the first king of Israel, was able to resist Philistine domination and to create in the territory of Benjamin and the mountains of Ephraim a kind of state structure of which he was the head. David, who is represented as having been in conflict with Saul, seems to have been a vassal of the Philistines, who perhaps supported him in his conflict with Saul. In any event, the Philistines tolerated the creation of a kingdom under David located in Judah, first in Hebron, then in Jerusalem, and in competition with that of Saul.
According to the narratives of the books of Samuel and Kings, which are partly taken up again in Chronicles, David and his son Solomon were said to have reigned over a “united kingdom” with a huge territory extending “from Egypt to the Euphrates.” This claim is the result of an ideological choice made by the editors of the Hebrew Scriptures, who wished to show that Israel (the north) and Judah (the south) had in the beginning been united in a single kingdom. The large building works at Megiddo, Hazor, and elsewhere that have been attributed to King Solomon, probably date to a period a century later than his death and are the work of King Omri.
It’s in the north that we find the development of something like a significant “state,” which under Omri made the town of Samaria its capital. In the south, in contrast, the political entity was much more modest; estimates of the population of the south put it at about ten percent of that of the north. Jerusalem at this period was a small agglomeration that Pharaoh Sheshonq does not even deign to mention in the list of his military exploits after his campaign of ca. 930 BCE in the region. For more than two centuries Judah lived in the shadow of Israel, and was probably often its vassal.
The historiography of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, particularly in the books of Samuel and Kings, has been edited from the perspective of the south and presents the north and its kings in a negative light, accusing them of worshipping gods other than the god of Israel and of establishing sanctuaries that competed with Jerusalem.
In the ninth century under the Omrides (referring to kings Omri, Ahab, and Joram), Israel became a powerful presence among the kingdoms of the Levant, as is shown by the numerous building projects these kings undertook, especially the construction of the city of Samaria. The power of the Omrides extended all the way to Transjordan and brought about conflicts with the kingdom of Moab, as is attested by the stele of Mesha, which reports a quarrel between Israel and Moab from the perspective of the king of Moab.
Omri and his successors pursued a policy of rapprochement with Phoenicia. This is why the editors of the books of Kings accuse them of worshipping a god named “Baal.” The editors of the biblical text hold this transgression to have been the cause of the end of the Omrid dynasty. According to a stele with an inscription in Aramaic found in Tel Dan at the sources of the Jordan, Hazael, the king of Damascus, who ordered the stele to be inscribed, is said to have triumphed over a coalition of Israel and Judah and to have defeated Israel and the “House of David.” (The majority opinion among scholars holds that this stele contains the first mention of the name “David” outside the Bible.)
The books of Kings present the end of the Omrid dynasty as the result of a coup led by one of its generals, Jehu, to whom the editors attribute a religious motivation: he is presented as being a fervent worshipper of the god of Israel and an opponent of the cult of Baal. Historically speaking, Jehu was a weak king and the defeats he suffered at the hands of the Aramaeans are attributed by the editors to his predecessor, the Omrid Joram. Jehu became in fact a vassal of the Assyrians, who, starting in the second half of the ninth century, were beginning to try to control the Levant. In 853 BCE a coalition between Israel and the Aramaeans of Damascus succeeded in pushing back the Assyrian king Salmanasar III at the battle of Qarqar, but the following decades and the whole of the eighth century are definitively marked by the hegemony of Assyria, which leaves numerous traces in the text of the Hebrew Scriptures. An obelisk of the Assyrian king Salmanasar III shows a king prostrating before Salmanasar with the legend “the tribute of Jehu, son of Omri.” (Jehu was not in fact the son of Omri, but for the Assyrians Omri was the founder of the kingdom even after the end of his dynasty. It’s also possible, and quite likely, that the Assyrians simply were not much interested in the internal politics of Israel and questions of genealogy.)
The kingdom of Israel had another period of prosperity under the reign of Jeroboam II (about 787–747 BCE), who accepted Assyrian hegemony and acted as a loyal vassal. The well-off became even more prosperous thanks to the increasing production of olive oil, but this kind of proto-capitalism also brought with it a pauperization of those who were less well off. Prophets such as Hosea and Amos denounced this turn of events. In addition, Hosea conducted a polemic against the “calves” of Samaria and Bethel, which strongly suggests that the titular deity of Israel was worshipped there in bovine form. It’s possible that certain traditions reported in the Hebrew Scriptures, such as the story of Jacob (who was later to become the ancestor of Israel) and the story of the exodus, were first put in a written form in the sanctuary of Bethel during the reign of Jeroboam II. (In fact, these two traditions are juxtaposed and contrasted with each other in Hosea 12.)
After the reign of Jeroboam, the decline of the kingdom of Israel set in. Around 734 BCE a coalition of Levantine kingdoms led by Damascus and Israel tried to force the king of Judah, Ahaz, to join a revolt against the Assyrians. There are traces of this in various biblical texts. Ahaz, however, on the advice of the prophet Isaiah, sought protection from the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III, whose vassal he became.
Tiglath-Pileser III was easily able to defeat the Aramaeans and Israelites and truncated both their kingdoms drastically. In 727 BCE the last king of Israel, Hosea, sought an alliance with Egypt, thereby provoking a military expedition by Salmanaser V against Israel and the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE. The kingdom of Israel was divided up into four Assyrian provinces, and up to twenty percent of the total population was deported, with other populations being settled in the territory of the former kingdom. This “mixed” population is the distant ancestor of the Samaritans. We know almost nothing about the situation in this region until the Persian era, except that the cult of the god of Israel continued. (2 Kings 17 confirms this, even though it probably would have been in its best interests to exclude this.)
For the kingdom of Judah, which continued to exist as a vassal of the Assyrians, the fall of Samaria meant a rise in its status and especially in the development of Jerusalem, which up to that time had been a rather modest settlement. Its urban space increased significantly toward the end of the eighth century and it became a genuine capital. This growth was at least partly due to the influx of refugees from the former kingdom of Israel. It was also during this period that traditions from the north (Jacob, Exodus, Hosea, the narratives about the prophets Elijah and Elisha and others) arrived in Judah, where they were revised from a Judean perspective.
The rise of Jerusalem began under King Hezekiah, to whom the Bible attributes a number of public works that are attested by archaeology, such as the famous tunnel at Shiloh, which contains the first known monumental Judean inscription. It’s worth noting that it’s quite possible that certain of the works attributed to Hezekiah are actually to be assigned to Manasseh, a king whom the editors of the books of Kings abhor.
We must assume that the beginnings of systematic literary activity are also to be dated to this period. For example, the second part of Proverbs (25:1) claims in its title to have been compiled during the reign of King Hezekiah.
Hezekiah’s policies toward the Assyrians were so reckless that the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, eventually launched a military expedition against the kingdom of Judah, took Lachish, its second city, and reduced its territory massively. In 701 BCE, however, the Assyrians interrupted their siege of Jerusalem and withdrew, for reasons that are unclear. This event gave rise to the idea of the inviolability of Zion, the mountain on which the Temple of Jerusalem is located. The inhabitants of Jerusalem saw in it the proof that their god would protect his city against his enemies.
Under Manasseh, a loyal vassal of the Assyrians, Judah became prosperous again and recovered parts of its lost territory. Although Manasseh’s reign lasted more than fifty years (ca. 698–642 BCE), the editors of the books of Kings devote only a few lines to him, in which they particularly deplore his impiety. However, he seems to have governed wisely and to have allowed Judah to enjoy its last period of stable life.
When King Josiah (640–609 BCE) acceded to the throne, according to the biblical narrative at eight years of age, the Assyrian empire had begun to grow weaker because of the resurgence of Babylon. During the second half of Josiah’s reign, the king and his counselors took advantage of this power vacuum to put in place a policy of centralization in accord with the new status of Jerusalem. The Temple of Jerusalem was proclaimed the sole legitimate sanctuary of the god of Israel. The historicity of the narrative found in 2 Kings 22–23 cannot be immediately confirmed, but it asserts that Josiah removed all the Assyrian religious objects from the Temple of Jerusalem and also destroyed the symbols of Asherah, a goddess associated with the titular god of Judah, and that he annexed a part of the former kingdom of Israel.
The books of Kings claim that Josiah’s innovations in the spheres of religion and politics were undertaken because of the discovery of a book in the Temple. This story is probably a traditional literary conceit; however, it is highly likely that Deuteronomy, which is what this book found in the Temple has always been assumed to have been, was in fact composed in its original form in order to legitimize the policy of centralization and of monolatry, the exclusive worship of the god of Judah/Israel. The idea of centralization prepares the way for establishing one of the main pillars of what was later to become Judaism: the centrality of Jerusalem and its temple. It is to the reign of Josiah that we must also look for the literary origins of some other texts, such as the narratives of the conquest of Canaan that make up the first part of the book of Joshua; these are probably intended to legitimize Josiah’s expansionist policies. The scribes of Josiah also wrote a history of the two kingdoms to show that Josiah was a kind of new David. No doubt they also composed a written “biography” of Moses and set down other traditions in writing as well.
The origin of a large part of that literature, which was later to become the Hebrew Scriptures, lies, that is, in the Assyrian period. The significance of much of this writing is restricted to a milieu of “intellectuals” – to the palace and the temple. In the Judean countryside at the sanctuary of Hebron, they will also have told stories about episodes from the life of the patriarch Abraham in a religious context that differed significantly from that which was dominant in the palace of Jerusalem. The story of Abraham, after all, is not an appropriate vehicle for a segregationist ideology, because it insists on the fact that the patriarch was also related to Lot, the ancestor of the Moabites and the Ammonites, and was the father of Ishmael, the ancestor of the semi-nomadic peoples of the desert southeast of Judah.
Josiah died in 609 while preparing for a confrontation with Egypt, and this is the beginning of the decline of the kingdom of Judah. It eventually fell to the Babylonians, who from 605 on were beginning to make themselves masters of the Near East. Numerous revolts by the kings of Judah were the cause of the first fall of Jerusalem in 597 BCE: King Jehoiachin avoided the destruction of the city only by opening its gates. He and his court were deported to Babylon together with his high officials and artisans. A Babylonian document mentions the rations provided for King Jehoiachin, prisoner of the king of Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar II then installed Zedekiah as Jehoiachin’s successor, but he too eventually joined an anti-Babylonian coalition. The book of Jeremiah contains narratives and oracles that reflect the chaotic situation in Jerusalem in the years immediately preceding its second fall.
In 587 BCE the Babylonians took Jerusalem, destroyed the city and temple, and decided to initiate a second wave of deportations. They installed Gedaliah as governor at Mizpah in the territory of Benjamin. Archaeology shows traces of severe destruction at this time in the territory of Judah and a significant reduction in its population. In contrast, the territory of Benjamin seems to have suffered much less in this period. In 582 BCE Gedaliah was assassinated by a group bent on reestablishing independence, and according to the book of Jeremiah this event set off a third wave of deportations and the flight of some of the inhabitants of Judah to Egypt around 582. So toward the end of the sixth century there were three centers with a significant Judean presence: Benjamin and Judah, Babylonia, and Egypt (especially the Delta and Elephantine). In contrast to the Assyrians, the Babylonians allowed the exiles to live together in colonies and to form recognizable groups.
These various groups of exiles composed of members of the Judean elite were to play an important role in the production of a certain number of scrolls, which were in turn the ancestors of what would become the Pentateuch and the prophetic books. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 provoked an ideological crisis for these intellectuals. The pillars on which the identity of any ancient Near Eastern people would have rested – the king, the temple, the national god, and the land itself – had been destroyed. So it was necessary to find new foundations for the identity of a population deprived of its traditional institutions.
It is in this context that we should view the various responses to this crisis that are contained in the “Deuteronomistic history,” the books of the Bible starting from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings. The intention in this history was to show that the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of part of its population were not due to the weakness of the god of Israel compared with the gods of Babylon. On the contrary, it was the god of Israel himself who was making use of the Babylonians to chastise his people and their kings for not having upheld the terms of his “covenant” with them, terms formulated explicitly in Deuteronomy itself. Some author or authors from the entourage of a group of priests eventually composed a “history of origins” (often called the “priestly document”), which is to be found especially in the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus and which insists that all the characteristic national rituals and institutions were revealed before the entry into Canaan and before the monarchy, so that the monarchy is not really indispensable.
For the priestly authors, all the rituals that will come to define Judaism in the Persian and Hellenistic periods (circumcision, Passover, the alimentary rituals and laws) were given by Moses in the desert even before there was an established form of political organization. These two literary complexes, the Deuteronomistic and the priestly narratives, prepare in a certain sense the way for monotheism, because they both affirm – each in its own different way – the unity of the god of Israel.
In 539 BCE the Persian king Cyrus took the city of Babylon, putting an end to the Babylonian Empire. His religious policy was “liberal” in that he permitted the reconstruction of destroyed temples and allowed deported populations to return to their respective countries. Cyrus is celebrated as the “Messiah” sent by the god of Israel in texts that are appended to the scroll of the oracles of the prophet Isaiah, which are often called “Deutero- Isaiah.” (These texts constitute chapters 40 to 55 of the present book of Isaiah.)
The Persians granted the Judean community the same cultural and religious autonomy they accorded to other peoples who were integrated into the empire. The Temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt at the end of the sixth or the beginning of the fifth century, and it’s under the influence of the Golah, the Judean exiles in Babylon who returned to Judea, that a quasi-theocratic temple-centered organization of political and religious life was put in place. Many of the Judean exiles preferred to remain in Babylon, and various documents found there indicate that these Judeans belonged to the comfortable strata of that city and were fully integrated into its life. Until the arrival of Islam, Babylon was to remain an intellectual center of Judaism, as is indicated by the Babylonian Talmud. In the same way the strong Judean presence in Egypt was in no way diminished. Thus Judaism from its very birth was a religion of the diaspora, and was to continue to develop as such during the Hellenistic era around the whole of the Mediterranean basin.
Between 400 and 350 BCE a compilation was made of different writings into a proto-Pentateuch, which became the founding document of nascent Judaism, but also for the Samaritans, whose central sanctuary was located after the fifth century on Mount Gerizim. The biblical narrative that reflects the consolidation of these diverse documents can be found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which present in an artificially exaggerated way the hostility between Judeans and Samaritans and which also insist on the positive and benevolent attitude of the Persians toward the promulgation of the Law in Jerusalem.
In 332 BCE Palestine was conquered by Alexander, who put an end to the Persian Empire. After his death, war broke out between his successors, and Palestine fell first under the control of the Ptolemies (or Lagides) who governed Egypt, then under that of the Seleucids who ruled Syria. This change, however, at first hardly affected the Jews. During the third century, Judea experienced an economic upswing which benefited the aristocrats in Jerusalem and the already well- off urban class. This was also the time of frequent contacts between Greeks and Jews, and the Jews living in Egypt adopted the Greek language as their own.
About 270 BCE, or somewhat later, the Pentateuch was translated into Greek, and during the third century an abundant literature was produced. Some of these texts, such as the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and so on, later entered the canon, but others, such as the book of Enoch, did not.