The Holy Land

The Holy Land is the land the Bible promised to the Jewish people.

Three Forefathers

Jewish history (or pre-history; some call it folklore) begins about the 18th century BCE, when Abraham left one of the great centers of civilization (on the Euphrates River?), and chose a more or less nomadic way of life in the hills of Canaan. The Book of Genesis relates how Abraham was sent from Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan to father there a people with a common belief in the One God. Nonetheless he sends his son Isaac (Yitzchak) back to the Old Country for a wife. When his time comes Jacob too goes back for his wife; he returns with two sisters, Leah and Rachel. Leah, the less favored wife, provides Jacob (renamed Israel) with ten children, after which Rachel finally produces Joseph (he of the technicolored coat fame) and then dies giving birth to Benjamin. At the time of the famine in Canaan, Jacob, his sons and their families, moved to Egypt, where his brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. They found Joseph happily ensconced at Pharaoh’s court; he forgave them and they settled in Egypt. A later Pharaoh ‘who knew not Joseph’, reduced their descendants to slavery and the children of Israel were pressed into forced labor.

The Exodus

After 400 years in Egypt (c. 13th century BCE), Moses (Hollywood’s Prince of Egypt) led the children of Israel to freedom, back to the land promised by God to their forefathers. The generation that had known slavery, the generation that had failed to show sufficient faith, spent 40 years in the desert.

Thus were the children of Israel purged, but here, too, they received the Torah (the Five Books of Moses), including the Ten Commandments, and their sojourn in the desert left an indelible imprint on Jewish national memory. When later the Temple stood in Jerusalem, all Jews were expected to attend the celebrations of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks) and Sukkoth (Feast of Tabernacles). Passover in particular, which tells the story of the Exodus, in which each and every Jew is required to repeat the story as if he/she personally was freed from slavery in Egypt, became a symbol of liberty and freedom. To this day, though offerings are no longer made at the (no longer existing)Temple, Jews celebrate these festivals annually.

A Loose Federation under the Judges

Led by Joshua, the children of Israel left the hills on the east side of the Jordan, crossed the river, and conquered Jericho (where the walls came a-tumblin’ down) and some of the towns in the western hills. Over the next two centuries, the Israelites conquered most of the hills in the Land of Israel. The coastal plains were taken by people who, not having read the Bible, were unaware that it was all promised to the children of Israel; the ‘Peoples of the Sea’ conquered the flat land, and the Bible describes the land as divided between the children of Israel who held the hills, and the Philistines (the only ‘peoples of the sea’ named by the Bible, though Egyptian documents refer to others) who held the coastal plains. Archeological artifacts show the superior material culture of the Philistines, who also used iron chariots as a weapon of war – useful on flat land, these were not much good in the hills.

In this period the former nomads became farmers and artisans. Periods of relative peace alternated with times of war. The Bible describes the lapses of the children of Israel, and their subsequent punishment at the hands of foreign forces such as the Philistines, the Midianites, the Amalekites, the King of Hazor, etc. This would lead to the rise of a charismatic leader, such as Samson or Gideon, Yiftach or Deborah, behind whom the people rallied. After victory the land would be “quiet for forty years”. However, these judges can be seen as local heroes facing local problems and a ruler was sought who could turn the people into a unified nation. Samuel anointed Saul as the first King of Israel.

The United Kingdom

Saul could be regarded as the last of the Judges and the first of the Kings. His reign (c. 1020 – 1004 BCE), can be viewed as a bridge between this loose tribal organization and the establishment of an almost unified nation under David.

King David (c.1004-965 BCE) established Israel as a relatively major power in the region by a succession of successful wars, including the defeat of the Philistines (with whom he had found refuge when he fled from Saul), as well as by building alliances with nearby kingdoms. The Bible describes the Kingdom of Israel reaching its greatest extent (substantially larger than today’s Israel) under David: He ruled from the El Arish river and Elath in the south, to Tyre and the bend in the Euphrates river in the north; from the Mediterranean in the west, to the desert beyond the hills of Moab in the east. At home, he conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites and established there a united capital for a united kingdom. He bought the hilltop north of the city (believed to be Mt. Moriah where Abraham’s faith was tested with Isaac) to build a home for the Ark of the Covenant. The Bible depicts David as a shepherd and warrior, a poet and musician, a leader of men and a lover of women.

David was succeeded by his son Solomon (c.965-930 BCE), who reinforced his kingdom’s ties with political marriages and trade. At home he developed copper mining and metal smelting, built new towns and fortified old ones. The jewel in his crown was the Temple he built in Jerusalem, where the Ark of the Covenant settled into its new, non-ambulatory, permanent home in the Holy of Holies, the western end of the Temple. Solomon is believed to be the author of the Book of Proverbs and the Song of Songs. Though Solomon was the only king in the Bible whose reign knew no war, the ceding of towns in the north to Hiram king of Tyre, shows that the Phoenicians were expanding the area under their control at the expense of the Kingdom of Israel.

Altogether, the reigns of David and Solomon marked a turning point in the larger scale of things. Before Saul, in the tug of war between Egypt and Egypt’s rivals in Mesopotamia or Antalya (in today’s Turkey), Egypt usually came out on top. In the period of the Divided Kingdom (Israel and Judah), Mesopotamia, centered in Nineveh or Babylon or Persia, was dominant. The expansion under David takes place in the interim, while Egypt was in decline and Nineveh not yet the power she later became.

The Divided Monarchy

Solomon's rule ended the apparent unity in the kingdom. He had taxed the people heavily to fund ambitious schemes, and they felt that he had given preferential treatment to his own tribe of Judah. After Solomon's death (930 BCE), the north (the ten northern tribes) separated and the country was divided into a northern kingdom, Yisrael (Israel), and a southern kingdom, Yehuda (Judah or Judea), on the territory of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
   The king’s power was extensive; but both in Israel and in Judah, the power of the king was limited (to some extent) by the code of behavior laid down in the Five Books of Moses; someone however, sometimes, had to point these out to the king. The Bible refers us to, presumably, the outstanding amongst these – whom we know as the prophets.

The Kingdom of Israel, with its capital Samaria, lasted more than 200 years under 19 kings, while the Kingdom of Judah was ruled from Jerusalem for 350 years, also by 19 kings, descendants of David. The expansion of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires brought first Israel and later Judah under foreign control.

The Kingdom of Israel was crushed by the Assyrians in a series of campaigns ending in 722 BCE, and its people were carried off into exile and oblivion, spawning countless descendants of the ’10 lost tribes’. (Their spiritual - and perhaps literal - descendants can be found in the Samaritans who accept only the Five Books of Moses as Holy Writ, and who still sacrifice a lamb on Mt. Gerizim on the outskirts of Shechem – known also as Nablus - every Passover.)

A hundred and some years later, Babylon conquered all the local kingdoms, on both sides of the Jordan, including the Kingdom of Judah and the land of Pleshet (the Philistines on the coastal plain). They exiled most of the inhabitants (the Philistines depart the stage of history), destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple (586 BCE). Unlike their predecessors from Nineveh, they did not repopulate the area with people imported from elsewhere and so the land became sparsely populated. The Ark of the Covenant disappeared from the Temple, but not from the stage of speculation; its whereabouts continued to command interest among many, even, perhaps especially, today. (It may have been found by Indiana Jones)

The First Exile

The Babylonian conquest brought an end to the First Jewish Commonwealth (the First Temple period) but did not sever the Jewish people's connection to the Land of Israel. Sitting by the rivers of Babylon, the Jews remembered their homeland: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of thee, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour" (Psalms 137:5-6).

The exile to Babylon, which followed the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE), marked the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora. In Babylon, Judaism began to develop a religious framework and way of life outside the Land, with no regular access to the Temple; in Babylon foundations were laid that would later enable the survival of the Jews as a nation dispersed.

The Return

Following a decree by Cyrus, the Persian King who conquered the Babylonian empire (538 BCE), some 50,000 Jews set out on their return to the Land of Israel, led by Zerubabel, a descendant of the House of David. Less than a century later, a second return was led by Ezra the Scribe. Over the next four hundred years, the Jews lived in their land, first under the Persians (538-333 BCE), later under the Greeks (the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Kingdoms 332-142 BCE), and finally under the Romans (63 BCE – 135 CE). Nevertheless they were permitted a large degree of autonomy. Zerubabel erected the (Second) Temple on the site of the First Temple; Ezra re-established the teaching of the Tanach (the Five Books of Moses, the prophets and other Biblical writings), and apparently led in other judicial matters as well; Jerusalem's walls were rebuilt by Nehemiah; the Knesset Hagedolah (the Great Assembly) was established, and became the last voice in both religious and judicial matters; all these marked the beginning of the Second Jewish Commonwealth (The Second Temple period). Known to the Persians as their province of Yahud, Judah appeared to be a Temple State, a nation led by a high priest and a council of elders, centered in the Temple in Jerusalem.

When Alexander the Great of Greece conquered the ancient world (332 BCE), Yahud became Judea. Following his premature death, the Land remained a Jewish theocracy ruled by the Ptolemies (the descendants of Alexander's general Ptolemy) from Egypt, until the descendants of Seleucus (the general who ruled the rest of the Middle East) conquered the land in 198 BCE. Fearful of the approaching threat from Rome, the Damascus-based Seleucid rulers sought a way to unify their motley subject peoples; the King became divine to all his subjects. The Jews, naturally, could not bring themselves to worship the king, and conflict ensued. When they were prohibited from practicing Judaism and the Temple was desecrated, as part of an effort to impose Greek culture and customs on the entire population, the Jews rose in revolt (167 BCE). First led by Matityahu (Mattathias) of the priestly Hasmonean family, and then by his son Yehuda (Judah) the Maccabee, the Jews succeeded in regaining control of Jerusalem. Hanukkah is the annual festival that commemorates the subsequent purification of the Temple (164 BCE).

The Hasmonean Dynasty (142-63 BCE)

In the wake of further Hasmonean victories (147 BCE), the Seleucids restored autonomy to Judea, as the Land of Israel was now called, and, with the collapse of the Seleucid kingdom (129 BCE), Jewish independence was again achieved. Each succeeding ruler managed to extend the area ruled by his predecessor. When Simon (Judah the Maccabee's brother) was killed by his son-in-law in an attempted coup, his son John Hyrcanus, won the ensuing civil war. As king, he conquered the southern mountain range of Judea and its coastal plain, and forcibly converted to Judaism the local population (mostly Idumeans), who had settled there after the exile of the Philistines. His son and successor, Alexander Yannai, faced a rebellion by his Jewish subjects, who invited the Greeks to return and help them. He quashed the rebellion and crucified some 800 leaders of the revolt. Nevertheless, under the Hasmonean dynasty, which, as a whole, lasted about 80 years, the kingdom regained boundaries about the size of Solomon's kingdom, Jewish rule was established over a defined Jewish entity, and Jewish life flourished.