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Ancient Israel: A Brief History

Stereograph from 1904 with earliest mention of Israel
A 1904 stereograph: "The Stela of Amenophis III, raised by Merneptah and bearing the earliest mention of Israel — Cairo, Egypt." (Image credit: From the collection of Dr. Paula Sanders, Rice University)

When scholars refer to "ancient Israel," they often refer to the tribes, kingdoms and dynasties formed by the ancient Jewish people in the Levant (an area that encompasses modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria). 

Scholars draw largely on three sources to reconstruct the history of ancient Israel — archaeological excavations, the Hebrew Bible and texts that are not found in the Hebrew Bible. The use of the Hebrew Bible poses difficulty for scholars as some of the accounts are widely thought to be mythical. 

Early history

The earliest mention of the word "Israel" comes from a stele (an inscription carved on stone) erected by the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah (reign ca. 1213-1203 B.C.) The inscription mentions a military campaign in the Levant during which Merneptah claims to have "laid waste" to "Israel" among other kingdoms and cities in the Levant. 

The Hebrew Bible claims that the Jewish people fled Egypt as refugees arriving (with some divine help) in the Levant. Whether there is any truth to this biblical account is a point of contention among modern-day scholars. Some scholars think that there was no exodus from Egypt while others think that some of the Jewish people could have fled Egypt at some point during the 2nd millennium B.C. 

In his papers and lectures James Hoffmeier, an archaeologist and professor at Trinity International University, points out that people from the Levant did live in Egypt at different points in Egypt's history. He also notes that the ancient city of Ramesses, mentioned in the exodus stories told in the Hebrew Bible, does exist and archaeologists have determined that it flourished for several centuries during the 2ndmillennium B.C., becoming abandoned about 3,100 years ago. 

King David

According to the Hebrew Bible a man named David rose to be Israel's king after slaying a giant named Goliath in a battle that led to the rout of a Philistine army. King David led a series of military campaigns that made Israel a powerful kingdom centered at Jerusalem, according to the Hebrew Bible. 

After King David's death, his son Solomon took over the kingdom and constructed what is now called the First Temple, a place where god was worshipped. The temple was located in Jerusalem and contained the Ark of the Covenant which, in turn, contained tablets inscribed with the 10 Commandments. 

Most of what scholars know about King David comes from the Hebrew Bible although fragments of an inscription found at the archaeological site of Tel Dan in 1993 mention a "House of David." The fragmented inscription dates back over 2,800 years. Although the meaning of the words is debated by scholars many think that it provides evidence that a ruler named David really existed. 

However, a number of archaeologists have noted that evidence for King David's supposedly vast kingdom is scarce. Jerusalem, which was supposed to be King David's capital, appears to have been sparsely populated around 3,000 years ago, says Israel Finkelstein, a professor at Tel Aviv University. 

"Over a century of archaeological explorations in Jerusalem — the capital of the glamorous biblical United Monarchy — failed to reveal evidence for any meaningful 10th-century building activity," wrote Finkelstein in a paper published in 2010 in the book "One God? One Cult? One Nation: Archaeological and Biblical Perspectives" (De Gruyter, 2010). Finkelstein says that King David's kingdom was likely a more modest state. 

Over the past few years a 3,000-year-old site now called Khirbet Qeiyafa has been excavated by a team of archaeologists. Located west of Jerusalem, the site's excavators have been adamant that Khirbet Qeiyafa was controlled by King David. They've even gone so far as to claim that they've found a palace that may have belonged to King David. The excavators are currently preparing their finds for publication. 

Northern & southern kingdoms

After the death of King Solomon (sometime around 930 B.C.) the kingdom split into a northern kingdom, which retained the name Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah, so named after the tribe of Judah that dominated the kingdom. Accounts in the Hebrew Bible suggest that grievances over taxes and corvee labor (free labor that had to be done for the state) played a role in the breakup. 

The Hebrew Bible says that at the time of the breakup an Egyptian pharaoh named Shishak launched a military campaign, carrying out a successful raid against Jerusalem and taking war booty back home. 

Egyptian records say that around this time a pharaoh named Sheshonq I ruled Egypt and launched a military campaign into the Levant, conquering a number of settlements. However, it's unclear from the surviving evidence whether Sheshonq I successfully attacked Jerusalem. Many scholars believe that Shishak and Sheshonq are the same pharaohs, although the account of the military expedition told in the Hebrew Bible may not be fully accurate. 

Israel and Judah co-existed for about two centuries, often fighting against each other. The last war they engaged in destroyed Israel but left Judah intact. Before its destruction, Israel also fought against a non-Jewish kingdom called Moab. A ninth century B.C. stele created by a Moabite king who discusses the conflict between Israel and Moab is now in the Louvre Museum in Paris. 

Assyrian involvement

Between the ninth and seventh centuries B.C., the Assyrian Empire grew in size, conquering an empire that stretched from modern-day Iraq to the borders of Egypt. As the Assyrian Empire grew, it came into contact with both Israel and Judah. The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III claims that an Israeli king named Jehu was forced to pay tribute to Assyrian King Shalmaneser III (reign 859-824 B.C.), the obelisk is now in the British Museum. 

The Hebrew Bible states that during the rule of Israel's King Pekah (who reigned around 735 B.C.) the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 B.C.) launched a military campaign that led to the loss of several cities that Israel controlled. As Israel's losses mounted, Pekah was assassinated and a new king named Hoshea took control of what was left of Israel. 

Accounts recorded in the Hebrew Bible suggest that the Assyrian campaign against Israel was part of a larger war in which Israel and Judah fought against each other — the Assyrians siding with Judah and a kingdom named Aram siding with Israel.  

Hoshea was forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians, the Hebrew Bible says. He rebelled but was crushed by Assyrian forces around 723 B.C. (the exact date is not clear). The kingdom of Israel then came to an end, and its remaining territory was incorporated into the Assyrian Empire. Many Israelites were deported to Assyria. The Hebrew Bible says that Judah was the last Jewish kingdom standing although it was forced to pay tribute to Assyria. 

In 705 B.C., Sennacherib came to the throne of Assyria and, not long afterward, launched a military campaign against Judah that culminated in the siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. Both the Hebrew Bible and cuneiform texts tell of the siege. The Hebrew Bible says that Taharqa, a ruler who controlled both Nubia & Egypt, marched against Sennacherib, something that may have helped end the siege. The Hebrew Bible also says that at one point, "The angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning — there were all the dead bodies!" (2 Kings 19:35 and Isaiah 37:36)

The cuneiform texts the Assyrians wrote also say that Sennacherib failed to take Jerusalem. They don't specify why, only saying that Sennacherib trapped Hezekiah, the king of Judah, in Jerusalem "like a caged bird" and that the Assyrian king captured other cities that Hezekiah had controlled. The Assyrian texts claim that Hezekiah paid an enormous amount of tribute to Sennacherib before the Assyrian king went home. 

Fall of Judah & Babylonian exile

Ultimately, it wasn't the Assyrian Empire that destroyed Judah. Nearly a century after Sennacherib's unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem, a Babylonian king named Nebuchadnezzar II conquered much of Assyria's former empire and laid siege to Jerusalem, taking the city in 587 B.C., destroying the First Temple (along with much of the rest of the Jerusalem) and deporting many of Judah's inhabitants to Babylonia. Both the Hebrew Bible and cuneiform tablets written in Nebuchadnezzar II's time tell of the events that took place. 

The fate of the Ark of the Covenant, which contained tablets recording the 10 Commandments, is unknown. Some ancient writers say the ark was brought back to Babylon, while other suggest that it was hidden away. In the millennia after the destruction of the First Temple a number of stories were spun telling tales of the location of the lost Ark

In recent years, a number of cuneiform tablets have emerged from Iraq revealing details of the lives of Jewish deportees who lived at a village called Āl-Yahūdu which means the "village of Judea." Many of the tablets were purchased by private collectors on the antiquities market, raising concerns that some of the tablets may have been recently looted. 

The tablets were "written by Babylonian scribes on behalf of the Judean families that lived in and around Āl-Yahūdu," wrote Kathleen Abraham, a professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium, in a paper she wrote for an exhibition catalog, "Light and Shadows: The Story of Iran and the Jews" (Beit Hatfutsot, 2011). 

The "tablets show that the exiles and their descendants had, at least to some extent, adopted the local language, script and legal traditions of Babylonia a relatively short time after their arrival there," wrote Abraham. 

The Babylonians were eventually conquered by the Persian Empire, and the Persian king Cyrus the Great (died ca. 530 B.C.) gave the Jews permission to return to Jerusalem. 

The Hasmonean Dynasty

The Persian Empire was virtually destroyed after a series of stunning defeats inflicted on them by Alexander the Great, who conquered an empire that stretched from Macedonia to Afghanistan. 

After Alexander's death in 323 B.C., his empire rapidly fell apart. One of his generals, Seleucus Nicator, formed an empire that eventually controlled what was ancient Israel. Called the "Seleucid Empire" by modern-day historians, the empire was passed down through the Seleucid family line. 

During the 2nd century B.C., the Seleucid Empire began to weaken and a line of Jewish rulers descended from a priest named Simon Maccabeus was able to gain semi-autonomy and eventually full independence from the Seleucids. This line of rulers is called the Hasmonean Dynasty by modern-day scholars. By 100 B.C., the Hasmoneans had managed to regain control of the territory that had once been controlled by Israel and Judah and even some territory that those kingdoms had never controlled.  

However, the Hasmonean success proved short-lived. As Roman power grew in the Mediterranean, the Hasmoneans soon found themselves overmatched. The Roman general Pompey took advantage of a Hasmonean civil war to launch a military expedition into lands controlled by the Hasmoneans. Jerusalem fell to Pompey in 63 B.C. and from that point on the territories that the Hasmoneans controlled were effectively under Roman rule. 

Herod the Great

While the Romans held sway over the former Hasmonean-controlled territories, they preferred not to impose their rule directly. A number of rulers were allowed to control the territories as client kings of Rome. 

The most famous of the client kings was Herod the Great (lived ca. 73 B.C. to 4 B.C.). Herod built what is today called the "second temple" in Jerusalem, a replacement of sorts for the first temple which was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 B.C. Herod also constructed a series of fantastic palaces at Masada.

Biblical literature often vilifies Herod, claiming that he tried to seek out and kill baby Jesus, perceiving the infant as a threat to his rule. One biblical story claims that he killed all the infants living in Bethlehem in hopes of killing Jesus. Scholars are generally skeptical of these biblical claims and doubt that they actually happened. 

Some scholars think that a group called the Essenes established a retreat at Qumran during (or shortly after) King Herod's time. It was at Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in nearby caves in the 1940's and 1950's. 

Rebellions against Rome

In A.D. 66, tensions between the region's Jewish inhabitants and Roman rulers came to a head. A rebellion started and culminated in A.D. 70 in the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second temple. Resistance continued after the city's fall — the last major stronghold of the rebels was at Masada; it didn't fall until A.D. 73 or A.D. 74, after a protracted Roman siege. 

Masada's defenders were part of a group that modern-day scholars often refer to as the "Zealots." The ancient writer Josephus (A.D. 37-100) wrote that the Zealots chose to take their own lives rather than surrender to the Romans. "For the husbands tenderly embraced their wives, and took their children into their arms, and gave the longest parting kisses to them, with tear in their eyes" before they committed suicide, wrote Josephus. 

Further rebellions occurred over the decades. The final rebellion was crushed in A.D. 136. The ancient writer Cassius Dio (lived ca. A.D. 155-235) wrote that this last rebellion led to the desolation of the Jewish population. He claimed that Roman forces killed about 580,000 Jewish men.   

"Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out … thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate," Dio wrote. (Translation by Earnest Cary, from volume VIII of the "Loeb Classical Library" published in 1925). Archaeologists are still finding treasure hoards buried by people who lived during the rebellion. 

In the millennia afterward, the Jewish diaspora spread throughout the world. It wasn't until the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 that the Jewish people had a homeland again. 

Additional resources

Owen Jarus
Owen Jarus writes about archaeology and all things about humans' past for Live Science. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University. He enjoys reading about new research and is always looking for a new historical tale.