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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Israel and Judah
     The kingdom of Israel
     David's city and empire
     Solomon in all his glory
     The lost tribes of Israel
     Jews and Judaism
     The synagogue
     The Messiah

Greece and Rome
Middle Ages
15th - 19th century
20th century
To be completed

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The kingdom of Israel: 11th century BC

No real progress is made against the powerful Philistines until the Hebrews are united under a single leader. This is Saul, chosen and anointed by Samuel as the first king of Israel. Saul reigns from about 1020 BC. He makes his headquarters in a small fortress at Gibeah, some 3 miles (5 km) north of Jerusalem. From here he has a great victory over the Philistines, a little further north at Michmash, followed by successes against other tribal groups.

The new kingdom of Israel is establishing itself. But internal politics are less satisfactory. Disagreement over several issues has lost Saul the support of Samuel. And he has a dangerous rival in the young David.


David, a native of Bethlehem, distinguishes himself at the court of Saul - mainly as a warrior, as shown in the story of his fight with Goliath. Saul at first encourages David, making him head of the palace guard, but later he becomes jealous, even to the point of plotting his murder. David escapes into Judah, a desert area to the south of Jerusalem.

This region, though occupied by Israelites, is outside Saul's control. It is separated from the kingdom of Israel by a strip of territory, including Jerusalem, which is still in Canaanite possession. David is therefore free to build a new power base. By the time of Saul's death David is the effective leader of the Israelites in Judah, mainly nomadic herdsmen.


While David is in rebellion, Saul has been losing ground again to the Philistines. He has also been showing increasing signs of paranoia about his young rival. (The biblical account is written centuries later by priests for whom David is the heroic ideal.)

Saul's reign ends in disaster with defeat by the Philistines on Mount Gilboa in about 1000 BC. Three of his sons die in the battle - including his eldest, Jonathan, loved by both Saul and David. The king himself, severely wounded, commits suicide. When the news reaches David, he makes his famous lament: 'How are the mighty fallen!... Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.'


In the region south of Jerusalem, the people of Judah choose David as their king. North of Jerusalem, in the kingdom of Israel, a surviving son of Saul struggles to maintain his inheritance against the Philistine threat.

After seven years of chaos the northern tribes invite David to become their leader. Anointed now king of Israel, and already king of Judah, he gathers into one realm, for the first time, all the tribes which consider themselves the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob.


David's city and empire: 10th century BC

Between the territories of Israel and Judah lies the walled city of Jerusalem. This has been the stronghold of a Canaanite tribe, the Jebusites, since long before the arrival of the Israelites.

David's first act as king of Israel is to seize Jerusalem and to make it his capital, as a central point between the two halves of his kingdom. To give it religious significance for the Israelites, he brings here the ark of the covenant. But he also adopts a ritual, associated with Jerusalem, which has no precedent in the story of Israel. The Jebusites have been ruled by priest-kings and David now presents himself in this new role. Jerusalem is to be the holy 'city of David'.


David's next task is war with the Philistines. He defeats them convincingly, bringing their territory within the region occupied by the tribes of Israel. He then conducts a series of successsful campaigns beyond the borders of his kingdom. David is described in the Bible as creating an empire of tributary states, stretching north beyond Damascus to the Euphrates and south to the gulf of Aqaba.

If this is indeed an empire in the full sense, it does not long survive David's death in about 965 BC. From among his sons, by many wives, he selects Solomon, the son of Bathsheba, to be his successor.


Solomon in all his glory: 10th century BC

Solomon, inheriting a stable and united kingdom of Israel, is free to indulge in the arts of peacetime. The Bible describes his court as one of oriental wealth and splendour (there is no independent archaeological evidence of this). This wealth is achieved not by conquest but by trade, using a fleet of ships which bring to Israel 'gold, silver, ivory, apes and peacocks'. The Bible story also credits the king with great wisdom. Rumours on both counts - intellectual and material - prompt the Queen of Sheba to visit Solomon, bringing some 'hard questions' and much gold.

She is impressed - just as readers of the story are meant to be.


One undoubted fact about Solomon is his building of the first Temple in Jerusalem. This powerfully reinforces the city's new importance as a religious centre. But it is not entirely welcome to the majority of Israelites, in the northern kingdom of Israel. For Jerusalem is associated with the southern kingdom of Judah. It is clear from the Bible that the northern tribes are resentful at the taxes imposed to pay for Solomon's building programme.

David, the charismatic leader, had the authority to unite Judah and Israel. In his son's reign old tensions reappear. In his grandson's the two kingdoms will split apart.


The lost tribes of Israel: 9th - 8th century BC

Solomon dies in about 920, and his son Rehoboam is unable to prevent the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel from seceding. They select as their king an officer, Jeroboam, who has previously been in rebellion against Solomon. In his northern kingdom Jeroboam allows the worship of Yahweh to become associated with a local Canaanite bull cult (the 'golden calf'), a blasphemy considered so heinous in the biblical account that all the disasters in store for the ten northern tribes seem richly deserved.

Meanwhile Rehoboam is now king of only two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, in a much reduced southern kingdom. But he has Jerusalem.


The disaster awaiting the northern kingdom of Israel comes in an invasion by Assyria under Sargon II. In 722 his army conquers the region. In the following years large numbers of Israelites are deported elsewhere and other people are moved into Israel - a favourite practice of the Assyrians in the administering of conquered territories.

As a result the ten tribes of northern Israel become merged with local populations (perhaps because their worship of Yahweh is no longer sufficiently distinctive to be worth fighting for). They vanish from history - giving rise to the persistent legend that the descendants of the 'lost tribes of Israel' may still survive somewhere as an identifiable group.


Jews and Judaism: 8th - 5th century BC

After the fall of the kingdom of Israel, in the late 8th century BC, the history of God's chosen people becomes that of the two tribes - Judah and Benjamin - which together comprise the kingdom of Judah. From now on these people are not Hebrews or Israelites but Jews, the people of Judah. And their religion is Judaism.

One of the great defining events in the history of the Jews is a disaster as great as that which struck Israel in 722. A century and a half later, in the 580s, Judah comes to an even more violent and sudden end. But the reaction of the two southern tribes is very different.


By the 6th century Babylon, rather than Assyria, is once again the dominant power in Mesopotamia. The Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar II (called Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible) besieges Jerusalem for several months. When the city falls, in 586, it is systematically destroyed. Of Solomon's famous Temple, in particular, not a trace can later be found.

Some of the leading inhabitants of the city escape to exile in Egypt, others are carried off to captivity in Babylon. Between them, in adversity, these two groups establish a lasting and powerful concept - the ability of Jews to retain their own identity, in whatever place or circumstance.


The Jews taken into captivity in Babylon form a Jewish community in Mesopotamia of such vigour (the first of the Diaspora) that it will survive in an unbroken tradition until our own century, indeed until the regime of Saddam Hussein. After the fall of Babylon, conquered by Persia in 539 BC, part of this community returns to Jerusalem to re-establish it as a holy city.

The Jews in exile in Egypt are equally tenacious of their Jewish inheritance. On an island far up the Nile, opposite Aswan, documents have been found written on papyri in the 5th century BC. They are part of the archive of a regiment of Jewish mercenaries.


After 539, when the Persians allow the Jews back to Jerusalem (and encourage the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem), the priestly scribes set about editing the existing holy books of Judaism and bringing the historical part up to date. Ezra and Nehemiah recount the story of the exile and the return to Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem the high priest of the Temple is now the ruler of the small territory of Judah, and the community lives by a strict and legalistic version of the old Hebrew religion. This is the period when the Torah takes its lasting form. The Bible is set to become the unifying agent of Judaism, in no matter what place or language.


The synagogue: from the 6th century BC

The synagogue is believed to derive, as an institution, from the years of exile in Babylon. Public worship has previously been performed in the Temple at Jerusalem. The synagogue, no doubt at first a temporary solution, proves in the long term a crucial element in the Jewish ability to worship anywhere. A room and the Scrolls of the Law are all that is needed.

After the return to Jerusalem, synagogues develop in Judah alongside the more elaborate Temple ceremonies. The Temple will be destroyed again, and the synagogue will prove its value in the Diaspora (the dispersed community of Jews). The earliest dated evidence of a synagogue is far from Jerusalem - in Alexandria, in the 3rd century BC.


The Messiah: from the 6th century BC

The concept of the Messiah also enters Judaism during the Babylonian exile, when the hope develops that a descendant of David (like him an 'anointed' king, which is the meaning of messiah), will emerge to restore the Jewish people to Jerusalem.

This encouraging theme - a beacon of light in dark times - acquires even greater appeal during the next period of disaster for the Jews, under Roman occupation from 63 BC. It is an important part of the belief of the community of Essenes whose documents survive as the Dead Sea Scrolls. And it is closely involved with the beginnings of Christianity, identifying Jesus as the Messiah.


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