From Biblical Times to the Ottoman Period
According to the Bible, Jewish history began with the patriarch Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob. The Book of Genesis relates how Abraham (Abram) was summoned to be the founder of a new people in a new land (Genesis 12:1) with a new belief in one God. God made a covenant with Abraham promising to protect, aid, and support him and his descendants. The area referred to in the Bible is generally believed to be the land of Canaan, approximately modern-day Israel and the West Bank.
It could be defined then as an area with the Mediterranean Sea to the west, the desert of Arabia to the east, Egypt to the south, and Mesopotamia to the north. It existed between the Nile and Euphrates river valleys, between the great civilizations and cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees, traveled through Haran, in Mesopotamia, and eventually settled in Canaan sometime between the 20th and 19th centuries b.c.e. Once in Canaan, he was told “to thy seed will I give this land” (Genesis 12:7).
Among the peoples who moved from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean were those who spoke various western Semitic languages, including Hebrew. The term Hebrew apparently derives from the word used for semi-nomads who lived separate from existing sedentary settlements. Abraham was the leader of one of these groups. The Bible describes him in terms that suggest he was a wealthy semi-nomad with a group of followers who had large flocks of cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals.
Abraham chose to remain in Canaan and eventually settled there with a large and growing family. He chose a burial place in Hebron for his wife, Sarah, and later, he was buried there in the Cave of Machpela as well, along with his son Isaac and grandson Jacob and their wives, except for Jacob’s wife Rachel, whose tomb is located near Bethlehem.
Abraham’s grandson Jacob was renamed “Israel,” Hebrew for one who “hast striven with God and with men, and has prevailed” (Genesis 32:28–29). Jacob established the close and permanent links of the Jews to the area then referred to as Canaan. The 12 sons of Jacob, the children of Israel, became the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel and provided the foundations of the Jewish people. The term Jew derives from the name of the large and powerful tribe of Judah, from which King David emerged.
The Bible relates that when a drought and famine spread in the area of Canaan in the 16th or 15th century b.c.e., Jacob, his 12 sons, and their families established themselves in Goshen, east of the Nile delta in Egypt. At first they enjoyed a favorable existence, but as rulers changed, so did conditions, and their situation began to deteriorate. Eventually their descendants were reduced to slavery and pressed into forced labor. It is during this sojourn in Egypt that a nation emerged called the children of Israel, or Israelites.
After some 400 years of bondage and Egyptian oppression, the Israelites revolted, escaped, and were led to freedom by Moses, who according to the Book of Exodus, was chosen by God to take his people out of Egypt, back to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). To them, Eretz Yisrael was the Promised Land, that land promised to their forefathers. The Exodus from Egypt is celebrated in the Jewish festival of Passover.
The event probably occurred during the rule of Ramses II or his successor and is often dated about 1266 b.c.e. According to the Bible, during 40 years of wandering in the Sinai Desert, the children of Israel received the Law of Moses, including the Ten Commandments and the Torah. The Book of Exodus describes this period in great detail. The Exodus from Egypt and the events during the wanderings in Sinai left a substantial imprint on the national history of the Jewish people and subsequently became a symbol of liberty and freedom.
The Jewish festivals of Shavuot (Festival of the Giving of the Law) and Succot (Feast of Tabernacles) commemorate these events and the Jewish identity that has its roots in these events. Moses and much of the generation of the Exodus perished in the wilderness en route from Egypt to the Promised Land.
One of Moses’ followers, Joshua, became a military hero who led the conquest of Canaan. The biblical description tells of a confederation of tribes conquering territory from a sedentary population, mostly Canaanites, living in walled cities. The Jewish tribes gained control of much of the land but failed to take the mountainous area and the coastal towns.
They were often separated from one another by territory controlled by hostile inhabitants. The Bible describes conflict among the tribes while under the judges, the leaders who followed Joshua and were to govern the people and deliver them from their hostile neighbors.
Periods of relative calm and peace were punctuated by times of war with unfriendly neighboring peoples. During the next two centuries, the Israelites conquered most of the land, relinquished their nomadic ways, and became farmers and artisans.
The inherent weakness of this tribal organization eventually accentuated the need for a ruler who would unite the tribes and convert his position into a permanent institution, especially in the face of threatened invasion. The Philistines, a non-Semitic people who are believed to have come from the Aegean Sea (probably Crete), emerged on the coast of the Mediterranean and settled in the area in what is today the Gaza Strip. They generally are described as a warlike people with iron weapons and superior military discipline.
Having eliminated the Canaanites on the coast, around 1050 b.c.e., they began a large-scale military effort against the interior areas, where they encountered the Israelites. The Philistines proved to be militarily dominant and gained control of these areas.
The prophet Samuel, the last of the judges, anointed the guerrilla captain Saul of the tribe of Benjamin as the first king of the Israelites in an effort to unite the people and expel the Philistines. However, the newly united army was not successful in its efforts to end the Philistine threat, and Saul and his son Jonathan were killed.