Notes on the Context of the Tanakh

The ancient national identity of Israel arose as a separate and unique group from the Canaanite and Philistine tribes of the ancient Levant (French meaning “rising” coming from the Arabic phrase for the ‘rising sun in the east’). Today the Levant roughly comprises Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Palestine (the territories), and Lebanon.

In the late Bronze Age, Canaan began to slowly decline, as it was overcome by the Egyptians, Philistines, Phoenicians, and Israelites. The tribal Israelites were unique in their practices of circumcision, lack of artistic displays of YHWH, and lack of pork consumption.

Leaving aside any account of the origins of the cosmos, the Israelite story begins Biblically with Abram, later called Abraham. Born and raised in the town of Ur of the Chaldees (likely a city in present-day Turkey or Iraq), he is called by God to take his barren wife Sarah (Sarai), his cousin Lot, and the rest of his family and travel to the land of Canaan. They travel south and stop in Haran (in modern-day Turkey) and remain there until Abraham turns age 75 and then they continue southward to the land of Canaan where he dwells in Shechem, a town in central Canaan. Due to a famine, they travel further on to Egypt, but are forced to return to the Shechem area. Then, Abraham and Lot have a falling out due to territory and property concerns -Lot heads east to the Jordan plains where the fields are well-watered, while Abraham takes his flock south to Hebron (located just south of Jerusalem today). However the Elamites (an early Iranian civilization whose capital was Susa) conquer Sodom and the surrounding region, including Lot’s pastures. Abraham then raises an army to free Lot and reclaim Sodom which wins him great fame in the region. He sleeps with his wife’s servant, Hagar, and gives birth to Ishmael, and miraculously his aged, barren wife Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

Through his son Isaac, and on to Joseph, a detour happens wherein Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt. He miraculously rises to become Pharaoh and the house of Isaac moves to Egypt, however future generations of Hebrews again become enslaved in Egypt until Moses and Aaron lead a dramatic flight of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt with the help of God. However, due to the their disobedience of God, the Hebrews are doomed to wander in the desert until God finally delivers laws to them through Moses, and Moses then delivers the Hebrews from the desert. As Moses dies and Joshua becomes the ruling warlord, the Hebrews conquer various cities, including Jericho. They return to the Shechem region (Abraham’s original homeland) where Joshua dies.

After the death of Joshua a series of Judges are brought forward to rule Israel, but as evidenced by the outcry of the Israelite people in the books of Samuel, the people demand to have a king like all other nations. Thus Saul, the tallest man, is chosen as King though he ultimately proves fruitless and a shepherd-boy named David is brought forward to join the King’s court as a harpist. He is called to the front in a war with the Philistines and he defeats Goliath, the most fearsome Philistine warrior. David is then crowned King against Saul, but this sparks a civil war, ultimately concluding in David’s kingship and the execution of Saul’s remaining descendants. Following David, comes a disputed reign between his two sons, Adonijah or Solomon, with Solomon being crowned King, and under his reign Israel flourishes and the Temple is built in 957 BC.

However, after Solomon’s reign the worship of other gods starts to happen in Israel and the kingdom ultimately tears itself apart, with the royal line of David continuing in the South under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, now as the kingdom of Judah (with only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin), while in the north Israel experiences a successive series of kings (they refuse to accept the rulership of Rehoboam) until the northern kingdom is ultimately conquered by the Assyrians. Rehoboam draws the ire of some for paying tributes to Egypt from the treasure of the temple, thus making Judah a vassal state of Egypt. In the following years, an internal struggle persists between kings either allowing for the worship of other gods or not: Hezekiah the 14th king of Judah institutes religious reforms forbidding the images of all other gods, but the policy is reversed by king Manasseh, only for it to be reinstated under king Josiah, but it is too late and God does not protect Jerusalem as the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar invade and sack the temple of Jerusalem in 587 BC. The Israelites are then led away into captivity in Babylon and dispersed throughout the empire.

Nebuchadnezzar puts Zedekiah in charge of Israel, and despite the noted Israeli prophet Jeremiah’s opposition, Zedekiah organizes a rebellion against Babylon that causes a second Babylonian invasion and the destruction of the temple. Many Jews flee to nearby cities and Zedekiah’s sons are all murdered and Zedekiah is brought to Babylon. This ends the kingdom of Judah until the Persian army (Achaemenid empire) under Cyrus conquers Babylon in 539 BC and allows all the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, which is eventually completed while Darius is emperor of Persia. During this period of Persian rule, the Jews begin to form a common identity and scriptural canonicity. For example, this epoch includes the major Jewish prophets: the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah ben Amoz) emerges from the period of Babylonian captivity in its dramatic praise of the coming of Cyrus, Jeremiah’s prophecy during the revolts against Babylon, and Ezekiel’s prophetic visions.

When Alexander the Great conquers Persia, Israel comes under the rule of the Hellenistic empire, but shortly thereafter Alexander passes away leaving no heirs and so his generals divide up the empire. Israel falls under the rule of the Syrian Seleucid empire. However the introduction of Greek cults into Israel sparks a revolution that overthrows the Seleucids as occupiers, and suddenly Israel becomes an independent kingdom again.

In 63 BC Jerusalem is conquered yet again, this time by Rome, under General Pompey. Now, Herod is appointed the ‘King of the Jews’ and there is a great deal of civil strife leading to the Jewish-Roman Wars, as Judea is oppressed with taxation and punishments which are particularly harsh and cruel, including a special tax upon Jews. During this time, the temple is again destroyed, this time by Rome. Additionally, Emperor Hadrian of Rome renames the region Syria Palaestina in an attempt to remove all reference to Jewish culture. In the province at the time are the Saduccee and Pharisee sects of Judaism, as well as minority populations of Samaritans and Greco-Roman Hellenes. It was amidst this revolutionary climate that emerged the life of Jesus and other rebellious and religious figures of the time, such as John the Baptist. The execution of the former sparks a new Jewish sect, focused on spreading “good news” (or “gospels”) that claim a fulfillment of messianic prophecies made during the days of the Babylonian exile.

Not long after the rebellious eruptions took place in Judea, the Roman empire experiences a long and steady decline and Christianity spreads rapidly throughout the region. Upon the collapse of Rome, Palaestina falls under the rule of the Byzantines, and then Jerusalem is conquered by the repressive Sassanid Persian empire, followed by a series of Arabic caliphates who conquer and rule Jerusalem from Medina, Damascus, and finally Baghdad. During this time a group of Jewish scribes called the Masoretes, establishes the definitive Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible.

In 1099, the first Crusade occurs, wherein Christians establish a Catholic kingdom in Jerusalem and kill or enslave many Jews and Muslims, until Saladin peacefully conquers Jerusalem under the Ayyubid empire. Note: Saladin’s court physician was Maimonides, a persecuted refugee from Cordoba, Spain. From there, Israel becomes the battlefront for the continuing Crusades, as well as warring empires, the Mongols and the Egyptian Mamluks. During this period in Europe, Jews are widely persecuted and blamed for the historical injustices committed on Jesus Christ, but they are also blamed for the failures of the Crusades. The Jews are banished from many Western European countries, like France, England, and Spain. Thus the Jewish diaspora continues and many Jews relocate to Eastern Europe, such as Poland, or the Ottoman Empire, or North Africa, and into assigned ghettos in the Papal states.

Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries the birth of Zionism becomes a phenomenon as many Jews relocate back to Jerusalem and the surrounding region, despite revolts from the surrounding Arabs. This process is followed by the atrocities like the Holocaust in the Second World War. In 1948, with the decline of the old empires, Britain mandates a state for the Palestinian region, and a war is fought for Israeli independence. Since that time there have been near constant military conflicts between the nation-state of Israel and its surrounding Arabic nations and territories.

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