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Biblical Israel | Seekers of the Promised Land


DW | Old Testament

03 – Seekers of the Promised Land


3.1 - A Survey of the Early Ancient Near East


In our last series, we focused on the Ancient Near East with extreme detail, while providing maps, study guides, and transcripts. In this episode, we'll review the highlights while discussing how these events related to the Hebrews.

The founding fathers of Ancient Israel settled in Canaan some 1800 years before the birth of Jesus. The first of them, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – made covenants, or agreements, with God, whom they called Yahweh, in return for his protection and favor, and a land of their own. The 12 sons of Jacob, including Joseph, were considered Patriarchs, too, and became the namesakes of the 12 tribes of Israel. Later, the prophet Moses combined these tribes into a nation and set the stage for the conquest of the 'Promised Land'.

Compared to the Canaanites, the Hebrews who first appeared sometime after 2000 B.C. were primitive, seminomadic herdsmen to whom the settled routine of farming was an entirely new way of life. The established nations of the Near East had seen wandering peoples come out of the surrounding mountains and deserts for centuries. In Abraham's time, there were numerous Semitic tribes migrating from Mesopotamia into Canaan, and the Hebrews numbered only a few among many. It is understandable, then, why there were no references to them in the records of the Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites, and Egyptians, through whose lands they passed. These powerful nations had more important problems to contend with than the incursion of a relatively small band of herdsmen.

In the more than 5000 years before Abraham's birth, the peoples of the Ancient Near East had witnessed the rise of the world's first civilizations. Men and women in Mesopotamia and Egypt had started that rise by gradually abandoning the cave-dwelling, animal-hunting life their people had led for untold thousands of years. Instead, they now began to live in small towns, to grow crops, and to domesticate animals.

Eventually these small towns grew into larger cities where the arts and crafts of civilization began to emerge: writing, building, trade, transportation, and organized religion developed. As we've discussed in previous documentaries, the first true civilizations began in Egypt and in Sumer, in Mesopotamia.

The chief city of Sumer was Ur. There, men raised a ziggurat to the city's god at about the same time Pharaoh Khufu built the Great Pyramid of Giza. The pattern of civilized life that first developed at Sumer was the basis for the great Mesopotamian civilizations that would succeed it for the next 2000 years.

In the twenty-fourth century B.C., the first of these successors conquered the original peoples of Sumer. These were the Akkadians, a Semitic people with whom the Sumerians had coexisted for hundreds of years. Their leader was Sargon, who would create the world's first empire.

Shortly before the year 2000 B.C., the whole Near East entered a dark, turbulent period. All across the fertile crescent, waves of people known to us as “Amorites” invaded and overturned the old centers of power. The Amorites were Semitic tribesmen, seminomads who had been living on the fringes of northwest Mesopotamia and making frequent raids against city-states throughout the area. By the beginning of the second millennium, Amorite kings gained control over most of the north, and within two centuries nearly every important city in Mesopotamia was ruled by Amorites.

Throughout these turbulent years, there were great population movements across the Near East, many originating in the early Amorite centers in northern Syria and Mesopotamia. Around this time, Amorite tribesmen poured into Canaan, causing the abandonment of towns across the countryside, and destroying major cities like Jericho, Megiddo, and Ai.

The chaos gradually declined, and the armed invasions gave way to more peaceful migrations of nomadic clans. Some of these settled in Syria, where they eventually founded a group of powerful city-states headed by Ugarit, Carchemish, Aleppo, and Qatna. Others wandered further south into Transjordan, Palestine, and even Egypt. Among these wanderers, seeking grazing ground for their flocks, were the Patriarchs.

In later times, ancient Israelite schoolchildren were taught to recite their nation's history, beginning with the words, 'A wandering Aramaean was my father.' The Bible records that Abraham came to Canaan from Haran, in northwest Mesopotamia. It was from around Haran that the Aramaean clans, part of the Amorite population – set out on their migrations. Several members of Abraham's family – including his brothers Haran and Nahor – had names almost identical to the names of towns in the Aramaean region. Other names, including Abraham and Jacob, were simply variations of Amorite personal names. The customs of the Patriarchs described in the Bible are also of this region in northern Mesopotamia.


3.2 - Abraham's Canaan


The people Abraham led into Canaan were a clan of seminomads, probably numbering no more than a few hundred, who depended on their sheep, goats, and cattle for a living. Abraham remained in the hills in the southern region of Canaan, leading his tribe and flocks through the countryside between Dothan in the Central Hills and Beer-sheba on the edge of the Negeb. This hill country was a good area for newcomers. Though rugged and heavily wooded, it offered adequate grazing land and was only sparsely settled, lowering the chances of friction with the native population.

In other parts of Palestine there was a great upsurge of commerce and urban life in the nineteenth century B.C., at about the time of the Hebrew's arrival. Cities destroyed many centuries before were rebuilt, and new towns founded, as the incoming tribes settled down. Within a short time, the newcomers had adopted the language of Canaan and much of its culture.

When the Patriarchs arrived in Canaan, the two most important Canaanite cities were Gezer, which dominated the southern coastal plain, and Megiddo in the north. Aside from these, there were a great many flourishing towns in the lower Jordan Valley and in the area to the east now known as Transjordan. Then there were the notorious 'cities of the plain', south of the Dead Sea. The best known of these cities were Sodom and Gomorrah.

As long as they remained in Canaan, Abraham's people clung to their seminomadic ways. They continued to move from place to place, always in search of fresh pastures and a reliable water supply. They lived in tents and, whenever possible, set up their camps near larger towns like Dothan, Shechem, and Bethel for security. Their main base was the purchased burial ground at Machpelah, where they planted grain each Spring.

Abraham's son Isaac and his grandson Jacob also established ties with particular places in the hill country. Isaac's wanderings were centered in the neighborhood of southern Canaan near Beer-sheba, while Jacob roamed farther north, most often around Shechem and Bethel.

Stone altars and pillars of the kind that both Abraham and Jacob erected to God were frequently raised in the Near East. They were often memorials to the covenant or sacred vow, sometimes between two men, but more often between a man and a god. In them a man would vow to worship a particular god in return for aid and protection. This concept of a personal god was the foundation of the Hebrew's early faith. The covenant between Yahweh and Abraham is described in chapters 15 and 17 of Genesis:

'And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants

after you... for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your

descendants after you. And I will give to you, and to your descendants after

you... all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.'

(Genesis 17:7-8)

In return, Abraham and his descendants were to signify their fidelity to God by the ritual of circumcision.


3.3 - Joseph in Egypt


Joseph, Jacob's favorite son, was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers around 1700 B.C. He quickly rose from adversity to become the second most powerful person in Egypt. His story is full of details that modern scholars have been able to actually connect to historical facts.

The idea that Joseph, a Hebrew slave, could have become the Pharaoh's highest governing official, is not as fanciful as it might sound. About the time of his arrival, between 1720 and 1700 B.C., Egypt was invaded by a Syro-Canaanite alliance called the 'Hyksos' by the Egyptians. These invaders established their own line of Pharaohs and ruled the country for about 150 years. Hated foreigners themselves, it was likely that the Hyksos might trust someone like Joseph before they would trust any native Egyptian. Another part of the narrative, in which the Pharaoh acquired most of the country's land during the famine, would be easy to understand if Egypt had been under the Hyksos.

Joseph's ability to interpret dreams would certainly have attracted attention in Egypt, where the ancient arts of magic and divining were highly respected. Also, the various titles given Joseph by Potiphar and the Pharaoh are exact translations of the Egyptian offices, and the description of Joseph's swearing-in as prime minister came from someone familiar with such ceremonies.

Joseph's reunion with his brothers is another event that mirrors historical conditions. It was a period of famine throughout the Near East, and in time of hardship from famine it was apparently an old Egyptian policy to allow nomads from other countries into the land since Egypt often had a surplus of grain in the Pharaoh's storehouses. The region of Goshen in the fertile Nile Delta could sustain great numbers of peoples and their flocks, and would have been the logical place for the Hebrews to settle.

'Thus Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen; and they

gained possession in it, and were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly.'

(Genesis 47:27)


3.4 - Moses and the Exodus


The Book of Exodus opens after an interlude of some 400 years. At this point on the timeline, Egypt was vastly different. The Hyksos had long been driven out and native rule had returned to power. At some point, the Hebrews had become enslaved by the Egyptians, who were forcing them to build their temples and farm their land.

'So they made the people of Israel serve with rigor, and made their lives bitter

with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field'

(Exodus 1:13-14)

The Pharaoh responsible for the bondage of Israel is a highly debated topic. Most look to Ramesses II, but Pharaoh Tuthmosis II fits the description in a much better way. His mummy is the only one discovered with cysts or boils, indicating evidence of suffering from a plague. His reign also began successfully but abruptly declined in the end. The Pharaoh of the Exodus remains unconfirmed.

With Moses begins the Old Testament's most dramatic story – the most critical events of the Jewish religion – the Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. The Pharaoh's refusal to release the Hebrews and the succession of plagues which God sends down in reprisal, results in the final plague killing all the first-born children in Egypt, but miraculously passing over those of the Hebrews. This would later become celebrated as the Passover Feast.

With this, the Bible says, the terrified Pharaoh summoned Moses and his brother Aaron and told them:

'Rise up, go forth from among my people... take your flocks and your herds, as

you have said, and be gone...” (Exodus 12:32)

Organizing perhaps 3000 to 5000 people, Moses set out across the Red Sea, escaping the charioteers that the Pharaoh had sent in a last-minute change of heart. He then turned south toward the region of Mount Sinai to avoid the Egyptian fortresses in the northern part of the peninsula. It was here that Moses went up on a mountain to receive the law and make the covenant binding Israel forever to “the God of the Fathers”.

With the Exodus, the real history of Israel as a nation began. Egypt was behind them, and the Promised Land lay ahead. Most importantly, God had shown the Hebrews that his power was equal to the ancient pledge he had made to Abraham.

'I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great

so that you will be a blessing' (Genesis 12:2)

We begin our first detailed biography in the next episode on Abraham!


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