8: Ancient Israel


The Arch of Titus
The Romans stealing the riches of the destroyed Jewish Temple.
Rome, 82 CE

Key Terms

  • Tanakh
  • Torah
  • mitzvah
  • Pardes
  • Adam & Eve
  • Abraham
  • Jacob/Israel
  • Moses
  • David
  • Babylonian Exile
  • Hellenism
  • Hanukkah
  • Zealots
  • Bar Kochba
  • Diaspora

Genesis 4:10

And Adonai said,
“What have you done? Listen!
Your brother’s blood is crying out
to me from the ground!"


I. The Hebrew Bible in brief

  • Equivalent to the “Old Testament” of Christianity
  • The most printed set of books in history
  • Stories are central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (60% human pop.)

II. The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh)

  • The Torah (Instruction)
    • First five books of the Bible
    • 613 mitzvot – commandments given by God to the Jewish people
      • Root of mitzvah is tzava (“connection”)
      • Performing “mitzvot” is how Jews stay connected to God
    • The Torah is read in portions throughout the year
  • The Nevi’im (Prophets)
    • 8 books exploring Jewish history and politics (beginning with the death of Moses)
  • The Ketuvim (Writings)
    • Varied collection of 11 books containing histories, tales, songs, and poetry 

III. Jewish Exegesis: Pardes (PRDS)

Earliest Archaelogical Evidence

  • 1500s BCE: evidence of Cana’an
  • 1208 BCE: evidence of Israel
  • 840 BCE: evidence of YHVH
  • 800s BCE: evidence of King David
  • 720 BCE: Assyria vs. Israel
  • 580s BCE: evidence of Bible verses
  • 587 BCE: Babylon vs. Judah
    • First Temple destroyed? 
  • 538 BCE: Persia vs. Babylon
  • 516 BCE: Persia raises up Judah
    • Torah returns to Jerusalem
    • Second Temple built
    • Prophetic Era ends
    • Judah is strictly Monotheist
  • 300s BCE: earliest Torahs found
  • 332 BCE: Greece vs Persia
  • 160 BCE: Judea vs Greece
    • origin of Hanukkah
  • Jews interpret the Hebrew Bible at four levels (example lesson – Genesis 1:1)
    • Peshat: surface meaning – suitable for kids | stories
    • Remez: symbolic meaning – critical reading of language | words
    • Derash: homiletic meaning – critical/comparative reading of ideas | concepts
    • Sod: mystical meaning – transcendental reading | taught after age 40


I. Adam & the Creation

  • A. Shabbat & Justice (3m clip)
    • Peshat: The world of mankind is created in 6 days. God rests on the 7th.
    • Derash: The height of creation isn't man (6th day). It’s Shabbat (7th day).
      • Shabbat (Saturday) is the sacred Jewish day of rest and is tied to many Biblical narratives about sharing and freedom.
  • B. Adam made in the Divine Image
    • Peshat: God makes Adam (“man”) in His Image.
    • Derash: Humanity is made in the “Image of God” — so each person has dignity.
      • To injure (strike, ignore) another person is tantamount to slapping God.
      • All humanity (ben-adam) comes from Adam. No one is more special. And killing one of us is like killing all of us.
      • Being made in the "Image of God" also means we possess our own creativity and reason — we can do good or evil.
  • C. Eve from Adam
    • Peshat: God makes the first woman, Eve ("life source"), from Adam's side.
    • Derash: A person isn't whole if left by himself. It is only in the sacred face of the other that Jews can encounter God,
      and realize their potential for righteousness. We are all part of one another.
  • D. Cain & Abel (1m clip)
    • Peshat: Eve's jealous son, Cain, kills his brother Abel. God asks Cain where Abel is. Cain replies, "Am I my brother's keeper?”
    • Derash: We are responsible for one another. When we no longer answer the other, those we leave behind call out for justice.

II. Abraham & the Patriarchs (ca. 2000 BCE)

Genesis 32:28

Then he said,
"You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and man
and prevailed."

  • A. Father Abraham (Hebrew: Avraham | Av means father)
    • Peshat: God promises Abraham (the first monotheist)
      • Land in Cana’an (earliest archeological reference to “Canaan,” 1500s BCE)
      • A “great nation” of descendants (the Jews)
      • And an eternal unbreakable covenant with those descendants
      • God warns Abraham Sodom will be destroyed for its wickedness.
        • Abraham argues with God to save the city.
        • God agrees if Abraham can find 10 righteous men.
    • Derash: Because Abraham didn't just act with blind obedience (like Noah), but struggled with God for the sake of his righteous neighbors, he holds a special place of honor in the Jewish tradition as "Father Abraham.”
    • Sod: From this story, the Sages conclude that a righteous community requires 10 good people.
      • So, the most important rituals in Judaism require a minyan of 10 Jews to be present.
  • B. The Binding of Isaac (pic)
    • Peshat: Abraham's post-menopausal wife Sarah gives birth to Isaac.
      • God tells Abraham to sacrifice the miracle child.
      • Abraham binds Isaac, raises his knife, but then God stops him.
      • A ram then appears which Abraham sacrifices instead.
    • Derash: In contrast to other Mediterranean cultures, a Hebrew/Jewish child is not his father's property to do with as he wishes. The story is about Abraham renouncing ownership over his son. The violence is meant to turn your stomach.
    • Sod: After the Binding of Isaac episode, Abraham's wife Sarah is absent from the story. Some of the Talmudic Sages say that Sarah was so overcome with grief over what her husband put her child through, that she ended her own life.
  • C. Jacob Wrestles with the Angel (pic)
    • Peshat: Jacob, son of Isaac, wrestles with a stranger.
    • Derash: God’s renaming of Jacob illustrates the type of people his descendants should be. Israelites are encouraged to struggle with tradition in the pursuit of a better world and a deeper understanding of God. The reference to Jacob seeing the face of God is also important in Jewish ethics because it is through others that Jews find righteousness. 

Exodus 6:7-8

I will take you as my people,
and I will be your God…
I will bring you into the land
that I swore to give to Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob.

III. Moses: Israel’s Origin Story (ca. 1200 BCE)

King and Heschel

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King &
Rabbi Dr. Joshua Heshel

Praying together, 1965

  • A. Moses: Judaisms social justice hero
    • Peshat: Egypt rules over the Hebrews (map)
      • the Hebrew Moses is raised as an Egyptian prince (pic)
      • Moses kills an overseer beating a Hebrew slave and flees Egypt
      • In Midian, Moses is a peacemaker and marries a local woman (pic)
      • An angel calls Moses to return to Egypt and demand Pharoah
      • “Let my people go!” (5m clip)
    • Derash: When God calls, Moses answers “Here I am.”
      • This is the proper response to a cry for help
      • From Genesis, Jews learn that God is encountered in the face of other people
      • From Exodus, Jews learn that the proper response to God (and the other) is always, "Hineini — Here I am.”
  • B. Mount Sinai: the Laws of Moses
    • Peshat: 7 weeks after leaving Egypt, the Hebrews reach Mount Sinai
      • Moses speaks with God on Mount Sinai — "I will be what I will be. 
      • After 40 days, Moses returns with the Law
        • however, the people are worshipping a Golden Calf. (2m clip)
        • God tells Moses that He wants to destroy Israel (cf. Noah)
      • Moses says if Israel is disowned, then God must also “blot out” Moses
        • Moses destroys the calf and punishes the wicked
        • The Hebrews spend a generation (40 years) wandering the desert
        • Moses’ brother Aaron is made high priest of the Tabernacle which houses the Ark (3m clip). The Hebrews eventually enter the Promised Land of Israel after Moses dies. They are now Israelites.
    • Derash: Moses is considered the most righteous of the Jewish Patriarchs because he struggles with God for both the righteous and unrighteous. The Law of Moses outlives him and leads the Jewish people to this day.
    • Sod: Jewish tradition states that because “all of Israel” was present at Mount Sinai to make a covenant with God, then this includes all Jews in history. So, there is a teaching that every Jewish soul was present when God spoke at Sinai.

IV. David: Israel’s King (ca. 900 BCE)

1 Kings 6:11-13

Now the word of the Lord came to Solomon, “Concerning the Temple,
if you walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all of my mitzvot, then I will establish my covenant with you, which I made to your father David. I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake them.”

  • A. The shepherd David kills the warrior Goliath
    • Peshat: The Philistines, a neighboring tribe warring with the Israelites, send their champion Goliath from Gaza to fight an Israelite champion. The shepherd boy, David, kills him with a slingshot and stone. David’s popularity irritates King Saul.
    • Derash: David’s triumph over the towering figure of Goliath is proof that God has mastery over nature through his servant, David. David is also shown to have more faith in God’s ability to protect him than any other Israelite, including the king.
  • B. King David moves the capital from Hebron to Jerusalem, “the City of David” 
  • B. The Temple of Solomon
    • Peshat: David’s military prowess provides a secure Israel
      • David’s son, King Solomon, builds the Great Temple
    • Derash: Despite safeguarding Israel, David is not worthy to build the Temple
      • Solomon, who shows wisdom and judgment, is able to build the temple
        • Strength is necessary, but wisdom is the higher pursuit

The 12 Tribes of Jacob (Israel)

  • Original Sons of Leah
    • Rueben: see a son!
    • Simeon: God heard my cries!
    • Levi: Jacob will be attached!
    • Judah: I will praise God!
  • Sons of Rachel’s handmaiden
    • Dan: he judged me worthy!
    • Naphtali: O my struggle!
  • Sons of Leah’s handmaiden
    • Gad: what luck!
    • Asher: what fortune!
  • Latter sons of Leah
    • Issachar: my reward!
    • Zebulun: a choice gift!
  • Original sons of Rachel
    • Joesph: God has added to me!
      • Ephraim
      • Manasseh
    • Benjamin: Son of Joy!

The 12 Israelite Tribes (ca. 1200-600 BCE)

  • The “Israelites” (earliest archeological evidence of “Israel,” 1208 BCE)
  • After King Solomon, the United Monarchy divides permanently (map)
    • The Northern Kingdom (★Samaria): 5x the size of the Southern Kingdom
      • Reuben, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher,
        Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, & Manasseh
      • Destroyed by the Assyrians: 720 BCE
    • The Southern Kingdom (★Jerusalem)
      • Judah, Levi, & Benjamin (Simeon is absorbed by Judah)
      • Ends with the Babylonian Exile: 586 BCE
  • After the Babylonian Exile, the Southern Kingdom is the Jewish Province of “Judah”
    • Babylonian Province of Judah: 586-538 BCE
    • Persian Province of Judah: 538-332 BCE
    • Greek Province of Judea: 332-160 BCE


Archaeological & Historical Criticism

  • The following is considered common knowledge among archaeologists and scholars
    • Origins of Jews and Israel
      • Jewish people, language, and rituals are native to Cana’an
        • No evidence that they came from outside of the land
        • In fact, DNA testing shows Jews as originated in Israel (i.e., the Levant)
      • Canaanite cities (like Jericho) fell to ruin gradually — over hundreds of years
        • No evidence at all for the battles of Joshua in claiming the Land of Cana’an
    • Before 500s BCE
      • Jerusalem was a small, unremarkable village
      • Evidence clearly shows polytheism and Goddess worship were commonplace
      • There is no evidence of a "United Monarchy” under the House of David
      • There is no evidence of a First Temple built under King Solomon
    • After 500s BCE (after the Persians end the Babylonian Exile)
      • Oral histories and laws of the Jews written down in the “Torah” 
        • Probably came as a result of cultural contact with Persians
      • Monotheistic Temple worship guided by priests in Jerusalem


Psalm 137:1-5

By the rivers of Babylon —
there we sat down and there we wept as we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked
for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing Adonai’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!

Babylonian Talmud

Since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah
and Malachai, the holy spirit of prophetic inspiration departed from Israel.

– Tractate Sanhedrin 11a

I. T
he Babylonian Exile
Singing songs in a foreign land
587 - 538 BCE

  • A. The Babylonian Exile: the beginning of recorded Jewish history
    • No record of Jewish scripture, ritual, or belief exists before this time
    • According to Biblical scripture
      • The Temple of Solomon has been destroyed
      • Most Jews were resettled in Babylon, kept alive to entertain Babylonians
  • B. Torah stories collected during this time reflect a Jewish Exile point-of-view
    • Adam: God loves us and created a “good” world.
    • Noah: God protects the righteous and destroys the wicked.
    • Abraham: God has promised us our former territory in Canaan.
    • Isaac: God will provide for us in our hour of need.
    • Jacob: The fragmented tribes of Israel and Judah are brothers.
    • Joseph: In–fighting among the tribes will only hurt us.
    • Moses: God has delivered us from imperial bondage before.
    • Joshua: Despite the odds, God will give us victory over our enemies.
  • C. The Prophets (Neviim)
    • Jews recognize 55 prophets in history – 48 men and 7 women
    • The Prophets (not all Jewish) each held important messages for mankind
      • 500s BCE: Malachi, at the Exile’s end, is the final prophet of the Jews
      • Ezra brings the Torah and the teachings of the Prophets back to Israel
    • Post–Exile Prophetic Claims

II. The Persians & the (Second) Temple
Temple, Torah, & Jerusalem
538 - 332 BCE

Ezra 7:10

Ezra had his heart set on studying the Torah, and to teach its statutes and ordinances in Jerusalem.

  • A. Persian influence on Israel
    • 538 – the Persian king Cyrus the Great defeats the Babylonians
    • King Cyrus grants Jews in Babylon the freedom to live in Israel as his subjects
      • Interestingly, theres little criticism in the Bible over being Persian subjects
    • Modern Scholars: the Torah is edited into its final form during this period
  • B. Jewish private life centered on the Torah
    • Ezra the Scribe: a Jewish member of the Persian court
      • credited with bringing the Torah back to Israel
      • institutes several Jewish customs (Torah reading, Amidah prayer, Purim)
      • Ezra establishes the Great Assembly of scholars to adjuicate Jewish law
  • C. Jewish public life centered on the Temple
    • 516 – the (Second) Temple is built
      • The last prophets – Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi – lead the building effort
      • Jewish priests are put in charge of Jerusalem, in the name of the Persian king

1 Maccabees 3:3

He extended the glory of his people. Like a giant he put on his breastplate; he bound on his armor of war and waged battles,
protecting the camp by his sword.

III. The Greeks: Israel confronts Western Colonialism
Hellenasmos (Greekness) vs. Ioudaiasmos (Jewishness)
332 - 63 BCE

  • A. After Alexander the Great conquers the Persian Empire  (332 BCE), Israel comes under heavy Greek (Hellenistic) influence
    • In Egypt, the Hebrew Bible is translated into Greek
      • Called the Septuagint (“70”), it is the translation generally quoted by early Christians, including Paul’s Epistles
    • Jewish political sects develop around the question of Hellenism (“Greekness”)
      • Sadducees (pro-Greek): Urban. Protect rich and powerful. Jewish law for Temple priests. Disregard Oral Law.
      • Pharisees (anti-Greek): From the countryside. protect the common people. Jewish law for everyone. Uphold Oral Law.
    • Hellenism takes several forms in Jewish life
      • A Greek gymnasium (lit. “place to be naked”) is built in Jerusalem with the High Priest’s permission
      • Some Jews abandon circumcision as Greek bathhouses come to social prominence
      • Philo of Alexandria: Jewish philosopher harmonizes Greek philosophy with Jewish thought
  • B. The Maccabean Revolt (167-160 BCE)
    • Hellenism in Jerusalem ends with Greek gods in the Temple
    • Judas Maccabee (“Judah the Hammer”) leads a guerrilla group and drives the “godless” Greeks out
    • Rededication of the Temple is thereafter celebrated as Hanukkah: the Festival of Lights
  • C. Jewish Self-Rule: the Hasmonean kings (160-63 BCE)
    • 20 years after Judah Maccabee, Simon Maccabee establishes the Hasmonean line of Jewish kings
      • The Jewish State is immediately recognized by the Roman Senate, sworn enemies of the Greeks
    • The Hasmonean kings replace the Great Assembly with the Sanhedrin (ie. Supreme Court of the Jews)
    • The Hasmonean kings are not remembered well. They caused civil wars in Israel, and the dynasty became very Hellenized.


I. Herod: Israel & the Roman Empire
Dreaming of an Israel free of Rome
63 BCE - 132 CE

  • A. Roman Puppets: the Herodian kings (63 BCE - 4 CE)
    • Herod the Great: Roman client king of Judea (37-4 BCE)
      • Renovates the Temple in Jerusalem into a massive complex comparable to Rome and Egypt (pic)
      • Develops Roman culture in Israel’s cities by taxing Jews in the countryside

  • B. Roman Judaea  (6-132)
    • Israel remained an important colony for the Romans
      • Governing from Caesarea (not Jerusalem), the Romans continued to tax the Jews
      • Israel was a useful buffer between the Roman Empire and the Parthians (Persians)
      • Roman Judaea was governed by Roman prefect, who had to keep the Jews peaceful
        • Pontius Pilate: Roman prefect (26-36 CE) responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus
    • Jewish political movements develop around the question of the Roman Occupation
      • Essenes (far-right): Spiritual recluses who reject the Temple and Roman politics
      • Sadducees (center-right): Hellenized conservative elites who control the Temple
      • Pharisees (center-left): Hellenized liberal egalitarians; mostly rabbis
      • Messianics (leftist): Apocalyptic/Hellenized Jews seeking a Messianic Age
      • Zealots (far-left): ‘Freedom Fighters who aim to defeat Rome militarily

  • C. Destruction of the (Second) Temple in 70
    • In 64, Paul, Peter, and James are crucified by the Roman government for fomenting rebellion against the empire
      • All of Pauls Christian writings pre-date the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem
      • The small Christian community of Jerusalem (the Nazarenes”), run by the Apostle James, fades into history
        • All thats left of Jesus ministry are the Christ-communities throughout the empire that Paul began 
    • By 66, anti–taxation protests and attacks against Roman citizens precipitated the plunder of the Jewish Temple
      • Jewish rebels took control of Jerusalem
      • Different political factions came together to defend the city!
    • In 70, Titus commits Roman troops to a seven-month siege of Jerusalem, ending in the Destruction of the Temple (pic)
      • Jews commemorate the Destruction of the Temple on Tisha B’Av
      • Only the Western Wall (a retaining wall) of the Temple remains. It is the holiest site in the world for Jews
      • Titus becomes the Emperor of the Roman Empire in the year 79
      • The Christian Gospel of Mark (the earliest canonical Gospel) is written during this war to explain who Jesus was

II. Bar Kochba & the last Jewish–Roman War 
The Last Would-Be Messiah
132 - 136 CE

  • A. After the Great Revolt (66-70), the Roman Army controls Jerusalem
    • Jewish revolts break out across the Roman Empire
    • The Romans have a plan to build a Roman city (Aelia Capitolina) on Jerusalems ruins
    • There is also a Roman plan to build a temple to Jupiter (Zeus) on the Temple Mount
  • B. By 132, Simon Bar Kochba (“Simon, Son of the Star”) has led a successful revolt against the Romans that sweeps across Israel
    • Rabbi Akiva and the Sages declare Bar Kochba the Messiah for realizing Israel’s national independence
    • By 135, the Roman emperor sends six legions to crush Bar Kochba’s revolt
      • The resulting genocide leaves ~600,000 killed, and many more dead of hunger or disease
    • The Romans kill or enslave as many Jews as they can find, and rename the land “Syria Palaestina”
  • C. Talmudic scholars after Rabbi Akiva give Simon the nickname Ben Kosiva (Son of the Lie)

III. The Diaspora & Rabbinic Judaism
Israel lives!

  • 500s BCE - present
    • Diaspora: scattered population originally from a common region. (eg. African Americans are part of the African Diaspora.)
    • Jewish Diaspora begins with Babylonian Exile — made worse by Jewish-Roman Wars
  • 70 CE - present
    • Power of the priesthood (kohanim) ends with the destruction of the Temple
    • Local Jewish teachers (rabbis) take up primary leadership roles
      • Tribalism largely ends: emphasis on equality of all Jews in Rabbinic Judaism
  • 100s -present
    • Power shift from Temple in Jerusalem to synagogues throughout the world
      • Famous synagogues / Jewish communities
  • 300s: the Sanhedrin is dissolved
  • 500s: the Oral Law (the Talmud) is codified for future Jews