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A Very Short History of the Ancient World


The Hebrews (That Stiff-Necked People)

The ancient Middle East and Mesopotamia was an area composed of small, often insignificant kingdoms frequently torn between the forces of mighty empires such as Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome. But one of these small kingdoms became, through its religion, philosophy and law, one of the most important cultures in both Middle Eastern and Western history.

The Hebrews' religion and brief state could easily have faded away from history in the same way their close neighbors did. The Edomites, the Moabites, the Ammonites and even the Philistines all had profound religions, powerful states and highly developed civilizations. So why have we forgotten them? What happened in history that elevated the Hebrews to such a foundational role in the cultures of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa -- indeed, of the whole world? Also, why are the Hebrew people still around, while both their counterparts and the mighty empires that often engulfed them have long since perished?

Not only did the Hebrews develop one of the first monotheistic religions, they believed that the one -- and only one -- God had especially selected their people to work out His intentions for the world. That vision of a God that operates purposefully in history to intervene for His people would form the core of later European and Islamic world views.

The history of the Hebrews is an odd history, filled with brief glories and multiple disappointments, and it begins in the soil of the biblical lands. For no aspect of Hebrew history can be understood without fully appreciating the geographical uniqueness of the ground on which it took place.

Hebrew history starts in Mesopotamia in the cities of Ur in the south and Haran in the north. Mesopotamia was a rich agricultural area, fed by irrigation from two rivers: The Tigris and the Euphrates. Powerful city-states such as Ur rose in this fertile area, and many of these city-states would eventually become the foundation of mighty empires.

Although the Hebrew people originated in Mesopotamia, the Hebrews become a nation in another land -- Egypt. But this part of the story comes later. Between their origins in Mesopotamia and the creation of a new nation in Egypt, Hebrew history centers around Palestine. For it was this area that the Hebrew God had promised to his chosen people. On this land, the various tribes would fight difficult and often losing battles of occupation, set up a kingdom, and then enjoy the briefest of empires.

What was this land? Its most salient geographical fact was that it lay between Mesopotamia and Egypt -- the land bridge that carried all the commercial goods between these two wealthy and powerful areas. It was also the highway on which armies would travel, whether Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Greek or Roman. More than anything else, this fact of geography determined the course of Hebrew history. Caught between powerful nations, this area was in constant turmoil and under constant threat.

Although the Hebrews called it the "land of milk and honey," Palestine (named after the Philistines, the group that dominated it for much of its early history) was, in fact, a harsh environment. It seemed to be a land of milk and honey only to a people who had been living in the desert for several generations.

The land itself is composed of four geographic strips. The first is a rich agricultural area along the Mediterranean coast, dominated first by Canaanites and then by Philistines for a large part of Hebrew history. Because they could not dislodge these people, the Hebrews settled in the second area, the central hill country, a backbone of mountains running from north to south between the coastal areas and the Jordan River valley. Dry and rocky, the central hills are a very difficult place to live, but the spectacle of Hebrew history mainly takes place in this hill country: Galilee, Samaria, Megiddo, Shechem, Judah, Jerusalem, Hebron and Beer-sheba. To the east of the hills is the Jordan River valley. In Hebrew, the word Jordan means "the descender," for the river begins at Mount Hermon in the north at about 200 feet above sea level, and literally plummets to the Sea of Galilee (actually a lake) 10 miles to the south at 702 feet below sea level. From there, it flows for another 200 miles, descending to the Dead Sea at 1,300 feet below sea level (the lowest place on earth). Along this valley and around the Sea of Galilee are rich farmlands yielding grain and fruit as well as wealthy fishing in the rivers and in the Sea of Galilee itself. To the east of the Jordan River valley are the Transjordan Highlands (about 1,500 feet above sea level). This area was largely occupied by non-Hebrews in the kingdoms of Edom in the south and Moab and Ammon in the center. For the most part, these lands were out of Hebrew control.

The Beginning -- Father Abraham and His Brood

Father Abraham is no doubt an apt name. For in the Hebrew account of their own history, they trace their origins back to a single individual, Abraham, who came from the cities of Ur and Haran in Mesopotamia, traveled to Canaan, then to Egypt and then back to Canaan to "establish" the Hebrew rights to this land.

According to the Biblical account, the son of Terah and grandson of Nahor was named Abram when he was born in the city of Ur in Babylonia around 1900 or 1800 B.C. (The Bible traces his genealogy as some ten generations removed from Noah -- who we will refer to in due time.) After his marriage to Sarai (later renamed Sarah), Abram moved from Ur in southern Mesopotamia to Haran some 600 miles to the north with his wife, his father and his nephew Lot, son of his brother Aran. There, according to Genesis (chapter 12), "The Lord had said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.'"

Abram obediently left for Canaan with his family, including his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, along with some 1,000 household members (he was evidently not a poor man). Though raised as a city-dweller, Abram adopted a nomadic lifestyle, traveling to Shechem and Bethel, where he built altars, and then south toward the Negev.

Famine in Canaan soon forced Abram and Sarai to flee to Egypt where there was food. There, according to Hebrew lore, he met with the Pharaoh and -- because his wife was very comely and he feared that Pharaoh might kill him and take her for his own -- he introduced Sarai as his sister. Pharaoh took her into his harem, but when he discovered the ruse shortly thereafter, he returned her to Abram -- supposedly with many gifts. At any rate, Genesis (chapter 13) tells us that Abram returned to Bethel in Canaan as a very rich man "in cattle, in silver, and in gold." He also discovered that, under the husbandry of his nephew Lot, his herds and flocks that he had left there had increased greatly.

Shortly after Abram's return, his herdsmen and those of Lot began arguing about grazing rights. Abram generously gave the choice of land to Lot, who took the "well-watered" plain of Jordan, while Abram stayed on the land of Canaan with his tent -- though rich, he was still a nomad.

According to the Bible, the next significant event in Abram's life involved a war between two sets of kings, one led by the king of Elam, who successfully defeated the others and, in the process, took Abram's nephew Lot captive as a slave along with spoils from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Hearing of this, Abram armed 318 "trained servants" and followed the king to the city of Dan located at the foot of Mount Hermon in northeastern Palestine. There he defeated the king, rescued Lot, and returned all the spoils to Sodom.

Abram, still childless with Sarai -- and with both growing older -- is concerned about an heir. But chapter 15 of Genesis tells us that God reassures Abram, saying, "Look now toward the stars, if thou be able to number them . . . So shall thy seed be." That chapter delineates another covenant the Lord made with Abram: "Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates."

At this point, Sarai, knowing that she was past child-bearing years, offered her maidservant, Hagar, as a wife to Abram, a common practice at the time. According to tradition, Hagar was a daughter of Pharaoh, given to Abram's household when he left Egypt. Haggar subsequently bore Abram a son, Ishmael, who, according to both Muslim and Jewish tradition, is the ancestor of the Arabs.

Why is it that in modern parlance we usually refer to Abraham and Sarah, rather than to Abram and Saraii? This involves another covenant, described in chapter 17 of Genesis. In it, God promises Abraham (his new name) a son to be named Isaac from his wife Sarah (her new name). In turn, as a sign of the covenant, Abraham and all his menservants undergo circumcision, with the agreement that henceforth all newborn sons will be circumcised on the eighth day of their lives.

Isaac is subsequently born to Sarah. And now, with a son of her own, Sarah's jealousy awakes. From the Biblical tale of Ishmael and Isaac, it is obvious that Sarah is very jealous of Hagar and highly protective of her own son Isaac. On two occasions, she even orders Hagar and Ishmael expelled from her household.

Chapter 22 of Genesis then describes the familiar story of Abraham's total obedience to God, even to the point of offering his son Isaac as a holocaust (which my Webster defines as "a sacrifice consumed by fire"). But, according to the Biblical account, an angel appears and tells Abraham to stay his hand. Abraham looks behind him and spies a ram "caught in a thicket by his horns" to serve as a substitute burnt offering.

After Sarah dies, Abraham, not wanting his son Isaac to marry "a daughter of the Canaanites," sends a servant with ten camels back to Haran, where his brother Aran lives. There, the servant finds Rebekah, the granddaughter of Nahor, Abraham's other brother. Legend has it that the servant came to a spring and prayed for a sign: That the first woman to offer water for both himself and his ten camels would be the one for Isaac. Shortly thereafter, he spotted Rebekah, a very beautiful woman, and asked her for some water from her pitcher. When he had finished drinking, she told him she would draw water for the camels as well -- not an easy feat. The servant then met with Rebekah's brother, Laban, and her father and they gave permission for Rebekah to return with him to Canaan to be wed to Isaac. (Probably the fact that the servant had brought generous gifts and that Isaac was a rich man made the decision fairly easy.)

With Isaac married, Abraham took another wife -- Keturah -- who gave him five more sons. To these, Abraham gave gifts and then sent them away. But Genesis (chapter 25) says "Abraham gave all he had to Isaac." In other words, Isaac was the sole heir.

Although Rebekah was at first childless, eventually she gave birth to twins: Esau and Jacob. As they grew up, there was a great rivalry between the two very diverse twins. Esau, the elder by a few minutes, was a hairy man; Jacob was not. Esau was a "cunning hunter;" Jacob "a plain man, dwelling in tents." Isaac loved Esau -- and the venison he fed him; Rebekah favored Jacob (the Bible tells us she had a vision that the older son would serve the younger).

In ancient times, the oldest son was regarded as the heir of the father's wealth, power and authority. But in the case of Esau and Jacob, this was not to be. The Bible (Genesis - chapter 25) tells us that one day Esau returned from an unsuccessful hunting trip, famished. He saw that Jacob had been cooking food. Jacob asked him if he would be willing to sell his rights as the first-born son in exchange for some bread and a bowl of lentils. Esau must have been very hungry indeed, for he agreed to sell his birthright for a single meal!

As Isaac grew older (having lost his sight), he feared for his death. So he asked Esau to hunt some deer and bring him some venison, which he loved, so he could bless him. Rebekah, who overheard the conversation, told Jacob to go to the flock, kill a goat kid, and cook some savory meat for his father. She then told him to cover his hands and arms and neck with the goat skins so that Isaac would think he was Esau and give him his blessing. The trickery worked and Jacob received the blessing that traditionally would have been reserved for the first-born.

Having been robbed of both his birthright and his blessing, Esau now vows to kill Jacob. To protect Jacob, his mother arranges for him to go to live with her relatives in Haran. Isaac echoes this advice, not wanting this son to marry a Canaanite woman as Esau had done -- against his parents' wishes. After Isaac died, Esau took his wives, his children, his servants and his cattle and moved to Mount Seir, located on southeast border of Edom and Judah. Esau became the ancestor of the people of Edom, a country near Israel during ancient times.

When Jacob left Beer-sheba and arrived in Haran to meet with his uncle Laban, he also met Laban's two daughters: Leah and Rachel. Leah is described as "tender-eyed;" but Rachel is "beautiful and well-favored." And Jacob is smitten with the younger daughter. When Laban asks what Jacob's wages might be for serving him, Jacob says he will serve seven years to have Rachel as his wife.

So seven years later, the wedding occurs. But Laban -- a pretty tricky sort -- substitutes Leah for Rachel in the darkness of the wedding bed! He then informs Jacob that the custom is for the oldest to be wed first. So Jacob agrees to work another seven years for Rachel. In the meantime, Leah gives him four sons -- Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. But Rachel is barren, so she gives Jacob her handmaid, Bilhah, who produces two sons -- Dan and Naphtali. And when Leah next enters a time of barrenness, she gives Jacob her handmaid, Zilpah, who also gives birth to two sons -- Gad and Asher. Then Leah has two more sons -- Issachar and Zebulon -- and a daughter, Dinah. Finally, Rachel gives birth to another son, Joseph.

So, with eleven children, his wives (Rachel is with child), sheep, goats, cattle and servants, Jacob finally leaves in the dark of night, headed back to Canaan, some 20 years after he has left. On his journey back, the Bible tells us (Genesis - chapter 32) he has a mystical encounter that gives him a new name: Israel. Fearful of the wrath of his brother Esau, he precedes his caravan with gifts of goats, sheep, cattle, camels and horses. But Esau, who now has wealth of his own, as well as a 400-man army, forgives Jacob and returns to Mount Seir, while Jacob and his retinue pitch their tents in Canaan near the city of Shechem.

In chapter 35 of Genesis, when Jacob and his followers go to Bethel, God again appears to him and again says that Jacob's name shall be Israel, also reassuring him of his inheritance. Verse 12 says, "And the land that I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee I will give the land." On the way, Rachel gives birth to Israel's twelfth son, Benjamin, but she dies in childbirth and is buried near Bethlehem.

Joseph and the Move to Egypt

"Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age. So he made him a coat of many colors." Joseph also interpreted dreams. For these reasons and others, his brothers were jealous and hated him. Despite their original intent to kill him, the brothers finally end up selling him for twenty pieces of silver to a group of traders on their way to Egypt. The brothers then killed a goat kid and spread its blood over Joseph's coat, bringing it to their father, Israel, who thought his son was dead. In Egypt, Joseph is sold to Potiphar, captain of the Pharaoh's guard.

Things go well for Joseph in Potiphar's household -- that is, until he is falsely accused of fooling around with Potiphar's wife, who had tried to seduce him. As a result, he is thrown into prison. But again, because of his abilities, he attains a position of authority within the prison. He also becomes adept at interpreting the dreams of his fellow prisoners, along with the Pharaoh's chief butler. Later, when the Pharaoh has a series of inexplicable dreams, his butler remembered Joseph's abilities and recommends him to Pharaoh. Chapter 41 of Genesis tells us the butler told Pharaoh, "And there was with us a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard; and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams . . . "

So Pharaoh tells Joseph the dreams, which Joseph interprets as the onset of seven good and plentiful years followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh takes Joseph's advice and stores up food during the seven years of plenty, which is used during the next seven years. He puts Joseph in charge of the whole operation; he was "the governor over the land."

But the years of famine did not strike just Egypt. Canaan also suffered. And, hearing that there was grain in Egypt, Jacob (aka Israel) sent his ten oldest sons there to buy corn, keeping Benjamin, the youngest, at home. When the brothers arrive to buy grain and they come before Joseph, he recognizes them, but they do not know him for he speaks to them through an interpreter. Joseph gives them corn (and adds the money they had brought with them in their sacks of corn), but keeps Simeon there as a "hostage." He also demanded that they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, back with them to him.

The famine continues in Canaan, and the grain is soon eaten up. And, although Israel is reluctant to send Benjamin to Egypt, he finally agrees, telling his sons to bring gifts and return the money they had been given -- "perhaps it was an oversight" -- along with enough money to buy more grain; and they do so, again appearing before Joseph. After toying with them for some time, Joseph finally makes himself known to his brothers and tells them to go home and bring his father and his family because there are five more years of famine ahead and Egypt is the only place where food has been stored up.

Before leaving Canaan, Israel offered sacrifices at Beer-sheba, where, according to chapter 36 of Genesis, he had a vision: God told him "fear not to go down to Egypt; for there I will make you a great nation: I will go down with thee unto Egypt; and I will surely bring thee up again." So Israel gathers his family, his flocks and herds and goods -- along with his servants -- and joins Joseph in Egypt in the land of Goshen (an area east of the Nile in the northern Egypt in the delta region).

There the Hebrews prosper. Chapter 47 of Genesis tells us, "And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt, in the country of Goshen; and they had possessions therein, and grew, and multiplied exceedingly."

Biblical Truth, Lore or Legend?

The accounts of the creation of the world, of Adam and Eve and of Noah and the flood, with which the Bible begins, have close parallels with similar Babylonian legends; they seem to have been part of the common beliefs of many Semitic peoples.

The Biblical story introducing Adam and Eve seems to have some ambiguity. For instance, in Genesis (chapter 1) we read that "God created man in his own image -- male and female created he them." In chapter 2, there is more detail of the creation of man: "Formed of dust and animated with the holy breath of life." But 14 verses later we find the first mention of a woman to accompany the man when Eve is created out of Adam's rib.

In chapter 6 of Genesis we meet Noah, "a just man," and his three sons -- Shem, Ham and Japheth. But the world was a corrupt place with evil men, so God commanded Noah to "build an ark of gopher wood and gather two -- male and female -- of every sort of animal and fowl." The Bible tells us that 40 days and 40 nights of rain followed and there were another 150 days before the waters subsided and the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat.

Almost every culture on Earth includes an ancient flood story. Details vary, but the basic plot is the same: Deluge kills all but a lucky few. Older than Genesis is the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, a king who embarked on a journey to find the secret of immortality. Along the way, he met Utnapishtim, survivor of a great flood sent by the gods. Warned by Enki, the water god, Utnapishtim had built a boat and saved his family and friends, along with artisans, animals and precious metals. Ancient Greeks and Romans grew up with the story of Deucalion and Pyhrra, who saved their children and a collection of animals by boarding a vessel shaped like a giant box.

Some have theorized that the great flood was not worldwide, but was confined to the Black Sea. They say it occurred around 5600 B.C. when the rising sea levels of the Mediterranean spilled over the Bosporus -- then a land mass between the salty Mediterranean and the fresh-water Black Sea. In 1998, Columbia University researchers postulated that, as the Mediterranean Sea swelled, seawater pushed northward. Slicing through the narrow Bosporus, the water hit the Black Sea with 200 times the force of Niagara Falls. Each day the Black Sea rose about six inches, and coastal farms were soon flooded. Seared into the memories of terrified survivors, the tale of the flood was passed down through the generations and eventually becomes the Noah, the Utnapishtim and the Graeco-Roman stories.

The Sojourn in Egypt

Other than the Biblical account, we can only make some guesses about the Hebrews in Egypt. However, it isn't unreasonable to believe that a sizable Hebrew population lived in northern Egypt from about 1700-1300 B.C. Enormous numbers of tribal groups, most of them Semitic, had been settling in that area from about 1800 B.C.

Around 1640 B.C., a Semetic group from Asia called the Hyksos took advantage of Egypt's weak rulers. Using horses, chariots, body armor and new types of bronze weapons -- none of which the Egyptians had -- they overthrew the Egyptian Pharaoh. For the next 100 years, Egypt consisted largely of independent states under a variety of foreign kings. And the Hebrews prospered under the rule of their Semite "cousins." But in 1550 B.C., the great general Ahmose I ousted the Hyksos and founded a new dynasty, the eighteenth, ushering in the era of the New Kingdom in Egypt.

This did not bode well for the Hebrews. When the Egyptians reasserted dominance at the start of the New Kingdom, they actively expelled as many foreigners as they could. Life got fairly harsh for those remaining foreigners, who were called "habiru" (taken from the word, "apiru," or foreigner), and referred to landless aliens. Remember, the Hebrews were still primarily a nomadic people who subsisted with their flocks of sheep and goats; they weren't farmers.

These New Kingdom Pharaohs also began to garrison their borders in the north and east in order to prevent foreigners from entering the country. In particular, the Egyptian king, Seti I (1305-1290 B.C.), moved his capital to Avaris at the very north of the Nile delta. This was a shrewd move, for it established a powerful military presence right at the entry point to Egypt.

But garrisoned cities don't pop into existence at a whim; they are labor-intensive affairs. Typically, building projects involved heavy taxation of local populations. In many cases, these taxes took the form of labor taxes. And it's a good guess that the heaviest tax burden fell on the foreigners living in the area, which would include the Hebrews. Again, it's a good guess that these building projects form the substance of the oppression of the Hebrews that is described in the Book of Exodus.

Moses and the Exodus

Nothing, however, should have prevented these oppressed and miserable people from disappearing into anonymity -- as so many had done before and since. One figure, however, changed the course of this history and united them into a distinct people. He also gave them a religion and a theology that would forever unite them in a distinctive role in history.

That person was Moses. In spite of the masterful portrayal of him in Exodus, he is a difficult figure to pin down. Few people dispute that Moses was a real person, but the man has several perplexing aspects. First, he has an Egyptian name (as do many of his relatives). Second, he seems to have spent a large amount of time among a non-Hebrew people, the Midianites, where he marries and seems to learn the religion of Yahweh (the one God), and some of its cultic practices. Are there two Moses -- an Egyptian and a Hebrew? Or an Egyptian and a Midianite? And are the Midianites the first peoples to worship Yahweh and who then transmit this religion to the Hebrews? The question is complicated by the presence of Miriam, Moses' sister, in the migration. For she is the first individual in the Hebrew Bible to be called a "prophet," and she seems to have been an important player in the migration, possibly even being the principle figure in the climactic battle between the Egyptians and the Hebrews at the Sea of Reeds. At some point, however, there was a falling out between Miriam and Moses, and Miriam is lost to history.

Moses & the Bulrushes & Beyond

Where did this leader come from? Most know the wonderful Biblical story: How, after Pharaoh decreed that all Hebrew boys be drowned, his mother put the three-month-old boy in a little basket in the river (presumably the Nile). How his older sister Miriam watched as the daughter of Pharaoh found him -- and then convinced her to hire Moses' actual mother as a wet nurse. How he was raised as prince in Pharaoh's household; then, discovering his roots, lobbied for his people's freedom, threatening Pharaoh (Ramses II) with a series of ten plagues: "Nile water turned to blood; frogs; gnats; flies; pestilence; boils; storm; locusts; darkness; and, finally, death of the firstborn Egyptians."

How, Pharaoh, overwhelmed when Moses and Aaron asked him to "let my people go," at first agreed, but then changed his mind, pursuing the fleeing Semites in a chase that ended up in disaster for the Egyptian army at the Sea of Reeds as the Hebrews escaped to 40 years of wandering in the Sinai desert before returning to claim Canaan -- the "land of milk and honey."

How, during that wandering, Moses establishes the basic tenets of the Hebrew religion in the ten commandments. How Moses performs various miracles, including providing food in the form of "manna" -- a new substance -- providing water by striking his staff on a rock, and curing the people of poisonous snake bites. How Moses dies before reaching the "Promised Land," but Aaron leads them on and how they establish their "beachhead" in Canaan at Jericho when Joshua conquers that city.

The bottom line is that, basically, Moses unites the Hebrews into a nation: A people with a common religion. And thus is rightfully regarded as both a leader and a prophet.

The Exodus

It is equally difficult to pinpoint exactly who participated in the migration. Although the focus is on the Hebrews, both Exodus 12:38 and Numbers 11:4 note that a "diverse group of peoples" left Egypt with Moses. Who were they? Did they include other Semites? Was the migration to Egypt a staggered affair, or was it a single, heroic migration as described in Exodus? What resistance did the Egyptians put up? What was the nature of the Hebrews battle with the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds? The account of this battle is vitally important to Hebrew history, for their deliverance at the Sea of Reeds stands as the single most powerful symbol of Yahweh's protection.

Exodus gives two accounts: In the first, Yahweh blows the water away to create a ford, and the Egyptians get stuck in the mud and go home. In the second, Yahweh separates the waters for the Hebrews and then drowns the Egyptians when they try to cross. Which is correct? Nobody knows.

In the end, the only account we have of the migration from Egypt is the Hebrew record itself. Nevertheless, this narrative forms a foundational role in the Hebrew view of history. First, Moses is especially chosen by Yahweh to deliver his people. In other words, Yahweh directly intervenes in history in order to bring about His purposes for His people. Second, the people of Yahweh become a national entity, identified by the name "bene yisrael," rather than simply being a diverse group of Semitic tribes. They are united around a specific leader, Moses. Third, the events in Egypt, including the plagues and the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds when pursued by Pharaoh's army, are meant to serve as the primary proof of God's election of the Hebrews as his "chosen people."

There's no question that these stories were told and retold among the Hebrews as the most important events of their history. For in the events leading up to and involving the migration from Egypt (which many scholars place at around 1300 B.C.), God proved once and for all that he would use and protect the Hebrews as the people, and the only people, selected by Yahweh. Third, Hebrew religion became the "Yahweh religion." According to Exodus, the Hebrews did not worship "Yahweh" before they left Egypt, but learned to do so from Moses during the migration.

This "introduction to Yahweh" occurred in an area around Mount Sinai in the southernmost region of the Arabian peninsula. This area had been occupied by a nomadic, tribal people called Midianites. They may have worshiped a kind of nature god who they believed lived on Mount Sinai. It is here, before the migration, while living with a priest of the Midianites named Jethro (whose daughter he marries), that Moses first encounters Yahweh (on Mount Sinai) and learns his name for the first time. Scholars generally believe that the name of God, which in Hebrew is spelled YHWH, is derived from the Semitic word "to be" and so means something like "he causes to be."

According to chapter 3 of Exodus, after Moses sees a vision, he is told to return to Egypt to lead his people to "a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites . . . " And, as we have seen, he does so.

When Moses returns to Sinai with the people of Israel, he stays in the area (the Bible tells us for 40 years). During this period, all the laws and practices of the Hebrew religion are set down. The laws themselves come directly from Yahweh in the Decalogue, or "ten commandments." The Decalogue is a unique part of the Hebrew Torah (and the first five books of the Christian Old Testament Bible) in that it is the only part of Hebrew scriptures that claims to be the words of God written down on the spot. These laws would form the eternal character of the Hebrews down to the present day.

It is almost prophetic that, in the absence of Moses -- gone for 40 days to receive the ten commandments on Mount Sinai -- that the Hebrews would forsake Yahweh and begin to worship a golden calf -- constructed by none other than Moses' brother Aaron. That a calf was selected may not be surprising, for in Egypt, where the Hebrews had recently lived, the Apis Bull was an object of worship. But Moses, on his return from Mount Sinai, smashes the golden calf and demands that the Hebrews remain loyal to the one God, Yahweh, and to the commandments he has received.

As noted above, during the nomadic migration after fleeing Egypt, the Hebrews were not always attentive to the laws Moses had laid down. Indeed, on many occasions, starting in Exodus (chapters 32, 33 & 34), but also in Deuteronomy (chapter 9), II Kings (chapter 17), II Chronicles (chapter 30), Nehemiah (chapter 9), Proverbs (chapter 29) and Jeremiah (chapters 7, 17 & 19), the Hebrews are referred to as a "stiff-necked people," who will not "bend their necks" to God's will -- in that first case his commandment against graven images. But what began as a "diverse group of peoples" had become one people, who would then systematically begin to settle in the land of the Canaanites.

The Promised Land

Although both Moses and Aaron viewed the "promised land" from their camp on the east side of the Jordan River, we are told that neither one of them lives to set foot in it. This "promised land," however was not uninhabited. People lived there. These people, the Canaanites, were a Semitic people whose language was close to Hebrew. Some were farmers, some were nomads, some lived in cities. And, naturally, they didn't look kindly on a bunch of outsiders who wanted to move in and take over. So the Hebrews -- uncivilized, tribal and nomadic -- found themselves facing a formidable enemy. Leadership in the ensuing battle for the land of Israel comes in the form of Joshua, who served as Moses' general (and who was one of twelve spies sent initially by the Israelites to check out the land).

The first major battle was for Jericho, a heavily fortified city northwest of the Dead Sea and about 5 miles west of the Jordan River. Whether the walls came tumbling down after Joshua marched his troops seven times around the city or not, the fact remains that Jericho fell to the Israelites, the first of a number of towns and cities that they would conquer.

Following these initial victories, Joshua divides the conquered land among the twelve tribes of Israel, each of which had had its own encampment during the 40 years of wandering in the desert. Actually, the land was initially divided into eleven areas, since the tribe of Levi, as priests, were assigned to service temples that, for the most part, were in some forty-eight population centers scattered throughout the country (Numbers - chapter 35). The eleven separate territories become twelve when the tribe of Joseph was divided between his two sons -- Ephraim and Manasseh -- by his Egyptian wife Asenath. Thus, the tribes of Benjamin and Judah -- which would eventually make up the Kingdom of Judah -- were in the southern part of Palestine, while the remaining tribes (Reuben, Simeon, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Issachar, Asher, Zebulon, Ephrain and Manesseh) -- which would become the Kingdom of Israel -- were mostly north and east of them.

While early on the Hebrews had held their own -- and mostly prevailed -- in battles against the Canaanites, around 1200 B.C. a new player arrived on the scene: The Philistines. These warlike cousins of the Phoenicians were armed with chariots and iron weapons, and few could withstand these new technologies. They came from the north and take over the more fruitful coastal areas, establishing five city-states along the Palestinian southern coast stretching from Mount Carmel south to Gaza and beyond.

So the Hebrews found themselves living in the worst areas of Canaan, spread thinly across the entire region. The balance of power constantly shifted as local kingdoms would grab and then lose territory, and the Hebrews would find themselves first under one and then another master. The Philistines regarded the Hebrews as a threat to their security and the two peoples were often at war with each other.

The Judges and the Deliverers

All during this period, the Hebrews rarely if ever organized into a single group. They had been divided, rather, into twelve separate tribes that each operated under tribal customs and laws. There was no center of worship (as there would be at the Temple in Jerusalem in later years), and no central government. There were, however, two types of figures who dominate the landscape at this time: The judges and the deliverers.

During this early period, the Hebrews were ruled loosely by "judges," who seemed to exercise a limited amount of judicial, legislative and even military control over the otherwise independent Hebrew tribes. Unlike the patriarchal age of Abraham's time in which the "father" was the ruler, "judges" weren't gender specific. The most important "judge" of this period was, in fact, a woman: Deborah.

The "deliverers" were military commanders who arose in times of the greatest threat to the Hebrews, organizing intertribal armies and leading them into battle against various foreign enemies: Philistines, Canaanites, Moabites, Ammonites, etc. Gideon and Samson are familiar Biblical examples of such men, who, in addition to their military exploits, also served as judges. (Samson was the last judge in the Book of Judges; Samuel was the last judge before the Israelites selected a king to rule them.)

Hebrew history also tells us that during this period the people often abandoned their worship of Yahweh for local cults, particularly Canaanite religions focusing on the god Baal. The Hebrews frequently tear down their altars to Yahweh and build altars to Baal. Those Hebrews that had settled in Canaanite cities literally disappear into the Canaanite religion; the religion loyal to Yahweh seems to have been largely maintained among the nomadic groups in the hill country.

Saul, the First King

So, after some 200 years of only marginal success in occupying and holding lands in Palestine, and faced with the constant threat of wars and invasion, the Hebrew tribes finally unite to form a single state under a monarch, a king -- even though the chief judge, Samuel, warns that selecting a king would be an act of disobedience against Yahweh. Was this because Samuel received a message from God -- or was it because he was jealous of someone usurping his authority as judge? Who knows. But, while Samuel resisted the move, the tribal elders insisted, and, in the end, Saul of the tribe of Benjamin was chosen as the first king of Israel as Samuel anointed him with oil -- around the year 1030 B.C. (some say 1050 B.C.)

Chosen for his height and good looks, Saul seems to have been largely a military leader. One could surmise that the main reason the Hebrews called for a king to lead them was an imminent threat posed by the Philistines. That may well be the case, for the Bible tells us that Saul and his army immediately set out and, in the first battle, defeated the Philistines. He then defeated Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah and the Amalekites.

Some time later, the Philistines again return with an army to attack Israel. With the two armies massed on opposite hillsides -- and neither willing to leave the security of their greater height -- the Philistines suggest that to save lives on both sides, it would be better to have a combat between their champion -- a very tall man from Gath named Goliath -- and someone of Saul's choosing. One day, while the challenge is being made, David, a young shepherd boy, happens to be delivering food to his three eldest brothers, who are in the Israelite army. Told that Saul has promised to reward any man who will defeat the Philistine champion, David tells Saul he is not afraid to face the Philistine champion, who has been taunting the Israelite army for the previous 40 days. Saul reluctantly names David as his champion and offers his armor, which David declines in favor of his sling and five stones.

The combat begins, and David quickly stuns Goliath with a shot from his sling, which hits him in the forehead. Goliath falls forward and David grabs his sword and cuts off the giant's head! Saul then welcomes David, a skillful harpist and poet, to his court, where he becomes a favorite. Saul later makes David a commander over his armies and even gives him his daughter Michal in marriage. David is successful in many battles and, reportedly, the women in the king's palace say, "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands." David's popularity soars, awakening Saul's fears and jealousy: "What more can he have but the kingdom?"

By various stratagems Saul seeks David's death. But, warned by Saul's son Jonathon of Saul's intentions, David flees to the wilderness, where he gathers a band of some 400 followers to oppose the king. As Saul pursues him, David repeatedly eludes Saul's efforts to kill him. At one point, when Saul is camped for the night, David and one of his men sneak into Saul's camp, coming upon the sleeping king and his main general, Abner. David's companion wants to kill Saul, but David says it is forbidden to slay "an anointed king." Instead, he takes Saul's spear and water jug.

The next day, David stands at the top of a hill across from Saul's camp, and shouts that he had been in Saul's camp the previous night (using the spear and water jug as proof) and implies that he could have killed Saul, but did not. David then gives a speech that persuades Saul to reconcile with David; the two then swear an oath not to harm one another.

At some point after this, the Philistines mount another invasion and the two armies meet each other at the battle of Gilboa. Before the battle, according to I Samuel (chapter 28), Saul consults the witch of Endor who, we are told, conjures up the ghost of Samuel (who had died earler) and tells Saul that he will lose the battle and his life. Broken in spirit, Saul returns to face the enemy, and the Israelites are duly defeated. To escape the ignominy of capture, Saul asks his armor bearer to kill him, but is forced to commit suicide by falling on his sword when the armor bearer refuses.

David: Psalmist, Soldier and Sling Wielder

Upon Saul's death, David was selected as the king of the Hebrews in about 1010 B.C. But, in fact, he had been anointed as such by Samuel some time earlier. According to the Biblical account in I Samuel (chapter 16), God is displeased with Saul's conduct and so has chosen a king from one the sons of Jesse of Bethlehem. Samuel offers a sacrifice in Bethlehem (as a ruse for his presence there), where one of the attendees is Jesse, who is descended from Ruth the Moabite. (Ruth, in turn, was descended from Lot; but her people didn't go to Egypt.)

At some point, Jesse's seven sons are brought out, one by one, to Samuel, each one being rejected in turn. Finally, when Samuel asks if Jesse has any other sons, he sends for David, his youngest, who was tending sheep. When brought to Samuel, David -- who is "ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features" -- is anointed from Samuel's horn of oil in front of his other brothers.

David is depicted as a righteous king -- although not without fault -- as well as an acclaimed warrior, musician and poet. Traditionally, he is credited with the authorship of many of the Psalms. As noted earlier, David is perhaps best remembered for his Biblical exploit in slaying the Philistine giant Goliath with a stone from his sling.

David ruled for nearly 40 years and greatly enlarged the territory controlled by the Hebrews. It was under him that the small town of Jerusalem, one of the many cities he captured, was turned into the capital city of his kingdom. While David is clearly a hero during the reign of Saul, his character gradually changes during his tenure as king. He falls to temptation on various occasions, most notably when he sends Uriah the Hitite out to battle the Ammonites in the hope (which was fulfilled) that he would be killed so David could marry his widow, Bathsheba (even though he had many other wives and concubines).

At another point, David's beloved son Absalom rebels against his father. The Biblical account tells us that the armies of Absalom and David come to battle in the Wood of Ephraim, and Absalom is caught by his hair in the branches of an oak. David's general Joab kills him as he hangs there. When the news of the victory is brought to David, he does not rejoice, but instead is shaken with grief: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"

While the Hebrew judgement of David is mixed, his accomplishments are undeniable. After centuries of losing battles, the Hebrews finally defeat the Philistines decisively under the his brilliant military leadership. His campaigns transform the new Hebrew kingdom into an empire as he conquers Zobah and Aram (modern Syria), Edom and Moab (roughly modern Jordan), the lands of the Philistines and much more.

Most importantly, David unites the tribes of Israel under an absolute monarchy. He also builds up Jerusalem to look more like the capitals of other kings: Rich, large and opulently decorated. But centralized government, a standing army and a wealthy capital do not come free; and so the Hebrews find themselves, for the first time since the Egyptian period, groaning under heavy taxes and the beginnings of forced labor.

The Wisdom of Solomon

When David dies in 970 B.C., it is his son Solomon (a product of his union with Bathsheba) who takes the Hebrew crown. And it is this third and last king of a united Hebrew state who turns the Hebrew monarchy into something comparable to others in the Middle East and Egypt. The Hebrew account portrays a wise and shrewd king, the best of all of the kings of Israel.

One of the qualities most often ascribed to Solomon is his wisdom. And the most often cited example of this comes when he is sitting in judgement and two women came to his court with a baby whom both claim as their own. After some deliberation, Solomon declares that he will split the baby, giving half to each. One woman accepted the decision, but the other begged the king to give the live baby to the other woman. Solomon then knew the second woman was the mother.

Reportedly, people from surrounding nations came to hear Solomon's wisdom. He also composed 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs. He is also said to have written the Biblical Song of Songs, the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Again, legend has it that one of the most celebrated visitors to Solomon's court was the Queen of Sheba, who came from southern Arabia.

But what also emerges is that Solomon desired to be a king along the model of other kings in Mesopotamia. He built a fabulously wealthy capital in Jerusalem with a magnificent palace and an enormous temple. Attached to the palace, it would become the Temple of Jerusalem. He took 700 wives and more than 300 concubines, most of whom were non-Hebrew (even though, in the book of Judges, all male Hebrews are forbidden to marry non-Hebrews).

All of this building and wealth involved imported products: Gold, copper and cedar, none of which were available in Israel. So Solomon taxed his people heavily, and what he couldn't pay for in taxes, he paid for in land and people. He gave twenty towns to foreign powers, and he paid Phoenicia in slave labor: Every three months, 30,000 Hebrews had to perform slave labor for the King of Tyre. This, it would seem, is what Samuel meant when he said the people would pay dearly for having a king.

While II Samuel, the Biblical account of Solomon's reign, portrays Solomon as a good king, it's also clear that many of the Hebrews living under him did not think so. Thus, upon his death (around 930 B.C., after a 40-year reign), the ten northern tribes revolt. Refusing to submit to Solomon's son, Rehoboam, these tribes secede and establish their own kingdom. The great empire of David and Solomon was gone forever. In its place were two kingdoms that, over the next 100 years, proceed to lose all the territory of David's once proud empire.

Splitting the Kingdom, Diaspora and Exile

From this point on, there would be two Hebrew kingdoms. In the north, Israel, and in the south, Judah. After a time, the Israelites established their capital in the city of Samaria, while the Judaeans kept their capital in Jerusalem. These kingdoms remained separate states for more than 200 years.

What happened during these two centuries is a succession of ineffective, disobedient and corrupt leaders in both kingdoms. In the book of Judges, when the Hebrews had first asked for a king, they were told that only Yahweh was their king. When they approached Samuel, he told them that wanting a king was an act of disobedience and that they would pay dearly if they established a monarchy.

The history related in I and II Kings bears out Samuel's warning. Moab soon successfully revolts against Judah and Ammon successfully secedes from Israel. Within a century of Solomon's death, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are tiny little states, each no bigger than Connecticut, the third smallest U.S. state, on the larger map of the Middle East.

The bad news, of course, is that tiny states never survived long in that region. Located between Mesopotamian kingdoms northeast of them and the powerful state of Egypt to the southwest, Israel and Judah were of the utmost commercial and military importance to all these warring powers. Being small and weak was a liability, and the Kingdom of Israel was the first to learn this lesson.

The Conquest of Israel

In the 8th century B.C., the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III (who ruled from 745 to 727 B.C.) strengthens Assyria and establishes it as a great empire -- eventually even challenging Egypt. He also introduces a new way of dealing with conquered peoples. It's called exile. To pacify the lands they invade, the Assyrians take the indigenous people, move them someplace else, scatter them out, and then bring in others (loyal to the new empire) to take their place.

Tiglath-pileser begins this process in the northern part of the Kingdom of Israel by taking over lands belonging to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali and exiling these people to various regions of his empire. Then Shalmanaser V, the next Assyrian emperor, takes over the lands belonging to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh, also exiling these people. Finally, in 722 B.C., Sargon II, one of the great Assyrian emperors, completes the job, and the whole northern Kingdom of Israel ceases to exist as a Jewish state.

But with the Jews driven out, who takes their place?

The Samaritans

In place of the displaced Hebrews, the Assyrians bring in a bunch of people from someplace else, who -- because they are now living in Shomron or Samaria -- come to be known as Samaritans. Most people of the Middle East at that time were highly superstitious. Conquering peoples constantly feared that the local gods would wreak vengeance on them. Therefore, they would adopt the local god. Within a short time, the Assyrians in Samaria were worshiping the Hebrew God Yahweh as well as their own gods and, within a couple centuries, they would be worshiping Yahweh exclusively. Unlike the Jews, however, they believed that they could sacrifice to God outside of the temple in Jerusalem. Because of this and because the Hebrews believed that their conversion was not complete or sincere, they are never accepted by the Jewish people. Today there are only about 600 Samaritans left. Their cult site is in Mount Grizim, which is right next to the city of Shechem, called Nablus in Arabic.

Meanwhile, the exiled Hebrews, finding themselves in foreign lands, began worshiping other gods and following the customs of the lands where they lived. Thus were the ten tribes of Israel lost forever.

The Ten Lost Tribes of Israel

But though lost in fact, those ten tribes live on in much myth and legend.

These ancient stories have prompted many Jews and non-Jews to actively search for the location of the Ten Lost Tribes -- in part because their return to the Land of Israel is said to be one of the missions that would be accomplished in the "Messianic days" and thus would be a sign of general redemption and salvation. During the Middle Ages, one of the best known of such searchers was Eldad ha-Dani, a 9th century Jewish traveler who said he was a descendant of the tribe of Dan and said the lost tribes were located "beyond the rivers of Abyssinia" on the bank of the Sambatyon river. Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th century Jewish traveler from Spain, said that four tribes of Israel -- Asher, Dan, Naphtali and Zebulon -- were in Persia.

Most medieval Christian commentaries about Prester John -- a Christian patriarch and king said to rule over a Christian nation lost midst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient -- contain references to the Ten Lost Tribes. In 1528, the Jews of Ethiopia are described as descendants of the tribes of Dan and Gad. A 1652 book claims a traveler to South America met Indian tribes in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela that practiced some Jewish rituals; allegedly, they were descendants of the tribe of Reuben.

The myth of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel is also a recurrent theme of the folklore of numerous Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Legends describing the fate of the Ten Lost Tribes are found among the traditions of the Jews of Morocco, Yemen and Eastern Europe, among others.

The bottom line is that there are many groups of people throughout the world, especially in the Middle East and Asia -- but also others in such unlikely places as Japan, the British Isles, the Andes and North America -- who claim to be descended from the Ten Lost Tribes. Among those claiming to be descendants of one or more of the tribes are different ethnic groups living in Asia (Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Burma, India, Kurdistan, Kashmir, China and Japan); in various regions of West Africa (Mali, Ghana and Nigeria); in Southern Africa (Zimbabwe, Lesotho, South Africa and Mozambique); in East Africa (Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea); in Europe (the Celts of the British Isles); in Oceania (the native people of New Zealand); in South America (Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela); and in North America, where various native American peoples as well as the Mormons were linked to the Ten Lost Tribes.

Which (if any) is correct? Take your pick!

The Conquest of Judah

Certainly, the Assyrian conquest of Israel must have alarmed the people and kings of Judah. And although surrounded by the Assyrian empire, somehow Judah managed to exist as a separate kingdom for another 125 years -- until it was invaded by the Chaldeans of Babylon in 597 B.C. They completed their conquest in 586 B.C. with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

In 605 B.C., the king of Babylon had dispatched his son Nebuchadnezzar westward with a powerful army, where he would defeat an Egyptian army at the Battle of Carchemish. As a result, Syria and Phoenicia were brought under the sway of Babylon. When his father died that August, Nebuchadnezzar II (traditionally called Nebbuchadnazzar the Great, who ruled from 605-562 B.C.) returns home to Babylon to ascend to the throne.

He then engages in several military campaigns designed to increase Babylonian influence in Syria and Judah. But an attempted invasion of Egypt in 601 B.C. is met with setbacks, which lead to numerous rebellions among the former Babylonian tribute states, including the Kingdom of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar, however, soon deals with these rebellions, capturing Jerusalem in 597 B.C., deposing the Judaen king Jehoiachin and, in line with Mesopotamian practice, deporting around 10,000 Jews, including the Prophet Daniel, to the city of Babylon. Most of the deportees are professionals and craftsmen and people from the wealthy classes; many ordinary Hebrews were allowed to stay in Judah as they posed less of a threat to the Babylonian empire.

Ten years later, in response to another Hebrew rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem, this time destroying both the city and the Temple and deporting many more prominent Hebrew citizens to Babylon. But, in contrast to the Assyrian conquest where the Hebrews were dispersed throughout the countryside, these Jews were moved to a single location where they would set up a separate community and retain their religion practices and their identity. These deportations were the beginning of the Hebrew Exile or Diaspora.

Nebuchadnezzar seems to have prided himself on his building projects as much as his military victories. Prior to his ascension to the throne, Babylon had seen hard times. But under Nebuchadnezzar, old temples were restored, new edifices of incredible magnificence were erected and, most notably, the famous "Hanging Gardens of Babylon" were constructed for his wife. These gigantic undertakings required a vast host of workmen; most were probably captives brought from various parts of empire. The exiled Hebrews were no doubt part of this work force.

Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar is most widely known through his portrayal in the Bible -- especially in the Book of Daniel that discusses several events of his reign -- in addition to his conquest of Jerusalem. Chapter 52 of the Book of Jeremiah also contains an account of Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem and the looting and destruction of the Temple.

As noted earlier, the Chaldeans only deported the most prominent citizens of Judah: Professionals, priests, craftsmen and the wealthy. Many "people of the land" were allowed to stay. So Hebrew history, then, has two poles during the Exile: The Jews in Babylon and the Jews who remain in Judah. We know almost nothing of these latter Jews, except that the area seems to have been wracked by famine, according the Biblical Book of Lamentations, which was written in Jerusalem during the Exile. And, as it turns out, later rivalries arose between the two groups of Hebrews. It is clear from Biblical accounts that the wealthy and professional Jews in Babylon regarded themselves as the true Jewish people and, when they returned, looked down on the people who had stayed in Judah.

Although some of the exiled Hebrews adopt the Chaldean religion (apparently so, for some name their offspring after Chaldean gods), for the most part the community remains united in its common faith in Yahweh. And, within the crucible of despair and hopelessness, they forge a new national identity and a new approach to their religion. The Exile was unexplainable; Hebrew history was built on the promise of Yahweh to protect the Hebrews and use them for his purposes in human history. Their defeat and the loss of the land promised to them seems to imply that their faith was misplaced. This crisis of faith (when your view of reality and reality itself do not match one another) can bring about the most profound despair or the most profound reworking of a world view. For the Jews in Babylon, it did both.

From texts such as Lamentations and Job, as well as many of the Psalms, Hebrew literature takes on a despairing quality. Job, for instance, is an upright man, undeserving of suffering. But he is made to suffer the worst of calamities because of an arbitrary test. When he finally despairs that there is no cosmic justice, the only answer he receives is that he shouldn't question God's will. Many of the Psalms written in this period portray an equal hopelessness.

But the Jews in Babylon also creatively remake themselves. In particular, they blame the disaster of the Exile on their own impurity. They had betrayed Yahweh and allowed the Mosaic laws and practices to become corrupt; therefore, the Babylonian Exile was proof of Yahweh's displeasure. During this period, Jewish leaders no longer spoke about a theology of judgement, but a theology of salvation. In texts such as Ezekiel and Isaiah, there is talk that the Israelites would be gathered together once more with their society and religion purified: The unified kingdom of David would be re-established.

Thus, this period is marked by a resurgence in Jewish tradition, as the exiles look back to their Mosaic origins to try to revive their original religion. It is most likely that the Torah took its final shape during this period or shortly afterward, and that it became the central text of the Jewish faith at this time as well. This fervent revival of religious tradition was aided by another notable event in Hebrew history: When Cyrus the Great, the emperor of Persia, arrived as a conqueror of Babylon -- and much of the rest of the civilized world at that time -- he allowed the Jews to go home!

Cyrus the Great and Deliverance

Barely a century before Cyrus the Great, Emperor of Persia, conquered Mesopotamia and the whole of the Middle East, the Persians were a rag-tag group of tribes living north of Mesopotamia. They were Indo-European, speaking a language whose roots include Greek, German and English. Before Cyrus and the Persians, conquest was largely a strategic affair; you guaranteed your territorial safety by conquering potential neighboring enemies. But unlike conquerors before him, Cyrus set out to conquer the entire world -- and he did so partly for religious reasons.

In the middle of the 7th century B.C., a prophet named Zarathustra appeared among the Persians and preached a new religion. This religion would become Zoroastrianism (in Greek, Zarathustra is called "Zoroaster"). The Zoroastrians believed that the universe was dualistic, made up of two distinct parts, one good (light) and the other evil (dark). Human history was simply the epic battle between these two divine forces. And at the end of time, a climactic battle would decide once and for all which of the two would dominate the universe. Human beings, in everything they do, participated in this struggle; all the gods and all religions were part of this epic struggle.

Cyrus believed that the final battle was approaching, and that Persia would bring about the triumph of good. To this end, he sought to create the stage for the final triumph of good by conquering the world. The empire he founded eventually extended from Libya to India and, up to that point, was exponentially larger than any other that had ever existed.

Although Zoroastrianism involved two gods or forces -- one good and one evil -- the religion also taught that all other gods were ranged on one side or the other. As a result, Cyrus pursued a policy of religious toleration, respecting the culture and religion of the people he conquered. We are told that Cyrus believed Yahweh was one of the good gods, and he claimed that Yahweh visited him one night and commanded him to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and . re-establish Hebrew worship there. To this end, he ordered the Hebrews in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. In fact, Cyrus sent many other people back to their native lands in order to worship local gods, so the situation with the Hebrews was not unique.

Two things in particular arose in the Hebrew religion as a result of the Exile and their exposure to the Persians: The devil and belief in an afterlife.

In early Hebrew belief, all history is the result of two forces: Yahweh and human will. But after the Babylonian exile, the Hebrews talk about an evil force opposed to Yahweh, which becomes the "devil" in Christianity. As for an "afterlife," before the Exile the Hebrews believed that the soul after death went to a house of dust that they called "Sheol," where it abided for a brief time before fading completely from existence. The Persians, though, believed that the souls of the good would reunite with the principle of good in eternal bliss while the souls of the evil would suffer until the final defeat of evil. The Hebrews adopted this concept of an afterlife.

The Rebuilding of the Temple

The main thing to keep in mind, however, is that Cyrus sent the Jews home for religious reasons only. Judah was re-established as a state only so Yahweh could be worshiped, and the Jews were sent to Judah for the express purpose of worshiping their God. Before the Exile, Judah and Israel were merely kingdoms; now Judah had become a theological state. Hebrew society was almost solely concerned with religious matters at this point. Non-Jews were persecuted and foreign religions, which had previously been tolerated, were expelled. Judah had become the state where Yahweh and only Yahweh was worshiped. Both the Persians and the Greeks (who were to come after them) respected this exclusivity for the most part. But the Romans (who took over from the Greeks) would greatly offend the Jews when they introduced their gods.

The shining symbol of this new state dedicated to Yahweh was the Temple of Solomon, which had been burned to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. Under the direction of Zerubabbel and later Ezra, the Temple is rebuilt. This rebuilding was very difficult, as not many Hebrews had actually returned to Judah. Later, around 445-444 B.C., the walls of Jerusalem are rebuilt under the direction of Nehemiah, the Judean governor.

For another 200 years, Persia dominated all of the Middle East and Egypt, and came within a hair's breadth of conquering Greece. During all this time, Palestine was a tribute state of Persia. However, in the late 4th century B.C., another man got the idea of conquering the world and set about doing it with ruthless efficiency. He was a Greek: Alexander of Macedon, who the world knows as Alexander the Great. When he conquered Persia in 332 B.C., Palestine became a Greek state, and the children of Yavan would mix once again with the children of Shem.

Greeks, Romans and the Diaspora

The Table of Nations in chapter 10 of Genesis begins by listing Noah's three sons: Ham, Shem and Yaphet. Legend has it that their descendants inhabited, respectively, (1) Egypt and areas to the south and east - Ham; (2) the Middle East (including such Semetic peoples as the Hebrews, Arabs and many others) - Shem; and (3) Eurasia - Yaphet. In the Biblical account, the Greeks appear under the name "Yavan," who is a son of Yaphet, and whose name is said to be connected with the Ionians, one of the original Greek tribes. The Hebrews are descendants of Shem, brother to Yaphet.

So imagine, if you will, how Hebrews, with their view of history, looked on the arrival of the Greeks. At some point in the far distant past, after the world had been destroyed by flood, the nations of the earth had all descended from the three sons of Noah. Their sons and grandsons all knew one another, spoke the same language, ate the same mails, worshiped the same God. How strange it must have been, then, when after an infinite multitude of generations and an eon of separation, the descendants of Yavan were rulers of the descendants of Shem!

The Greeks came quickly and unexpectedly. Alexander the Great had conquered Persia and, in doing so, had conquered most of the world. And while most of the world had belonged to Persia for some two centuries, in three short years -- almost the blink of an eye in historical terms -- it now fell to the Greeks. After two centuries of serving as a vassal state to Persia, Judah suddenly found itself the vassal state of Macedonia, a Greek nation.

But this great Greek empire would last no longer than Alexander's brief life. After his death, altercations between his three main generals led to the division of his empire into three parts. One general, Antigonus took Greece; another, Ptolemy, ruled Egypt; and a third, Seleucus, inherited the Middle East and Mesopotamia. After two centuries of peace under the Persians, the Hebrew state found itself once more caught in the middle of power struggles between two great empires: The Seleucid state, with its capital in Syria, to the north and the Ptolemaic state, with its capital in Egypt, to the south. Once more, Judah would be conquered first by one, and then by the other, as it shifted from being a Seleucid vassal state to a Ptolemaic vassal state. Between 319 and 302 B.C., Jerusalem would change hands seven times!

Like many in the region, the Jews bitterly resented the Greeks. These rulers were more foreign than any group they had ever seen. In a state founded on maintaining the purity of the Hebrew religion, the gods of the Greeks seemed wildly offensive. In a society rigidly opposed to the exposure of the body, the Greek practice of wrestling in the nude must have been appalling! In a religion that specifically singles out homosexuality as a crime against Yahweh, the Greek attitude on this practice must have been incomprehensible.

In general, though, the Greeks left the Jews alone. For the most part, they adopted Cyrus's policy, allowing the Jews to run their own country, declaring that the law of Judah was the Torah, and letting the Hebrews preserve Jewish religion.

The "Septuagint" Torah

During this period, Hebrew history takes place in several areas: In Judah itself, but also in Mesopotamia and other parts of the Middle East -- and also in Egypt. For the dispersion of the Jews -- which had begun during the Exile -- resulted in large and often powerful groups of Jews living throughout all the Persian empire. Later, under the Greek kingdoms, these Hebrew enclaves encountered a brand-new Greek concept: The idea of "naturalization." Up to this point, in most parts of the ancient world, it wasn't possible to become a citizen of a state if you weren't born there; indeed, in many cases you had to be a member of that nation's ethnic group.

So if you were born in Israel, and you moved to Tyre, or Babylon, or Egypt, you were still an Israelite, a foreigner. The Greeks, however, allowed foreigners to become citizens. Thus, during the period of Greek control of the Middle East, it became possible for Hebrews to remain outside of Judah and thrive, forming unified and solid communities. In fact, Jewish women enjoyed more rights and autonomy in these communities than they did in their home state of Judah.

But for the Hebrews, the most important event of this Hellenistic period is the translation of the Torah into Greek in Ptolemy's Egypt. The Greeks, although not very interested in the Jewish religion, nevertheless wanted a copy of the Hebrew scriptures for the great library at Alexandria. After the Exile, the Torah had become the authoritative code of the Jews, recognized first by Persia and later by the Greeks as Hebrew "law." (In 458 B.C., Artaxerxes I of Persia made the Torah "the law of the Judean king.")

So the Greeks set about translating it from the Hebrew into Greek, the "lingua franca" or common language of that era. Called the Septuagint after the number of translators it required ("septuaginta" is Greek for "seventy"), the text is far from perfect. Despite the imperfections, however, the Septuagint is a watershed in Jewish history. More than any other event, this translation would make the Hebrew religion into a world religion. It well might otherwise have faded from memory like so many other Semitic religions that have been lost. This Greek version made the Hebrew scriptures available throughout the Mediterranean world and to early Christians who were otherwise apt to regard Christianity as a religion unrelated to Judaism. From this Greek translation, the Hebrew view of God, of history, of law, and of the human condition in all its magnificence would spread around the world. Thus, the dispersion -- or Diaspora -- of the Jews would involve ideas as well as people.

The Maccabees

Although previous Mesopotamean rulers had honored Hebrew law and custom, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV defiled the Temple in Jerusalem in 168 B.C. (He erected an altar to the god Zeus in the Temple itself, allowed the sacrifice of pigs, and opened the shrine to non- Jews.) This touched off a Jewish revolt, led by a man named Mattathias and his five sons. This family became known as the Maccabees, from the Hebrew word for "hammer," because they were said to strike "hammer blows" against their enemies..

Like other rulers before him, Antiochus underestimated the will and strength of his Jewish adversaries, who adeptly waged a guerilla war. Unsuccessful at first when he sends a small force to put down the rebellion, he then leads a more powerful army into battle -- only to be defeated again. In 164 B.C., Jerusalem is recaptured by the Maccabees and the Temple purified, an event that gives birth to the holiday of Hanukkah.

But it took more than two decades of fighting before the Maccabees finally forced the Seleucids to retreat from Palestine and recognize Judea as an independent state. In 142 B.C., after more than 500 years of subjugation, the Hebrews were once again masters of their own land, By the end of the war, Simon was the only one of the five sons to survive and, as founder of the Hasmonean dynasty, he ushered in an 80-year period of Jewish independence in Judea, as the Land of Israel was now called. The kingdom regained boundaries not far short of Solomon's realm and Hebrew life flourished.

This Hebrew dynasty, however, claimed not only the throne of Judea, but also the post of High Priest. This assertion of religious authority conflicted with tradition: Priests were supposed to come from the tribe of Levi, the descendants of Moses' brother Aaron. So it didn't take long for rival factions to develop. Ultimately, these internal divisions, along with the appearance of yet another imperial power, were to put an end to Jewish independence in the Land of Israel for nearly two centuries. In 63 B.C., the Roman general Pompey the Great captured Jerusalem and subjected Judea to Roman rule.

Pompey conquered Israel in the midst of a Judean civil war between two princely brothers of the Hasmonean dynasty -- Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The kingdom also had been caught up in a struggle between two foreign powers -- Rome, with its legions to the north and west, and the Parthians, historic enemies of Rome, to the east. Antipater, the father of Herod the Great and chief advisor to Hyrcanus, cast his lot with the Romans, who placed Hyrcanus on the Judean throne, banishing his brother. In 47 B.C., Julius Caesar appointed Antipater, an Edomite (Edom was a land south and east of Israel) as procurator of Judea, Samaria and Galilee.

The deaths of Pompey (48 B.C.) and Caesar (44 B.C.), as well as the related Roman civil wars that followed, relaxed Rome's grip on Israel, allowing a brief Hasmonean resurgence backed by the Parthian Empire. This short independence was rapidly crushed by the Romans under the joint forces of Mark Antony and Octavian. The installation of Herod the Great as King of Judea as a Roman client state in 37 B.C. ended the Hasmonean dynasty.

Herod the Great

"Tyrant and builder" best describe Herod the Great. Though raised as a Jew, he lacked the status of the powerful old families in Jerusalem who were eligible to serve as High Priest -- as the Hasmonean kings had traditionally done. Ruthless against his enemies -- and those he suspected of enmity -- he was also the designer of a remarkable number of architectural achievements during his more than 30 years in power. These include strengthening eleven fortresses, most notably the mountain fortress of Masada where the Great Revolt would end in tragedy for the Hebrews.

Herod built a magnificent artificial harbor -- and a new city -- at Caesarea. At Herodium, in an incredible feat of engineering, Herod built an artificial mountain and, on top of it, a huge palace. Herodium -- the only place named for him and where he was buried -- was probably the largest villa complex in the Roman world. Unfortunately, this magnificent palace was destroyed in 70 A.D. during the Great Revolt.

Herod also built a large rectangular enclosure over a series of subterranean caverns in Hebron called the Cave of the Patriarchs. Tradition says this was the burial place of Adam & Eve; Abraham & Sarah; Isaac & Rebekah; and Jacob & Leah. This is the second holiest site for Jews and is also venerated by Christians and Muslims. The only fully surviving structure built by Herod, this building, with six-foot-thick stone walls made from stones that were at least three feet tall and sometimes reach a length of 24 feet, did not have a roof.

Herod also constructed massive fortifications around Jerusalem as well as three towers at the entrance to the city (the remains of which today are known as the Tower of David).

Arguably, Herod's greatest achievement was when he rebuilt and restored the Second Temple to perhaps its greatest magnificence. He dramatically expanded the area of the Temple Mount, using gargantuan foundation stones, some more than 40 feet long and weighing 600 tons. It took 10,000 men ten years just to build these retaining walls. Herod then had them filled with dirt so that he could proceed with his architectural plans to enlarge the Temple and its courtyards. When completed, it was the world's largest functioning religious site and until today it remains the largest man-made platform in the world -- large enough to accommodate twenty- four football fields. The Western Wall, Judaism's most sacred spot, remains as a testament to Herod's building prowess.

When it came to building the Temple itself on top of this platform, Herod truly outdid himself. The Holy of Holies was covered in gold; the walls and columns of the other buildings were of white marble; the floors were of carrara marble, its blue tinge giving the impression of a moving sea of water; the curtains were tapestries of blue, white, scarlet and purple thread, depicting, according to the historian Josephus, "the whole vista of the heavens."

In "The Jewish War," Josephus gives this description: "Viewed from without, the Sanctuary had everything that could amaze either mind or eye. Overlaid all round with stout plates of gold, in the first rays of the sun it reflected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who endeavored to look at it were forced to turn away as if they had looked straight at the sun. To strangers as they approached it seemed in the distance like a mountain covered with snow; for any part not covered with gold was dazzling white . . . "

Herod saw fit, however, to place at the main entrance a huge Roman eagle, which pious Jews saw as a sacrilege. Two teachers and a group of Torah students smashed this emblem of idolatry and oppression, but Herod had them hunted down and dragged in chains to his residence in Jericho, where they were burned alive. Thus, having built the Temple, Herod took pains to make sure it would be run without future problems of this kind. He appointed his own High Priest, having by then put to death forty-six leading members of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical court.

In addition to his architectural abilities, Herod also had to have been a very crafty politician. His first leadership role was as governor of the Galilee, a position granted to him by his father, Antipater. Early on, Herod demonstrates his brutality by ruthlessly crushing a revolt in the Galilee. Later, during the Parthian incursion in 40 B.C., he flees Jerusalem and makes his way to Rome, where he impresses Mark Antony and, with his help, persuades the Roman senate to name him "King of the Jews," so he can return and bring Judea back under Roman control. And, after three years of fighting, Herod indeed takes the throne as King of Judah.

Six years later, relations between Marc Antony and Cleopatra in the East and Octavian and the Senate in the West become strained -- and civil war breaks out in 31 B.C. Herod sides with his friend Antony. But that same year, at the Battle of Actium, Octaviun emerges as the ultimate victor, changing his name to Augustus and becoming the first Roman emperor. For the first time in his life, Herod had aligned himself with a loser.

He manages to solve this problem, however. First, he has Hyrcanus executed, making sure that no one else can claim the throne. Then he sails to the Island of Rhodes, where he meets with Octavian. In a brilliant speech, Herod boasts of his loyalty to Mark Antony, and promises the same to the new master of the Roman Empire. Octavian is impressed by the man's audacity, confirms Herod's monarchy, and even adds Samaria and the coast of Judea to his realm. After the deaths of Mark Antony and Cleopatra later that year, Augustus rewards his ally with new possessions: Jericho and Gaza, which previously had been independent entities.

Herod's cruelty was legendary. Among the many the many he had murdered included his brother-in-law, his wife, two of his sons, his mother-in-law, another brother-in-law and many others. He established an enormous secret police force, brutally killed anyone suspected of plotting against him, and created Roman peace by slaughtering all dissidents. Although the Biblical account in chapter 2 of Matthew accuses him of ordering the murder of all boys under the age of two, no other source from the period makes any reference to such a massacre. (However, given his bloody history, such a slaughter would not be surprising.)

Herod died in abut 4 B.C. after more than 30 years in power. He was succeeded by three of his sons, who ruled as tetrarches rather than kings, splitting Herod's lands among them. Archelaus became the ethnarch ("national leader") of Samaria and Judea; Herod Philip was to be tetrarch of the Golan heights in the north-east; and Herod Antipas was to rule Galilee and the east bank of the Jordan as a tetrarch. (The latter, of course, is known for executing John the Baptist; his daughter Salome, promised whatever she wished after performing an enchanting dance, asks for the head of John the Baptist.). Herod's tomb is in Herodion.

Revolts and the Final Diaspora

As noted earlier, in 63 B.C., Judea had become a protectorate of Rome, coming under the administration of a governor. Judea was allowed a king; the governor's chief responsibility was to collect and deliver an annual tax to the empire. Whatever Roman governors raised beyond the quota assigned, they could keep. Not surprisingly, they often imposed confiscatory taxes. Equally infuriating to the Judeans, Rome took over the appointment of the High Priest. As a result, the High Priests, who represented the Jews before God on their most sacred occasions, increasingly came from the ranks of Jews who collaborated with Rome.

The "Great Revolt"

Hebrew anti-Roman feelings seriously escalated during the reign of the half-crazed Roman Emperor Caligula, who in 39 A.D. declared himself to be a deity and ordered his statue to be set up at every temple in the Roman Empire. The Hebrews, alone in the empire, refused the command; they would not defile God's Temple. When Caligula threatened to destroy the Temple, a delegation of Jews was sent to pacify him, but to no avail. Caligula raged at them, "So you are the enemies of the gods, the only people who refuse to recognize my divinity." Only the emperor's sudden, violent death saved the Jews from wholesale massacre.

Caligula's action radicalized even the more moderate Jews. What assurance did they have, after all, that another Roman ruler would not arise and try to defile the Temple or destroy Judaism altogether? During this period, a new group had arisen among the Hebrews called the Zealots. These anti-Roman rebels were active for more than six decades before instigating the Great Revolt in 66 A.D. Ultimately, the combination of financial exploitation, Rome's unbridled contempt for Judaism, and the unabashed favoritism that the Romans extended to Gentiles living in Israel brought about that revolt.

The touchstone occurred when Florus, the last Roman procurator in Judea, stole vast quantities of silver from the Temple in 66 A.D. Outraged Jewish masses rioted and wiped out the small Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem. The Roman ruler in neighboring Syria sent in a larger force of soldiers, but the Jewish insurgents routed them as well.

But this heartening victory had a terrible consequence: Many Jews suddenly became convinced that they could defeat Rome, and the Zealots' ranks grew exponentially. Never again, however, did the Jews achieve such a decisive victory.

When the Romans returned, they had 60,000 heavily armed and highly professional troops. They launched their first attack against the Zealot heartland, the Galilee in the north. There an estimated 100,000 Jews were killed or sold into slavery. Throughout this Roman campaign, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem did almost nothing to help. Thus, when the highly embittered refugees who succeeded in escaping the Galilean massacres fled to Jerusalem, the last major Jewish stronghold, they killed any Jewish leader who did not share their radical ideas. So by 68 A.D., all the moderate Jewish leaders at the revolt's beginning in 66 A.D. were dead. And not one died at the hands of a Roman; all were killed by fellow Jews.

The scene was now set for the revolt's final catastrophe. Outside Jerusalem, Roman troops prepared to besiege the city; inside the city, the Jews were engaged in a suicidal civil war. While the Romans would have won the war in any case, this Jewish civil war both hastened their victory and greatly increased the casualties. One horrendous example: In expectation of a Roman siege, Jerusalem's Jews had stockpiled a supply of dry food that could have fed the city for many years. But one of the warring Zealot factions burned the entire supply, apparently hoping that destroying this "security blanket" would compel everyone to participate in the revolt. The starvation resulting from this mad act caused suffering as great as any the Romans inflicted.

During the summer of 70 A.D., the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem, bringing on an orgy of violence and destruction. Shortly thereafter, they destroyed the Second Temple. It is estimated that as many as one million Jews died in the Great Revolt against Rome.

As the Romans complete their conquest, they begin to actively drive Hebrews from the land they had lived in for more than a millennium. But the Jewish Diaspora had begun long before the Romans entry onto the scene. The early victims of this dispersion -- when the Assyrians conquered Israel in 722 B.C. -- disappear from the pages of history. But when Nebuchadnezzar deported the Judaeans in 597 B.C. and 586 B.C., he allows them to remain in a unified community in Babylon. Another group of Judaeans had fled to Egypt, where they settled in the Nile delta. So from 597 B.C. onwards, there are three distinct groups of Hebrews: One group in Babylon and other parts of the Middle East; a group in Judea; and a third group in Egypt. Thus, 597 B.C. is considered the beginning date of the Jewish Diaspora.

In 73 A.D., the last of the Zealot revolutionaries were holed up in a near impregnable mountain fort near the Dead Sea called Masada. The Romans had besieged the fort for two years and, as a huge ramp was completed and siege engines threatened to breach the fortress walls, somewhere between 900 and 1,000 Zealots inside the fortress decided on suicide rather than capture and slavery with surrender to the Romans. The historian Josephus tells us that only two women and five children survived -- by hiding in a cistern. The Romans, having destroyed Jerusalem, then annexed Judea as a Roman province and systematically began driving the Jews from Palestine.

The Second -- and Final -- Revolt

The final Hebrew uprising in 132 A.D. is referred to as the "second revolt" or the Bar Kokhba revolt. When Hadrian became the Roman emperor in 118 A.D., he appeared to be sympathetic to the Jews. He allowed them to return to Jerusalem and gave permission to rebuild the Temple. But Hadrian quickly went back on his word, requesting that the site of the Temple be moved from its original location on the Temple Mount. He also began deporting Jews to North Africa.

Tensions grew higher when Hadrian abolished circumcision, which he, a Hellenist, viewed as mutilation. The revolt, which broke out under the leadership of Simon bar Kokhba (who was looked on as a heroic figure who could restore Israel), took the Romans by surprise. Initially successful, the Hebrews seized some 50 strongholds in Judea along with 985 undefended towns and villages, including Jerusalem, and once again established a Jewish state.

This success, however, was short-lived. The turning point came when Hadrian sent one of his best generals from Britain, Julius Severus. By that time, there were twelve Roman army legions from Egypt, Britain, Syria and other areas in Judea, a much larger force than that commanded by Titus 60 years earlier. After besieging the Jewish fortresses and holding back food until the Jews grew weak, Severus then escalated his attack into outright war. The Romans demolished all 50 Jewish fortresses and 985 villages.

The Romans suffered heavy casualties as well, enough so that Hadrian, in his report to the Senate did not did not employ the opening phrase commonly affected by Roman emperors: "If you and your children are in health, it is well; I and the army are in health." The struggle lasted for three years before the revolt was finally crushed in the summer of 135 A.D. After losing Jerusalem, Bar Kokhba and the remnants of his army, along with thousands of Jewish refugees, withdrew to the strategic fortress of Betar, high on a mountain ridge overlooking both the Valley of Sorek and the important Jerusalem-Bet Buvrin Road.

Hadrian's army besieged Betar and on the 9th of Av, the Jewish fast day commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples, the walls of Betar fell. After a fierce battle, every Jew in Betar was killed.

Hadrian then attempted to root out Judaism. He prohibited Torah law, the Hebrew calendar and executed Judaic scholars. The sacred scroll was ceremoniously burned on the Temple Mount, where he installed two statues, one of Jupiter and another of himself. In an attempt to erase any memory of Judea, he wiped the name off the map and replaced it with "Syria Palestina" after the Philistines. Previously, similar terms had been used to describe only the smaller former Philistine homeland to the west of Judea on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Romans also barred Jews from Jerusalem, except for Tisha B'Av (or 9th of Av). This annual fast day in Judaism is named for the ninth day (Tisha) of the month of Av in the Hebrew calendar. It commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, which occurred about 656 years apart, but on the same date, which is called the "saddest day in Jewish history."

The massive destruction and loss of life occasioned by this "second revolt" has led some scholars to date the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora from this date. Unlike the aftermath of the First Jewish-Roman War as chronicled by Josephus, after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, the majority of the Jewish population of Judea was either killed, exiled or sold into slavery and Jewish religious and political authority was suppressed far more brutally. The Jewish religious center then shifted to the Babylonian Jewish community and its scholars.

Hebrew history would now only be a record of the Diaspora, as the Jews, driven from the Promised Land, were scattered over Africa, Asia and Europe and -- eventually -- the New World and even Australia.


The Prophets

One often thinks of a prophet as one who predicts the future. But forecasting was only a small part of Hebrew prophecy; the major work of the prophet was to reveal God's will to His people -- what God expected of them in the present, the "here and now."

Prophet means "one who speaks for another." Abraham was the first person in the Bible called a prophet.

A prophet is first mentioned in chapter 4 of Exodus when Aaron is chosen to speak to the people for God, instead of Moses. God had just said to Moses, "I will be your mouth and teach you what you shall speak." But Moses then asks God to send someone else. This upsets God, but He decides to involve brother Aaron in this role of speaking to the people. "Is there not Aaron your brother? . . . I know he can speak well . . . You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He shall speak for you to the people; and he shall be a mouth for you . . . "

Moses was the paradigm for all Old Testament prophets. In chapter 24 of Deuteronomy it says, "There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the Land of Egypt . . . " Thus, a prophet in Israel is regarded as the person through whom God speaks.

In the period of the kings, the prophets were righteous men of bold and independent spirit who challenged both kings and common people to follow the ways of the Lord. The most characteristic feature of the prophetic message (as in Isaiah - chapter 45; and Jeremiah - chapter 2) was its resounding authority: "Thus saith the Lord . . . " Chapter17 in II Kings pretty much summed up their work: "The Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, 'Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by my servants, the prophets.'"

Generally, the prophets prior to 850 B.C. are "non-writing" prophets -- although some of them (Moses and Samuel) wrote parts of the Bible. They did, however, write history. Some are known as miracle prophets: Moses, Elijah and Elisha performed miracles for God. Moses' sister Miriam also was known as a prophetess. Jonah and Daniel are remembered because God performed miracles for their benefit.

The prophets after 850 B.C. are called the "writing" prophets. Six were concerned with calling the Jews back to the Law given through Moses. The others were warning neighboring kingdoms of their responsibilities to God.

Elijah and Elisha

Elijah is a heroic figure in Jewish tradition. According to the Books of Kings, Elijah raised the dead, brought fire down from the sky, and ascended into heaven by a whirlwind. It is he who stands up to King Ahab of Israel (873-852 B.C.), whose Phoenician wife, Jezebel, has introduced the worship of the idol Baal into the Kingdom of Israel and has killed many prophets. In chapter 17 of I Kings, Elijah warns Ahab that there will be years of drought, a drought so severe that "not even dew will fall."

After his confrontation with Ahab, Elijah flees Israel to a hiding place near a brook east of the River Jordan, where, it is said, he is fed by ravens. When the brook dries up, God sends him to a widow living in the town of Zarephatho in Phoenicia. When Elijah asks to be fed, she says that she does not have enough food to keep her and her own son alive. Elijah tells her that God will not allow her supply of flour or oil to run out. She feeds him the last of their food, and Elijah's promise miraculously comes true. Some time later, the widow's son dies. Elijah prays that God might restore her son. Chapter 17 of I Kings relates how God "heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived."

After more than two years of drought and famine, Elijah returns to Ahab to announce that rains will come. On his way back, Elijah meets Obadiah, the head of Ahab's household, who had hidden a hundred prophets when Ahab and Jezebel had been killing them. Elijah sends Obadiah back to Ahab to announce his return to Israel.

When Elijah meets Ahab, he challenges the 450 priests of Baal imported by Jezebel to a contest at Mount Carmel to prove whose god was the true God. Elijah wins the contest, but despite his "victory," he sees no change in the kingdom and once again has to flee to the desert to escape the wrath of Jezebel. There, according to chapter 19 of I Kings, Elijah is told to go to the mountain of Horeb where he witnesses examples of God's power -- an earthquake, powerful wind and fire -- before being instructed to return to Israel.

Elijah's unpopularity with King Ahab is illustrated in another incident where Ahab decides he wants to buy a vineyard adjacent to his winter palace in Jezreel, but the owner, Navot, rejects his offer. When Ahab tells Jezebel what has happened, she is shocked that a king would allow himself to be treated this way. She then gets two men to testify that Navot has cursed God and the king; Navot is convicted of blasphemy and treason, and is stoned to death, allowing the King to seize the vineyard.

Elijah then confronts Ahab.and, as chapter 21 of I Kings tells us, says, "Have you murdered and also inherited?" He curses Ahab's descendants and his wife, saying "I will cut off every male in Israel belonging to Ahab" and "The dogs will devour Jezebel in the field of Jezreel."

Years later, after Ahab dies and is succeeded by his son Jehoram, a rebel leader named Jehu kills Jehoram and orders Jezebel to be captured and thrown out a palace window. When the soldiers go outside, all they find are her skull, hands and feet. As prophesied by Elijah, the rest of her had been eaten by dogs.

Given his career as a prophet, it's not surprising that it should end in a miraculous way. Earlier, when Elijah returned from his sojourn in the desert he ran across a young man named Elisha and takes him under his wing to be his successor. Some seven or eight years later, Elisha becomes aware that Elijah's time on earth is nearly over. According to chapter 2 of II Kings, when they reach the Jordan River, Elijah strikes the water with his cloak and the river parts to allow them to cross. Later, the prophet asks Elisha what he can do for him before he goes and Elisha asks for "a double portion of your spirit."

Elijah replies that it is a difficult request, but again in chapter 2 of II Kings says, "If you see me as I am being taken from you, this will be granted to you; if not, it will not." Then, the Bible tells us, a fiery chariot, drawn by fiery horses, comes out of the sky and takes Elijah away to the heavens. Elisha picks up the cloak Elijah had dropped and strikes it against the river, causing the waters again to separate. Seeing this, Elijah's followers proclaim, "Elijah's spirit now rests on Elisha."

Elisha was the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah, a wealthy landowner. For 20 years (852-832 B.C.) after Elijah's death, he held the office of "prophet in Israel" according to chapter 5 of II Kings. He had became the protegee/disciple of Elijah when the latter encountered him plowing in a field with a yoke of twelve oxen. On hearing Elijah's call to follow him, Elisha immediately kills two of the oxen, cooks their meat over the wood of his plough and gives it to his friends and relatives. This happened about four years before the death of Israel's King Ahab and for the next seven or eight years until Elijah's death, he was his close attendant.

After Elijah's death, Elisha returned to Jericho, and there, according to chapter 2 of II Kings 2, healed the spring of water by casting salt into it.

Elisha resided for the most part in Samaria, paying an occasional visit to Jericho and Bethel, where the prophetic settlements were. Before he settled in Samaria, Elisha spent some time on Mount Carmel. When the armies of Judah, Israel and Edom, then allied against Moab, a vassal state of Israel that had revolted, were suffering drought in the Idum‘an desert, Elisha intervened. According to chapter 3 of II Kings, his double prediction regarding relief from drought and victory over the Moabites was fulfilled the following morning.

In II Kings, the Bible accords the following miracles to Elisha because of his prophetic powers: The healing of the waters at Jericho (chapter 2); the cursing of little children at Bethel because they had mockingly called him "baldheaded" (chapter 2); the filling of a poor widow's vessels with oil (chapter 4); the reviving of the Shunammite woman's son whose birth he had predicted as a reward for her hospitality to him (chapter 4); the rendering innocuous of the wild gourds (chapter 4); the feeding of a hundred men with twenty barley loaves with much being left over after their hunger had been satisfied (chapter 4); the healing of Naaman, the Syrian captain, of leprosy (chapter 5); the punishing of his servant Gehazi for covetousness (chapter 5); and the raising of an iron ax that had fallen into the water (chapter 6). Chapter 13 of II Kings also notes that after his death the very touch of his bones revived a man buried by accident in the prophet's sepulcher.

It is interesting to note that many of these miracles are very similar to those performed by Elijah -- except Elisha's always seem to be twice as big! Examples include the widow's oil, the revival of the child, and the anointing of Hazael and Jehu.

Chapter 13 of II Kings tells us that while Elisha lies on his death-bed in his own house, King Joash, the grandson of King Jehu, comes to mourn over his impending departure. There he utters the same words as those of Elisha when Elijah was taken away, indicating his value to him: "My father, my father! the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof."

It is interesting to note the "double-portion" inheritance of which Elisha spoke. This is indicative of the property inheritance customs of the time, where the oldest son received twice as much of the father's inheritance as the younger sons. For example, if a man had three sons, his property was divided into fourths. Each son received one-fourth, with the oldest receiving two- fourths (twice as much as the others). In this instance with Elijah, Elisha is not asking to become twice as powerful as Elijah, but that he may be seen as the "rightful heir" to the work of the Lord that Elijah had done.


Scholars place the short prophesy of Obadiah (only one chapter) at either 845 B.C. or 585 B.C. -- based on his condemnation of the neighboring Edomites -- but most lean toward the former date. To put the two time-frames in context, the earlier one places the prophecy during the days of King Jehoram (848-841 B.C.) when Jerusalem was attacked by the Philistines and Arabians (with probable cooperation from the Edomites) as detailed in chapter 8 of II Kings and chapter 21 of II Chronicles. The latter date places this prophecy about a year after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians.

At any rate, Obadiah's prophecy was against the people of Edom, the descendants of Esau; whereas the Israelites were descendants of his twin brother Jacob. Thus, the two peoples were very closely related. But from the very beginning there was enmity between these two brethren -- an enmity that carried over to the people and nations that descended from them.

Conflict between the two began during the time of the Exodus from Egypt when Edom refused to let the people of Israel pass through their region on the way to the promised land (Numbers - chapter 20). This enmity continued until the time of King David when he put the Edomites under subjection to Israel (II Samuel - chapter 8). During the reign of King Jehoram of Judah, Edom revolted (II Kings, chapter 8; and II Chronicles, chapter 21) and set up its own king. It was during this time -- about 845 B.C. -- that many scholars believe Obadiah gave his prophecy to the people of Edom.

Obadiah's message is structured around two major themes: (1) the destruction of Edom and (2) the vindication of Judah. He makes it clear that the idea of a nation being invulnerable is an illusion. The Edomites felt so secure that they believed no one could destroy them. They built entire cities hidden within cliffs, which could only be reached by narrow passes. (The famous city of Petra, which was carved from a mountainside, was in Edom.)


Joel, who lived and prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah, was very likely a resident of Jerusalem, as he makes frequent reference to both Judah and Jerusalem. He also shows great familiarity with the Temple and its ministry. Nevertheless, there is great disagreement among scholars as to the dating of the Book of Joel, with theories ranging from the 9th to the 4th century B.C. The most likely and logical of these puts the prophecy of Joel from about 835 B.C. on.

At the time his prophecy begins, the land has been devastated by a locust plague. Drought, famine and fires follow in its wake and almost every aspect of Judean life is affected; the economy of the land has been all but ruined. Joel sees a link between these natural disasters and a time of coming judgment from the Lord God -- the Day of the Lord. This concept of further judgment also led Joel to reveal God's intention for the last days -- the judgment at the end of time.

Other major messages of the Book of Joel are:

* God, who is a God of grace and mercy, a God of loving-kindness and compassion and a God of justice (Joel - chapters 2 & 3), is guiding the earth's history toward His preconceived final goal.

* Mere external worship of God is insufficient.

* When sin becomes the dominant condition of God's people, they must be judged. God may use natural disasters to accomplish this chastisement. But for those who repent there will be the blessings of a restored fellowship.

Joel often has been called the Prophet of Pentecost because of his reference to spiritual blessings.


Jonah was a prophet in the time of King Jeroboam II of Israel, who ruled from 793-753 B.C. He came from a Galilean village near Nazareth. According to chapter 1 of the Book of Jonah, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh -- the capital city of Assyria -- to prophesy against it "for their great wickedness is come up before me." Several historical clues point to a date for this prophecy somewhere in the late 750's B.C. -- perhaps around 758 B.C.

Jonah doesn't want to go to Ninevah and so seeks to flee from "the presence of the Lord" by going to Jaffa and sailing to Tarshish. A huge storm arises and the sailors, realizing this is no ordinary storm, cast lots that point to Jonah as the cause. Jonah admits this and states that if he is thrown overboard the storm will cease. The sailors try to get the ship to the shore, but fail. At this point they feel forced to throw Jonah overboard, and the sea calms. Jonah is miraculously saved by being swallowed by a "great fish" especially prepared by God. There he spends three days and three nights. In chapter 2, while in the great fish, Jonah prays to God and commits to thanksgiving and to paying what he has vowed, whereupon God commands the fish to spew Jonah out on dry land..

God again orders Jonah to visit Nineveh and to prophesy to its inhabitants. This time he obeys, entering the city crying, "In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown!" Probably to Jonah's surprise, the people of Nineveh believe his message and proclaim a fast. The king of Nineveh puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes and makes a proclamation to decree fasting, sackcloth, prayer and repentance. Jonah then goes outside Nineveh, waiting to see whether or not the city will be destroyed.

Through the preaching of Jonah, and the repentance of the people of Nineveh, the city is spared at this time. But history tells us the city's repentance was fairly short-lived. Soon the people fall back into their sinful way of life and the prophet Nahum is then sent to Nineveh. This time, however, the people fail to repent (as they had with Jonah), and thus were destroyed in 612 B.C.

Jonah's overall message is twofold. First, God's love and concern is for all people, and anyone who is willing to repent and turn to God can find salvation. Second, God is a universal God; there is but one God, and He alone is to be the God of all people.

Amos, Hosea & Micah

Amos was a shepherd and cattle herdsman from Tekoah, and a "gatherer of sycamore fruit." A man of the common people, he was the stern prophet of justice and righteousness. If Hosea's spirit can be summed up in the word "loving-kindness;" that of Amos can best be described in another word -- "justice."

Amos prophesied somewhere between 760 and 755 B.C. This was a time when the fortunes of the northern Kingdom of Israel had reached one of its highest points of prosperity and peace. King Jeroboam had extended his borders almost to those of the old kingdom ruled by David. There was also peace with the southern Kingdom of Judah and its king, Uzziah.

It was a time of great economic well-being and national strength. The increase in wealth also brought about a rise in those social evils that characterized the prosperity of Solomon's reign: The rich became very rich and the poor became even poorer. Even the legal system was corrupted, so the poor had no recourse in the courts. Although the people were religious, they were far from being spiritual. Their religion consisted of external acts -- they were putting on a show for God.

Amos was not a "professional" prophet (as he notes in the chapter 7 of the Book of Amos): "I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet . . . but the Lord took me from following the flock and the Lord said to me, 'Go prophesy to My people Israel.' And now hear the Word of the Lord!" He had no special training; he was not a graduate of the School of the Prophets (variously referred to as "bands" in chapter 10 of I Samuel and "companies" in chapter 19).

He was not even a citizen of Israel (the northern kingdom), but rather of Judah. Amos did most, if not all, of his prophetic work (which probably lasted only about a year or so) in the city of Bethel, where he was denounced by Amaziah the priest and forbidden to preach further in Israel (Amos - chapters 1 & 7).

Some have described Amos as "the first Great Reformer." He was not of the school of the prophets, who by this time were disposed to cry what the people wanted. His primary message was a warning of God's anger and judgment because of the people's neglect of worship and their indulgence in extravagant luxury.

Hosea was the son of Beeri and possibly a priest. Most scholars date his prophetic ministry during the years 753-715 B.C. when Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah were kings of Judah and when Jeroboam was king of Israel. The Biblical book bearing his name is a combination of many sermons and actions delivered over a period of several decades. Hosea described the religious activities of Israel as "a harlot who had prostituted herself before false gods." He railed against the immorality of the people, painting a picture of a nation truly in decay. Hosea's messages can be summarized as follows:

* There is but one God, who is omnipotent and righteous. He is love! God is pictured as both a loving husband, and a loving father. Hosea's favorite expression is "loving-kindness."

* God's covenant with the people of Israel -- the "chosen ones" of God -- is a two-way street, and thus involves mutual obligations. The intimacy of this relationship is described in two ways -- as a marriage relationship and as a father/son relationship. Hosea emphasizes that a covenant always involves mutual obligations.

* Because of the faithlessness of the nation, doom is inevitable. Hosea prepares the people for impending punishment, noting that the "righteous husband" demands that the unfaithful wife be put away from him, but the "loving husband" looks hopefully to a time of reconciliation.

Micah was from the town of Moresheth, which was about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem. Since nothing is known of his family or home life, one can conclude that he came from humble origins. However, like Amos (whose hometown of Tekoa was just 17 miles away), Micah was a man of the country.

Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah and Amos and Hosea. Micah, however, was a rustic prophet with a rural ministry while the city-bred Isaiah directed his prophesies to the population and court of Jerusalem. Micah's ministry was especially preoccupied with the sufferings of the common people and the peasants -- those who were exploited by rich and unscrupulous landed nobility. Micah, the prophet of the poor and downtrodden, showed the courageous and fearless spirit of one who is indignant over the corruption and heartlessness of inhuman rulers and the "for show" religious individuals.

Although the active ministry of Micah could have covered a period as long as 50 years, most of his recorded prophetic oracles probably were uttered during the period between 735 or 725 B.C. and 710 B.C. His ministry was in the southern Kingdom of Judah during the reigns of King Jotham (750-731 B.C.), King Ahaz (736-715 B.C.) and King Hezekiah (715-686 B.C.). The Book of Micah is a collection of messages called "oracles" that were given at different times and in different circumstances.

The primary themes of Micah's message centered around impending judgment, the glory of restored Zion, and the case against Israel -- all ending with a note of hope and promise. Micah wants the people to realize that true faith in God results in personal holiness and social justice. He emphasized the relationship between true spirituality and social ethics: Worship and morality cannot be divorced from each other.

Micah is the first prophet to specifically threaten Judah with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple (Micah - chapter 3). But since this would not occur for quite some time (around 125 years later), it was not taken too seriously by the people. In chapter 4, Micah also predicted the fall of Judah to Babylon, and the kingdom's subsequent restoration.

Micah is also the first to point to Bethlehem as the city from which the Messiah would come (chapter 5). (In chapter 2 of Matthew, when the Magi come to Herod seeking the newborn King of Israel and Herod asks the chief priests and scribes where the Messiah would be born, they refer back to this prophecy.)

Isaiah -- Three for the Price of One

The prophet Isaiah was born in the 8th century B.C. to a man named Amoz, according to the Bible (Isaiah - chapter 1). It is said that he prophesied for an extremely long time -- during the reigns of four kings of Judah (Isaiah - chapter 1): Uzziah, who was king from about 767 B.C. to 739 B.C.; Jotham, who ruled until about 734 B.C.; Ahaz, who ruled until 716 B.C.; and Hezekiah, who ruled until 687 B.C. Isaiah is said to have died in 681 B.C.

Threats from the Assyrian Empire to the two small Hebrew kingdoms must have had a profound effect upon Isaiah as he grew up. First there was the 740 B.C. invasion of Judah during the reign of King Ussiah. Next were the invasions of the Kingdom of Israel by Tiglath- peleser III in 732 B.C., followed by another by his son Shalmaneser V and finally the complete conquest by Sargon II in 722 B.C. and the exile of the "Ten Lost Tribes."

During the latter part of this period, the Judean King Ahaz, and later his son, King Hezekiah, had allied themselves with the Assyrians and thus maintained themselves as an independent kingdom. Later, however, when King Hezekiah -- despite the advice of the prophet Isaiah -- entered into an alliance with Egypt, the Assyrians led a powerful army into Judah in 701 B.C., destroying some 46 villages and cities and laying siege for a time to Jerusalem. On this occasion, Isaiah encouraged Hezekiah to resist the Assyrians (Isaiah - chapter 37). Soon after, the Assyrians suffered a devastating defeat by the Egyptian army, leaving the remaining years of Hezekiah's reign peaceable. It is interesting to note that the siege of Jerusalem was unsuccessful in part because of the earlier construction of "Hezekiah's tunnel" or the "Siloam Tunnel."

The ancient city of Jerusalem, situated on a mountain, was naturally defensible from almost all sides. But this height advantage also had a drawback: The city's major source of fresh water, the Gihon spring, was on the side of the cliff overlooking the Kidron valley and outside the city walls -- thus leaving the city without a fresh water supply in case of siege. The Bible tells us that King Hezekiah, fearful that the Assyrians would lay siege to the city, blocked the spring's water outside the city and diverted it through a channel into the then Pool of Siloam. Thus, the city was assured of a supply of water.

Scholars note that though Isaiah was indeed an actual person, the Book of Isaiah may have been written by three different men. Their analysis indicates that the first 39 chapters were written by the "original" Isaiah; chapters 40-55 by another man; and chapters 56-66 by a yet a third. One reason for this theory is that the text in the latter half of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) leans toward a post-exile time frame (i.e., sometime after 538 B.C.), with direct references to Cyrus, King of Persia (chapters 44 & 45), a lament for the ruined Temple, and other details. Also, the tone of the two halves is different; the first seeming to warn erring Judah of impending divine judgment through foreign conquest, while the second provides comfort to a broken people.

Isaiah, a contemporary of Hosea, Amos and Micah, was perhaps the most "political" of the prophets. In the face of the threat of Assyrian aggression, he first counseled a passive political and military approach, putting his faith in divine salvation. He probably belonged to the Jerusalem aristocracy and his status as a major prophet enabled him to take an active part in events, and in some cases to guide them. At the same time, he was an outspoken mouthpiece for the common people, who were being victimized by the corruption of the ruling class: "What need have I of all your sacrifices? Says the Lord . . . Put your evil doings away from my sight . . . Devote yourselves to justice . . . Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow" (Isaiah - chapter 1).

Other themes of Isaiah's prophetic messages are:

* God's refusal to accept the ritual worship of those who are treating others with cruelty and injustice.

* God is the God of the whole earth, not a local or national god concerned only with a particular nation or people.

* No one can defeat God; if God's people suffer defeat in battle, it is only because God permits it to happen. Furthermore, God is concerned with more than the Jewish people. God has called Judah and Israel his covenant people for the specific purpose of teaching the world about him.

* A final thematic goal that Isaiah constantly stresses is the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, with rulers and subjects who strive to live by the will of God.

As noted, the first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah prophesy doom for a sinful Judah and for all the nations of the world that oppose God. The last 27 chapters, called "The Book of Comfort," prophesy the restoration of the nation under a divine king. This section includes four poems known as the "Songs of the Suffering Servant."

Also called the "Servant Songs," these four poems in the Book of Isaiah (chapters 42, 49, 50 and 52-53) were written about a certain "servant of Yahweh." Yahweh calls the servant to lead the nations, but the servant is horribly abused. The servant sacrifices himself, accepting the punishment due others. In the end, he is rewarded. The traditional Jewish interpretation is that the servant is a metaphor for the Jewish people. Others suggest that the songs referred to Isaiah himself. Christians traditionally see the suffering servant as Jesus Christ.


Apparently the only prophesy of Nahum, made around 655 B.C., concerned the destruction of Nineveh, capital city and symbol of the Assyrian Empire. Almost 100 years before, Jonah had warned Nineveh to repent or face destruction. The people took him at his word, resulting in a national repentance. But it was short-lived.

To put things into perspective, the imperialism of Assyria had been a curse to the lands of the Middle East for a couple of centuries. Its policy had been one of "westward conquest and world domination." At that time, Assyria was one of the most aggressive, brutal, cruel and wicked nations on earth.

The Assyrian rise to power began under Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 B.C.), who began a program of world conquest. Invading the West, he deported some of the inhabitants of northern Israel, removing them to an area north of Nineveh. He also extended his authority into Judah, exacting tribute from that kingdom. He was succeeded by Shalmaneser V (727-722 BC), who began the siege of Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. Although he died before the city fell, his successor, Sargon II (722-705 B.C.), completed the siege and Samaria fell in 722 B.C., thus bringing the northern kingdom of Israel to an end.

Following the murder of Sargon II in 705 B.C., Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) ruled for the next 24 years. Early into Sennacherib's reign, the king of Judah, Hezekiah (716-687 B.C.), abandoned his pro-Assyrian policy and allied himself with Egypt. As a result, Sennacherib invaded Judah in 701 B.C., conquering some 46 fortified cities and villages, and carrying off a number of captives as well as much livestock. He then surrounded Jerusalem, boasting that he had shut up King Hezekiah in Jerusalem "like a caged bird!"

There are two accounts of the siege: That contained in the Bible and that written by Sennacherib on his return to Nineveh (Sennacherib's Hexagonal Prism, a clay structure found in the ruins of Nineveh in 1830). As you might imagine, there are some stark differences between the two.

First, the Biblical tale (as told in chapters 18 & 19 of II Kings and chapter 32 of II Chronicles): While under siege, King Hezekiah agreed to pay tribute -- thirty talents of gold and 300 of silver -- but that night "the angel of the Lord went forth" and struck down the army of Sennacherib, whereupon he returned to Nineveh with the tribute where he was murdered by his sons while worshiping in the temple of his god.

Next the Assyrian account (from the Hexagonal Prism): After exacting tribute from King Hezekiah ("thirty talents of gold and eight hundred talents of silver, gems, antimony, jewels, large carnelians, ivory-inlaid couches, ivory-inlaid chairs, elephant hides, elephant tusks, ebony, boxwood, all kinds of valuable treasures, as well as his daughters, his harem, his male and female musicians") Sennacherib returned to Nineveh -- with no mention of a loss of his army. And, obviously, no mention of his death.

Following Sennacherib's murder by two of his sons, their brother, Esarhaddon (681-668 B.C.), took the throne. During his reign, he captured the Judean King Manasseh (687-642 B.C.) and led him away for a brief period of captivity (II Chronicles - chapter 33). Esarhaddon died while marching against Egypt and was succeeded by Ashurbanipal (668-625 B.C.), who completed the campaign into Egypt resulting in the fall of Thebes in 661 B.C. (Nahum - chapter 3), thus extending Assyria's influence farther than any of his predecessors. Under his rule, Nineveh became the mightiest city on earth and it was during this time that Nahum issued his prophesy about its doom.

Nineveh was an impressive place. Its walls, which extended almost 8 miles around the city, were 100 feet high and wide enough so that three chariots could ride on them side-by-side. Towers stretched an additional 100 feet above the top of the wall. In addition, there was a moat around the city that was 150 feet wide and 60 feet deep. Nineveh had enough provisions within the city to withstand a 20-year siege. Thus, Nahum's prophecy of the overthrow of this city seemed very unlikely, indeed, to its inhabitants.

Nineveh was also a city filled with gardens and parks and even a zoo. The royal palace had an area of almost 100,000 square feet, and its walls were sculptured with scenes of the king's victories. There were fifteen main gates with huge stone bulls standing guard at each.

Following the death of Ashurbanipal, his two sons had brief and ineffective reigns (625- 620 B.C.). At this point, the Assyrian empire was beginning to decline. Its final ruler was Sin- shar-ishkun (620-612 B.C.), the son of Assur-etil-ilani, who was also known as Esarhaddon II.

During this time, the Babylonian King Nabopolassar (625-605 B.C.) began capturing Assyrian holdings. By 616 B.C., he had won complete independence from Assyria for Babylon. In 614 B.C., the Medes, under Cyaxares, captured the Assyrian city of Ashur, brutally massacring the population. Following an alliance between the Medes, the Babylonians and the Scythians, a siege of Nineveh began. The siege lasted three months, and it ended (according to the Babylonian Chronicle) when flood waters breached the walls, allowing the soldiers to enter the city. This was according to the prophecy: "With an overflowing flood He will make a complete end of its site" (Nahum - chapter 1). The Tigris River had overflowed its banks and eaten away at the walls, which were generally formed of brick kneaded with straw and baked in the sun. When the enemy entered the city, King Sin-shar-ishkun gathered his wives and children and all his wealth into the palace and set it on fire. All perished in the flames.

And thus, some 43 years after it was uttered, was Nahum's prophesy fulfilled.

(Note: A few of the Assyrians tried to hold out, but they were defeated in 606 B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar at the battle of Carchemish. The destruction of Nineveh was so complete that some 200 years later, when Xenophon the Athenian and "The Ten Thousand" -- backing out of their entanglement in Persia -- passed by the site, they said there was no evidence a city had ever been there! Chapter 3 of Nahum had predicted that the site would be "hidden" and their place "not known." In modern times, Nineveh's location was not discovered until 1842. Today, the site is covered by fields, a water tower for a nearby village, a cemetery and a local dump.)


Jeremiah, the son of a priest, grew up in a small village some 3 miles north of Jerusalem. He began his prophetic career at an early age in 626 B.C. in the thirteenth year of the 31-year reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.) -- "the last good king" of Judah. One of Josiah's projects was to repair the Temple and, during this effort, a copy of the sacred law of Moses was discovered in 621 B.C. When King Josiah noted the contrast between the pure religion described in the Mosaic law, and the corrupt practices of the Hebrews at that time, he initiated a great reformation. It was during this era that Jeremiah was called to his great prophetic ministry.

Jeremiah's message -- of an impending inevitable and unavoidable disaster to the Kingdom of Judah because the people had forsaken God and turned to idolatry -- was not well received by the people in his village nor by the people in Jerusalem when he moved there. Jeremiah was said to have used theatrical ploys to get his message across, including walking around wearing a wooden yoke about his neck. Upon the death of Josiah, who had instituted major religious reforms, Jeremiah wrote a lamentation about this pious king (II Chronicles - chapter 35).

King Josiah's successors -- Jehoahaz (6 months), Jehoiakim (608-597 B.C.), Jehoiachin (3 months) and Zedekiah ((597-586 B.C.) -- however, soon turned back to the old idolatrous ways. Thus, Jeremiah's message that Babylon would prevail and that it was useless to resist did not sit well with them -- even though it was tempered by the prediction that the Kingdom of Judah would be restored in 70 years.

Jeremiah remained in Jerusalem, from time to time uttering his words of warning, but without much effect. He was there when Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon besieged the city in 588 B.C. (Jeremiah - chapter 37), as Jeremiah had prophesied beforehand. The rumored approach of the Egyptians to aid the Jews in this crisis caused the Babylonians to withdraw. The prophet, in answer to a prayer, received a message from God (Jeremiah - chapter 37), stating that "the Babylonians would come again, and take the city, and burn it with fire." Considered a traitor for these statements, Jeremiah was cast into prison, where he remained until Jerusalem was finally taken and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. The Babylonians released him, showed him great kindness, and allowed him to choose the place of his residence. So Jeremiah went to Mizpah, a small village on a lofty hill about 4 miles northwest of Jerusalem, with Gedaliah, who had been made governor of Judea. (Note: According to the Hebrew Bible, Gedaliah was the son of Ahikam [who had saved the life of the prophet Jeremiah {Jeremiah - chapter 26}] and grandson of Shaphan [who was involved in the discovery of the scroll that scholars identify as the core of the book of Deuteronomy {II Kings - chapter 22} and who served briefly as governor of Judah].)

Reportedly, Gedaliah was a wise man, gentle and modest, who encouraged the people to cultivate their fields and vineyards. Many who had fled to neighboring lands during the war were attracted by this news and came to Mizpah to join him. When Gedaliah was assassinated shortly thereafter by an agent of the king of Ammon, he was succeeded by Johanan, who, fearful of the wrath of the Babylonians because a Jew had killed their governor, fled to Egypt, taking Jeremiah and Baruch ben Neriah, Jeremiah's faithful scribe and servant, with him (Jeremiah - chapter 43) as well as a number of the Jews living around Mizpah. The prophet probably spent the remainder of his life in Egypt, still seeking in vain to turn the people to the Lord. Some believe he was stoned to death in Egypt when he was about 90 years old by those angered by his prophecies.

The writings of "the broken-hearted prophet" (God is said to have told Jeremiah, "You will go to them; but for their part, they will not listen to you.") are collected in the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Lamentations. Regarding Jeremiah's prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, the "Babylonian Exile" and the "restoration of the Kingdom of Judah in 70 years," there is some question as to how the "70-year period" fits in.

The exile ended in 538 B.C. when Cyrus II of Persia (who had conquered Babylon the year before) decreed that all peoples originally from Jerusalem could return to their city. Obviously, this is the end of the exile; but when was the beginning?

There were three separate occasions when Hebrews from Jerusalem were exiled to Babylon: In 605 B.C. (when Daniel and other members of Judah's elite were taken into captivity); in 597 B.C. (when King Jehoiachin, along with other members of the royal family, were taken into captivity); and in 586 B.C. (when, after a three-year siege, Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed, and most of the remaining people were taken into captivity, along with articles from the First Temple; only the poorest people remained behind).

Depending on which starting date is used, none of these three times add up to the 70 years prophesied by Jeremiah. But when you examine the prophesy more closely and in context, it becomes apparent that the 70 years applies to Babylon itself, not to the period of time that the people of Judah are to spend in exile there (Jeremiah - chapters 25 & 29; II Chronicles - chapter 36; and Daniel - chapter 9). Thus, the combined forces of the Medes and the Babylonians completed the conquest of an Assyrian empire weakened through civil war in 609 B.C. (after destroying its capital city of Nineveh three years earlier in 612 B.C.). And Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C. -- some 70 years later.


The first chapter of Zephaniah dates his prophecy to the days of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.), but most probably it was uttered before that king instituted his great religious reform in 621 B.C. (as described in chapters 22 & 23 of II Kings and chapters 34 & 35 of II Chronicles). Thus, his ministries began somewhere between 630 and 625 B.C. (if in 626 B.C., then the ministries of Jeremiah and Zephaniah began in the same year).

As background, during the reigns of Manasseh (687-642 B.C.) and Amon (642-640 B.C.) the southern kingdom of Judah sank to astounding moral and spiritual depths. These two kings, who remained as loyal vassals to Assyria, sought to undo all the good that King Hezekiah had accomplished. However, in 640 B.C. -- at the age of only twenty-four -- King Amon was assassinated by his servants and his eight-year-old son, Josiah, was made king (II Kings - chapters 21 & 22 - and II Chronicles - chapters 33 & 34). Josiah was "the last good king" to reign over Judah.

Chapter 34 of II Chronicles relates how, at the age of sixteen, Josiah began "to seek the God of his father David." And by age twenty, he began to "purge Judah and Jerusalem" of all that was unholy and wicked. These reforms were the most extensive of any attempted by any king who ever reigned over Judah. In 621 B.C., the priest Hilkiah discovered the lost book of the Law of Moses. When King Josiah realized what this was, and its importance, he assembled all the people of his land, from the greatest to the least, and read the Book of the Covenant to them (II Chronicles - chapter 34). The temple was then cleansed and a Passover was celebrated: According to chapter 35 of II Chronicles, the likes of which had not been seen in some time. King Josiah also gained independence from the Assyrians and began to retake some of the land that had been seized by them from the northern kingdom of Israel. When he died in 609 B.C. -- at only 39 years of age -- Judah would have only 23 years left before her destruction and the exile of her people to Babylon.

Zephaniah's major message centers around "The Day of the Lord" -- described as a day of judgment and a day of terror; one that is imminent and one that will fall upon all creation as a judgment for sin. But out of it will come "a day of deliverance for the faithful" along with destruction for the unfaithful. Undoubtedly, the prophecy and work of Zephaniah had an influence upon King Josiah, and may well have had a lot to do with the institution of his reforms.


Other than his name, little is known about this prophet. His preaching probably occurred shortly before 606 B.C., but after the beginning of Babylon's westward move for conquest.

Upon the death of the good King Josiah at Megiddo in 609 B.C., he was succeeded by two sons, both of whom "did evil in the sight of the Lord." Within a period of a little more than 20 years, the Babylonians swept over Judah in successive waves, ultimately destroying the country and taking its inhabitants away into captivity.

This, then, was Habakkuk's world. Looking about him, he sees a vivid demonstration of prevailing evils. His prophecies differ from those of others in one special way: Instead of taking Jehovah's message directly to the people, he takes the complaint of the people to Jehovah, asking some difficult questions -- and receiving some answers that greatly puzzle him. Habakkuk, a man of God, a man of faith, is perplexed by what is happening around him; he doesn't understand why God is doing what He is doing. It seems inconsistent with what has been previously revealed.

Nevertheless, whether he understands or not, Habakkuk's faith in God never wavers. His final conclusion is that we must allow God to be God, and allow Him to do things His way and in His own good time. Our job is to trust Him and to live by faith. "The righteous will live by his faith" (Habakkuk - chapter 2) is the key verse of the entire book.


Ezekiel was a Biblical prophet and priest who prophesied for 22 years sometime in the 6th century B.C. in the form of visions while exiled in Babylon, as recorded in the Book of Ezekiel. He was probably carried away as a captive with King Jehoiachin of Judah (who had ruled for only 3 months before his capture) in 597 B.C.

The son of a priest, Ezekiel received his call as a prophet during the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin and, according to some, the thirtieth year of his life. Ezekiel's prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem caused friction among the Jews who were with him in Babylon. But, when his prophecies came true, people began to listen to him more intently.

Ezekiel also addressed the exiled Hebrews' problems concerning "worshiping from afar." Up until the exile, the Hebrews custom had been to worship their God in the Temple in Jerusalem. Exile raised important theological questions. How, the Judean exiles asked, could they worship their God when they were now in a distant land? Was their God still available to them? Ezekiel speaks to this problem, first explaining that the exile is a punishment for disobedience and then offering hope, suggesting that the exile will be reversed once they return to God.

Ezekiel also prophesied against the neighboring peoples of Judah (the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Edomites and the Philistines); against Tyre and Sidon; and also against Egypt in six separate prophecies. Later, Ezekiel's prophecies changed from the theme of unbending judgment to a theme of hope and comfort in the future. Ezekiel was very much a shepherd and a watchman for the nation of Israel. As a shepherd, he protected the people. And as a watchman, he warned of dangers ahead.

Upon Ezekiel's death, he was buried between the rivers Chebar and Euphrates (in southern Iraq near the city of Kefil). Later, King Jehoiachin, who had been set free by Nebuchadnezzar's successor, built a tomb over his grave as well as a nearby synagogue (no longer in use). This site has been a favorite place of pilgrimage for Muslims as well as Jews for centuries.


In 605 B.C. (the third or fourth year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah), Daniel and three other noble youths (named Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah) were among the Hebrew young nobility carried off with their king to Babylon. Daniel and his three Jewish companions were subsequently chosen for their intellect and beauty to be trained for three years in the royal schools as Chaldeans, who served as advisors to the Babylonian court (Daniel - chapter1).

Daniel, in accordance with the custom of the age, received the Chaldean name of Belteshazzar. Although they probably lived in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel and his three companions remained fiercely loyal to their Jewish religious and cultural identity -- a loyalty that would later bring them into conflict with the pagan beliefs of the Babylonian court.

Daniel soon became known for his skill in the interpretation of dreams (Daniel - chapters 1 & 2), rising to the rank of governor of the province of Babylon. After passing a dangerous test of the king's astrologers (which could easily have cost him his life) Daniel became "chief of the governors" over all the wise men of Babylon.

Chapter 3 of Daniel describes how Daniel's three friends (Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah) defy King Nebuchadnezzar's order to bow down and worship a golden idol. In a rage, the king orders the boys thrown into a furnace, but they are miraculously unharmed by the flames. Nebuchadnezzar sees them walking around in the furnace along with an unnamed angel. After the three youths emerge unscathed, Nebuchadnezzar orders that anyone who speaks against the God of Shadrach, Mesahach and Abednego (their Babylonian names) will be torn apart and have his house turned into a pile of stones.

In Chapter 4 of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar recounts a dream about a huge tree that is suddenly cut down at the command of a heavenly messenger. Daniel is summoned and says the dream refers to Nebuchadnezzar, who for seven years will lose his power and mind and become like a wild animal. All of this comes to pass until, at the end of the seven years, Nebuchadnezzar acknowledges that "heaven rules." His kingdom and sanity are then restored.

Chapter 5 of Daniel relates another notable event, known as "Belshazzar's feast." The narrative, which unfolds against the background of the impending arrival of Persian armies, describes how Belshazzar, a Babylonian prince, and his nobles blasphemously drink from the sacred vessels of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, which had been brought to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. They offer praise to inanimate gods, until a hand mysteriously appears and writes on the wall of the palace. The horrified prince eventually summons Daniel, who is able to read the writing, giving the meaning as "Thou art weighed in the balance and art found wanting." That very night, Belshazzar is slain by his own sons and Persian armies soon take over the kingdom.

(Note: This Biblical story is the source of the phrase "the writing on the wall" as a euphemism for impending doom. It also provides the origin for a similar expression -- "your days are numbered.")

After the Persian conquest of Babylon, Daniel held the office of the first of the "three presidents" -- thus practically at the head of state affairs. As such, he has the ability to influence the fate of the captive Hebrews (Daniel - chapter 9) and may well have played a part in Cyrus's decree in 538 B.C. that let the Hebrews go back to Jerusalem. Daniel is pleased when the captives are allowed to return, even though he did not go with them, remaining instead in Babylon.

But Daniel's elevation to a preeminent position had elicited the jealousy of other officials. Knowing of Daniel's devotion to his God, these officials trick the king into issuing an edict forbidding worship of any other god or man for a thirty-day period. Because Daniel continues to pray three times a day to God, he is accused and the king, forced by his own decree, throws Daniel into a lions' den. God shuts up the mouths of the lions and the next morning the king finds Daniel unharmed. The king then casts Daniel's accusers and their families into the lions' pit where they are instantly devoured.

Daniel's ministry as a prophet began late in life. Whereas his early exploits were a matter of common knowledge within the community, these same events -- and his pious reputation -- serve as the basis for his prophetic ministry. The time and circumstances of Daniel's death -- possibly at Susa in Iran -- have not been recorded.

Haggai, Zechariah & Malachi

These three men are the last of the prophets. Their prophetic utterances, which spanned a century or more, marked a transition in Israel from an era of prophets to an era of rabbis. Haggai and Zechariah were contemporaries; their prophecies began about 520 B.C. Malachi, who wrote the last book of the Old Testament, lived about 100 years later.

The Book of Haggai was written some 18 years after Cyrus had conquered Babylon and issued a decree in 538 B.C. allowing the captive Jews to return to Judea. Haggai saw the restoration of the Temple as necessary for the restoration of the religious practices and a sense of "peoplehood" after a long exile.

The work of rebuilding the Temple, begun when the Hebrews returned to Jerusalem, had been put to a stop through the intrigues of the Samaritans. After having been suspended for 18 years, the work was resumed because of the efforts of Haggai and Zechariah. They exhorted the people, which roused them from their lethargy and induced them to take advantage of a change in the policy of the Persian government under Darius the Great, whom some believe to be the son of Esther..

Haggai attributes a recent drought to the peoples' refusal to rebuild the temple, which he sees as key to Jerusalem's glory. Zechariah began his ministry two months after Haggai. However, Zechariah's ministry dealt more with future events, making it more apocalyptic in nature. Zechariah's main emphasis was that God is at work and plans to live again with His people in Jerusalem; He will save them from their enemies and cleanse them from sin. Zechariah's prophecy also gradually eliminates the influence of the governor in favor of the High Priest, and the Temple becomes ever more clearly the center of Messianic fulfillment.

Malachi probably lived during the time of the second return of Nehemiah to Jerusalem, which means that his message was delivered about a century after the time of Haggai and Zechariah. Malachi's aim was to correct the lax religious and social behavior of the Israelites -- particularly the priests -- in Jerusalem after the Exile. Although the people of Judah had been urged by the prophets to see their exile as punishment for failing to uphold their covenant with Yahweh, it was not long after they had been restored to the land and to Temple worship that the people's commitment to their God began, once again, to wane. It was in this context that Malachi delivered his prophecy. The people had become legalistic and ritualistic. Thus, Malachi admonished the people to take the act of worship beyond outward actions and worship God inwardly also.

As noted above, these three prophets were thought to be part of a group of 120 men (or 72, take your pick; both are cited) known as the "Great Assembly" or "Great Synagogue" who, over the course of some two generations, shaped the form of the Jewish religion. Made up of priests, scribes, sages and prophets, the Great Synagogue operated during the period from the end of the prophets up to the development of Rabbinic Judaism.

One writer described the work of the Great Synagogue -- i.e., this transition from prophets to rabbis -- as follows: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; and Joshua to the elders; and the elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the men of the Great Synagogue."

Ezra, a Jewish priestly scribe who led about 5,000 Israelite exiles living in Babylon to Jerusalem in 459 B.C., is credited with establishing the Great Assembly and serving as its president. Chapter 8 of Nehemiah clearly implies the existence of a body of men acting as councillors under the presidency of Ezra. These may have been an assembly of delegates from all the provincial synagogues; i.e., a synod of the national church.

As the forerunner of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish authority on matters of religious law, the Great Assembly is credited with establishing numerous features of traditional Judaism, including Torah reading, the Amidah (the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy) and establishing the feast of Purim.

Simon the Just (also known as Simon the Righteous), a High Priest who lived around 310-270 B.C., is known as one of the "last survivors" of the Great Assembly. He is remembered for repairing the Temple, for fortifying Jerusalem and for this comment: "Upon three things the world stands: The Torah; the worship of God; and the bestowal of loving- kindness."

(Note: It is interesting that the Israeli Knesset took its name and fixed its membership at 120 from the Knesset Hagedolah [Great Assembly], the representative Jewish council convened in Jerusalem by Ezra and Nehemiah in the 5th century B.C.)

Timeline for Hebrew Prophets & Kings

(Prophets = onset/period of prophesy [I=Israel, J=Judah]; Kings = period of reign [Q=Queen])

Prophets: Kings:

1050-1010 B.C. - Saul

1010-970 B.C. - David

970-930 B.C. - Solomon

Kingdom of IsraelKingdom of Judah

931-910 B.C. - Jeroboam 931-914 B.C. - Rehoboam

914-911 B.C. - Abijah

911-871 B.C. - Asa

909 B.C.- Nadab

909-886 B.C. - Baasha

886-885 B.C. - Elah

885 B.C. - Zimri

885-874 B.C. - Omri
874-852 B.C. - Elijah (I) 873-853 B.C. - Ahab

871-848 B.C. - Jehoshaphat
857-832 B.C. - Elisha (I)

853-852 B.C.- Ahaziah

852-841 B.C. - Jehoram
845 B.C. - Obadiah (J)
848-841 B.C. - Jehoram

841-813 B.C. - Jehu 841 B.C. - Ahaziah

841-835 B.C. - Athaliah (Q)

813-797 B.C. - Jehoahaz
835 B.C. - Joel (J)
835-796 B.C. - Joash

797-782 B.C. - Jehoash 796-767 B.C. - Amaziah
758 B.C. - Jonah (I) 782-753 B.C. - Jeroboam II 767-739 B.C. - Uzziah
760-755 B.C. - Amos (I) 753 B.C. - Zechariah
753-715 B.C. - Hosea (I) 752 B.C. - Shallum
744-681 B.C. - Isaiah (J) 752-742 B.C. - Menahem

742-740 B.C. - Pekahiah
735-710 - Micah (J)740-732 B.C. - Pekah 739-734 B.C. - Jotham

734-716 B.C. - Ahaz

732-722 B.C. - Hoshea

716-687 B.C. - Hezekiah
655 B.C. - Nahum (I)
687-642 B.C. - Manasseh

642-640 B.C. - Amon
630-625 B.C. - Zephaniah (J)
640-609 - Josiah
626 B.C. - Jeremiah (J)

619 B.C. - Habakkuk (J)

609 B.C. - Jehoahaz

609-597 B.C. - Jehoiakim

597 B.C. - Jehoiachin
592 B.C. - Ezekiel (J)
597-586 B.C. - Zedekiah
539 B.C. ? - Daniel (J)

520 B.C. - Haggai (J)

520 B.C. - Zeckariah (J)

420 B.C. - Malachi (J)

Hebrew People of Note


Methuselah was the son of Enoch and the grandfather of Noah. According to chapter 5 of Genesis, he lived to be 969 years of age, making him the longest-lived person in the Bible. He is said to have died in the year of the flood.


The Book of Job tells the story of an extremely pious man named Job who suffers all kinds of calamities, but remains faithful and steadfast to his religion throughout. It addresses the age-old question, "Why do the righteous suffer?"

Job was said to be from the land of Uz (an area in or near the Negev Desert that later is known as the Kingdom of Edom). He probably lived in the time of the patriarchs; that is, somewhere between 2100 and 1700 B.C., although the Book of Job probably was written many centuries later.

At the start of the story, Job's livestock are carried off and his herdmen slain. Then lightning strikes his sheep and shepherds. Next, the Chaldeans (Babylonians) take his camels and kill the men tending them. Finally, a great wind destroys his house, killing his seven sons and three daughters who were inside. Job laments, "Naked I came forth from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!" (Job - chapter 1).

Job then is beset with severe boils "from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head." At this point, his wife prompts him to "curse God, and die" but Job answers, "Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" (Job - chapter 2). In all of this, Job doesn't sin by cursing God.

The next part of the book involves conversations Job has with three friends (Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite). who come to visit him after his misfortune. These friends insist that Job's misfortunes must have occurred because he sinned and thus incited God's punishment. Job rejects this idea and insists that his suffering is undeserved and therefore unjust. A fourth friend (Elihu the Buzite) arrives later and argues that God uses pain to bring repentance.

At this point in the book, God appears to Job in a whirlwind, reminding him of their respective positions: The former as the creator of the universe -- watching over every single thing He has made -- and the latter as a mere mortal who cannot possibly comprehend the works of God. Job is repentant and prays that God will be merciful to his friends. In the end, Job is blessed with a new family (another seven sons and three beautiful daughters), even greater wealth and a long and contented life.


Miriam, the daughter of Amram and Jochebed, was the older sister of Moses and Aaron. According to the Biblical account in chapter 2 of Exodus, it was Miriam who, at Jochebed's request, hides Moses (then a baby) in a basket of bulrushes by the side of a river (presumably the Nile) to evade an order by the Pharaoh that newborn Hebrew boys be killed. She watches as the Pharaoh's daughter discovers the infant and decides to adopt him. Miriam then suggests that the princess take on a nurse for the child, and puts forward her mother, Jochebed. As a result, Moses is raised to be familiar with his Hebrew heritage.

Miriam is called a prophetess, and she composed a brief victory song after Pharaoh's army was stopped at the Red Sea: "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea." (Exodus - chapter 15).

But for Miriam, there would have been no Moses, no exodus -- and no Israel!


Aaron, of the tribe of Levi, was the brother of Moses and Miriam. He was the forebear and founder of the Israelite priesthood. Because Moses stuttered, Aaron served as his spokesman before both the Pharaoh and the Israelites. Aaron was empowered by God to cast his staff to the ground where it turned into a serpent before Pharaoh's eyes.

Several of the Biblical ten plagues of Egypt were instigated when Aaron wielded his staff. Aaron's position was officially established when God ordered Moses to consecrate him and his sons as priests. Aaron and his sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, officiated at Moses' side. When Moses left the Israelite camp for 40 days and 40 nights to go up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the Israelites feared that he would not return and asked Aaron to make a god for them (Exodus - chapter 32). Aaron gathered up the people's golden jewelry, melted it down and constructed an altar and a golden calf. When Moses returned, he angrily destroyed the golden calf and castigated Aaron and the Israelites. Like Moses, Aaron was not allowed to enter "the Promised Land." Aaron died on Mount Hor, near the border of Edom, and his son, Eleazar, became High Priest.


Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, was a priest in Midian, a territory stretching from east of the Dead Sea south into the Sinai. Moses married his daughter, Zipporah, after Moses had fled Egypt because he had killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. Moses is said to have worked as a shepherd for Jethro for 40 years before returning to Egypt to lead the Hebrews to Canaan, the "Promised Land." It was Jethro who encouraged Moses to appoint others to share in the burden of ministry to the Hebrew nation by allowing others to help in the judgement of smaller matters.

Joshua & Caleb

The story of Joshua, one of the twelve spies sent on by Moses to explore the land of Canaan (and who would later lead the conquest of that land -- the Bible's "Promised Land"), is told in the Biblical books of Exodus, Numbers and Joshua. That of Caleb, the other scout who returned with an optimistic report, is found in chapters 13 & 14 of Numbers and chapter 14 of Joshua.

About two years after the Hebrew departure from Egypt, these scouts -- one from each of the twelve tribes -- were sent out by Moses and Aaron on a forty-day reconnoitering mission. Ten returned with disheartening news: The people living in Canaan were fierce and the towns "are fortified and very strong." Only Caleb (from the tribe of Judah) and Joshua (representing Ephraim) recommended seizing the land "for we can certainly do so." But the naysayers with their stories of "fierce giants in the land" won the day and the Israelites turned away to complete their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.

As Moses' apprentice, Joshua shared in all the events of the exodus, even accompanying Moses part of the way when he ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus - chapter 32). Before his death, Moses appointed Joshua to succeed him as leader of the Israelites.

The Book of Joshua narrates the conquest of Canaan and the division of the country among the twelve tribes of Israel. The first major battle was in Jericho, a heavily fortified city northwest of the Dead Sea just 5 miles west of the Jordan River. According to the Bible, Joshua took the city by following God's instruction, ordering his host to march around the city for seven days, whereupon the city walls fell, just as had been predicted. Whatever the method, Jericho fell, as did many other Canaanite cities and towns.

In the aftermath of the conquest, Caleb receives his reward for speaking the truth and being loyal to God. He asks Joshua to give him property within the land of Judah, and Joshua gives him Hebron (Joshua - chapter 14). After Joshua describes the boundaries of tribal territory, he calls on the Israelites to renew their covenant with God. He reminds them of God's faithfulness and says, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." The people also promise to be faithful to God and Joshua sets up a stone monument at Shechem to remind them of this covenant.


Deborah was a prophetess and the fourth Judge of Israel (and the only female judge) in the days before the kings. As Judge, Deborah was also leader of Israel's army. Her story, which takes place between the years 1209 and 1169 B.C., is told twice, in chapters 4 & 5 of Judges; chapter 4 is in prose and chapter 5 gives this same story in poetic form.

Deborah is a unique character in the Bible in that she was a prophetess, a judge and a military leader all in one -- a powerful triple combination of authority and responsibility held by only two other Israelites: Moses and Samuel. As Judge, Deborah held court from a tent under a palm tree "between Ramah and Bethel" in Mount Ephraim (the historical name for the central mountainous district of Israel once occupied by the tribe of Ephraim) and "the children of Israel came up to her for judgment."

During Deborah's time as Judge, Israel had been under the control of the Canaanites for 20 years. They had suffered terrible atrocities and finally began to cry out to God for deliverance from this enemy (Judges - chapter 4).

Israel had only 10,000 warriors and they were badly outnumbered by the Canaanite army, whose captain was Sisera. In addition, the Canaanite army had 900 iron chariots. Outnumbered or not, God tells Deborah to instruct Barak, her general, to take the Israelite army to Mount Tabor, where the Israelites will win the battle. In response to her command, Barak tells Deborah, "If you will go with me, I will go; if not I will not go" (Judges - chapter 4). Deborah agrees, but can't resist taunting Barak, noting that the glory of victory will not be his, ". . . for the Lord shall sell Sisera into the hand of a woman."

The battle takes place during the rainy season, and Sisera's chariots quickly bog down in the mud. The Israelites overwhelm the Canaanite army, inflicting heavy casualties. However, Sisera escapes and hides out in the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, believing he is safe there because the Canaanites are at peace with the Kenites. But Jael is no friend of the Canaanites or of Sisera. She slays Sisera by driving a tent stake through his head with a mallet. This fulfills Deborah's prophecy that Sisera would fall to a woman.


Gideon, Israel's fourth major Judge after the birth of Joshua, was the son of Joash the Abiezrite from the tribe of Manasseh. The story of Gideon, which is found in chapters 6-8 of Judges, tells how, when a large army of Midianites and other nations united against Israel, God told Gideon that he would be made strong and that he was to save Israel from the Midianites.

Gideon then raised an army of 32,000, but after several tests by God, this force was whittled down to a mere 300 men -- presumably so the Israelites would not boast to God that they saved themselves by their own strength. One night, Gideon and his 300 men lit torches, blew trumpets and shouted "For the Lord and for Gideon." They then stood by and watched as the enemy panicked and began fighting and killing each other.

Midian never recovered, and the land was at peace for 40 years during Gideon's lifetime. Gideon returned to his home at Ophrah, a town 6 miles south-west of Shechem, where he had many sons by a number of wives. He died as an old man and was buried in Ophrah.


Chapters 13-16 of the Book of Judges relate the exploits of Samson, a Herculean figure who is granted tremendous strength through the Spirit of the Lord to combat his enemies and perform heroic feats that are not achievable by ordinary men. These include wrestling a lion, slaying an entire army with nothing more than the jawbone of an ass and destroying a temple. Samson was also a Judge who ruled in Israel for 20 years.

Here is the legend of Samson: An angel appears to Samson's mother, who had been unable to conceive. This angel proclaims that she will soon have a son who will deliver the Israelites from the Philistines -- if, that is, he abstains from all alcoholic beverages and never shaves or cuts his hair.

Samson duly is born and, when he becomes a young man, leaves the hills of his people to see the cities of the Philistines. After a less than successful courtship -- which in one case involves the slaying of 1,000 Philistines using the jawbone of an ass -- Samson then falls in love with a woman named Delilah. The Philistines approach Delilah and induce her (with 1,100 silver coins) to try to find the secret of Samson's strength. Samson, teasing her, first tells her he will lose his strength should he be bound with fresh bowstrings; then if he is bound with new ropes; and a third time if his locks are bound together. In each case, she tries but Samson's strength is such that he prevails.

Eventually, Samson tells Delilah he will lose his strength with the loss of his hair and Delilah calls for a servant to shave Samson's hair while he is asleep. Since that breaks the oath, God leaves him, and Samson is captured by the Philistines. They blind him with a hot poker and imprison him in Gaza, where he is put to work grinding grain.

One day, the Philistine leaders assemble in a temple to thank Dagon, one of their most important gods, for having delivered Samson into their hands. Summoning the blind Samson to entertain them, some 3,000 or more men and women gather on the temple's roof to watch. Once inside the temple, Samson, his hair having grown long again, asks the servant who is leading him to let him lean against the temple's central pillars.

"Then Samson prayed to the Lord, 'O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes.' Samson said, 'Let me die with the Philistines!' Down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more as he died than while he lived." (Judges chapter 16). After his death, Samson's family recovers his body from the rubble and buries him near the tomb of his father Manoah. The fate of Delilah is never mentioned.


Ruth is the great-grandmother of David (her son was Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David). During the time of the Judges when there was a famine, an Israelite family from Bethlehem -- Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion -- emigrate to the nearby country of Moab. Elimelech dies, and the sons marry two Moabite women: Mahlon marries Ruth and Chilion marries Orpah.

The two sons of Naomi die ten year later and Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem. She tells her daughters-in-law to return to their own mothers, and remarry. Orpah reluctantly leaves. But Ruth says, "Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me." (Ruth - chapter 1).

The two women return to Bethlehem during the time of the barley harvest. To support her mother-in-law and herself, Ruth goes to the fields to glean (picking up fallen grain after the harvesters have finished). She gleans in a field owned by a man named Boaz, who is kind to her because he has heard of her loyalty to her mother-in-law.

Boaz, a close relative of the family of Naomi's husband, is obliged by Hebrew law to marry Mahlon's widow, Ruth, in order to carry on his family line. Boaz states he is willing to marry her, but tells Ruth that there is another male relative who has the first right to do so. The next morning, Boaz discusses the issue with the other male relative, who renounces his claim, thus allowing Boaz to marry Ruth.

So Boaz and Ruth get married and have a son named Obed (who by Hebrew custom is also considered a son or heir to Mahlon, and thus Naomi's grandson). In the genealogy that concludes the story, it is pointed out that Obed is the descendant of Perez the son of Judah, and the grandfather of David.

Hannah, Eli & Samuel

Hannah was the favored of the two wives of Elkanah, a man from Zuph in the central mountainous district of Israel once occupied by the tribe of Ephraim. The other wife, Peninnah, bore a child to Elkanah, but Hannah remained childless. One day Hannah went up to the temple in Shiloh while Eli the High Priest was sitting on a chair near the doorpost. She prays silently, begging for a child, which she promises she will put in the service of the priests.

Eli thinks she is drunk because her lips move but she makes no sound. When she explains herself he sends her away, saying her prayer will be heard and her desire granted. She becomes pregnant and, as promised, when the child is born, she names him Samuel (meaning "asked of God") and, after he is weaned, puts him into the service of the priests of Shiloh (a center of worship 20 miles north of Jerusalem). There Eli is the High Priest along with his sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who were abusing their priestly positions.

When Samuel is about 12 years old, he began to hear a voice calling his name; initially he assumes it is coming from Eli and goes to him to ask what he wished to say. Eli, however, sends Samuel back to sleep. After a few times Eli tells Samuel that the voice is that of God, and instructs Samuel on how to respond. Once Samuel responds, God tells him that because of the wickedness of the sons of Eli, they would die and Eli's dynasty would be at an end. Eli asks Samuel to honestly recount to him what he had been told and, upon hearing it, merely says that God should do what seems right.

Samuel, who anointed both Saul and David as the first two kings of Israel, was the last of the Hebrew Judges and the first of the major prophets. Samuel was thus at the cusp between two eras.


Abner, the commander-in-chief of the King Saul's army, was with the guard protecting Saul when David entered the camp of the king while everyone was asleep (1 Samuel - chapter 26). After the death of Saul and his three sons in a battle with the Philistines, Abner supported Saul's son Ishbosheth as king. Of the twelve tribes of Israel, only Judah supported David; and a war broke out between the armies of David and Ishbosheth. Early in this war, Abner kills Asahel, a brother of Joab, one of David's military officers. Later, Abner shifts his loyalties to David, persuading all the tribes to follow David's leadership (II Samuel - chapter. 3). But he is later killed by Joab in an act of vengeance over the death of Joab's brother. David reprimands Joab publicly and had Abner buried with full honors. The name Abner means "the father is a lamp."


Jonathan was oldest son of King Saul and a good friend of King David.

He was a commander of 1,000 men in Saul's army (I Samuel - chapter13). In the famous battle of Michmash, Jonathan and his armor bearer attacked the Philistine garrison and killed about twenty men. This caused panic in the Philistine army, who thought they were surrounded. When Saul and the Israelites saw this, they attacked and routed the Philistines. But Saul had pronounced a curse on anyone in his army who ate anything before the battle was over. Jonathan who did not know of the curse, ate some honey to refresh himself. Saul was ready to have Jonathan executed when he found out, but the army refused to allow the king to harm Jonathan because of his key role in the victory over the Philistines.

A few years later, Jonathan and David became good friends. As King Saul became more jealous of David, Jonathan tried to bring peace between the two. But, as bad as things got between Saul and David, and, as good a friend Jonathan was to David, he stayed with his father to fight the Philistines at Mount Gilboa. Jonathan and Saul were both killed in this battle (I Samuel - chapter 31).

When David learned of the death of his good friend, he composed a eulogy for both Jonathan and Saul (II Samuel - chapter 1). Because of David's great friendship with Jonathan, he later took in Jonathan's son, Mephibosheth, and treated him kindly.


Absalom, the third of King David's six sons, was born in Hebron. His mother, Maacah, was the daughter of the king of Geshur (II Samuel - chapter 3). Absalom was handsome and very charismatic.

After his sister Tamar was raped by his half brother, Amnon, Absalom plotted revenge. Two years later during a family feast, he ordered his servants to kill Amnon. Absalom then fled and sought refuge with his grandfather in Geshur (II Samuel - chapter 13). After three years, David, following the advice of Joab, the commander of his army, allows Absalom to come back to Jerusalem, but he is forbidden to appear before the king. Two years later, David grants Absalom full pardon.

But in spite of his affection for David, Absalom was ambitious and plotted against his father. He organized a revolt, and as the numbers of plotters grew, David flees Jerusalem with a group of faithful supporters. Eventually the two armies meet in the woods of the territory of Ephraim, and Absalom's newly formed army is defeated. David had given strict orders that Absalom was not to be killed, but while fleeing on his mule through the woods, Absalom was trapped when his long hair became entangled in the branches of a terebinth, and, in spite of the king's instructions, Joab kills Absalom. The story of Absalom is found in chapters 13-18 in II Samuel.


Joab, the commander-in-chief of King David's army, was the eldest son of David's sister Zeruiah, and the brother of Abishai and Asahel (I Chronicles - chapter 2). Joab played an important role in the establishment, unification and consolidation of David's kingdom. His military acumen gained him the position of commander- in-chief, and he proved himself a shrewd tactician and resourceful general. He helped David crush the Philistines and subdue several of the neighboring nations, including the Arameans, Moabites, Edomites and Ammonites.

Joab was very loyal to David, but he was relentless and unscrupulous towards his enemies and rivals. He slew Abner perhaps out of rivalry or to avenge his brother. When Absalom revolted against his father, Joab killed him in stark violation of David's command to spare his life. Joab later slew Amasa, who had been appointed by David to head the campaign against Sheba.

Joab was unaware that David preferred Solomon as a successor, and sided with Adonijah, another of David's sons. After Solomon was established on the throne, he ordered the death of Joab, in accordance with David's command that Joab, who had shed innocent blood, must not be allowed to go down to the grave in peaceful old age (I Kings -chapter 2). The story of Joab is found in the Books of II Samuel, I Kings and I Chronicles.


Nathan was a court prophet who lived in the time of both King David and King Solomon. His actions are described in the Books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles (especially II Samuel - chapters 7 & 12). Although only a few of Nathan's stories have been preserved in the Bible, he is nevertheless a very important figure, particularly because of his role as a counterbalance to the otherwise absolute rule of King David, and because of his decisive actions in favor of the future King Solomon.

We first hear of Nathan when he is involved with King David's plans to build a "house" or temple for Yahweh (II Samuel - chapter 7). "Here I am, living in a palace of cedar," says David, "while the Ark of God remains in a tent." Nathan initially approves but soon returns to announce that God has decided against the idea, saying that this task will fall to David's son.

Nathan's next appearance, described in chapter 12 of II Samuel, is certainly one of the most dramatic confrontations between a king and a prophet in the entire Bible. King David has committed adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba, wife of the military commander Uriah the Hittite. She becomes pregnant, and David purposefully orders Uriah to take an unprotected position on the battlefield, where he is killed. Nathan then deliver a reprimand to David. David deeply repents, but the child he has conceived with Bathsheba dies. Later, Bathsheba and David have a son named Solomon, who will succeed David as king.

Finally, when David's oldest son Adonijah attempted to succeed his aging father who was near death, it was Nathan who revealed the plot to the king. Supported by David's top general and an important priest, Adonijah throws a sacrificial feast to inaugurate his kingship, and many of the royal family participate. However, Nathan and a rival priest, Zadok, together with several military leaders, do not join in the festivities. Instead, Nathan comes to Bathsheba and reports the incident, saying, "Have you not heard that Adonijah, the son of Haggith, has become king without our lord David's knowing it?" When David gets this news, he fulfills a promise to Bathsheba and orders that Solomon be anointed immediately and installed as his official successor.

According to the Bible, it is through Nathan that God first delivered the Messianic promise of an eternal kingdom based on David's descendants (II Samuel - chapter 7). Nathan also reportedly wrote histories of the reigns of both David and Solomon, although these works were either lost or were partly incorporated into other Biblical books (such as II Samuel and I & II Kings). Nathan also may have had a significant role in both building the Temple of Jerusalem and in formulating its liturgical traditions, reportedly leaving instructions regarding the Temple's musical tradition after it was constructed by Solomon (II Chronicles - chapter 29).

Esther & Mordecai

The book of Esther tells the story of this "queen who saved her people." Orphaned at a young age, Esther was the daughter of Abihail of the tribe of Benjamin. Upon the death of her parents, she was adopted by her older cousin, Mordecai, who worked in the household of the Persian king.

Her story begins in the third year of the reign of King Ahasuerus (also known as Xerxes I) when he gives a seven-day feast to celebrate this anniversary. The feast, to which all the people of the capital city of Susa had been invited, culminates in a huge banquet. The wine flowed freely and then the king, possibly "in his cups," gives orders for Queen Vashti to wear her royal crown and display her beauty before the guests. (Some have said the order was to appear wearing "only" her royal crown!)

In any event, the queen refuses the order. The king, warned by his advisors that, if unpunished, her actions would cause other wives to disobey their husbands, divorces her. He then orders all "beautiful young virgins" to be presented to him so he can choose a new queen. Among them is Esther, whose rare beauty captivates the king and moves him to eventually place her on the throne. (This is said to have occurred around the year 478 B.C.) Her cousin Mordecai, who had told her not to reveal her Hebrew background, remains constantly near the palace to advise and counsel her. While at the palace gate, he discovers a plot to assassinate the king, and tells Esther about it, thus saving the king's life. This is duly recorded in the chronicles of the kingdom.

Not long thereafter, Haman, the king's second-in-command, notices that, unlike others at the palace gate, Mordecai refuses to bow down to him. Finding out that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman manages to obtain a royal decree that authorizes killing all of the Jews throughout the Persian empire. Following a Persian custom, Haman determines by lot that the massacre should take place a year later, on the thirteenth day of the Jewish month of Adar.

Mordecai finds out about this and tells Esther, begging her to use her influence with the king and thus avert the impending danger. Esther fears to go before the king without being summoned, for if the king is thereby displeased she could be put to death. But after three days of fasting and prayer, she summons up her courage and appears before the king, who receives her graciously and promises to grant her request, whatever it might be.

Esther first merely asks the king and Haman to dine with her. At that banquet they accept her invitation to dine with her again on the following day. Haman, carried away by this apparent honor given him by the queen, issues orders for the erection of a gallows on which he plans to hang the hated Mordecai. That night the king is not able to get to sleep, so he asks that the chronicle of notable events be read to him and thus learns of Mordecai's role in the aborted assassination attempt.

At the court the next day, the king asks Haman to suggest a suitable reward for one "whom the king desired to honor." Haman, thinking it was himself that the king had in mind, replies that such a man should be dressed in the king's royal robes and led around on the king's royal horse. To his horror, the king instructs Haman to immediately do so to Mordecai the Jew.

That night, at the second banquet Esther has for the king and Haman, the king again repeats his promise to give her whatever she might ask. Esther then reveals the plot of Haman to kill all the Jewish people -- including herself! -- thus revealing her Jewish heritage. The king is enraged and leaves the banquet to go to the nearby garden. (It's obvious that this king had quite a temper!) When he returns, he finds Haman, who is pleading with the queen for mercy -- in a what appears to be a compromising position. The king exclaims, "Will he also violate the queen while she is with me in my own house!" (Esther - chapter 7). He then orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.

Since under Persian law a royal decree once issued cannot be rescinded, the king instead issues a counter-edict that permits the Jews to arm and defend themselves. He also appoints Mordecai to Haman's old position. When the day of the first decree arrives, the Jews are so successful in defending themselves that they institute a new feast, the annual festival of "Purim," which means "throwing dice" (from the Persian word "Pur").


Ezra, a Hebrew priest who grew up in Babylon, could trace his ancestry back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. Following Cyrus the Great's decree in 538 B.C. that allowed the Hebrews to return to Judah, Ezra led the second group of returnees back to Jerusalem.

Both a priest and a scholar,.Ezra had dedicated himself to the study and observance of the Law of Moses, in which he was an outstanding authority. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, he notices that, contrary to Jewish law, many of the men had intermarried with pagan non-Hebrew women. Ezra took strenuous measures against these marriages and insisted upon the dismissal of such foreign wives. (Note: Those women who converted to Judaism were no longer considered "foreigners.")

In addition to the Biblical book that bears his name, Ezra is thought to be the writer of the Book of Chronicles. The Book of Ezra, which likely was written between 460 and 440 B.C., is basically a history of Hebrew activities over an 80-year period that covers the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem and the revival of their religious practices there. The book is divided into two principal parts:

* The history of the first return of exiles, starting in 538 B.C., till the completion and dedication of the new Temple in Jerusalem in 515 B.C.

* The history of the second return under Ezra, a four-month journey in 459 B.C., and of the events that took place at Jerusalem after Ezra's arrival there.

A major accomplishment of Ezra was helping set up the Great Assembly (or Great Synagogue) -- the forerunner of the Sanhedrin -- as the authority on matters of religious law. The decisions taken by the Assembly included instituting the Feast of Purim, organizing the ritual of the synagogue and giving their sanction to the eighteen solemn benedictions in it.

For about 14 years after Ezra's arrival in Jerusalem -- that is, until 445 B.C. -- we have no record of what went on in the city after Ezra had set its ecclesiastical and civil affairs in order. But in that year, another distinguished person, Nehemiah, appears on the scene. After Nehemiah rebuilds the ruined city wall, there is a great gathering of the people at Jerusalem for its dedication. Chapter 8 of Nehemiah describes how, on the appointed day, the whole population was assembled, and the law is read aloud "from the morning until midday" by Ezra and his assistants.

This causes a great religious awakening. For successive days the people hold solemn assemblies, confessing their sins and offering up solemn sacrifices. They also kept the feast of Tabernacles with "great solemnity and joyous enthusiasm" and then renewed their national covenant with the Lord (Nehemiah - chapter 12).

Haggai and Zechariah were the main prophets during the rebuilding of the Temple and after the arrival of Ezra and Nehemiah in Jerusalem.


Nehemiah, who was born to captive Hebrews in Babylon, prospered under the rule of the Persians after Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. Having been appointed royal cup- bearer, Nehemiah appears to have been on good terms with King Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.), as evidenced by the extended leave of absence granted him for the restoration of Jerusalem.

Through his brother, Hanani, Nehemiah had heard of the desolate condition of Jerusalem, and was "filled with sadness of heart" (Nehemiah - chapters 1 & 2). The king finally noticed this sadness and asked why. Nehemiah explained and then got permission to go to Jerusalem and act as governor of Judah, which was then a Persian province.

On his arrival in Jerusalem in 445 B.C., Nehemiah began to survey the city secretly at night, forming a plan for its restoration -- a plan that he carried out with such great skill and energy that the whole wall was completed over an astounding span of 52 days (Nehemiah - chapter 6).

Nehemiah and his workers rebuilt Jerusalem's walls from the Sheep Gate in the north, the Hananel Tower at the northwest corner, the Fish Gate in the west, the Furnaces Tower at the Temple Mount's southwest corner, the Dung Gate in the south, the East Gate and the gate beneath the Golden Gate in the east -- in all, ten gates (Nehemiah - chapter 3). (Note: Nehemiah afterwards put his brother Hanani in charge of the city gates.)

Nehemiah remained in Judah for 13 years as governor, carrying out many reforms, despite opposition, "supplementing and completing the work of Ezra." He then returned to Persia to the service of the king. But soon after this, the old corrupt state of things returned to Jerusalem..

Some believe that the prophet Malachi now appeared among the people with words of stern reproof and solemn warning and when, after an absence of two years, Nehemiah again returned from Persia, he was grieved to see the widespread moral degeneracy that had taken place during his absence. So he set himself "with vigor" to rectify the flagrant abuses that had sprung up, restoring the orderly administration of public worship and the outward observance of the Law of Moses (Nehemiah - chapter 13).

We know nothing of the rest of Nehemiah's life. He probably remained at his post as governor till his death in about 413 B.C. at a ripe old age. Nehemiah was the last of the governors of this land sent out from the Persian court, as Judah was then annexed to southern Syria and governed by a Syrian-appointed High Priest. The Book of Nehemiah is the last of the historical accounts in the Old Testament.

Place Names in Hebrew History

(Areas are located in reference to such well-known places such as Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee)

Ammon is located north of Moab and east of the Jordan River. The Ammonites are said to have their origin from Ben-Ammi, the son of an incestuous union between Lot and his younger daughter (Genesis - chapter19). There was almost constant fighting between Ammon and Israel. Jephthah, the ninth Judge (982-976 B.C.), subdued the Ammonites. King Saul drove the Ammonite King Nahash from Jabesh in Gilead. Originally, there were good relations between King David and Ammon. But when David sent his servants to console the Ammonite king on the death of his father, the new king embarrassed the servants by shaving their heads. A war then broke out, which the Israelites won. It was during this war that the David-and-Bathsheba affair occurred, with the subsequent killing of Bathsheba's husband, Uriah. Ammon was defeated by Israel two more times in later years. Ammon was condemned by many of the prophets. Today, Ammon and its neighbors, Moab and Edom, are part of Jordan.

The town of Beer-sheba, about 45 miles southwest of Jerusalem in the Negev desert, played a key role in the lives of the patriarchs. Abraham lived there briefly, as did his son, Isaac, who built an altar there. Isaac's son, Jacob, visited the area when he went to Egypt to escape the great famine. Many generations later, Samuel's sons were judges in Beer-sheba. The name Beer-sheba (which means "the well of the oath") comes from an incident involving Abraham and Abimelech, the king of Gerar when they made a covenant over a water well (Genesis - chapter 21). The saying "from Dan to Beer-sheba" is used to refer to the complete nation of Israel, from the north to the south.

Bethel is a city located about 10 miles north of Jerusalem. It is first mentioned in chapter 12 of Genesis when Abraham builds an altar there. Abraham returns to Bethel from Egypt, and it was here that Lot moved his herds away from Abraham, as the land could not support the two herds. It was also here that Jacob had his dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth, and thus he named the place Bethel, "House of God, Gate of Heaven." It was formerly called Luz (Genesis - chapter 28). The Ark of the Covenant was housed in Bethel during the period of the Judges (Judges - chapter 20). One of these Judges, Deborah, held court from a tent under a palm tree near Bethel. Samuel visited Bethel on his yearly circuit. During Elijah's time, a guild of prophets resided there, and Bethel was one of the stops Elijah and Elisha made before Elijah was "taken up into Heaven in a fiery chariot." When Israel was divided into two kingdoms in 931 B.C., Bethel became one of the places where people in the northern kingdom gathered to worship. It was here that King Jeroboam (931-909 B.C.) set up one of his golden calves to compete with the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. The prophets Hosea and Amos both condemned the worshiping of the calf in Bethel. Bethel fell to the Assyrians, along with the rest of the Northern Kingdom, in 722 B.C.

Bethlehem was the home of Ruth and Boaz and their great grandson, David. It was in Bethlehem that Samuel anointed David to be the second King of Israel. For a time, the Philistines occupied Bethlehem, and it was there that David's three men broke through the Philistine ranks to bring him water. Not far outside Bethlehem is the tomb of Jacob's wife, Rachel. The ancient name for the town of Bethlehem is Ephrathah or Ephrath.

Canaan refers to both a place and a person. In this case, the place was named after the person. Canaan was the son of Ham and grandson of Noah. He was the ancestor of the Canaanites, a group of people including the Jebusites and Zemarites, who often clashed with the Israelites -- as described in the book of Joshua and in other books of the Old Testament. Canaan is the land that became known as the land of Israel. Canaan became an Egyptian province in 1990 B.C. and remained so for the next 200 years. In 1486 B.C., an Egyptian army under Pharaoh Thutmose III defeated a Canaanite army at Megiddo, thereby consolidating Egyptian rule over Canaan. Thereafter, until about 1150 B.C. when the Assyrians took over, Egyptian control was an "off and on" matter.

Edom traditionally is the region established by the descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob. Edom means "red" and was a name by which Esau was called. The land of Edom was located to the east of Jerusalem, between the Dead Sea to the north and the Gulf of Aqaba to the south. Its most famous city was Petra, which featured many buildings carved into rock. (Petra and the land that once was Edom are now part of the country of Jordan.) Edom would not allow the Israelites to use Edomite roads on their way to Canaan (Numbers - chapter 20); Aaron died on Mount Hor near the border of Edom. Although Edom and Israel were related through Esau and Jacob, there was almost constant warfare between the two peoples. David was the first Israelite King to conquer Edom. Edom revolted in the days of King Jehoram (848-841 B.C.), installing its own king. Years later, King Amaziah (796-767 B.C.) reconquered Edom, and it was not until the days of King Ahaz (734-716 B.C.) that the country regained its independence. In the 6th century B.C., Edom, along with Judah, was conquered by the Babylonians. In the years following its downfall, the country was overrun by nomadic tribes, which forced the Edomites westward into southern Judah, south of Hebron. The area became known as Idumea, and in 135 B.C. it was conquered by John Hyrcanus, who converted the people to Judaism. King Herod the Great was an Idumean of Edomite origin. Edom was condemned by several prophets, especially Obadiah, who devoted his entire twenty-one-verse book to foretelling the eventual destruction of the country. Edom ceased to exist as a definable people within a few centuries after the final Romans suppression of Jewish uprisings in 135 A.D.

Galilee refers to both a region and a sea in the northern part of Israel. The region, which includes the towns of Nazareth, Cana and Tiberias, is bordered by the Jezreel Valley on the south, Lebanon on the north, the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River on the east, and the Plain of Acre on the west. For a long time, it was populated by the tribes of Asher, Naphtali, Zebulun and Issachar. Later it was part of territory ruled over by Herod the Great. His son, Herod Antipas, later established the city of Tiberias, which became the capitol of Galilee. Galilee is the highest and coolest area in Israel. It is well watered, green and has many springs. The Sea of Galilee is a fresh-water lake in northern Israel. It is 13 miles long and about 8 miles across at its widest point. The lake is 702 feet below sea level and is surrounded by mountains about 1,500 feet high. Its maximum depth is 150 feet. The Jordan River, which feeds it from the north, then continues south to the Dead Sea.

Gath is one of five ancient Philistine cities (along with Gaza, Ekron, Ashkelon and Ashdod) along the Mediteranean seacoast. It is said to have been the birthplace of Goliath.

Gaza is a city on the Mediterranean coast about 50 miles southwest of Jerusalem. It was settled by the Philistines around 1200 B.C. when these warlike sea going people came from the north and invaded Canaan. It was said to have been the place where Samson was delivered into bondage by Delilah. There he died while toppling the temple of the Philistine god Dagon. The area around Gaza changed hands many times in the ensuing centuries. It fell, successively, to Israel's King David (1000 B.C.), to the Assyrians (732 B.C.), Egyptians (701 B.C.), Assyrians again (671 B.C.), Babylonians (586 BC), Persians (525 BC) and Greeks. After conquering it in 332 B.C., Alexander the Great, who had met stiff resistance there, sold its inhabitants into slavery.

Gehenna, derived from "Ge Hinnom" meaning "Valley of Hinnom," is a valley outside the south wall of ancient Jerusalem that stretches from the foot of Mount Zion eastward to the Kidron Valley. In ancient times, children were sacrificed to the pagan god Molech in Gehenna (either a killing or a simple rite of passing through fire), a practice that was outlawed by King Josiah (II Kings - chapter 23). Fires were kept burning there and the valley became the garbage dump of Jerusalem. The dead bodies of criminals and the carcasses of animals were also thrown there.

Geshur was a territory in the northern part of Bashan, located north of Gilead and east of the Jordan River. It was allotted to the half-tribe of Manasseh, which had settled east of the Jordan River; but its inhabitants, the Geshurites, could not be expelled (Joshua - chapter13). In the time of King David, Geshur was an independent kingdom, and David married a daughter of Talmai, King of Geshur. (II Samuel - chapter 3). After the murder of his half-brother, her son Absalom fled to his mother's native country, where he stayed three years before David allowed him to return to Israel.

Gilead is a mountainous region east of the Jordan River, situated in the present-day Kingdom of Jordan. As a whole, it included the tribal territories of Gad, Reuben and the eastern half of Manasseh (Deuteronomy - chaper 3 and Numbers - chapter 32). It was bounded on the north by Bashan, and on the south by Moab and Ammon (Genesis - chapter 31 and Deuteronomy - chapter 3). The deep ravine of the river Hieromax (in modern times, Sheriat el-Mandhur) separated Bashan from Gilead, which was about 60 miles in length and 20 in breadth, extending from near the south end of the Sea of Galilee to the north end of the Dead Sea.

Gilgal, located east of Jericho and west of the Jordan River, is the name of the place where Joshua and the Israelites entered Canaan. Joshua set up twelve stones there (representing the twelve Tribes of Israel) to commemorate the crossing of the Jordan. Saul was named the first king of Israel at Gilgal. The people of Judah met King David at Gilgal to bring him over the Jordan after his son Absalom died. The prophets Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal shortly before Elijah died.

Hebron was originally a Canaanite royal city before it became one of the principle centers of the Tribe of Judah. It was given to Caleb as a reward for his truthful scouting report when the Israelites first contemplated invading Canaan some 40-plus years earlier. Located some 20 miles south of Jerusalem, it is the site of the Cave of the Patriarchs (supposedly the burial place of Adam & Eve; Abraham & Sarah; Isaac & Rebekah and Jacob & Leah). Herod the Great built the wall that still surrounds this site. King David reigned from Hebron for more than seven years.

Hinnom Valley - see Gehenna.

Jaffa, also known as Joppa, is a port city on the Mediterranean about 31 miles northwest of Jerusalem and 56 miles south of Haifa. After Joshua conquered Canaan, Joppa became part of the land allotted to the tribe of Dan (which also had land in northeastern Israel near Mount Hermon). King Solomon used Joppa as a port to bring in timber from Lebanon for the Temple, and Ezra also had cedar trees brought into Joppa from Lebanon. The prophet Jonah sailed from Joppa on a ship going to Tarshish, but ended up in Nineveh. In 701 B.C., Joppa was conquered by Assyria. The modern city of Tel Aviv grew out of Joppa early in the 20th century, and this area today forms Israel's biggest metropolis.

Jericho was a city about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem, 5 miles west of the Jordan River and 10 miles north of the Dead Sea. Situated well below sea level, Jericho is the lowest permanently inhabited site on earth. It is also believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world -- with evidence of settlement dating back to 9000 B.C. Jericho was the first major conquest by the Israelites after they crossed the Jordan River and entered Canaan.

Jerusalem is one of the most famous cities in the world. Located in the Judean Hills of Israel, with the Hinnom and Kidron Valleys as part of its borders, the city is 2,600 feet above sea level. Jerusalem is first mentioned in the Bible as Salem, or Shalem (Genesis - chapter 14), where a meeting took place between Abraham and a man named Melchizedek, who was king in that area. Jerusalem became the seat of power in the land of Israel during the reign of King David, who drove the Jebusites out of the city around 1004 B.C. David reigned there as King of Israel for 33 years, after reigning his first seven years in Hebron. After David, all of the kings of Judah reigned in Jerusalem. In 701 B.C. the Assyrians besieged Jerusalem, but through the prayers of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, the city was saved. (II Kings - chapter 19). In 586 B.C. Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army. After the Persians under Cyrus the Great defeated Babylon in 539 B.C., some of the Jews who had been taken as captives by the Babylonians were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Jerusalem again became the capital of the land of Israel during the Hasmonean period (164-63 B.C.) when the Romans occupied the city. Herod the Great, a Roman vassal, rebuilt the city and remodeled the Temple on a grander scale around 19 B.C. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D. The original site of Jerusalem, still sometimes called the City of David, is south of the Temple Mount and is surrounded by hills.

Today with three major religions centered in Jerusalem, it is a focal point of the world.

Judah refers to the southern part of the land of Israel and includes the cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. Covering most of the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea, Judah is named after one of the twelve sons of Jacob (later given the name of Israel). Judah existed as an independent kingdom for about 300 years, starting in 931 B.C. when Israel broke up into two separate kingdoms. The northern kingdom kept the name Israel and the southern kingdom became known as the Kingdom of Judah. Judah ceased to exist as a kingdom when the Babylonians conquered it in 586 B.C. The

Kidron Valley runs between the east wall of Jerusalem along the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives, and extends south to the Judean desert. The spring of Gihon, the main water source for Jerusalem, is located there. King Hezekiah (716-687 B.C.) built a tunnel from the spring to bring water into Jerusalem in preparation for the Assyrian siege of 701 B.C.

Kiriath-Jearim was a town about 9 miles northwest of Jerusalem, near the boundary that separated the land allotted to the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. It was here that the Philistines returned the Ark of the Covenant to the Israelites. It remained in Kiriath-Jearim for 20 years before King David took it to Jerusalem.

Masada (a Romanized word for the Hebrew Mitzada, which means fortress) is a fortress built during the 1st century A.D. by King Herod. Masada is an isolated plateau that overlooks the Dead Sea to the east. It is on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert in the southern part of Israel, some 30 miles southeast of Jerusalem. Decades after Herod died, there was a revolt of the Jewish people to free themselves from the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. A group of Jewish fighters defeated a Roman garrison and captured Masada, which then was used for as a base for some of the Jewish fighters. Masada was besieged by a Roman army, but its defenders, along with the women and children who lived there with the soldiers, committed suicide in 73 A.D. rather than submit to capture and slavery by the Romans.

Megiddo is a raised fortification that protects and overlooks the Jezreel Valley. Located about 18 miles south of the Sea of Galilee and 5 miles west of the Jordan River (about 52 miles north of Jerusalem), it dominates the route between Egypt and Syria. Because of its position, many battles were fought there -- more, in fact, than at any other place in Israel. Archaeological investigations show twenty-four layers of occupation going back some 3500 years to when Thutmose III (1479- 1425 B.C.) and his Egyptian army conquered the Canaanites. King Solomon built an elaborate city there and fortified it. In 925 B.C., during the reign of King Rehoboam of Israel, it was captured by Pharaoh Shishak of Egypt. In 732 B.C., it fell to King Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria, who made it the capitol of one of the Assyrian provinces. In 609 B.C., King Josiah of Judah was killed there in a battle against Pharaoh Necho of Egypt.

Michmash was a town east of Bethel and about 10 miles northwest of Jerusalem that lay on the line of march of any invading army coming from the north. Situated on the north side of the steep and precipitous Wadi es-Suweinit, it is known by its connection with the war between the Philistines and Saul and Jonathan (I Samuel - chapter 13). According to the Bible, King Saul's son Jonathan was able to beat the Philistines by finding a secret path around the town and flanking them, which caused panic throughout and a subsequent rout of the Philistines. Later, during the reign of King Hezekiah (716-687 B.C.) when the Assyrian King Sennacherib invaded the Kingdom of Judah, it is mentioned in chapter 10 of Isaiah. At a later date, it became the residence of Jonathan Maccabaeus (161-143 B.C.) and the seat of his government.

Moab is on the east side of the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, between Edom and Ammon. The Moabites originated from the incestuous union of Lot with his elder daughter, who bore him a son named Moab (Genesis - chapter 19). The Moabites would not allow Moses and the Israelites to use their roads to get to Canaan. When Moses died, he was buried in Moab. When the Israelites settled in Canaan, the tribes of Reuben and Gad conquered parts of the country of the Amorites that had formerly belonged to Moab. There was almost constant fighting between Israel and Moab. Saul and David both fought there, and Ehud, one of the Judges, subdued Moab for 80 years (Judges - chapter 3). But there were period of peace; during the time of the Book of Ruth, for instance. Ruth, who was from Moab, was the great-grandmother of King David. Moab freed itself from Israel's domination after the death of King Ahab (873-853 B.C.) of Israel. After Babylon defeated the Kingdom of Judah in 586 B.C., it was plundered by Moab, which later became part of the Babylon and Persian empires. Many of the prophets condemned Moab for scoffing and boasting against Israel, and for the people's pride, arrogance and insolence and because they worshiped idols. Today the area that was Moab during Biblical times is part of Jordan.

Mount Ararat is the tallest peak in Turkey (6,854 feet above sea level) and is located at the eastern edge of that country. It is said to be the place where Noah's ark landed after the great flood.

Mount Carmel is a ridge of mountains (about 1,740 feet high at its westernmost part sloping gradually to the southeast) that extends southeast some 24 miles from the Mediterranean coast near the modern city of Haifa. Megiddo is situated at its eastern end and the Jezreel Valley lies to its immediate northeast. The range forms a natural barrier, just as the Jezreel Valley forms a natural passageway. Consequently, over time, the mountain range and the valley have had a large impact on migrations and invasions through the area.

Mount Gilboa is a mountain ridge (1,829 feet high) just south of Mount Tabor. It is the site of the battle where the Philistines defeated the army of the Israelites under Saul, who then committed suicide.

Mount Hermon, where the Jordan River begins, is located at the southern end of the anti-Lebanon mountain range and is its highest peak (9,230 feet above sea level).

Mount Horeb - see Sinai.

Mount Moriah is said to be the site where Abraham was about to sacrifice Issac. Today, Mount Moriah is the location of the Temple Mount, along with the "Dome of the Rock" mosque.

Mount Seir formed the south-east border of Edom and Judah and may also have been the older historical border of Egypt and Canaan. It was the mountainous region allotted to the descendants of Esau, the Edomites. Mount Seir is specifically noted as the place that Esau made his home (Genesis - chapter 36 and Joshua - chapter 24). It was named for Seir, the Horite, whose children battled against the children of Esau -- and lost (Deuteronomy - chapter 2).

Mount Sinai - see Sinai.

Mount Tabor is a round-shaped mountain (1,750 feet above sea level) at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley in lower Galilee about 11 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee. Its unusual shape and the fact that it stands alone attracts attention. Deborah, Barak and 10,000 men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun gathered there to fight the Canaanites (Judges - chapter 4). The

Negev (or Negeb, meaning "south") is a triangular wedge of desert land in southern Israel touching the Gulf of Aqaba.

Ophrah, a town 6 miles south-west of Shechem, was the home of Gideon, Israel's fourth major Judge after the birth of Joshua.

Samaria refers to both a region and a city. After King Solomon's death in about 930 B.C., his empire split into two separate kingdoms. The northern portion was called the Kingdom of Israel and its sixth king, King Omri (885-874 B.C.), established the kingdom's capital at Samaria during his reign. In 725 B.C., the Assyrians attacked Samaria and it fell to them about three years later, at which point they deported many of the people from the northern kingdom, bringing in people from other countries to take their place. In time, these different groups intermarried with the Hebrews who remained, and the people became known as the Samaritans. The city of Samaria was located on a hill about 35 miles north of Jerusalem, which remained as the capital of the southern Kingdom of Judah. In 108 B.C., John Hyrcanus conquered and destroyed the city. King Herod the Great later rebuilt it, naming it Sebaste. The city was destroyed by the Romans in 66 A.D. and then was once again rebuilt.

Shechem (called Nablus in Arabic) is a town located in the central hill country of Israel about 31 miles north of Jerusalem between Bethel and Megiddo. The Biblical account indicates Shechem was the first place Abraham, Sarah, Lot and their party stopped upon their entry to Canaan. It was here that Abram built "an altar to the Lord" after he had received word that the land would be given to him and his descendants (Genesis - chapter 12). Joshua called all the Israelites to Shechem and made a covenant between themselves and God and erected a large stone as a memory of the covenant. When Jeroboam became king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 931 B.C., he made Shechem its capitol for a time. Jacob's well is located near Shechem. Archaeological evidence indicates that the city was razed and reconstructed up to twenty-two times before its final demise in 200 A.D. Gideon's family lived at Shechem.

Shiloh is a town in Mount Ephraim about 20 miles north of Jerusalem. After the conquest of the land of Israel by Joshua, the Tabernacle was set up there (Joshua - chapter 18), and it was there where Joshua distributed the territorial allotments to seven of the twelve Tribes of Israel. It was also the place where Hannah gave her young son Samuel to be trained by Eli the High Priest. During the priesthood of Eli, the Ark of the Covenant was brought out of Shiloh to inspire the Israelite army, but was captured by the Philistines. After Israel regained the Ark some 6 or 7 months later, it was lodged about 7 miles west of Jerusalem at Kiriath-Jearim, where it remained for 20 years. King David then took it to Jerusalem, pausing en route to leave it with Obed-Edom, the Gittite (i.e., a native of Gath), for 3 months. The prophet Ahijah in the days of King Rehoboam of Judah, came from Shiloh. The

Sinai is a triangular-shaped peninsula between Egypt and Israel that is bordered by the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba (Elath). It is here that Moses and the Israelites wandered for 40 years. The lower part of the Sinai is mountainous, reaching to a height of 8,600 feet. It was on a mountain in Sinai -- called either Mount Sinai, Mount Horeb or The Mountain of God -- that Moses received the Ten Commandments. A whole generation of Israelites lived and died in Sinai, and a new generation was born. Only two adults who entered Sinai -- Joshua and Caleb -- made it through the 40 years of wandering and were able to cross the Jordan into Israel. It was in the Sinai that Moses wrote the first five book of the Bible: Geneses, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Sinai is the only land connection between Asia and Africa, and between Egypt and Israel. The Paran desert is located in Sinai; this is where Ishmael lived with his mother Hagar, and where David hid after the death of Samuel.

Hebrew Holy Days, Holidays & Festivals

Rosh Hashanah, which occurs in September, is commonly known as the Jewish New Year. One of the holiest days of the year for Jews, it is a time for introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning changes to be made in the new. The holiday is first noted in chapter 23 of Leviticus; one of the most important observances of this holiday is the sounding of the shofar, or ram's horn, in the synagogue. No work is permitted on Rosh Hashanah.

A popular observance during this holiday is eating apples dipped in honey, a symbol of a wish for a sweet new year. In addition, round challah bread is eaten to symbolize the circle of the life and the cycle of a new year. Another popular practice of the holiday is Tashlikh or "casting off." Jews walk to flowing water, such as a creek or river, on the afternoon of the first day and empty their pockets into the river, symbolically casting off sins.

Days of Awe, the ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, are also known as the Days of Repentance. This is a time for serious introspection for Jews; a time to consider the sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur. One of the ongoing themes of the Days of Awe is that God has "books" in which He writes down who will live and who will die, who will have a good life and who will have a bad life, for the next year. This is the source of the common greeting during this time: "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year."

Yom Kippur is probably the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or attend synagogue services on this day. Yom Kippur, which occurs from mid-September to early October, is first mentioned in chapter 23 of Leviticus. Yom Kippur means "Day of Atonement." It is a day set aside to "afflict the soul," to atone for the sins of the past year. .

No work can be performed on Yom Kippur. People are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking (even water) in a complete, 25-hour fast beginning before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. Most of the holiday is spent in the synagogue in prayer. Services end at nightfall with the blowing of a long blast on the shofar. It is customary to wear white on the holiday, which symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise in chapter 1 of Isaiah that "sins shall be made as white as snow."

Sukkot, which occurs from late September to mid-October (five days after Yom Kippur), represents a drastic change, going from one of the most solemn holidays in the Jewish year to one of the most joyous. This holiday commemorates the 40-year period during which the Israelites were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Sukkot is also a harvest festival, and is sometimes referred to as the "Festival of Ingathering." The word "Sukkot" means "booths" and refers to the temporary dwellings that are built during this holiday.

Hanukkah (observed for eight days during December) is the Jewish festival of rededication. Also known as the Festival of Lights, it is probably one of the better known Jewish holidays. The story of Hanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great, who allowed the people under his control to continue observing their own religions. However, more than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV, began to oppress the Jews severely, even desecrating the Temple by requiring pigs to be sacrificed on the altar. The Hebrews revolted under the leadership of the Maccabees. They were successful in ousting their oppressors, and the Temple was rededicated.

According to Talmudic tradition, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. Although there was only enough oil to burn for one day, miraculously it burned for eight days. Thus, an eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.

The only religious observance related to this holiday is the lighting of candles, which are arranged in a candelabrum called a Hanukiah. (Many people incorrectly refer to this as a menorah, which is the seven-branched candelabrum that was housed in the Jewish Temple.) The Hanukiah holds nine candles: One for each night, plus one for a shamash (servant) at a different height. Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first).

Purim, which usually occurs in March, is another joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates a time when the Hebrews living in Persia were saved from extermination as told in the Biblical Book of Esther. The heroes in the story are Esther, a beautiful young Hebrew woman living in Persia, and her cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if she were his own daughter. At some point, Esther is taken to the king of Persia to become part of his harem. According to the story, he loved her more than his other women and made her his queen. But he did not know that Esther was a Hebrew, because Mordecai told her not to reveal her nationality.

The villain of the story is Haman, an arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king who hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman. So Haman devised a plot to destroy the Hebrew people. In chapter 3 of the Book of Esther, Haman tells the king, "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it does not profit the king to suffer them." The king then gives the fate of the Jewish people to Haman, to do as he pleases; and he plans to exterminate all of the Jews.

Mordecai persuades Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people -- a dangerous thing to do, because anyone coming into the king's presence without being summoned could be put to death; and she had not been summoned. Esther fasts for three days to prepare herself, then goes to the king, who welcomes her. She then tells him of Haman's plot against her people; the Hebrews are saved, and Haman is hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.

The word "Purim" means "lots" and refers to the lottery that Haman used to choose the date for his planned massacre of the Hebrew people. It's customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim, to perform plays and parodies, and to hold beauty contests.

Passover, which usually occurs in the first part of April, is another well-known Jewish holidays. It is the first of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Shavu'ot and Sukkot). The primary observances of Passover are related to the flight from Egypt after 400 years of slavery as told in chapters 1-15 of Exodus. The term "Passover" refers to the fact that God "passed over" the houses of the Hebrews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt.

Probably the most significant observance related to Passover involves the removal of leavening agents from Jewish homes. This commemorates the fact that the Hebrews leaving Egypt were in a hurry and did not have time to let their bread rise. The grain product eaten during Passover is called matzah or unleavened bread, made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is the bread that the Hebrews made during their flight from Egypt.

On the first night of Passover, there is a special family meal filled with ritual called a seder, from a Hebrew root word meaning "order." This includes the maggid, a retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the first Passover. A blessing is recited over a bitter vegetable (usually raw horseradish; sometimes romaine lettuce), which symbolizes the bitterness of slavery. Another dish includes a mixture of apples, nuts, cinnamon and wine, which symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews on buildings during their slavery. Passover lasts for seven days, the first and last of which are days on which no work is permitted.

Shavu'ot, which falls in May or June, is the "Festival of Weeks," the second of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Passover and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple, and is known as the Festival of the First Fruits. Historically, it celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

It is customary to stay up the entire first night of Shavu'ot and study the Torah, then pray as early as possible in the morning. It is also customary to eat a dairy meal at least once during Shavu'ot; the book of Ruth is read at this time.

Tisha B'Av (usually in August) is a day of mourning to commemorate the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, a number of which coincidentally have occurred on the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av. It primarily commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, both of which were destroyed on the 9th of Av (the first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.; the second by the Romans in 70 A.D.). But other Jewish tragedies are also remembered at this time.

Hebrew History Timeline:

  • Circa 1850 B.C. (plus or minus 50 years) - Abraham moves from Ur to Haran and thence to Canaan.
  • 1710 (1690?) B.C. - Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt; he is freed, gains favor with the Pharaoh, and invites his brothers to join him in order to flee a famine in Canaan..
  • 1705 B.C. - Famine in Canaan forces many Hebrews to migrate to Egypt in search of food and better living conditions.
  • Circa 1300-1290 B.C. - The Exodus: Hebrews flee Egypt and spend the next 40 years as nomads in the Arabian peninsula.
  • 1250 B.C. - Hebrews reach the promised land and begin to wrest it from the Canaanites.
  • 1200-1050 B.C. - The period of the judges, charismatic leaders who rise to lead the Israelite tribes, primarily because of their military ability
  • 1200 B.C. - Philistines invade from the north and drive the Israelites from the coastal areas.
  • 1186-1168 B.C. - The Philistines move inland from the coast and briefly conquer and occupy the settlements of the Israelites before returning to coastal areas.
  • 1150 B.C. - When Egypt loses control of the region to Assyria, the Philistines take the opportunity to re-conquer the Israelites. They establish vassal kings there until they are forced out 40 years later in 1110 B.C.
  • 1050 B.C. - Philistines win a decisive battle near Shiloh and capture the Ark of the Covenant.
  • 1030 B.C. (some cite 1050 B.C.) - Saul becomes the first king of the Hebrews.
  • 1010-970 B.C. - David becomes king of Israel after Saul dies in battle. David defeats the Philistines and rules for 40 years, establishing Jerusalem as the capital city in 1000 B.C. He also brings the Ark of the Covenant to reside in Jerusalem.
  • 970-930 B.C. - Solomon succeeds his father, David.
  • 960 B.C. - The First Temple, the national and spiritual center of the Jewish people, is built in Jerusalem by King Solomon. The new Temple houses the Ark of the Covenant that David had brought to Jerusalem.
  • 930 B.C. - Israel is split in two. The ten northern tribes form the Kingdom of Israel with its capital eventually in Samaria; the tribes of Judah and Benjamin form the Kingdom of Judea in the south with its capital remaining in Jerusalem.
  • 852-832 B.C. - Elisha holds the office of "prophet in Israel."
  • 722 B.C.- The Assyrians under Sargon II conquer the Kingdom of Israel and scatter the "ten lost tribes" throughout their territory, where they lose their identity as Hebrews.
  • 715 B.C. - King Hezekiah of Judah introduces major religious reforms, cleansing the kingdom of pagan influences and centralizing the religious ritual in Judah.
  • 704-701 B.C. - Despite the advice of the Prophet Isaiah, Hezekiah joins a revolt against Assyria. The Assyrians devastate the northern region, finally withdrawing from a siege of Jerusalem after extracting a huge ransom.
  • 630-620 B.C. - Almost a century after Hezekiah's reform program, King Josiah carries out a more extensive and far-reaching reform. Once again, pagan aspects of religion that had become popular were outlawed.
  • 604 B.C. - Babylon, having defeated Assyria, makes the Kingdom of Judah a tribute- paying vassal of Babylon.
  • 601 B.C. - After a stalemate between rivals Egypt and Babylon, King Jehoiakim of Judah withholds tribute to Babylon, an act of rebellion.
  • 597 B.C. - The Babylonians conquer the Kingdom of Judah and move several thousand people from the Judean leadership classes to a single location near the city of Babylon.
  • 589 B.C. - Despite warnings from the Prophet Jeremiah, King Zedekiah decides to revolt once again against Babylon.
  • 587-586 B.C. - After putting down the revolt, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar destroys Jerusalem and its Temple and moves thousands more Hebrews to Babylon as exiles.
  • 582 B.C. - After another revolt by Judean nationalists opposed to Babylon, the Babylonian army returns and exiles a third wave of several thousand Judeans to join their countrymen in Babylon.
  • 539 B.C. - The Persian emperor Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon.
  • 538 B.C. - Cyrus the Great announces that he will allow the Judean exiles to return to their own land and rebuild the Temple as long as they swear loyalty to Persia. Some decide to take the offer and return. .
  • 538-332 B.C. - The Kingdom of Judah exists as a tribute state to Persia, which dominates all of the Middle East and Egypt during this period.
  • 515 B.C. - After years of hardship, a new Second Temple, is finally built.
  • 459 B.C. - Ezra, another Jewish religious leader, leads another group of Hebrews from Babylon to Jerusalem . There he strengthens religious reforms, including regular reading of portions of the Torah that appears to have been forgotten.
  • 445 B.C. - Nehemiah, a high Jewish official at the Persian court of Persia, hearing that the Jewish community in Judea is in a very difficult situation, requests a leave of absence and authority to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Assigned there as governor, he also initiates reforms to strengthen and unify the Jews.
  • 331 B.C. - Alexander the Great conquers Persia, and Palestine becomes a Greek state.
  • 319-302 B.C. - Jerusalem and Israel change hands seven times in the midst of a power struggle between two of Alexander the Great's generals: Ptolmey, who inherited Egypt, and Seleucus, who ruled the Middle East and Mesopotamia.
  • 250 B.C. - The "Septuagint" translation of the Torah from Hebrew into Greek is placed in the great library in Alexandria..
  • 200 B.C. - Finally, after a century of intermittent war, the Seleucid king, Antiochus III takes control of Judea, confirming all the rights Jews had enjoyed under the Persians, Alexander and the Ptolemy kings.
  • 175 B.C. - The next Seleucian king, Antiochus IV, strongly encourages his subjects to take on a Greek lifestyle -- anathema to pious Jews.
  • 166 B.C. - The Maccabee rebellion begins after Antiochus IV desecrates the Temple.
  • 164 B.C. - Jerusalem is recaptured by the Maccabees and the Temple purified, an event now celebrated by the Jews as the holiday of Hanukkah.
  • 152.B.C. - Jonathon, brother of Judah Maccabee, proclaims himself High Priest.
  • 142 B.C. - The Maccabees finally force the Seleucids to retreat from Palestine and recognize Judea as an independent state. The Hasmonean dynasty is established.
  • 63 B.C. - Jerusalem captured by the Roman general, Pompey the Great. Judea becomes a protectorate of Rome with a Roman governor and a Hebrew king .
  • 47 B.C. - Julius Caesar appoints Antipater, an Edomite and father of Herod the Great, as procurator of Judea, Samaria and Galilee.
  • 40 B.C. - After Herod the Great pleads his case to Mark Antony, the Roman Senate names him "King of the Jews."
  • 37 B.C. - After three years of fighting, Herod the Great gains the throne of Judah. For more than 30 years, he will rule as a cruel despot. He will also become famous for his many magnificent building projects, including a huge palace at Herodium, about 5 miles east of Bethlehem; the fortification of the desert fortress Massada; the building of the new port of Caesarea; and, most importantly, the complete rebuilding of Second Temple.
  • 4 B.C. - Herod the Great dies and is buried at Herodium. Three of his sons split the kingdom and rule as tetrarches: Archelaus (Samaria and Judea), Philip (Golan heights), and Herod Antipas (Galilee and the east bank of the Jordan).
  • 6 A.D. - Herod's principal heir, Archelaus, is found by the Romans to be unsatisfactory, and Judea is placed under the direct control of Roman governors.
  • 66 A.D. - The Hebrews begin a desperate revolt against Roman rule that ends tragically. The Diaspora begins as the Romans actively drive the Jewish people from the land.
  • 70 A.D. - Roman armies crush the revolt and destroy Jerusalem and the Temple.
  • 73 A.D. - Under siege by the Romans for two years in a mountain fort named Masada, the remaining revolutionaries commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans.
  • 132-135 A.D. - The second or Bar Kokhba revolt. Buoyed by early success, the revolutionaries are soon crushed by massive Roman armies and the majority of the Hebrew population of Judea is either killed, exiled or sold into slavery. The Jewish religious center then shifts to the Babylonian Jewish community and its scholars.


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