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Ancient Israelites and their Neighbors
An Activity Guide
By Marian Broida
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2003 Marian Broida
All rights reserved.
Around 1200 B.C.E. Canaan was part of a world in turmoil. All the great civilizations of the region were in flux. For hundreds of years, Egypt had held power over the cities of Canaan, but now its hold was weakening. Egypt's chief rivals, the Hittites, would soon fall to attackers. Suddenly, no great power ruled the region. Canaan was due for an enormous change.
Around this time, an obscure people began to settle in Canaan's central hills. So poor were their settlements, so crude their tools, that no one could have imagined the influence they would have. Yet these obscure people, the Israelites, left a legacy unlike any other in the world. Instead of riches, knowledge, or fine art, their legacy was a religious one. Thousands of years later, people across the world would know about the Israelites' God.
Be aware that many stories can be told about the Israelites — historians, archaeologists, and people of different faiths tell their stories differently. At times they disagree.
What the Bible Tells Us
The Hebrew Bible traces the Israelites' beginnings to seven people: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
In the Bible, Abraham and his wife Sarah followed God's command to leave their home in Mesopotamia for Canaan. There, Sarah bore Isaac, who married Rebecca. Their son Jacob married Rachel and Leah, and fathered a daughter and 12 sons. An angel wrestled with Jacob and gave him a new name: Israel. Jacob's children became the "children of Israel" — the term the Bible uses for the Israelites.
Jacob's sons had personal problems, to say the least. Nine of them sold their brother Joseph, Jacob's favorite, to slave traders. The slave traders took Joseph to Egypt. There, Joseph's adventures included slavery, prison, and a rise to great power. Later, his family ended up in Egypt as well. (The story in the Bible is quite exciting — you might want to read it!) In time, according to the Bible, Jacob's descendants became slaves to the Egyptian king, until an Israelite named Moses (who was raised as an Egyptian prince) guided them to freedom. Moses led the Israelites to Mount Sinai, where they made a covenant with God and received the Ten Commandments. After Moses' death and 40 years wandering in the desert, they settled in Canaan — a land, says the Bible, flowing with milk and honey.
From the northern city of Dan to the southern town of Beer-Sheba (bare-SHEE-ba), the Israelites came to occupy most of southern Canaan — the location of the modern state of Israel. To their east lay the Jordan River. To their south lay desert. To their north was Lebanon, home of the Phoenicians. The Philistines lived in the fertile fields to the west, by the sea. Like modern Israelis, the ancient Israelites called their land Israel.
The Bible says the Israelites' first leaders were judges (actually military leaders), with names like Deborah, Gideon (GID-ee-un), and Samuel. Then, when battles broke out between the Philistines and Israelites, the Israelites demanded a king. Their first king, Saul, died in shame after losing a battle. But their next king, David, defeated the Philistines and made Jerusalem his capital. There, David's son, King Solomon, built God a mighty temple from fragrant Phoenician cedar and costly stone.
The Bible says that Solomon reigned over an immense area, from the Euphrates (yoo-FRAY-teez) River in Mesopotamia to Egypt's border. Some archaeologists believe his realm was really much smaller. According to the Bible, the reigns of King David and King Solomon included the Israelites' most powerful years. Scholars call their reigns — and King Saul's — the "United Monarchy." It lasted until King Solomon's death, when the kingdom split into two — one part ruled by Solomon's son, and the other by a man named Jeroboam I (jer-o-BOE-am the first), who was chosen by the northern Israelites to be their king.
The northern kingdom, called Israel, and the southern kingdom, called Judah, existed side by side for several hundred years, each ruled by its own king. Scholars call this period of history "the Divided Kingdom."
Again and again, Assyrian armies invaded the region during this period, burning cities that denied them tribute. Eventually Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Historians know this happened in 721 B.C.E.
The Assyrians attacked Judah too, and set its cities aflame. But they didn't destroy Jerusalem. Judah's King Hezekiah (heh-zeh-KIE-a) stripped the gold from the Temple's doors to pay the tribute the Assyrians demanded. Even so, the Assyrians planned to destroy the city. As the Bible tells it, an angel saved Jerusalem, and slayed the Assyrian soldiers camped outside its walls. We hear no more of the Assyrians in the Bible after that.
All was not quiet for long, however. An Egyptian pharaoh killed Josiah (jo-ZIE-ah),another king of Judah. Then the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (nebu-khad-NEZ-zar the second) burned Jerusalem, destroyed its Temple, and brought many of its people into Babylonia as captives. (Historians call this the "Babylonian Exile," dating it to 587 B.C.E.) The people of Judah lived in Babylon until Cyrus II of Persia conquered the Babylonians and let them return home. Historians know this happened in 538 B.C.E. — the end point of this book.
What Archaeology Tells Us
Archaeologists have been digging up the Israelites' past since the end of the 1800s, when the land was known as Palestine and was inhabited mainly by Arabs. Since 1948, when Israel became a state, excavations have increased.
Archaeologists believe they've found evidence of the first Israelite settlements: many ancient villages — groups of three to eight houses — built around 1200 B.C.E. in the central hills. Coarse, simple pottery and the lack of luxuries showed that the settlers' lives were hard and poor. As time went on, some of these tiny settlements grew, while others were abandoned.
In later periods, buildings and gateways of carefully hewn stone appeared. Most scholars agree that only an organized kingdom would have had funds for this kind of construction. Some of these buildings may date from the United Monarchy, perhaps from King Solomon's time.
During the Divided Kingdom, signs of wealth increased. Samaria, ancient capital of the northern kingdom, contained hoards of carved Phoenician ivories, just as the Bible describes. Some Israelite houses held Philistine, Phoenician, and other imported pottery; glass beads; and decorated containers for homemade cosmetics. Some towns and cities even had gutters for collecting rainwater! Still, many homes were humble, with few luxuries.
Archaeologists have also found many writings jotted on broken pottery from the Divided Kingdom period. This shows that people could read. Carved on a piece of stone called a seal (see page 27) was the name of a servant of King Jeroboam — probably Jeroboam II from the northern kingdom of Israel.
Records of violence exist, too. King Sennacherib (sen-na-KHE-rib) of Assyria displayed wall carvings showing his soldiers destroying Lachish (la-KHEESH), an important city in Judah, in 701 B.C.E. In the pictures, Assyrians are running battering rams (thick poles) up a huge ramp to pound the city walls. Archaeologists found the remains of the ramp in Lachish, along with stones the Assyrians flung into the city.
In Jerusalem, archaeologists found sad evidence of the Babylonians' attack: rooms full of burned objects and arrowheads from both sides — Judah and Babylonia. Trying to get every possible bit of evidence, archaeologists even examined dried-up feces (poop) in Jerusalem toilets. Their tests showed that the people of Jerusalem were probably eating weeds to survive.
In Judah archaeologists also found pottery and jewelry from the time of the Babylonian exile. These show that some Israelites stayed behind.
The Israelites built most of their houses by stacking rough stones and mud bricks into walls and then using mud to hold the walls together. Branches, wood beams, and brush topped with more mud formed the roofs.
Floors were usually hard-beaten earth, but some rooms were cobbled (covered with small stones). Some scholars think that these cobblestone rooms may have housed donkeys, cows, goats, or sheep. In winter, the animals' bodies would help warm the house, while their dung (dried poop scooped up from the cobblestone floors) fueled the cooking fire.
A typical house was 10 to 13 yards long (9 to 12 m) and 8 to 11 yards (7 to 10 m) wide. Many of these houses had a second story constructed of wood or mud bricks. Is your home bigger or smaller?
Archaeologists have two different names for typical Israelite houses. They call them "pillared houses" because pillars replaced one or two inside walls. They also call them "four-room houses," because most had four main rooms on the ground floor. (See the diagram at left for common floor plans.) Similar houses also existed outside of Israelite territory — for example, in Iron Age settlements across the Jordan River.
The middle room in most pillared houses, called a courtyard, opened to the sky. Families could cook, work, or eat there in nice weather.
Living in a Pillared House
Imagine you are visiting an Iron Age pillared house. The first thing you might notice would be darkness. Only a few small windows, high up, let in light.
You would smell burning dung, leather, smoke, cooking odors, the olive oil used in lamps, and perhaps animals living inside.
You would notice one or two rooms crammed with large clay storage jars of grain, oil, dried fruit, or wine. Because they didn't have supermarkets, people had to store half a year's supply of food at a time. Sometimes people stored grain in plaster-lined pits dug into the floor.
Unless the family was fairly rich, you would see little furniture. But in the courtyard you would see a loom for weaving cloth, grindstones for crushing grain, and perhaps a dome-shaped oven or a hearth.
If the house had a second floor, you'd have to go outside to climb the stairs, or clamber up a ladder inside. Upstairs you might see rolled-up sleeping mats, along with pegs, baskets, or boxes for clothes. A wealthy family might have a wooden bed, couch, table, and chairs inlaid with intricate ivory panels from Phoenicia.
Villages and Towns
The earliest Israelites lived in villages. In some villages, jumbles of houses faced every which way, but in others, all the houses faced the middle of a circle. For defense, the houses were sometimes connected, with their back walls forming a ring. A gap in the ring let people out to farm their fields.
In many early villages, nearly everyone was related. As the children grew up, the young men stayed and built their own houses. The young women — usually teenagers — often married boys or men from outside the village and moved to their husbands' homes. If the village kept growing, it might become a town — a larger village with a stronger defensive wall. In time the town might even become a city.
The biggest Israelite cities, Jerusalem and Samaria, would seem tiny to us today. At their largest, they probably held 18,000 to 20,000 people. Compare that to the size of modern cities in the United States like Washington, D.C., or Detroit, with about 500,000 inhabitants each — or New York City, with more than 7 million (7,000,000). But to an Israelite villager, their cities must have seemed grand indeed. Some of them even had paved streets. They also had larger buildings with neatly shaped stones, stronger walls, and elaborate gates.
City walls had gates to let people in and out. Each morning, gatekeepers opened the heavy doors. Each evening, they closed them for protection. But city gates were more than doors. Just inside the doors, a row of rooms opened off each side. Each room had built-in benches where people could sit.
The clothing of the ancient Israelites is now dust, like the Israelites themselves. In the climate of Canaan, only hard objects have endured: hoop-shaped earrings, rings for fingers and toes, bronze hair curlers, and colored eye paint that Israelite women ground on stone plates. Sometimes archaeologists have even found ancient bronze safety pins called fibulas (FIB-you-luhs) lying among a skeleton's bones. But the garments the fibulas once fastened have vanished.
Without real clothing, how do we know what ancient Israelites wore? The Bible tells us little, and the Israelites themselves made few pictures.
Some of the best sources come from the Assyrians, the Israelites' ancient enemies. Boastful Assyrian kings ordered carvings of Israelites offering tribute or fleeing from their soldiers. Little did they know we'd be using them to see how the Israelites dressed.
Pictures from the Past
Decorating King Sennacherib's palace in Assyria were carvings of an attack on Lachish, a city in Judah, in 701 B.C.E. The pictures — now in the British Museum — show the Israelites marching barefoot from their city or kneeling before their captors.
In these pictures, women wear long, straight, sleeveless dresses. Headscarves trail down their backs. Some of the men wear knee-length garments with short sleeves and fringed sashes. Turbans cover their heads, with a fringed end dangling over one ear. The men have short curly hair. Some have beards but not mustaches; others are clean-shaven. Older children dress exactly like their parents. Younger children wear simple, straight, ankle-length gowns or nothing at all.
About 140 years earlier, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (shal-man-ESS-er the third) had his own set of carvings made. These show King Jehu (YAY-hoo) of the northern kingdom of Israel paying him tribute. The Israelite king and his servants (probably high officials) wear full beards and floppy caps, like old-fashioned nightcaps, over long hair. Their short-sleeved robes end with a fringed hem just above the ankle. Over their robes, the servants wear long open coats with decorated borders. Their shoes have turned-up toes.
Compared to the pictures from Lachish, these carvings show a very different style of dress. Clothing probably differed between north and south, and between rich and poor. Fashions probably changed over time as well.
Israelite Language and Writing
The Israelites spoke an ancient form of Hebrew. During the later Iron Age, people spoke it a little differently in the south (Judah) than in the north (Israel), but everyone could understand one another, just as a person from London can understand a New Yorker (most of the time, anyway!).
After exile to Babylonia, the Israelites learned to speak another language: Aramaic (air-a-MAY-ick). This was the language of the Aramaeans (air-a-MAY-ans), a tribal people who lived in Syria, Assyria, and Babylonia during the Iron Age.
Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic were related. Both were members of a language family called Semitic (se-MIH-tick), along with Phoenician and other Canaanite tongues. Modern Semitic languages include Hebrew and Arabic. Compare the word for "peace" in Hebrew — shalom (sha-LOME) — with the same word in Arabic — salaam (sa-LAHM). Notice how alike they are, and how different they both are from the English word "peace"? That's because modern Hebrew and Arabic are related, just as the ancient Semitic languages were. English, on the other hand, belongs to another language family entirely, called Indo-European.
Excerpted from Ancient Israelites and their Neighbors by Marian Broida. Copyright © 2003 Marian Broida. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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