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The Age of the Patriarchs
According to the Jewish tradition, Jewish history begins with Abraham and the other patriarchs, leaders of the nomadic Hebrew tribes that came from Mesopotamia and wandered throughout Canaan, eventually ending up in Egypt. Not much is known about this early period. The two sources are the Bible and archaeological findings. Unfortunately, they don’t always present the same version of the story.
Where Jewish History Begins
While no one can say for certain where the first human beings appeared on the planet, it is believed that civilization germinated in the Middle East, in an area known as the Fertile Crescent. Geographically, the Crescent was a fertile agricultural area surrounded by arid deserts. The fecundity of the terrain was ensured by four mighty rivers that surrounded or flowed through the region. To the west, it was supported by the Nile in Egypt; to the east it was nourished by the Tigris and Euphrates; in the middle flowed the Levant. Archaeologists believe that humans first settled down to farm the land around 5,000 b.c.e., in the region between Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, known as Mesopotamia (parts of modern-day Iraq and Turkey). Eventually, prosperity in agriculture paved the way for the emergence of powerful city states. It is to this region that we trace the origins of the early Hebrews.
Abraham’s Covenant with God
Abraham was born in the city of Ur, also known as Ur Kasdim (Ur of the Chaldees), in the southern part of Mesopotamia, sometime between 1,950 and 1,800 b.c.e. The baby boy’s father, Terah, gave him the name of Abram. When Abram was still a youth, Terah moved with his family to the city of Haran in northern Mesopotamia, and that is where Abram grew into adulthood.
For centuries, the existence of Ur Kasdim was shrouded in mystery, and it was not until the nineteenth centuries that archaeologists began excavating this ancient city. Established over two and a half centuries b.c.e., Ur was one of the major cities of Ancient Sumer, an empire that thrived in Southern Mesopotamia until its fall to the Babylonians.
Terah was a Semitic merchant of idols but, legend has it, his young son was not convinced by the logic of idol worship. One day, young Abram went in to his father’s shop and smashed all the idols, save the largest one. When Terah returned, he was dumbfounded—all the idols were destroyed, except the largest one, which was holding a hammer. Aghast, Terah demanded an explanation, so Abram calmly told his father that the biggest idol destroyed all the smaller ones. “Ridiculous!” his father exclaimed. “Idols can’t move!” Abram rejoined that if that were the case, there’s no point to worship them. How could his father worship these statues if he believed them so powerless as to be unable to destroy one another? This legend foreshadows a change in Abram’s beliefs—that there is one God. Today, all three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—credit Abram for this belief, which is central to their faith.
God Calls on Abram
From the Bible, we have the story of how God called on Abram and bid him to leave his home and family and go to Canaan, where he would make Abram the father of a great nation and bless him and his descendants. According to the Book of Genesis, God said, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house and I will make of you a great nation and curse him that curses you and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” Abram obeyed, and that is how the covenant (b’rit) between God and the Jewish people was established.
Part of God’s promise to Abraham’s descendants was territory (hence the concept of the Promised Land). In the Bible, God is very specific in delineating the boundaries of the region that stretches from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates River and includes the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. However, in another biblical passage, the Promised Land only includes Canaan.
A Nomadic Lifestyle
Abram left the city of Haran and headed west, accompanied by his wife, Sarai, and his nephew Lot, as well as a full entourage of servants. Thus Abram assumed the lifestyle of a nomad, and his wanderings led him all the way to Egypt and then back to Canaan. Abraham was a formidable warrior as well as a savvy diplomat, employing his might or his wits--whichever proved most appropriate--when dealing with petty kings and local chieftains. Eventually, he amassed a great fortune, and was lucky in all but one respect: He and Sarai remained childless.
Sodom and Gomorrah
One day, three strangers came to visit Abraham. In keeping with the well-established custom of hospitality, he invited them into his tent and he set out a feast before them. The three strangers were messengers from God, and they informed Abram that God intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities whose inhabitants were wicked and cruel. Despite all the crimes and transgressions of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abram pleaded with God on their behalf, pointing out that even ten just men didn’t deserve to die for the crimes of the rest of the town. Apparently, though, the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah were so depraved, that not even ten just men lived among them. The only righteous family was that of Abram’s nephew Lot, who resided in Sodom. Because he was a good man, God’s messengers traveled there to bring him out of the city before God annihilated Sodom and Gomorrah.