The Israelites were never a large or powerful empire. Their economy was simple. We would hardly know they ever existed if not for the Bible. It is probably not a coincidence that they are geographically at the crossroads of the ancient civilizations of Egypt , Mesopotamia (Babylon, Assyria, Persia to the east), and the Mediterranean (Greece, Rome). Their ideas drew from many directions and spread in many directions, always by persuasion rather than force. The figure labeled Roman Empire shows the land of Israel in comparison with its ancient neighbors.
Just for perspective on how small the territory is, the maps of modern Israel and Texas in the figure labeled Israel and South Texas are on the same scale.
The figure labeled Israel at the time of Jesus shows the internal geography of Israel. Jerusalem is the most important city from the perspective of the authors of most of the Bible. Also look for the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan river, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and the Dead Sea.
The following dates begin with the earliest external record of the Israelites. Some of them are estimated or rounded. The ancient nation of Israel existed from 1250 to 587 BCE , but we are also considering the Judean and Jewish authors who produced the Hebrew Bible, the last book of which was written in 164 BCE.
The Bible offers legends and myths that give the pre-history of the people of Israel
- 1250 BCE – Earliest written record of the Israelites existing. A foreign king claimed to have eradicated them. Apparently he was exaggerating. The Bible indicates that at that time Israel was a loose confederation of independent tribes . They were not very united or strong, and mostly kept out of the way in the hills.
- 1000 BCE – David unites all twelve tribes and becomes king. This begins the Monarchic period .
- 930 BCE – United Monarchy splits into North and South.
- 720 BCE – North defeated by Assyria.
- 597 and 587 BCE – South defeated by Babylon. Begins Babylonian Exile . Independent monarchy superior site for international students ends and is never restored (not counting some local kings, like Herod, who reported to foreign kings).
- 538 BCE – Cyrus of Persia defeats the Babylonians and allows the people of Jerusalem who had been taken to Babylon to return (ends the Babylonian Exile). Begins the Persian period . It is better to use the term “Israelite” for the people in the period 1250–587, and use “ Judean ” in the Persian period. “Judean” is later shortened to “ Jew .” Much of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament is written at this time, drawing on sources from the Monarchic period.
- 333 BCE – Alexander the Great conquers the entire region from Greece and Egypt to India. This begins the Hellenistic Period . The term “Hellenistic” basically means “Greek speaking.” Some books of the Bible were still being written and edited. The Jews confronted Greek philosophical ideas and other cultural perspectives.
- 63 BCE – The Roman Empire takes over the land of Israel. Of course Jewish history keeps going all the way up to today, but we’ll save the CE dates for future units.
2.1.3. What happened to them?
Many ancient civilizations produced more art, literature, military strength, technological innovation, and intellectual innovation than Israel. Most of them were defeated or simply faded away with time, and ceased to exist. Israel survived as a people and a set of ideas because they managed to maintain their identity without a homeland where they were a majority, or a central governing body. The term Diaspora describes a people that has been dispersed from its original homeland, but maintains communal identity as small minorities spread over many places. In modern times, there are a number of examples of communities that are “from” a place that few or none of the members have ever been. The Jews seem to have been the first.