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date: 28 March 2017

History of Ancient Israel

Summary and Keywords

The history of ancient Israel is best known to most people from the narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. There, however, the name “Israel” covers a wide diversity of social and political entities over the course of many centuries. The first attestation of the name outside the Bible (on the Egyptian stela of Merneptah, c. 1208 bce) seems to refer at most to some ill-defined tribal federation. It then served for at least two different monarchies and later again as a social or religious title for the people who inhabited the Achaemenid (Persian) province of Yehud. The value of the biblical written records varies considerably with regard to historical content, and this must further be evaluated on the basis of internal literary analysis and in the light of evidence that comes from archaeological research, including in particular from epigraphic sources both from Israel itself and from many near and more distant nations.

How to combine these differing forms of evidence has been the topic of lively and sometimes rancorous debate, which varies in its detail from one period to another, often depending on the extent to which external sources are immediately available. Solutions are not always available, but exploration into the nature of these problems and misunderstandings in the application of appropriate methods reveal where the problems lie and, in some cases, what are plausible solutions.

Until the 19th century, the history of ancient Israel was, for most people, coterminous with the familiar narrative of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. No relevant external sources were known, and there was no reason to doubt its essential historical reliability, allowance made, of course, for those who could not accept the miraculous as historically factual.

Archaeological and epigraphical discoveries over the last two centuries or so, together with the introduction more recently of new and different historical methods, have led to aspects of this topic being fiercely contested in current scholarship. Taking a general familiarity with the outline “story” for granted, the following analysis will present some of the major topics on which new data have become available and on which opinion remains divided.

Keywords: archaeology, epigraphy, Hebrew Bible, history, Israel, Judah, Judaism

What Is “Israel”?

The name “Israel” first appears on a stela of the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah (c. 1208 bce) in which he boasts of his earlier victories in the Levant:

Canaan is plundered, Ashkelon is carried off, and Gezer is captured.

Yenoam is made into non-existence; Israel is wasted, its seed is not;

and Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt. (CoS ii.41)

The name “Israel” here carries a written sign to indicate that it refers to an ethnic group (rather than a geographical indication), so that this would seem to fit with the picture of Israel in its prestate condition as indicated in the books of Joshua and Judges. Its precise location is not clear, though it appears to be relatively restricted.

By the time “Israel” appears again in extrabiblical sources in Aramaic, Moabite, and Akkadian, it refers to what is typically called the northern kingdom of Israel. According to the Hebrew Bible, this kingdom was established after the death of Solomon and lasted for about two hundred years until it was conquered and completely eliminated as a political entity by the Assyrians in c. 720 bce. The external world in antiquity did not recognize any other “Israel” (though the later religious group of Samaritans regarded themselves as its direct continuation).

The Hebrew Bible, however, uses the name “Israel” far more widely. It is the alternative personal name of the patriarch Jacob, from whom the tribal ancestors descended. He went with them to Egypt in a time of famine, and there they increased to the point of peoplehood. Often entitled “Israel,” they are the people of the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, and entry to the land of Canaan by way of conquest under Joshua. They continued as a tribal federation of some sort during the so-called Judges period, and then, under Saul, David, and Solomon, Israel became a single monarchy occupying the whole land and dominating the region further afield as well. While for the next two centuries “Israel” refers primarily to the northern kingdom in distinction from “Judah” in the south (with Jerusalem as its capital), the name also occasionally refers in prophetic and other poetic texts, such as the Psalms, to the two nations as a whole, since each worshiped the God of Israel/Jacob. After the political fall of the kingdom of Israel, the name began to be used occasionally for the southern kingdom, and this became more pronounced following the period of the Babylonian exile. Whereas politically there was a very small province of Judah in the mighty Persian Empire (geographically much smaller than the earlier kingdom) alongside Samaria to the north and Edom/Idumea the south, the name “Israel” came to be used for the Judean community and its diaspora. From a contemporary perspective, this must be regarded as a wholly social or religious designation; it bears no direct relation to any political entity.

Given this clear distinction between the political and the social uses of the name, textbooks on the history of ancient Israel have chosen an astonishing variety of starting points for their account, for most of which a reasonable case can be made. These stretch from the use of the name as a purely geographical designation, so aligning the account with what can be recovered of human habitation from the very earliest times (and here it may be mentioned that within the land is some of the earliest evidence of human habitation known worldwide) through to an account that begins only with the rise of a stable dynasty (the Omride dynasty) in the northern kingdom in the 9th century bce. Others prefer to start either in the Judges period, when for the first time people and land can be equated, or in the period of the United Monarchy, when written archival sources may first have been accumulated. Alternatively, others prefer to reach back to the patriarchal period, seeing in Abraham the father of the later nation.

Alongside differences of historical method (should history be archive based, exclusively archaeological, attentive alternatively to la longue durée, or should it incorporate any sources available, including even family rather than political narratives?), a decision about this will also depend to a considerable extent upon the question of at what point we have access to reliable sources of any sort. Here, the relationship between the biblical account and other sources becomes paramount, and a survey of some of the relevant issues will show that assessments of this question, too, are far from agreement.

The Origins of Israel

For the early centuries of ancient Israel’s presumed existence, virtually no written sources apart from the Hebrew Bible exist. Other than that in the Merneptah stela cited in the section “What Is ‘Israel’?,” there is no direct mention of her prior to the 9th century bce, by which time only the northern kingdom was in view. The few earlier inscriptions that have been found, while of great importance in other respects, contribute nothing to conventional historical knowledge (despite occasional exaggerated claims to the contrary).

Other material remains are abundant, however, and they are continuing to accumulate rapidly. Obviously a full summary cannot be attempted here. A few prominent examples may be selected, however, in order to illustrate the questions of method that they raise and as the basis for a consideration of some of the major points of disagreement.

According to the biblical narrative, Israel as a fully formed people entered the land by conquest during the time of Joshua. While a few scholars still maintain an earlier date for this based on a wooden reading of 1 Kings 5:1, the majority hold that this should be dated around 1200 bce and that it coincides with the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Consequently, there have long been attempts to substantiate this by reference to the destruction of some cities at this time (e.g., especially Hazor) and to changes in material culture, such as the rapid spread of the distinctive four-roomed house design and the use of the collared-rim jar.

In more recent times, however, these arguments have been shown to be flawed. Other prominent cities in the Joshua narrative, including the first two mentioned—Jericho and Ai—were not substantially inhabited at that time, and the cultural markers are not distinctive to Israel alone but are found more widely in comparable societies in the region, such as in the Transjordan. Furthermore, in at least one case, that of Lachish, it can now be established by the find of a cartouche of Rameses III on a cast bronze plaque well secured within the destruction level that the transition from Late Bronze to Iron Age at that site cannot be dated before the middle of the 11th century at the earliest.

If the conquest narrative cannot be taken at face value, therefore, archaeological remains have to be interrogated from different perspectives. Here, attention focuses on a confluence of several important even if less specific lines of evidence, such as the rapid rise in the number of small agricultural settlements in the central hill country at the beginning of the Iron Age, developments in the use of agricultural technology such as terracing, plastered water cisterns, and better equipment for clearance of wooded lands, and some elements of continuity in the ceramic repertoire between the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. On these bases scholars have speculated that for one of several possible reasons (e.g., drought, civil unrest, economic upheaval throughout the ancient Near East at the end of the Late Bronze Age) there was a movement in population away from the established city-states in the valleys and lowlands toward a new and dispersed form of settlement in previously sparsely populated areas and that later Israel emerged from this new form of settlement as it developed into more sophisticated and interrelated social shapes. (It is worth noting here that other population groups in the eastern Mediterranean were also on the move at this time, the Philistines being only the best known.)

At this point a further division of opinion emerges as some historians still hold to a relatively traditional understanding of the emergence of a single monarchy in the 10th century that later divided into two while others discount this as being without any direct evidence apart from the biblical narrative. The former are reluctant to ignore the biblical evidence in its entirety. They point to the apparent reference to “the House of David” on the admittedly much later Aramaic inscription from Tel Dan, and they still date the city gate and casemate wall structures at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer as being indicative of the planning of a single state in the 10th century (see also 1 Kgs 9:15). On the other side of the debate are scholars who suggest that these buildings should be dated to the 9th century and so ascribed to the Omride dynasty, that this period marks the effective start of Israel as a nation, and that Jerusalem could not possibly have been large or strong enough to support the kind of empire that the Hebrew Bible ascribes to David and Solomon.

Evaluating the Evidence

While it is often difficult for those who are not professional archaeologists to know how to respond to what they are told, it is clear that there are several factors that are not always given sufficient emphasis. While these do not determine a firm solution, they at least urge the need for caution before coming to strong conclusions on a topic that sometimes raises more heated debate than is desirable.

1. However much the available evidence supports a diversity of origins of the different elements that made up later Israel, factors from the history of religion (which should also be part of the picture) still strongly suggest that one element of the population, at least, somehow came to the land from outside. The God of Israel, Yahweh, is certainly not an indigenous Canaanite deity. We now know a great deal about the religion of Bronze Age Canaan from the Ugaritic texts, which are geographically not too far removed. Deities known also from the Hebrew Bible, such as El and Baal, are prominent there in the pantheon, but Yahweh or any deity like him is absent. Moreover, a number of poetical texts, which the large majority of scholars agree are very early in Israelite terms, clearly indicate that Yahweh came from well south of the land (see Dt 33:2; Jgs 5:4–5; Ps 68:8; Hb 3:3, 7), and this finds support in one of the (9th or early 8th century) inscriptions from Kuntillet Ajrud (in the Sinai Peninsula) that refers to the deity as “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah.” If Yahweh came from outside the land, some of his devotees must have done so too, and moreover it was their religion, however much it may have adapted to accommodate significant elements of the Canaanite inheritance, that eventually prevailed.

2. Some of the arguments between biblical scholars and archaeologists rest on a false presentation of what the others are doing. Just as literary analysis of the biblical texts has become more sophisticated, such that it is quite wrong to characterize biblical scholars as wedded to outdated perceptions of the text’s status, so the methods of archaeology have moved on from the days when tells were dug simply to find evidence concerning great people and events. From survey work and more elaborate analysis of individual finds, it is now clear that archaeology is better equipped to tell us about the wide developments in society over time and about the environmental, technological, and political developments that led to the possibility of change. On the broader stage of history, however, there are usually specific catalysts that push society into those changes that the new circumstances have made possible, so that many attempts to oppose textual and archaeological conclusions are generally immature.

To cite just one obvious example, it is clear that through the two hundred years or so of Iron Age I the nature of (proto-)Israelite society in the highlands became increasingly complex and interdependent. In such circumstances it may be predicted that a more hierarchical form of society will emerge, and in the wider environment that was almost bound to be some form of monarchy. The transjordanian states, which developed along comparable lines, seem to have reached that point slightly ahead of Israel. This does not, however, prevent the need for a specific catalyst to make that change effective, so that the account of Saul’s rise to prominence in response to a threat from Ammon (1 Samuel 11) appears plausible. And then, of course, the uniting of the formerly disparate groups in the highlands would have attracted the attention of the Philistines to the west. Previously they had been untroubled by their neighbors to the east, but now inevitably they had to take steps to counter the rise of this new threat (not vice versa, as has been often and influentially suggested in the past).

3. While the evidence currently at hand certainly indicates that the period commonly ascribed to the United Monarchy has been much embellished in the narratives, and even if some specific finds need to be dated in the next century (this remains under discussion), that does not settle the question of history as such. At the simplest level, recent finds in Jerusalem, such as the massive Middle Bronze Age towers defending the Gihon Spring, the stepped stone structure, and some other public buildings nearby, all indicate that it was more than just a remote village. (It is tempting to add that it would be strange if the temple came only subsequently and erroneously to be ascribed to Solomon, since such an institution is not likely to have had its origins manipulated, but for that supposition there is no external evidence.) Furthermore the liturgical traditions of the Jerusalem temple, especially as known from the Psalms, are indicative of a religion shared in many respects with the north using terminology that it is difficult to suppose was invented in the south alone (see, for instance, the divine title “the God of Jacob” in the obviously Zionistic Psalm 46), while very strikingly we never once find a reference to the God of Judah alongside the familiar God of Israel. These conservative religious traditions testify to some sense of profound cultural unity that transcends the parochial political establishments.

4. The evidence is overwhelming that some form of king lists of both the later kingdoms must have been preserved to be used by the biblical historians. Every king who is ever mentioned in any extrabiblical source always comes up with the right name and in the right period vis-à-vis the biblical lists. This cannot be explained as the result of random memory or the like. Furthermore, this listing must reach back to the very start of the divided monarchy at the latest, since the reference to an invasion by Pharaoh Shishak in the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign (1 Kgs 14:25–28), however garbled or otherwise misleading it may be, must have been preserved in some form of source, since we know of the campaign (albeit differently presented) from Shishak’s own account in the temple at Karnak (ancient Thebes). It is therefore certain that some form of written records were kept from earliest times, making it most unlikely that the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon just a few years before could be wholly fictional.

5. It is difficult to suppose that any serious archival material was written before the period of the monarchy, and as has already been indicated it is in that earliest period that the written narratives diverge most strongly from the broad picture that archaeology has established both by wide surveys and by the excavation of individual sites. This does not mean, however, that at this point we enter a realm of total make-believe. Evidence from some of the personal names and other detailed elements suggest that at least some of the stories in Joshua, Judges, and the first half of 1 Samuel may rest on elements of historical memory. How might this be accounted for? At this point the insights of those who work in the field of social or cultural memory may help. As in many ancient and long-lived societies, memories of events or heroes are retold (sometimes almost to the point of total divorce from the original event) because the society or family finds in them a source of inspiration or warning. They are detached from other events with which they may have been in sequence, and they survive for great periods of time. When collected they can be assembled into some kind of artificial consecutive narrative. The period of the early monarchy, when these disparate groups of Israelites were first given a sense of strong political, in addition to religious, unity, would have been a propitious time for such a collection of sacred memories, no doubt later to be worked and reworked by subsequent authors and editors into the narratives that we have now. If so, then many of the scholarly arguments about the different textual elements and their wider historical and archaeological setting(s) may be more profitably turned to constructive collaboration to learn to appreciate what the citizens of ancient Israel themselves most appreciated about their disparate past.

The Period of the Monarchies

The period sometimes called the dual monarchies lasted for about two hundred years and Judah survived for about another 150 years on its own after the demise of Israel; her end came at the hand of the Babylonians in 587 bce. As already indicated, the bare outlines of the history of these centuries seem to have been carefully preserved in some archival form including both the names of the kings and perhaps some of the major events of their reigns.

This is known to us primarily from the biblical books of Kings (themselves part of a much longer work of narrative history). While an earlier edition (or editions) is (are) plausible, the final form of the work cannot be dated before the middle of the 6th century, this being the date of the last recorded event (2 Kgs 25:27–30). It follows that most of the narrative that we have must have been dependent on sources of very varied antiquity together with the contribution (which includes the arrangement of the material) by the much later author. He, of course, will have had his own reasons for composition, and they will not have coincided with those of a modern historian. Consequently, the use of the biblical sources for historical reconstruction must be based on a rigorously critical evaluation of the historical value of this material, guided partly by source- and redaction-critical analysis and partly by the testimony of what many call primary sources, such as epigraphy and the material remains unearthed by archaeology.

These latter sources are no less easy to handle for historical purposes, however. As soon as they include any narrative or descriptive element, it quickly becomes clear that the authors of written materials, be they Moabite, Aramean, Assyrian, or Babylonian, share a concern for religious and propagandistic motivations no less than those of the Hebrew Bible, and so allowances for the same must be made. Even when they do not include such ideological material (as in the case of economic notes or named seals), their interpretation inevitably demands a good deal of historical imagination that may be subject to revision in the light of the discovery of fuller data. Equally, material remains require careful interrogation if they are to serve as historical data. This starts with dating, of course, but the issues range far beyond that. Thus, even though we come closer to being able to construct something like a historical narrative for these centuries than we did for the preceding centuries, the uncertainties in the treatment of evidence of all kinds from more than two and a half millennia ago should be frankly acknowledged.

On the basis of all these sources, together with the evidence culled from associated texts, such as the early written prophets, the broad sweep of the national histories turns out to be relatively clear, while many elements of detail remain open for discussion because the evidence does not always fit together neatly.

In broad terms, then, we find that Judah’s more isolated geographical position in relation to the major powers of the ancient Near East meant that she was generally less troubled by external pressures than Israel, at least to start with. Initially, Egypt to the south remembered something of her now lost status as the hegemonic power throughout the Levant in the late Bronze Age, and the Philistines to the west were still influential, but by comparison with what followed there was something of a power vacuum so far as serious imperial interference was concerned.

Roughly contemporaneously with the rise of the Omrides in Israel in the 9th century, the Arameans became the dominant power and certainly exerted considerable pressure and sometimes conquest on parts of the north. This gave way to closer relations only when they were both (together with other minor states) threatened by the far mightier Assyria, whose need for its own well-being to control the major trade routes to the Mediterranean coast and to Egypt (among other regions) brought it into direct contact with Israel, through part of whose territory those routes lay. This cooperation met with initial success in the resistance to Shalmaneser III (858–824 bce) by the western states, including prominently Ahab of Israel, at the battle of Qarqar in 853 bce, after which Aram became the dominant regional power. Indeed, it is likely that beside internal motivations we should detect the hand of Aram behind the coup d’état by which Jehu overthrew the Omride dynasty. In time, however, Tiglath-Pileser III (744–727 bce) picked up where Shalmaneser had failed, and this time resistance was futile. Israel was reduced in size and became a client state before further rebellion not so long after led to the end of the independent state and its incorporation into greater Assyria. Thus, the history of the kingdom of Israel, despite significant economic progress over time and some astute political moves, such as the alliance with the Tyrians by the marriage of Ahab to Jezebel, was increasingly the victim of her position astride the path that superior powers needed to control, coupled with unwise decisions to resist Assyria rather than coming to some (perfectly possible) form of accommodation. Viewed from a long-term perspective, the early success at Qarqar may have given rise to unrealistic expectations in the later years. (Incidentally, the fact that Qarqar is not even mentioned in the books of Kings is a clear indication of the different agenda being followed by the biblical authors.)

Judah’s situation, by contrast, was initially more favored even if economically she was less advanced. Only when the Assyrians seriously threatened Israel did Judah find herself obliged to accept vassal status while retaining independence in other respects. It was not until twenty years after the final fall of Samaria that Hezekiah led a major rebellion of small western states against Sennacherib (705–681 bce) at the start of his reign, and this brought its expected reprisal in 701 bce. While some aspects of the campaign remain unclear because of the very different forms of presentation in the Hebrew Bible and in the Assyrian records, it is certain that Hezekiah was humiliated and forced to pay much greater tribute; that much of his country was decimated, thus inflicting serious economic injury from which recovery was only slow and came mainly during the long reign of his successor Manasseh; but also that, for whatever reason, Jerusalem was not destroyed and Hezekiah and his successors were permitted to continue on the throne. During the whole of the following century, at any rate, Judah was able to recover by remaining loyal to the Assyrians.

When the Babylonians finally defeated the already weakened Assyrians in 612 bce, they inherited their empire, so that Judah’s position remained more or less unchanged even though under a new imperial power. However (and here the Babylonian Chronicle runs close to the outline as given also in 2 Kings) rebellion followed before long on two separate occasions, so that Judah was further reduced in 597 and then ten years later finally annihilated, with the temple and palace in Jerusalem destroyed, the Davidic king exiled, and the country becoming, apparently, merely a province within the Babylonian Empire.

Thus the general narrative of both kingdoms, from complete independence in the early years to increasing subjection to the more dominant external imperial powers, is clear. Of course, a full history would need to add a social, religious, and economic commentary on that narrative, and in many ways this is what archaeology, at least as currently practiced, is trying successfully to do.

Within this broad picture, controversy rages over the particular course of many individual elements, and obviously that cannot all be rehearsed here. Three examples are cited here merely by way of illustration of the problems of method that the variety of source materials can throw up.

First, it has already been mentioned that one school of thought ascribes to the Omrides a number of fortifications that more traditionally have been ascribed to Solomon. If correct, this view naturally has major implications for our understanding of the United Monarchy, raising, indeed, the possibility that there never was one; if so, we should have to trace the origins of (political) Israel to the later period in the north alone. Needless to say, there are many arguments supporting this lower date, but a prominent one that is easy to understand concerns Jezreel, as excavated in the 1990s, and the association between the finds there and those of the supposed Solomonic layer at Megiddo only a few miles away. For a variety of reasons that cannot be presented here in full, the main Iron Age II fortified settlement at Jezreel should certainly be dated to the time of the Omrides (and incidentally, they also do much to confirm the detail of the narrative of Jehu’s coup as told in 2 Kings 9–10). A distinctive form of one item of pottery, however, is typologically very close to what was found in Megiddo Stratum VA/IVB, which was previously ascribed to Solomon. If they are contemporary, then the Megiddo material, and with it the same sorts of material at Hazor and Gezer, should be dated later as well, contemporary with the Jezreel finds. On the other hand, there are other archaeologists who claim that this type of pot lasted far longer than the other school acknowledges, so that not every layer that contains it need necessarily be dated to the same decade or two. That is, the pottery may be early at Megiddo and simply still in use at later Jezreel.

Second, the discovery of an Aramaic inscription at Tel Dan is considered by most scholars (though some dissent) to recount the Aramean king’s defeat of the kings of Israel and of the House of David, so that it looks suspiciously close to a version of the events described in 2 Kings 10:21–28—this being the only occasion when a king of Israel and of Judah were assassinated together—and moreover the damaged names on the inscription can be comfortably made to fit those of Jehoram and Ahaziah (cf. CoS ii.161–162). The problem here, however, is that in the biblical narrative it is the Israelite Jehu who is responsible for the deaths, not the king of Aram. To such discrepancies scholars again respond less on the basis of overlooked evidence or some other unacknowledged data than according to their overall attitude to such sources. Some claim that the inscription is not correctly read, others that this proves that the biblical version is false, and others that both sources can be harmonized on the basis that Hazael (or whoever else was the Aramean king) was claiming credit for something that Jehu may have done with his encouragement and support. If this latter scenario is correct, it would supply additional historical information of which we were previously unaware, but it depends on whether we are inclined to accept ancient testimony rather than to be suspicious of it. In the present instance it is worth noting as a possible contributory factor that 2 Kings 10 has been judged close to history on quite other grounds, so that fabrication on this important detail would seem less likely.

Third, the case of Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah in 701 bce is more complex, not least because there are many more sources to be considered. There are several Assyrian accounts, the stone reliefs that depict the siege of Lachish that took place during the campaign, a confusing array of related sources in 2 Kings 18–19 (as well as 2 Chronicles 32), and a number of references in Isaiah. The broad outline of the campaign and its consequences is clear, as already indicated, but there are radically different ways of holding the source material together and of explaining why the outcome was what it was, with Hezekiah allowed to remain on his throne in an undamaged Jerusalem. The biblical narrative offers two straightforward explanations, the one being a stupendous miracle and the other a rumor about a subject that we know independently relates to much later circumstances. Since there are thus difficulties with either explanation for a rationalist historian, some scholars therefore choose to accept only the element that indicates that Hezekiah surrendered and paid the massive tribute, the stories of deliverance being later explanations from a standpoint of faith that God had protected his king and city. The issues are complex, because there are equal problems that confront this seemingly logical solution: they do not explain why Sennacherib adopted a different tactic in this case than any other, nor why, quite exceptionally, he allowed the tribute to be sent to him only after the event, whereas elsewhere he always demanded immediate subjugation by the rebel and payment then and there. It is also surprising that Hezekiah, as the ringleader of the revolt, should have been allowed to retain his throne. Thus, while the general historical event and its consequences are well attested, there remain significant questions about the details, and scholars are probably influenced in reaching a decision on these matters at least in part by such factors as their attitude to accounts of the miraculous and a presumption in favor of the Assyrian sources as “earlier” and less open to religious bias (a mistaken view, of course).

One principal value of all the new information that is continuing to accumulate is that it underlines (if further evidence of this were needed) that the biblical writers were heavily selective regarding what they included, that they shaped much of their material to serve a broader theological agenda, and that it was not their purpose to write “history” in any sense that we should recognize nowadays. Thus the study of the history of ancient Israel has the added benefit of bringing us to a more realistic appreciation of the nature of the sources that are at our disposal.

The Exilic Period

The period known as the Babylonian exile lasted only about fifty years, but its impact on the history of ancient Israel was immeasurable. The following factors need to be borne in mind.

1. After the Babylonian conquest there was no longer any independent Israelite or Judean state. Israel had disappeared 150 years previously, after which the name came in certain circumstances to be adopted by Judah. With the fall of Judah, however, the territory became a province in the Babylonian and subsequent empires. This condition lasted until well after the close of the period here under review. Moreover, the territory of Judah was much reduced in size, the southern part of the former country, in particular, being now assigned to Idumaea.

2. The descendants of the people of the kingdom of Judah (later, the Jews) were no longer confined to those who lived in the territory of Judah. Before the exile it is almost certain that there were already some from Judah who had moved to live elsewhere (the community in Upper Egypt at Elephantine, whose precise origins are unknown, is an obvious possible case in point), but their status as Judeans was no longer recognized. Now, however, initially in Babylon but increasingly elsewhere, such as in Egypt and even elsewhere in the Levant, such as the Galilee, there developed a diaspora with strong links back to Judah. Most of the leaders of the Judean community throughout the Persian period, at least, came from Babylon, and over the centuries major cultural developments (such as the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek) were undertaken elsewhere, while pilgrim festivals, such as the Passover, became major foci for mutual recognition and a sense of unity in which a shared religion transcended other boundaries. (Similar remarks could be made about the later development of the Samaritan community.)

3. Probably under pressure to maintain cultural identity in at best indifferent surroundings, the Judeans developed strong social markers to replace the solidarity that had preciously prevailed on the basis of shared law, religious institutions such as the temple, and loyalty to the king and his court. However much such factors existed before the exile, they undoubtedly became far more prominent from now on: circumcision, sabbath observance, and concern for purity especially through the observance of food laws are only the most obvious examples. It is likely that the role of sacred writings, later scripture, also became more important for similar reasons during this period.

In short, we see here the period of transition from a state within which a particular religion was usually practiced to a religion that united a scattered people who were citizens of quite separate states. The exile thus paved the way for the development from Judean to Jew.

Historically, there are two features of the exilic period that are not always as well appreciated as they should be. In Babylon itself the Babylonians adopted a new policy with regard to displaced peoples that distinguishes them from the Assyrians and without which it is questionable whether the community would have survived at all. Exiled communities were generally settled together rather than completely dispersed among the new host population (contrast the practice in Assyria, which led to total assimilation over time: the “ten lost tribes”). This was already known in part from biblical writers such as Ezekiel, but it has been interestingly confirmed by firsthand evidence in the form of Akkadian tablets from al-Yahudu and Nashar, the former, revealingly, meaning “the city of Judah.” They are mostly economic texts, but they include many personal names, some eighty of which are Yahwistic (about 15 percent of the total number). This helps explain how the Judeans could maintain social cohesion and develop new forms of internal leadership: without a king, and with sovereignty in the hands of foreigners, priestly authority grew apace, and lay influence reverted to forms of extended family headship, known collectively as “elders.”

On the other hand, it should not be supposed that life in Judah itself came to a standstill. While we still do not know enough about quite what form of administrative structures the Babylonians put in place there, it seems clear that the center of gravity moved north from Jerusalem to the old tribal territory of Benjamin. This region seems generally not to have opposed the Babylonian advance, and may even have encouraged it. At any rate, the administrative center moved to Mizpah, and the destruction was less severe there than elsewhere in the rest of Judah. While parts of the countryside that did not threaten the Babylonian lines may have been spared, centers like Jerusalem were certainly destroyed, and it is unlikely that many more than a handful continued to live there. Over time this had an inevitable effect on the demographic spread in Benjamin itself, but life certainly continued, and there is evidence, such as the book of Lamentations, to indicate that this did not necessarily exclude all cultural activity.

Scholars who think that “Israel” could only first have been used in relation to the northern kingdom also find this period important in terms of the movement of the name, and with it all the religious and social baggage that it implies, to the people of Judah, who had never previously considered themselves part of Israel in any form. The intermediary role of Benjamin features prominently in this story. The direct evidence for this theory is thin, however, and does not need to be entertained by those who take a more positive attitude to the earlier existence of an Israel that split after the death of Solomon.

The Persian Period

In 539 bce Cyrus the Persian was welcomed into Babylon by an elite who had become disaffected with the last—and largely absent—Babylonian king, Nabonidus. Cyrus thus inherited the whole of the former Babylonian Empire, and he and some of his Achaemenid successors added to it, so that at one point the empire stretched from India to Egypt. Despite such major setbacks as the revolts at the start of the reign of Darius I (522–520), the disastrous attempt to take Greece, revolts elsewhere from time to time, such as especially in the Levant in the 5th century bce, and the in-and-out status of Egypt, the empire was relatively stable throughout its heartland until its sudden collapse in face of Alexander the Great’s invasion in 334–331 bce. Thus, whether in Judah or elsewhere, the large majority of Judeans/Jews lived within the same empire.

So far as their history is concerned, we know less, in many ways, than for the several preceding centuries. In terms of written sources, we have no consecutive account after the manner of the books of Kings. While it is likely that much of the Hebrew Bible came to something close to its final form during these centuries, the books that relate directly to the period (Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah 56–66, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) all shed bright shafts of light on particular individual events, such as the building of the temple and the first year of Nehemiah’s governorship, but these events are separated in time, and no cause-and-effect continuum can be established between them. Moreover, following Nehemiah’s work the sources dry up completely. Josephus provides probably reliable information about one or two incidents, but again their dating is controversial and they remain discontextualized. Thus, while our knowledge of the last part of the 6th and the 5th centuries is episodic at best, for the 4th century we have practically no information whatsoever.

The archaeology of Judah during this period was heavily damaged by later Hellenistic and Roman building work, and it also tended to be neglected by earlier generations of archaeologists, though the situation is now improving. In addition we have very few epigraphic sources relating to Judah in this period—mainly a few seals (the authenticity of some of which is doubted) and coins. From the neighboring regions, such as Idumaea to the south, the situation is better, though again narrative texts are absent, as they are with only a very occasional exception for the heart of the empire itself; Old Persian occurs in only a few monumental inscriptions, and the bureaucracy was administered in Elamite, so far as accounting texts are concerned.

Constitutionally, Judah was a very minor province within the Satrapy of Beyond the River, and so far as we can tell she had her own governors from the start of the Achaemenid period; in every case for which we have evidence they were Jewish. Judah was thus able to administer its own internal affairs in accordance with its own local preferences. The satrap could intervene, of course, if wider imperial concerns were threatened, though we have no real evidence to judge how this all worked out at times of tension with Greece or Egypt, when the western provinces must have been the focus of particular attention.

To the best of our knowledge, key milestones include the several returns of exiles from Babylon (apparently welcomed at first but leading to severe tensions later on as understanding about the fundamentals of religion will have differed between the two groups in the community), the building of the temple, the later restoration of Judean self-confidence under Nehemiah, and the increasing importance of the biblical law as the basis for the ordering of society as associated in the texts with the work of Ezra. It is to be noted that all the major leaders of reform and restoration are said to have come from Babylon, so that the biblical grand narrative depicts the development of Judaism as being of an exile-and-restoration or death-and-resurrection model. Once again this reinforces the notion that social identity was no longer based on narrowly political considerations but on a religion (in the widest sense) that began to transcend geographical (though not ethnic) boundaries. By the time the province of Judah emerges from the dark 4th century, there can be no doubt that we may legitimately start to call its inhabitants Jews, in all their fundamental agreements alongside much detailed diversity.


Until the middle of the 19th century, narrative accounts of the history of ancient Israel were effectively paraphrases of the biblical story. The main deviations were by those who sought to eliminate any account of the miraculous from their accounts; the story line remained unchanged, however.

During the 19th century archaeological research began in earnest, though of course the interpretation of many of its first results has been subject to significant revision since. This was also the period when significant amounts of epigraphical data began to become available from the Levant and when Akkadian was first deciphered. For the first time, therefore, Israel began to be seen in its wider ancient Near Eastern context, and this inevitably had a bearing on the understanding of its history.

Some of the methodological discussions that have characterized more recent decades were also being debated at that time. In England, for instance, A. H. Sayce (in the second half of his career, following the discovery of the Amarna letters) began to appeal to archaeology in support of a conservative evaluation of the biblical narrative, while his fellow Oxonian S. R. Driver was urging the value of archaeology for important background information rather than in relation to specific events. Similar discussions were equally alive in the United States and Germany.

During the first half of the 20th century this divide became more marked. On the one hand, the Biblical Archaeology movement, spearheaded by W. F. Albright, found evidence to support, for instance, not only the conquest of the land by Joshua but also the general historicity of the patriarchal narratives. This movement, to which a great deal of field work and major works of analysis and synthesis is due, found its concise and accessible culmination in the textbook history of Israel by John Bright (first published in 1960). On the other hand, the German scholar Albrecht Alt took the broader approach to archaeology (including a good deal of survey work) to argue for a radically different picture of the early history of Israel, which he ascribed to gradual infiltration and settlement by originally nomadic groups, as well as a long series of brilliant studies of particular episodes in the later historical record on the basis of comparative study with other ancient Near Eastern sources as well as an acute sensitivity to influential social factors. His approach reached its textbook form in a history of Israel written by one of his pupils (who himself also added much to this research program), Martin Noth (first published in 1950; corrected English translation of the 2nd ed., 1960).

While all periods of the history of ancient Israel have continued to benefit from the rapid (and ongoing) increase in archaeological data and epigraphic sources, the most intense debate since the 1970s onward has focused on the related questions of when we first have properly historical written sources for ancient Israel and consequently when a “history of Israel” should begin. Albright and his successors (continuing to the present day) thought that we could start already where biblical Israel starts, with Abraham. Two major studies by Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters persuaded many, however, that this was not historically legitimate. At more or less the same time, serious doubts began to be cast on the reliability of significant parts of the conquest narrative, so that an attempt to begin the narrative with the single and violent entry of Israel into the land also became problematic. Perhaps, therefore, the best starting point for the history was with the United Monarchy, when written sources may first have become likely, and when the earlier narratives may first have been assembled and put into a narrative framework (so the textbook of J. Alberto Soggin, 1984).

Not very long after this, survey work in the central hill country together with a re-examination of other factors, such as the chronology of the whole period, led to the current situation where a few think we cannot start our narrative before the 9th century Omrides, and where others, even more radical, find that so much of the biblical literature is very late (postexilic at the earliest) that no proper history of the monarchies can be written at all. This is very much a minority view, and discussion concerning the earlier periods is by no means over, so that we can only hope that future discoveries will bring greater certainty on some of these disputed questions.

Primary Sources

William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., The Context of Scripture, 3 vols. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997–2002)Mark W. Chavalas, ed., The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006)Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000–586 BCE, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1990)Ephraim Stern, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, vol. 2, The Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Periods 732–332 bce, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 2001)Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson, eds., Dictionary of the Historical Books of the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005)

In addition to the Hebrew Bible, there is a valuable collection of all major relevant epigraphical sources in translation with some comments and much further bibliography: , abbreviated here as CoS; vol. 2 is especially important for historical sources. See too . There are full surveys of archaeological finds in the companion volumes: , and . For individual sites, there is initial orientation with further bibliographical guidance in .

Further Reading

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Judaism: The First Phase. The Place of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Origins of Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009.Find this resource:

Davies, Philip R. Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History—Ancient and Modern. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.Find this resource:

Dever, William G. Who Were the Early Israelites, and Where Did They Come From? Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.Find this resource:

Finkelstein, Israel, and Amihai Mazar. The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel. Edited by Brian B. Schmidt. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.Find this resource:

Fleming, Daniel E. The Legacy of Israel in Judah’s Bible: History, Politics, and the Reinscribing of Tradition. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Grabbe, Lester L. A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period. Vol. 1, Yehud: A History of the Persian Province of Judah. Library of Second Temple Studies 47. London: T&T Clark International, 2004.Find this resource:

Grabbe, Lester L. Ancient Israel: What Do We Know, and How Do We Know It? London: T&T Clark, 2007.Find this resource:

Grabbe, Lester L., ed. Can a “History of Israel” Be Written? Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 245. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient Near East c. 3000–330 bc. London: Routledge, 1995.Find this resource:

Miller, J. Maxwell, and John H. Hayes. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. 2d ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006.Find this resource:

Moore, Megan Bishop, and Brad E. Kelle. Biblical History and Israel’s Past: The Changing Study of the Bible and History. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011.Find this resource:

Williamson, H. G. M., ed. Understanding the History of Ancient Israel. Proceedings of the British Academy 143. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.Find this resource: