In previous writings, I discussed some of the earliest civilizations in the region known as Mesopotamia. Later, I focused this discussion on another significant people, the Ancient Egyptians. These civilizations owed their success to the bounty provided by the rivers that sustained them. Their enduring societies were able to utilize the abundant fresh water and nutrient rich soil provided by the rivers to raise bountiful crops of cereal grains. Cereal grains store well over time, can be milled into flour, and with careful planning can sustain large permanent settlements. In contrast to this large scale and settled way of life is the life of the pastoralist, who lives by herding. Pastoral societies are generally less populous and continually drive their herds to new pastures and fresh water. Often times the pastoralist is at odds with the grain farmer who maintains a claim on the land that he works, and this was the state of things with the group of people I will focus on in this month’s writing.
The origins and early history of the Hebrew people is obscured by time and myth. The term “Hebrew” is itself ambiguous, with both ethnic and religious connotations. In this writing, I use the term to describe those pastoral people who, finding conflict with the city dwellers and grain farmers of Ancient Sumer, followed Abraham from the ancient city of Ur to the region referred to historically as Canaan, sometime between 2,000 and 1,550 BC. Canaan and the term Canaanite, which refers to the people of this region, are also roughly defined. Geographically, Canaan can be described as the region up to and including modern day Lebanon in the north, as well as the modern nations of Israel and Palestine, stretching to the borders of Egypt in the south and confined between the Mediterranean Sea on the West and the River Jordan in the East.
The Ancient Hebrews lived in relative peace for several centuries after following Abraham into Canaan, but eventually came into conflict with the Ancient Egyptians. Modern historians generally believe that some of the Ancient Hebrews were most likely captured and taken in bondage to Israel, but also, that some of the Hebrews most likely left Canaan and immigrated on their own to Egypt, which was more peaceful and prosperous at the time, and that others still remained in Canaan. Modern historians also believe that eventually, under the leader Moses, the Ancient Hebrews would leave Egypt and return to Canaan.
Upon returning to Canaan, the Ancient Hebrews lived under independent local judges, but in part in response to outside aggression from raiding sea peoples, such as the philistines, a popular movement arose which desired to establish a centralized monarchy. The first chosen Hebrew king was Saul, and the kingdom over which he ruled is historically referred to as “the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah.” Saul was succeeded by his son-in-law, David, and David was succeeded by Solomon. Under the reign of Solomon the Ancient Hebrews reached a zenith of prosperity, and it was Solomon who is credited with the building of what is called the first temple of Jerusalem, which is also called Solomon’s Temple. There is no archeological record of Solomon’s temple today and very little is known about its history. Jewish religious sources estimate that construction of the temple was completed in 832 BC. After the death of King Solomon the kingdom itself was divided in two, into the Kingdom of Israel in the North and the Kingdom of Judah in the South. These two kingdoms would eventually succumb to foreign invaders. The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell first, to the Assyrians in 722 BC. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell later, in 586, to the Babylonians, who burned Solomon’s temple and most of Jerusalem after a long siege of more than two years.
Following the death of Solomon, the division of the kingdom, and the subsequent conquests of the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Hebrew people would fall into relative political obscurity for much of history. However, culturally, the Hebrew people are the cornerstone of Western Civilization. The Hebrew religious texts, referred to as “the Old Testament,” are at the same time at the center of western theology, moral philosophy and literature. The Holy Bible, which includes the Hebrew texts and the later Christian writings was the first book every printed using a printing press, and it has been printed more than any other book in human history.
W.B. James P. Aglione Worshipful Master 2018