From Jackson Spielvogel, Western Civilization
(Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000) 32-40

AROUND 970 B.C., Solomon came to the throne of Israel, a small state in western Asia. He was lacking in military prowess, but excelled in many other ways. Through trade and a series of foreign alliances, he created a strong, flourishing state. But he was especially famed for another of his qualities. When confronted with two women who each claimed that the child before them was her natural child, Solomon ordered his servant to cut the child in half and give half to each woman. The first woman objected: "Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don't kill him!" The second woman replied, "Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!" Then Solomon rendered his judgment: "Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother." According to the biblical account, "when all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice." After Solomon's death, Israel's power began to crumble. But how had such a small nation been able to survive for as long as it did in a Near East dominated by mighty empires?

The destruction of the Hittite kingdom and the weakening of Egypt around 1200 B.C. temporarily left no dominant powers in the Near East, allowing a patchwork of petty kingdoms and city-states to emerge, especially in the area of Syria and Palestine. One of these small states, the nation of Israel, has played a role in Western civilization completely disproportionate to its size. The Israelites were a minor factor in the politics of the ancient Near East, but their spiritual heritage—in the form of the Judaeo-Cbristian view of life—is one of the basic pillars of Western civilization.

The small states did not last, however. Ever since the first city-states had arisen in the Near East around 3000 B.C., there had been an ongoing movement toward the creation of larger territorial states with more sophisticated systems of control. This process reached a high point in the first millennium B.C. with the appearance of empires that embraced the entire Near East. Between 1000 and 500 B.C., the Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Persians all created empires that encompassed either large areas or all of the ancient Near East. Each had impressive and grandiose capital cities that emphasized the power and wealth of its rulers. Each brought peace and order for a period of time by employing new administrative techniques. Each eventually fell to other conquerors. In the long run, these large empires had less impact on Western civilization than the Hebrew people. In human history, the power of ideas is often more significant than the power of empires.

The Hebrews: "The Children of Israel"

The Hebrews were a Semitic-speaking people who had a tradition concerning their origins and history that was eventually written down as part of the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Describing them as a nomadic people organized in clans, the Hebrews' own tradition states that they were descendants of the patriarch Abraham who had migrated from Mesopotamia to the land of Palestine, where they became identified as "Children of Israel." Moreover, according to tradition, a drought in Palestine caused many Hebrews to migrate to Egypt where they lived peacefully until they were enslaved by pharaohs who used them as laborers on their numerous building projects. They remained in bondage until Moses led his people out of Egypt in the well-known "Exodus," which some historians have argued would have occurred in the first half of the thirteenth century B.C. According to the biblical account, the Hebrews then wandered for many years in the desert until they entered Palestine. Organized in twelve tribes, they became embroiled in conflict with the Philistines, a people who had settled in the coastal area of Palestine but were beginning to move into the inland areas.

Many scholars today doubt that the early books of the Hebrew Bible reflect the true history of the early Israelites. They argue that the early books of the Bible, written centuries after the events described, preserve only what the Israelites came to believe about themselves and that recently discovered archaeological evidence often contradicts the details of the biblical account. Some of these scholars have even argued that the Israelites were not nomadic invaders but indigenous peoples in the Palestinian hill country. What is generally agreed, however, is that between 1200 and 1000 B.C., the Israelites emerged as a distinct group of people, possibly organized in tribes or a league of tribes, who established a united kingdom known as Israel.

The United Kingdom

The first king of the Israelites was Saul (c. 1020-1000 B.C.), who initially achieved some success in the ongoing struggle with the Philistines. But after his death in a disastrous battle with this enemy, a brief period of anarchy ensued until one of Saul's lieutenants, David (c. 1000-970 B.C.), reunited the Israelites, defeated the Philistines, and established control over all of Palestine. According to the biblical account, some of his conquests led to harsh treatment for the conquered people: "David also defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought tribute" (2 Samuel 8:2). Among David's conquests was the city of Jerusalem, which he made into the capital of a united kingdom. David centralized Israel's political organization and accelerated the integration of the Israelites into a settled community based on farming and urban life.

David's son Solomon (c. 970-930 B.C.) did even more to strengthen royal power. He expanded the political and military establishments and was especially active in extending the trading activities of the Israelites. Solomon is best known for his building projects, including a large palace with state offices and forts for the protection of trade routes. Of all his new construction projects, the most famous was the Temple in the city of Jerusalem. The Israelites viewed the Temple as the symbolic center of their religion, and hence of the kingdom of Israel itself. The Temple now housed the Ark of the Covenant, the holy chest containing the sacred relics of the Hebrew religion and, symbolically, the throne of the invisible God of Israel. Under Solomon, ancient Israel was at the height of its power, but his efforts to extend royal power throughout his kingdom led to dissatisfaction among some of his subjects.

The Divided Kingdom

After Solomon's death, tensions between the northern and southern tribes within Israel led to the establishment of two separate kingdoms — a kingdom of Israel, composed of the ten northern tribes with its capital eventually at Samaria and a southern kingdom of Judah, consisting of two tribes with its capital at Jerusalem. The northern kingdom of Israel, especially under King Ahab (869-850 B.C.), joined some petty Syrian states to stop temporarily the onslaught of the Assyrians, who had consolidated their kingdom to the northeast (see The Assyrian Empire later in this chapter). But the power of Israel declined after Ahab and by the end of the ninth century, the kingdom of Israel was forced to pay tribute to powerful Assyria. In the next century, the kingdom itself was destroyed. The Assyrians overran the northern kingdom, destroyed the capital of Samaria in 722 B.C., and deported many Hebrews to other parts of the Assyrian Empire. These dispersed Hebrews (the "ten lost tribes") merged with neighboring peoples and gradually lost their identity.

The southern kingdom of Judah was also forced to pay tribute to Assyria but managed to survive as an independent state as Assyrian power declined. A new enemy however, appeared on the horizon. The Chaldeans, allied with the Medes from Iran, brought the final destruction of Assyria. Under King Nebuchadnezzar II, the Chaldeans then conquered the kingdom of Judah and completely destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Many upper-class people from Judah were sent to Babylonia in exile, the memory of which is still evoked in the stirring words of Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forgot you, 0 Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy
(Psalm 137:1, 4-6).

But the Babylonian captivity of the people of Judah did not last. Upon the destruction of the Chaldean kingdom by a new set of conquerors, the Persians, the people of Judah were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their city and the Temple, although Judah remained under Persian control until the conquests of Alexander the great in the fourth century B.C. The people of Judah survived, eventually becoming known as the Jews and giving their name to Judaism, the religion of Yahweh, the Jewish god.

The Spiritual Dimensions of Israel

The spiritual perspective of the Israelites evolved over time. Early Israelites probably worshiped many gods, including nature spirits dwelling in trees and rocks. For some Israelites, Yahweh was the chief god of Israel, but many, including kings of Israel and Judah, worshiped other gods as well. It was among the Babylonian exiles in the sixth century B.C. that Yahweh—the God of Israel— came to be seen as the only God. After the return of these exiles to Judah, their point of view eventually became dominant, and pure monotheism, or the belief that there is only one God for all peoples, came to be the major tenet of Judaism.


According to the Jewish conception, there is but one God, whom the Jews called Yahweh. God is the creator of the world and everything in it. Indeed, Yahweh means "he causes to be." To the Jews, the gods of all other peoples were simply idols. The Jewish god ruled the world; he was subject to nothing. All peoples were his servants, whether they knew it or not. This God was also transcendent. He had created nature, but was not in nature. The stars, moon, rivers, wind, and other natural phenomena were not divinities or suffused with divinity, as other peoples of the ancient Near East believed, but God's handiwork. All of God's creations could be admired for their awesome beauty, but not worshiped as gods.

This omnipotent creator of the universe was not removed from the life he had created, however, but was a just and good God who expected goodness from his people. If they did not obey his will, they would be punished. But he was also a God of mercy and love: "The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made" (Psalm 145:8-9). Despite the powerful dimensions of God as creator and sustainer of the universe, the Jewish message also emphasized that each person could have a personal relationship with this powerful being. As the psalmist sang: "My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber" (Psalm 121:2-3).

The chief source of information about Israel's spiritual conceptions is the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Its purpose was to teach the Jews the essential beliefs about the God of Israel after the Babylonian captivity of the Jews and their dispersal. During and after the Babylonian exile, the Jews recorded many of their traditions in order to preserve their identity. These writings became the core of the Hebrew bible. The first five books (known as the Pentateuch), which range from the beginning of the world until the Israelites arrived in Palestine, constitute the Torah, or law code, governing the lives of worshipers and their relations to one another and to the non-Jewish population. The Hebrew Bible also includes historical books, which describe Jewish attempts to develop institutions by which they could observe the law properly, and the words of the prophets (see the next section). The Hebrew Bible focuses on one basic theme—the necessity for the Jews to obey their God.


Three aspects of the Jewish religious tradition had special significance: the covenant, the law, and the prophets. The Israelites believed that during the Exodus from Egypt, when Moses supposedly led his people out of bondage into the promised land, a special event occurred that determined the Jewish experience for all time. According to tradition, God entered into a covenant or contract with the tribes of Israel who believed that Yahweh had spoken to them through Moses. The Israelites promised to obey Yahweh and follow his law. In return, Yahweh promised to take special care of his chosen people, "a peculiar treasure unto me above all people."

This covenant between Yahweh and his chosen people could be fulfilled, however, only by obedience to the law of God. Law became a crucial element of the Jewish world and had a number of different dimensions. In some instances, it set forth specific requirements, such as payments for offenses. Most important, since the major characteristic of God was his goodness, ethical concerns stood at the center of the law. Sometimes these took the form of specific standards of moral behavior: "You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:13-15). But these concerns were also expressed in decrees that regulated the economic, social, and political life of the community since God's laws of morality applied to all areas of life. These laws made no class distinctions and emphasized the protection of the poor, widows, orphans, and slaves.

The Israelites believed that certain religious leaders or "holy men," called prophets, were sent by God to serve as his voice to his people. In the ninth century B.C., the prophets were particularly vociferous about the tendency of the Israelites to accept other gods, chiefly the fertility and earth gods of other peoples in Palestine. They warned of the terrible retribution that God would exact from the Israelites if they did not keep the covenant to remain faithful to him alone and just in their dealings with one another.

The golden age of prophecy began in the mid-eighth century and continued during the time when the people of Israel and Judah were threatened by Assyrian and Chaldean conquerors. The words of these reforming prophets were written down and are part of the Hebrew Bible. These "men of God" went through the land warning the Israelites that they had failed to keep God's commandments and would be punished for breaking the covenant: "I will punish you for all your iniquities." Amos prophesied the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria; 20 years later Isaiah said the kingdom of Judah too would fall; and 200 years later, Jeremiah said that Jerusalem would be crushed by the Babylonians.

But the prophets did not just spread doom and gloom. Once the disasters had occurred as they foretold and many people had been taken into exile, the prophets offered a new message of hope. Fearful that the Babylonian exiles might accept the conqueror's gods out of desperation and despair, the prophets tried to kindle optimism by changing their basic message. Since the exiles had been punished for their sins and had repented of their evil ways, God would forgive them and extend his kindness again toward his chosen people. Israel, they proclaimed, would be reborn out of the ashes, a prophecy seemingly fulfilled in 538 B.C. when the Persians allowed the people of Judah to return to the kingdom of Judah and reestablish the Temple in the city of Jerusalem.

Out of the words of the prophets came new concepts that enriched the Jewish tradition and Western civilization, including a notion of universalism and a yearning for social justice. Although the Jews' religious practices gave them a sense of separateness from other peoples, the prophets transcended this by embracing a concern for all humanity. All nations would someday come to the God of Israel: "all the earth shall worship you." A universal community of all people under God would someday be established by Israel's effort. This vision encompassed the elimination of war and the establishment of peace for all the nations of the world. In the words of the prophet Isaiah: "He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many people. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4).

The prophets also cried out against social injustice. They condemned the rich for causing the poor to suffer, denounced luxuries as worthless, and threatened Israel with prophecies of dire punishments for these sins. God's command was to live justly, share with one's neighbors, care for the poor and the unfortunate, and act with compassion. When God's command was not followed, the social fabric of the community was threatened. These proclamations by Israel's prophets became a source for Western ideals of social justice, even if they have never been very perfectly realized.

Although the prophets ultimately developed a sense of universalism, the demands of the Jewish religion (the need to obey their God) eventually encouraged a separation between the Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. Unlike most other peoples of the Near East, Jews could not simply be amalgamated into a community by accepting the gods of their conquerors and their neighbors. To remain faithful to the demands of their God, they might even have to refuse loyalty to political leaders.

The Social Structure of the Hebrews

Originally, the Israelites had been organized along tribal lines, but a new social structure had evolved by the time of the monarchy as the Israelites settled in towns and villages. Although historians warn that the Israelites did not develop social classes in the modern sense of self- conscious groups opposed to one another, there were conspicuous "divisions of the population."

The "men of rank and influence" formed a special group of considerable importance in Hebrew society. This group included officials of the king, military officers, civil officials, and governors. Although simply servants to the kings, they held a privileged position in the society at large. These men of position, who were often synonymous with the heads of the great families, were most numerous in the capital cities, Samaria and Jerusalem. The common people, sometimes called "people of the land," remained a body of free people having basic civil rights. Their livelihood came mostly from the land and from various crafts. These peasants and artisans sold their own produce and products directly to buyers in markets in their local town or village squares, thus eliminating intermediaries or traders. There was no real merchant class in ancient Israel. Commerce was carried on by foreigners, such as the Phoenicians. Not until the Diaspora, when Jews became scattered throughout the ancient world after their exile to Babylon, did they become merchants.

As was customary in the ancient Near East, Hebrews possessed slaves. Hebrew law permitted Hebrews to buy both male and female slaves of foreign birth or children of resident aliens. Hebrews themselves could be enslaved to other Hebrews, but only temporarily: "If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything" (Exodus 21:2). When Hebrews were enslaved, it was usually because they or a relative had been too poor to repay a debt. Thieves who could not repay what they had stolen were also sold as slaves to compensate the victim.

The number of domestic slaves in ancient Israel seems small, especially in comparison to later Greece and Rome. A family of substance might have one or two. Although slaves belonged to their masters and could be used as they wished, Hebrew law afforded slaves some protection. If the owner caused bodily injury, the slave would be freed. If a slave was beaten to death, the owner would be punished. Domestic slaves were usually regarded as part of the family and were protected and cared for accordingly. There are even examples of slaves inheriting their master's estate or marrying into a family and gaining freedom as a result.

The state also possessed slaves who were obtained primarily as prisoners of war. These slaves either worked in the temples or for the kings. Solomon, for example, used slaves in mines, his building projects, and the big commercial and industrial enterprises run by the royal authority.

The family was the central social institution in Hebrew life and consisted of those connected by common blood and a common living place. A family living in one house could comprise husband and wife, married sons and their wives, and their children. The Hebrew family was patriarchal. The husband-father was master of his wife and possessed absolute authority over his children, including the power of life and death. The closeness of family ties was a remnant of tribal life, but the shift to a settled life in towns and villages affected the family. The old patriarchal system broke down. Fewer people could remain in one small house. Married sons now moved out of their father's house and into their own. Moreover, by the eighth century B.C., wage earners replaced domestic slaves and servants, and the old extended family with master, children, grandchildren, and servants living in one house passed away. These changes also weakened the authority of the head of the family. Fathers no longer had the power of life and death over their children, and the right of judgment for children's misdeeds was put in the hands of the town elders.

Marriage was an important aspect of Hebrew family life. In ancient Israel, under the monarchy, polygamy was an accepted form of marriage, especially for kings and wealthier citizens. Hebrew law limited kings to eighteen wives and citizens to four. In practice, only kings could afford a large harem. When others had more than one wife, it was usually because they desired more children; the first wife, for example, might be unable to have children or have produced only daughters.

Many Hebrews, however, believed that monogamy was the preferred form of marriage. Wives were honored for their faithfulness and dedication to their husbands. The Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible provides a picture of what Hebrews considered a perfect wife:

A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls.
She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy. . . .
She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her
(Proverbs 31:10-20, 24-28).

Women were greatly valued, but their work was obviously never done.

Although the Hebrew Bible, a male-edited work, reveals a society dominated by men, it also includes stories of women who played heroic roles in the early history of Israel. Deborah, for example, played a prominent role in the defeat of the Canaanites at Mount Tabor. After the same battle, Jael killed Sisera, the leader of the Canaanites. According to the Song of Deborah, "Most blessed of women be Jael,... most blessed of tent-dwelling women.... Her hand reached for the tent peg, her right hand for the workman's hammer. She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay" (Judges 5:24-27). But these accounts are not the norm. In the Hebrew Bible, women are mostly dependent on men. It should not surprise us, then, to learn that a married woman was subject to her husband's authority. Unlike the Mesopotamians, the Hebrews did not develop the custom of a dowry from the bride's parents. They did, however, have a practice whereby the bridegroom's family paid a sum of money to the bride's family, not as a purchase price as such, but apparently as compensation to the family for the loss of their daughter. A married woman left her parents' home, lived with her husband's family, and became a member of their clan. Her children also belonged to the husband's clan.

Since boys and girls were married at a relatively young age, parents took the responsibility for matchmaking. Although marriages occurred between persons of different families and even with foreign women, it was customary to find marriage partners within one's own clan or extended family. Indeed, marriages between first cousins were frequently arranged.

In ancient Israel, divorce was readily available for the husband, but not for the wife. Although divorce was easy—a husband simply drew up a divorce writ—there is no evidence to suggest that it was very common. In any case, infidelity could be costly. A man committed no crime by having sex with prostitutes, but adultery with a married woman was punishable by death. Wives were expected to remain faithful to their husbands, an ideal that would later have an impact on Christian attitudes toward women.

The primary goal of marriage was to produce children. They were the "crown of man," and sons, in particular, were desired. Daughters would eventually leave the family house, but sons carried on the family line. Mothers were in charge of the early education of children, especially in regard to basic moral principles. As boys matured, their fathers took over responsibility for their education, which remained largely informal. This included religious instruction as well as general education for life. The rod was not spared as a matter of principle. Since trades were usually hereditary, fathers also provided their sons' occupational education. As one rabbi stated, "He who does not teach his son a useful trade is bringing him up to be a thief." Additional education for boys came from priests, whose sacred mission was to instruct people in the Torah, or law code of ancient Israel. An organized school system was not established until much later, possibly in the second century B.C. The only education girls received was from their mothers who taught them the basic fundamentals of how to be good wives, mothers, and housekeepers.

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