Ancient Hebrew civilization

In at least one branch of their descendants the Semitic peoples of Babylonia still live. Ancient Babylon has disappeared, and its land has become a waste, inhabited by a feeble folk bearing little or no kinship to the mighty race of earth's first empire builders. But the Hebrews of today are the living tree that has sprung from that marvelous root of Babylonian culture, character, and religion.

To the Hebrews, our modern world is indebted for the germ of its religious thought, the realization of the one almighty Power enfolding the universe, "the all-wise and the all-loving too." This thought, though not in its full clearness, the Hebrews carried with them in their departure from Babylonia. They carried also the Babylonian shrewdness at trade, and keenness at figures, and, as a less valuable inheritance, an instinctive leaning towards the unclean ritual of Ishtar, the nature goddess, or love goddess, of ancient Summer.

Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew race, was a Semite, dwelling, as the Bible tells us, in the city of "Ur of the Chaldees." This may mean either the great Sumerian city of Ur, or a particular suburb of Babylon which had the same name. In the latter case, which is the one that recent research makes more probable, Abraham's own eyes and those of his kinsfolk rested often and familiarly on the sights of the great metropolis in the days of Sumu-abi and the first powerful Semitic kings. Amid these surroundings there came to the patriarch the impulse, God-given as are all high impulses, to leave the oppressive civilization for a freer, purer life.

Under what material influence Abraham set out on his wanderings, we do not know; but his migration corresponds closely in time with the tremendously destructive Elamite invasion of Babylonia by Kudur-nankhundi. Those ravaging hordes of Elamites must have driven forth many a desolated Babylonian household in search of some more quiet dwelling place. The influence of the devastation would be specially strong with the nomadic tribes, like that of Abraham. These, gathering the rescued fragments of their flocks and herds, wandered onward until they could find rest in less dangerous pasture lands. Abraham's tribe journeyed first to Haran, which was probably the city of that name near the upper Euphrates, and thence Abraham led his own particular following into Canaan, which we know as Palestine. He found this land most charming to his taste, perfectly fitted to his pastoral household. It was sparsely inhabited, fertile with many meadows, and of a pleasant climate. Here, when he learned that the Elamite forces were again at hand, persecuting him even in this distant realm, he turned upon them suddenly and fiercely, as we know, and defeated the army of Chedorlaomer. Or, if we are not justified in terming that sudden nigh-attack a defeat, the patriarch at least wrested from the invaders such portions of their prisoners and spoils as specially concerned him.

The name "Hebrew" means people "from the other bank of the river," that is, of the Euphrates; and it may well be that Abraham's tribe was only one small portion of the many Semites from the Euphrates who drifted into Canaan. It is certain that "Hebrew" in its widest significance was applied not only to the Israelites but to many of their immediate neighbors, the Moabites, Ammonites, and others. Apparently, also, it was only after some centuries that Abraham's special descendants, the Israelites, separated wholly from these kindred tribes and in a period of famine undertook that further migration which brought them into Egypt.

In Egypt they were welcomed by the Hyksos, or "Shepherd Kings," Asiatic invaders like themselves, perhaps of their own kindred, who had conquered the land of the Nile. Under these Hyksos, the Israelite Joseph rose to be the chief man of the kingdom, the deputy of the king. Generations later, when the Hyksos had been expelled by a native Egyptian uprising, the descendants of Israel sank to be little better than slaves; and hence, under their wondrous leader and prophet Moses, they left Egypt to seek once more a land of freedom and of peace.

We have no means of setting exact dates to these wanderings of Abraham and his descendants. If we make the first migration from Ur coincident with the Elamite conquest, the time would be about 2285 B.C. Joseph's period of rule in Egypt must have been not far from the year 1720 B.C.; and the exodus under Moses may have occurred about 1300 B.C.

For the forty years following, the exiles led a nomadic life, as their fathers had done of old. They pastured their scanty flocks on the herbage of Sinai, a barren land, but by no means so desolate as the earlier home of their Semite ancestors in Arabia. Finally, feeling themselves strong enough, the wanderers advanced northward into Palestine. They found it no longer the thinly peopled country it had been in Abraham's day. Under Joshua they waged battle after battle against its Canaanite cities before becoming masters of the land. Indeed they never did win complete possession of it all.

During all their wanderings the Israelites had been mere tribes, but gradually their experiences in Palestine molded them into a compact nation, sharply separated from the other Semites. They became, in fact, the most clearly differentiated race and apparently the most enduring in type among all the nations of the world. This amazing persistence and power of race, which has so often aroused the comment of the historian, seems to have had its origin in two sources. The first was their religion. Like the Assyrians and most of the other Semites, they regarded themselves as the chosen people of their god. When, in addition to this, they came to think of theirs as the only real God, all-powerful over other races of men, then naturally the Israelites acquired not only a tremendous self-confidence, but also a scorn of all less favored people, a scorn which made them anxious to dwell apart. Their other source of racial strength was the moral law established by Moses, which forbade them to intermarry with the Canaanites among whom they settled. Thus, refusing steadily to mix with other races, they became more and more a typical and homogeneous people.

Their nation did not attain political importance until about the year 1000 B.C., in the days of their great chieftain David. In David's childhood the Israelites were only one among three or more separate peoples dwelling in Palestine. They were the country folk, still pastoral, counting their wealth in flocks and herds, and quite definitely subject to the Philistines, a Semitic people like themselves, who dwelt in walled cities along the Palestine coast. As yet the Israelites were bound together only by their sense of a common kinship and religion. They had chief priests and prophets, but no organized rule. Then Saul, a sturdy giant of a man and a great fighter, led a rebellion against the Philistines. Being temporarily successful, he set himself up as Israel's first king. He established a capital, and organized a government. When Saul was finally defeated and slain by the Philistines, his place was taken by his son-in-law David.

David had been exiled by Saul on suspicion of plotting to seize the throne. In this exile, David had set himself up as chief of a robber band; he had even taken service under the Philistines. Now, however, he deserted them to lead his own people. At first he was merely king of Judah, his native tribe among the Israelites; and only after a bloody civil war did the other tribes accept his rule. There was thus, from the very beginning of their national life, a division among the Israelites. Judah, as the chief tribe, from which sprang King David and his successors, assumed a superiority. Gradually it became more and more widely separated from the mass of the other tribes, to whom the name of Israel came to be applied as distinct from that of Judah.

As king of the united nation, David defeated the Philistines. He then stormed Jerusalem, the chief fortified city of the mountains, which was still in possession of its original inhabitants, the Jebusites. Having made Jerusalem his capital, David embarked on a care of conquest over outside nations. His chief victory was that of Helam, where he defeated the confederated forces of Syria, probably the Hittites. He extended his rule, though doubtless feebly and vaguely, from the borders of Egypt, over all Palestine and Syria, and as far eastward as the Euphrates valley. For a moment Israel, in the sudden recognition of her strength, promised to become the world power that should supplant ancient Babylonia and the temporarily exhausted Assyria.

This kingdom, which Saul had founded and David had made strong, reached the zenith of its power under David's son, Solomon, whose reign of forty years was peculiarly tranquil for those turbulent days, wherein the overcrowded nations found themselves at constant war. The new king's peace was the reward of the reputation his father had won. The Pharaohs of Egypt, risen by this time to the height of their splendor, treated with Solomon apparently as an equal, something which, in the safety of their isolated position, they had refused to do with any earlier Asiatic monarch. An Egyptian princess was sent to Jerusalem as Solomon's bride. Indeed one can imagine a shrewd Babylonian trader of that day as he journeyed from land to land, reckoning the four chief kingdoms of the world in the order of their weakness, as follows: lowest of the four, the Hittites, too disunited to have any chance of empire; next to these, the Assyrians, enfeebled by local wars and fast losing their ancient strength; third, Egypt, mighty but too far off to be able to exert her power in Asia; and fourth and highest, Israel, a united people, numerous, victorious, strong, and eager for war.

These were the days of Jerusalem's beautifying and splendor. Solomon built himself palaces and aqueducts and stately bridges, and, chief of his constructions, his celebrated temple. This was erected on the highest hill of the great mountain city, the summit of the hill being leveled and its edges raised by huge understructures, which remain even to this day. The temple was renowned for its richness rather than its size, though one report represents its chief tower as rising 210 feet above the temple court. Two pillars, celebrated for their beauty, rose before the doorway, and within was the "Holy of Holies," the most sacred shrine of all. This was an empty chamber wherein God Himself was believed to have made His presence manifest to the most devoted of His followers.

The days of the nation's worldly glory were, however, of brief duration. Solomon was succeeded by his son Rehoboam; and the new king forgot that his own great-grandfather Saul had been, only a short time before, one of the common peasantry, selected by his fellows to champion them against oppression. Rehoboam thought himself the master of his people and tried to rule as haughtily and with the same crushing brutality as the Assyrian monster-kings. The result was a rebellion. The other tribes broke away from the yoke of Judah, and set up a state of their own with its capital at Samaria. This was known thenceforth as the Kingdom of Israel, in contradistinction to that of Judah. Between the two sister states ensued constant war; and from that time onward each sapped the life-blood of the other. Like Assyria and Babylonia, they turned away from feebler foes, and, in fratricidal strife exhausted each other's power. Thus all the dreams of empire which illumined the days of David and Solomon were brought to naught.

The empire of the Hebrews was not to be of this world. Today they are a people without a country, a nation without a state. But they were slow to realize their destiny, slow to recognize their own peculiar strength or to acknowledge their peculiar weakness. They fought furiously for their little corner of earth. Moreover, they abandoned the religious unity which had made them strong. Even King Solomon had "turned his heart after other gods." The old Babylonian worship of Ishtar was revived. Ishtar, or as the Greeks called her, Astrate, was the goddess of love and of all the reproducing forces of nature. Temples were erected to her on the hill-tops, and she was adored with unclean rites. The northern tribes of Israel broke away entirely from obedience to their own ancient God, our Biblical "Jehovah," whose worship was too closely associated with Jerusalem and Judah to please the northern rebels. Even in Judah there was religious division, and the splendid temple of Solomon came to enclose within its sacred precincts the shrines of many idols.

Then followed the political downfall. King Shishak of Egypt attacked Jerusalem in the days of Rehoboam, Solomon's son, and carried off all the riches of the temple. Still darker days ensued, during which one Assyrian conqueror after another ground the hopelessly divided Hebrews beneath his savage heel. Tiglathpileser III., or Pul, who established Assyria's second period of power, overian Syria and Palestine. The King of Judah, Ahaz, confederated with him, or even, as the Bible tells us, entreated him to enter the land to protect Judah from Israel and other foes. Hence Judah escaped the ravages of Pul; but Israel fought him and was overwhelmingly defeated. A large portion, probably the majority of the northern Israelites who survived, were carried off by Pul about 740 B.C. and colonized in Assyria. There, in the destruction which later overtook that unhappy land, they wholly disappeared.

A decade later Israel was again in arms against an Assyrian tyrant, Shalmaneser IV. He besieged Israel's capital, Samaria, for several years before it finally fell, not to him but to his successor, that adventurer who sized upon Assyria's throne and called himself Sargon II. This leader completed the destruction of Israel, which Pul, the earlier conqueror, had begun. In the year 721 B.C. Sargon expelled the last exhausted remnant of the northern Hebrews from their kingdom, and marched them across all the weary width of his broad empire to its other extremity, the far eastern land of Media. So completely has every trace of these bands of exiles disappeared that we speak of them today as the ten lost tribes of Israel. Of the twelve tribes that had followed Moses out of Egypt, only two, that of Judah and the little allied tribe of Benjamin, remained in Palestine.

Nor did the kingdom of Judah long outlast that of Israel. Hezekiah, king of Judah, rebelled against Sargon's son and successor Sennacherib, and sought the protection of Egypt, Assyria's chief rival. Of the strange destruction of Sennacherib's army before Jerusalem, we know from many different traditions. The startling event impressed itself deeply upon the ancient world. The Greek historian Herodotus, when he visited Egypt, was shown a statue of an Egyptian king holding a rat in his hand, and was told that when Sennacherib's army was intending to attack Egypt, the god Ptah sent myriads of rodents into the Assyrian camp. These gnawed through every bow-string, and through all the cords for binding on armor and shields. The Assyrian host, disarmed and helpless, fled in panic, and many were slain. Hence the Egyptians credited Sennacherib's downfall to the piety of their own king, to the greatness of their god Ptah, and to the teeth of his rats. But this little animal was the symbol, in ancient Egypt of just what our modern science has taught us it now chiefly symbolizes--the plague. Hence this story seems to point, as does that of the Bible, to the destruction of Sennacherib's forces by a sudden plague, some such awful visitation as our own day has again seen attending upon the recklessly gathered and closely horded armies of the east.

Hezekiah's escape prolonged Judah's independence only a little time. The next Assyrian king was the great conqueror Esarhaddon. He reduced all Palestine, and even Egypt itself, to the position of submissive provinces within his empire. Judah's king, Manasseh, was made prisoner, carried before Esarhaddon in chains, and afterward restored to his throne as a dependent vassal king.

In the terrible days that followed Esarhaddon, when those wild barbarian tribes from the unknown north were ravaging Palestine as well as Assyria, when Nineveh and Babylon were at death-grips, and Nineveh was finally overthrown, Judah reasserted its independence. Its king Josiah not only fought successfully against his neighbors and fellow sufferers in desolation, but organized a great religious revival. The ancient law-books of Moses had vanished, destroyed perhaps or carried off as booty by one of the Assyrian conquerors. Now, in clearing out from the temple the accumulations of many generations, there was rediscovered a copy of at least a part of the Law. Reading this, Josiah and his people realized with horror how far they had departed from the pure worship of the one God, Jehovah.

A complete reformation followed. The shrines of Ishtar and other foreign gods were destroyed; and grim abominations were performed upon these temple spots to prevent their ever being regarded again as holy. Next the religious ceremonials dedicated to Jehovah Himself were much altered and simplified. And when at length all was completed, a feast of purification was held so solemn that, in the words of the Bible, "there was not holden such a passover from the days of the judges that judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel, nor of the kings of Judah." The wording suggests that the Law must have been lost from view even before the Assyrian era, before David and before Saul, perhaps in those early days of the Judges when the Philistines held in bondage the "ark of the covenant."

Again, however, was that lesson to be taught which the Hebrews refused so long to learn, that God offers no earthly splendor in payment to his followers. King Josiah ventured to fight against Egypt. Assyria had finally perished; Babylon reigned in the east, and Egypt, once more independent, was at war with her. The Egyptians sent word to Josiah asking him only to keep out of the strife on either side. But Josiah defied the Egyptians, and was slain by them in a great battle at Megiddo. His defeat compelled Judah to become subject to Egypt.

That subjection soon brought about the Hebrew kingdom's downfall. Egypt was defeated by the Babylonians; and her allied and subject cities were captured one after the other, Jerusalem among them. The Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar stormed the Hebrew citadel, plundered its temple and carried off its king Jeconiah and all his chief people into captivity in Babylonia. Those who remained in Judah rebelled a few years later, and Nebuchadnezzar determined to make an end of them. One of his generals overran the land and besieged its capital for the last time. Under Zedekiah, the last of its ancient kings, Jerusalem withstood this final siege for three years. Then famine conquered her. Her armed men were slain in a last desperate sortie. Her king was captured and killed, and the starving survivors were carried off, as the upper classes had been before, to Babylonian servitude. The sacred city was deliberately destroyed, blotted out of existence (586 B.C.).

Only a few fugitives from the surrounding country remained to gather in misery around the sacred shrine of desolated Jerusalem. These were ruled by a governor approved by Babylonia. But even this remnant rebelled once more, slew their governor, and then, helpless to defend themselves, fled to Egypt for protection. An avenging force from Babylonia scraped up a few poor miserable survivors among the ruins and carried them also into captivity. The kingdom of Judah vanished; its land lay an empty waste. But the spiritual faith of its people survived. The true mission of the descendants of Abraham, that first historic believer in one God, was not finished; it was only just begun.

This new era dawned for Judea and the Jews, as the ancient land and people of Judah came to be called, when Babylon was in its turn conquered by another conqueror. He was the Persian monarch Cyrus. Cyrus assumed the role of friend and deliverer of all the races whom the Babylonians had crushed. He therefore permitted the various transported colonists throughout the empire to return to their native homes, if they so wished. The captive Jews gladly seized upon this privilege, and in vast caravans under various leaders, Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, they journeyed back to Judea and rebuilt Jerusalem. Their city was of course nothing like the gorgeous capital of wealth and beauty it had been before. Neither did it again pretend to independence or to any political importance. The exiled Jews in Babylonia had been held together by their priests and their religion; and it was these potent forces that had led them back to Judea. Their state became a "theocracy," a nation ruled wholly by its priesthood. This was the time of most of the Hebrew religious writings. The faith of the people waxed stronger, purer, nobler. It prepared itself to teach its most exalted doctrines to all mankind.

Politically Judea remained in quiet subjection to Persia, and then to the Greeks, who, under Alexander the Great, conquered Persia and divided its empire into four kingdoms (323 B.C.). Judea fell at first to the share of the Egyptian kingdom, but in 204 B.C. was seized and added to the Syrian kingdom by the monarch Antiochus III., called the Great.

During these centuries the Jews as an earnest, obedient, unrebellious people, were in special favor with their various sovereigns. They became numerous and prosperous. Antiochus the Great even used the Jews as a bulwark against other rebels by sending colonies of them to disaffected regions, offering them lands, exemptions from taxation, and similar favors, to induce them to settle at the seat of turbulence and restrain their neighbors. No one dreamed of the Jews as types of frenzy and self-immolation--rather were they types of submissive wisdom and of peace.

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Read about Ancient Hebrew civilization in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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