Thursday, August 11, 2011

Israel, Part I: Ancient History

Satellite Image of Israel 2003
About a decade ago, when we were about a year into our homeschooling adventure, our history text had a sizable section on Middle Eastern history, focusing on Israel. Up until then my understanding of the nuances of the modern-day conflict was pretty minimal. Still, I’m no expert, but I thought the historical overview might be useful right now. It is something I had been intending to cover, even before Glenn Beck set up his Restoring Courage event there. But I’m pleased he’s doing it. 

This is going to take a few days. Today we’ll cover the background, the ancient history. Next comes the Zionist movement in the early 1900s. Then we’ll cover the history of modern Israel. I don’t know exactly how many days this will take, but as long as this is, it’s only a thumbnail version. I hope you find it useful.

Ancient History

Abraham was an inhabitant of the region at the east end of the Mediterranean Sea around 2000 BC. In his old age he and his wife Sarah had a son named Isaac. He also had a slightly older son named Ishmael, with Sarah’s handmaid Hagar as a surrogate, since Sarah had reached old age childless. To this day there is contention about which of the two sons is the birthright son—the one Abraham nearly sacrificed. I believe the Bible version with Isaac, but the Arab world, some descending from Ishmael, claim it is him. This is just to point out how very long the memory of differences is 

Isaac had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob received the birthright, also with some controversy, since he was born literally on the heels of his brother, mainly because he cared about the birthright and Esau was willing to give it up for a mess of pottage (food). 

Jacob was renamed Israel; he had twelve sons, who headed (to make a long story shorter) twelve tribes of people. The brothers were jealous of one of the younger sons, Joseph, and sold him to travelers on the way to Egypt. Joseph ended up thriving there, rising from slavery to just below the pharaoh. At a time of famine, he managed grain so the people didn’t starve.  

Meanwhile, Israel and his sons were experiencing famine back in Israel’s land. They traveled to Egypt to request help, and Joseph managed a reconciliation. They ended up relocating to Egypt, and in time this large family grew to appear a threat to later Egyptian leaders, who enslaved them. This was not personal ownership-type slavery; it was oppression of the people as a whole. 

Eventually Moses came along, helping bring about the release of the House of Israel (the total group of twelve tribes). After 50 years of wandering in the wilderness, they were led back to the original land of Israel, assigning each tribe its own land, covering what is now Israel and beyond to, I believe Syria and Lebanon. So, since about 1500 BC the House of Israel has continuously held a presence in this land. 

There have been occupations, takeovers, and dispersals. Around 720 BC the Assyrians came in and captured much of the area, dispersing the northern ten tribes. The ones left were mainly the Jews, in and around Jerusalem, and Levi, the tribe without a land inheritance but who worked in the temple, essentially the cleric class, along with part of the tribe of Benjamin. The others were spread out who knows where. 

In 600 BC the Babylonians came in and took over. They captured many of the ruling class and took them to Babylon. This included Daniel (of the lion’s den) and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (who were thrown into the fiery furnace for refusing to worship any god but the One True God and were spared in the fire). Around 450 BC many were able to return to those still in Israel, and were able to rebuild and rededicate their temple. 

By the time of Christ, the Romans had taken over, occupying the land and managing it with their governors. In 70 AD there was a destruction of the temple. And from this time the Jews were unable to regain their autonomy there. Most were dispersed across the diaspora (the world outside of Israel). The Romans renamed the area Palestine. 

Following the fall of Rome and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman Turks ruled the area from about 1517 AD. At this point the coastal area was mostly swamps and desolate rocky-strewn mountains. Small numbers of Jews continued to live there, but also nomadic Arabs. Most Jews lived in European countries. Some countries welcomed them, but most persecuted and despised them. Always the Jews remained a singular people, indentifying with one another, rather than totally assimilating into their various societies. And they continued to long to return someday to their homeland in Israel.

The story of Zionism in Part II tomorrow.

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