Interpreting the Past

Ancient Egypt and the Near East Unit: Origins of Judaism - The History of the Ancient Israelites

Assignments to hand in: Notes on the Ancient Israelites Handout

Essential Questions, shared learning target & introduction:

Essential Question 2: Why do people live the way they do?
Essential Question 5: How does conflict and cooperation affect human history?

What will I be able to do?: You will be able to describe through notes the major historical events of the ancient Israelites.
What idea, topic, or subject is important for you to learn and understand so that I can do this?: You will learn about the ancient history of the Israelites, from Abraham to Joshua.
What I will do to show that you know this?: You will show what you know by completing various illustrations and recording detailed notes about the major events in early Israelite history on the handout: Notes on the Ancient Israelites.

Introduction:

Ancient Egypt, Canaan, and Mesopotamia Map

The ancient Israelites were nomadic people who migrated from Mesopotamia to Canaan (present-day Israel and Lebanon) during the second millennium B.C.E. These people traveled around Egypt and the Near East, where they also settled for various periods of time. Another name for the Israelites is Hebrews, and they are often referred to by this term in ancient writings.
The Israelites were the founders of Judaism, one of the first religions in the world to be based on monotheism (the belief in one God). In contrast, other peoples from that same time period practiced polytheistic religions (the belief in many Gods). The ancient Israelites believed their God was all-powerful and had created the world. Monotheism is the basis of several other religions, including Christianity and Islam. There are an estimated 14 million followers of the Jewish religion around the world today.
Almost everything we know about the Israelites is based on the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is also known as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible are known as the Torah, which is comprised of stories about the ancient Israelites and descriptions of Hebrew law. While many people believe the stories of the Torah to be factually true, scholars attempting to verify the historical accuracy of events described in the Torah have found little archeological evidence from which to work. However, some archeological evidence of the ancient Israelites does exist. For example, by examining written records and tomb paintings from the reign of Ramesses II in Egypt, scholars have been able to verify the Egyptians' enslavement/forced labor of the Israelites and the time period in which it may have occurred.


Step 1: Researching and taking notes on the history of the Ancient Israelites -  Complete Notes on the Ancient Israelites handout by reading each Event below [Download Event Handout - Text of all events]. Fill in the missing part of the drawing and record notes on important information around the illustration. Click on the thumbnail images to see the full picture.

Event A: God's Covenant with Abraham

God's Covenant with AbrahamAbram was one of the founders of the Jewish religion, and therefore an important figure in the history of the ancient Israelites. Historians believe Abram (which means "blessed father") was born about 4,000 years ago in the city of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia. According to the Torah, a series of Jewish holy texts, God visited Abram and instructed him to leave Mesopotamia: "Leave your own country...and go to a country that I will show you." Abram obeyed God, and at the age of 75 led his family west into the land of Canaan.
Abram and his family settled in Canaan, but a severe lack of food, or famine, forced them to leave the land and live in Egypt for a short time. According to the Torah, after Abram returned to Canaan, God visited him again. God promised to make Abram the father of a nation of people and to give them the entire land of Canaan in which to live. God told Abram, "Your descendants shall be as numerous as the stars." In a third visit, God fulfilled this promise by making a sacred agreeement, or covenant, with Abram. This promise was a symbol of God's special favor and protection. In return, Abram agreed that his children and relatives, or descendants, would devote themselves to God. As a mark of this covenant, God renamed Abram Abraham, which means "father of many." The nation of people that descended from Abraham became known as the Israelites because Abraham's grandson Jacob came to be called Israel. According to the Torah, one night Jacob wrestled with God, who appeared to him as a stranger. When Jacob would not release him, God said to Jacob, "You shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel ["he who struggles with God"] shall be your name." The Israelites believed that God's covenant with them was a sign that they were a chosen people, and that Canaan was their promised land. But a long, hard struggle still lay before them.

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Event B: The Enslavement of the Israelites 

Enslavement of the IsraelitesAbraham's grandson Jacob had 12 sons, and his favorite son was called Joseph. According to the Torah, Joseph's brothers were jealous of him and wanted to get rid of him. To do so, they sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt. Although he was a slave, Joseph rose to power after he successfully interpreted a dream of the Egyptian leader, or pharaoh, and prevented a famine from striking the land. The pharaoh rewarded him, and over time, Joseph became the second most powerful person in Egypt. Another famine in Canaan forced Joseph's brother to journey to Egypt in search of food. Joseph eventually forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery, and the entire family - including Jacob - came and settled in Egypt around 1700 B.C.E.
According to the Torah, Jacob and his descendants "increased in numbers and became very powerful" in Egypt. The Torah states that many years later, after Jacob and his sons died, "a new king ascended the throne of Egypt, one who knew nothing of Joseph." This king was likely Pharaoh Ahmose, who ruled Egypt from approximately 1550 B.C.E. to 1525 B.C.E. Ahmose was afraid that the Israelites were growing too powerful and that they might join Egypt's enemies and wage war against Egypt. In order to prevent such a war, Ahmose enslaved the Israelites. He hired stern overseers to force the Israelites to perform backbreaking labor. Israelite slaves built roads, giant statues, temples, palaces, and cities. They were often poorly fed and severly beaten. Despite these unbearable conditions, the Israelites continued to grow in number. Pharaoh Seti I, who ruled from 1306 B.C.E. to 1290 B.C.E., was determined to stop this growing population. He ordered that all newborn Israelite males be killed. One baby, named Moses, escaped this fate, and he changed the history of the Israelites forever.

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Event C: The Exodus from Egypt

Exodus from EgyptMoses was born to an Israelite woman in Egypt around the late thirteenth century B.C.E. Moses' mother was afraid that her son, like other newborn Israelite males, would be killed by the Egyptians. So, according to the Torah, she put the baby in a small basket and sent the basket down the Nile River to keep him from harm. The pharaoh's daughter found Moses while she was bathing in the river. She took him home and raised him as her own son. When Moses was an adult, he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave. Outraged, Moses struck and killed the Egyptian. He fled east to the desert to escape punishment for the murder.
At this time, according to the Torah, God heard the cries of the enslaved Israelites and remembered the covenant with Abraham. God appeared to Moses and instructed him to return to Egypt and lead the Israelites out of slavery and back into the promised land of Canaan. He obeyed and returned to Egypt. Moses went before the new pharaoh, Ramses II, son of Seti I, and demanded that he free the Israelites. Ramses refused. As punishment, God brought down a series of terrible plagues on the Egyptians, including swarms of snakes, frogs, and mosquitoes, which caused great destruction. At last Ramses II gave in and decided to allow the Israelites to go. Moses then led them east out of Egypt around 1270 B.C.E. The Torah refers to this event as The Exodus, meaning "the departure of a large group of people." According to the Torah, as the Israelites left, Ramses II changed his mind and ordered his army to pursue them. It is believed that the army chased the Israelites to the banks of the Red Sea. The water prevented the Israelites from escaping, and they were terrified. But Moses reassured them by saying, "The Lord will fight for you." On God's instructions, Moses raised his staff and the waters parted, allowing the Israelites to cross unharmed. When the Egyptian army tried to follow them, Moses raised his staff again. At his command, the waters flooded over the Egyptians and they drowned. The Israelites believed that this was a miracle that had saved their lives and so they placed their faith in Moses and their new God.

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Event D: Moses Receiving the Ten Commandments

Moses receiving the ten commandmentsThe Torah tells how Moses led the Israelites out of eastern Egypt adn south into the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. As they traveled back to Canaan, it is likely that they first traveled south along the western edge of the peninsula until they reached Mount Sinai, or the "Mountain of God." According to the Torah, the Israelites traveled for three months before they arrived there.
When they reached Mount Sinai, Moses traveled up the Mount alone to receive God's word. According to the Torah, it was there that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. These commandments, or religious lawas, were engraved on two tablets of stone and are the foundation of the Jewish religion. The first and most important commandment stated, "You shall have no other God before Me." This meant that the Israelites should worship only one god, not the many Gods most people worshipped at the time. Other commandments provided guidelines for moral (proper) behavior, such as "You shall not steal," and You shall honor your father and mother." As long as the Israelites promised to live according to the Ten Commandments, God promised to look after and protect them. According to the Torah, god instructed Moses to build a magnificent wood and gold sacred chest, or Ark, in which to keep the Ten Commandments. This became known as the Ark of the Covenant because it symbolized the promises between God and the Israelites. God also told the Israelites to build a sacred structure known as the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was an elaborate tent made up of wood, gold, and rich fabrics in shades of purple and red. It was the Israelites' first temple, and an Israelite High Priest, or religious leader, conducted religious rituals there. The Tabernacle housed the Ark as the Israelites continued their journey to the promised land of Canaan.

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Ten Commandments (About.com)


Event E: Joshua's Conquest of Jericho

Joshua's Conquest of JerichoMoses and the Israelites left Mount Sinai and traveled north along the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula. According to the Torah, God commanded the Israelites to continue their journey toward Canaan: "Go up from here...to the land which I promised to Abraham. I will bring you to a land flowing with milk and honey." The journey was a long, hard one. The landscape across which the Israelites traveled was hot and dry, and food and water were scarce. When they reached the edge of Canaan, they were dismayed to see that the land was already occupied and well protected. Discouraged, the Israelites began to doubt Moses' and God's promise. "Why should the Lord bring us to this land to die in battle? Returning to Egypt would be better than this!" The Israelites' lack of faith greatly angered God. As punishment, God refused to let the Israelites into Canaan, and they were forced to live in the wilderness for 40 years.
Forty years later, around 1200 B.C.E., Moses, now an elderly man, once again led the Israelites to Canaan's border. When Moses died, an Israelite named Joshua became their leader. According to the Torah, God told Joshua it was now time for the Israelites to claim Canaan for their own. Joshua sent two men ahead to scout the land, and then led the Israelites west across the Jordan River into Canaan. The first city they encountered was Jericho. The Torah states that Jericho, and therefore all of Canaan, was conquered after the Israelite holy men circled the city for seven days. On the seventh day, the holy men raised their trumpets made of ram's horns and "blew the trumpets...When the [Israelite] army heard the trumpet sound, they raised a great shout, and down fell the walls." Some historians believe that this battle betweeen the Israelites and Canaanites actually took place over many years. They believe that the Israelites engaged in small conflicts with the Canaanites, and graduallly took over the region through land settlement and adaptation to the existing culture. The Israelites eventually established the nation of Israel in Canaan. At this time, they also established the beginnings of the Jewish religion.

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