It is in the patriarchal period of ancient Jewish history that the beginnings of Hebrew religion and of a Hebrew identity are to be found. The movement to Egypt of the patriarchs’ descendents, their enslavement there and subsequent liberation by Moses, who led them, as the Children of Israel, toward the land originally promised to Abraham’s descendents, is a biblical story that represents, however entrusted with legend and modified by later redactors, a real historical process.
In the same way, the story of the covenant of Sinai represents something crucial that happened to the religious consciousness of a whole people. When Moses brought God’s ethical code down from Mount Sinai, the mission of the people of Israel became henceforth to practice this code in their daily lives and by so doing, set an example to the nations. If they did this faithfully, God would regard Israel as his special people. The belief that their view of God and of the moral law was both different from and better than that of their neighbors now became deeply ingrained. They saw themselves as playing out a divine drama whose first act had been god’s promise to Abraham.
The age of David and Solomon, the tenth century B.C., marked the acme of Israelite fortunes in the Promised Land, which the jews had conquered from the inhabitants of Canaan. David’s building of the Temple in Jerusalem served to remind his people that the political and material strength of the country remained rooted in its religious obligations.
On Solomon’s death, about 933 B.C. , the Israelite empire broke apart into the northern kingdom of Israel, with its capital eventually located at Samaria, and the southern kingdom of Judah , with its capital at Jerusalem. About 722 B.C. the Assyrians conquered Israel, destroyed Samaria, and carried off the wealthier inhabitants of the country into exile; they never returned, at least not as a recognizable group. Judah survived under Assyrian domination. In an attempt to preserve not only their own cultural identity but the inheritance of the lost state of Israel, the assembled and reinterpreted their principal religious documents, recapitulated the Mosaic Law, and reaffirmed God’s covenant with Israel.
Little Judah, precariously situated amid the struggles of empires, was conquered by Babylon about 587 B.C. The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple and deported the population to Babylon. But when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 B.C., he allowed all the Jewish exiles and their descendents who so desired to return to Judah.
That a considerable number did return is testimony to the tenacity of Jewish national and religious feeling. The Babylonian conquest had been traumatic.That extraordinary group of didactic poets, the Hebrew prophets, had predicted it as a divine punishment for backsliding, and Jews accepted it as such; but as readers of the Psalms can testify, they never ceased to yearn for Jerusalem. Much of what we now know as the Hebrew Bible was compiled during the Babylonian exile, and apparently the first attempts were made to formulate a viable religion for a people removed from their traditional home and sanctuaries…. (to be continued)