The Bible is the primary source for knowledge about the ancient history of Israel. The history related, is the interpretation of historical events by members of a community of faith. In these biblical accounts, history and faith are intimately intertwined.
The nature of Israel's history, is best understood in the Old Testament, in terms of the nature and purpose of Israel's God. He is a covenant God and so the Old Testament is a history based on covenants. He is a God who creates, reveals, sustains, judges, and redeems. The OT reflects Israel's belief that God is at work in the life of His chosen people. God created in the beginning, and continues to sustain in order that in the fullness of time, His people may be redeemed. The freedom and joy characterized in the garden called Eden, will be recovered in the garden called Paradise. This view of God from the beginning until the end, Alpha and Omega, are essential in both Judaism and Christianity. Much can be learned by us as Christians from the study of God's workings with Israel as to how he works with us individually today. In the same way it was not always evident to Israel where God was leading them, so we can find assurance that God is always at work, accomplishing His will.
The history of Israel begins with the stories of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) from whom, the 12 tribes of Israel descended. Prior to this time, in the OT, are the series of creation and origination traditions. These provide genealogies from Adam to Abraham. The stories of the patriarchs as recorded in the OT, originated as oral traditions, passed down by customs and ceremonies accompanied by narratives across centuries. Many scholars think these traditions do not reflect an accurate historical account, but rather reflect the faith and historical effects of the patriarchs on the clans and tribes which eventually became the nation of Israel. The traditions were meant to foster national unity and belief. The exact family relationships recorded, and the movements of the nomadic peoples of this time may have been different from what is recorded in the OT. The book of Genesis for example, appears to have been compiled from three traditions know as "J" (Yahwist), "E" (Elohist), and "P" Priestly. The Priestly traditions are most concerned with geneaologies and precise dates, and thus provide the most historically accurate view. The other two traditions are interested in dreams and divine revelation given through intermediaries. There are descrepancies between the accounts, but the Priestly traditions form the best basis of Israel's early history. The dating for the recording of each tradition is around 950BC for "J", 750 BC for "E", and 539 B.C. for P although the traditions themselves are much older. It is generally accepted that no Israelite literature was written extensively before the reign of David. So the telling of these traditions was to convey the covenants of God with Israel and the nature of God. These gave Israel an identity as the people of Yahweh.
The book of Exodus begins with a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
Who was Joseph? Egyptian sources record a time when an Asiatic exercised considerable authority on behalf of the pharoah. Most scholars think this was likely Joseph, and was during the rule of Ramses II who ruled from 1290-1224BC. Both biblical and extrabiblical material indicate that the conquest of Canaan under Judah took place around the 13th century. For example, there is archaeological evidence of the destruction of the towns of Bethel, Debir, and Lachish around this time. The earliest mention of Israel as a group of people, outside the Bible, is on a 'stele' (victory tablet) of Pharoah Merneptah which dates from 1220BC. He lists the people of Israel as those he conquered during a military campaign in Palestine. This corresponds to Exodus 1:11. Next comes the stories of Moses, which cannot be regarded as historically accurate in every detail. He is however unique among his people, and the most important figure in Jewish history. The Bible is the only source of information for his life and work. The time of Moses and the acts of the Exodus, are often pointed to as the time of Israel's emergence as a people of Yahweh, that is, their crystalization.
Next came the conquest and settlement of Canaan. Joshua here is the principle figure and is an Israelite general and an assistant to Moses. He is Moses' successor. The book of Joshua, as compiled by a theologian commonly know as the 'Deuteronomist', shapes the narrative to show Yahweh as giving the victory to Israel and the people the land. Judges 1, shows a slightly different account, in that the submission of all the tribes and people of the land took several centuries and was not completed until the rule of David. Joshua led the Joseph tribes in establishing a stronghold in the central highland. Later as they moved toward the coast, the encountered Greek migrants called the Philistines. The occupation of Canaan brought both blessings and problems. The covenant of Moses caused the people to unite in serving one God and becoming one people of the covenant. But the Israelites also lived among the highly civilized Canaanites whose religion and culture influenced many of them adversely.
During this time Israel lived in tribal units and came together only in crisis times for mutual defense. The leaders of these groups were known as 'judges'. These men felt themselves called by Yahweh to be leaders of the people. The biographies of some of these judges are presented in the book of Judges. A cycle is clearly presented in the book of Judges of the people fogetting Yahweh and worshipping the local Baals, and as consequence, being oppressed by foreign troops, then under oppression crying out to Yahweh, who delivers them via the means of a leader who restores peace and prosperity. There were many external enemies during this age, which ends in the Philistine dominance of W. Palestine. This led to the increased need of a central government and the establishment of a monarchy. The great Kings of this time were Saul, David, and Solomon. Saul was Israel's first king and ruled from 1033 - 1011 BC. Samuel annoints Saul as king (see I Samuel). Saul lead various uprisings and eventually drives the Philistines out of the highlands though never out of the coastal regions. Battles continue until at last Saul is killed at the battle of Gilboa. Among Saul's warriors is David from Bethlehem about whom we know more than any other OT personality. Saul's son Ishbosheth succeeds to the throne, (see II Samuel), but David proclaims his kingship of Judah. War breaks out, and eventually Saul's son is murdered, and David is declared king of all Israel. David's first military act, is to capture the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, and declare it his new capital. From Jerusalem, David increases in strength. David brings the ark of Yahweh to Jerusalem, and declares the religion of Yahweh as the national religion. David has various problems and revolts, but generally this is the golden age of Israel. Solomon, David's son accedes to the throne and reigns from 971-930BC. Solomon was known for extensive building projects, resplendence of his court, cleverness as a judge, and verbal and literary skill. His most famous project was the building of a temple in which the ark of Yahweh was housed. He heavily taxed the people requiring one third of all wages to go to supporting the government. Despite no foreign wars during his reign, the royal treasury was often depleted and the king could not pay his bills. Solomon married multiple foreign princesses to bring alliances to the kingdom. These brought foerign and cultural influences to Jerusalem and acts of disloyalty to Yahweh which resulted in the division of the kingdom after Solomon's death. Rehoboam, son of Solomon tried to hold the kingdom together, but war resulted, and the north and south divided. Jeroboam led the main revolt, and established the ancient shrines of Dan and Bethel as national centers for worship. The author of Kings considered the Jerusalem temple as the only legal sanctuary, but it was originally only intended as the royal sanctuary. This one temple view did not evolve until around 622 BC. Many religious leaders and prophets existed at this time including Elijah, Elisha, Hosea and Amos. The prophets were not interested in politics except when the king was clearly against Yahweh. Then they incited rebellion.
Judah now called the house of David, remained a symbol of political stability. In Israel however there were a series of dynasties. These many stories are recorded in I Kings and II Kings. Israel continued to decline in military capability and unity until about 800 BC when the Assyrians began to increase in power. There was a revolt lead by Jehu in Israel, which was paralleled in Judah. An evil queen named Athaliah who was daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, was queen of Judah. She murdered all contenders for the throne and ruled for six years until the Jerusalem priests declared a seven year old named Jehoash or Joash as king. These same priests killed the queen on the grounds she was an idol worshipper. But the son of Joash got in quarrel with the Israel king which resulted in war and Jerusalem was ransacked. During this time, Egypt was in decline and the Assyrians were on the increase. In 745BC the Assyrians began their move. Sometimes the current Israelite kings would side with the Assyrians and pay tribute and sometimes they would fight them. Eventually Israel fell apart and the Assyrians under Sargon II scattered them, hence the '10 lost tribes of Israel'. In the south, Judah faired better under the kingship of Ahaz who paid tribute to the Assyrian king. Hezekiah followed Ahaz and we know of his reign from Isaiah. Hezekiah attempted a revolt against the Assyrians. The Assyrians stamped out the rebellion, and set seige to Jerusalem about 701 BC. A plague among the Assyrians forced their withdrawal and Jerusalem was spared, but the Assyrians ruled for the next 75 years. The rulers of Judah were forced to promote the worship of the Assyrians gods even in the temple at Jerusalem.
Then, in about 630 BC, the Assyrians started to decline, and eventually the Babylonians took over the Assyrian capital of Ninevah. Meanwhile in Judah, now king Josiah began a series of reforms with the Assyrians out of the way to reestablish the worship of Yahweh, and throw out the Assyrian idols. But Egypt who had been watching this opportunity from the sideline, decided this was a good time to reassert Egyptian control. In 609 BC pharoah Neco marches toward Syria, and killed Josiah. One of Josiah's sons, Johoiakim, is put on the Jerusalem throne by Neco. Eventually however, the Babylonians (now under Nebuchadrezzar) defeat the Egyptian forces at Carchemish, and Neco is killed. The Babylonians, now unstopable, attack Jerusalem, and Jehoiakim was killed. Nebuchadrezzar ransacks Jerusalem and carries many priests, officers,and artisans back to Babylon to work for him. Zedekiah, the 3rd son of Josiah is made a puppet king in Jerusalem.
After a time, Zedekiah rebelled, but Nebuchadrezzar retaliated with fury and Judah was burned. Jerusalem was under seige for 30 months and eventually fell. The Babylonians leveled the city, razed the temple, killed Zedekiah's sons, blinded him and dragged him off to Babylon in chains. Most of the population of Jerusalem was enslaved and carried off to Bablylon as well. This was the end of the 'kingdom of David'.
The fall of Jerusalem in 586BC was pretty much the end of everything. For most nations, this would be the end of the story. But, obviously God had a plan. Judah was reorganized into a province of the Babylonian empire. After the puppet Babylonian king was killed by the neighboring king of Ammon (your remember the Ammonites), many remaining Jews fled to Egypt taking Jeremiah with them against his will. They joined some of the other refugees of Judea there. Meanwhile, the Babylonian deportees were conscripted into various public works, like draining the land, building dams, and other slave labor. They kept their Hebrew names and preserved their religious and national identification. The dispersion of the Jews, know as the Diaspora began during this time. The Jews spread along the Mediterranean coastline and in nearby countries. The Edomites meanwhile taking advantage of the situation moved in to S. Judah. This was about the time of Obadiah. The Babylonians had become complacent, and had neglected the security of their empire. Cyrus, head of the Persian confederation subsequently conquered Babylon in 539 BC, and in 538 issued an edict allowing the return of the Jews, who were clearly unhappy, to Judah. He also authorized the rebuilding of the temple (see Ezra). Cambyses II succeeded Cyrus, and spread Persian rule to Egypt in 525BC. When he died, an imposter who claimed to be Cyrus's son took the throne. His name was Darius I and after much struggle took control of the army. He continued Cyrus's edicts to Judah, and the temple was dedicated in 515 BC with much rejoicing by the Jerusalem Jews.
Nehemiah, was serving in the court of Artaxerxes I, the king of Persia after Xerxes after Darius, when he heard of the deteriorating conditions in Jerusalem. In 445 BC Nehemiah received permission to go to Jerusalem and rebuild it's walls. He was also appointed governor of Judah, a small district of about 1000 square miles around Jerusalem. On arriving, he found a number of powerful foes including the the governor of Samaria, and the govenor of Ammon ( remember the Ammonites). Nevertheless he rebuilt the walls, and started economic reforms in the country. He persuaded the people to accept a covenant to follow Mosaic law, and then returned to the Persian court in 433 BC. Later however, he returned to Jerusalem, and had to once again drive out the Samarian and Ammonite influences. This was the beginning of the problems between the Jews and the Samarians which still evident in Jesus day.
Some believe Ezra's reference to Artaxerxes is to the II rather than the I, and that Ezra came after Nehemiah around 397BC. Before or after, the law that Ezra presented to the people was perhaps the first Pentateuch, essentially in it's complete form as it had just recently been consolidated and more or less canonized around this time. Ezra goes beyond Nehemiah in his concerns with upholding the law.
Much has been learned recently about the Jews of this time from the discovery of many papyrus on the Nile island of Elephantine near Syene. One of these written in 401 BC is a letter addressed to Bagoas, Persian governer of Judah asking him to help the Jews get permission to rebuild the temple. We know that after this time period, Judah existed as a commonwealth ruled by high priests who levied taxes for the temple and were allowed to mint their own coins for 'Yerushalem'. Aramaic was the official language of the Persian empire and the Hebrew scripts were eventually replaced by Aramaic.
About this time, Alexander the Great, conquered the Persian empire in 333 BC. After his death in 323BC, the empire was divided among his generals Seleucus, and Ptolemy from Egypt who was to rule Palestine. Under the Ptolomies, there was no govenor in Jerusalem, and heavy taxes were controlled by the high priests and council of elders. Ptolemy I had carried many Judeans off to Egypt as prisoners of war, and later many more emigrated there. The Jews were forced to be in the army and other trade groups and therefore learned Greek. The Greek translation of the Torah was sponsored by Ptolemy II around 260 BC.
The Ptolemies ruled, with some revolts here and there until 198BC, when a decendent of Seleucus (Antiochus III) took over and joined the realms together again. He re-established the rights of the Jews, and exempted the priests and elders from taxes. But he was defeated by the Romans at Magnesia in 190BC, and after his death in 187, there were many short-lived rulers of the area. Many brought in Greek culture and tried to 'hellenize' Jerusalem. Finally in 168 BC, things were really bad. Pigs were being sacrificed to Zeus in the temple. Altars to the Greek gods were erected, and Mosaic law was lost. Jewish resistance centered around a man named Mattathias who lived in the Judean desert. They mounted and offensive, and attacked the pagan altars and apostates in Jerusalem. After Mattathias death, Judas Maccabeus became leader, and conquered Jerusalem in 164BC. He purified the temple, and restored daily sacrifice and the festival of Hanukkah. Various troubles with the Seleucian rulers occurred, but the Maccabeans ruled for about 100 years. Some Jews however did not like the Maccabean rulers who were both high priest and military leaders, and started their own community at Qumram from which we have found the 'Dead Sea Scrolls'.
A religious and political group who caused decension was the Pharisees, who opposed the established priesthood, which were now called the Sadducees. Eventually, in about 90BC after six years of strife, the Pharisees were able to seize rule over the country. About this time, Pompey, who was then Roman emporer arrived in Damascus in 63 BC. A Jewish delegation (including a person name Antipater) arrived to ask him to allow them to return to the priestly form of government. Pompey decided instead to occupy Jerusalem. The Jews revolted, but the Romans massacred them and the temple was taken. Pompey actually entered the Holy of Holies, but did not plunder the temple. Soon the sacrifical practices were resumed under Roman rule.
Judea was reduced in size and heavily taxed. Jerusalem was placed under direct rule of Gabinius, Roman govenor of Syria. Gabinius divided the land into five districts, which are important even until today. When Julius Ceasar came to power, many contended for his favor, but ultimately Jerusalem rule was given to a son of Antipater named Phasael, and rule of Galilee to a second son name Herod. Herod became the friend of the Roman governor of Syria, and antagonized the Jews. After the murder of Julius Ceasar in 44BC, the Jews sent a delegation to Mark Antony and Octavious to request new leaders and to complain against Herod. Herod however was skilled in diplomacy and won the debate and subseuquently was declared king of the Jews by the Roman senate. Meanwhile, the Parthians had occupied Syria, and were trying to establish rule over Jerusalem. With Roman help, Herod drove out the Parthians, and killed the remains of the Maccabean dynasty. Herod reigned until 4 BC. Herod repressed the Jews greatly, but did carry on an extensive building and development program, including work on the renewal of the temple for his own purposes. He ruled over the high priests at the temple, killing any who opposed him and installing his own puppets. When Herod died, the Jews sent a message to Augustus Ceasar again requesting new leadership, but instead Augustus installed Herod's sons as rulers and tetrarchs over Idumea, Samaria, and Palestine. It was into this world, that Jesus was born.