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Manual for Faculty
Unit 1: A People Is Born
(Thirteenth Century B.C. to Sixth Century B.C.)
Introduction Teaching This Unit Directions to Students Bookmarks
Teaching This Unit
The opening of Program 1 and the first chapter of the Study Guide and the Source Reader examine the date and locus of the origins of the Jewish people. As William Hallo notes in the Study Guide, all peoples have asked these questions about themselves. For the Jews, the questions were posed a long time ago, yet answers are still being advanced today.

One early, monumental attempt to solve these riddles was supplied by the early founders of Judaism, the ancient Israelites, in the Jewish Bible, a work known to Christians as the Old Testament. According to the Bible, the Jews could trace their ancestry to eastern Mesopotamia, where the first patriarch, Abraham, was said to have been born. (See map 1 in the Study Guide.) Footage of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers shown in the program will help crystallize the students' picture of this geographical area. What Professor Hallo does in his Study Guide and Source Reader chapters is follow the biblical account of Israelite origins yet relate the biblical evidence at all times to materials that survive from ancient Near Eastern society. He calls this reconstruction "protohistory."


According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, the first human being was Adam, the Hebrew word for "man," and his place of residence was Edin. The myths of a progenitor of mankind and his activities have their parallels in Mesopotamian culture. One of the most popular biblical accounts, the story of the flood, can also be found in the mythologies of other cultures, and especially in Mesopotamian versions. In Selection 1 of the Source Reader, Hallo has juxtaposed a Sumerian account of the flood with the relevant chapters in Genesis. A careful comparison of these texts reveals not only similarities but also the ethical reworking of a common story by the biblical author. Similarly, Hallo notes in the Study Guide, the details of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel are consistent with the legends and realities of ancient Mesopotamia.

The currents of protohistory change course in the patriarchal period, that era in which the biblical narrative introduces the figures of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Study Guide shows that the stories surrounding these allegedly historical individuals coincide with the details of Babylonian (Mesopotamian) society. In Selection 2 of the Source Reader, we see that the biblical account of Jacob's agreement with his father-in-law, Laban, to be herdsman of Laban's flock is similar in content to the conditions of an old Babylonian herding contract. And Jacob's grandfather Abraham's covenant with God has parallels with treaties found in the ancient city of Mari and among the Hittite people. (See Source Reader Selection 3.)

However, according to the Bible, it is in the person of Abraham, their progenitor, that the ancient Israelites moved from Ur in southeast Mesopotamia towards Canaan, the Promised Land. (See Study Guide map 1.) Abraham's migration was part of a larger movement of traders, diplomats, and others who were to be found on the ancient highways.


According to the Bible, the sale of one of Jacob's sons into slavery in Egypt led Jacob and his entire family to leave Canaan and settle in the Nile delta. The Bible tells how Joseph rose to a high position in Egypt in a period, as Professor Hallo notes, when the Hyksos, a foreign Asiatic people, infiltrated and gained power in Egypt. (Selection 4 in the Source Reader shows the intriguing similarities of parts of the Joseph story with later Egyptian and Aramaic legends.) With the end of the Book of Genesis and the death of Joseph, Professor Hallo argues, the Israelites' protohistory came to an end. They were now a nation, still living in Egypt in a condition of forced servitude. Selection 5 reproduces Egyptian records of slavery that agree with the portrait painted by the Bible of the Israelites' oppression. The TV footage of Egyptian landscapes and the monumental buildings bordering the Nile are beautifully evocative of that distant era.


The thirteenth century B.C. was a time of weakness for the Egyptians, as Aramaeans and Sea Peoples threatened to inundate the kingdom. Against this background, the Israelites left Egypt and liberated themselves from slavery. They were led by Moses, the story of whose birth contains similarities to those of other Near Eastern rulers. (See Source Reader Selection 6.) This Exodus from Egypt is reported in the Bible as being accompanied by miraculous events engineered by God. The biblical story of the Ten Plagues is similar to Egyptian records of natural disasters. (See Source Reader Selection 7.)

After the Israelites went forth from Egypt, according to the biblical account, they soon found themselves at the foot of Mount Sinai. There they entered into a covenant with their God, whom they exalted as their sovereign. Excerpts from Akkadian and Hittite treaties between vassals and rulers have interesting echoes in the biblical account. (See Selection 8 in the Source Reader.) But it was not just the Ten Commandments that were part of the pact; important details of societal regulations are to be found in the Book of the Covenant, another document with Near Eastern counterparts. (See Source Reader Selection 9.)

After the theophany at Sinai, the Israelites wandered through the desert and avoided Egyptian-fortified areas. From the desert, beautifully photographed in the program, they spied the Promised Land. The language the spies used in describing Canaan is similar to that used by Sinuhe the Egyptian in praising the beauty of that land. (See Selection 10.)

One of the colorful figures in the biblical stories of the wandering was Balaam, who was hired by an enemy of the Israelites to curse the children of Israel. Selection 11 shows that the story found in the Book of Numbers has an interesting reflection in a seventh-century inscription from Jordan.

By the end of the thirteenth century B.C., then, the Israelites had sampled the civilization of the contemporary Near Eastern world and had gradually gained a foothold in Canaan. Students should be made to understand that these people did not emerge from a vacuum but rather from well-ordered and -developed societies in the ancient Near East: Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan. The first extra-biblical evidence of the people of Israel as a settled nation is found in a victory monument erected by the pharaoh Merneptah. This source is reproduced in Source Reader Selection 12, again with a biblical parallel, which Professor Hallo is fond of including.

Building a Nation

But Canaan was not empty of inhabitants when the Israelites entered. As the video illustrates, the area was home to a thriving culture and proud peoples. Note especially the photographs of Canaanite worship sites and cultic apparatus. The Bible preserves two accounts of the Israelites' entry into Canaan. One is a story of conquest reproduced in the Book of Joshua; the other, in the Book of Judges, is one of gradual infiltration and piecemeal victories. Only through careful integration of the two biblical accounts with the archaeological evidence can a hypothesis be made about the Israelite settlement in Canaan.

It is interesting to mention here a scholarly controversy that Hallo briefly notes at the beginning of the Study Guide chapter. Some historians have argued that the ancient Israelites did not originate in Mesopotamia or sojourn in Egypt; rather, they were one of the indigenous groups that were in Canaan at the beginning of the Iron Age. These historians believe that it took much time before the related Israelite tribes were able to gain control over Canaan and form a unified polity.

According to both reconstructions of these events, the individual tribes were threatened by military enemies they were not strong enough to combat unassisted. Consequently these tribes would join together under a "judge," really a charismatic leader who would lead them in battle. Selection 12 of the Source Reader contains a biblical passage about one of the judges as well as a text that may reflect the name of the Syrian intruder who caused some of the tribes to select a leader to defend them.

However, these occasional tribal alliances were insufficient to ward off the Philistines, a people from the Aegean Sea, masters of iron who threatened all of the Israelite tribes. The children of Israel demanded a king from the prophet Samuel. Samuel responded (see Source Reader Selection 14) with a speech on the evils of kingship. A monarch, he argued, would take their sons and daughters for his own use and seize fields for his own benefit. This warning, which still resonates in modern times, was one that the Israelites, faced with military conquest, would not heed.

Saul, a leader who had the charisma of the earlier judges, was chosen as the first king of Israel. Saul, though, was not strong enough to repel the Philistine threat, and it fell to the next king, David, to defeat the enemy. David also conquered the Jebusite city of Jerusalem using only his own troops and made it the religious and political capital of the United Monarchy. Selection 15 of the Source Reader contains the story of Saul and David's relationship, as well as David's charge to his followers regarding Saul found in Psalm 57.

David also extended the boundaries of the Israelites' dominion over many lands and peoples, as shown in map 2 of the Study Guide. He was a famed warrior and was able to pass his kingdom on to his son Solomon. Solomon fixed the centrality of Jerusalem by building a sumptuous royal palace in the capital and a temple consecrated to the Israelite God. (For more on the erection of this sanctuary, see Source Reader Selection 16.)

Two Kingdoms

All of these building efforts, and the maintenance of the empire, necessitated large numbers of conscripts and a high rate of taxation. Solomon's administration became quite extensive, as Source Reader Selection 17 attests. The people, especially in the northern section of the country, were not willing to bear such burdens. When Solomon died, he could not guarantee that the empire would remain in his son Rehoboham's hands. The Bible relates a story that led to the split of the ten northern tribes from the two in the south. This account, along with a parallel story from the Epic of Gilgamesh, constitutes Source Reader Selection 18.

This split was not all that threatened the Israelites in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The existence of David and Solomon's empire was possible only while Egypt and Mesopotamia remained weak. However, Assyria, an empire based in the Tigris River area, was slowly gaining momentum. Assyrian art and the remains of Assyrian cities graphically illustrate the new empire's might.

The northern kingdom of Israel battled Assyria but later had to pay tribute. (For a description of these events, see Source Reader selections 19 and 20.) At times Israel reached great political and commercial heights. But these brief times of prosperity did not last. Assyria could not be stopped.

Israel was not only in military danger. The attractions of Canaanite religion were strong and threatened to undermine the Israelite faith. Prophets arose to warn of the harm of such "foreign" religions and to complain of the new cosmopolitan life-style, which, they maintained, was socially insensitive and was detrimental to the poor. The prophets, among them Amos (see Selection 21), also argued that such behavior could cause the destruction of the kingdom.

Indeed, Assyria was victorious: Samaria, the capital of Israel, fell in 722 B.C. The destruction of the northern kingdom is recorded in the Bible and in the "Babylonian Chronicle," both of which appear in Source Reader Selection 22. The biblical selection clearly underscores the contention that by their sins the Israelites brought destruction upon themselves.

Meanwhile, the southern kingdom of Judah survived. Its dynasty had been more secure than its northern neighbor's, but was still open to military threats from the new world powers. Hezekiah warded off the Assyrian army led by Sennacherib in 701 B.C., and his prayer of thanks to his God is recorded in the Bible. The story of the Assyrian campaign, Hezekiah's prayer and an extra-biblical parallel to the latter appear in Source Reader Selection 23.

The next century witnessed not only a strengthening of Judah's independence but also a religious resurgence. This renewal of faith appears to have been bolstered by the discovery of writings that, according to many scholars, were probably some form of the biblical book of Deuteronomy. According to this book, the sacrificial cult was to be centralized, and the covenant between the Israelites and their God was confirmed. (To compare this covenant with contracts between the Assyrians and their vassals, see Source Reader Selection 24.)

Babylonian Exile

Assyria fell, as the prophets had warned, but the new kingdom of Babylonia rose in its stead. Babylonia became a world power and, in the year 586 B.C., conquered Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah. The campaigns of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia, are recorded in the Bible and in a Babylonian account, both of which are reproduced in Source Reader Selection 25. The Bible also describes how the principal citizens of Jerusalem were brought as exiles to Babylonia.

Professor Hallo ends Chapter 1 of the Study Guide with a brief discussion of prophecy, one of the more enduring contributions of the ancient Israelites to world civilization. He describes the variety of prophets mentioned in the Bible, traces the development of prophecy and explains why the messages of prophets such as Ezekiel and the second Isaiah were of great consolation to the Judaean exiles in Babylonia.

The religious ideals that the exiles took with them to this strange land were later to develop into the first great monotheistic religion: Judaism.

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