The Hebrew civilization doesn't start with a huge ethnic group or a mighty conquest, but with a single man and his family. Genesis 11:31 reads: “Terah took his son Abram (Abraham), his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.” From Abraham and his descendants the Hebrew civilization begins.
The biblical record explains that Abraham and his family were born and raised in “Ur of the Chaldeans.” Most scholars believe this took place in about 1800 B.C., which would mean that the family lived in Ur when it was the most powerful city in Mesopotamia. The exact reason they departed from the comforts of city life is not known, but some have suggested that they may have been trying to escape the strains of Ur's swelling urban population.
Promises and Land
The text of Genesis goes on to say that Abraham and his family lived in Haran until after his father Terah's death. While in the city of Haran (today found in south central Turkey), Abraham heard the voice of his singular deity declaring, “Leave your country, your people, and your father's household, and go to the land I will show you.” With these words in mind, Abraham traveled south, with most of his extended family, to the region of Canaan (modern Palestine/Israel), where he again heard the voice, this time telling him, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
Because of a famine in Canaan, Abraham and his relatives wandered into Egypt, where they were called Hebrews, from the Egyptian word meaning “wanderer.” After living in Egypt for a short time, Abraham returned to Canaan, where he had many children, most notably Ishmael and Isaac. Both of these sons produced children, including Jacob and Esau from Isaac. Jacob had twelve sons of his own; these men would become the leaders of the twelve Hebrew tribes.
In the Middle East today, two groups see themselves as descendants of Abraham. Jews claim to be from the line of Isaac, and Arabs from the seed of Ishmael (Ismaíil in Arabic).
Wanderers with Holy Words
To escape another famine, Jacob and his family wandered back into Egypt, just as Abraham had done. The biblical text says that they were very successful in Egypt, but that as a group, the Hebrews eventually were forced into slavery. During 400 years of forced labor, the Egyptians continued to refer to the wanderers as Hebrews, but the descendants of Jacob (Israel) knew themselves as Israelites.
Upon their release from Egypt, there were likely over a million Israelites under the leadership of Moses. For close to forty years this wandering mass looked for Canaan; meanwhile, Moses recorded the five books known collectively as the Torah. This massive literary work was at the center of Hebrew civilization and remains to this day a significant cultural achievement.
Kingdom of Conflict
After conquering the land of Canaan in the middle of the thirteenth century B.C., the Israelites divided the land into Israelite tribal regions. Originally set up as a theocracy administered by priests, this was followed by a long period in which wise judges ruled the people. Around 1000 B.C., a traditional monarchy was set up. At this time a king ruled the nation but, as the kingdom was still religiously based, priests retained great power.
The best-known kings, David and his son Solomon, expanded Hebrew territory to run from the Euphrates River in the north to the Red Sea in the south. Solomon developed the capital, Jerusalem, into a magnificent city that included an opulent palace and a large temple dedicated to the one deity. Inside the holy city of Jerusalem, Solomon's Temple was the focal point of Hebrew consciousness, as it was the house of the only all-powerful God.
After Solomon's death in 930 B.C., the kingdom split, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Within 200 years, Israel was conquered and Judah remained the only Hebrew kingdom. Within another 150 years, Judah was also conquered.
Less than 900 years after conquering Canaan, the Hebrews found themselves wandering once again, this time in Mesopotamia. It would be another half-century before they would return to Canaan, only for the region to be occupied thereafter by a succession of foreign empires. In A.D. 70, the Hebrews were forced once again to wander the earth in what is called the Diaspora, meaning “the spreading out.”
You can see just how much the Middle East has given to humanity. As the descendants of the pharaohs, who built the pyramids, and of the Sumerians, who invented written language, it's easy to understand the pride of modern Middle Easterners. From the first city to the first wheel, you can see just how much the world has been influenced by the Middle East. So why is it that most people today don't also follow the polytheistic example of these civilizations? The answer to this question is found, as usual, in the Middle East.