The prophet Ezekiel


The Jewish People

By Sally Mallam
Contributing Writer

It was while in exile in Babylon in the sixth century BCE that Jews began to conceive of Yahweh as the one true God who transcends borders and empty ritual. Jewish scholars began to collect and redact the memories, stories, and events from written and oral tradition that would create what we know today as the Old Testament.

The Jewish People

Clay tablet
One of the Amarna letters found at the site of Amarna (commonly known as el-Amarna or incorrectly as Tel el-Amarna).

Possibly the first written record of a Hebrew people dates from approx. 1398–1350 BCE where mention is made in the Egyptian el-Amarna letters of a desert-dwelling “Habiru” in the cities of Canaan. As far as we know, these were bands of mercenaries and artisans, independent people regarded by many as part of the underclass.

About 1250 BCE, a group of Canaanite refugees fled slavery in Egypt – the Exodus that is celebrated to this day at Passover. In their minds, their God had triumphed over the might of Egypt and allowed Moses to lead his people to safety. This traditional story tells us that Moses then receives God’s laws on Mount Sinai and brings them down to the people, only to find the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. Moses becomes angry and smashes the tablets on which the laws are written. Admonishing Israel, he returns to the mountain and obtains a new set of tablets which he gives to the people, placing them in the Ark of the Covenant for safekeeping. Thereafter, the Ten Commandments served as a sacred bond between the Israelites and their God.

Clay tablet
Ba’al with raised arm, 14th – 12th Century BCE found at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), Louvre.

The Hebrew Bible has several contradictory accounts of which laws the Israelites were given by God, how many they received, and where and when they got them. The version, above, was recorded at least six centuries later, during the Axial Age. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in their book The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, contend that these events most likely never happened: “…the Exodus narrative reached its final form around 650–550 BCE. Between 640 and 630 BCE the Assyrians withdrew from Canaan and were replaced by the Egyptians. It was Egyptian domination that was the basis for Exodus, which was really a story about the growing conflict between the Israelites and the Egyptians during the seventh century. Somehow those who wrote it projected the events back several centuries in time.”

In around 1225 BCE, a period of turmoil all over the Mediterranean region when the Bronze Age world collapsed, the extreme threat from foreign peoples lead the Israelite tribes to unite and form the Kingdom of Israel. Three centuries later civil war split Israel into two states, Israel and Judah, that collectively became known as am Yahweh – the people of God. Yahweh was their divine warrior and these were warring times. But, as is typical of pre-Axial societies, the vast majority also turned to other gods for solutions to different problems. King Ahab, under the influence of Jezebel his Queen, allowed Phoenician gods to infiltrate the land, especially the goddess Astarte and Ba’al, the god of harvests. In spite of the admonitions of prophets such as Elijah insisting on the exclusive worship of Yahweh, the Israelites would not become a monotheistic people until the height of their Axial period in the late 6th century BCE.