The Hebrews were Semitic-speaking people who had a tradition concerning their origins and history that was eventually written down as part of the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament.
Describing themselves originally as nomads organized into clans, the Hebrews’ tradition states that they were descendants of the patriarch Abraham, who had migrated from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, where they became identified as the ‘‘Children of Israel. ’’
Again according to tradition, a drought in Canaan caused many Hebrews to migrate to Egypt, where they lived peacefully until they were enslaved by pharaohs who used them as laborers on building projects.
These Hebrews remained in bondage until Moses led them eastward out of Egypt in the Exodus, which some historians have argued would have occurred in the first half of the thirteenth century B.
The Social Structure of the Hebrews
Social Patterns - The ‘‘men of rank and influence’’ formed a special group of considerable importance in Hebrew society. Although simply servants to the kings, they held a privileged position in society at large. The common people sometimes called ‘‘people of the land,’’ remained a body of free people having basic civil rights. There was no real merchant class in ancient Israel.
The family was the central social institution in He-brew life and consisted of individuals connected by common blood and a common living place. A family living in one house could comprise husband and wife, married sons and their wives, and their children. The Hebrew family was patriarchal. The husband-father was master of his wife and possessed absolute authority over his children, including the power of life and death.
MARRIAGE AND WOMEN - Marriage was an important aspect of Hebrew family life. In ancient Israel, polygamy was an accepted form of marriage, especially for kings and wealthier citizens. Hebrew law limited kings to eighteen wives and citizens to four. In practice, only kings could afford a large ha-rem.
She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. 7 Women were greatly valued, but their work was obviously never done. Although the Hebrew Bible, a male-edited work, reveals a society dominated by men, it also includes stories of women who played heroic roles in the early history of Israel. most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
In the Hebrew Bible, women are mostly dependent on men. Wives were expected to remain faithful to their husbands, an ideal that would later have an impact on Christian attitudes toward women. The primary goal of marriage was to produce children. They were the ‘‘crown of man,’’ and sons, in particular, were desired.
Daughters would eventually leave the family house, but sons carried on the family line. Mothers were in charge of the early education of children, especially in regard to basic moral principles. As boys matured, their fathers took over responsibility for their education, which remained largely informal. This included religious instruction as well as general education for life.
Since trades were usually hereditary, fathers also provided their sons’ occupational education. ’’ 9 Additional education for boys came from priests, whose sacred mission was to instruct people in the Torah. The only education girls received was from their mothers, who taught them the basic fundamentals of how to be good wives, mothers, and housekeepers.
A Semitic-speaking people, the Phoenicians resided along the Mediterranean coast on a narrow band of land 120 miles long.
Their newfound political independence helped the Phoenicians expand the trade that was already the foundation of their prosperity.
The Phoenicians themselves produced a number of goods for foreign markets, including purple dye, glass, wine, and lumber from the famous cedars of Lebanon.
In addition, the Phoenicians improved their ships and became great international sea traders.
They charted new routes, not only in the Mediterranean but also in the Atlantic Ocean, where they sailed south along the west coast of Africa.
The Phoenicians established a number of colonies in the western Mediterranean, including settlements in southern Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia.
Independent states in Canaan flourished in the power void that followed the destruction of the Hittite kingdom and the weakening of the Egyptian empire.
The first of these empires emerged in Assyria, an area whose location on the upper Tigris River brought it into both cultural and political contact with south-ern Mesopotamia. Although part of Mesopotamia, Assyria, with its hills and adequate, if not ample, rainfall, had a different terrain and climate.
The Assyrian Empire created by Tiglath-Pileser was unable to maintain its strength after his death.
Yet Assyrian power did not go unchallenged. The almost continuous warfare on these new frontiers did not end until the reigns of Tiglath-Pileser III and Sargon II, who waged military campaigns almost every year, reestablishing control over Mesopotamia and completely subduing Canaan.
The conquered territories were then incorporated into the empire as provinces.
The Assyrian Empire had reached the height of its power and included Mesopotamia, sections of Asia Minor, Syria, Canaan, and Egypt up to Thebes.
Ashurbanipal was one of the strongest Assyrian rulers, but it was already becoming apparent during his reign that the Assyrian Empire was greatly overextended. Internal strife intensified as powerful Assyrian nobles gained control of vast territories and waged their own private military campaigns.
Moreover, subject peoples greatly resented Assyrian rule.
The hatred that the Babylonians felt after the brutal Assyrian sack of the city of Babylon in 689 B.
The Neo-Babylonian Empire took over the rest of the empire.
The Chaldeans, a Semitic-speaking people, had gained ascendancy in Babylonia by the seventh century and came to form the chief resistance to Assyrian control of Mesopotamia.
The Chaldean king Nabopolassar, joined forces with the Medes to capture the Assyrian capital Nineveh in 612 B.
Under his rule, the Chaldeans defeated Egypt to gain control of Syria and Canaan, destroyed Jerusalem, carried the people of Judah into exile in Babylon, and in the process regained for Babylonia a position as the leading power in the ancient Near East.
During Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, Babylonia was renowned for prosperity based on lush agricultural lands, lucrative trade routes, and industries, especially textiles and metals.
Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt Babylon as the center of his empire, giving it a reputation as one of the great cities of the ancient world.
Babylon was surrounded by towering walls, 8 miles in length, encircled by a moat filled by the Euphrates River.
The Ishtar Gate opened onto the Triumphal Way, which led to the sacred precincts of Marduk, the chief Babylonian god.
These were supposedly built to satisfy Nebuchadnezzar’s wife, a princess from the land of Media, who missed the mountains of her homeland. Nabonidus was the last king of the Chaldean dynasty.
He had a great interest in history and encouraged scholars to collect Sumerian the Near East, and India.
The Persians lived to the southeast of the Medes, who occupied the western Iranian plateau south of the Caspian Sea.
Primarily nomadic, both Medes and Persians were organized in clans.
The Persians did likewise under the Achaemenid dynasty established in Persis in southern Iran.
About fifty years later, the Persians were made subject to the Medes.
The Medes now constituted a powerful state and joined the Babylonians in attacking the Assyrians.
King Cyaxares established a Median empire, the first Iranian empire known to the ancient Near East.