Last time we left off, we were discussing the Patriarchy of Judaism. The next chunk of history occurs while the Israelites are in Egypt. Egypt was, as mentioned, a powerful center of commerce and culture, so many groups were interested in interacting with and even residing in Egypt. The Nile provided plentiful flood lands and Egypt had a strong military for protection. It is a simple case of ancient immigration. The Israelites remain in the nation for over 400 years, in fact. Just like any group of immigrants, they worked hard and likely assimilated somewhat, but they retained their very foreign religion and many of their own customs. The problems, however, only start to arise when their population started to worry the rulers of Egypt.
As with most history from this time period of smaller cultures like the Israelites, it is difficult to get a lot of archaeological and scholarly evidence. In its splendor, Egypt was able to leave huge physical and cultural marks on the area, and the Egyptian civilization continued for millennia in the same place. Unfortunately, Israelite culture doesn’t have such a weight in history, and hence we need to get a lot of our information from religious texts. Therefore, according to the Old Testament, the Egyptians only started to enslave the Israelites when their numbers became a threat to the Kingdom. The enslavement was described as cruel and harsh, which eventually led Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
Historicity of The Exodus
Unfortunately for believers, there is still little evidence of Israelite enslavement in Egypt. Scholars often point to the lack of physical evidence as one major obstacle; they also point to the fact that the Israelites needed a story to legitimize their commitment to God. If God had delivered them from slavery, he certainly would be a benevolent figure for them. There is some evidence of Israelite settlements in northern Egypt, and it is certainly plausible there were some Israelites there, because immigration has been occurring since there have been nations to immigrate to. Did Moses lead over one million people out of Egypt, part the Red Sea, then lead that huge number of people around the desert? Almost certainly not. One to two million people is a massive number and would have represented a huge portion of the Egyptian population. Did some Israelites live in Egypt for economic and security purposes, and maybe even wandered around in the desert? Probably yes.
In the late 2nd millennium BCE, the Israelite tribes were in the Levant and had no central leadership. It is wise for defensive purposes to have a central authority to organize society, especially the military aspect of it. Two kingdoms formed: Judah and Israel. The former and smaller one was ruled by David, and the latter and more influential one was ruled by Saul (at first). Saul is said to have fallen out of favor with God, and thus his reign was ended. Saul’s reign did indeed end, and his son took over rule. However, he was assassinated only two years into his rule, and David took over the two kingdoms to form a single entity, known as The United Monarchy. David’s reign is tumultuous, but he generally quashes any rebellions in his kingdom. In 1006 BCE, David moves the capital to Jerusalem, and the city has played a major role in the world ever since.
Solomon, David’s son, became the king after David’s death. The unified Kingdom experiences significant prosperity and peace under Solomon, who also builds the First Temple in Jerusalem (this is a major reason Jerusalem becomes so central to the three Abrahamic religions). It is also sometimes called Solomon’s Temple, after its sponsor. Solomon may have used laborers from Tyre, as he had entered into a diplomatic relationship with that kingdom in exchange for some land Tyre wanted to possess. This just demonstrates that the events described in the Bible do not take place in a vacuum. There is real history and interactions surrounding them.
After Solomon’s death, the two kingdoms split up into the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. Israel was in the north and lasted until 722 BCE, when the Assyrians conquered it. The southern Kingdom of Judah, which hosted the city of Jerusalem, survived the Assyrians but was conquered by another force and rival to Assyria, the Babylonians, in 586 BCE. The battle for Jerusalem and the eventual conquest witnessed the destruction of the city and, importantly, the First Temple, in 586 BCE. Our next article will focus on the fall of Israel and Judah, the Babylonian Exile, and the rebuilding of the Temple (which, of course, was later destroyed by the Romans).