From Patriachs To Promised Land
Jewish History begins with the first patriarch, Abraham. Born during the Bronze Age in a place called Ur Kasdim (situated in modern Iraq), Abram, as he was then known, was the son of an idol salesman named Terach.
At the time, it was common to believe in the presence of many gods, but from a young age Abram believed that only one God was running the universe. And indeed, when he was 75 years of age, God spoke to him for the first time, commanding him (in Genesis 12:1) to leave his home for an unspecified location.
God went on to promise Abram that he would be the forefather of a great nation. Although Abram’s wife Sarai (later Sarah) was barren, when he was 99 years old, God changed his name to Abraham and promised him a son. A year later, miraculously, the second of the patriarchs, Isaac, was born to the couple.
Although Isaac was Abraham’s second son - the first, Ishmael, was born to him and Sarah’s maidservant Hagar - it was through him that Abraham’s legacy was passed down. Ishmael and his decendants also grew into a great people – he was the father of the Arab nations - but one that was destined to be at odds with the Jews. Isaac married Rebecca, and like her mother-in-law Sarah, Rebecca was barren but eventually gave birth to twin boys - Esau and Jacob.
History repeats itself slightly with the story of Jacob and his twin. As was the case with his grandfather Abraham’s two sons, one brother, Esau, went on to become a great nation – namely Rome – locked in a struggle with the Jews. Jacob inherited his father’s powerful blessing and his twelve sons were essentially the first group of Jewish people to come into existence.
Down to Egypt
The story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers might make for a very entertaining musical. But the fact that all the brothers and Jacob himself eventually ended up living in luxury in the Egyptian land of Goshem is crucial to the development of the Jewish people. For the first time, the nation was living in a diaspora land. When the good times ended with the rise of a new, despotic Pharaoh (this is generally believed to have taken place between the 13th and 12th centuries BCE), the original family of 70 had grown into somewhere in the region of three million souls. And it was the harsh experiences of years of servitude that shaped them into a nation, finally ready to be led out of slavery to freedom in the Promised Land.
Slavery in Egypt came to an end after Moses, who was brought up as an Egyptian prince in Pharaoh’s palace, stood up for the Jews and killed an Egyptian taskmaster. Shortly afterwards, God revealed Himself to the now humble shepherd at the burning bush, and commanded Moses to ask Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go. Pharaoh’s repeated refusals – and the ten plagues – followed. But eventually, it all became too much for the king and the Exodus began. Thanks to the miraculous splitting of the red sea, the Jews were able to make their final escape from the pursuing Egyptians.
At the Foot of Mount Sinai
When the Jews accepted the Torah from God at Mount Sinai it marked the final step in their becoming a nation. Every single Jew witnessed God’s revelation and each one took it upon him or herself to fulfil the commandments. The common purpose and the common “rulebook” bound them together for eternity. Moses then ascended the mountain and spent 40 days “taking dictation” of the Written Law from God and learning the Oral Law that clarifies it. Eventually, holding the Ten Commandments in the form of the two tablets of stone, he prepared to descend the mountain.
Trouble in the Desert
Unfortunately, when Moses did descend Mount Sinai with the two tablets, he was greeted with the devastating scene of the Jews worshipping the golden calf – an act that should have been inconceivable after the personal revelation of God they had just witnessed.
Despite the fact that forgiveness was sought and eventually granted by God, and a second set of tablets written to replace the ones Moses smashed in fury, the incident marks the beginning of a series of rebellious acts by the Jews. When 10 of the 12 spies sent out to scout the Promised Land of Israel came back with gloomy news, the Jews believed them immediately and expressed their reluctance to proceed. As a result, God condemned them to 40 years of wandering in the desert, and decreed that day, when the Jews had cried so bitterly for no reason whatsoever, would be a day of Jewish misery for generations to come. The day? It was the 9th of Av.
As the 40 years of wandering drew to a close and the Jews stood on the threshold of the Promised Land, Moses prepared to die. He handed over the mantle of leadership to Joshua, who led his people across the River Jordan. When, unsurprisingly, the Canaanites refused to vacate their land peacefully, the Jews went to war against them. The battle of Jericho provided them with an easy victory. And although some of their subsequent encounters led to heavy losses, eventually the Jews prevailed and the Promised Land was finally in their hands.