History of Israel: Part1


We're grateful to the Hatikvah Trust and David Engel's book 'Zionism' for some of the information included in this article.


The land which was to become the homeland of the Jewish people (Israel) is mentioned many times in the Bible prior to the conquest of the Canaan, as it was then known, by Joshua and his army.  The first specific mention is when God called Abram (later known as Abraham) and promised him that he and his descendants would inherit Canaan (Genesis 12:6-7 and 14:13-17).

Abraham and Sarah: around 2000 BC

Abram travelled to Canaan but didn't try to conquer the land.  Abraham was asked by God to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah (where later, Jerusalem was founded).  Abraham and Sarah were buried in the land of Canaan.

Isaac and Rebekah

Isaac and Rebekah’s family lived in Canaan.

Jacob, Esau and Peniel

Their son Jacob left to escape the wrath of his brother Esau, camping overnight at Luz, which he renamed Bethel (House of God) probably where Jerusalem was later located.  It was here that he had his dream of angels ascending and descending on a ladder reaching from earth to Heaven (Genesis 28:10-15).  God promised him in the dream that he would bring him back to this land. 

Jacob renamed Israel by God

After 20 years in Haran (modern day Iraq) Jacob returned to Canaan, settling in Shechem.  He was renamed ‘Israel’ following his fight with the angel of God at Peniel.

Joseph and Egypt

Jacob’s entire family (70 people in all) left Canaan and settled in Egypt during the famine when Joseph (Jacob’s son) was Egypt’s Prime Minister.  Over the next 400 years the number of Israelites in Egypt increased to 600,000 men, plus women and children (Exodus 12:37).


Moses led the Israelites from Egypt to the border of Canaan.  This took 40 years.

Joshua and the conquest of Canaan: around 1400 BC

Joshua headed up the conquest of Canaan and took the Israelites into the land via Jericho.  They began the conquest, but at the time of Joshua’s death there were still many areas still to be subdued, for example, the Gaza strip, the Golan Heights and the territory containing Jerusalem (which belonged to the Jebusites).  Interestingly the parts of Israel which today are in dispute.  Joseph’s bones were carried throughout the Exodus from Egypt and buried in Canaan as he wished.

The 12 tribes of Israel

During Joshua’s time the land was allocated to the 12 tribes or clans of Israel, including some land to the East of the Jordan.  The tribe of Levi had no land, nor did Joseph, but his sons, Ephraim and Manasseh did.

The period of the Judges

The period of the Judges (Gideon, Deborah, Samson, etc) saw tribal conflicts.  Each judge addressed one particular enemy tribe, sometimes with the help of neighbouring Israelite tribes, but the land was never completely subdued during this time.

Samuel and Saul

When Samuel, the last judge, was asked to sanction a King for Israel, the land was more subdued but there were frequent skirmishes with enemy tribes.  Saul, a Benjamite, was eventually chosen to be the first king of Israel, and was succeeded by David.

David and Jerusalem: around 1050 BC

David united the tribes and the kingdom of the united monarchy was at its greatest extent during his time.  He conquered the Jebusites and established Jerusalem as his own capital city in their former territory.  The kingdom David passed on to his son Solomon could accurately be called an empire.


During David’s time the Tabernacle (transportable temple where the Ark of the Covenant was housed in the Holy of Holies) was pitched in Kiriath-Jearim.  David purchased a threshing floor from Araunah adjacent to Mount Moriah (see above) in order to build a permanent house for the Ark of the Covenant.  He moved the Ark to Jerusalem.

Solomon and the Temple

His son Solomon, who succeeded him, eventually built the Temple to house the Ark on that site.  It is commonly thought that Solomon’s Temple site is positioned under the Dome of the Rock in present day Jerusalem.  Scholars do not all agree on this postulation however, and no excavating is allowed to prove it one way or the other.  Other possible sites are close by.  The original temple was completed about 950 BC.

Divided Kingdom

After Solomon’s death the kingdom divided.  Jerusalem remained the capital city of Judah (the much smaller Southern Kingdom).

Israel and Judah: around 722-721 BC

Ten of the original 12 tribal territories combined to form the new kingdom of Israel (also referred to in the Bible as Ephraim and Samaria) under Jeroboam I, a soldier from Solomon’s army who fled to Egypt to bide his time for the right moment to assert himself.  The other two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, remained true to the Davidic succession, and became known as the Kingdom of Judah, under Rehoboam.

The fall of Israel

After 20 years of invasions and deportations by Assyria, the ancient Kingdom of Israel fell and the ten tribes were absorbed into Assyrian Empire (1 Chronicles 5:26; 2 Kings 15:29; 2 Kings 17:3-6 and 18:11-12).  The Kingdom of Judah was invaded but not conquered at that time.

The Assyrian Empire

Assyria was centred on the upper Tigris river in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), which came to rule regional empires a number of times through history.  It was named after its ancient capital, Assur.  By the Neo-Assyrian period (911-612 BC) the capital was Nineveh, the city to which Jonah was sent.  During the last years of Israel’s existence, emperors Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V and Sargon II are key figures; the heyday of the empire however was during the time of Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) when it controlled all of the Fertile Crescent as well as Egypt, before falling to the rising Babylonian Empire.

The Babylonian Empire

With the death of Ashurbanipal Babylonia rebelled and with help from the Medes, took over the seat of power.  The best known king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, reigned for 43 years, establishing the pre-eminence of Babylonia.  His policy was to deport conquered nations to Babylonia, where nobles and the intelligentsia were educated in ‘the language and literature of the Babylonians’ so as to be useful to him.

In the sixth year of the last Babylonian emperor, Nabonidus, (549 BC) Cyrus king of Persia effectively conquered the Medes and ten years later he defeated the Babylonians.  Cyrus, thus became the ruler of the Persian empire.  There were many disaffected people living in the empire, including the Jews, whom Cyrus allowed to return to Judah and Jerusalem at the start of his reign. 

Promised return as a sign to the nations

It was during the exile in Babylonia that the prophet Ezekiel prophesied the return of Israel to the land as a sign to the nations.

The fall of Judah and Jerusalem: around 586 BC

Judah, the Southern kingdom which survived when Israel fell to the Assyrians, became a province of the Babylonian Empire known as Judaea.  In the first wave of deportation under Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel and his three friends were taken to Babylon.  Ten years later the majority of Jews were deported, the Temple ransacked and looted and the city of Jerusalem destroyed.

The Diaspora

As a result of the Babylonian conquest, Judeans began migrating in large numbers beyond their countries borders, forming what came to be termed as the ‘diaspora’ from the Greek word for scattering.

The Persian Empire: around 515 BC

With the rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus, many Jews returned to their ancient homeland, Judaea, to rebuild the Temple.  Despite problems, Zerubbabel led the rebuilding work and the second Temple was completed and dedicated.  The first Passover since captivity was celebrated.  Some Jews, however, chose to stay in Babylon rather than return to Judaea.

Esther: around 474 BC

Esther, a Jewess, and Persian queen, exposed a plot to exterminate all the Jews in the Empire.

Ezra: around 466 BC

The second wave of exiles returned to Jerusalem, led by Ezra, who challenged them to remain pure as a race.

Nehemiah: around 450 BC

Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem from Babylon and headed up the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

The Greek Empire: around 336 – 322 BC

Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world, including the Middle East.  Hellenism (Greek culture) infiltrated all parts of the Empire.  At the age of 20, Alexander had succeeded his father, Philip, as king of Macedonia.  Three years later he conquered Darius III of Persia at the battle of Issus.  The following year he defeated the Persians and ended their rule over Palestine (including Judaea).  A year later he defeated the Babylonians.  He went on to conquer the Indian king Porus before his early death.

Death of Alexander

Following the death of Alexander at the age of 33 with no heirs, his empire was split between his four generals, the most significant of which were Seleucus (Syria) and Ptolemy (Egypt).  The Seleucid family governed the area including Judaea.

Antiochus ‘Epiphanes’ IV: 175 BC

A particularly cruel Jew-hating tyrant, Antiochus ‘Epiphanes’ IV began his occupation of Jerusalem in 175 BC.  He was determined to exterminate the Jews and their religion.  His atrocities culminated in the Maccabean revolt – one of the most heroic feats in Jewish history.  In 168 BC Antiochus desecrated the Temple by offering a pig on the altar – this is remembered as the ‘Abomination of Desolation.’

Maccabean revolt

Judas Maccabeus and his followers started a three year revolt, which ended with the recapture of Jerusalem and the end of Syrian occupation.

The Roman Empire: 63 BC

Palestine (as the land had become known) was conquered by the Roman general Pompey.  Antipater, an Edomite (descendant of Esau) was appointed ruler of Judaea.  In 37 BC Antipater died and his son, Herod the Great was made procurator (governor) of Judaea by Julius Caesar.  His greatest accomplishment was the renovation and extension of the Jewish Temple in 19 BC.

The birth of Jesus the Messiah: around 4 BC

At the end of Herod’s reign, Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judaea.  On Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided between his three sons.  Herod Antipas was given Galilee and Perea (east of the Jordan), Herod Archelaus received Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea.

Pontius Pilate: 26 AD

In 26 AD Pontius Pilate became governor of Judaea.  He officiated when Jesus was arrested then crucified.

Gaius 'Caligula' (Little Boots): 37 AD

Gaius ‘Caligula’ (Little Boots) became Roman Emperor.  He hated the Jews and was excessively hostile towards them.  He confiscated Jewish places of worship in all the cities in his Empire, filling them with his statues and images.  He intended to make the Temple in Jerusalem a temple in his honour, believing he was a reincarnation of the Roman god Zeus. When his intention to erect a statue of himself in the Temple became known to the Jews, they vowed to revolt.  He backed down on his decision.

Expulsion of Jews from Rome: around 52 AD

Around this time the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from Rome, and in 66 AD the Jews revolted against Rome, led by Simon bar Giora and John Gischala.  Florus, Nero’s procurator of Judaea fiercely persecuted the Jews in Jerusalem and this sparked a province-wide persecution.

The Temple destroyed: 70 AD

Jerusalem was an important city in the Roman Empire in the first century.  But it was destroyed, along with Herod’s Temple, by Emperor Titus.  Roman soldiers broke through the outer walls of Jerusalem and killed 6000 Jewish insurgents.  Thousands more were enslaved or crucified around Jerusalem.  Bar Giora was executed publicly in the Roman Forum and the Temple set on fire.  The Jews were scattered throughout the world and remained scattered, persecuted, and without a land of their own for 1878 years.  

The Wailing Wall

After the Temple’s destruction (the ‘wailing wall’ was and still is the only remaining part) the Jews were determined to recover their political freedom and rededicate the Temple.  Jewish resistance forces held out for several years against Rome after the fall of Jerusalem in remote fortresses like Masada in the Judean desert.  There were revolts against the Romans during 115 AD to 117 AD. 

Shimon bar Kochba: 135 AD

The final revolt was the Shimon bar Kochba revolt in 135 AD.  He was defeated by the Romans in 135 AD.  More than half a million Jews died during the rebellion.  985 villages were destroyed and nearly all of Judaea was made desolate.  Again the Romans enslaved many Jews.


Judaea was renamed Syria-Palestina or Palestina (meaning ‘land of the Philistines’) in order to eradicate permanently the memory of Jewish independence.  Many Jews fled north, to Galilee.  The Romans tried to eradicate any sign of Jewish civilisation in Jerusalem, banning Jews from the city for centuries. 

After 20 years in Haran (modern day Iraq) Jacob returned to Canaan, settling in Shechem. He was renamed ‘Israel’ following his fight with the angel of God at Peniel

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