The Ancient Hebrews saw themselves as “God’s chosen people.” Their monotheism separated them from all surrounding neighbors while their belief in God’s covenants offered a positive relationship with deity and the promise of redemption for sin. Turned into slaves in Egypt, their history in the Old Testament recounts an Exodus to the land God had provided for them. As each generation was forced to confront sin and redemption anew, they were eventually overcome by powerful neighbors like the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Never again a truly antonymous nation until 1948, the Hebrews never lost their identity as a special people, blessed by a God who was forgiving and who promised the world the Messiah through the seed of Abraham.
Hebrew Monotheism and the Covenant Promises
According to Genesis, Abraham left Mesopotamia to follow a nomadic lifestyle in Palestine and to worship the one true God. In fact, it was this God – Yahweh, who called upon Abraham to begin life anew. The Ancient Near East had seen the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires, each with their own pantheon of gods and goddesses. These deities were unapproachable and often deemed vengeful. They reinforced the belief that ordinary men and women could never attain to their power or might. In contrast, Yahweh spoke to his people and declared himself the refuge of the people. The God of Abraham was both personal and forgiving. The Hebrew God established a special relationship with Abraham and his seed, hence the notion of a “chosen people.” This relationship corresponded to God’s covenants, beginning with Noah after the Genesis flood. Although understood to be unconditional, several prophets such as Amos and Hosea preached that God’s relationship was conditioned on righteous living and following his laws.
Other Ancient Cultures Contrasted with the Hebrew View
Abraham not only had a relationship with God, but that relationship, according to Genesis, was one-on-one; Abraham frequently “talked” with God. God even bargained with man as when Lot attempted to save his city from divine judgment. Such examples do not exist in other ancient societies where religious views held to a great divide between mortals and their deities. The Gilgamesh Epic is an excellent example of the arbitrary nature of the gods even when confronted by heroic mortals.
In other cultures, gods and goddesses were placated by sacrifices yet even the best sacrifice was no guarantee of favor. Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, was enlightened in his toleration of other prevailing beliefs and urged the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuilt their temple, but he never had the same kind of relationship with deity as did Abraham, Isaac, David, or Daniel. Hebrew law, however, paralleled the “eye-for-an-eye” laws of the Ancient Near East such as in the Code of Hammurabi.
Other Differences in Ancient Hebrew History
Unlike their neighbors, the Hebrews, initially, had no kings. Once in the Promised Land after their flight from Egypt, the people were led by judges. Additionally, prophets interpreted God’s covenants and chastened the people when their actions sought to emulate those of their neighbors.
Eventually, after much clamoring, they were led by kings. But as the history of Israel demonstrates, kings often led immoral lives, permitting the people to adopt the worship of foreign gods – idols, and thereby inviting judgment. The Assyrians deported the ten “lost” tribes and the Babylonians eventually destroyed Jerusalem and the temple.
Israel and Jewish Influences Continue to Endure in the 21st Century
Perhaps the greatest difference between the Ancient Hebrews and other ancient Near East cultures is that it continues today through the nation-state of Israel, founded in 1948. Additionally, the ancient beliefs, customs, ceremonies, and promises are still a part of Jewish belief. The Hebrews also had a significant role in the development of Western beliefs, notably social justice. Yahweh, whose “name” has been linked to “El,” one of the earliest expressions of a male/female deity, gave rise to western monotheism as well as Islamic monotheism. Both Muslim and Christian ethics had ties to early Jewish beliefs. The Ten Commandments, hallmarks of early Hebrew belief which, according to Genesis, were given by Yahweh directly to Moses on Mt. Sinai, continue to be hotly debated in post-modern America as conservatives attempt to have them displayed at courthouses. Such strong influences attest to the durability of beliefs that began with Ancient Israel centuries ago.
- John Barton and Julia Bowden, The Original Story: God, Israel, and the World (William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2004)
- Michael Grant, The History of Ancient Israel (Orion Publishing, 1984)
- Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton University, 1992)