life in ancient Israel

MERNEPTAH STELE

The earliest known mention of “Israel” in history — and the earliest mention of Israel outside of the Torah — was discovered in Thebes, Egypt, in 1896.

The mention is found in what is known as the Merneptah Stele, an inscription by the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah, who reigned between 1213 BCE to 1203 BCE. The Stele itself is dated to 1208 BCE. It’s written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Merneptah Stele mainly describes Merneptah’s victory over the ancient Libyans. However, three of the 28 lines talk about a separate Egyptian military campaign in Canaan. It reads:

“The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano’am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.”

The hieroglyphs used describe Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yano’am as city-states, whereas “Israel” is described as a foreign (to Egypt) people. This suggests that at this point in time, the Israelites did not rule over a unified state, but rather, were a nomadic or semi-nomadic tribe(s). This would corroborate the narrative of the Torah, as the Kingdom of Israel did not become a unified state until some 161 years later. 

 

KINGDOM OF ISRAEL (UNITED)

According to the Tanakh AND archeological findings, at some point around 3000 years ago, a confederation of Israelite tribes (archeologically-speaking, of unknown number) came together to unite under a single state, known as the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel. Archeological evidence and genetic studies suggest that the Israelites did not take the region by force but actually emerged from Indigenous Canaanite tribes that had long inhabited the area and came together through the evolution of their spiritual, eventually monotheistic beliefs.

It’s important to note that during that time period, there was no distinction between a group’s tribal, ethnic, national, and/or religious identity. This continues to be true of other Indigenous Peoples today and is something major that Jews have in common with other Indigenous groups around the world.

The Kingdom of Israel was established in 1047 BCE. While there is archeological and historical debate regarding the grandiosity of the United Monarchy as depicted in the Torah, there is enough archeological evidence to assume that a centralized Israelite state existed during this time period.

In 930 BCE, the Kingdom of Israel split into the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south.

 

SOCIETAL STRUCTURE

Ancient Israelite society was a highly agrarian society. Most Israelites were farmers and lived off the land in one way or another. Some worked in their own farms, while others were laborers for wealthy landowners. Farmers harvested grapes, dates, barley, and wheat. Unsurprisingly, to this day, grapes, dates, barley, and wheat are considered four of the Seven Species in Judaism. Some farmers worked with livestock, such as sheep and goats. There were also some fishermen.

Though most were farmers, some Israelites worked for the government and the Temple. Levites, particularly Kohanim, were the spiritual leaders. To this day, Levites and Kohanim carry special duties within Judaism. Kohanim are still the main spiritual leaders in Samaritanism. Some of the governmental jobs included king, scribe, advisor, soldier, and tax collector.

Women generally raised children and took care of the housework. While in many ways society was largely patriarchal, women may have maintained control over the household’s finances. Women also worked as midwives and participated in commerce.

Because the Israelites started off as nomadic tribes, initially they lived in tents. Eventually, they settled down in houses built of stone, wood, and bricks made from mud. Homes were often grouped together, and extended families would live next to each other, sharing a courtyard. Before the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel, the Israelite economy consisted of bartering. Later, precious metals were introduced as currency.

 

CITY OF DAVID

The “City of David” is the archeological site that constitutes the original settlement core of the ancient city of Jerusalem, located in the modern neighborhood of Silwan (or Shiloach in Hebrew). It’s dated to the Bronze and Iron Age.

There are numerous archeological sites that offer some insight into what life in the City of David was like. Most notable is what is known as the “Large Stone Structure,” which provides a plausible location for a royal palace. Proponents of the palace theory cite the following evidence: the enormous scale of the structure; Phoenician-styled ivory inlays and a black-and-red jug imported from Cyprus, which suggest a luxurious lifestyle; "sizable and richly varied" pottery; inscriptions with the names of royal officials mentioned in the Torah.

 

CULTURE

The Israelites dressed similarly to other surrounding cultures. Their dress, of course, varied depending on the time period, but they generally wore tunics, loincloths around the waist, and cloaks to wear over their tunics. They covered their heads, usually with a full piece of cloth or a band of linen tied around the head, known as a sudra. For shoes, the Israelites wore sandals made of leather, strapped to the foot with another piece of leather. Israelites also wore spiritual regalia that Jews wear to this day, such as early iterations of the tallit.

Israelite clothing was generally made from dyed linen or wool. Blue was the most commonly worn color because it was the cheapest to make. Purple was reserved for royalty. Israelites could make money dyeing cloth, especially if they were able to dye threads purple to sell to royalty.

Israelite homes generally didn’t have much furniture. Beds were usually just quilts spread on the ground, though some Israelites had couches that they used to sleep, sit, and even eat. “Tables” were generally just a piece of leather that was spread on the ground; people would sit around it to eat. 

After the work week, the Israelites would rest on Shabbat. They’d enjoy a large meal, which had been prepared ahead of time. Israelite diet depended on the person’s profession and social standing. Fishermen would mainly eat fish, herdsmen would eat milk and cheese products produced by their goats, and farmers would eat their crops. Grains, wheat, barley, bread, and nuts were also common. On festival days, they’d indulge in special meals.

The Israelites enjoyed singing and playing instruments, such as the lyre. The shofar, or the musical horn, was used to announce the new moon and the Jubilee year. They were also used to announce the start of war and in the Temple orchestra, commonly played alongside the trumpet. It was also played on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (now known as Rosh Hashanah), a tradition that Jews and Samaritans maintain to this day.

 

SPIRITUALITY

The earliest Israelites were polytheistic, worshipping gods from the Canaanite pantheon, which was divided into a four-tier hierarchy.  The two most important Canaanite deities were El and Asherah. The Hebrew G-d, YHWH, was not in the Canaanite pantheon. There are various theories as to how, exactly, YHWH ended up in Canaan, but the most popular view is that the deity was brought to Canaan along the Egypt-Israel caravan route. 

Initially, YHWH was only one of the many deities that the Israelites worshipped. El, the most important Canaanite god, was the original “god of Israel,” the name Israel itself deriving from El (“Israel” roughly translates to “one who wrestles with G-d”). Over time, YHWH and the other gods merged into a singular G-d. To this day, the generic word for “god” in Hebrew (as opposed to THE G-d) is “el.”

The complete shift between Yahwism to Judaism, when all Jews completely rejected the existence of other deities, likely happened during the period of the Babylonian Exile (587/6 BCE), which is when the majority of the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) was written. However, this shift happened slowly and over time, beginning around the 9th century BCE. In the 8th century BCE, monotheism among the Israelites spread even further, likely as a nationalistic response to the Neo-Assyrian invasions.

Israelite holidays centered around the agriculture of the land. During the Three Pilgrimage Festivals — Pesach (Passover), Shavout, and Sukkot — all able-bodied Israelites were commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Farmers would go on a long procession to the city, accompanied with music and parades.

 

 

SOLOMON’S TEMPLE

According to the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”), the First Jewish Temple, also known as Solomon’s Temple or the Beit HaMikdash in Hebrew, was built during the period of the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel (1042-930 BCE). Its construction was completed in 957 BCE.

The Temple served not only as a place of worship, but also as a place of general assembly. According to the Tanakh, King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, which King Solomon later placed inside the Temple in the “Holy of Holies,” the sanctuary and most sacred area at the heart of the Temple. Only the High Priest of Israel was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, bringing incense and carrying the blood of a sacrificial lamb.

The priests (or Kohanim) wore priestly linen undergarments that went from the waist to the knee, a priestly tunic, a priestly sash, and a priestly turban. The High Priest (Kohen Gadol) also wore a priestly robe, an embroidered vest or apron with onyx engraved gemstones on the shoulders, a priestly breastplate with 12 gems (each representing one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel), and a golden plate in front of the turban engraved with the words “Holiness onto YHWH.” 

The Tanakh is incredibly detailed about the Temple’s architecture and design. Some archeologists surmise that the Temple was built according to Phoenician design, and as such, it might’ve resembled Phoenician temples. Archeologists have found other architectural features in Southwest Asia (the Middle East) that resemble the Temple as it is described in the Tanakh.

The First Temple stood until the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Until recently, there was no real archeological evidence corroborating the existence of the First Temple; nevertheless, historians have long concluded that some sort of Temple did exist during this period, though its grandiosity, builder, and size are disputed.

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