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1921 BCE - 1655 BCE - The Patriarchal Age

The desert has imprinted its stamp upon the ancient Hebrews. The highest association, the tribe, includes all the families which migrate together regularly, i.e., which make the circuit of certain hunting-grounds, often great distances apart, according to the season of the year. One tribe will not contain more than a few thousand souls; if it exceeds that number, it becomes too large for common migration and pasturage and is obliged to divide. The tribe is the source and the limit of political obligation ; what lies outside the tribe is alien.

With the appearance of Abraham, the biblical stories introduce a new idea -- that of a single tribal God. Over the course of several centuries, this notion evolved into humanity's first complete monotheism. Abraham looms large in the traditions of the Jewish people and the foundation of their religion. Whether Jews by birth or by conversion, each male Jew is viewed as "a son of Abraham."

Up to the time of the building of the Tower the whole human race was of one speech and language, but this proud attempt at combined resistance to the will of God led to the Dispersion of the Races and the Rise of the separate Empires. The knowledge of God was lost. True religion perished. Each great empire fell into idolatry, and had its own state gods and goddesses. After their failure to build Babel, Noah's descendants, who constituted the whole human race, scattered over the face of the earth. Nimrod, one of the mightiest kings of the Semitic race, reigned in the plain of Shinar, founding Babylon, and ruling over Accad from whence probably came the Accadians, the originators of ancient civilization and culture.

The world was entirely heathen, until God called Abraham to be the father of a people through whom true knowledge of God and salvation should be given to the world. Abram received the divine summons to depart from Ur, the idolatrous city of his birth. It was with Abraham that God, known as Yahweh, made a covenant, promising to protect Abraham and his descendants, to wage wars on their behalf, and to obtain for them the land of Canaan, an area roughly approximate to modern Israel and the occupied West Bank (in another part of the Torah, God pledges to Abraham's descendants "the land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates," an area much larger than historic Canaan). In exchange, the ancient Hebrews were bound individually and collectively to follow the ethical precepts and rituals laid down by God.

There is no exact biblical chronology for the times before Abraham. The pre-Abrahamic tables of numbers (Gen. 5 and 11: 10-25) are ethnical and not biographical, and there is no key to the duration of time intended in them. On the basis of the Babylonian long numbers, and on other grounds, it was commonly held that there were civilizations in the valleys of the Euphrates and of the Nile some thousands of years before Abraham. Among scholars who regarded Abraham as a historical person there was long a very general consensus to the effect that he was contemporary with Hammurabi, the distinguished king of Babylonia, the Amraphel of Genesis 14. The Assyrian and Babylonian long numbers, uncorrected, give BC 1923 Assyrian, as the first year of Hammurabi. On this basis the migration of Abraham to Palestine was in the forty-sixth year of Hammurabi.

The difficulty of identifying Amraphel with Hammurabi and thus fixing the date of Abraham, was the difference between the date of Abraham according to the Biblical chronology, and the date of Hammurabi according to the monuments. According to Archbishop Ussher"s chronology, the Exodus took place in 1491 BC. And since, according to the Hebrew Text, 645 years separated the Exodus from the Call of Abraham, there should obtain for the latter event the date 2136 BC. But the monuments prove that Hammurabi did not reign before the twentieth century BC, so that, if the Hebrew chronology is right, Abraham lived 150 years before him. How is this difficulty overcome? Some have overcome it by choosing 430 years instead of 645 for the interval between Abraham and the Exodus, 430 being the number found in the Samaritan Version and the Septuagint.

When Abraham entered Canaan about 1921 BC or earlier, the original races were already more or less superseded by tribes descended from Ham. The descendants of Canaan, or "Canaanites," having possession of the richest portions of the land, gave their name to it. They dwelt in the low lands by the sea and in the plain of Jordan. North of the Canaanites were the Sidonians, who occupied Phoenicia. (See Chapter XXVIII.) South of the Canaanites were the Philistines.

Canaan, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, was a narrow strip, 130 kilometers wide, bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, the Arabian Desert to the east, Egypt to the south, and Mesopotamia to the north. Situated between the great Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, Canaan served as a burgeoning trading center for caravans between the Nile Valley and the Euphrates and as a cultural entrepôt. The clash of cultures and the diverse commercial activities gave Canaan a dynamic spiritual and material creativity. Prior to the emergence of Abraham, however, Egyptian and Mesopotamian hostility, continuous invasions of hostile peoples, and Canaan's varied topography had resulted in frequent fighting and general instability.

In the last quarter of the second millennium BC, the collapse of the Hittite Empire to the north, and the decline of Egyptian power to the south at a time when the Assyrians had not yet become a major force set the stage for the emergence of the Hebrews. As early as the latter part of the third millennium BC, invasions from the east significantly disrupted Middle Eastern society. The people who moved from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean spoke western Semitic languages of which Hebrew is one.

The term Hebrew apparently came from the word habiru (also hapiru or apiru), a term that was common to the Canaanites and many of their neighbors. The word was used to designate a social class of wanderers and seminomads who lived on the margins of, and remained separate from, sedentary settlements. Abraham was the leader of one of these immigrant habiru groups. He is depicted as a wealthy semi-nomad who possessed large flocks of sheep, goats, and cattle, and enough retainers to mount small military expeditions.

The Canaanite chieftains urged Abraham to settle and join with them. Abraham remained in the land, but when it came time to select a wife for his and Sarah's son Isaac, the wife was obtained from their relatives living in Haran, near Urfa in modern Turkey. This endogamous practice was repeated by Isaac's son Jacob, who became known as Israel because he had wrestled with God (Gen. 32:28).

During Jacob-Israel's lifetime the Hebrews completely severed their links with the peoples of the north and east and his followers began to think of themselves as permanently linked to Canaan. By his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and their two serving maids, Bilhah and Zilpah, Israel fathered twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, the "children of Israel", who, after the slavery of their descendants in Egypt, became the heads of 12 tribes, known collectively as "Israel" or "the Children of Israel* (Ex. l:l). Among the 12 tribes, neither Levi, who was destined for the service of God, nor Joseph, who was supplanted by his two sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, is represented. The term Jew derives from the name of one of the tribes, Judah, which was not only one of the largest and most powerful of the tribes but also the tribe that produced David and from which, according to biblical prophecy and postbiblical legend, a messiah will emerge.

Among the ancient Hebrews the tribal form survived even after they had settled in towns and villages; Isaac was the father of the nations of Israel and Edom, Israel the father of twelve tribes, Judah the father of five lineages, and each lineage in its turn father or grandfather of clans and families. Such a principle of organisation is equally serviceable for settlement or migration, for war or peace ; and being independent of all conditions of fixed localities, it makes the tribe as mobile as an army.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:19:39 ZULU