The Era of Small States,1200-700 BCE

1200-700 B.C.

After 1200 B.C., with the Hittite empire destroyed and Egypt in decline, the Semitic peoples of Syria and Palestine ceased being pawns in a struggle between rival imperialisms. For nearly 500 years, until they were conquered by the Assyrians, these peoples played an independent and significant role in history.

The Phoenicians

Phoenician a name the Greeks gave to those Canaanites who dwelt along the Mediterranean coast of Syria, an area that is today Lebanon.

Hemmed in by the Lebanon Mountains to the east, the Phoenicians turned to the sea and by the eleventh century B.C. had become the greatest traders, shipbuilders, navigators, and colonizers before the Greeks.

To obtain silver and copper from Spain and tin from Britain, Gades (Cadiz) was founded on the Atlantic coast of Spain. Carthage, one of a number of Phoenician trading posts around the shores of the Mediterranean, was destined to become Rome's chief rival in the third century B.C.

Although the Phoenicians were essentially traders, their home cities notably Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos - also produced manufactured goods. Their most famous export was woolen cloth dyed with the purple dye obtained from shellfish found along their coast.


They were also skilled makers of furniture (made from the famous cedars of Lebanon), metalware, glassware, and jewelry.


The Greeks called Egyptian papyrus rolls biblia ("books"), because Byblos was the shipping point for this widely used writing material; and later the Hebrew

and Christian Scriptures were called "the Book" (Bible).

Culturally, the Phoenicians were not creative. They left behind no literature and little art.

Yet they made one of the greatest contributions to human progress, the perfection of the alphabet, which, along with the Babylonian sexagesimal system of notation, they carried westward.

Between 1800 and 1600 B.C. various Canaanite peoples, influenced by Egypt's semialphabetical writing, started to evolve a simplified method of writing.

The Phoenician alphabet of twenty-two consonant symbols (the Greeks later added the vowel signs) is related to the thirty-character alphabet of Ugarit, a Canaanite city, which was destroyed about 1200 B.C. by the raiding Sea Peoples.

The half-dozen Phoenician cities never united to form a strong state, and in the last half of the eighth century B.C. all but Tyre were conquered by the Assyrians.

When Tyre finally fell to the Chaldeans in 571 B.C., the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel spoke what reads like an epitaph to the once great role played by the Phoenicians:

When your wares came from the seas, you satisfied many

peoples; with your abundant wealth and merchandise you enriched the kings of the earth. Now you are wrecked by the seas, in the depths of the waters; your merchandise and all your crew have sunk with you. (Ezek 27: 33-34)

The Arameans

Closely related to the Hebrews were the Arameans, who occupied Syria east of the Lebanon Mountains.

The most important of their little kingdoms was centered on Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world.

The Arameans dominated the camel caravan trade connecting Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Egypt and continued to do so even after Damascus fell to the Assyrians in 732 B.C.

The Aramaic language, which used an alphabet similar to the Phoenician, became the international language of the Near East. In Judea it displaced Hebrew as the spoken language and was used by Jesus and his disciples.

The Hebrew Kingdoms

In war, diplomacy, inventions, and art, the Hebrews made little splash in the stream of history. In religion and ethics, however, their contribution to the world civilization was tremendous.

Out of their experience grew three great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Much of Hebrew experience is recorded in the Holy Writ of Israel, the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, whose present content was approved about A.D. 90 by a council of rabbis.

As a work of literature it is outstanding; but it is more than that.

"It is Israel's life story - a story that cannot be told adequately apart from the conviction that God had called this people in his grace, separated them from the nations for a special responsibility, and commissioned them with the task of being his servant in the accomplishment of his purpose." ^26

[Footnote 26: B. W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966), p. 559.]

The Biblical account of the history of the Hebrews (later called Israelites and then Jews) begins with the patriarchal clan leader Abraham, called in Genesis 14:15 "the Hebrew" (Habiru).

About 1800 B.C. Abraham led his people out of Ur in Sumer, where they had settled for a time in their wanderings, and eventually they arrived in the land of Canaan, later called Palestine.

About 1700 B.C., driven by famine, some Hebrews followed Abraham's great-grandson Joseph, son of Israel (also called Jacob), into Egypt.


Joseph's rise to power in Egypt, and the hospitable reception of his people there, is attributed to the presence of the largely Semitic Hyksos, who had conquered Egypt about 1720 B.C.

Following the expulsion of the Hyksos by the pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the Hebrews were enslaved by the Egyptians.

Shortly after 1300 B.C. Moses led them out of bondage and into the wilderness of Sinai, where they entered into a pact or covenant with their God, Yahweh.

The Sinai Covenant bound the people as a whole - the nation of Israel, as they now called themselves - to worship Yahweh before all other gods and to obey his Law.

In return, Yahweh made the Israelites his chosen people whom he would protect and to whom he granted Canaan, the Promised Land "flowing with milk and honey." The history of Israel from this time on is the story of the working out of this covenant.

The Israelites had to contend for Palestine against the Canaanites, whose Semitic ancestors had migrated from Arabia early in the third millennium B.C. Joined by other Hebrew tribes already in Palestine, the Israelites formed a confederacy of twelve tribes and, led by war leaders called judges, in time succeeded in subjugating the Canaanites.

The decisive battle in 1125 B.C. at Megiddo, called Armageddon ("Hill of Megiddo") in the New Testament, owed much to Deborah the prophetess who "judged Israel at that time" (Judges 4:4).

God bade Deborah, already famed throughout Israel for her wisdom, to accompany the discouraged war leaders and stir them to victory. For this reason she has been called the Hebrew Joan of Arc.

The vigorous and decisive role played by Deborah and other Israelite women (Moses' sister Miriam, for example), reflects the absence of female inferiority in early Israel.

Genesis describes the two sexes as being equal and necessary for human livelihood: "So God created mankind in his image, ...male and female he created them. And God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it [together]'" (1:27-28).

And in the Song of Songs the maiden and the youth share equally in the desire and expression of love; there is no sense of subordination of one to the other.

But the continuing dangers that faced the nation led to the creation of a strong centralized monarchy, and with it came male domination and female subordination.

Deborah was the last Israelite woman upon whom God's spirit and wisdom descended.

Soon after the Canaanites were defeated, a far more formidable foe

appeared. The Philistines, part of the Sea Peoples who had tried unsuccessfully to invade Egypt and from whom we get the word Palestine, settled along the coast about 1175 B.C.

Aided by the use of iron weapons, which were new to Palestine, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant, the sacred chest described as having mysterious powers, in which Moses had placed the Ten Commandments.

By the middle of the eleventh century B.C., were well on their way to dominating the entire land.

The loose twelve-tribe confederacy of Israel could not cope with the Philistine danger. "Give us a king to govern us," the people demanded, "that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go before us and fight our battles."


This move was strongly opposed by the conservative upper class, led by the prophet-judge Samuel.


He warned the assembled Israelites that if they set up a king they would "reject the rule of God" and incur divine disapproval.


He predicted that a king would subject them to despotic tyranny. But the Israelite assembly rejected Samuel's advice and elected Saul as their first king.


Thereupon "the Lord said to Samuel, 'Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them'"


(1 Samuel

8:7). This appears to have been a grudging concession on God's part - like that of a father who allows his wayward son to learn from experience the folly of his ways.

Saul's reign (1020-1000 B.C.) was not successful.


Continuously undercut by the conservatives led by Samuel and overshadowed by the fame of the boy-hero David, who had slain the Philistine giant Goliath in single combat, Saul made no attempt to transform Israel into a centralized state.



collected no taxes, and his army was composed of volunteers.

A victim also of his own tempestuous and moody nature, Saul finally committed suicide after an unsuccessful battle with the Philistines. "How are the mighty fallen," the Old Testament concludes the story of Saul - a story with all the pathos of a Greek tragedy.

Saul's successor, the popular David (1000-961 B.C.), not only restricted the Philistines to a narrow coastal strip but became the ruler of the largest state in the ancient history of the area, stretching from the Euphrates to the Gulf of Aqaba.

David also conquered Jerusalem from the Canaanites and made it the private domain of his royal court, separate from the existing twelve tribes.

His popularity was enhanced when he deposited the recovered Ark of the Covenant in his royal chapel, to which he attached a priesthood.

The priests in turn proclaimed that God had made a special covenant with David as "the Lord's servant," and with the throne of David through all generations to come.

David's work was completed by his son Solomon (961-922 B.C.), under whom Israel reached a pinnacle of worldly power and splendor as an oriental-style monarchy. In the words of the Bible:

Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to

the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.... And Judah and Israel dwelt in safety, from Dan even to Beersheba, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon....And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind....Now the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold, besides that which came from the traders and from the traffic of the merchants, and from all the kings of Arabia and from the governors of the land....The king also made a great ivory throne, and overlaid it with the finest gold....

(1 Kings 4:20 f.; 10:14 f.)

But the price of Solomon's vast bureaucracy, building projects (especially the palace complex and the Temple at Jerusalem), standing army (1400 chariots and 12,000 horses), and harem (700 wives and 300 concubines) was great.

High taxes, forced labor, and the loss of tribal independence led to dissension. The Old Testament attributed this dissension to Solomon's feeble old age, "For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father....Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, ' have not kept my covenant and my statutes which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you'" (1 Kings 11: 4-11).

When Solomon died in 922 B.C., the realm split into two kingdoms - Israel in the north and Judah in the south.

These two weak kingdoms were in no position to defend themselves when new, powerful empires rose again in Mesopotamia.

In 721 B.C. the Assyrians captured Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, taking 27,290 Israelites into captivity (the "ten lost tribes") and settling foreign peoples in their place.

The resulting mixed population, called Samaritans, made no further contribution to Hebrew history or religion.

The southern kingdom of Judah held out until 586 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean ruler of Babylonia, destroyed Jerusalem and carried away an estimated 15,000 captives; "none remained, except the poorest people of the land" (2 Kings 25:14).

Thus began the famous Babylonian Exile of the Jews (Judeans), which lasted until 538 B.C. when Cyrus the Persian, having conquered Babylon, allowed them to return to Jerusalem where they rebuilt the Temple destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar.

Persian rule was followed by that of the Hellenistic Greeks and Romans.


From A.D. 66 to 70, the Jews rebelled against Rome, and Jerusalem was largely destroyed in the savage fighting that ensued. The Jews were again driven into

exile, and the Diaspora - the "scattering"was at its height.

[See Ancient Israel: 8th Century BC]

Hebrew Religion

From the time of Abraham the Hebrews worshiped one god, a stern, warlike tribal deity whose name Yahweh (Jehovah) was first revealed to Moses.

Yahweh differed from the many Near Eastern nature gods in being completely separate from the physical universe which he had created.

This view of Yahweh as the Creator of all things everywhere was inevitably to lead to the monotheistic belief that Yahweh was the sole God in the universe.

After their entrance into Palestine, many Hebrews adopted the fertility deities of the Canaanites as well as the luxurious Canaanite manner of living.

As a result, prophets arose who "spoke for" (from the Greek word prophetes) Yahweh in insisting on strict adherence to the Sinai Covenant and in condemning the "whoring" after other gods, the selfish pursuit of wealth, and the growth of social injustice.

Between roughly 750 and 550 B.C. appeared a series of great prophets who wrote down their messages.

They sought to purge the religion of Israel of all corrupting influences and to refine the concept of Yahweh.

As summed up by Micah (c. 750 B.C.) in a statement often cited as the essence of all advanced religions, "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8)?

Micah's contemporary, the shepherd-prophet Amos, stressed the need for social justice: "Thus saith the Lord:...[the rich and powerful] sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the that they have profaned my holy name" (Amos 2:6-7).

The prophets viewed the course of Hebrew history as being governed by the sovereign will of Yahweh, seeing the Assyrians and the Chaldeans as "the rod of Yahweh's anger" to chastise his stubborn, wayward people.

They also developed the idea of a coming Messiah (the "anointed one" of God), a descendant of King David.

As "a king in righteousness," the Messiah would inaugurate a reign of peace and justice. This ideal would stir the hopes of Jews for centuries.

Considered the greatest of the Hebrew prophets are Jeremiah and the anonymous Second Isaiah, so-called because his message was incorporated in the Book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55).

Jeremiah witnessed the events that led to Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and to the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews.

He prepared the people for these calamities by affirming that Yahweh would forgive their sins and restore "a remnant" of his people by proclaiming a "new covenant."

The old Sinai Covenant had been between Yahweh and the nation, which no longer existed. It had become overlaid with ritual and ceremony and centered in the Temple, which had been destroyed.

The new covenant was between Yahweh and each individual; religion was now a matter of one's own heart and conscience, and both the nation and the Temple were considered superfluous.

Second Isaiah, who lived at the end of the Babylonian Captivity, capped the work of his predecessors by proclaiming Israel to be Yahweh's "righteous servant," purified and enlightened by suffering and ready to guide the world to the worship of the one, eternal, supreme God.

Thus the Jews who returned from the Exile were provided with a renewed faith in their destiny and a new comprehension of their religion that would sustain them through the centuries.