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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient Levantine States


Israelites & Israel

Today's Israel and Palestine are irrevocably linked in terms of their history. The former was carved out of a large proportion of the already-expanded latter from 1948. Before that though lies four thousand years of history, sometimes recorded, sometimes alluded to, and sometimes a complete mystery. Unpicking it to establish a relatively stable story has been the work of decades, and even today there are differences of opinion regarding many of the details.

The region in which both names came to be created was Canaan, the long Mediterranean coast between ancient Syria and Egypt which today is known as the Levant. Various independent or united Semitic-speaking city states formed in this region from around 3000 BC onwards, reaching a peak of independent development in the second millennium BC. It was during the climate-induced social collapse of the late thirteenth century BC that both a state known as Israel and a region known as Palestine emerged, giving both terms similar founding dates (very approximately), with the Phoenicians emerging to the immediate north during the same period.

Then came the Jewish Diaspora and the age of great empires in the form of the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Eastern Romans, Islam, and the Ottomans, until the twentieth century saw the most recent phase of empire-building come to an end and individual sovereign states emerge.

The term 'Israelite' is often used interchangeably with the terms 'Hebrew' and 'Jew', but these terms are not strictly interchangeable. The specific term 'Israelites', or 'people of Israel', is best used only for periods after the followers of Yahweh undertook their exodus from Egypt. It can also be used conveniently for the earlier period in which these people were subject to patriarchs (approximately between the eighteenth and sixteenth centuries BC).

The term loses its accuracy after the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon divided into the kingdoms of Samaria and Judah around 927 BC. The Old Testament tends usually to use the term 'Hebrew' for the entire period before 1000 BC, but it is best to avoid it here due to controversy surrounding its origins (regarding whether it descends from 'Eber', the ancestor of Abraham, or habiru, a general term for brigands and the dispossessed).

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler and from the John De Cleene Archive, with additional information by Sean Bambrough & Wayne McCleese, from The Amarna Letters, William L Moran (1992), from the Illustrated Dictionary & Concordance of the Bible, Geoffrey Wigoder (Gen Ed, 1986), from Jewish War & Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), from Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald Redford (Princeton University Press, 1992), and from External Links: Encyclopædia Britannica, and Bible Atlas.)

Babylonian Governors of Judah / Yehud Province (Canaan)
586 - 539 BC

Although the early Israelites reputedly founded the small kingdom of Israel in the mid eleventh century BC, it remained a somewhat turbulent semi-tribal entity which was beset by regional quarrels and attacks, especially by Ammon and the Philistines. It held a largely united front until an internal civil war caused it to be divided in two (again according to the Old Testament), creating Samaria in the north and Judah in the south.

From 925 BC Jerusalem was the capital of the southern division of two of the twelve Israelite tribes, these being the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and retaining Edom as a dependency. The civil war rumbled on with occasional flare-ups over successive generations, weakening both states. In the end it was an external threat which finished both kingdoms. The northern kingdom of Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 721 BC and Judah was taken by its Babylonian overlords in 586 BC, following one rebellion too many. This marks the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.

Babylonian governors were appointed to control the city of Jerusalem and its immediate surroundings, known to Babylon as the province (or sub-province, more likely) of Yehud. The first of these, Gedaliah, appears to have served in a high position within the Judahite royal court at least as early at 600 BC. An inscription with his name has been found at Lachish, to the south-west of Jerusalem. Other references to him suggest he supported a more conciliatory approach to the Babylonians. Gedaliah's story is told in 2 Kings 25:22-26 and in Jeremiah 39:13-14; and 40:1-41:18. He is introduced as Gedaliah, son of Ahikam and grandson of Shaphan, a prominent scribe of the period and the head of a household which supported both Josiah's religious reforms and the prophet Jeremiah.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Sean Bambrough, from the BBC documentary series, Bible's Buried Secrets, first broadcast 22 March 2011, from The Persian Empire, J M Cook (1983), from A Political History of the Achaemenid Empire, M A Dandamaev, from The Histories, Herodotus (Penguin, 1996), from Ctesias' Persica in its Near Eastern Context, Matt Waters, from Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F Unger (1957), from Easton's Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton (1897), and from External Links: Encyclopaedia Iranica, and Gedaliah (Chabad.org).)

586 BC

Gedaliah ben Achikam / Gedaliahu

Babylonian governor of Judah. Based in Mitzpah. Killed.

586 BC

Following conquest of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar II exiles the majority of the native populace (beginning the Jewish Diaspora), with many being taken into captivity in Babylon itself, forming the earliest basis of today's Mizrahi Jews classification. Gedaliah advocates submission as a means of ensuring continued partial Jewish autonomy. Under his brief administration, the Jewish colony does indeed prosper.

The Roman destruction of Jerusalem
Nebuchadnezzar's attack on Jerusalem in 586 BC deliberately destroyed the city, making it generally inhabitable to all but a small populace, with Mitzpah in the northern Benjimanite territory becoming the region's capital

After just seven months however, Gedaliah is killed by conspirators during a rebellion which is instigated by Baalis of Ammon. The entire Babylonian representative embassy is also murdered. In retribution, even more of the population is shipped to Babylon - although some flee to Egypt - and any surviving autonomy is removed.

The former king of Judah, Jehoiachin, and his successor are termed 'Princes of Judah' while the tribes are held in exile in Babylon. The names of any subsequent Babylonian governors of Judah seem to be unknown.

585 - 539? BC


Unknown Babylonian governors of Judah.

539 BC

Persia's Cyrus the Great enters Babylon. Cyrus adopts an enlightened attitude to his subjects, allowing the Judeans to return to Jerusalem after officially handing over all their captured idols and treasures. He also proclaims that they can rebuild their temple. Not all return, however. Some prefer to remain where they are later classified as Babylonian Jews.

Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great freed the Indo-Iranian Parsua people from Median domination to establish a nation which is recognisable to this day, and an empire which provided the basis for the vast territories which were later ruled by Alexander the Great

This policy is probably to encourage pro-Persian support in the Levant, a region which bears distinctly pro-Egyptian sympathies. They and Jerusalem are organised into the self-governing Persian region of Yehud Medinata, by which time the Princes in Exile have been allowed to return.

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