Human Legacy Course/The Hebrews & Judaism

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Human Legacy Course I
The Hebrews & Judaism

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Hello and welcome to Lecture 3 of Week 2. In today's lecture, we will be looking at the Hebrews & Judaism. Now, let's first answer our question. Today's question is:

Why might a man leave his home and move to a strange land? Ancient accounts say that a shepherd named Abram lived near Ur during the time of the Babylonians. One day, God spoke to Abram: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house,” God said, “unto the land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great…and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1–4)

So Abram took his family, herds, and belongings and began a long journey west. God led Abram to a land called Canaan, on the Mediterranean Sea. There, God gave Abram a new name—Abraham, meaning the “father of many.” Abraham made a new home in Canaan, and his descendants multiplied. They became known as the Hebrews.

The Early Hebrews

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The Hebrews were the ancestors of the people called Jews. Originally nomadic pastoralists, they moved into the desert grasslands around the Fertile Crescent between 2000 and 1500 BC.

Much of what we know about the Hebrews comes from their own later writings, which contained not only the laws and requirements of their religion, Judaism, but also much of their early history. These writings later formed the foundation of both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. The findings of Near Eastern archaeologists have also shed some light on early Hebrew history.

The Hebrew Fathers

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The accounts of the Hebrews’ early history appear in five books. Together, these books form the Torah, the most sacred text of Judaism. The Torah, along with other writings, is part of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is called the Old Testament in the Christian Bible.

The Torah traces the Hebrews back to a man named Abraham. A shepherd, he lived near Ur in Mesopotamia. The Torah says that God told Abraham to leave Mesopotamia and to abandon the polytheism he had grown up with. In return for Abraham’s obedience, God made a covenant, or solemn promise, to him. God promised to lead Abraham and his descendants to a new home, a Promised Land, and to make those descendants a mighty people.

The land to which the Torah says God led Abraham was called Canaan, a region along the eastern Mediterranean Sea. There, Abraham and his descendants lived for many years. In time, his grandson Jacob had 12 sons who were the ancestors of 12 tribes. Because Jacob was also called Israel, the tribes were called the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and the Hebrews became known as the Children of Israel or Israelites. Later Israelites all traced their roots to these twelve tribes. As a result, the Israelites—and modern Jews—considered Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob patriarchs, or ancestral “fathers.”

In time, some Israelites left Canaan and went to Egypt, driven there by famine. The Israelites lived well there, and their population grew. Egypt’s ruler, the pharaoh, began to fear that the Israelites might rise up against the Egyptians. To prevent an uprising, he made the Israelites slaves.

Moses & The Exodus

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The Torah tells of the Israelites’ years of bitter toil as slaves in Egypt. Then a leader named Moses arose among them. According to the Torah, Moses had been born an Israelite but raised in the pharaoh’s palace. One day God spoke to him and told him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

Moses went to the pharaoh and demanded the Israelites’ freedom. But the pharaoh refused. God responded, the Torah says, by raining down a series of terrible plagues, or disasters, on Egypt. These plagues so terrified the pharaoh that he agreed to free the Israelites. In a journey called the Exodus, Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. The Israelites believed that these events proved that God loved them and was watching over them.

The Exodus is a major event in Jewish history. Today Jews remember the Exodus by celebrating Passover in the spring of each year. During Passover, Jews eat a special meal called a seder that includes foods symbolizing their hardships in Egypt and the escape from slavery to freedom.

After the Exodus the Israelites wandered through the desert for years. During this time, they came to a mountain called Sinai. The Torah says that, on that mountain, God gave Moses two stone tablets on which were 10 moral laws. These laws are the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments state that only one God exists and stress the importance of life, self-control, and justice. The Israelites made a new covenant with God to follow the Commandments, which shaped their society. Over time, these laws had a major influence on the laws and values of Western civilization.

  • “I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing…
  • Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain…
  • Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto the Lord thy God, in it thou shalt not do any manner of work…
  • Honour thy father and thy mother…
  • Thou shalt not murder.
  • Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  • Thou shalt not steal.
  • Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
  • Thou shalt not covet they neighbour’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife…nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”

The Promised Land

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The Torah says the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before entering Canaan. The Israelites believed that God had promised them this land, which was said to be “flowing with milk and honey.”

Because other people now lived in Canaan, the Israelites battled for land for many decades. When they had once again gained control of Canaan, that land became known as Israel.

The Kingdom of Israel

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In Canaan, the Israelites settled in scattered communities where they farmed and raised livestock. The communities were organized loosely by the Twelve Tribes and did not have a central government. Instead, each community chose judges to enforce laws and settle disputes. The Hebrew Bible says that one of the most effective judges was a woman, Deborah.

From time to time during the period of the judges, prophets—holy men who were believed to carry messages from God—appeared among the Israelites. The goal of the prophets was to keep the Israelites focused on their faith.

Saul, David, and Solomon

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In the mid-1000s BC the Philistines, a powerful people who lived along the Mediterranean coast attacked Israel. The effort to drive out the Philistines led the Israelites to unite under one king.

Israel’s first king was a man named Saul. Chosen for his military leadership, Saul had some success fighting against the Philistines. Described in the Hebrew Bible as a jealous and troubled ruler, Saul was never able to win the full support of the people.

David, who became Israel’s second king in about 1000 BC, was well loved, and the people united behind him. A strong king and military leader, David was also a gifted poet and musician. Under David, Israel grew into a strong kingdom centered on the capital, Jerusalem.

Under David’s son Solomon, the Kingdom of Israel reached the height of its wealth and influence. Solomon, praised in the Hebrew Bible for his great wisdom, traded with other powers of the Near East. Through this trade, Solomon became very rich. With his wealth, he built a magnificent temple in Jerusalem.

Division & Conquest

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Within a year of the death of Solomon about 931 BC, conflict over who should be king ripped Israel in two. The ten tribes in the north formed a new kingdom, also called Israel. The two tribes in the south formed the Kingdom of Judah and became known as Jews.

The two kingdoms lasted a few centuries. About 722 BC Israel fell to the Assyrians. The Assyrians then scattered the people of Israel across their empire. The second kingdom, Judah, fell to the Chaldeans in 586 BC. The Chaldeans destroyed Solomon’s Temple and brought thousands of Jews to Babylon as slaves. The Jews called this enslavement the Babylonian Captivity. It lasted about 50 years. This event marked the start of the Diaspora, the scattering of the Jews outside Judah.

At that time a powerful new empire called Persia conquered the Chaldeans. The Persians let the Jews return to Jerusalem, where they rebuilt Solomon’s Temple, which became known as the Second Temple. However, many Jews did not return to Jerusalem but stayed in Babylon or moved into Persia.

The Teachings of Judaism

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Religion was the foundation upon which the ancient Hebrews, and later the Jews, based their whole society. Today Judaism’s central beliefs continue to influence Jewish society.

Belief in One God

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The most important belief of Judaism is that only one God exists. The belief in one God is called monotheism. Most of the ancient world worshipped many gods, so the Jews’ worship of one God set them apart. Many scholars believe that Judaism was the world’s first monotheistic religion.

Justice & Righteousness

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Also central to Judaism are the beliefs of justice and righteousness. To Jews, being just means treating other people with kindness and fairness. Being righteous refers to doing what is right and proper, even when others do not.

The Jewish emphasis on righteousness has led to their creation of a strong code of ethics, or standards of behavior. For example, Jews are expected to respect their families, to tell the truth, not to cheat, and to treat all people equally. The Jewish ethical tradition was later carried forward into Christianity and became known as Judeo-Christian ethics.

Obedience To The Law

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Closely tied to the idea of righteousness is the Jewish emphasis on obedience to the law. The most important laws of Judaism are the Ten Commandments, but they are only part of the many laws that Jews believe Moses recorded. A whole system of laws, called Mosaic law, guides many areas of Jewish life. For example, Mosaic law governs how Jews pray and when they worship. The laws also limit what foods Jews may eat and how foods are prepared. Today food prepared according to these laws is called kosher, or fit.

Jewish Sacred Texts

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The beliefs and laws of Judaism are recorded in several sacred texts. As we have discussed, the most sacred of these texts is the Torah. The Torah is the first part of the Hebrew Bible. The other sections are the Prophets, which includes the teachings of early Israelite prophets, and the Writings, which contains lessons, history, poetry, songs, and proverbs, or sayings of wisdom.

Another sacred text of Judaism is the Talmud. Written by Jewish scholars over several centuries and finished in the AD 500s, the Talmud contains explanations and interpretations of the other sacred texts. The beliefs in these sacred texts have helped the Jews remain a united religious community.


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That is the end of this audio lecture and here is your assignment:

  • Question #1: Who were Abraham and Jacob, and what is their significance in early Hebrew history?
  • Question #2: Why is the Exodus a major event in early Jewish history?
  • Question #3: In what ways do the Ten Commandments stress the values of human life, self-control, and justice?
  • Question #4: What is the Diaspora?
  • Question #5: What happened to the Kingdom of Israel after Solomon’s rule?
  • Question #6: Who do you think was the greater king of Israel—David or Saul? Why?
  • Question #7: What are the three sections of the Hebrew Bible? Which one do the Jews consider to be the most sacred?
  • Question #8: How do the central beliefs of Judaism shape Jewish life?

Thank you for listening to this audio lecture and I hope to see you again. Goodbye.