Chapter 1 - Section 5

Ancient Hebrews

     The ancient people known as the Hebrews probably migrated into the eastern Mediterranean lands – and then known as Canaan – around 1300 BCE. They came from the area of the northern Arabian Desert. They were Semitic speaking people looking for reliable pastures and probably seeking to escape the drought conditions of the desert. Some of these Hebrew groups seem to have been settled in the eastern portion of the Nile delta when Egypt was invaded and occupied for a time by Semitic invaders called the Hyksos.

Ancient Hebrew History

     Biblical tradition explains that the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt and were forced to work for the Pharaoh’s government. This most likely occurred when the native Egyptians overthrew the Hyksos and reestablished an Egyptian ruler and dynasty to the delta region. However, they were led out of Egypt according to the tradition by the lawgiver, Moses. The Exodus of the Bible relates the events of the Hebrews coming to the Promised Land of Canaan. Eventually, the Hebrew tribes were united under famous kings such as Saul, David and Solomon. The ancient kingdom of Israel existed from about the first millennium BCE until destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. Jerusalem was the capitol and the symbol of Jewish faith and unity. The ancient Hebrews made significant and long lasting contributions to the development and maintenance of Western Civilization.

     Belief in One God: The Hebrews were the first to accept and uphold the belief in one god as the fundamental and permanent feature of their culture. The civilization built by the ancient Hebrews was characterized by the faith and following of a single, ethical and all powerful God. He was the creator of heaven, earth and all things. He was also the ultimate ruler of the universe he created.

     The Hebrews wrote extensively about their history, ethical principles, folkways and religious teachings of the prophets. The collection of these works is the foundation of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and is also known as the Scriptures. Today the Old Testament forms the first part of the Christian Bible. Together with New Testament teachings, the code of ethics and moral reasoning of modern civilization is termed the Judeo-Christian heritage of Western Civilization. These beliefs form the moral basis of our laws, standards of justice and our very sense of right and wrong.

     Moral Principles: The high standards set by the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, established the Law of Moses in the Ten Commandments. Hebrews were obligated to follow the laws precisely as a constant force for good in the daily life of people. The Hebrews developed a sense of social consciousness as a result of these laws and the other instructions described in the Torah. The Hebrew prophets exhorted the people to be on their best behavior at all times. They criticized oppression, injustice and the exploitation of the weak and poor. The themes of justice for all, compassion for others and to follow the Golden Rule firmly established the fundamental system of ideals and ethics of this civilization. Subsequently these ideals greatly influenced Christianity and Islam. Today they represent a significant element of the professed morality of the United States. Then as now violating this code of ethics, or system of religious beliefs, gives one to think of the possible consequences of such negative behavior.

The Ten Commandments


    The Phoenicians were most active on the historical scene from about the ninth century BCE through the second century BCE when their most famous city, Carthage, located in North Africa, was finally destroyed by the Romans. They shared the Eastern Mediterranean region with the Hebrews and were also Semitic speaking people. They lived along the sea coast in what today is called Lebanon, north of Israel. The Phoenicians were famous for large cities such as Sidon and especially Tyre. They became world class shipbuilders, merchants, explorers, navigators, and sailors. Their vessels sailed and traded throughout the ancient world from the Atlantic coasts to the coasts of the Black Sea. They sailed the Red Sea and along the coasts of eastern Africa. They were the foremost merchants and navigators of the ancient world for many centuries.

The Quest for The Phoenicians

     The Phoenicians often settled as colonists in the lands of their business partners. Cadiz in Spain and Carthage in North Africa were two of the most famous cities that began as trading stations. The purple dye made from a shellfish was one of their most famous commodities. It showed up in many forms on cloth and soon became a symbol and color of royalty. During Roman times, it was known as the Imperial Purple of the emperors.

     However, the most important contribution of the Phoenicians to the Western cultural heritage was not the quality of their products, great city planning or even their amazing navigational skills, but in the creation of a single alphabetic letter system of writing. The Phoenicians successfully eliminated the unwieldy cuneiform system of having hundreds of characters and replaced it with an alphabet based upon phonetics with set sounds and syllables made up of twenty-two letters. With slight modifications from the Greeks and Romans, this is the alphabet in use today, the phonetic or Phoenician alphabet of twenty-six letters. Historians maintain that the ancient Phoenicians were forced by the necessity of their extensive business and mercantile interests to create a simpler system of accounting, bookkeeping, banking and inventory control. Communication among themselves and trading partners afforded another compelling reason to create a simpler system. The alphabet was a giant step over cuneiform or hieroglyphics. The Phoenicians provide a fine example of how economic necessity is connected to discovery and the long term impact of such discoveries and inventions many centuries later.

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