In ancient times this area was called the land of the Amorites after its original inhabitants, but later it was called Canaan for a grandson of Noah. It is now commonly called Palestine, after the Philistines, as this people at a very early date settled the narrow coastal strip along the Mediterranean and thence dominated, for a time, a good part of the entire region. The giant, Goliath, whom David slew with a slingshot, was a Philistine.
The most famous occupants of this land, the Hebrews, did not give their name to the country until the independent state of Israel was established.
Christians refer to Palestine as the Holy Land because it was the scene of Jesus' life. It is also holy to the Hebrews, and in a lesser sense to the Arabs.
Having selected the descendants of Abraham to be His chosen nation, and to serve as purveyors of His revelation to all peoples of the world, God settled them in what the prophet Ezekiel calls "the middle of the world." The country afforded great natural protective barriers, while from this central place their influence could spread far.
Palestine forms part of the Fertile Crescent, so called, which runs along the Mediterranean from Egypt, the whole area being bounded by desert, sea, and mountain, so that places of entry into Palestine were limited. It could be entered from the south by a highroad from Egypt, from the east at a point later called Damascus, and from the northwest only through Phoenicia.
The Hebrews under Moses, who had such a hard time for forty years finding it, entered from the east at a place north of the Dead Sea.
Ancient Palestine lay in both the geographic and cultural center of the known world, surrounded by such great ancient civilizations as the Hittite, Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, and the Mediterranean civilizations to the west. This brought much trade, intercourse and communication between the great powers passing through Palestine, where contact between all these was established. Divine wisdom seems indeed proven in the selection of this land.
Palestine lies at about the same latitude or distance from the equator as our state of Georgia, and is in its entirety about the size of New Hampshire, comprising around 12,000 square miles. The entire area is said at one time to have lain beneath the Mediterranean sea, and great geological forces pushed up the crust of the earth to produce the great depression which is the Jordan Valley, and which runs south to the Dead Sea, the lowest depression on the earth.
While the entire seacoast area was very fertile, it offered no harbors, due to the abruptness of the coast. The only venture to alleviate this situation was made by Herod, who built the seaport of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast just before the time Jesus was born.
Samaria and lower Galilee were the garden spots of Palestine, whereas Judea was mainly suitable for grazing with the exception of the area around Bethlehem and Hebron where farming could be successful. Jerusalem was situated in Judea, which was near the south of Palestine, Bethlehem being located about six miles south of Jerusalem.
The climate varied in different parts of the country, but did not usually overtax the residents. Ancient Israel was not dependent on imported goods. At the same time the people always had vividly before them the truth that they were absolutely dependent on the Author of the laws of nature, for if rain failed at the proper time, or if an untimely dust-laden wind blew in from the desert, they would face a crop failure.
Historical Sketch of the Hebrews
The history of Jesus' people falls into three periods, called the patriarchal, the monarchal, and the postexilic. The patriarchal period extends from Abraham to Saul who was the first king of Israel; the monarchal period shows the ascent of the Hebrews to the heights of power and influence, to take their place among the great people of antiquity.
Seeds of disintegration were sowed by power and prosperity, and the years of decline brought the nation almost to extinction. The last-mentioned period begins with the Hebrews in exile in Babylon, whence they emerged to re-establish the Jewish commonwealth. It was during the last period the roots of Judaism are to be found which led to the birth of Jesus.
Abraham was called by God from Ur, in Mesopotamia, to become the founder of the Hebrew nation, and the father of his people in the land of Canaan. His descendants eventually increased in great number through his grandson Jacob, who had twelve sons, the families of whom formed the twelve tribes of Israel. The sons were named Reuben, Simeon, and Levi (who became the forebear of the Levitical priesthood), Judah (from whose descendants should come the Messiah), Zebulon, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin.
Then at certain difficult times these people went to Egypt, until the Egyptian government became very harsh with them, using them for cruel and enforced labor. Their national solidarity was established by shared hardships, and when Moses of the Levites came to lead them out of Egypt to a promised land, under God's direction, they followed him across the Red Sea to the River Jordan, and took possession of the land beyond. Through Moses was revealed to them the books of their Law, their ritual, and rules whereby to live. The Jews faced enemies for centuries after, both in the physical and religious sense, in taking over Palestine.
Once established as masters of Palestine, the Hebrews clamored for a king like those who ruled over the neighboring nations. The patriarchal form of government was thus discarded, and Saul became the first Hebrew king, anointed into office by the prophet Samuel. Saul's son-in-law, David and David's son, Solomon, brought the Hebrew nation to its greatest worldly heights, for David conquered all of Palestine, and Solomon brought the nation to the status of a world power. Solomon's reign was a peaceful one following the conquests of David, so he was allowed to build the great Temple under divine direction.
Solomon's contradictory policies, however, sowed seeds of dissension, so after his death the empire was split asunder, and ten of the tribes seceded to the north of Palestine, where they established the kingdom of the north, or the kingdom of Israel. The two tribes that remained loyal continued what was known as the kingdom of the south, or the kingdom of Juda, later called Judea.
Both kingdoms were destroyed eventually, Israel in 721 B.C. by the assyrians, and Juda in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians. The period of the divided kingdoms brought times of material prosperity for growing numbers of the aristocracy, but of increased poverty for the less fortunate, and of spiritual decay and degeneracy as deplored by their prophets.
This third period of Hebrew history is important in that it saw the end of exile, when Persia came into power and Cyrus sent the Jews home to re-establish their commonwealth. From then on, the Jews passed successively under Persian, Greek and Roman domination, except for a short period of independence under the Macabees.
The Jews in exile, away from their Temple and without a functioning priesthood had to modify many of their laws and practices, giving rise to the synagogue and to oral interpretations.
When Cyrus sent them home, they rebuilt the Temple at Jerusalem which had been destroyed. It was here that enmity sprang up between the Jews and Samaritans. All were inhabitants of Palestine, the land of Samaria sandwiched between Judea and Galilee.
When the Samaritans offered to help the Jews rebuild their Temple, they were spurned. The Jews came more and more to regard the Samaritans as a hybrid and heretic people, so this hatred increased, until some of the Jewish priests who were involved in mixed marriages (frowned upon by the Jews) later deserted to the Samaritans and built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim.
The Hellenistic Period:
In 333 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Syria and Palestine, and with this event began the Hellenistic period. Alexander wanted to spread Greek civilization over the world, and he brought everywhere the Greek language and culture, endeavoring to assimilate the best of local culture as well. This is the reason the New Testament came to be written in Greek.
After Alexander's death, his empire split in two parts, and the rulers, the Ptolemies of Egypt, and the Seleucids of Syria, battled for possession of Palestine, so that in twenty-five years, Jerusalem changed hands seven times. From that time on, there were intermittent periods of quiet and warfare until 198 B.C. when the Ptolemies gave up the struggle and left Palestine to the cruelties of the Syrian Seleucids.
One indication of the horror of these years is the fact that the population dwindled to 100,000, while many people fled to Egypt or to Greek cities. Economics were so bad that the people had to be exempted from tax for three years, because there was no money in Palestine.
During all these years the high priest was supreme over the religious lives of the people, advised by the council of the Elders, the forerunner of the Sanhedrin. But the Greek rulers were bent on paganizing the Jews, and began to forbid circumcision, observance of the Sabbath, and the reading of the Scriptures. One king erected an altar to Jupiter in the Hebrew Temple and offered sacrifices of swine. He pursued the same policy toward the Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim.
At first the Jews submitted to martyrdom, but resistance soon broke out into open rebellion, and the Maccabean War ensued, led by a priest of the family of Hasmon, who used guerrilla tactics from the wilderness. He, followed by his brilliant son Judas Maccabaeus, was successful, and the Syrians were eventually routed. Then the Temple service was restored amid great festivity. This event is commemorated annually for eight days in the Feast of the Dedication, also known as the Feast of Lights, or Hanukkah, because of the many torches used in the celebration.
Complete Jewish independence was won, and the office of king was refused by their ruler in favor of that of high priest, and three brothers ruled in turn. On their deaths, the son of one of them inherited the office, one John Hyrcanus (134 to 104 B.C.) who added considerable territory and engaged in extensive building, but ruled in a materialistic way, outraging the religious Jews, and especially the Pharisees.
Here began the party strife between the Pharisees and the aristocratic Sadducees which would eventually lose the hard-won independence. The feud between the two factions continued with many years of squabble and intrigue until Pompey, who was petitioned for help to restore the priesthood, simply annexed Palestine. Then began a struggle between Pompey and Rome, until Caesar finally defeated Pompey and took over Judea. During this time, the Jewish ruler was left in office in name only.
Julius Caesar had a policy of allowing complete religious freedom throughout his empire, but he was assassinated four years after his victory over Pompey. There followed years of turbulence, during which Jerusalem was left somewhat unguarded while the Roman Antony was consolidating his power.
Herod took advantage of this. Having earlier fled to Rome, he got himself appointed king by the Romans, but it took him three years to occupy the throne. He had to conquer back most of the territory and take Jerusalem to rule it.
Herod spent several years consolidating his power, amid bloodshed and much cruelty. After this, he began to devote himself to great building projects for his own glorification. Then he became haunted by constant suspicions which led to even greater acts of cruelty and inhumanity.
Herod governed well enough in some ways, but he always sided with Rome rather than with the Jews. When Antony was defeated, Herod quickly shifted allegiance to Augustus. He began in 19 B.C. to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem. Herod died in 4 B.C. (before Christ). By this we know the time of Jesus' birth was off by about six years, for Jesus was at least two years old when Herod died, bringing the birth of Jesus to around 6 or 7 B.C., at least.
It was into this political situation that our Lord was born. His people were groaning under the oppression of the foreign rule, and equally under their own king, who was not really Jewish at all, but Idumean and Arabic by birth, Roman by sympathy, and Greek by name.