The Jewish People (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.1)

When we studied the history of the Jewish people, you learned that they were able to establish their own kingdom in about 1000 BC. This kingdom did not last long, however. After the end of the reigns of their great kings, David and his son Solomon, the kingdom of Israel erupted in civil war. The nation was split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Each of these kingdoms claimed to be the real Israelite kingdom. In 722 BC Israel was swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire and in 586 both kingdoms were conquered by the Babylonians. In 536, it was the Persian Empire’s turn to conquer the Babylonian Empire, which included the land of Israel.

Later, in about 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. Israel then became part of Alexander’s empire. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, his empire was divided up among his generals. The area where the Jews lived at first went to a general named Antigonus. In 301 BC, Seleucus, another of Alexander’s former generals, conquered the land and made it part of his new Seleucid Empire.

The Jews remained under the control of the Seleucids until the reign of a man named Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Alexander, Antigonus, Seleucus, and the other Greeks who ruled over the Jews allowed them to continue their traditional religious practices. The Greeks viewed many Jewish customs, such as not eating pork and only worshipping one God, as rather strange, but they believed it was important to respect the traditions of the peoples they ruled over. Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who became the king of the Seleucid Empire in 175 BC, did not believe in religious tolerance. Instead, he tried to force the Jews to become more like the Greeks.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes passed laws that made the Jews very angry. For example, he issued an order that all Jewish people must appear before a government official and be seen eating pork. The punishment for not obeying these laws was the death penalty. Some Jews chose to die rather than do things their God had commanded them not to do.

Finally, in 167 BC, a revolution erupted in the land of the Jews, now called Judea. When a Jewish priest named Mattathias refused to sacrifice to the Greek gods, another Jew stepped forward to offer the sacrifice instead. When Mattathias saw what he was doing, Mattathias killed him. Mattathias and his five sons then ran away into the desert to escape punishment. Other Jews who opposed Antiochus joined them and eventually an army was formed. This war of the Jews against their Greek rulers is called the Maccabean Revolt after one of its earlier leaders, Judas Maccabeus.

In 160 BC, the Jews triumphed over the Greeks and again won their freedom. For the first time in over 500 years, the Jews had their own independent kingdom. According to stories told after that time, when the Jewish fighters went into Jerusalem they found that the temple of their God had been filled with items used for the worship of the Greek gods. There was even a large statue of Zeus in the most holy part of the temple. They removed these objects and decided to once again use the temple for the worship of the God of the Jews. They lit the menorah, a lamp with seven candles that was traditionally kept burning inside the temple. Unfortunately, they discovered that they only had enough oil for the candles to last one day. The lamp continued to burn for eight days, however, until more oil could be brought to Jerusalem to keep the lamp lighted. The Jews considered it a miracle and a sign from God that he was still taking care of them in spite of everything they had been through. Today, Jewish people celebrate this miracle on the holiday called Hanukah, which lasts for eight days and involves giving gifts and lighting a menorah in every Jewish home.

Jewish independence did not last long. In 63 BC, another large and powerful empire came to conquer Judea. This time it was the Romans. The Jews fought fiercely to protect their new kingdom and their holy city, but the Romans were too strong for them. During the conquest of Jerusalem, more than 12,000 Jewish soldiers died defending their city while only a few Roman soldiers were killed. The Jews once again became a small part of a very big empire.


Review Questions

 Create a timeline that includes the events that occurred in each of these years:

    1. 722 BC
    2. 586 BC
    3. 536 BC
    4. 332 BC
    5. 323 BC
    6. 301 BC
    7. 175 BC
    8. 167 BC
    9. 160 BC
    10. 63 BC


Vocabulary Words

 Religious tolerance – allowing others to practice or believe things you do not agree with

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