The History of the Jews

Inevitably, in a part of the world that has been the focus of dissent on almost every topic imaginable, the timeline and the events of the early history of the Jewish People are not unanimously agreed.

Religious Jews look to the Torah and the oral commentaries upon it, as their principal reference.

Others with a sociological or anthropological perspective have a different view of how Judaism came to be adopted as the religion of the Jewish People, and of when and how the historical events ocurred.

The orthodox religious view is that the Torah emanates directly from God, and that it is an instruction book for living a meaningful life within a meaningful context. in fact Judaism goes further than that and describes the Torah as a blueprint for existence. Because it is a blueprint, it precedes the existence of the universe.

There are all kinds of Jews in Israel today – from orthodox to non-religious, but orthodoxy claims to have maintained the integrity of its perspecitve and world view throughout the past 4500 years. As the ‘oldest kid on the block’ if for no other reason, this history follows the timeline and description of events as described by orthodox Judaism.


The Jews became a people in the desert at Mount Sinai, following the exodus from Eqypt. After their long period of wandering in the desert they conquered and inhabited an area that somewhat roughly corresponds with modern-day Israel, Lebanon, and part of Jordan. That period began with the conquest in about 1270BCE under Joshuah’s leadership, following the death of Moses outside the land of Israel, and continued until the first expulsion at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem in about 422 BCE.

The Temple as ‘temple’ is more than simply a central theme in Jewish religious observance. Detailed instructions for the building the central part of the temple are given in the Torah, and so the Temple and Judaism are inseparable.

Similarly, there are many, many references to Jerusalem in the Torah and so Jerusalem and Judaism are inseparable.

When the First Temple was destroyed, the Jews were expelled and taken as captives to Babylon. Historical events overtook the Babylonians when they themselves were conquered by the Persians, who became the dominant power in the region.

And as historical events played out, the Jews were allowed to return approximately 70 years after their expulsion. Many, but not all, did return at that time.

Subsequently the Greeks conquered Israel and the influence of their way of life undermined Jewish thought and observance. But under the Hasmonean family, known as the Maccabees (the ‘hammer’) the Jews revolted and succeeded in gaining their independence. Chanukah celebrates the miracle that took place in the regained Temple, when the first press of oil for the lamps lasted not just the one day for which there was a sufficient quantity, but for eight days.

Independence lasted until the Roman conquest. Nonetheless, Israel retained some independence and the Second Temple was built in Jerusalem. Again the pattern of history resulted in the revolt against the occupying power, who were only the latest in a series of colonial invaders who had come and gone. In the event though the expulsion that followed the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE, lasted until the emergence of the Jewish State nearly two thousand years later.

While a number of Jews remained in Israel throughout the whole of the next nineteen hundred years, Israel did not become a national homeland for Jews until the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948. The war in 1948 left Jerusalem divided, partly under Israeli and partly under Jordanian control.

Jerusalem did not become a city wholly under Jewish control until the end of the Six Day War in 1967.

To Judaism, the role that Jerusalem has played in Israel is more than as a capital city. It has represented and continues to represent the place where the spirit of Heaven contacts this world and spreads through it. Throughout the exiles of the past two thousand years, Jews have prayed for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and have prayed facing Jerusalem.

The Torah mandates that Jews visit Jerusalem and the Temple at specific times of the year. With the destruction of the Temple, the longing to be able to fufil the requirement in the Torah has remained a constant theme.

Man praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
Man praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

Historically and today, Jews have not shirked from describing their repeated and substantial failures, as individuals and as a people, to fulfil and abide by the rules set out in the Torah. And they have not shirked from acknowledging the consequences these failures brought about.

Judaism maintains that everything that happens in this world does so according to the will of Heaven and that G-d’s will is intimately bound up with what his creations do.

Accordingly, the destruction of the First and Second Temples are not seen simply as historical events, but as expressions of the will of Heaven and a reflection of the failures and accomplishments of the Jewish people. Because Jerusalem is so central to Judaism, the destructions of the temples that stood in Jerusalem are seen all the more as historic events whose magnitude cannot be overstated.

The fact that Christianity and Islam hold Jerusalem central within their beliefs adds another dimension to the city and this is evident in the buildings and the people and, on the world stage, in the struggle to find a permanent peace.

If it is easy to curl up in a ball and forget the past, the weight of history, the search for meaning in life, the relations between man and man – it is perhaps less easy to forget these things in Jerusalem.

The city gets hot in the summer, but there is often a cooling breeze to temper the heat. This serves as a reminder that this is a mountain city looking eastwards to the desert, to Jordan, Syria and Iraq, west to the Egypt and the Mediterranean, north to Lebanon, and south to Saudi Arabia.

The intensity of religious feeling that is manifest in the city shows that in daily life, intertwined with everything that happens, the city and its people face not only what is around them, but upwards to Heaven.