Ancient History 101, pt. 5 : Phoenicians and Israelites.

Phoenicia

3100 BCE - 32 BCE

Who had a long list of gods?
Who loved to sail the seas?
Who were known being

A) super good traders and
B) creating a simple and usable alphabet?

Sorry, it was not the Vikings. The whole alphabet thing should have clued you in. It was the Phoenicians.

They lived on some great real estate on the Mediterranean, but despite having a lovely home base, they just loved to sail the ocean blue in their big ships. Their territory covered a large part of what is now Lebanon, but also included smaller portions of present-day Egypt to the south and present-day Syria to the north.

What did they trade? Not silicon, not polar bears, and not moon rocks. But close. They loaded up their ships with purple dye and lumber from their cedar forests and in return, picked up spices, olives, and figs.

Regarding Alphabet. Not Google’s parent company. The actual alphabet. Phoenicians invented (or stole) 22 characters for their alphabet. Moving to a spelled-out system of words instead of simply using pictures was a major advance in communication because it’s simpler and faster to learn, which made it possible for them to communicate and trade with an ever-expanding number of peoples and languages.

Their alphabet spread as they visited different lands. Spoiler alert: the Greeks borrowed liberally from the Phoenicians’ alphabet, and later the Romans borrowed liberally from the Greeks’ alphabet.

Israel

1100-ish to 700 B.C.

If you’ve ever read Leviticus, heard the story of David and Goliath, watched the Paul Newman movie Exodus, listened to a Golda Meir biography, eaten a bagel, or paid the slightest attention to current affairs, then you’ve probably heard of the country of Israel. It’s real. But this is about Israel a while back.

The Israelites were south of their Phoenician, alphabet-inventing neighbors. They weren’t slackers though; historians are super happy that they were so good about writing things down. Teamwork! One country invents an alphabet, one country writes down brilliant and helpful stuff for later peoples. Anyway, they wrote down their sacred teachings in a collection of books called the Torah. If you love great stories, inspiring sayings, and occasional examples of stuff not to do, then you should definitely read it.

A defining characteristic of Israel was monotheism. They worshiped a single God. Spoiler alert: Abraham, a flawed hero you can read about in the Torah, was asked by God to leave Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. He and his large entourage of family, friends, and animals headed to what they called the Promised Land. A place called Canaan. If you’re looking on a modern map of the last thousand years or so, you’ll see that Canaan falls into the territories of (modern) Israel, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.

They had some adventures and good times in Canaan,, but then things went south. Literally south. They headed down to Egypt to avoid dying from starvation. Pesky famines. Eventually they were welcomed by the Egyptians, who were strong proponents of mandatory unpaid labor with no benefits and more stick than carrot.. Some, such as myself, call this slavery. Which is not only bad, it is evil, vile, and wicked.

Finally, a hero rose. A flawed hero. A flawed hero is a hero that makes mistakes and isn’t perfect, but is good at heart and try hard to do the right thing in the face of great adversity. Moses is one of history’s greatest flawed heroes. He was asked by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He said yes, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

After some grumbling, some plagues, and a not-insignificant parting a of certain Red-colored Sea, they embarked on a multi-year journey of grumbling, fighting, and adventures to reach the Promised Land.

This messy mass of events occurred somewhere in the 1450ish to 1200ish range. That would be B.C. If it was A.D., then we’d be talking about the Renaissance just around the corner…

Jerusalem

Another super-flawed hero was David. He even has his own song. He took down a giant with a slingshot, although technically it may have been the removal of the giant’s head with his own sword after being zapped in the forehead with a stone that actually did him in. Anyway, sort of like how Moses helped get his people out from under Egypt’s thumb, David helped get them out from under the Philistines’ thumb.

He went on to become a great king, albeit a king who made some unfortunate and despicable decisions (see: Bathsheba and her husband). He pulled Israel together into a unified nation made Jerusalem its capital in 1000 BC. Exactly 1000 BC. I don’t know the exact day.

David’s son Solomon went on to rule during Israel’s golden age, although there are some vigorous debates amongst scholars over exactly when Solomon’s reign was. Whenever it was, he built a bunch of cool buildings, including a massive and opulent Temple of Jerusalem.

He died around 931 BC and things went south. This time, not literally south. Metaphorically. The country split in two: the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah to the south.

For the next long while, a bunch of unfortunate events (if the Israelites are the protagonists) happened. Divided nations are generally weaker then they would be if they simply got along. The two kingdoms took one hit after another. First from the Assyrians, then from the Chaldeans, then off to Babylon to be mandatory unpaid workers again for a while.

But then a fortunate thing happened: the Persians took over. There was a great deal of conquering and land disputes during this time period, apparently. Anyway, the Persians were awesome, in this particular instance anyway, because they let the Israelites return to their homeland and rebuild Jerusalem. The Persians weren’t too awesome about other things (see: Leonidas, Thermopylae), but in this instance, they were.

Eventually, the Israelites became known as the Jewish people. Their religion is called Judaism.

Judaism

Judaism is based on a promise between the Israelites and their God. Remember, they were monotheistic, not like the Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, and pretty much everyone else.

This promise stated that Abraham and his people would have lots of land and be kings and have good stuff happen as long as they followed God’s laws.

God’s laws are contained in a little pair of stone tablets known as The Ten Commandments. If you don’t have access to the original, you can frequently find them written out on paper. Specifically, in the book of Exodus, and sometimes in courtrooms. Other laws are written about in Leviticus, but though they’re entertaining and horrific to read about, probably don’t place them on the same level as the Ten Commandments.

Also, *spoiler alert* there’s a spot in the New Testament (not part of the Torah) where some tricksters are trying to trick Jesus and they ask him what is the greatest of the commandments. His answer is awesome, and I’m not going to tell you. But you should totally read the whole NT sometime. It’s got some good stuff too.

The Ten Commandments are Judaism’s laws, given by God to Moses, on how to behave toward God and each other. Despite often being controversial and FREQUENTLY being misinterpreted and used out of context, they are a fantastic bit of guidance for helping make your life easier and better. Seriously. Good luck.

Thank you, Moses, for not dropping them on your hike down Mount Sinai.

Additional notes

The Romans also stole a lot of other things from the Greeks besides alphabet stuff. Smart people steal well. And the Romans stole well. More on that later.

If you feel like some light reading about stuff not to do, the entire book of Leviticus is a good place to start.

 Evil and vile are anagrams of each other. That might be helpful to know someday

What are the differences among bad, evil, and wicked? For example, is Darth Vader evil or wicked? Is Emperor Palpatine evil or wicked? Note: these figures, to the best of my research, are neither Phoenician nor Israeli.

All kinds of intrigue surrounding Solomon and his ascension. See: Bathsheba, Adonijah, Absolom, etc. Seriously, how can you not love ancient history after reading the book of Exodus?

A euphemism is phrasing something in a certain way that makes it sound better than what actually happened. So when I say “...they took a hit,” what I mean is that the Chaldeans completely destroyed Jerusalem and shipped them off to Babylonia. So the reality might be a little worse than the lazy slang phrase took a hit. Sorry.

Persia is now known as Iran

Mesopotamia is now known as Iraq

Sometimes people use a fancier word for promise: covenant

Mt. Sinai is the mountain where God gave Moses the commandments. It’s a good story, and it’s around this time that the Israelites are doing a bunch of grumbling. After reading Exodus, try making a commitment to not grumbling for an hour or so.

Footnote

Introduction to Ancient History, from the Paleolithic Era to the fall of Rome, and how the lives, cultures, decisions, and actions of these periods affects our modern lives.

Education for most ages and for all curious people.
Written by Joseph Ivan Long with curiosity, humbleness, and a big grin.