Name: Date: Ancient Mesopotamia – Lesson 3 The Beginnings of Judaism

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Ancient Mesopotamia – Lesson 3

The Beginnings of Judaism

Hammurabi ruled the Babylonian empire in the late 1700s B.C. Meanwhile people were on the move throughout the Fertile Crescent. Phoenician port cities along the Mediterranean sea were expanding their trade with Egypt and cities across the sea. Merchants were traveling along the dusty roads that connected Egypt and Mesopotamia. Some information about this exciting time comes from a source that millions of people continue to read today. That source is the collection of books known as the Hebrew Bible. Its original language was Hebrew. It has been translated into almost every language on Earth. Its writings are sacred to more than 17 million Jews today. Christians and Muslims also read and honor the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is the Jewish people’s record of their history and their religion, which is called Judaism. In this lesson you will follow the Bible’s account of Judaism’s beginnings.

Abraham of Ur

The first book of the Bible tells of a family that lived in Mesopotamia. This family came from the city-state of Ur. In this city people worshiped the Sumerian moon goddess. However, this family worshiped a different god. The Bible tells about a man named Abraham and his wife Sarah:

The Lord said to Abraham: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…” So Abraham took his wife, Sarah…and they set out for the land of Canaan.

The Covenant

To reach the land of Canaan from Mesopotamia, the travelers would have set out on the trade routes that linked major cities of the Fertile Crescent. The journey would have taken months, and it would have been hard to be a stranger in a new place. When Abraham arrived in Canaan, the Bible says that God made a covenant, or special agreement, with him.

I am God Almighty. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant with you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous…I assign the land you sojourn (rest) in to you and your offspring to come…I will be their God

This covenant is considered by the Jewish people to be the beginning of their history. Later, their descendants would become known as people of Israel, or Israelites, after Abraham’s grandson Israel. They also came to be known as Jews.

Going to Egypt

As time passed, the Bible says, Abraham’s children and grandchildren prospered as shepherds in Canaan. Then came a time of poor crops and terrible hunger. The people of Israel went to Egypt, where food could be found. Here the people of Israel were welcomed. As time passed, things changed. “A new king arose over Egypt,” the Bible says. This pharaoh “set taskmasters over (the people of Israel) to oppress them with forced labor.” Like others in ancient Egypt, the people of Israel had become slaves.

Question Time: Answer the following questions based on what you just read above.

1. What is the Hebrew Bible?

2. What is a covenant?

3. What was the covenant between God and Abraham?

4. What drove the Hebrews out of their “promised land” of Canaan and into Egypt?

5. How did their fortunes change once they were in Egypt?

Moses in Egypt

Fortunately for the Israelites, a man named Moses rose to leadership. According to the Bible, Moses was born to Israelite parents but was adopted as a baby by the pharaoh’s daughter. Raised in the royal household, Moses experienced all the wealth and power of Egypt. Yet he would someday become leader and teacher to enslaved Israelites who lived all around him.

Becoming a Prophet

One day, the Bible says, Moses saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave. Moses looked around, and seeing no one about, he killed the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand. Moses was wanted for murder by the pharaoh. He fled to the land of Midian, which was probably in present-day Saudi Arabia. There he remained for years until God called to him. “Come…I will send you to Pharaoh and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” At first Moses protested, saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In the end, however, the Bible says, he obeyed God and made the long trek back to Egypt. Moses was now seen as a prophet, or a person who speaks for God. Moses walked the halls of the pharaoh’s court once again. There he tried to convince the pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves. Moses wanted to lead them to safety. The Bible describes how Moses, with the help of God, led the Israelite captives from Egypt. To this day Jews celebrate the Passover festival each year to remember their freedom from slavery.

The Torah

According to the Bible, Moses led the Israelites into the wilderness of eastern Egypt. There they wandered for 40 difficult years. Early in their journey the Israelites traveled to a mountain called Mount Sinai. There, the Bible says, God gave Moses five books of laws and teachings. These five books are the first books of the Bible. In Hebrew they are known as the Torah, which comes from the word meaning “to teach.” Some of these laws are very similar to laws that were common in Babylonia. Like the Code of Hammurabi, for example, the Torah also had laws that forbade stealing and hurting others. In one very important way, however, the Torah was different. The God of the Hebrews forbade them to worship any other gods. This belief in only one God became known as monotheism. It set the Israelites apart from the other peoples living in the Fertile Crescent. Among the laws that God gave to Moses at Mount Sinai were the Ten Commandments. These commandments became the core of the Jewish religion and teachings. In what ways do the Ten Commandments differ from Hammurabi’s laws? of the scrolls that hold the Torah are beautifully decorated. The Torah shown here is written in Hebrew.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-14)

I the Lord am your God…You shall have no other gods besides Me.

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on earth below…You shall not bow down to them or serve them.

You shall not swear falsely by the name of the Lord your God.

Remember the Sabbath (day of rest) and keep it holy.

Honor your father and your mother.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet (desire)…anything that is your neighbor’s.

Question Time: Answer the following questions based on what you just read above.

6. Why did Moses have to flee Egypt, although he was a member of the pharaoh’s household?

7. What command does the Bible say God gave Moses? Was Moses eager to obey this command? Explain.

8. How long did the Hebrews wander through the desert?

9. What does the Bible say God gave Moses on Mount Sinai? How did it make the Hebrew’s religion different from those of their Fertile Crescent neighbors?

10. Compare and contrast the Ten Commandments with the Code of Hammurabi.

The Kingdom of Israel

After 40 years in the wilderness, the Israelites prepared to enter Canaan. The Bible says that Moses spoke to his people one last time before he died.

This is the Instruction – the laws and the rule – that the Lord your God has commanded me to impart to you…so that you, your children, and your children’s children may revere (worship) the Lord your God…to the end that you may long endure (survive).

The Bible says that after hearing Moses’ final words, the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. There they defeated several kings and set up a nation of their own, called Israel. Now the Israelites were not only a people defined by their religious beliefs. They were a nation with a land, as well.

A Nation of Israel

For the people of Israel, the Torah was the basis of life and faith. It commanded people, for example, to “remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.” The Sabbath is the weekly day of rest, prayer, and study. It falls on Saturday. The instructions of the Torah reminded Israelites of their closeness to God. They continue to do so today. According to the Bible, Israel became a powerful kingdom under the leadership of King David. He made the city of Jerusalem his capital about 1000 B.C. Jerusalem became even more important to Israel when David’s son Solomon built a great temple there. Jerusalem became a center of both religious and political life.

Exile to Babylonia

After Solomon’s death, about 928 B.C., the kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom, Israel, was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The southern kingdom was called Judah. This is where the name Jews comes from. The kingdom of Judah survived until 586 B.C. When Babylonian armies destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple, many Jews were led away to Babylon. This would not be the last time the Jews were exiled, or forced to leave their homeland. The scattering of the Jews to many parts of the world is called the Diaspora.

Why it Matters


Lonely sits the city

Once great with people!...

Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself,

And let us come back;

Renew our days as of old!

These words from the Bible record the despair felt by the Jews. However, even in the Diaspora, many Jews would continue to live by the Torah. They would also remember the covenant described in the Bible so many lifetime earlier.

Main Ideas

  • Trade and movement of people in the 1700s B.C. helped link major cities of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt.

  • The Bible says Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and passed on laws from God regarding how they should live.

  • Monotheism – the belief in one God – set the Hebrews apart from other groups around them.

  • Sacred writings, called the Torah, form the heart of Judaism.

Question Time: Answer the following questions based on what you just read above.

11. Who were Kings David and Solomon?

12. What happened after Solomon’s death? What happened to the people of Judah?

13. What is monotheism and how did it set the Hebrews apart from other groups around them?

jerusalem series, the western wall

Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and a religious center. Jews gather at the Western Wall to pray.

Lesson 3 – Review Questions

14. What role did Abraham play in the history of Judaism?

15. Why do Jews still celebrate Passover?

16. How were Moses and the teachings of the Torah important to the beginnings of Judaism?

17. According to the Bible, what was the cause of the Israelites’ move to Egypt?

18. Briefly compare and contrast polytheism and monotheism.

19. Choose one of the following: Abraham, Moses, monotheism, the Ten Commandments, Solomon. Make a poster showing the role it played in Judaism’s development.

20. Prepare your own illustrated time line of events in the founding of Judaism. Be sure to list the following events: Abraham’s journey to Canaan, Egyptian captivity, Moses leading them from Egypt, Moses receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the Babylonian captivity, and Solomon’s reign.

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