Efforts to confirm the Israelites' biblical origins through archaeology, once widespread, have been largely abandoned as unproductive, with many scholars viewing the stories as inspiring national myth narratives with little historical value.
Based on the archaeological evidence, according to the modern archaeological account, the Israelites and their culture did not overtake the region by force, but instead branched out of the indigenous Canaanite peoples that long inhabited the Southern Levant, Syria, ancient Israel, and the Transjordan region through a gradual evolution of a distinct monolatristic--later cementing as monotheistic--religion centered on Yahweh. The outgrowth of Yahweh-centric monolatrism from Canaanite polytheism started with Yahwism, the belief in the existence of the many gods and goddesses of the Canaanite pantheon but with the consistent worship of only Yahweh. Along with a number of cultic practices, this gave rise to a separate Israelite ethnic group identity. The final transition of their Yahweh-based religion to monotheism and rejection of the existence of the other Canaanite gods set the Israelites apart from their fellow Canaanite brethren. The Israelites, however, continued to retain various cultural commonalities with other Canaanites, including use of one of the Canaanite dialects, Hebrew, which is today the only living descendant of that language group.
In the Hebrew Bible, the term Israelites is used interchangeably with the term Twelve Tribes of Israel. Although related, the terms Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews are not interchangeable in all instances. "Israelites" (Yisraelim) refers to the people whom the Hebrew Bible describes specifically as the direct descendants of any of the sons of the patriarch Jacob (later called Israel), and his descendants as a people are also collectively called "Israel", including converts to their faith in worship of the god of Israel, Yahweh. "Hebrews" (?Ivrim), on the contrary, is used to denote the Israelites' immediate forebears who dwelt in the land of Canaan, the Israelites themselves, and the Israelites' ancient and modern descendants (including Jews and Samaritans). "Jews" (Yehudim) is used to denote the descendants of the Israelites who coalesced when the Tribe of Judah absorbed the remnants of various other Israelite tribes.
During the period of the divided monarchy, "Israelites" was only used to refer to the inhabitants of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and it is only extended to cover the people of the southern Kingdom of Judah in post-exilic usage.
Finally, in Judaism, the term "Israelite" is, broadly speaking, used to refer to a lay member of the Jewish ethnoreligious group, as opposed to the priestly orders of Kohanim and Levites. In texts of Jewish law such as the Mishnah and Gemara, the term (Yehudi), meaning Jew, is rarely used, and instead the ethnonym (Yisraeli), or Israelite, is widely used to refer to Jews. Samaritans are not and never call themselves "Jews" (Yehudim), but commonly refer to themselves and to Jews collectively as Israelites, and they describe themselves as Israelite Samaritans
The Merneptah stele. While alternative translations exist, the majority of biblical archaeologists translate a set of hieroglyphs as Israel, representing the first instance of the name Israel in the historical record.
The name Israel first appears in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis 32:29. It refers to the renaming of Jacob, who, according to the Bible, wrestled with an angel, who gave him a blessing and renamed him Israel because he had "striven with God and with men, and have prevailed". The Hebrew Bible etymologizes the name as from yisra "to prevail over" or "to struggle/wrestle with", and El (God). However, modern scholarship interprets El as the subject, "El rules/struggles", from sarar () 'to rule' (cognate with sar (?) 'ruler', Akkadian ?arru 'ruler, king'), which is likely cognate with the similar root sara (?) "fought, strove, contended".
The name Israel first appears in non-biblical sources c. 1209 BCE, in an inscription of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah. The inscription is very brief and says simply: "Israel is laid waste and his seed is not" (see below). The inscription refers to a people, not to an individual or a nation-state.
B'nei Yisrael, "children of Israel"
In modern Hebrew, b'nei yisrael ("children of Israel") can denote the Jewish people at any time in history; it is typically used to emphasize Jewish ethnic identity.
Yisrael and Israeli
From the period of the Mishna (but probably used before that period) the term Yisrael ("[a member of the People of] Israel") acquired an additional narrower meaning of common Jews who are not Levites or Aaronite priests (kohanim).
In modern Hebrew this contrasts with the term Yisraeli (English "Israeli"), a citizen of the modern State of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
The Greek term Ioudaios (Jew) was an exonym originally referring to members of the Tribe of Judah, and by extension the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah and the Judean region, and was later adopted as a self-designation by people in the Jewish diaspora who identified themselves as loyal to the God of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Samaritans, who claim descent from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (plus Levi through Aaron for kohens), are named after the Israelite Kingdom of Samaria, but many Jewish authorities contest their claimed lineage, deeming them to have been conquered foreigners who were settled in the Land of Israel by the Assyrians, as was the typical Assyrian policy to obliterate national identities.
The terms "Jews" and "Samaritans" largely replaced the title "Children of Israel" as the commonly used ethnonym for each respective community.
Series of depictions of the historical Israelites between the 13th and 7th century BCE
Several theories exist proposing the origins of the Israelites in raiding groups, infiltrating nomads or emerging from indigenous Canaanites driven from the wealthier urban areas by poverty to seek their fortunes in the highland. Various, ethnically distinct groups of itinerant nomads such as the Habiru and Shasu recorded in Egyptian texts as active in Edom and Canaan could have been related to the later Israelites, which does not exclude the possibility that the majority may have had their origins in Canaan proper. The name Yahweh, the god of the later Israelites, may indicate connections with the region of Mount Seir in Edom.
The prevailing academic opinion today is that the Israelites were a mixture of peoples predominantly indigenous to Canaan, although an Egyptian matrix of peoples may also have played a role in their ethnogenesis, with an ethnic composition similar to that in Ammon, Edom and Moab, and including Habiru and ?o?u. The defining feature which marked them off from the surrounding societies was a staunch egalitarian organisation focused on the worship of Yahweh, rather than mere kinship.
The language of the Canaanites may perhaps be best described as an "archaic form of Hebrew, standing in much the same relationship to the Hebrew of the Old Testament as does the language of Chaucer to modern English." The Canaanites were also the first people, as far as is known, to have used an alphabet, as early as the 12th century BCE
The name "Israel"
The name Israel first appears c. 1209 BCE, at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the very beginning of the period archaeologists and historians call Iron Age I, on the Merneptah Stele raised by the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah. The inscription is very brief:
Plundered is Canaan with every evil,
Carried off is Ashkelon,
Seized upon is Gezer,
Yeno'am is made as that which does not exist Israel lies fallow, it has no seed;
?urru has become a widow because of Egypt.
Pre-state (Iron Age I) and monarchies (Iron Age II)
Over the next two hundred years (the period of Iron Age I) the number of highland villages increased from 25 to over 300 and the settled population doubled to 40,000. By the 10th century BCE a rudimentary state had emerged in the north-central highlands, and in the 9th century this became a kingdom. Settlement in the southern highlands was minimal from the 12th through the 10th centuries BCE, but a state began to emerge there in the 9th century, and from 850 BCE onwards a series of inscriptions are evidence of a kingdom which its neighbours refer to as the "House of David."
From the downfall of the two kingdoms to Bar Kochba
Jacob and his sons are forced by famine to go down into Egypt, although Joseph was already there, as he had been sold into slavery while young. When they arrive they and their families are 70 in number, but within four generations they have increased to 600,000 men of fighting age, and the Pharaoh of Egypt, alarmed, first enslaves them and then orders the death of all male Hebrew children. A woman from the tribe of Levi hides her child, places him in a woven basket, and sends him down the Nile river. He is named Mosheh, or Moses, by the Egyptians who find him. Being a Hebrew baby, they award a Hebrew woman the task of raising him, the mother of Moses volunteers, and the child and his mother are reunited.
At the age of forty Moses kills an Egyptian, after he sees him beating a Hebrew to death, and escapes as a fugitive into the Sinai desert, where he is taken in by the Midianites and marries Zipporah, the daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro. When he is eighty years old, Moses is tending a herd of sheep in solitude on Mount Sinai when he sees a desert shrub that is burning but is not consumed. The God of Israel calls to Moses from the fire and reveals his name, Yahweh, and tells Moses that he is being sent to Pharaoh to bring the people of Israel out of Egypt.
Yahweh tells Moses that if Pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrews go to say to Pharaoh "Thus says Yahweh: Israel is my son, my first-born and I have said to you: Let my son go, that he may serve me, and you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay your son, your first-born". Moses returns to Egypt and tells Pharaoh that he must let the Hebrew slaves go free. Pharaoh refuses and Yahweh strikes the Egyptians with a series of horrific plagues, wonders, and catastrophes, after which Pharaoh relents and banishes the Hebrews from Egypt. Moses leads the Israelites out of bondage toward the Red Sea, but Pharaoh changes his mind and arises to massacre the fleeing Hebrews. Pharaoh finds them by the sea shore and attempts to drive them into the ocean with his chariots and drown them.
Yahweh causes the Red Sea to part and the Hebrews pass through on dry land into the Sinai. After the Israelites escape from the midst of the sea, Yahweh causes the ocean to close back in on the pursuing Egyptian army, drowning them to death. In the desert Yahweh feeds them with manna that accumulates on the ground with the morning dew. They are led by a column of cloud, which ignites at night and becomes a pillar of fire to illuminate the way, southward through the desert until they come to Mount Sinai. The twelve tribes of Israel encamp around the mountain, and on the third day Mount Sinai begins to smolder, then catches fire, and Yahweh speaks the Ten Commandments from the midst of the fire to all the Israelites, from the top of the mountain.
Moses ascends biblical Mount Sinai and fasts for forty days while he writes down the Torah as Yahweh dictates, beginning with Bereshith and the creation of the universe and earth. He is shown the design of the Mishkan and the Ark of the Covenant, which Bezalel is given the task of building. Moses descends from the mountain forty days later with the Sefer Torah he wrote, and with two rectangular lapis lazuli tablets, into which Yahweh had carved the Ten Commandments in Paleo-Hebrew. In his absence, Aaron has constructed an image of Yahweh, depicting him as a young golden calf, and has presented it to the Israelites, declaring "Behold O Israel, this is your god who brought you out of the land of Egypt". Moses smashes the two tablets and grinds the golden calf into dust, then throws the dust into a stream of water flowing out of Mount Sinai, and forces the Israelites to drink from it.
Map of the twelve tribes of Israel (before the move of Dan to the north), based on the Book of Joshua
Moses ascends Mount Sinai for a second time and Yahweh passes before him and says: 'Yahweh, Yahweh, a god of compassion, and showing favor, slow to anger, and great in kindness and in truth, who shows kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving wrongdoing and injustice and wickedness, but will by no means clear the guilty, causing the consequences of the parent's wrongdoing to befall their children, and their children's children, to the third and fourth generation' Moses then fasts for another forty days while Yahweh carves the Ten Commandments into the second set of stone tablets. After the tablets are completed, light emanates from the face of Moses for the rest of his life, causing him to wear a veil so he does not frighten people.
Moses descends Mount Sinai and the Israelites agree to be the chosen people of Yahweh and follow all the laws of the Torah. Moses prophesies if they forsake the Torah, Yahweh will exile them for the total number of years they did not observe the shmita. Bezael constructs the Ark of the Covenant and the Mishkan, where the presence of Yahweh dwells on earth in the Holy of Holies, above the Ark of the Covenant, which houses the Ten Commandments. Moses sends spies to scout out the Land of Canaan, and the Israelites are commanded to go up and conquer the land, but they refuse, due to their fear of warfare and violence. In response, Yahweh condemns the entire generation, including Moses, who is condemned for striking the rock at Meribah, to exile and death in the Sinai desert.
Before Moses dies he gives a speech to the Israelites where he paraphrases a summary of the mizwoth given to them by Yahweh, and recites a prophetic song called the Ha'azinu. Moses prophesies that if the Israelites disobey the Torah, Yahweh will cause a global exile in addition to the minor one prophesied earlier at Mount Sinai, but at the end of days Yahweh will gather them back to Israel from among the nations when they turn back to the Torah with zeal. The events of the Israelite exodus and their sojourn in the Sinai are memorialized in the Jewish and Samaritan festivals of Passover and Sukkoth, and the giving of the Torah in the Jewish celebration of Shavuoth.
Forty years after the Exodus, following the death of the generation of Moses, a new generation, led by Joshua, enters Canaan and takes possession of the land in accordance with the promise made to Abraham by Yahweh. The land is allocated to the tribes by lottery. Eventually, the Israelites ask for a king, and Yahweh gives them Saul. David, the youngest (divinely favored) son of Jesse of Bethlehem would succeed Saul. Under David, the Israelites establish the united monarchy, and under David's son Solomon they construct the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, using the 400-year-old materials of the Mishkan, where Yahweh continues to tabernacle himself among them. On the death of Solomon and reign of his son, Rehoboam, the kingdom is divided in two.
The kings of the northern Kingdom of Samaria are uniformly bad, permitting the worship of other gods and failing to enforce the worship of Yahweh alone, and so Yahweh eventually allows them to be conquered and dispersed among the peoples of the earth; and strangers rule over their remnant in the northern land. In Judah some kings are good and enforce the worship of Yahweh alone, but many are bad and permit other gods, even in the Holy Temple itself, and at length Yahweh allows Judah to fall to her enemies, the people taken into captivity in Babylon, the land left empty and desolate, and the Holy Temple itself destroyed.
Yet despite these events, Yahweh does not forget his people but sends Cyrus, king of Persia to deliver them from bondage. The Israelites are allowed to return to Judah and Benjamin, the Holy Temple is rebuilt, the priestly orders restored, and the service of sacrifice resumed. Through the offices of the sage Ezra, Israel is constituted as a holy nation, bound by the Torah and holding itself apart from all other peoples.
In 2000, M. Hammer, et al. conducted a study on 1371 men and definitively established that part of the paternal gene pool of Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa and Middle East came from a common Middle East ancestral population.
Another study (Nebel et al. 2001) noted; "In comparison with data available from other relevant populations in the region, Jews were found to be more closely related to groups in the north of the Fertile Crescent (Kurds, Turks, and Armenians) than to their Arab neighbors. The authors found that "Palestinian Arabs and Bedouin differed from the other Middle Eastern populations studied, mainly in specific high-frequency Eu 10 haplotypes not found in the non-Arab groups." and suggested that some of this difference might be due to migration and admixture from the Arabian peninsula during the last two millennia.
A 2004 study (by Shen et al.) comparing Samaritans to several Jewish populations (including Ashkenazi Jews, Iraqi Jews, Libyan Jews, Moroccan Jews, and Yemenite Jews, as well as Israeli Druze and Palestinians) found that "the principal components analysis suggested a common ancestry of Samaritan and Jewish patrilineages. Most of the former may be traced back to a common ancestor in what is today identified as the paternally inherited Israelite high priesthood (Cohanim) with a common ancestor projected to the time of the Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel."
^Finkelstein, Israel. "Ethnicity and origin of the Iron I settlers in the Highlands of Canaan: Can the real Israel stand up?." The Biblical archaeologist 59.4 (1996): 198-212.
^Finkelstein, Israel. The archaeology of the Israelite settlement. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1988.
^Finkelstein, Israel, and Nadav Na'aman, eds. From nomadism to monarchy: archaeological and historical aspects of early Israel. Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1994.
^Finkelstein, Israel. "The archaeology of the United Monarchy: an alternative view." Levant 28.1 (1996): 177-87.
^Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Sacred Texts. Simon and Schuster, 2002.
^Dever, William (2001). What Did the Biblical Writers Know, and When Did They Know It?. Eerdmans. pp. 98-99. ISBN3-927120-37-5. After a century of exhaustive investigation, all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible "historical figures" [...] archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has similarly been discarded as a fruitless pursuit.
^K. L. Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction, A&C Black, 2001 p. 164: "It would seem that, in the eyes of Merneptah's artisans, Israel was a Canaanite group indistinguishable from all other Canaanite groups." "It is likely that Merneptah's Israel was a group of Canaanites located in the Jezreel Valley."
^Mark Smith in "The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities of Ancient Israel" states "Despite the long regnant model that the Canaanites and Israelites were people of fundamentally different culture, archaeological data now casts doubt on this view. The material culture of the region exhibits numerous common points between Israelites and Canaanites in the Iron I period (c. 1200-1000 BCE). The record would suggest that the Israelite culture largely overlapped with and derived from Canaanite culture... In short, Israelite culture was largely Canaanite in nature. Given the information available, one cannot maintain a radical cultural separation between Canaanites and Israelites for the Iron I period." (pp. 6-7). Smith, Mark (2002) "The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities of Ancient Israel" (Eerdman's)
^Rendsberg, Gary (2008). "Israel without the Bible". In Frederick E. Greenspahn. The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship. NYU Press, pp. 3-5
^Yohanan Aharoni, Michael Avi-Yonah, Anson F. Rainey, Ze'ev Safrai, The Macmillan Bible Atlas, 3rd Edition, Macmillan Publishing: New York, 1993, p. 115. A posthumous publication of the work of Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah, in collaboration with Anson F. Rainey and Ze'ev Safrai.
^* "In the broader sense of the term, a Jew is any person belonging to the worldwide group that constitutes, through descent or conversion, a continuation of the ancient Jewish people, who were themselves the descendants of the Hebrews of the Old Testament."
"The Jewish people as a whole, initially called Hebrews (?Ivrim), were known as Israelites (Yisre?elim) from the time of their entrance into the Holy Land to the end of the Babylonian Exile (538 BC)."
^Richard A. Gabriel, The Military History of Ancient Israel. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003 p. 63: The ethnically mixed character of the Israelites is reflected even more clearly in the foreign names of the group's leadership. Moses himself, of course, has an Egyptian name. But so do Hophni, Phinehas, Hur, and Merari, the son of Levi.