2.3 The Hebrews and the Origins of Judaism

The ancient land of Israel was located at the far western end of the Fertile Crescent, the site of the modern State of Israel, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The first ancient Israelites inhabited small villages in the hill country of central Israel, called at that time Canaan, sharing land and many cultural attributes with other Canaanites. Although archaeology teaches us that they shared a common physical culture, the ancient Israelites' worship of a single God was unique. About 4,000 years ago, the ancient Israelites developed the religion of Judaism, which became a defining feature of their culture. Today, Judaism is one of the world's major faiths.

Photo of a scroll with handles on each side partially unwound to reveal text inside written in Hebrew.

Torah in Hebrew means “teaching” or “guidance” and the Torah scroll, stored in a special decorated container called an ark, consists of the first five books of the Tanakh, the complete Hebrew Bible.


  • Understand what made the ancient Israelites' belief system unique from others at the time.
  • Outline the main events in the early history of the Israelites.
  • Analyze the central moral and ethical ideas of Judaism.

Key Terms

  • monotheistic
  • Torah
  • Abraham
  • covenant
  • Moses
  • David
  • Solomon
  • patriarchal
  • Sabbath
  • prophet
  • ethics
  • Diaspora

The Ancient Israelites' Unique Belief System

The beliefs of the ancient Israelites, also called the Hebrews for the first three generations, differed in basic ways from those of nearby peoples. The Israelites were monotheistic, believing that there was only one god. At the time, all other peoples worshiped many gods.

A few religious leaders, such as the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton, spoke of a single powerful god. However, such ideas did not have the lasting impact that Israelite beliefs did.

The Israelites believed in an all-knowing, all-powerful God who was present everywhere. In their views, history and faith were interconnected. Each event reflected God's plan for the people of Israel, and the Israelites' choices and actions made the plan unfold. The Torah (TOH ruh), their most sacred text, tells the history of the ancient Israelites and their continuing relationship with God. The Torah includes the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—that is, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The Hebrew Bible includes a total of 24 books.

End ofPage 40

Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments