As described in the Book of Genesis, Abraham and his descendants left their home in Ur and adopted a nomadic lifestyle, traveling for many years. Late in life, Abraham and his wife Sarah had a son named Isaac. Isaac had two sons, one named Jacob. Jews believe that Jacob was blessed by God and given the name Israel. Jacob fathered 12 sons, and his many descendants are known as the children of Israel.
Jacob's son Joseph was placed in charge of Egypt's food supplies after he interpreted the pharoah's dream as predicting a famine. When a famine did strike, Jacob moved his entire family into Egypt, where the pharaoh welcomed them and they lived peacefully. After many years, a new pharaoh came to power. He feared the growing power and numbers of the children of Israel and made them slaves.
Years later, an Israelite named Moses renewed God's covenant with the Israelites. In the book of Exodus, Moses tells the Israelites that in return for faithful obedience to God, God will lead them out of bondage in Egypt and into the promised land.
In this 17th-century painting, Moses is depicted holding out his staff as the Red Sea is parted by God. According to the Bible, the Israelites were able to cross the sea and escape from Egypt.
Moses led the Israelites in their exodus, or departure, from Egypt, from slavery to freedom. After 40 years, they reached Canaan, although Moses died just before they arrived.
By 1000 B.C., the Israelites had set up the Kingdom of Israel. The Torah tells of twelve separate tribes of Israel that were not united before this time. Saul, the first king of Israel, united these tribes into a single nation. The strong and wise second king of Israel, David, established Jerusalem as its national capital and led successful military campaigns creating secure borders for Israel.
According to the Torah, David's son Solomon followed him as king. Solomon undertook the task of turning the city of Jerusalem into an impressive capital. Jerusalem was praised for its splendid Temple dedicated to God, which David had planned and Solomon constructed. Solomon also won fame for his wisdom and understanding. Additionally, he tried to increase Israel's influence around the region by negotiating with powerful empires in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Solomon's building projects required such high taxes and so much forced labor that revolts erupted after he died about 922 B.C. The kingdom then split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
This mosaic from a synagogue wall in Jerusalem shows the symbols of the 12 tribes of Israel. Each tribe represents one of the twelve sons of Jacob.
The Israelites remained independent for 200 years but eventually fell to more powerful peoples. In 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel. From this time, since most of the remaining Israelites came from the tribe of Judah and were now part of the Kingdom of Judah, they became known as yehudi, or Jews.