The Ancient “Dark Ages” and the Rise of the Israelite State

The Ancient “Dark Ages” and the Rise of the Israelite State

The Late Bronze Age (1700-1100 BCE) saw the Kassite Empire (from the modern-day area of Iran) replace Babylon as the regional power in Mesopotamia. By 1200, however, all of Mesopotamia entered a “dark age” period following a systemic collapse in the region, most likely precipitated by a band of naval raiders, more commonly called the “Sea Peoples.” The collapse of Mesopotamian Civilization allowed for smaller states—outside of the political periphery of the Tigris and Euphrates region—to become regional powers in their own right. The Kingdom of Israel in the modern region of Palestine was one of those nations to benefit from the ebbing of Mesopotamian influence during this age.

Image of the Merneptah Stele. The stele is a large stone tablet from ancient Egypt. Atop the stele stands Pharaoh Merneptah and his officials. Below them are hieroglyphs in which the Pharoah claims to have quelled a revolt in Israel, rendering its seed as no more
Figure 2-6: Merneptah Stele known as the Israel stela by Webscribe is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

To be sure, the Egyptian Merneptah Stele makes clear that a collection of people identified as Israel was present in Palestine by 1200 BCE. By the tenth century, these people were able to organize a formal government around the leadership of a king, first Saul, then David (c.1040-960 BCE). David chose the Canaanite city of Jerusalem as his capital and the biblical writer records that he moved the Ark of the Covenant there. As the Ark was thought to contain the living presence of God, bringing it to Jerusalem would have made the city both a political and religious center of considerable importance. David intended to build a great temple to house the Ark but that task fell to his son, Solomon (circa 960-920 BCE) whose rule corresponds to the height of Israelite grandeur. Solomon consolidated treaties with neighboring kingdoms such as Tyre to the north, Egypt, Sheba and sponsored building projects which made Jerusalem a great and opulent city (including, of course, the First Temple). The reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon (but especially the latter two) have been traditionally characterized as a `golden age’ of unity and prosperity.

Map depicting the boundaries of ancient Israel following its split in 920 BCE. The upper zone in blue is the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The lower zone in orange is the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
Figure 2-7: Kingdoms of Israel and Judah map by Oldtidens Israel & Judea is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Culturally speaking, the political elite of the Kingdom of Israel promoted belief in a singular god named Yahweh. As such, the Israelites were unique from their Mesopotamian neighbors in that they were monotheistic rather than polytheistic, at least in principle. David and Solomon, especially, seem to have used this belief to their benefit in unifying the people but, upon Solomon’s death (around 920 BCE) the kingdom split in half. Israel occupied the northern region with a capital at Samaria and the Kingdom of Judah in the south with Jerusalem as capital. The relationship between the two kingdoms would remain tenuous, with the two never achieving their level of influence during reigns of David and Solomon. Much of the reason for this was due to the resurgence of the Mesopotamian kingdom of Assur in the mid-tenth century, and the subsequent development of the Assyrian Empire. (13)(17)