Semitic tribes in the Middle East: from 3000 BC
When prehistory shades into history, in the Middle East, there has already occurred the first identifiable movement of a group linked by their language - the Semitic tribes.
Probably originating in southern Arabia, Semitic people have spread by 3000 BC along the desert caravan routes, up through Sinai and into Syria. Five hundred years later they are an integral part of the culture of Mesopotamia, where there is a great Semitic dynasty as early as 2350 BC.
This is the dynasty established by Sargon. He makes his capital at Akkad, but on the way to forming his empire he has conquered the greatest of the earlier Mesopotamian cities - the city of Ur.
Ur is named in the Bible as the place from which Abraham and his family set out on their travels. This departure (legend but with a probable historical basis) marks the beginning of the story of the Hebrews, or Jews. The Semitic influence in the Middle East will be profound, from Babylonians, Assyrians and Phoenicians through to the Arabs. But no group has played a role in the area over such a long span as the Jews.
Abraham's people: 18th - 13th century BC
In Genesis Abraham is the patriarch of a nomadic tribe. The story has him moving through Mesopotamia (from Ur to Harran) and then down into Canaan - a land which, God promises, his descendants will inherit.
Many tribes move with their flocks among the settled cities of Mesopotamia and Phoenicia. No doubt several, from time to time, have charismatic leaders long remembered by their descendants. There is no reason to doubt that a figure such as Abraham exists, and scholars put his likely date at about 1800 BC. What makes him significant is the idea of his pact with God, by which God will help Abraham's people in return for their fulfilling God's law. This is the covenant at the heart of the story of the Hebrews.
Abraham's grandson is Jacob, whose story provides the origin of the tribal division of the Hebrews. When God renews the covenant with Jacob he gives him a new name, Israel. Jacob eventually has twelve sons, from each of whom a tribe descends - the twelve tribes of Israel.
In Genesis the sons of Jacob cause his family to move to Egypt - first by selling one of their number (Joseph) into slavery there, and then by moving south themselves in a time of famine. People called habiru feature in Egyptian records. They have been identified by some scholars with the Hebrews, but there is no firm evidence to prove the link.
It is probably in Egypt that the Jews discover a custom which becomes a central ritual of their religion - circumcision. The Egyptians practise it when a boy is between 6 and 12 years old (see Circumcision in Egypt). The Jews change this to a time soon after birth and make circumcision a symbolic contract between each Jew and his God.
In Genesis God declares to *Abraham that every Hebrew boy must be circumcised when he is eight days old, and that this will be 'the sign of the covenant between me and you'. The divine help implicit in the covenant is desperately needed in Egypt, where Abraham's people sink to the status of slaves. God and Moses together free them from their bondage.
From Egypt to Canaan: 13th - 11th century BC
The story in Exodus of Moses bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt begins with miracles and ends with the seeds of real history, probably in the 13th century BC. The miracles include the Ten plagues of Egypt sent by God and the parting of the Red Sea (the biblical text has a 'sea of reeds', perhaps meaning a marsh of papyrus).
History seems to begin with the new sense of unity which Moses gives the Hebrews during the years in the Sinai wilderness. He does so by his insistence on their covenant with God, renewed in the Ten Commandments. He dies just before they enter Canaan, but he has prepared them well for their inheritance.