The Jews are a people who trace their descent from the biblical Israelites and who are united by the religion called Judaism. They are not a race; Jewish identity is a mixture of ethnic, national, and religious elements. An individual may become part of the Jewish people by conversion to Judaism; but a born Jew who rejects Judaism or adopts another religion does not entirely lose his Jewish identity. In biblical times the Jews were divided into 12 tribes: Reuben, Simeon (Levi), Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, and Manasseh.
The word Jew is derived from the kingdom of Judah, which included the tribes of Benjamin and Judah. The name Israel referred to the people as a whole and to the northern kingdom of 10 tribes. Today it is used as a collective name for all Jewry and since 1948 for the Jewish state. (Citizens of the state of Israel are called Israelis; not all of them are Jews.) In the Bible, Hebrew is used by foreign peoples as a name for the Israelites; today it is applied only to the hebrew language.
The origin of the Jews is recounted in the Hebrew Bible. Despite legendary and miraculous elements in its early narratives, most scholars believe that the biblical account is based on historic realities. According to the Book of Genesis, God ordered the patriarch Abraham to leave his home in Mesopotamia and travel to a new land, which he promised to Abraham's descendants as a perpetual inheritance. Although the historicity of Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob is uncertain, the Israelite tribes certainly came to Canaan from Mesopotamia. Later they, or some of them, settled in Egypt, where they were reduced to slavery; they finally fled to freedom under the leadership of an extraordinary man named Moses, probably about 1200 BC. After a period of desert wandering, the tribes invaded Canaan at different points, and over a lengthy period of time they gained control over parts of the country. For a century or more the tribes, loosely united and sometimes feuding among themselves, were hard pressed by Canaanite forces based in fortified strongholds and by marauders from outside. At critical moments tribal chieftains rose to lead the people in battle. But when the Philistines threatened the very existence of the Israelites, the tribes formed a kingdom under the rule (1020- 1000 BC) of Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin. Saul died fighting the Philistines and was succeeded by David of the tribe of Judah.
David crushed the power of the Philistines and established a modest empire. He conquered the fortress city of Jerusalem, which up to that time had been controlled by a Canaanite tribe, and made it his capital. His son Solomon assumed the trappings of a potentate and erected the Temple in Jerusalem, which became the central sanctuary of the distinctive monotheistic Israelite religion and ultimately the spiritual center of world Jewry.
The national union effected by David was shaky. The economically and culturally advanced tribes of the north resented the rule of kings from pastoral Judah, and after Solomon's death the kingdom was divided. The larger and richer northern kingdom was known as Israel; Judah, with Benjamin, remained loyal to the family of David. Israel experienced many dynastic changes and palace revolutions. Both Israel and Judah, located between the empires of Egypt and Assyria, were caught in the struggle between the two great powers. Assyria was the dominant empire during the period of the divided kingdom. When Israel, with Egyptian encouragement, tried to throw off Assyrian rule, it was destroyed and a large number of its inhabitants were deported (722 BC). Judah managed to outlive the Assyrian Empire (destroyed c.610), but the Chaldean (Neo-Babylonian) Empire that replaced it also insisted on control of Judah. When a new revolt broke out under Egyptian influence, the Chaldeans...