The World of Biblical Israel

Course No. 6325
Professor Cynthia R. Chapman, Th.D.
Oberlin College
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Course No. 6325
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Course Overview

We all have associations with the word “Israel”—a modern-day nation in the Middle East that makes up part of the biblical Holy Land. But how did ancient Israel emerge? Who were the Israelites and where did they come from? What was it like to live in biblical Israel? Before unpacking these questions, it might help to consider how the very meaning of the word “Israel” evolved throughout the Hebrew Bible:

  • “Israel” first referred to a person, Jacob, the founding ancestor of the Israelites.
  • Jacob had twelve sons whose descendants became the “twelve tribes of Israel.”
  • Later, “Israel” became the name of the monarchy headed by King David and his son Solomon.
  • When the monarchy divided, the northern kingdom was called “Israel” and the southern kingdom, “Judah.”
  • Finally, “Israel” came to refer to the Judeans who survived as a nation in exile during the Babylonian captivity.

In fact, the Babylonian captivity is at the heart of the Hebrew scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament) and provides a key to understanding biblical Israel—as a people, a kingdom, and a nation. It was during this period of exile that the Judeans systematically gathered their stories and defined their identity as descendants of Abraham and one of Jacob’s tribes. The act of storytelling helped to create a community in exile, preserving the Judeans’ sense of identity while they were separated from their homeland. This story of exile still resonates with us today, as we have seen numerous modern crises that resulted in the reshaping of national identity.

The World of Biblical Israel takes you on a journey through ancient Israel to introduce you to the world, the people, the challenges, and the triumphs of this ancient land. In 24 captivating lectures, Professor Cynthia R. Chapman of Oberlin College introduces you to the stories of the Judeans in exile and grounds them in their historical context, giving you a grand vision of history as presented in the scriptures. She compares the history in the Bible to the archaeological record, giving you a complete picture of life in biblical Israel.

Along the way, you’ll encounter the richness of the Hebrew Bible, which for thousands of years has been one of the most important literary and religious works in the world, foundational to all three Abrahamic religions. In fact, Judaism has maintained unbroken ties to this text, and studying it sheds light on how the religion is practiced today. Yet it’s not until you view the Hebrew scriptures in the context of the history in which they were written that you see how truly powerful their narratives are.

Experience a People in Exile, a Nation in Crisis

The Hebrew Bible contains some of the most influential stories in Western civilization, and we regularly encounter them today—not just in religious services, but in art, films, literature, political speeches, and more. The World of Biblical Israel takes you inside the stories, introduces you to the characters, and shows you what daily life would have been like for ordinary people. Professor Chapman introduces you to the complete literary power of the scriptures by investigating many of the Bible’s key historical moments:

  • The origins of the Israelites: The first five books of the Bible—the Torah—provide the ancestral history of the Israelites and set down a series of laws—many of which continue to be observed today.
  • The monarchic period: Under David and Solomon, the state political structure of Israel emerged, and then the kingdom divided under subsequent rulers.
  • The age of empires: Neighboring empires, including the Assyrians and the Babylonians, attacked and eventually conquered Israel and then Judah, and the resulting political instability created a tremendous economic and social burden for the Israelites and Judeans who survived.
  • The Babylonian captivity: The exilic period inspired the conquered Judeans, who came to see themselves as the remnant of ancient Israel, to reflect on who they were as a people, and it forced them to reconsider their worship practices.
  • Resettlement: Cyrus and the Persian Empire freed the Judeans from captivity, but the period of resettlement motivated the community to reexamine its relationship to its God, its land, its religious practices, and its legacy to the children who would become the new Israel.

In addition to learning about the period’s governments, laws, and wars, you’ll take part in the religious debates of the time. You’ll see how the gradual development of monotheism shows up in the language of the scriptures. You’ll also consider the philosophical and theological issues with which ancient Israelites wrestled:

  • Why would God allow the Israelites to be conquered?
  • How could the Israelites continue their worship after the temple had been destroyed?
  • Why does God allow evil in the world?

Explore a Variety of Archaeological Sources

While the Bible provides a wealth of insight, Professor Chapman also delves into the archaeological record and compares it to biblical accounts. For instance, the Bible presents two histories on the return of the Israelites from Egypt—in Joshua and in Judges. You’ll see why archaeological evidence favors the Judges account.

But The World of Biblical Israel is about more than the sweep of history. Professor Chapman zooms in on the daily life of ordinary Israelites. From the family compounds to the battlefields and from the kitchens to the temples, she puts flesh on the bones of the biblical stories.

  • Learn about marriage and the role of women by studying Eve, Dinah, Ruth, Jezebel, and others.
  • Reflect on social inequality in the story of Naboth’s vineyard as well as the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah.
  • Meet judges such as Deborah, Jephthah, and Gideon, and trace the development of law and society.
  • Study the importance of literacy, as indicated in the books of Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel.
  • Find out what the story of Jacob and Esau has to do with the later period of exile.

An Ancient Civilization Comes to Life

You’ll look at the art, relief sculptures, writing, and administrative records, not only from the Israelites but also from the Assyrians, the Persians, the Egyptians, and other peoples to see how they viewed ancient Israel. This method gives you a balanced, historical look at a truly fascinating time and place and puts you in the role of a history detective uncovering how life was lived in biblical Israel. Additional elements such as maps, family trees, and timelines provide an even more detailed visual representation of the people, their relationships, and the sites they occupied.

This course is such a treat because it provides the full historical context for the Hebrew Bible. You’ll enjoy Professor Chapman’s lively storytelling and clear examples, and you’ll be surprised by her grand vision of the scriptures—as if the history you’ve known all your life suddenly came into brilliant focus. Spiritually engaging and historically fascinating, this course is unlike any other—and it will give you a new appreciation both for ancient history and for the foundation of the Abrahamic faiths.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Biblical Israel—The Story of a People
    What can the Bible tell us about life in biblical Israel? What do other archaeological sources tell us? Enter the world of biblical Israel with a historical overview and an examination of how the Bible gives us insights into the daily life of ancient Israelites. Then consider the context for how the Bible came into being. x
  • 2
    By the Rivers of Babylon—Exile
    Start your journey through biblical Israel with a look at the Babylonian exile. In this period, the exiled Judeans began asking themselves who they were as a people and why they had been conquered. Because the Bible began to be compiled in this time of exile, it offers us two vantage points for understanding its history. x
  • 3
    Ancestor Narratives in Genesis
    Survey the stories of ancient Israel’s origins as preserved in the book of Genesis, from the covenant of Abraham through the cycle of Jacob and his children. Ancient Israel understood itself to be a family that descended from Jacob, so these origin stories are crucial for understanding the books that follow. x
  • 4
    Moses—The Torah’s Central Hero
    Continue your study of ancient Israel’s origins with a look at Moses and the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. After tracing the narrative of Moses’s captivating journey, which includes receiving the Ten Commandments from Yahweh, the Israelite god, on Mount Sinai, you’ll review the Torah—the “law of Moses”—and explore the origins of the priesthood. x
  • 5
    Becoming the Nation of Israel
    Turn now to the emergence of Israel as a nation, which is detailed in the books of Joshua and Judges. What does each book tell us about the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan? And what does archaeological evidence tell us about this period? Learn about the origins and methods of biblical archaeology. x
  • 6
    Kinship and Economics in Highland Villages
    Enter the central highlands of ancient Israel and see what the houses, family compounds, and villages were like. How did people live? What did they cook with? How did they divide their labor? What were the roles of men and women? x
  • 7
    Three Weddings and a Funeral
    To explore some of the practices and beliefs that surrounded marriage, Professor Chapman focuses on several biblical relationships: Isaac and Rebekah show us what was considered an ideal marriage in ancient Israel; Abraham and Hagar reveal the importance of producing an heir in marriage; and Dinah’s abduction and rape by Shechem offers insight into the role of proper family negotiations in protecting a woman’s status in marriage. x
  • 8
    Political Power Bases in Early Israel
    Investigate three models of leadership—the judges, the elders, and the kings—each of which offers insight into ancient Israel’s structures of power. You’ll meet several men and one woman who rose to power during times of military crisis, and you’ll get insight into how they ruled. x
  • 9
    Kingdoms and King Making
    Begin a four-lecture unit on the political, religious, and economic developments that occurred between 1000 and 745 B.C.E. The unit opens with an overview of King David, Solomon, and the divided kingdom of Israel. What were the origins of monarchy? Why did Israel split into northern and southern kingdoms? How does the archaeological record compare with the biblical narrative? x
  • 10
    Politics and Economy of a Centralized Cult
    Delve into the intersection of politics and religion in Mesopotamia, from the Sumerian kings to the Egyptian pharaohs. Then consider the political and economic role of the temple. Use a variety of sources to reconstruct Solomon’s temple and its place in ancient Israel’s society. x
  • 11
    Worshipping Locally
    While the ancient states built centralized places of worship, many Israelites continued their local religious practices. Discover the household religions and the variety of gods and goddesses worshipped at the time. Then see what the Bible has to say about these deities and family shrines. x
  • 12
    Lives of the Rich, Lives of the Poor
    Learn the story of Naboth’s vineyard, in which King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, annexed land from a common man, and see what this story tells us about the monarchy and social classes. Then find out what prophets such as Amos and Isaiah had to say about living in a stratified society. x
  • 13
    Assyrian Incursion into Israel and Judah
    Travel to the “age of empires” and witness the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel. Thanks to Assyrian writings and recordkeeping, historians have a wealth of sources with which to explore life in this era. See how Assyria’s recorded history overlaps with the history preserved in the Bible. x
  • 14
    Life under Siege
    Turn now to the southern kingdom of Judah. After providing an overview of King Hezekiah’s reign and the Judean perspective on Assyria, Professor Chapman shows you how each side claimed victory following the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem. Regardless of who truly won, the survival of Jerusalem had profound implications for history. x
  • 15
    Religious Debates and Preserved Text
    In the 7th century B.C.E., Judah was a vassal of the Assyrian Empire. Delve into the period’s religious debates, including the worship of foreign gods and the division over centralized worship in the Jerusalem temple. King Josiah repaired the temple and enacted a sweeping religious reform that called for the worship of one god, Yahweh, in one temple. x
  • 16
    Ezekiel—Exilic Informant
    Meet the prophet Ezekiel, an eyewitness to the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and a first-person informant on the experience of exile. Ezekiel’s traumas become symbolic of the larger national trauma, and this lecture introduces you to his visions and examines the theological developments that came about as a response to exile. x
  • 17
    Life in Exile, Life in Judah
    What was it like for the Judeans living in exile? Different segments of the population had varying experiences following the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom. In this lecture, you’ll investigate what life was like for exiles in Babylon and in Egypt as well as for those who stayed in Judah. x
  • 18
    Literacy and Education
    Explore the origins of writing in the ancient Near East and the growth of literacy in ancient Israel. After looking at the earliest forms of writing, explore the rise of literacy in the monarchic periods. Then learn about the education systems in ancient Israel—the palace training programs, the book of Proverbs, and education within the family. x
  • 19
    Religious Developments of the Exile
    Chart the development of monotheism in the Bible, from a plurality of gods to the primacy of the Israelite god known as Yahweh. Then turn to Second Isaiah, “the prophet of monotheism,” who, in the final years of the Babylonian exile, envisioned Yahweh on a cosmic and universal scale. x
  • 20
    The New Israel—Resettling the Land
    How did the Israelites return to their homeland? And what issues did they confront after the restoration? With the Cyrus Cylinder and the book of Ezra as your sources, find out who returned from exile, what conflicts they faced in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, and how they preserved their sense of national identity. x
  • 21
    Food and the Family Meal—Boundaries
    Step into the kitchens of the ancient Israelites and take a tour of their diets, from the fruits and grains of common villagers to the meats and fats of the elites. Then consider the bond that forms between people who share a meal and what effect dietary laws have on the formation of group identity. x
  • 22
    National Identity—Intermarriage
    Take a closer look at intermarriage with foreigners in the years after the restoration. In Genesis, the story of Dinah reflects the post-exilic anxieties about national identity. Likewise, the book of Ruth offers a rare glimpse into women’s perspective on marriage and survival in the restored Judah. x
  • 23
    National Identity—Twins and Enemies
    Revisit the story of Jacob and Esau in light of the quest for national identity. On one level, this narrative presents the history of two brothers and shows the rise of Jacob as he supplants Esau, the firstborn. On another level, the story captures the relationship between Israel and its neighbor Edom, and speaks to their continuing relationship in the post-exilic world. x
  • 24
    Loss and Restoration—Two Biblical Stories
    Conclude your study of biblical Israel with a look at the stories of Abraham and Isaac and the trials of Job. Each of these tells a narrative of loss and recovery, of displacement and restoration, and each asks questions about the nature of suffering and the mystery of the Israelite god. These questions—and what answers the text could offer—would have held meaning and hope for a community in exile. x

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Your professor

Cynthia R. Chapman

About Your Professor

Cynthia R. Chapman, Th.D.
Oberlin College
Dr. Cynthia R. Chapman is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Oberlin College, where she teaches courses on the Old and New Testaments, suffering and the book of Job, and biblical women, among other topics. She holds a B.A. from Kalamazoo College, an M.Div. from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University. Professor Chapman's research has focused on the historiography of the...
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Reviews

The World of Biblical Israel is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 80.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The World of Biblical Israel Dr Chapman is a superb teacher. She is a great communicator of the course material.
Date published: 2020-07-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyable and enlightening. Quite simply, I enjoyed this very much. It was precisely what I was hoping it would be: a courses that would blend history, archaeology, anthropology, and religion. I wish I could take Prof. Chapman's course IRL. There are lots of questions I'd like to ask.
Date published: 2020-07-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Professor is personable and interesting and seems very knowledgeable about the topic. Neutral presentation of the information unlike the horribly slanted courses by Bart Ehrman. I enjoyed and learned a lot from this course.
Date published: 2020-05-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Ancient Land Comes to Life First, a note to my fellow believing Christians: Don't get this course and then complain that it is based on scholarship rather than faith. No, this course is not "biased" against Christians or anybody else. No, it does not promote an atheist or feminist or any other "agenda." No, it does not belittle belief or believers. You come to the Great Courses for scholarship, not Sunday school. It is, on the other hand, a very valuable effort to recreate the culture and daily life of a time and place that have little documentation outside the Old Testament. Prof. Chapman does a brilliant job of drawing our attention to incidental details and passing mentions in the Bible that reveal much about the everyday world its people inhabited. For instance, she notes that the curious and never-explained term "her mother's house" never appears in the Bible unless marriage negotiations are taking place there. This suggests that a bride's mother may have been a key figure in arranging marriages. At the very least, it tells us that a special building associated with a girl's mother had a certain nuptial importance. Using the Bible and such external documentation as exists, Prof. Chapman skillfully recreates much about the ancient Holy Land: fascinating details of food, dress, family and national relationships, language, superstitions, housing, social status, and more. I went through this course much faster than I expected. I found it easy to get lost in, realizing only later that I was well into my third lecture when I had planned to listen to only one. For me, this course helped make the Old Testament come alive.
Date published: 2020-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Accurate I haven't even finished it yet and know I'll watch it again. It has enlightened me to understanding more of what I read in my bible. It puts things in context. The instructor is well versed.
Date published: 2020-05-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well done Very good professor and information. She gave a very good overview of the period up to and including the Babylonian Exile
Date published: 2020-05-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Very Disappointing I was very disappointed in the course. Dr Chapman has an agenda and does not present other points of view other than her preconceived ideas. She alludes to scholars who are not named and doesn’t seem aware of either classical Jewish or Christian biblical commentators. A couple of points I found particularly egregious stand out. First, she treats the bible as a history book. It is not a history book, or a science book, for that matter. The bible is a set of stories and laws designed to teach the Jews, and humans in general, how to behave. Dr. Chaman takes a very cynical view that the stories of the bible were written either in the exilic or post exilic periods to explain conditions in the exilic period. The timing of the writing also seems to contradict David, pre-exilic, on his death bed, telling his son Solomon to follow the Torah which according to Dr. Chapman would not have existed. Second, I was annoyed by the way she presents the idolatrous ways of the Jews as some sort of novel idea. That is the main points of the Prophets. She also presents a case that monotheism is evolutionary and that Jews until the post-exilic period weren’t really monotheists. As a simple rebuttal I offer Deuteronomy 6:4 ‘Hear oh Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One”, something observant Jews say several times each day. That was several lectures wasted. Third, she is so committed to her preconceived ideas she often misses the point of what the bible is trying to accomplish. For example, to highlight her belief that the bible was written at a very late date she says that Abraham having camels in the story of Eliezer looking for a wife for Isaac is anachronistic. She says that camels were rare at this time in the Levant, which I’ll assume is true. Unfortunately, she misses the point that Abraham was as the bible says, exceedingly rich. He is the type of person that would have the “rare” Levant camels. She also misses one of the points of the points of the story. Namely, that Abraham is trying to find a wife for his son and would be trying to impress his future in-laws. Isaac coming from a rich family would have impressed Rachel’s family, especially Laban, her brother. Laban’s love of riches will become a central theme of the Jacob’s search for a wife later in Genesis. Dr. Chapman would miss this point as she believes the camels have to be anachronistic. And finally, her command of Hebrew is not very good and unfortunately this doesn’t stop her from using Hebrew. Two examples stand out. The first, while only annoying, made me wonder about her capabilities as it happened early in the course. She repeatedly refers to asherim, the masculine plural of the word for the poles/trees put in idolatrous temples. Grammatically I don’t know if this is correct but in the Books of Judges and Kings it refers to them as Asterot, the feminine plural form. It made me wonder if she was making up her own language. When she got to the translation of Psalm 84 I knew she was making up her own language. To make the text conform to her preconceived ideas she really manipulated the translation. I’m hardly proficient in Hebrew but I knew she was spewing nonsense. My translations and the translations in the Bibles I have (all of which include the Hebrew) were not remotely similar. I bought the course expecting to be exposed to different ways of looking at the Old Testament. This is not what was done. One very modern concept was presented, and the presentation was not very convincing.
Date published: 2020-03-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A must for understanding the Bible I listened to all the lectures on a long trip. Professor Chapman combines her scholarly knowledge with a personal passion. Any student of the Bible would greatly benefit from this course.
Date published: 2019-12-19
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