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 72.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Listening and learning I have learnt so much from this course and Professor Chapman does a great job of presenting the material.
Date published: 2019-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Winston Churchill I am Churchill admirer.Prof Shelton does a great job putting him in perspective.Photos really help his presentation
Date published: 2019-09-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A good introduction My perspective on these lectures seems quite unusual; I listened to them as part of my education on pre-Classical Middle Eastern civilizations, and found them quite helpful. The background did help; my previous limited exposure to Judaic history had been limited and exceptionalistic. I was intrigued and surprised to see how closely the history of the tribes of Israel fit into that context; Judaism then is very interesting as a direct connection to the origins of civilization in the Bronze Age Near East. Professor Chapman is a fine lecturer, and the course was well organized.
Date published: 2019-09-02
Rated 1 out of 5 by from More ideology than educationnt I bought this course wanting to learn about the culture of ancient Israel. Instead i got mostly ideology with some culture thrown in. 1. She referred to Yahweh as “the Israelite god” (little ‘g’) but used the proper name of the gods of other cultures. Well, their gods are no longer worshipped but Yahweh has millions of followers today. 2. She pushed the Documentary theory really hard. Well, that takes faith because there is not a single J, E, P or D document that has ever been found; nor have any fragments or ancient commentaries been found. Nothing but theory and hypothesis. Yes, i know it is a commonly accepted hypothesis (without any proof) but that is not why I bought the course. That should be a separate course. 3. She kept iterating that most of the Old Testament was written or redacted during and after the Babylonian exile (again without proof) implying that the prophecies and narratives were written after the fact and were based on exilic narrative trying to make sense of their situation. Fact: the Pentateuch referred several times to Moses’ authorship and Jesus ascribed authorship to Moses as did a couple of other New Testament writers. Good enough for me. The Documentary Hypothesis is based on faith without proof whereas the Moses authorship does have supporting evidence. Very disappointed. She should do a separate course on the Documentary Hypothesis though i would not take it. I feel deceived as to the purpose of this course snd offended that Yahweh was referred to with a little “g”.
Date published: 2019-08-31
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not at all faith-promoting There were many interesting and enlightening facts about ancient Israel and their people. What was disappointing was the persistent, and unhelpful, jabs at the defects of the Old Testament record. Her tone and manner seemed to delight in anything that would undermine the value of the Old Testament. I think that bothered me most. Many of her positions have strong foundations and are well-supported. Several sound like musings on an ill-fated dissertation.
Date published: 2019-08-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from great This is great information. Keeps my mind open. Learned new things about Israel that I did not know before.
Date published: 2019-02-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting view of history As you know I love history. This was a interesting viewpoint. The professor was engaging. She brought up points that I didn't know before. She made me think about how the ancient Israelites were still mixing their believes.
Date published: 2018-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from World of Biblical Israel The course is a non dogmatic approach to life in ancient pre BCE Israel from many vantage points rich poor royalty commoners northern tribes Judea and good discussions on the prophets both major and minor and their roles before and after the expulsions. So many courses of this type are specialized or written by scholars for scholars. Laymen even those whose religious educations ended decades ago will find this to be easily understood
Date published: 2018-07-29
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