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Moses with the Torah, by Rembrandt van Rijn


Moses holding up his arms during the battle, assisted by Aaron and Hur, by John Everett Millais

Judaism is the oldest of the three great monotheistic religions and provides the historical background to Christianity and Islam. One characteristic of Judaism is an identity which involves membership in both a religion and a people. This complex dualism is embodied by the Jewish state of Israel, founded in 1948, where secularist Zionism and Orthodox Judaism coexist.

The Covenant with God

Jewish tradition teaches that God made a covenant exclusively with the people of Israel. The covenant is a central element of the Jewish religion. God, the creator of the world and of mankind, chose the people of Israel—beginning with the patriarch Abraham—as his people. Being the "chosen people" is at once equally a mark of honor and a burden. Man is directed to follow God's commandments, but, at the same time, is called upon to behave in an ethically responsible way and is accountable for his transgressions. The relationship to God is understood as a dialogue between God and mankind. God often revealed himself to man through prophets who proclaimed his will. Moses stands out among them as the deliverer of the Law—the Torah—which is doctrine, law, and according to Jewish tradition, the complete revelation of God in 613 commandments and prohibitions. It was Moses who transformed the belief in the Jewish tribal god—"God, the Father"— into a belief in a universal god; "Yahweh" was at first only the mightiest among the gods, but then he became the only god.


The Promised Land and the Diaspora

3 Moses not only brought God's law to the people of Israel but was also called to lead them out of captivity in Egypt to the 1 "Promised Land."

Moses with the Torah

Promised Land

Moses sees the Promised Land


The concept of the Promised Land has played a significant role in Judaism. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with whom the history of Israel begins, were nomads in the land of Canaan. Abraham received the promise that his posterity would be a great people and that God would give them the land of Canaan. The promise was fulfilled after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt. After a long trek through the desert, they occupied and settled in Palestine.

There followed the founding of the Israelite kingdom and its capital Jerusalem, and the erection of the Jewish shrine,
4 the Temple. To this day, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount are the most sacred sites of the Jewish faith.

The temple of Solomon, reconstructed mode!

Judaism was also shaped and given its decisive character by the Diaspora communities living as minorities among foreign cultures. This pattern began with the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel, which saw the Jews dispersed around the empire. In parallel to this tradition in Palestine, another tradition, the Kingdom of Judah, developed further south in Babylon. It wavered between assimilation and segregation, and had its own liturgy and literature. By the time of Roman rule, this had become the dominant form.




Moses, Michelangelo


Moses (Moshe)

Along with God, it is the figure of Moses (Moshe) who dominates the Torah. Acting at God's behest, it is he who leads the Jews out of slavery, unleashes the Ten Plagues against Egypt, guides the freed slaves for forty years in the wilderness, carries down the law from Mount Sinai, and prepares the Jews to enter the land of Canaan. Without Moses, there would be little apart from laws to write about in the last four books of the Torah.

Moses is born during the Jewish enslavement in Egypt, during a terrible period when Pharaoh decrees that all male Hebrew infants are to be drowned at birth. His mother, Yocheved, desperate to prolong his life, floats him in a basket in the Nile. Hearing the crying child as she walks by, Pharaoh's daughter pities the crying infant and adopts him (Exodus 2:1-10). It surely is no coincidence that the Jews' future liberator is raised as an Egyptian prince. Had Moses grown up in slavery with his fellow Hebrews, he probably would not have developed the pride, vision, and courage to lead a revolt.

The Torah records only three incidents in Moses' life before God appoints him a prophet. As a young man, outraged at seeing an Egyptian overseer beating a Jewish slave, he kills the overseer. The next day, he tries to make peace between two Hebrews who are fighting, but the aggressor takes umbrage and says: "Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Moses immediately understands that he is in danger, for though his high status undoubtedly would protect him from punishment for the murder of a mere overseer, the fact that he killed the man for carrying out his duties to Pharaoh would brand him a rebel against the king. Indeed, Pharaoh orders Moses killed, and he flees to Midian. At this point, Moses probably wants nothing more than a peaceful interlude, but immediately he finds himself in another fight. The seven daughters of the Midianite priest Reuel (also called Jethro) are being abused by the Midianite male shepherds, and Moses rises to their defense (Exodus 2:11-22).

The incidents are of course related. In all three, Moses shows a deep, almost obsessive commitment to fighting injustice. Furthermore, his concerns are not parochial. He intervenes when a non-Jew oppresses a Jew, when two Jews fight, and when non-Jews oppress other non-Jews.

Moses marries Tzipporah, one of the Midianite priest's daughters, and becomes the shepherd for his father-in-law's flock. On one occasion, when he has gone with his flock into the wilderness, an angel of the Lord appears to him in the guise of a bush that is burning but is not consumed (see next entry). The symbolism of the miracle is powerful. In a world in which nature itself is worshiped, God shows that He rules over it.

Once He has so effectively elicited Moses' attention, God commands-over Moses' strenuous objections-that he go to Egypt and along with his brother, Aaron, make one simple if revolutionary demand of Pharaoh: "Let my people go." Pharaoh resists Moses' petition, until God wreaks the Ten Plagues on Egypt, after which the children of Israel escape.

Months later, in the Sinai Desert, Moses climbs Mount Sinai and comes down with the Ten Commandments, only to discover the Israelites engaged in an orgy and worshiping a Golden Calf. The episode is paradigmatic: Only at the very moment God or Moses is doing something for them are they loyal believers. The instant God's or Moses' presence is not manifest, the children of Israel revert to amoral, immoral, and sometimes idolatrous behavior. Like a true parent, Moses rages at the Jews when they sin, but he never turns against them-even when God does. To God's wrathful declaration on one occasion that He will blot out the Jews and make of Moses a new nation, he answers, "Then blot me out too" (Exodus 32:32).

The law that Moses transmits to the Jews in the Torah embraces far more than the Ten Commandments. In addition to many ritual regulations. the Jews are instructed to love God as well as be in awe of Him, to love their neighbors as themselves, and to love the stranger-that is, the non-Jew living among them-as themselves as well.

The saddest event in Moses' life might well be God's prohibiting him from entering the land of Israel. The reason for this ban is explicitly connected to an episode in Numbers in which the Hebrews angrily demand that Moses supply them with water. God commands Moses to assemble the community, "and before their very eyes order the [nearby] rock to yield its water." Fed up with the Hebrews' constant whining and complaining, he says to them instead: "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" He then strikes the rock twice with his rod, and water gushes out (Numbers 20:2-13). It is this episode of disobedience, striking the rock instead of speaking to it, that is generally offered as the explanation for why God punishes Moses and forbids him to enter Israel. The punishment, however, seems so disproportionate to the offense, that the real reason for God's prohibition must go deeper. Most probably, as Dr. Jacob Milgrom, professor of Bible at the University of California, Berkeley, has suggested (elaborating on earlier comments of Rabbi Hananael, Nachmanides, and the Bekhor Shor) that Moses' sin was declaring, "Shall we get water for you out of this rock?" implying that it was he and his brother, Aaron, and not God, who were the authors of the miracle. Rabbi Irwin Kula has suggested that Moses' sin was something else altogether. Numbers 14:5 records that when ten of the twelve spies returned from Canaan and gloomily predicted that the Hebrews would never be able to conquer the land, the Israelites railed against Moses. In response, he seems to have had a mini-breakdown: "Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembled congregation of the Israelites." The two independent spies, Joshua and Caleb, both of whom rejected the majority report, took over "and exhorted the whole Israelite community" (Numbers 14:7). Later, in Deuteronomy, when Moses delivers his final summing-up to the Israelites, he refers back to this episode: "When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: "Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, none except Caleb.... Because of you, the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either. Joshua ... who attends you, he shall enter it" (1:34-38).

Despite these two sad episodes, Moses impressed his monotheistic vision upon the Jews with such force that in the succeeding three millennia, Jews have never confused the messenger with the Author of the message. As Princeton philosopher Walter Kaufmann has written: "in Greece, the heroes of the past were held to have been sired by a god or to have been born of a goddess ... [and] in Egypt, the Pharaoh was considered divine." But despite the extraordinary veneration accorded Moses — "there has not arisen a prophet since like Moses" is the Bible's verdict (Deuteronomy 34:10) — no Jewish thinker ever thought he was anything other than a man. See And No One Knows His Burial Place to This Day.







Orazio Gentileschi. Finding of Moses


The Finding of the Infant Moses by Pharaoh's Daughter, by Bartholomeus Breenbergh


Claude Lorrain. Landscape with the Finding of Moses


Sebastien Bourdon. Finding of Moses


Nicolas Poussin. Pharaoh's Daughter Finds Baby Moses. 1638


Nicolas Poussin. Baby Moses Saved from River


Nicolas Poussin. Baby Moses Saved from Rive


Charles de La Fosse, Finding of Moses


Moses Brought before Pharaoh's Daughter,
William Hogarth, 1746


Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The Finding of Moses