Geography and the Ancient Israelite Religion


Social Studies Middle School Geography and the Ancient Israelite Religion
Students learn how geography and the exodus from slavery in Egypt affected the ancient Israelite religion. First, they learn that drought is common in this region, and famine led the Hebrews to migrate to Egypt. Then, they learn about Moses, the exodus, and Passover, and how they are central to Judaism. Next, students learn about the Israelites’ entrance into Canaan, the peoples that were already living there, and the settlement of the twelve tribes. Finally, they analyze the relationship between the Israelites’ religious festivals and the agricultural seasons.

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Overview

In this experience, students learn how geography and the exodus from slavery in Egypt affected the ancient Israelite religion. First, they learn that drought is common in this region, and famine led the Hebrews to migrate to Egypt. Then, they learn about Moses, the exodus, and Passover, and how they are central to Judaism. Next, students learn about the Israelites’ entrance into Canaan, the peoples that were already living there, and the settlement of the twelve tribes. Finally, they analyze the relationship between the Israelites’ religious festivals and the agricultural seasons.

This experience contains a lot of content. You may choose to teach it over two sessions in order to spend adequate time on the various elements of the Israelite exodus from Egypt.

Objectives

  • Locate and describe the physical geography of ancient Israel.
  • Identify the ways that geography influenced ancient Israel.


There are different terms used for the ancient Israelites almost interchangeably, although they have different nuances:

  • Hebrews: One of the earliest Biblical names for Abraham and the early semi-nomadic tribes; the origin of the name is unknown
  • Israelites: Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, is given a second name in Genesis, “Israel.” From the time of the exodus onward the people are often referred to as the Israelites. During the time of the kingdoms, the northern kingdom was named Israel.
  • Jews, Judaism: These names stem from Judah, son of Jacob and one of the twelve tribes. The southern kingdom was named Judah. Judaism is used for the religion that arose following the destruction of the Second Holy Temple in 70 C.E.


 

A key factor for human settlement in any location is the availability of fresh water. Without it, there is no life—animal, vegetable, or human. In this experience, you will learn how a shortage of water affected the ancient Israelites.

Objectives

  • Locate and describe the physical geography of ancient Israel.
  • Identify the ways that geography influenced ancient Israel. 




Aerial View of Israel and Northern Sinai Desert


Rainfall and rivers throughout the ancient world—including Israel, Egypt, and Mesopotamia—impacted where, when, and how civilizations developed. The region that includes ancient Israel has a six-month rainy season and then six months with no rain. If there was not enough rain throughout the winter, then there was not enough water for agriculture throughout the summer. The Hebrew Bible mentions many droughts, when there was not enough rainfall, which led to famine, when there was not enough food.

The book of Genesis ends with a story of famine in ancient Israel. Egypt, which lies just to the southwest of Israel, had prepared for the famine by stocking grains during years of plenty. Jacob—Abraham’s grandson—sent his sons down to Egypt to purchase grain.


And there was famine in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread. Joseph [Jacob’s son, who had been sold into slavery in Egypt but later became an Egyptian government official] opened all the storehouses and sold food to the Egyptians. And Jacob said: “I have heard that there is corn in Egypt. Go down and buy for us, that we may live, and not die.”

- Genesis 41:54–42:2


Study the two images below. The picture on the left shows Joseph dreaming about the upcoming famine, a dream that led Pharaoh to stock grains during the years of plenty. The picture on the right shows Joseph distributing food to his brothers who have come from Canaan.




Joseph's Dream of Grain by Owen Jones, 1869; Joseph’s Servants Fill his Brother’s Sacks with Wheat: illuminated Bible by Raphaël de Mercatelli, 15th Century


Think about what you know about ancient civilizations, including Israel. Which picture do you think best represents how a historic Joseph may have dressed?

Post your answer

Ask students to explain their responses. Point out that Medieval and Renaissance artists generally depicted Biblical figures in anachronistic clothing and settings, appropriate to the time of the artist and not to the historical time period depicted in the painting.


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