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The biblical accounts that follow are familiar—Moses' confrontation with the pharaoh, the sending of plagues and the striking down of the firstborn of every household, the marking of Israelite doorposts with lamb's blood so that death would pass over their houses—and they resulted, as intended, in the Israelites' release. Moses led his people out of Egypt and into the Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments and the other laws of the Torah. After wandering for 40 years, the Israelites arrived at the Jordan River and crossed into the land God had promised to their fathers.

Roughly 300 years later, faced with a growing military threat from the Philistines, the independent-minded Israelite tribes began to unite, according to the Bible, first under Saul and subsequently under David, who forged them into a powerful nation with Jerusalem as its capital. The reigns of King David and his son Solomon marked the glory years of ancient Israel, roughly 1000 B.C. to 930 B.C. During Solomon's reign, vast wealth poured into the kingdom, funding massive construction projects.

Of all Solomon's buildings, the grandest was the temple in Jerusalem, a mammoth, elaborately adorned edifice of quarried stone and Lebanon cedar that would become the House of Yahweh, the focal point of the Israelite religion. Built on Mount Moriah—the site where Abraham was said to have offered up Isaac—the temple became a place of daily prayer and burnt offerings, replacing the crude altars that had been scattered throughout the countryside. It stood for more than 370 years. (A second, more modest temple was later built on the same site. It would be renovated and expanded by Herod the Great about 10 B.C.)

When Solomon's reign ended, the nation descended into religious and political turmoil and split into rival northern and southern kingdoms. Israel, the northern kingdom, came to an end with an Assyrian conquest in 720 B.C. The southern kingdom, Judah, survived until the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and carried the people into captivity. It was a period that saw the rise of prophets—stern men of God who chastised the people for their faithlessness and who warned of calamities that would befall unless they repented. After the Persians overthrew the Babylonians in 539 B.C., many Jews returned home. Their religious leaders set about instituting reforms that emphasized the role of the Torah in Jewish life and rooted out cultural influences that had encroached on Jewish traditions during captivity.

From the middle of the fourth century onward, the Holy Land came under the control of a succession of military rulers, starting with Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. and ending with the Romans, who conquered Judaea in 63 B.C. and held it for centuries. During Roman rule, four groups vied for attention among the Jews: the Sadducees, the priests of the temple and overseers of its ceremonies; the Pharisees, lay religious scholars; the Essenes, an apocalyptic sect based near the Dead Sea; and the Zealots, advocates of violent resistance.

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