From early fragments embedded in some of the later biblical narratives historians can see that the Israelites believed their ancestors to have been nomads (1). Nomads are a people who lack a permanent home and who travel from place to place to find fresh pasture for their livestock and so on. In the case of the ancient Israelite nomads, Yahweh had led them to Canaan and promised them that one day their descendants would own the land. However, prior to this the Israelites had for many years lived as slaves under Egyptian rule. But later Yahweh decided to free them from this Egyptian rule through great signs and marvels such as plagues and the dividing of a sea. Yahweh them led them back to the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses and in the process assisted them in conquering the land from the indigenous tribes to the area.
In fact, each tribe had its own version of this story as well as its own local heroes. The priests of Dan believed that they were descended from Moses while Abraham, the father of the whole nation, had lived in Hebron and was, as a result, popular in the south. The local tribes at Gilgal celebrated Israel’s miraculous entry into the Promised Land after the waters of the river Jordan had miraculously parted to let them through, whereas the people of Shechem annually renewed the covenant that Joshua had made with Yahweh after his conquest of Canaan.
However, around 1000 BC the tribal systems were no longer adequate and, as a result, the Israelites formed two monarchies in the Canaanite highlands. In the south they formed the the kingdom of Judah while in the north there formed a far larger and more prosperous kingdom of Israel. The old covenant festivals were phased out in favour of royal rituals at the national shrines that centred on the person of the king. On his coronation day, the king was adopted by Yahweh, became a ‘son of God’, and a member of Yahweh’s Divine Assembly of heavenly beings. We know almost nothing about the cult of the northern kingdom, because the biblical historians had a bias towards Judah. However, many of the psalms later included in the Bible were used in the Jerusalem liturgy and show that the Judahites had been influenced by the cult of Baal in neighbouring Syria, which had a similar royal mythology. Yahweh had made an unconditional covenant with King David, the founder of the Judaean dynasty, and had promised that his descendants would rule in Jerusalem forever.
1. Most of this content was provided by course material from Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament as introduced (2003), in Old Testament Studies.