The original Jews were the inhabitants of Judah, a small inland
enclave to the west of the Dead Sea, and closely related to the
Israelites to their north and the Moabites to their east. Biblical
tradition says that the Jews and Israelites were descended from the
legendary Abraham, son of Terah, and that his descendants were
enslaved in Egypt until they escaped and travelled north to conquer
all the cities of Canaan and settle there. According to the Bible,
the first three kings of Judah also ruled over Israel, to the north
of Judah, until the people of Israel revolted and became
independent of their much smaller and less prosperous southern
Historians now say that the real forerunners of the Jews - and of the Israelites - were rural Canaanites who left the region of the rich coastal cities, to settle in the hitherto sparsely populated hinterland. This occurred without conquest and without the infamous genocide of the Bible.
The Jewish people are descendants of Abraham, whose Semitic
ancestors lived in the Fertile Crescent and who lived most of his
life in the Middle Eastern country of Israel (Canaan) 3800 years
ago. They were unrelated to the Canaanites.
Abraham is called a Hebrew (Genesis ch.14) because "Hebrews"
(Ivrim) means descendants of Eber (Ever). Ever was a Semite and an
ancestor of Abraham (Genesis ch.10-11), and the early Hebrews were
Abraham's uncles and cousins for several generations back. They
were Western Semites and lived in northern Mesopotamia.In 1934-39,
excavations were conducted at ancient Mari on the Euphrates River.
They found that ancient towns were named after the ancestors of
The city of Nahor was found near the city of Harran which exists to this day. Equally clear signs of early Hebrew residence appear in the names of other towns nearby: Serug (Assyrian Sarugi), Terah (Til Turakhi, "Mound of Terah"), and Peleg (Paliga, on the Euphrates near the mouth of the Habur). All these names are found in Genesis ch.11.
In Ur, Abraham first repudiated idolatry. He then sojourned in Harran (Syria) for several years, and then lived in Canaan (Israel). It was in Canaan that Abraham made a covenant with God (Genesis ch.15), and raised a family to be the center of carrying on his traditions (Genesis 18:19).
Abraham's chosen son was Isaac (Genesis ch.21). Isaac's son Jacob was blessed by God, who renamed him, calling him Israel (Genesis ch.35), which is why Jews are also called Israelites.
Jacob had 12 sons, who fathered the 12 Israelite tribes. The Israelites worshiped One God.
One thousand years after Jacob, ten of the tribes were exiled by the Assyrians, to points unknown. The only complete tribes left were Judah and Benjamin; plus part of Levi. The few thousands who remained from the other tribes joined the Tribe of Judah; and modern Jews are mostly descendants of Judah (hence the word "Jew").
This tradition has been substantiated by DNA analysis of Jewish communities all over the world, showing them to be inter-related and of Middle Eastern origin. The Cohanim, a family of the tribe of Levi, also share common genetics.
We possess the names and dates of our ancestors and leaders in an unbroken chain for 3800 years.
In 2000, Nicholas Wade concluded that his DNA study "provided genetic witness that Jewish communities have, to a remarkable extent, retained their biological identity separate from their host populations, evidence of relatively little intermarriage or conversion into Judaism over the centuries. The results accord with Jewish history and tradition."
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The ancestors of the Jews were the Hebrew people who are recorded in history as appearing in the Palestinian hinterland in the late thirteenth century BCE. They spoke a Canaanite dialect, followed customs similar to those of their Canaanite neighbours and their pottery and other artefacts were much the same as those of the Canaanite people. Historians say that the early Hebrews, the ancestors of the first Jews, were simply a group of Canaanites who founded the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Not all the descendants of the early Hebrews became Jews. The northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by Assyria in 722 BCE and its people dpeorted throughout the Assyrian Empire, where they absorbed the cultures and religions of their hosts, and gradually lost their separate ethnic identity. The southern Hebrew kingdom, Judah, was populated by Hebrew people and also absorbed a large number of refugees from the kingdom of Israel after its destruction. Scholars refer to the early inhabitants of Judah as 'Judahites', but by the time of the Babylonian Exile, they were known as Jews.
Like most religions, Judaism has absorbed many converts, not all of whom could claim Hebrew ancestry. During the second century BCE, Judah was in the ascendancy and its Maccabean rulers conquered the land from Idumea in the south, to Galilee in the north, and forcibly converted the inhabitants to Judaism. Even in modern times, many Christians have converted to Judaism, often for the purpose of marriage. Regardless of ancestry, all are now known as Jews.
The Torah (specifically the book of Genesis) records the names and histories of the original Jews (also known as Hebrews; Israelites). These are Abraham, (his son) Isaac, (his son) Jacob; and their wives, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We possess an unbroken chain of direct tradition, with names and dates, to these founders of the Israelite (Jewish) people. Recent DNA studies have vindicated the traditions of Jewish origin, have shown that Jews worldwide are inter-related, and have overturned theories that doubt this. Despite any influx of converts, the DNA studies have shown strong genetic connection between today's Jews and their Middle Eastern forefathers.