Evidence of the Israelites as a distinct cultural group first appears in the archaeological record around 1200 BCE. The Near East was in a period of upheaval at this time—Egyptian power was waning, and no new empire was set to exert control over the region (see map). The Israelites lived in small villages in the hill country of central Canaan, sharing the land and many cultural attributes with other Canaanite inhabitants. Israelite religion was closely tied to the land and the yearly cycle. An agricultural people, the Israelites celebrated annual festivals at times of planting and harvest and made offerings of animals and other agricultural products to their god. Although animal sacrifice was common in the ancient Near East, the worship of a single god was unique.
In the late 11th century BCE, the Israelite villages became unified into a modest kingdom that stretched from the borders of Jordan and Syria to Philistia. At the beginning of the 10th century, David established the kingdom’s capital in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was not only the political center; it was also the site of the Israelite Temple, where the priestly class presided over an elaborate sacrificial rite. This united kingdom, however, lasted less than a century; in 928 BCE, Israel split in two. The Northern Kingdom kept the name Israel, and the Southern Kingdom was known as Judah.
The period of the divided kingdom lasted about 200 years, during which both monarchies were weakened by frequent conflicts with the Assyrians, other neighboring states, and even each other. In 722 BCE, the Assyrians sacked Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom and, as was their practice, exiled the majority of the population to far-flung regions of the empire. This marked the end of the Northern Kingdom (and the beginning of 3,000 years of speculation about the "ten lost tribes of Israel").
Judah survived, but succumbed to the overwhelming power of the Babylonian Empire in 586 BCE. King Nebuchadnezzar (605–562 BCE) destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Judahite leadership and elite to Babylon. Unlike the Assyrians, however, the Babylonians allowed the Judahites to maintain their communal life in exile. The Israelite religion was able to survive among the Judahites, but it had to adapt in order to do so. No longer rooted solely in their homeland and unable to make sacrifices in their Temple, the Judahites created new traditions and new forms of worship based on the reading of holy text and prayer instead of sacrifice. The Jewish religion was born.
When King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylonia and allowed the Judahites to return to their homeland in 536 BCE, many chose to stay in Babylon. Those who did return to Judah rebuilt the Temple and restored the sacrificial cult. During the period of the Second Temple, the synagogue became an increasingly important center of Jewish life alongside Temple worship—especially outside the land of Israel—as a place where the Torah was read.
The land of Israel came under Greek rule with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. The Greeks allowed the Jews to practice their religion freely until the middle of the 2nd century BCE, when the Syrian Greek king Antiochus restricted Jewish practice in the land of Israel. A Jewish army, led by Judah Maccabee, mounted a revolt. After their miraculous victory, the Jews rededicated the defiled Temple and re-established an independent Jewish state. This is the origin of the holiday of Hanukkah, which means "dedication."
The Romans took control over the land of Israel in 63 BCE, and in 66 CE the Jews attempted another revolt. The uprising was unsuccessful. The Romans crushed the revolt and destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. Following the destruction, Judaism adapted again. Sacrifice and the institution of the priesthood were discontinued, and rabbinic Judaism emerged as the mainstream of Jewish life. With its focus on prayer, study, and scriptural interpretation, the rabbinic tradition enabled Judaism to survive through the generations.