There’s an old story told about a man on the roof of his house in a flood. He refused the help of a guy in a canoe, a family in a raft and the Red Cross in a helicopter, saying each time that God would save him. After he drowns, he’s at the Pearly Gates lamenting that he had not received the divine help he expected. Then God says, “Hey, I sent you a canoe, a raft and a helicopter and you refused each one.”
Pretty much the same are the story arcs of God’s rescuers and spokespersons to the ancient Hebrews as they enter and conquer Canaan. Up to Moses, we have patriarchs. They were literally the successive fathers of the descendants of Abraham.
By the time they get back to Canaan, the promised land, the Hebrews (600,000 people says the Bible, 600 families say benign scholars) are no longer only the lineal descendants of Abraham. There are marriages to people outside the tribe and converts to the faith.
Induction by marriage is illustrated by the story of Ruth, the Moabite woman who married Naomi's son Mahlon, the eventual grandmother of David and ancestor of Yeshua. Conversion is depicted in the story of Rahab, the harlot enlisted by Joshua as a spy, who is later welcomed as a member of the Hebrew people. Both Ruth and Rahab are particularly significant since identity at birth as an ancient Hebrew or a modern Jew was, and still is, passed on by the mother.
These stories indicate the Hebrews’ emerging self-understanding as a confederation of tribes under the rule of God, rather than a blood-related ethnic or national group. At that point, the Hebrew people are bound in belief in the one deity whose name is set apart, referred to by title, Adonai (Lord), and respected by obedience to the law that God gave. They gradually take on the name Israel, meaning “one who is triumphant, or prevails, with God.”
Once the Hebrews have received from Moses the first foundational commandments, God sends them three kinds of people to lead them: judges, kings and prophets—which I now describe in a quick sweep of the next eight centuries, with details left for later.
The judges ruled roughly between the 12th and 10th centuries BCE, beginning with Joshua, Moses' successor, chosen as the one to lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land. There were 16 divinely appointed judges, who served as unelected and nonhereditary leaders who had judicial and military authority.
Then come the kings, 9th to 6th centuries BCE, first in a single united kingdom, then in the two kingdoms, both of which enter into crisis and are eventually overrun.
During the decline of the monarchy there emerge the appearance prophets who warn, cajole and ultimately lament the great biblical disaster that was the fall of the kingdoms and the subsequent Babylonian captivity. At the end of the captivity (around the 5th century) comes a restoration of at least the faith that binds them as a people, a reality expressed in the first compilation and draft of the written Hebrew Bible.