The Hebrews were the first people to record their history in a series of books, providing a consecutive story over many centuries. Today this traditional history is contained in the Bible, especially in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. But one also finds genealogy and ritual law (Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy), tales (Ruth and Job), proverbs (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes), prophetic utterances (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest), and lyric poems (Psalms, The Song of Songs).
The First Civilizations
Far less well known than the Hittites and still posing many unsolved problems are the Hurrians of Mitanni and the upper Chabur River. Like the Hittites, the Hurrians had an Indo-European ruling class and worshiped some Indo-European deities. Their great importance was to act as intermediaries between the civilization of Mesopotamia and the less advanced peoples to the north and west, especially the Hittites.
Until the early twentieth century, scholars knew the Hittites chiefly from references in non-Hittite sources. Uriah, for example, whom (the Bible tells us) King David arranged to have killed in battle in order to keep his wife Bathsheba, was a Hittite. And in Egypt a great inscription preserved the text in hieroglyphics of a treaty of 1280 B.C. between Ramses II and a Hittite king. In A.D.
By 1500 B.C. the Kassites in southern Mesopotamia, the Hurrians with their kingdom of Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia, smaller states in southeastern Anatolia (modern Turkey), and the Hittites in the remainder of Anatolia had emerged as rivals both to Babylon and to Egypt. All of them had strong Indo-Aryan ethnic elements. All were ruled by kings, but their kings were neither agents of god nor deified monarchs.
The chief social unit was the monogamous family, and thus even a pharaoh, who was entitled to have a harem of wives and concubines, would have a chief wife. Women were not fully subordinate to men: They could own property and, under certain conditions, inherit it; they might also enter into business agreements. Most unusual in ancient societies, women could succeed to the throne. Though in theory all of the land was the property of the pharaoh, it was in fact generally held by individuals.
The Egyptians used a form of picture writing (hieroglyphics, or sacred carvings), which was deciphered in the 1820s. Scholars had possessed the key only since 1799, when a large, inscribed stone was found near the town of Rosetta in the Nile Delta. This piece of black basalt has a long text chiseled into its surface in three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphics, and another (demotic) Egyptian script developed from hieroglyphics. Although the Greek version was imperfect, it could be read.