God promised Abraham that he would make from him a nation, that he would give that nation the land of Canaan as a homeland, and that through it blessing would come to people worldwide (Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:18-21; 22:17-18). The nation became known as Israel, after Abraham’s grandson (originally named Jacob) whose twelve sons were the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel (Gen 32:28; 35:22-26; 49:1,28; 1 Chron 1:34; 2:1-2; see JACOB).

Beginnings of Israel’s national life

When circumstances in Egypt were more favourable than in Canaan, Jacob and his family (about seventy people) moved to Egypt to live (18th century BC; Gen 46:26-27). When, after more than four hundred years in Egypt, they had multiplied till they could truly be called a nation, God used Moses to lead them out of Egypt, with the aim of bringing them into Canaan (about 1280 BC; Exod 12:40-41). Three months after leaving Egypt they arrived at Mt Sinai, where they remained for the next year. During that time Moses organized them as a national community, taught them the ways of God and officiated in a covenant ceremony that bound them to God as his people (Exod 19:1-6; 24:3-8; Num 10:11-12; see COVENANT; LAW). In spite of promising to obey God, the people rebelled against him, with the result that he kept them from entering Canaan for forty years. During those years most of the adult population died, and a new generation eventually entered Canaan under the leadership of Joshua (about 1240 BC; Num 14:32- 34; Josh 1:1-5; Heb 3:16-17).

Establishing the nation in Canaan

Israel conquered not only Canaan (i.e. the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea) but also the land east of Jordan. This combined area was then divided between the twelve tribes, nine and a half tribes settling in Canaan, the other two and a half tribes in the area east of Jordan (Josh 13:7-8). (For the tribal divisions of the land see TRIBES.) God instructed the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites and remove all trace of their religion, but they failed to do so. As a result the Canaanite people left in the land were a source of trouble to Israel, and the Canaanite gods were the cause of Israel’s falling into idolatry (Judg 2:1-3; see BAAL). When the people of Israel turned away from God, God used enemies to punish them; when they turned back to God and cried to him for mercy, he raised up deliverers (called judges) from among them to overthrow the enemy and lead the people back to himself (Judg 2:11-19). There was little unity in Israel during this period. Each tribe looked after its own affairs without much concern for the others (Judg 21:25). The one leader who brought some measure of unity to Israel was the godly man Samuel. The people asked that Samuel appoint a king to succeed him, believing this would help give the nation stability. Samuel opposed this, pointing out that devotion to God was the source of national stability. When it became clear that the people would not listen to him, he allowed them to have their king (1050 BC; 1 Sam 8:4-9).

The early Israelite kingdom

Israel’s first king, Saul, though a good soldier, was a failure as a national and spiritual leader. He was followed by David, who became probably Israel’s greatest king. David conquered Jerusalem (which till then had been held by the Canaanites), and set about making it the political and religious centre of the nation (1003 BC; 2 Sam 5:1-10). (For the significance of Jerusalem in Israel’s history see JERUSALEM.) David expanded Israelite rule to the Euphrates River in the north, over Ammonite and Moabite territory to the east, over Philistine territory to the west, and to the Red Sea and Egypt in the south (2 Sam 8:1-4,11-14).

Solomon, who succeeded his father David as king, devoted himself to developing and beautifying Jerusalem, so that his national capital might be a place of incomparable splendour. But he was a hard ruler. The people hated his forced labour programs and heavy taxation schemes, and as soon as he died they took the opportunity to revolt. Only the king’s tribe, Judah, along with neighbouring Benjamin, supported the Davidic king. The remaining tribes broke away, appointing as their king Jeroboam, a leader from the tribe of Ephraim (930 BC; 1 Kings 11:11-13,29-32; 12:20). From that time on, the nation was divided into two, a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. The northern kingdom, which consisted of ten tribes, still called itself Israel (though it was sometimes called Ephraim, after its leading tribe). The southern kingdom, which consisted of two tribes, was called Judah. (For details of the southern kingdom and its history see JUDAH, TRIBE AND KINGDOM.)

Northern part of a divided kingdom

Jeroboam made Shechem the capital of the northern kingdom (1 Kings 12:25). (The capital was later moved to Tirzah, and later still to Samaria, where it remained till the end of the kingdom; 1 Kings 15:21,33; 16:23-24.) Jerusalem remained the capital of the southern kingdom, and kings of the Davidic dynasty continued to rule there (1 Kings 12:17,21; 22:41-42). Jerusalem was also the location of the temple. Therefore, to prevent northerners from defecting to the south, Jeroboam built shrines at Dan on his northern border and Bethel on his southern border, complete with his own order of priests, sacrifices and festivals. Jeroboam’s religious system combined Canaanite and Israelite practices, and led to a moral and religious decay that would result in God’s destruction of the kingdom (1 Kings 12:26-33; 16:19,26; 2 Kings 17:7-18). Soon Israel was troubled by a kind of false religion that was even more serious than that which Jeroboam had introduced. This was the Baalism of Phoenicia that the Israelite king Ahab and his Phoenician wife Jezebel tried to establish as Israel’s official religion (1 Kings 16:29-34).

To resist Jezebel’s Baalism, God raised up the prophets Elijah and Elisha. They helped to preserve the faithful minority of believers in Israel and so prevent Israel’s ancient religion from being lost for ever. Part of Israel’s punishment for its acceptance of Jezebel’s Baalism was a series of destructive invasions by Syria that lasted many years (1 Kings 19:13-18; 2 Kings 8:12-13; 10:32-33; 13:3-8). (For a map showing Israel’s position in relation to the major nations that became involved in its history see BIBLE.) When the Syrian oppression of Israel was finally removed, Israel enjoyed a time of renewed growth and prosperity, particularly during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-752 BC; 2 Kings 14:23-25). The prosperity, however, resulted in much corruption, injustice, immorality and religious decay, and soon the prophets Amos and Hosea were announcing God’s judgment on the sinful nation (Amos 7:8-11). The judgment came when Assyria conquered the northern kingdom and took the people into captivity in Assyria (722 BC; 2 Kings 17:5-6). This marked the end of the northern kingdom.

Nineteen Israelite kings had ruled over it, and these had been spread over nine dynasties. The Assyrians then resettled people from other territories of their empire into parts of the former northern kingdom, mainly the central region around Samaria. These people intermarried with Israelites left in the land, and combined their own religions with Israel’s. From these people there developed a race, of mixed blood and mixed religion, known as the Samaritans. True Israelites despised them (2 Kings 17:24-33; see SAMARIA). Meanwhile the kingdom of Judah to the south struggled to maintain its independence. Eventually it was conquered by Babylon, who, in a series of attacks, took the Judeans captive to Babylon and destroyed Jerusalem (587 BC; 2 Kings 25:1-12). Throughout the years of captivity in Babylon, the southerners retained their national and religious identity. Not so the northerners, who became widely scattered and were absorbed into the peoples among whom they lived.

The rebuilt nation

In 539 BC Persia conquered Babylon and allowed all captive peoples to return to their homelands. Many of the Judeans returned to Palestine and, under the leadership of the governor Zerubbabel and the high priest Joshua, began to rebuild the nation. The reconstructed temple was completed in 516 BC (Ezra 1:1-4; 5:1-2; 6:14-15). Although back in their land, the people were still under the rule of Persia. They were at least united, for there was no longer a distinction between northerners and southerners.

The restored nation could be called either Israel or Judah, because it was the true continuation of the ancient Israel, even though it consisted mainly of Judeans. Israelites therefore became known as Jews, the name ‘Jew’ being short for ‘Judean’ (see JEW). After the early enthusiasm, spiritual life in the new nation soon declined. In an attempt to improve matters, the priest and teacher Ezra came to Jerusalem in 458 BC, with authority from the Persian government to reform the people (Ezra 7:1-10). But his efforts brought little success, and only when Nehemiah joined him thirteen years later was there any great change in Jerusalem. The Persian rulers had appointed Nehemiah governor of Jerusalem, and he and Ezra worked together to bring about widesweeping reforms (Neh 2:1-8; 8:1-4,8; 9:1-3). Over the years that followed, a number of developments arose out of these reforms. They included the construction of buildings for worship and teaching called synagogues, the growth of a class of teachers of the law called scribes, and the establishment of a council to judge Jewish affairs called the Sanhedrin (see SYNAGOGUE; SCRIBES; SANHEDRIN).

The Greek and Roman periods

When the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great spread his power across the region (334-331 BC), Israel fell under Greek rule. Alexander’s empire soon split into several sectors, Israel at first falling within the Egyptian sector, but later within the Syrian sector (198 BC). By this time Greek customs and ideas were having some influence on the Jewish way of life, and this created divisions among the Jews. Some opposed this Greek influence and others encouraged it. Here we see the beginnings of the parties of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (see PHARISEES; SADDUCEES).

When fighting broke out in Jerusalem between these two Jewish factions, the Greek ruler in Syria showed his hatred of the Jews by trying to destroy them and their religion. The Jews fought back fiercely, regaining control of their temple in 165 BC, and eventually regaining full political independence in 143 BC. After 460 years under Babylon, Persia, and then Greece, the Jews were free again. (For further details of the events outlined above see GREECE.) Though free from foreign domination, the Jews continued to fight among themselves. This so weakened the nation that it was unable to withstand the spreading power of Rome (who had succeeded Greece as the leading power of the region). In 63 BC Jewish independence came to an end. The politics of the region continued in confusion till 37 BC, when Herod, a part-Jew, was appointed ‘king’ over the Jews, though still under the overall control of Rome. Some time after Herod’s death, Judea came under direct Roman rule, with Roman governors in charge (AD 6). (For details see HEROD.) Among the Jews were anti-Roman extremists called Zealots, who were constantly looking for opportunities to fight against Rome. Finally, about AD 66, open rebellion broke out. The result was conquest by Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, thereby bringing Israel’s national life to an end. (For details see ROME; ZEALOT.) Not until recent times (AD 1948) did Israel become a nation again.

Spiritual Israel

Although all the physical descendants of Jacob were God’s chosen people Israel in the physical and national sense, not all were God’s people in the inward and spiritual sense. Only those who turned from their sins and trusted in the saving mercy of God could be called the true Israel, the true people of God. This was so in Old Testament as well as New Testament times (Isa 1:4-20; Rom 2:28-29; 9:6-8; Gal 6:16). Yet even these, the true people of God, did not experience the full blessings that God intended for his people. God’s purposes for Israel found their perfect fulfilment in the Messiah, Jesus (see MESSIAH). The nation Israel was Abraham’s natural offspring (John 8:37); the few faithful believers in Israel (often called the remnant) were his spiritual offspring (Rom 9:6-7; Gal 3:29); but the Messiah himself was the perfect offspring, the one in whom all God’s purposes for Israel were fulfilled and through whom people of all nations are blessed (Gal 3:16; cf. Gen 12:1-3). When people through faith are ‘in Christ’, they become Abraham’s offspring through Christ and inherit God’s promises through Christ. This is so regardless of their nationality (Gal 3:14,29; Eph 3:6). The true people of God includes all who have faith in him, not just those who belong to Israel. Like Abraham they are saved by faith, and therefore are spiritually his true descendants (Rom 4:11-12,16; Gal 3:26-29; 4:26-28; 6:16; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9).

Privacy Policy