Who Is Israel? Episodes 1-4
As I noted regarding Episode 1, the text below is the transcript of a video, so it doesn’t read as smoothly as something intended to be read.
Welcome to episode two of Who Is Israel. In episode one we covered the history of Israel from God’s covenant with Abraham up to the reign of King Solomon. Let’s pick up right where we left off.
King Solomon made Israel into a trade giant and created large public works, but he also generated enormous personal wealth and imported foreign religions.
Big government always brings higher taxes, and Solomon’s government was no different. He increased taxes and other demands on his own people, including sending many of them to foreign lands as slaves and hired workers. All of this fomented divisions between the tribes that dated from before Saul.
Solomon died around 930 BC, and his son Rehoboam became King after him. Rehoboam continued the domestic practices of Solomon, raising taxes even higher and importing more idolatry. His misguided policies finally split the nation in two.
Jeroboam, in Ephraim, led the ten northern tribes in rebellion.
In order to break spiritual ties to the south, he created an alternate religious system with a temple in his own tribal territory, and in order to break economic dependence, he formed stronger ties with foreign peoples to the north. The end result was two kingdoms, both Israel.
The southern kingdom was primarily made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin with parts of Levi and Simeon. When the two groups split, many refugees from the northern tribes fled south to join relatives who already lived there.
The southern kingdom was called Judah because that tribe was dominant, but is sometimes referred to in the Bible simply by the name of her capital city, Jerusalem.
The northern kingdom was dominated by Ephraim. In Scripture, she is called Israel, Ephraim, Samaria, or Shomron and was made up of the ten northern tribes: Zebulon, Issachar, Naphtali, Dan, Manasseh, Ephraim, Reuben, and Gad with parts of Levi and Simeon. And just as some from the north move south to Judah, some from Judah undoubtedly settled in the north.
The nation was divided between two kingdoms, but whether in the north or the south, the natural descendants of Jacob as well as those who had been naturalized into Israel over the centuries were all Israel, God’s chosen people.
This is when things begin to get more complicated.
The Assyrian Empire engaged in a series of invasions of Israel between 740 and 720 BC with the brutality of Israel’s earlier Canaanite invasion, but on a much larger scale. The Assyrians killed millions of people across the Middle East, but they fought a different kind of conquest.
They didn’t just take the land and subjugate people. They wanted to incorporate those whom they had conquered into their own, to destroy them as a separate people and turn them all into Assyrians. In order to do that, they employed a systematic program of relocation. After killing a significant portion of the conquered nation, they would scatter the survivors throughout their empire, thus destroying their former national identity and helping to prevent future rebellions.
During these invasions the people of Israel followed four paths.
Many fled south to Judah. Every war has its refugees. The wealthy and the landless were able to escape more quickly and they were mostly assimilated by Judah.
Others were resettled within the Assyrian Empire. They were scattered from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf where they mixed with other people who were already there. This was a deliberate attempt to destroy their ethnic identity.
Many years later when Babylon gave Judah a similar, but less drastic treatment, some few of Israel who had managed to retain their heritage by banding together in small communities were assimilated by exiled Judah. Most, however, completely forgot their identity as Israel and were assimilated by other people within Assyria.
A few more escaped beyond Assyria’s reach into Egypt, Arabia, and the Mediterranean. Some, who were taken away by the Assyrians, kept going into Persia and Central Asia, and most of these forgot their identity as Israel as well.
Despite the violence of Assyria’s invasions, some remained in the Land of Israel. They were farmers, in small villages, and hill people. They eventually merged with other peoples resettled by Assyria in their land and became the Samaritans and, later, Hellenized Jews.
The end result was that there were two groups of Ephraim in exile:
Ephraimites, living in Judah and still in cohesive communities when Babylon replaced Syria, mostly came to identify as Jews.
Other Ephraimites, including many of those still in the Land of Israel, were scattered and assimilated into the nations.
The southern kingdom of Judah lasted 120 years longer than the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Babylon eventually replaced Assyria as the dominant regional power and began a series of invasions into Judah. The first invasion took place around 605 BC.
Some of Judah fled South to Egypt, Arabia, and other places in the opposite direction from Babylon, but most people stayed, and the kingdom became a vassal state of Babylon.
Within a few years, however, King Jehoiakim switched allegiances to Egypt. This resulted in a second invasion around 597 BC. The city of Jerusalem was besieged and eventually recaptured. The city and temple were looted, and King Jehoiakim was killed.
More refugees fled south, and about 50,000 captives were taken to Babylon, including young Jechoniah. As before, most of the people stayed in the land of Judah and continued as vassals of Babylon.
King Nebuchadnezzar placed Jechoniah’s uncle Zedekiah on the throne in Jerusalem, but like Jehoiakim, he too soon rebelled, and Babylon invaded a third time in 586 BC. This time, Jerusalem was completely destroyed along with the temple.
More refugees fled south across Arabia and Africa, but most of the people of Judah were taken as prisoners to the Euphrates Valley. Very few Israelites were left in Judea after this.
These exiles of Judah in Babylon absorbed many of the people of Ephraim who had maintained their identity as Israel after the Assyrian invasion of the north. However, much of Ephraim was too scattered or had already been assimilated by other peoples by this time.
The end result of Judah’s destruction was two groups of people in exile who came to be known as Jews: the Jews in Babylon and the Jews in diaspora among the nations.
But this was not the end of either Judah or Israel. Centuries before, God had predicted all of this, including that they would fall away and be exiled. But God also promised to have mercy on them and to restore them when they repent.
While Judah was in exile in Babylon, Jews had migrated throughout the Babylonian Empire. Very few lived in Judea. The land was occupied by Samaritans, Canaanites, and others, while Edomites had begun moving in from the southeast.
In about 540 BC, Persia conquered Babylon and became the new supreme power in the Middle East. King Cyrus allowed some Jews to return to Judea and rebuild the temple over a long period between 540 and 440 BC. Zerubabbel, Ezra, and Nehemiah were part of this migration, but all Israel didn’t return at that time. Those who came back to Judea were relatively few and almost exclusively from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.
Most Jews remained in distant lands, many migrating across the Persian Empire in Asia. Jews had spread throughout Mesopotamia even into the Indus Valley in Central Asia. In Africa, Jews lived in Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, and probably even further west and south, but all empires eventually fall.
Around 330 BC, the Greeks and Macedonians conquered Persia and Judea. The Jews continued their migratory pattern of following armies and trade routes of their conquerors into every corner of the new Empire. They moved across the Greek Empire en masse into southeastern Europe around the Black Sea and across North Africa.
Many Jews probably also drifted back to Judea during this brief time of relative peace and tolerance.
Around 160 BC Judah Maccabee revolted and set up a new Jewish Kingdom. Many Jews returned to Judea at that time, although many more still lived outside of the borders of Judea than inside. During their rule the Maccabees conquered neighboring kingdoms including Edom whom they forcibly converted to Judaism. Many individuals of those conquered peoples were assimilated by Judea over the ensuing centuries.
Most of the old Canaanite peoples had vanished by this time, having been completely assimilated, or destroyed. Their descendants among Israel had been recognized as full Israelites for centuries, with little to no distinction between them and fully pedigreed Israelites.
Around 60 BC the Romans conquered Syria and Judea. Under Roman rule, Edom and Judah were separated and recombined in various ways by shifting politics, and Jews migrated further across the Mediterranean and southern Europe.
Over time Jews came to occupy professional classes wherever they went. Nearly every significant Roman city had Jewish settlements and many Roman military units had attached Jewish scribes. By 70 AD the Jews had permanent settlements throughout the world known to the Romans and beyond.
Over the centuries Israel had scattered as refugees beyond the reach of conquerors, they had been subjected to mass forced relocations, large numbers of their people had been enslaved, they endured persecutions and forced conversions to foreign religions.
But not all of their population changes had been involuntary. They followed trade routes to and from distant lands, they intermarried with foreign peoples, many non-Jews became proselytes and were adopted into Israel, and, just as Israelites were enslaved and forced to convert, so too Israel subjected others to slavery and forced conversions, and all of this before their most infamous confrontation with Rome.
At the end of the first Diaspora, in one respect Israel looked very much like they had at the beginning, but from another angle they look very different indeed.
Israel started as two camps: Judah and Ephraim. Each change in world power caused the Israelites, both Jew and Ephraimite, to scatter even further until they settled far beyond the boundaries of the world known to other Mediterranean peoples. They scattered among the nations separately. First Ephraim and then Judah. Many Ephraimites were absorbed by Judah, but each of them also adopted people from out of the nations and were in turn adopted into the nations.
Israel ended the first diaspora as she began: in two camps. But the nature of the two groups had changed dramatically. Members of both Judah and Ephraim were assimilated into the nations in the places where they were scattered, but Ephraim had long faded to invisibility in the world as a distinct people, while Judah attempted to keep herself separate.
As it always does, history soon repeated itself. A Jewish revolt in 66 AD was the first of several over the next century sparked by nationalist uprisings, false messiahs, and liberation movements. Subsequent Roman invasions resulted in mass crucifixions and millions dead. Ultimately the Jews were banished from Judea by Rome, the land was renamed Palestina after the Jews’ old enemies, the Philistines, and Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina. The Jewish people were scattered further than ever, many trying to escape the reach of Rome just as Ephraim had fled Assyria.
But another movement spread with and ahead of the Jews.
We’ll hear more about that in episode 3. Don’t miss it and don’t forget to stop by the blog at AmericanTorah.com.
This is Jay Carper for the kingdom of God and a stronger America.
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