From Empire to Exile

From Empire to Exile

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"But it shall come to pass, if you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come upon you..." (Deuteronomy 28:15).

God's desire for Israel to be a model nation carried with it grave responsibilities. God had no intention of allowing Israel—the nation He created to be the world's model of righteousness—to escape the consequences of abandoning His ways and sinking to the level of the surrounding nations.

Before they entered the Promised Land, God had specifically warned the Israelites to make no alliances with any nations worshipping false gods: "You shall make no covenant with them, nor with their gods ... lest they make you sin against Me. For if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you" (Exodus 23:32-33).

For the same reasons, He told them not to intermarry with the surrounding nations: "Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the LORD will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly" (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).

Solomon ignored both commands. First he made a treaty with the Pharaoh of Egypt that he sealed by accepting Pharaoh's daughter in marriage (1 Kings 3:1). Also, "there was peace between Hiram [king of Tyre] and Solomon, and the two of them made a treaty together" (1 Kings 5:12).

At the beginning of his reign Solomon loved God and simply followed in the footsteps of his father David. At that time God appeared to Solomon in a dream and said: "Ask! What shall I give you?" (1 Kings 3:5).

In his dream Solomon made a wise choice. He asked for an understanding heart so he could properly fulfill his kingly responsibility to render just judgment for his people. Through his dream Solomon perceived that God was pleased with his humble, unselfish attitude. God then promised not only to give what he requested, but also riches, honor and long life, provided that Solomon would continue to live within the terms of Israel's covenant with God.

Shortly after Solomon completed and dedicated the temple, God appeared in a dream a second time to him. "I have heard your prayer and your supplication that you have made before Me; I have sanctified this house which you have built to put My name there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually" (1 Kings 9:3).

God then conditionally promised to Solomon to establish the throne of his dynasty over the people of Israel living in their Promised Land forever. In case Solomon were to fail to follow God with integrity, God explained the consequences.

"If you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples" (1 Kings 9:6-7, NIV).

Solomon's example corrupts the nation

God not only prohibited a king of Israel from marrying pagans, but He specifically forbade him to "multiply wives for himself," as was customary among gentile rulers (Deuteronomy 17:17). Solomon made this deadly mistake.

"But King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites—from the nations of whom the LORD had said to the children of Israel, 'You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods.' Solomon clung to these in love" (1 Kings 11:1-2).

"For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods ... Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites ... Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab ... and for Molech the abomination of the people of Ammon. And he did likewise for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods.

"So the LORD became angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned from the LORD God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice...Therefore the LORD said to Solomon, 'Because you have done this, and have not kept My covenant and My statutes, which I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant.

"Nevertheless I will not do it in your days, for the sake of your father David; but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. However I will not tear away the whole kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son for the sake of my servant David, and for the sake of Jerusalem which I have chosen'" (1 Kings 11:4-13).

Israel splits into two kingdoms

God was true to His word. By the time Solomon died, about 931 B.C., the tribes occupying the northern part of the nation were discontented with Solomon's heavy taxation and forced-labor practices (1 Kings 4:7, 1 Kings 4:22-28; 1 Kings 5:13-15). When his son Rehoboam came to the throne, the northern tribes petitioned for relief.

Rehoboam asked his counselors for advice. The older men suggested he respond to the petitioners positively, relieving the tax burden and making life better for the average citizen. However, the younger counselors argued that Rehoboam should exercise strong control as an absolute monarch over his kingdom, that he should demand even greater tax revenues. Rehoboam unwisely decided to follow the advice of the younger generation.

The result was predictable. The northern 10 tribes seceded and installed Jeroboam, a former high official under Solomon, as their king just as the prophet Ahijah had foretold years earlier (1 Kings 11:28-40; 1 Kings 12:20). Only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the house of David.

Rehoboam's first reaction was to invade the northern tribes with an army of 180,000 soldiers to attempt to teach the northern tribes a lesson (1 Kings 12:21). But God sent this word to Judah's leadership: "Thus says the LORD: 'You shall not go up nor fight against your brethren the children of Israel. Let every man return to his house, for this thing is from Me.' Therefore they obeyed the word of the LORD, and turned back, according to the word of the LORD" (1 Kings 12:24). They called off the invasion. The era of a divided kingdom began.

At this point, more than 200 years before the Assyrians conquered the northern 10 tribes, they became separate as the kingdom, or house, of Israel. The southern tribes of Judah, Benjamin and a part of Levi would then be known as the kingdom, or house, of Judah. The scepter promise of a divine king remained with the tribe of Judah.

The northern tribes kept the name of Jacob, or Israel. With them went the birthright promise of national greatness, prosperity and wealth. To them went, by right of birth, the physical blessings and national standing God had promised to Joseph.

From that momentous separation of Israel and Judah, the Bible records a 200-year progression of 10 dynasties, presided over by no fewer than 19 monarchs reigning over the northern kingdom.

God's offer to Jeroboam

When God first sent the prophet Ahijah to inform Jeroboam that he would become the king of the northern tribes, He offered Jeroboam His blessings and the promise of an enduring dynasty. "You shall reign over all your heart desires, and you shall be king over Israel. Then it shall be, if you heed all that I command you, walk in My ways, and do what is right in My sight, to keep My statutes and My commandments, as My servant David did, then I will be with you and build for you an enduring house, as I built for David, and will give Israel to you" (1 Kings 11:37-38).

With God's help Jeroboam could have maintained the part of the empire God gave him. But his faith was in what he could see, not in God.

To secure his hold over the whole of his new kingdom, Jeroboam immediately built two capitals for his government at traditionally significant tribal rendezvous points. One was at Shechem, near Nablus in what is today called the West Bank region. The other was at Penuel, east of the Jordan River in modern-day Jordan.

Jeroboam then addressed what he considered a major problem, one that might wrest his kingdom from him. "Then Jeroboam said to himself, 'Now the kingdom may well revert to the house of David. If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem, the heart of this people will turn again to their master, King Rehoboam of Judah; they will kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah'" (1 Kings 12:26-27, NRSV).

Jeroboam changes Israel's religion

To prevent such a development Jeroboam established a competing religious system. For political reasons—to maintain his hold on the northern tribes—he changed Israel's forms of worshipping God.

Idolatry had already become popular during the last days of Solomon, so Jeroboam erected his own idols. "Therefore the king asked advice, made two calves of gold, and said to the people, 'It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!' And he set up one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan" (1 Kings 12:28-29).

Dan was in the far north of his kingdom. Bethel was in the south, just above the border with Judah and right on the major route people would travel while journeying to Jerusalem to worship.

Believing that observance of the same annual festivals as the Jews—the Holy Days of God (Leviticus 23)—would rekindle a desire for national unification, Jeroboam also changed the timing of the great fall festival (Leviticus 23:23-44) from the seventh to the eighth month (1 Kings 12:32-33).

He dismissed the Aaronic and Levitical priests (1 Kings 12:31; 1 Kings 13:33), men set apart by God's own decree (Exodus 40:15) to maintain the integrity of the nation's religious life. To Jeroboam the Levitical priesthood was a threatening independent power base. The Levites inherited their office, owed the king nothing and were largely outside his control.

By dismissing the Levitical priests, Jeroboam established monarchical control of the nation's religious life. As a result, many of the Levites moved to Judah, where they could continue to perform their divinely appointed functions (2 Chronicles 11:13-15).

In place of the Levites Jeroboam created a new priesthood of "the lowest" and least-experienced people (1 Kings 12:31; 1 Kings 13:33, KJV), men who owed the king all that they had and were. These appointees would have to cater to royal preferences to retain their positions.

Jeroboam introduced syncretism, a fusion of differing systems of belief. He combined aspects of God's true religion with pagan beliefs and human rationalization. He may well have patterned many aspects of his religious practices after the customs of Egypt and Tyre—Israel's allies by treaty—to strengthen his relationship with these two major commercial and military supporters.

From that time forward the northern kingdom appeared to the outside world as merely an extension of the powerful coastal cities of the Phoenician Empire. They were commercial partners, shared a language and likely held similar religious views.

The distinction that God had originally intended between Israel and the surrounding nations was soon obliterated. So it is no wonder that historians have difficulty detecting Israel's role in the region as anything other than traders with the coastal Phoenician cities. Israel was reduced to approximately equal status with the other kingdoms. Regrettably, it had forsaken its role as a spiritual light and example to the nations.

God's response to Israel and Judah's sins

Shortly after the inauguration of the new religious rituals and practices at Bethel and Dan, Ahijah the prophet, who had originally informed Jeroboam that he would become king, received another message from God:

"Go tell Jeroboam, 'Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Because I exalted you from among the people, made you leader over my people Israel, and tore the kingdom away from the house of David to give it to you; yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my sight, but you have done evil above all those who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods, and cast images, provoking me to anger, and have thrust me behind your back; therefore, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam.

"'I will cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will consume the house of Jeroboam, just as one burns up dung until it is all gone ...'" (1 Kings 14:7-10, NRSV).

Jeroboam's reign had quickly gone terribly wrong. Sadly, his actions were merely in tune with the times. In the southern kingdom of Judah, King Rehoboam, whose mother was an Ammonite, did nothing to correct the idolatrous example Solomon had set in his old age. Many people in Judah likewise became ensnared in apostasy, turning from worshipping God (1 Kings 14:22-24).

It wasn't long before the sins of Judah and Israel began to catch up with them. In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, Pharaoh Shishak invaded Judah with 1,200 chariots, 60,000 horsemen and large numbers of infantry. Unprepared after so many years of relying on Egypt as an ally, Rehoboam panicked. The prophet Shemaiah brought this message from God to Rehoboam's court in Jerusalem: "You abandoned me, so I have abandoned you to the hand of Shishak" (2 Chronicles 12:5, NRSV). The Bible records that the Egyptians demanded as tribute most of the golden treasures Solomon had made for the temple and his palace.

Shishak's own account of this invasion is preserved on the walls of the temple he built with his plunder to honor his god Amun-Re in Karnak. He boasts of taking 150 towns, mostly in Judah's Negev region and Israel's north. Israel's golden age under one monarch, and most of the golden treasures of the temple and king's palace created during it, had disappeared.

However, the Scriptures note that Judah's leaders admitted their guilt and humbled themselves before God. Such repentance wasn't seen with the rulers of the northern 10 tribes. Therefore the northern kingdom was the first to go into captivity.

Because of Rehoboam's change of heart God reduced the impact of Judah's disaster. "They have humbled themselves; I will not destroy them, but I will grant them some deliverance, and my wrath shall not be poured out on Jerusalem by the hand of Shishak. Nevertheless they shall be his servants, so that they may know the difference between serving me and serving the kingdoms of other lands" (2 Chronicles 12:7-8, NRSV).

Here is another important lesson about how God deals with His people. Even though they may repent, He does not necessarily take away all the consequences of their mistakes or rebellion against Him. But, if people sincerely humble themselves, He is often merciful, balancing out punishment and relief.

God does not throw temper tantrums; He does not impulsively blot out the objects of His wrath. His actions have purpose. First He attempts to deal with people in ways that will teach them lessons (Ezekiel 33:11). As we can see in many examples from the history of Israel and Judah, punishment is often His means of trying to change people's attitudes.

God looks out for the long-term good of those with whom He is working (Hebrews 12:5-12). His ultimate goal, of course, is to bring everyone to repentance (2 Timothy 2:24-26; 2 Peter 3:9), to acknowledge Him and willingly choose to live according to His laws.

The approaching catastrophe

Because the northern kingdom followed Jeroboam's leadership into idolatry, God warned the Israelites of the consequences of their rebellion: "The LORD will strike Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water; he will root up Israel out of this good land that he gave to their ancestors, and scatter them beyond the Euphrates, because they have made their sacred poles [idolatrous symbols associated with false worship], provoking the LORD to anger. He will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and which he caused Israel to commit" (1 Kings 14:15-16, NRSV).

God dealt patiently with Israel, giving the people plenty of opportunities to repent. But over the course of the next two centuries the sins of the house of Israel and its kings increased. The Israelites drifted farther and farther from the covenant with their Creator that they had bound themselves to in the days of Moses.

God withdrew, in stages, His blessing and protection. "In those days the LORD began to trim off parts of Israel. Hazael [the Syrian king] defeated them throughout the territory of Israel: from the Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the Gadites, the Reubenites, and the Manassites, from Aroer, which is by the Wadi Arnon, that is, Gilead and Bashan" (2 Kings 10:32-33, NRSV).

During the eighth century B.C. God's prophets continued warning the Israelites that they, like the other kingdoms in the region, would fall victim to a new and powerful military presence. The westward expansion of Assyria soon began to seriously threaten the existence of the kingdom of Israel.

During this time of approaching disaster the writers of many of the books that would become the prophetic books of the Old Testament were at work. God sent prophet after prophet to warn the house of Israel and the house of Judah to repent. On a few occasions the leaders of Judah listened and instituted reforms that lasted for a while. But the northern kingdom never repented of the idolatrous practices Jeroboam had introduced. Its people refused to heed the warnings of the prophets.

The prophets of God repeated the same basic themes. They called for immediate repentance. They proclaimed the certainty of a coming captivity if the people refused to repent. They also consistently spoke of the future of the people of Israel, especially about the redemption and restoration of their descendants by the prophesied Messiah. (To understand the foundational concepts of biblical prophecy, be sure to request the booklet You Can Understand Bible Prophecy.)

The end of the northern kingdom

Shortly after the death of King Jeroboam II (ca. 753 B.C.), the northern kingdom plunged into political chaos. "Civil war, assassinations and internal fighting between groups which supported Assyrian policies or opposed any capitulation to them racked the northern state ... The deaths of Jeroboam and Uzziah ... came at the very moment when Assyria regained her power and renewed her push to the west" (Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament, 1984, p. 312).

In the midst of their own domestic and internal difficulties, Israelite leaders had to consider the intrusions of Assyria into their affairs. By the time of Assyria's Tiglath-Pileser III, Israel's King Menahem (ca. 752-742 B.C.) had to pay enormous sums of tribute—protection money on a national scale—to induce the Assyrian monarch to leave him and his people in peace (2 Kings 15:19-20).

A few years later King Pekah (ca. 740-732 B.C.) rebelled against Assyria, only to be forced to surrender and pay a huge ransom to retain his throne (2 Kings 15:19-20). Pekah's disloyalty set in motion the first step in the Assyrians' policy of dealing with unruly peoples—turning the offending kingdom into a vassal state.

According to Assyria's foreign policy, those who would rebel a second time would forfeit their political control and be replaced by a vassal king whose loyalty the Assyrian government could count on. The Assyrians would also reduce the amount of territory the vassal would control, with the Assyrian monarch instituting his direct rule over at least some of the original kingdom.

A second rebellion would also trigger the deportation of significant numbers of the offending population. Finding themselves among strangers whose language they did not understand (Jeremiah 5:15) and whose land and culture were unfamiliar to them, the deportees would have little hope of successfully revolting against their Assyrian masters.

Tiglath-Pileser initiated these steps against the northern kingdom in response to King Pekah's alliance with Damascus, his second attempt to revolt (ca. 734 B.C). The first deportation of Israelites (ca. 733-732 B.C.), sometimes referred to as the Galilean captivity, took part of the population—principally drawn from the tribes of Naphtali, Reuben, Gad and the portion of Manasseh living east of the Jordan River—to northern Syria and northern and northwestern Mesopotamia (2 Kings 15:27-29; 1 Chronicles 5:26).

Tiglath-Pileser III also occupied the greater part of Galilee and Gilead and divided Israelite territory itself into four new provinces: Magidu, Duru, Gilead and Samaria.

The last straw

Should a people rebel a third time, the official Assyrian response was firm and final: The nation would cease to exist. The Assyrian army would forcibly remove virtually the entire population into exile. The Assyrians would scatter the deportees throughout their empire and repopulate the vacated territories with people from distant and far-flung regions. Once removed from their homeland, and with their lands now settled by others, the scattered exiles would have less means or motivation to rebel against Assyrian control.

A pro-Assyrian but unreliable Israelite vassal, King Hoshea (ca. 732-722 B.C.), set in motion the events that brought the northern kingdom's dissolution. Hoping to receive critical aid from Egypt, to the south, Hoshea betrayed Assyrian trust around 724 B.C. (2 Kings 18:9-10). Shalmaneser V responded with a siege (ca. 724-722 B.C.) that resulted in the fall of Israel's capital city, Samaria. At that point the northern kingdom ceased to exist as a political entity.

History records a postscript to the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C. Having successfully entered Israel's Promised Land via its victory over the northern kingdom, the Assyrians would soon return to attack the southern kingdom, Judah. In 701 B.C. the Assyrian army, led by Sennacherib, captured virtually all of Judah's fortified cities (2 Kings 18:9-14) and deported thousands of Jews. Jerusalem, however, did not fall in this invasion, and the southern kingdom recovered sufficiently to last another 115 years before Babylon's armies conquered and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C.

Exiles disappear from history

With the extinction of the northern kingdom as a political entity, its people were divided and scattered beyond the Euphrates River in Assyria's eastern territories. God would now fulfill His promise to "sift the house of Israel among all nations" (Amos 9:9). Now the Israelites would experience what it was like to live under the rule of the other nations they had so much wanted to emulate.

God had warned them: "Then the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods, which neither you nor your fathers have known; wood and stone. And among those nations you shall find no rest, nor shall the sole of your foot have a resting place; but there the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing eyes, and anguish of soul. Your life shall hang in doubt before you; you shall fear day and night, and have no assurance of life" (Deuteronomy 28:64-66).

At this time they disappeared from history as the people of Israel. The Israelites had already begun to "serve other gods," having abandoned the religious practices that obviously distinguished them from other peoples. Among other things, they had abandoned the seventh-day Sabbath. God had proclaimed the Sabbath to Israel as "a sign between Me and you throughout your generations" (Exodus 31:13-17; compare Ezekiel 20:12-20).

Once their conquerors removed them from their homeland, they were merely refugees—part of the great mass of dislocated peoples the Assyrians had exiled. No longer did they possess outward characteristics that easily distinguished them from the peoples around them. Their obvious identifying signs quickly disappeared. But among their tribes fragments of their identity and culture would not so easily disappear.

How, then, can we find them? We need to look at the general region to which they were exiled and see if a people suddenly appeared in the region with characteristics that link them to the refugees of Israel's northern kingdom.

What we find is an amazing story, over many centuries, of God guiding displaced Israelites to the very region far to the north and west of their homeland that His prophets had foretold.