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History of Israel

Summary

  • God gave Israel her own land (ancient Canaan) through an unconditional covenant with Abraham
  • Through Abraham’s descendants all nations would be blessed through Israel’s Messiah, Yeshua (Jesus)
  • God renamed Abraham’s grandson Jacob and called him “Israel”
  • Jacob’s descendants were the twelve tribes of Israel (the Hebrew Israelites)
  • Initially the term ‘Jew’ referred to a member of the tribe of Judah, but later all Israelites were called Jews
  • In 1003 BC King David established Jerusalem as the capital of the Kingdom of Israel
  • In 922 BC the twelve tribes split into a southern kingdom (the ‘House of Judah’) and a northern kingdom comprising ten tribes (the ‘House of Israel’)
  • According to Nebuchadnezzar’s image, only four Gentile empires were destined to rule over Israel: Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman
  • All the tribes eventually rebelled against God and were scattered by the Babylonians throughout the nations (the diaspora)
  • The Babylonians destroyed Israel’s magnificent temple (Solomon’s temple) in Jerusalem
  • Israel’s scattering was complete around 586 BC
  • A remnant of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple
  • The rebuilt temple (the Second Temple) and Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD
  • The Romans renamed Israel’s land (principally Judea) as ‘Palaestina‘ (modern Palestine)
  • At the start of the 20th century Palestine was still a mix of many peoples, with no distinctive Jewish nation or Palestinian people
  • At the end of the age God gathers His scattered people into their promised land. This is now underway (Aliyah)
  • The 1922 British Mandate for Palestine sought a homeland for the Jewish nation, Israel
  • The Mandate encouraged Jewish immigration, resulting in a 7400 percent in about 100 years
  • 1948: the Declaration of the State of Israel
  • Jews are returning in unbelief, as prophesied (and will suffer tribulation under a revived Roman Empire)

Israel is mentioned in almost every news bulletin. Why is this tiny little nation the size of Wales so newsworthy? Perhaps it’s because:

It is the only nation on earth that inhabits the same land, bears the same name, speaks the same language, and worships the same God that it did 3,000 years ago

Charles Krauthammer – The Weekly Standard, May 11, 1998

As John F. Kennedy, President of the United States put it:

Israel was not created in order to disappear – Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honours the sword of freedom

Or, as the Bible puts it: God has a plan for the nation, Israel. And this plan spans past, present and future. The history of Israel is only part of the picture – there is much more to come!

The History of Israel Started with Abraham

history of Israel
Fig.1: Abraham’s journey,  Biblical maps

The history of Israel and the Arab nations starts with Abram (later called Abraham). Some 4,000 years ago Abram was called by God to go from his home in Ur of the Chaldeans and travel to a land that God would give to him and his descendants, Fig.1. God said to Abram:

Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation …

Genesis 12:1

Abram was a Hebrew (Genesis 14:13), and through him God set about making a Hebrew people to be a witness of Himself to the nations and to be a blessing to the world. When Abraham’s faith was tested through his son, Isaac, God said:

By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have … not withheld your son … I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens … in your seed, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

Genesis 22:16-18

As history testifies, that blessing was to be primarily through a Jewish Messiah, Christ.

The Promised Land

The land in question was Canaan (roughly speaking, the land we now call Israel). God told Abraham:

I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you … I will give to you and your descendants … all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God

Genesis 17:7-8

According to the Biblical chronology, Abraham arrived in Canaan around 2100 BC.

It is important to recognise that the covenant between God and Abraham was unconditional. God had sworn it by Himself. It was certain that from Abraham would come a great nation and a great blessing to the nations, and Abraham’s descendants would be given the so-called ‘Promised Land’ of Canaan as an everlasting possession.

This is why the tiny nation of Israel has endured some 3,000 years. Israel has been, and still is, God’s chosen witness in the world:

But now, says the Lord, … He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear … I have called you by name; you are Mine! …You are My witnesses … and My servant whom I have chosen”

Isaiah 43:1,10

The History of Israel: the Hebrew & Arab Nations

Things went wrong when Abraham listened to his wife, Sarah, instead of believing in God’s promise of a ‘seed’! Abram followed her suggestion (and custom of the day) and he took his female servant Hagar, an Egyptian, as wife (Genesis 16:3). She bore him a son, Ishmael.

But this was not God’s plan for Abraham. When Abram asked God to bless Ishmael as a servant of God, he was told “No”! God had other plans. In fact, Ishmael was prophesied to be a violent man ‘with his hand against everyone’ (Genesis 16:12) This separation of the blessing is crucial to the understanding of the modern-day Arab-Israeli conflict. God said:

No, Sarah your wife will bear you a son [even though she was old], and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him … as for Ishmael, I have heard you … I will bless him, and make him fruitful … and I will make him a great nation … but My covenant I will establish with Isaac 

Genesis 17:19-21, emphasis added
So here we see the birth of two great peoples; the covenant nation descended from Isaac, and the Arab nations descended from Ishmael. But the covenant promises of blessing and the land of Canaan went with Isaac, not Ishmael.

Abraham subsequently gave all that he had to Isaac, but to Ishmael and his other sons he gave gifts and sent them ‘to the land of the east’ (Genesis 25:5-6). Having said that, God instructed Israel to care for the stranger in their land; they were not to expel them:

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you should do him no wrong … (he) … shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself …

Leviticus 19:33-34
So we have the concept of the Hebrew nation, a special nation in their God-given land, embracing all strangers who happen to live in the land. This again is a crucial factor in today’s Arab-Israeli conflict. Strangers should be welcomed, but they must accept the existence and land-rights of national Israel. In fact, this principle extends into the Millennial age (Ezekiel 47:22-23).

The Blessing Promised to all Nations

This is the key event in the history of Israel. Despite man’s failings, God continued His unconditional covenant plan with Abraham. In the scriptures we find a line of descent from Isaac, through Jacob, Judah, David and eventually to Christ. Paul takes the reference to Abraham’s ‘seed’ as a reference to Christ (Galatians 3:16), whose genealogy is traced back to Abraham in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 1:1-17).

This is the first reference to the gospel that would be proclaimed as good news to the Gentile nations as well as to the Jews. Christ’s offer of salvation for all through His death and resurrection was the promised blessing to all nations. Christ brings ‘good news to the afflicted, binds up the broken hearted, and gives liberty to captives’ (Isaiah 61:1). Abraham’s ‘seed’ also refers to the nation of Israel itself.

The Birth of Twelve-tribed Israel

history of Israel
Fig.2: Settlement of the tribes of Israel
Biblical maps

Abraham’s wife Sarah bore him a son, Isaac, and Isaac’s wife Rebecca bore Jacob (meaning ‘supplanter’). History shows that God had a special task for Jacob and his descendants and He changed Jacob’s name to ‘Israel’ after he had struggled with an angel – and prevailed (Genesis 32:28). The etymology of the name Israel is not clear, link, although Genesis 32:28 implies that Jacob and his descendants would struggle but prevail.

The history of Israel confirms this thought; Jacob’s descendants, the twelve tribes of Israel, the Hebrew Israelites, have suffered but prevailed for 3,000 years.

The descendants of Abraham formed a nation (Israel) around 1300 BC after their Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. But before they could enter Canaan they had to spend 40 harsh years in the desert wilderness (the Sinai Peninsular) due to their disobedience and unbelief. They finally settled mainly in the area currently known as Israel, including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, although the tribes of Benjamin, Gad, Reuben and part of Manasseh settled east of the Jordan, Fig.2.

In 1003 BC King David established Jerusalem as the capital of the Kingdom of Israel, and in 960 BC his son Solomon built the first Jewish temple. Then, in 922 BC the twelve tribes split into a southern kingdom (called ‘The House of Judah’, embracing Judea and Jerusalem) and a northern kingdom comprising ten tribes and called ‘The House of Israel’, or simply ‘Israel’ (Jeremiah 11:10).

Terminology: Jews

Historically, the tribe of Judah (Heb ‘Yehuda’) gave rise to the term ‘Jew’ (Heb ‘Yehudi’). So initially, the term ‘Jew’ referred to a member of the tribe of Judah, but later it came to refer to all the Israelites, regardless of their tribal ancestry (see Jews). Historically, the Jewish people are generally referred to as the Children of Israel, signifying their descent from Jacob.

The Historical Scattering of Israel – the Diaspora

Abraham’s failing with Hagar was not the only thing that didn’t go according to God’s plan! The 12 tribes were subsequently split into a southern kingdom (called ‘The House of Judah’, embracing Judea and Jerusalem) and a northern kingdom comprising 10 tribes (called ‘The House of Israel’, or simply ‘Israel’) – see Jeremiah 11:10. The latter had a succession of godless kings and despite repeated warnings from the prophets, they rebelled against God. Eventually God’s warnings gave way to judgement and He uprooted them from the Promised Land and scattered them throughout the nations, as pre-warned by Moses:

And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples

Deuteronomy 4:27

From hereon The House of Israel ceased to be a kingdom, and the Babylonians and others settled in the cities of Samaria in their place (2 Kings 17:24). The scattering was complete around 722 BC. The House of Judah was also rebellious and eventually suffered the same judgement.

Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed around 597 BC and by 586 BC all of the southern kingdom had been deported to Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar. Apart from a remnant of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi which returned to rebuild Jerusalem, the whole of national Israel was now dispersed amongst the nations (James 1:1) and Jerusalem was occupied by Gentile nations. It is interesting to trace the location of the twelve tribes of Israel.

History of Israel: Gentile Rule Over Israel

From around 586 BC until modern times, the land of Israel or Holy Land was ruled by Gentile powers:

  • 586-538 BC: Babylonian Empire. Jews exiled to Babylon, destruction of the first Temple
  • 538-333 BC: Persian Empire. Some exiled Jews return to restore the Temple (completed 517 BC)
  • 333-63 BC: Greek Empire. Desecration of the Second Temple by Antiochus IV
  • 63 BC-313: Roman Empire. Destruction of the restored Temple (the Second Temple) in 70 AD
  • 313 – 636: Byzantine rule. Israel becomes a predominantly Christian country
  • 636 – 1099: Islamic rule. Increasing suffering of Jews (as ‘dhimmi’) under caliphates
  • 1099 – 1291: Crusader rule. Non-Christians, including Jews, suffer
  • 1291 – 1517: Mamluk rule. Gradual decline of towns, commerce and Jewish communities
  • 1517 – 1917: Ottoman rule. Further decline of the land, but increasing Jewish population
  • 1917 – 1948: British rule. The 1922 British Mandate for Palestine encouraged immigration (Aliyah)
  • 1948: On May 14 the Jews declared an independent State of Israel and the British withdrew from Palestine
  • 1967: In June Israel was attacked by five Arab armies. After their defeat (in 6 days) Israel held the Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza, the West Bank and all of Jerusalem.

World Government

The four historical empires in bold type (Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman) are in fact the four great empires prophesied to rule over Israel before the Second Coming of Christ (Daniel 2:31-45). The last one, Rome, is very relevant even today. Prophecy strongly suggests that a form of the Roman Empire (probably a kernel of the end-time World Government) will be in existence when Christ returns (Daniel 2:34), link. For more, see Israel’s Future and World Government.

End of Gentile Rule

The declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 effectively ended over 2500 years of Gentile rule over Israel, although Jerusalem itself was not fully liberated until 1967. Some see the taking of East Jerusalem in 1967 by Israeli forces as the fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy:

Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Luke 21:24)

The scattering of Israel was fulfilment of a specific Bible prophecy, but recent history has also seen the fulfilment of Bible prophecy in the ingathering (or restoration) of Israel.

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