As we trace the story of Israel through the Old Testament, a major political shift happens after the reign of King Solomon. The Kingdom divides. The story is found in 1 Kings 12:1-19
From here on out in the Old Testament, the ten northern tribes of the Hebrew people are known as “Israel” (or sometimes “Samaria”) and the two Hebrew tribes of the south will be called “Judah”.
Israel/Samaria is now led by a man named Jeroboam, and in order to consolidate the power of his nation, he didn’t want the people traveling to Jerusalem to worship at Solomon’s temple there in fear that they might secede back to the southern kingdom of Judah. So he built shrines to golden calves, idols, in the northern country so that people would worship there instead. The northern tribes no longer worshiped the one true God who revealed himself to their ancestors. Instead they turned to false idols–local fertility gods. Their connection to the Almighty God was corrupted, they forgot God’s law and faithfulness. Turning to idols was the first step of many that the people would take to fall out of relationship with God. Over the next decades and centuries, God’s people would descend into deeper idolatry and that idolatry would lead to injustice. It would eventually lead to trouble and destruction.
But even though the people forgot the Law and abandoned their worship of God, God did not give up on trying to bring them back into a loving, obedient relationship with him. He sent prophets to correct the people, to call out their idolatry and injustice. We often think of the word “prophet” or “prophetic” to mean that someone has a supernatural ability to predict the future, like a fortune teller. But this is not the most accurate way to describe a biblical prophet. Prophets spoke mostly about the present situation they saw before them, and the immediate consequences of people’s sin and rebellion. God gave the prophets some special insights about things in the future, but mostly their ministry was about teaching people in the present about their sin and God’s mercy and judgement.
Two prophets we can read extensive stories about are Elijah and Elisha. The books of 1st and 2nd Kings tell us about their work to bring God’s word to the people, and specifically to the ruler of the nation who have led the people astray from God and God’s torah (law), mostly the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Other prophets who preached to Israel/Samaria include Amos, Jonah, Zechariah, and Hosea. They warned that without turning back to God, worshiping him, and obeying his law… judgement and destruction would come to them. God would cease to protect them from their enemies. Sadly, they did not change (2 Kings 17:5-18)
The Empire of Assyria embarked on a brutal campaign to conquer their neighboring nations. The Assyrians were known to dismember their victims and line the roads with their severed body parts as a sign of Assyrian dominance. In 722 BC, the Assyrians invaded the northern tribes of Israel and utterly destroyed them. Some Israelites were carried back as captives to Nineveh. The Assyrians sent their own people to settle the land of Israel, they took Israelite wives and their part-Jewish/part-Assyrian descendants would become known as Samaritans, who we read about in the Gospels.
The Assyrians continued their campaign into the southern nation of Judah, and they laid siege to the capital of Jerusalem. Judah had also struggled to obey and worship God in many ways, but we read that unlike Israel, there would be some good kings who would come along to reform the nation and lead it back into worship and obedience of God. Hezekiah was such a king. When the Assyrians seemed ready to destroy Jerusalem, Isaiah prophesied to Hezekiah that the city would not fall to Assyria because God will preserve his people (2 Kings 19:14-34), and Jerusalem survived the Assyrian conquest. Unfortunately, in the following decades the nation of Judah would still struggle to worship and obey God. More prophets were sent to warn the people of the consequences of their idolotry and injustice, but ultimately God once again removed his protection from the Hebrew people and they were conquered and taken captive by the Babylonian Empire (also called “the Chaldeans”) in the year 586 BC (2 Kings 24:10-17, 2 Chronicles 36:15-21).
The story of the Hebrew people isn’t over, of course, because the prophets had both words of judgement and words of hope. We’ll continue to look more at what the prophets said next week.
This week, read the book of Jonah. The whole thing? Really? Yes. Its 3 pages. You can do it.
- Have you ever felt like you wanted to run away? What are somethings you wish you could run away from?
- Why did you think Jonah ran away from the task God had given him?
- Now remember your geography: Nianevah is the capital of Assyria, the ones who conquered Israel. What was Jonah’s message to them?
- Why is Jonah so mad at God in chapter 4?