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Biblical scholars have uncovered various literature from the ancient Near East, such as law tablets and the ruins of structures, including multichambered temples. While these discoveries provide insights into the cultural and literary climate surrounding Israel and its Scripture, it raises a question about the similarities between religions based on revelation and those based on human imagination.
First, paganism is a corruption of an earlier, pure religion. The worship of the true God did not develop from animism to ethical monotheism according to an evolutionary scheme, but rather sin corrupted the worship of the true God, and thus some similarities between paganism and biblical faith could result from a common memory of early events and legitimate worship that lingers in human personality and culture.
Second, the nations and cultures of the world, despite their rejection of God, have not developed independently of Jehovah’s supervision. God prepared the ancient Near East culturally for the revelation of the divine name in Israel. Thus, the forms that Israel shared with its surrounding peoples were products of God’s common grace, though perverted in the nations’ case by paganism.
Third, when God began revealing to the patriarchs and early generations of Israel how He was to be worshipped, it was only reasonable that He would employ forms that would have some meaning to them. Thus, while the forms of Israel’s faith shared many elements with their pagan neighbors, the substance or heart of Jehovah worship could diverge drastically.
Old Testament faith had five main distinctives. Firstly, it was monotheistic and exclusivistic. Secondly, the God of Israel was transcendent and self-sufficient. Thirdly, although God is transcendent, He has not kept His character or His will hidden as did the gods of other peoples. Fourthly, Israel’s relationship with Jehovah was based on divine election in which God established in history a covenant with His people. Finally, while Jehovah ordained the use of ritual in worship, He abhorred ritual that aimed at divine manipulation.
Thus biblical religion provides a higher view of humanity and a higher view of God, and Israel was to be a kingdom of priests, singing to Jehovah and declaring His glory among the nations day after day.
The Birth of a Nation
The agreement made with Abraham resulted in the formation of the community of Israel, which was considered as one entity. Jehovah, being a close relative, was able to reclaim them from slavery through this legal covenant. He acted as their rightful Repurchaser and used force to punish Pharaoh’s firstborn for not releasing God’s “firstborn” son Israel. (Exodus 4:22, 23; 6:2-7) As a result, Israel became the sole property of Jehovah. He declared that Israel was the only nation he knew out of all the families on earth. (Amos 3:2; Exodus 19:5, 6; Deuteronomy 7:6) God then decided to treat Israel not just as a patriarchal society, but as a nation with a theocratic government that was based on the Law covenant as its constitution.
Within three months of leaving Egypt, Israel became an independent nation under the Law covenant, which was established at Mount Sinai. (Hebrews 9:19, 20) The Ten Commandments formed the foundation of this national code, to which were added around 600 other laws, regulations, and judicial decisions. This made it the most extensive set of laws among ancient nations, outlining in great detail the relationships between man and God and between man and other people. (Exodus 31:18; 34:27, 28)
In a pure theocracy, all judicial, legislative, and executive powers were held by Jehovah. (Isaiah 33:22; James 4:12) He delegated some administrative powers to his appointed representatives. The law code even provided for a future dynasty of kings who would represent Jehovah in civil matters. However, these kings were not absolute monarchs because the priesthood was separate from the kingship and independent of it. The kings acted as Jehovah’s representatives and were subject to his directives and discipline. (Deuteronomy 17:14-20; 1 Chronicles 29:23; 2 Chronicles 26:16-21)
Worship of Jehovah was the most important aspect of the nation’s life and activities, and idolatry was considered treason, punishable by death. (Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 6:13-15; 13:1-5) The sacred tabernacle or temple, with its prescribed sacrifices, was the center of worship, and the priesthood was appointed by God to provide answers to important questions of life and death through the Urim and Thummim. (Exodus 28:30) Regular assemblies were held for men, women, and children, and helped maintain the nation’s spiritual health and unity. (Leviticus 23:2; Deuteronomy 31:10-13)
A system of judges was established over tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands, allowing for quick handling of cases, and appeals could be made to Moses and then to Jehovah for a final decision. (Exodus 18:19-26; Deuteronomy 16:18) The military was organized with a conscription of manpower, following a similar numerical system. (Numbers 1:3, 4, 16; 31:3-6, 14, 48)
The civil, judicial, and military offices were filled by the hereditary heads of the tribes, who were experienced, wise, and discreet older men. (Deuteronomy 1:13-15) These older men represented the entire community of Israel before Jehovah and spoke to the people through Moses. (Exodus 3:15, 16) They heard judicial cases, enforced the Law covenant, confirmed treaties, and performed other responsibilities under the headship of the high priest. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21; 22:15-21; 25:7-10) They also provided military leadership. (Numbers 1:16)
The new theocratic state of Israel had a centralized authority, but still maintained the patriarchal arrangement of 12 tribal divisions. To relieve the tribe of Levi from military service and keep the number of tribes at 12, genealogical adjustments were made. (Numbers 1:49, 50; 18:20-24) Additionally, there was the issue of firstborn rights, which were given to Joseph, the firstborn of Rachel, instead of Reuben, the firstborn of Leah. (Genesis 29:31, 32; 30:22-24) With these adjustments, the 12 non-Levite tribes of Israel were Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Gad, and Naphtali. (Numbers 1:4-15)
From Sinai to the Promised Land
The story of the Israelites’ journey from Sinai to the Promised Land is one of faith, rebellion, and discipline. When twelve spies were sent to explore the Promised Land, only two returned with enough faith to encourage their fellow Israelites to conquer it. As a result of their lack of faith, Jehovah decided that all those over the age of 20 who had left Egypt would die in the wilderness, except for a few exceptions.
For the next 40 years, the Israelites wandered the Sinai Peninsula, with even Moses and Aaron dying before reaching the Promised Land. During this time, Jehovah provided for their every need, protecting them from enemies and giving them food, water, and a sanitary code. Despite this loving care, the Israelites often murmured and rebelled, leading to severe discipline from Jehovah. As their journey neared its end, the Israelites were victorious in battle against the kings of the Amorites, allowing them to settle in a new territory east of the Jordan River. The tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Manasseh made their homes there.
Israel During the Time of the Judges
Israel’s journey after the death of Moses was led by Joshua, who led them across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land in 1473 BCE. This land was described as “flowing with milk and honey,” and the Israelites embarked on a six-year campaign to conquer it. They were successful in conquering the territory of 31 kings west of the Jordan, including fortified cities such as Jericho and Ai. However, there were certain coastal plains and enclave cities, such as the Jebusite stronghold that later became the City of David, that were exceptions.
These God-defying elements that were allowed to remain proved to be a constant problem for the Israelites, and intermarriage with them only increased the difficulties. For more than 380 years, from the death of Joshua to their subjugation by David, worshipers of false gods acted “as agents to test Israel so as to know whether they would obey Jehovah’s commandments.”
Throughout this period, the Israelites were led by judges who acted as military leaders and arbiters of disputes. The judges were appointed by Jehovah and their leadership was a response to the Israelites’ repeated rebellion against Him. Despite the judges’ efforts, the Israelites continued to fall into cycles of disobedience and punishment. However, Jehovah remained faithful to His people and continued to guide them through this period of their history.
After conquering the Promised Land, the territory was divided among the tribes of Israel through the casting of lots, as commanded by Jehovah to Moses. In addition, six “cities of refuge” were designated for unintentional manslayers, while the tribe of Levi was given 42 cities and their surrounding agricultural land.
Each city appointed judges and officers to handle judicial affairs, as outlined in the Law covenant. Additionally, older men were chosen to administer the general interests of the city. Despite maintaining their tribal identities and inheritances, the Israelites lacked centralized organizational control that was present during their time in the wilderness.
This lack of unity in action caused problems after the deaths of Moses and Joshua, as revealed in the song of Deborah and Barak, the events of Gideon’s warfare, and the activities of Jephthah. The people failed to look to their invisible Head, Jehovah God, for guidance.
Following the deaths of Joshua and the older generation of Israelites, the people began to waver in their faithfulness and obedience to Jehovah. They oscillated between true and false worship, often abandoning Jehovah and turning to serve the Baals. When they did so, Jehovah removed his protection and allowed the surrounding nations to invade and pillage their land.
Realizing their need for united action, the Israelites called out to Jehovah for help. In response, he raised up judges or saviors to deliver the people. These judges included Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Barak, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, and Samson.
The judges were valiant leaders who delivered the Israelites from their oppressors and led them back to serving Jehovah. However, their efforts were often temporary, as the Israelites continued to fall back into rebellion and disobedience. This cycle of rebellion, discipline, and deliverance characterized the period of the judges and served as a reminder of the Israelites’ need for constant faithfulness and obedience to Jehovah.
The period of the judges saw multiple incidents that united the nation of Israel. Each deliverance by the judges had a uniting effect on the nation. Additionally, when a Levite’s concubine was wantonly ravished, 11 tribes acted in outraged unity against the tribe of Benjamin, reflecting a sense of national guilt and responsibility.
The tribes were also united in their worship of Jehovah, drawn together by the presence of the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle at Shiloh. However, the capture of the ark by the Philistines due to the debauchery and misconduct of the priesthood caused a national loss for Israel.
With the death of High Priest Eli and Samuel’s appointment as prophet and judge, Samuel traveled through Israel to handle the people’s questions and disputes. This had a unifying effect on Israel, as the people looked to Samuel for guidance and leadership. Despite these moments of unity, the period of the judges was characterized by a cycle of rebellion and deliverance, highlighting the importance of obedience and faithfulness to Jehovah.
The United Kingdom
In 1117 BCE, the Israelites asked Samuel to appoint a king to judge them like other nations. Although Samuel was displeased, Jehovah told him to listen to the voice of the people, as it was Jehovah they were rejecting by asking for a king. Saul, a Benjamite, was chosen as Israel’s first king, and though he began his rule well, his presumptuousness led to disobedience, rebellion, and ultimately his failure after 40 years.
David, a man agreeable to Jehovah’s heart, was anointed king in Saul’s place. Under his leadership, Israel’s borders were extended to the limits promised, from “the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” David was a successful king who strengthened Israel and brought it to new heights. Despite some personal failures, such as his affair with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband, David remained faithful to Jehovah and is remembered as one of Israel’s greatest kings.
During David’s 40-year reign, specialized offices were created in addition to the existing tribal arrangement in Israel. An inner circle of counselors surrounded the king, in addition to older men of influence serving the centralized government. A departmental staff was also established, comprising of tribal princes, chiefs, court officials, and military personnel with administrative responsibilities.
To handle certain matters effectively, David appointed 6,000 Levites as judges and officers. Other departments with appointed overseers were established to manage the cultivation of fields and to oversee the vineyards, wineries, olive groves, oil supplies, livestock, and flocks.
The king’s financial interests were also cared for by a separate central treasury department, which was distinct from the department supervising the treasures stored in outlying cities and villages. David’s reign was characterized by efficient government and administrative systems, which contributed to Israel’s prosperity during that time.
In 1037 BCE, Solomon succeeded his father David as king and reigned over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines and to the boundary of Egypt for 40 years. Under his reign, Israel experienced peace and prosperity, with nations around them bringing gifts and serving Solomon.
Solomon was renowned for his wisdom and is considered the wisest king of ancient times. During his reign, Israel reached the zenith of its power and glory. Solomon’s greatest achievement was the construction of the magnificent temple, the plans for which were received from his inspired father David. The temple was a symbol of Israel’s commitment to Jehovah and became a center of worship for the Israelites.
Solomon’s reign was characterized by great achievements and prosperity, but it was also marred by his later disobedience to Jehovah, which led to the division of the kingdom after his death. Despite this, Solomon remains a prominent figure in Israel’s history and is remembered for his wisdom and grand accomplishments.
Despite his glory, riches, and wisdom, Solomon ultimately failed as a king. He allowed his many foreign wives to lead him astray from pure worship of Jehovah to false religions. In the end, Solomon died disapproved by Jehovah, and his son Rehoboam succeeded him as king.
Unfortunately, Rehoboam was not a wise king and increased the already heavy government burdens on the people, causing the ten northern tribes to secede under Jeroboam, as prophesied by Jehovah’s prophet. This led to the division of the kingdom in 930 BCE, with Israel divided into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.
This division marked the beginning of a tumultuous period in Israel’s history, with the two kingdoms often at odds with each other and both falling into periods of disobedience to Jehovah. Despite this, both kingdoms continued to exist for several centuries, with Judah lasting until 586 BCE and Israel falling to the Assyrians in 720 BCE.
Israel After the Babylonian Exile
After the division of the kingdom, the term “Israel” typically referred to the ten tribes of the northern kingdom, while the southern kingdom was known as Judah. This distinction continued for 390 years until the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.
However, with the return of a remnant of all 12 tribes from exile and leading up to the second destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the term “Israel” once again encompassed all of Jacob’s descendants living at that time. The people of all 12 tribes were again called “all Israel,” as seen in various biblical references such as Ezra 2:70, 6:17, and 10:5, as well as in the New Testament in Acts 2:22 and 36.
Despite the destruction of the temple and the exile of many Jews, the descendants of Jacob continued to exist as a people, eventually re-establishing their homeland in modern-day Israel in 1948. Today, the term “Israel” refers to both the modern state of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole, who continue to play a significant role in world affairs and remain a symbol of resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity.
After the Babylonian exile, nearly 50,000 Israelites, including slaves and professional singers, returned to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel and High Priest Joshua in 537 BCE. They began the rebuilding of Jehovah’s temple, which had been destroyed during the Babylonian conquest. Later, in 478 BCE, more Israelites returned with Ezra, who led a religious and spiritual revival among the people. Still later, in 465 BCE, Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem with the specific task of rebuilding the city’s walls and gates.
Despite these returns, many Israelites remained scattered throughout the empire, as seen in the book of Esther. The story of Esther takes place in Persia, where Jews were still living under foreign rule and faced threats of persecution. Overall, the return of the exiles marked a significant turning point in Jewish history, as it allowed for the rebuilding of the temple and the restoration of Jewish worship in Jerusalem.
After the Babylonian exile, Israel did not regain its independence as a nation, but it did become a Hebrew commonwealth with a degree of freedom under Persian rule. Deputy rulers and governors, such as Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, were appointed from among the Israelites themselves. (Nehemiah 2:16-18; 5:14, 15; Haggai 1:1) The older men and tribal princes acted as counselors and representatives of the people, maintaining their identity and heritage. (Ezra 10:8, 14) The priestly organization was reestablished and operated according to ancient genealogical records. Thus, the sacrifices and requirements of the Law covenant were again observed. (Ezra 2:59-63; 8:1-14; Nehemiah 8:1-18)
During the reign of Antiochus IV, the Seleucid king of Syria, Israel was embroiled in a struggle between the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt and the Seleucids, which led to conflicts and instability in the region. In an effort to eliminate Jewish customs and worship, Antiochus IV committed sacrilege by erecting a pagan altar over the temple altar in Jerusalem and dedicating it to the Greek god Zeus. This act was met with resistance from the Jews, which ultimately led to the Maccabean uprising in 168 B.C.E. Led by Judas Maccabaeus, the Jews were able to reclaim the temple and rededicate it to Jehovah. The celebration of this event is commemorated as the festival of Hanukkah. (1 Maccabees 4:36-59; 2 Maccabees 10:1-8)
During the century that followed the Maccabean revolt, Israel was plagued by internal disorder, and the tribal administrative provisions of the Law covenant were pushed aside. This period saw the rise of two major Jewish factions: the pro-Hasmonaean Sadducees and the anti-Hasmonaean Pharisees. Eventually, Rome was called upon to intervene in the conflict, and General Gnaeus Pompey took Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E., annexing Judea to the Roman Empire. Herod the Great was appointed king of the Jews by Rome in 39 B.C.E. and he crushed the Hasmonaean rule. In 2/1 B.C.E., Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and he was recognized by Simeon as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32)
During the first century C.E., the Roman Empire exercised its authority over Israel through district rulers and governors known as procurators. The Bible mentions several of these figures, such as Philip, Lysanias, and Herod Antipas, as well as Pontius Pilate, Felix, and Festus, who served as governors. Kings Agrippa I and II also played a role in governing the region. Despite the loss of their independence, the Israelites retained some elements of their tribal genealogical arrangement, as evidenced by Caesar Augustus’s order that people register in their paternal cities. The influence of the “older men” and the Levitical functionaries remained strong, though they had largely replaced the written requirements of the Law covenant with human traditions.
In the first century C.E., Christianity emerged in Israel amidst Roman rule. John the Baptizer was the forerunner of Jesus, who urged many Israelites to return to Jehovah. (Lu 1:16; Joh 1:31) Jesus and his apostles continued this work by revealing the true worship of God and exposing the false traditions of men. (Mt 15:24; 10:6) However, only a remnant accepted Jesus as the Messiah, and these were the ones who hailed him as the “King of Israel.” (Joh 1:49; 12:12, 13) The majority rejected Jesus and backed their religious leaders who called for his crucifixion. (Mt 8:10; Joh 19:15; Mr 15:11-15) Despite this, Christianity continued to spread throughout Israel and beyond.
In the first century CE, Israel was under the authority of Rome, which distributed its imperial power among district rulers and governors. Among them were district rulers Philip, Lysanias, and Herod Antipas, as well as governors Pontius Pilate, Felix, and Festus, and kings Agrippa I and II. While the tribal genealogical arrangement was still present, the older men and Levitical functionaries had substituted the traditions of men for the written requirements of the Law covenant. In this atmosphere, Christianity emerged with John the Baptist as the forerunner of Jesus. Jesus and his apostles labored among “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” but only a remnant accepted Jesus as the Messiah. The majority backed up their religious leaders who cried out to “take him away” and “impale him.” The situation worsened as fanatical elements fomented revolts against Roman rule. Finally, Cestius Gallus, governor of Syria, moved against Jerusalem with stronger forces to maintain Roman control. – Scriptures: Luke 3:1, Luke 2:1-5, Matthew 21:23, Matthew 26:47, Acts 4:5, Matthew 15:1-11, Luke 1:16, John 1:31, Matthew 15:24, Matthew 10:6, Romans 9:27, Romans 11:7, John 1:49, John 12:12-13, Matthew 8:10, Romans 9:31-32, John 19:15, Mark 15:11-15.
In 66 C.E., Cestius Gallus, governor of Syria, led Roman forces against Jerusalem to maintain Roman control. After setting fire to Bezetha, which was north of the temple, Gallus encamped in front of the royal palace, southwest of the temple. Josephus wrote that at that moment, Gallus could have easily entered the city, but his delay only strengthened the insurgents. The Romans began undermining the walls, and just when they were about to succeed, they withdrew from the city. Josephus recorded, “Cestius . . . suddenly recalled his troops, renounced his hopes, without having suffered any reverse, and, contrary to all calculation, retired from the city.” (The Jewish War, II, 540 [xix, 7]) This attack and sudden withdrawal gave the signal and opportunity for the Christians in the city to heed Jesus’ instruction to “flee to the mountains.” (Luke 21:20-22)
In the year 67 C.E., Vespasian undertook to quell the Jewish rebellion. However, Nero’s death in 68 C.E. paved the way for Vespasian to become emperor, leading him to leave his son Titus to continue the war. In the year 70 C.E., Jerusalem was taken and destroyed by the Romans. Subsequently, in 73 C.E., the last Jewish stronghold at Masada fell to the Romans. Josephus reports that during the entire campaign against Jerusalem, 1.1 million Jews perished, many of whom died from famine and disease, while 97,000 were taken captive, with many sold as slaves throughout the Roman Empire. (The Jewish War, VI, 420 [ix, 3])