“In those days and in that time, the children of Israel shall come, they and the
children of Judah together.” Jeremiah 50:4
After you read the Old Testament, it’s very clear the nation of Israel has had a historically difficult time. It’s probably one of the most hotly contested pieces of land on earth. Though the Jewish people had periods of oneness, most of the time, the nation was divided into two kingdoms—Judah and Israel.
These two kingdoms didn’t divide just land; it also divided hearts and, eventually, culture. Evidence of the division continues to this day.
Before you study any Bible maps or atlases, it is important to understand how the nation we call Israel was split, how it affected Jesus’ ministry, and what God’s plans are for His people. By knowing a bit of Israel’s history and some simple geography, we can better understand the Bible and why Israel suffers as it does today.
Two Kingdoms and Kings
The nation of Israel began with the patriarch Jacob, son of Isaac, and twin to Esau. God changed his name to Israel, which means “one who struggles with God” in Genesis 32:28 after Jacob wrestled with an angel. Jacob eventually had twelve sons who later became the twelve tribes of Israel, most predominantly Judah and Benjamin.
For hundreds of years, Israel was a unified nation up through the reign of King Saul as its first king. After Saul’s death, God anointed David to be king. But Abner, Saul’s cousin and general of the army, did not care for David. So he placed Saul’s son, Ishbotheth (“man of shame”), on the throne over the northern and eastern tribes of Israel while David ruled the southern tribe of Judah (or Judea) with Jerusalem as its capitol.
“Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned for two years. Only the house of Judah followed David.” (2 Samuel 2:10)
Israel, now a smaller version of itself, became the northern kingdom with its capitol in Samaria and contained every tribe but Judah. Ishbosheth reigned for two years until he was murdered by two of his own captains. David then reunited the nation (2 Samuel 5:6-7).
Israel prospered for many years under David and his son, Solomon. But after Solomon’s death in 930 BC, his son, Rehoboam, threatened to raise taxes on the northern tribes despite the northerners’ efforts to keep the peace. And so, the country split again.
Rehoboam then became king of Judah in the south with the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and one of Solomon’s servants named Jeroboam was chosen by God to lead Israel and the other ten tribes (2 Kings 11 and 12).
The Jewish-Roman Wars
Both nations fought each other in the coming years, and sometimes they fought as allies. But eventually, both kingdoms came to an end. The Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BC. The Babylonians then conquered both the Assyrians plus the southern kingdom of Judah 135 years later and took most of the people captive in 587 BC.
Seventy years later, the Babylonians under King Cyrus liberated the Israelites and sent them home (Ezra 1:1-11).
“Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing.” (Ezra 1:1)
However, evidence of former cultural and tribal differences between the northern and southern kingdoms re-emerged. But bigger troubles lie ahead. In 63 BC, the Israelites were conquered again, this time by the Romans.
As the Roman army invaded Israel, ten of the original twelve tribes scattered and became the first diaspora. The scattering essentially dissolved the northern kingdom and left only Judah, the southern kingdom, to be conquered, which it eventually did. Jesus’ earthly life existed during this time.
Approximately 40 years after Jesus gave the prophecy in Matthew 24:1-2, the First Jewish-Roman War (also known as the Great Revolt) broke out in 66-73 AD. Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple and laid siege to the Masada fortress, causing its last defenders to commit suicide rather than be taken captive. The crushing defeat scattered the Israelites once again. Others were sold into slavery.
Later in 115-117 AD, the Second Jewish-Roman War (also called the Kitos War) broke out. The Romans slaughtered the Israelites in huge numbers, which caused even more of the Jewish people to scatter.
The Bar-Kokha Revolt
A fourth diaspora occurred after the Third Jewish-Roman War in 132-136 AD. The revolt (commonly called the Bar Kokhba Revolt) began after the Roman emperor Hadrian decided to build a new city called Aelia Capitonlina on top of the ruins of Jerusalem and dedicate a new temple to the god Jupiter on the Jewish religion’s holiest site, the Temple Mount.
The Jewish people were successful in repelling the Romans this time, and they again enjoyed autonomous rule, but only for a short time. However, three years later, the Romans attacked again, killing Jews by the thousands and again scattering the people for a final time. The kingdom of Judah was officially destroyed.
Empire after empire continued to invade God’s holy land for thousands of years. Israel remained under Roman rule until Arabia invaded in the 12th century. The former northern kingdom then became known as Palestine. Later in 1917, the Ottoman Empire renamed it as “Southern Syria” after they too conquered the area. Today, only the West Bank and areas along the eastern side of the Jordan River is what historically remains of Palestine.
Sadly, Israel would not be its own nation again until 1948 when the United Nations officially recognized its existence.
Despite the Roman occupation, there was always a remnant of Jews who remained in the northern kingdom area. And by the time Jesus began His ministry in the first century, the North vs. South idea was still simmering.
Jesus often encountered a sort of discrimination that plagued the country because of the two-kingdom mentality. A great example of it was His encounter with the woman at the well in John 4:4-42. The discrimination was so strong that it was regarded as taboo for a southern man to have anything to do with a northerner, especially a northern (Samarian) woman.
Jesus later made the divisiveness the basis for the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).
We might speculate that Jesus might also have been discriminated against simply because He grew up in Nazareth, which was technically in the northern kingdom though more on the border of the two kingdoms. The Pharisees had an obvious disdain for Him even before they considered Him a threat. Even the people initially rejected Him (John 1:46) and His band of ragtag disciples. Though whether it was regional discrimination, we don’t know. But it is possible.
Despite it all, Jesus continually aimed toward reuniting Israel and turning the hearts of its people back to God. His message of love and faithfulness, of loving thy neighbor as God loves us, was always at the forefront of His mind, and it won over the people, both northerners and southerners.
Later, the apostle Paul also addressed Israel’s divided nature when he said he is both a Jew (Acts 21:39) and an Israelite (Philippians 3:5), highlighting the fact that he was loyal to the entire nation and not just one kingdom.
As an important side note, though He grew up in the northern kingdom of Israel, Jesus is still referred to as the Lion of Judah. He received the title because of the place of His birth—Bethlehem in the southern kingdom of Judah. Jesus also being God had His temple in Jerusalem as well, which is also in Judah. Therefore, the title is rightfully His.
The Bible tells us God has plans to reunite His people and the nation of Israel.
“In those days and in that time, says the LORD, the children of Israel shall come, they and the children of Judah together, with continual weeping they shall come and seek the LORD their God.” Jeremiah 50:4
“Say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD GOD: Surely I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel, his companions; and I will join them with it, with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they will be one in My hand.’” Ezekiel 37:19-20
But these prophecies have not yet been fulfilled. We know this because of what God promised Abraham in the book of Genesis.
“For You said, ‘I will surely treat you well and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” Genesis 32:12
Considering the current percentage of Jewish people in the world compared to the world’s overall population of 7.8 billion, Abraham’s descendants are not yet without number.
We also read in Genesis 48:17-20 where Jacob placed his right hand of blessing on his grandson, Ephraim, and his left hand on Manasseh. Both Ephraim and Manesseh were Joseph’s sons, but Manesseh was the first-born, not Ephraim. Culturally speaking, Jacob should have put his right hand on Manesseh, but he didn’t. Joseph was quick to correct his father, but Jacob (Israel) meant what he did.
“But his father refused and said, ‘I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great, but truly his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his descendants shall become a multitude of nations.” Genesis 48:19
Ephraim is another name for Israel (Jeremiah 31), and Jacob prophesied that it would become a multitude of nations. Unfortunately, though Ephraim did eventually become the national designation of the ten northern tribes, neither it, its descendants, nor Israel in general have yet become a multitude of nations.
Gathering His Children
The current nation of Israel is still largely made up of the original southern kingdom of Judah, while the tribes of the northern kingdom remain largely scattered. But we know God promises to gather His children and reunite the two kingdoms one day (Matthew 24:31; Mark 13:27). We see this prophecy beginning to be fulfilled today as many Jews are now returning to Israel in what is called “making Aliyah.”
Unfortunately, the day of a full reunion has not yet come. And it may not come at all until Jesus returns to claim His kingdom fully. But we’ll know when the day comes. The Israelites will once again proudly proclaim, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord (Matthew 23:39).”