At this point in our history series, we have traced the Patriarchy, the Israelites’ time in Egypt, their Exodus, and the rise of the United Monarchy and the eventual split. From here, we pick up with the fall of the two kingdoms (centuries apart) and a little on the empires that conquered them.
The Fall of Israel
Israel, as one of the successor states to the United Monarchy established under David, was the first of the Israelite kingdoms to fall to a foreign power. The kingdom fell in 722 BCE, when the Assyrians came to conquer the area. They wanted the lands, but since there were already people living there, they needed to do something with them. Hence, the Assyrians decided to deport a large portion of the population of Israel (the northern kingdom) from their homeland. These tribes became known as the Ten Lost Tribes, and they – or at least their higher class members – were forcibly removed from their homeland. They were sent to different areas of the Assyrian Empire, and they were never granted an edict to return (unlike the southern peoples).
The Assyrians did not relocate Israelites just because they were Israelites. Often the conquered view the conquerors as personally attacking or punishing them, but the Assyrians often relocated the upper classes of the people they conquered. This helped to quell any leadership and dissent, since the lower classes would remain disorganized and the upper-class groups would be too spread out for any effective communication and rebellion. The tribes are considered lost because they couldn’t reemerge as a group at any point in history. They likely assimilated into the local population or died out without the possibility of connecting to others and regaining recognition in the eyes of history.
The Rise of Babylon, The Fall of Judah
Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was first conquered by the Egyptians. Interestingly, the Israelites had escaped from Egypt a few centuries earlier, and now they were back under Egyptian rule. However, the Egyptians were not without competition, as both Assyria and Babylonia were vying for power. The Babylonians defeated the Egyptians in the Levant and took Judah as a tribute state. Of course, the warfare didn’t end and following an Egyptian victory, the leader of Judah sided again with Egypt. This decision wasn’t because he liked Egypt, but politics and war call for alliances with unexpected partners. This understandably upset Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian ruler, and he sent a force to capture Jerusalem. The city was handed over, and he then deported a large cohort of the upper class to Babylon. Unlike the Assyrians, however, he put all of them in the same place – hence this group could coalesce around its main leaders and maintain some continuity. This was the beginning of the Exile, and it started in 597 BCE.
In 588 BCE, the leader of Judah again defected from the Babylonians. This time, Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem forcibly and destroyed the Temple in the process. He also murdered the defector’s sons and blinded the defector himself then sent him off to Babylon. Even though the leader was sent to Babylon where many deported members of Judean upper class society already lived, the Exile was a time of despair for the Jewish people. They couldn’t sacrifice in their own temple, their lands had been taken from them, and they were outsiders in the Babylonian Empire. A force that had no connection to God, was not comprised of the Chosen People, and had no respect for the Jewish God had destroyed them. Their temple was burned down and, consequently, the Babylonian Exile was a dark period of Jewish history where one could understand some doubt the Covenant.
Of course, no empire lasts forever. Relatively shortly after the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon, they were conquered themselves by the Persians. The ruler of Babylon at the time, Nabonidus, was not very popular with his subjects, but his conqueror, Cyrus the Great, was. In 539 BCE, Babylonia fell to the Persians and became a colony, just as their rival Assyria had. The fall of Babylon was made easier by the discontent with the current ruler by Babylonians themselves and because foreigners, like those from Judah, were not interested in defending Babylon. Cyrus allowed those who had come from Judah to return, thus ending the Exile. Ecstatic about their return to their homeland, the Jews started to rebuild the temple from 538 BCE and finished it about 25 years later in 516.
There were the usual upheavals of an empire until in 333 BCE, a man swept out of southeastern Europe to conquer the Persian Empire. This man was Alexander the Great, and he, along with another set of Europeans (the Romans), will be the focus of our next addition to our History of Christianity series.