Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Israel vs. Judah:
The Chosen People Divided
Jesus' remark, "And if a house is divided against
itself, that house will not be able to stand" (Mark 3:25) may
well be a melancholy remembrance of a time when his own nation
experienced a division that was never reconciled. "That house"
(the House of David) indeed did not stand. Israel's fall took
place nearly a thousand years before Jesus' day, but because the
event was one of the defining moments of Israelite history, the
memory remained surprisingly fresh and acutely painful throughout
the long centuries.
Conflicts that sunder a people previously united by
geography, ethnicity, religious faith or political affinity have
deeper, more lasting effects than any other kind. These clashes
pit brother against brother, sometimes literally. People with
a long and close association find themselves facing each other
at opposite ends of a sword or, today, automatic rifle. Even after
the weapons are laid aside, an atmosphere of bitterness and mistrust
remains for years, sometimes generations, even centuries. In our
own time, we have witnessed the sad situations of East and West
Germany, North and South Korea, Northern Ireland and the Republic
to the south, and of course, the American War between the States.
You can begin to see how the split between Israel
and Judah could have had an indelible influence on the thinking
of Jesus' ancestors through the ensuing centuries and be reflected
in his own thought and teaching. Let's see what really happened.
The Notion of Nation
The concept of a national identity wasn't an option
until the day the first Israelite lifted a muddy sandal out of
the Jordan riverbed and planted it on Canaanite soil. This event
transpired near the end of the 13th century B.C.E. under the leadership
of Moses' former military aide, Joshua. The biblical book that
bears his name is, first to last, the story of his efforts to
settle the Israelites in the land promised to Abraham roughly
600 years earlier.
As is usually the case with biblical writings, the
Book of Joshua is best read in a single sitting as one would a
riveting adventure tale. It is good to remember that, while most
of the books in the Hebrew canon from Joshua through Nehemiah
are generally termed historical, they should not be viewed as
histories. Today's reader expects a volume of history to provide
documented, chronological events containing verifiable names and
dates. The Bible's historical books promise none of that. For
the most part, they do tell of happenings that actually occurred,
but time frame, characters, details composed of fact-based data
are often hazy, contradictory or absent altogether. For this,
our ancestors should not be faulted. They simply did not put the
emphasis on this sort of material that we do.
So did Joshua lead the Israelites into Canaan? No
doubt. Did it happen precisely as it is recorded in the Bible?
Probably not. Does it matter? Yes and no. Sometimes the simple
truth that it happened is of infinitely greater import than how
or when or where.
As Israelite leader trying to walk in Moses' rather
intimidating footsteps, Joshua had two primary tasks: (1) to bring
the tribes of Israel into Canaan, a daunting chore given the resident
Canaanites' immigration policies; (2) to distribute land among
the tribes once they were all more or less there and settled.
By the end of his life, the mission was accomplished on at least
an elemental level. So then Israel was a nation? Well, no.
The Years of Turmoil and Chaos
Most of the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.E. were devoted
to survival. Having never before lived a sedentary life, the Israelites
were predictably inept at it. Farms, orchards and vineyards were
foreign to them. Following Joshua's death, no one assumed the
role of central leadership, leaving little more than a rough confederation
of autonomous tribes. None of the tribes was terribly strong,
resulting in a constant pummeling by their neighbors.
Those who would have ridden in wearing the white hats,
had horses and hats been available, were called the judges. Their
individual and collective stories are chronicled, not surprisingly,
in the Book of Judges. No gavel-wielding, robe-swishing jurists
these. Biblical judges are hero figures who save the day, dispatch
the villain and disappear once more. Some of them are familiar
to us: Deborah, Gideon, Samson. Others fall into the general category
As one might expect, a couple of centuries of being
the weak, unwelcome, victimized strangers in a new land was more
than enough. Change was needed and desperately wanted. An inter-tribal
delegation arrived before the last and greatest of the judges,
Samuel, and petitioned him to anoint a king for them (1 Sm 8).
And so began the march toward monarchy and real national identity.
Samuel in his wisdom points out the considerable downside
of being ruled by a king (1 Samuel 8:10-18). Demonstrating that
some of human nature's more endearing qualities don't change very
much, the people want what they want when they want it and they
proceedconfident that any such evils which may have befallen
others will never happen to them. If you read the passage and
listen closely, you may still hear Samuel's resigned sigh rise
from the page as, flask in hand, he sets off to anoint the first
king of Israel, a handsome lad named Saul.
There is no time in this article to discuss Saul's
checkered career. You can read all about Saul and his 'way ups
and 'way, 'way downs beginning in 1 Samuel 9. If the Israelites
had given little initial credence to Samuel's predictions about
a king, their ears should have been perked up remarkably during
The First Good Shepherd
First anointed by Samuel to take the throne from Saul
after his death (1 Sm 16:1-13), David, Jesse's young shepherd
son, was later anointed king of Judah in Hebron (2 Sm 2:1-4).
Traditionally the site of the tomb of Abraham, Hebron of late
has been the scene of much Israeli/Palestinian infighting. In
2 Samuel 5:1-5, David was anointed king over all Israelite tribes,
and Israel was launched upon its brief shining moment as a national
David's reign over all of Israel spanned some 40 years
(2 Sm 5:4-5, 1 Kgs 2:11) as did Solomon's, his son and successor
(1 Kgs 11:42). While it is true that 40 is often used as a round
number in biblical writings and thus may be inexact, there's no
reason to doubt that both men occupied Israel's throne for several
decades, David from c. 1010-970 B.C.E., Solomon from c. 970-930
B.C.E. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, these years constituted
"the best of times" for Israel but ended as the first light of
"the worst of times" began to dawn.
For all his many personal and professional transgressions,
David was an able monarch whose military experience helped him
coalesce the fragmented tribal units into a single nation. Later
history would view David as the ideal king, and God promised that
someone of the Davidic line would occupy Israel's throne forever
(2 Sm 7:8-16). David left Solomon a kingdom whose boundaries had
been expanded and secured.
Solomon in turn built his inheritance into a secular
power that commanded respect. He launched a building program so
extensive and magnificent it would have done credit to the Egyptian
pharaohs. The crown jewel of his efforts was the First Temple
whose description boggles even the modern mind (1 Kgs 6-8).
The construction of such mighty edifices, then as
now, required two things in abundance: manpower and money. The
manpower came from conscripted Israelite labor; the money, from
confiscated Israelite purses. At his death, Solomon left Israel
shining in the sun, proud but poor.
Bad Advice Is Nearly Always Taken
Enter Rehoboam (1 Kgs 11:43). In light of the wide
and varied selection of sons Solomon left behind, one would think
there might have been a sharper knife in the drawer than Rehoboam.
It's a moot point, however, since Rehoboam it wasyoung and
The overworked, overtaxed Israelites approached their
new monarch with a perfectly reasonable request. They would serve
Rehoboam if only he would ease their considerable burden. Ever
the quick thinker, Rehoboam tells them to return for an answer
in three days. During that time, he wisely consults members of
his father's court who advise him to grant the people's request.
He also unwisely consults his peers who advise him to let the
people know who's boss right from the get-go. This may well qualify
as the worst advise bestowed anywhere in the Bible, so, of course,
it is snapped up instantly.
Upon receiving the news that things were likely to
get a whole lot worse before getting even a little bit better,
ten tribes seceded, leaving the Davidic throne and its inept occupant
ruling only the southern tribes of Judah and tiny Benjamin. For
their part, the ten northern tribes made a man named Jeroboam
their king. He promptly set up new political and religious centers,
including shrines focused on golden calves at Bethel and Dan (1
Because Jerusalem was situated within Judah's tribal
territory, certain valuable assets fell to the southern kingdom
by default. These included the capital city, the Temple and the
throne of David. David, having been born in Bethlehem, was a Judahite
by birth. The royal line created for the northern kingdom was
tolerated but never truly accepted by the Davidic descendants,
some of whom were in no position to look down their royal noses
King Omri (c. 885-874 B.C.E.) established Samaria
as the northern capital (1 Kgs 16:23-24). Eventually, a new center
of worship would emerge nearby at Mount Gerizim.
The tragedy of Israel's schism was multifaceted. Most
obvious is the fact that with the dissolution of the united monarchy,
Israel's hard-won glory days were permanently ended. Before long,
the skinny little land bridge that was home to Israel and Judah
would know the tramp of many a foreign foot as nations more powerful
than they crisscrossed it en route to great power struggles elsewhere.
Ultimately, first Israel, then Judah would fall to the superpowers
of their day.
Perhaps the most devastating result of the severing
of the nation was the long-standing animosities that grew from
it. As so often happens in so-called civil conflicts, people closely
related ethnically, religiously, culturally, politically, historically
viewed one another with wary suspicion, condescension, even abomination
as they grew further and further apart. Sometimes, as was the
case with America's War Between the States, unity is reestablished,
but even then, wounds are a long time healing. Perhaps they never
No Happy Ending
In 722-721 B.C.E., the king of the vast Assyrian Empire
(whose capital, Nineveh, was located in modern Iraq) eyed the
northern kingdom of Israel, found its loyalty wanting, and annihilated
it in the blink of an eye. 2 Kings 17 tells the tale: how the
Assyrians imprisoned the Israelite king, occupied the land, besieged
Samaria for three years, and finally deported the majority of
Israelites, scattering them throughout Assyria's vast holdings.
These became known as the ten lost tribes because, although that
terminology may be a simplification, the deportees and their descendents
never appeared on the world stage again.
In their place, Assyria brought people from the far
reaches of its empire and settled them on Israel's land and in
its cities. Over seven centuries later, after generations of intermingling
and intermarrying with the remaining Israelites, the people of
this area would be known as Samaritans, despised by the Jews of
Jesus' day for their mixed blood and unorthodox religion.
The southern kingdom, Judah, managed to survive another
135 years. By that time, superpower status had passed from Assyria
to Babylonia. In a scenario reminiscent of Israel's in the north,
Judah found itself the target of the fearsome Nebuchadnezzar,
king of Babylon. Jerusalem, too, was besieged. King Zedekiah was
blinded and hustled off to Babylon. And in the end, the Judahites,
like their northern relatives, were marched into exile. They would
remain in Babylon roughly half a century. Once Persia usurped
power from Babylon, the exiles were allowed to return home, making
the end of their story, told in 2 Kings 25, very different from
Upon their return to Judah in 538 B.C.E., the surviving
remnant faced the daunting task of rebuilding literally from the
ground up. This was the beginning of a period known as the Restoration,
similar in some ways to the period of Reconstruction in the American
South. Although they would work at it with varying degrees of
success throughout the decades and centuries ahead, they would
never entirely complete the undertaking. From that point forward,
Judah would know much foreign influence, none more forceful than
Rome's arrival in 63 B.C.E., turning Judah into the Roman province
of Judea and ending even a nominal trace of the nation that once
was. That nation would not reappear on any map until the modern
state of Israel was established in 1947.
Next: Ezekiel (by Irene Nowell, O.S.B.)