Israel: Ancient and Recent History

Israeli tour guides sometimes say:

Israel may be three hundred miles long, thirty miles wide, but it’s three thousand years deep

They are simply referring to the fact that over three millennia of Bible history is sown in the land of Israel. Others agree:

Israel is the very embodiment of Jewish continuity: It is the only nation on earth that inhabits the same land, bears the same name, speaks the same language, and worships the same G-d that it did 3,000 years ago“
[Charles Krauthammer – The Weekly Standard, May 11, 1998]

So much for the history of Israel over the past 3,000 years. But this 3,000 year old nation goes on:

Israel was not created in order to disappear – Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success.It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom“
[John F. Kennedy, President of the United States]

The History of Israel Started with Abraham

history of Israel

Fig.1: Abraham’s journey, Biblical maps

The history of Israel and the Arab nations starts with Abram (later called Abraham). Some 4,000 years ago Abram was called by God to go from his home in Ur of the Chaldeans and travel to a land that God would give to him and his descendants, Fig.1. Scholars date this migration from Ur somewhere between 1900 and 1750 BC, and the land in question was Canaan. God said to Abram:

Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation … (Gen 12.1)

At this time God set about making a people for Himself to be a witness of Himself to the nations, and they were given the land of Canaan for perpetuity. Through Abraham, Isaac and Jacob came the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Judah, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan …) and they inhabited the land God gave them – the area currently known as Israel, including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

Sadly, after the Davidic Kingdom around 1,000 BC the tribes of Israel gradually fell away from their God and through their disobedience were uprooted from their land and scattered throughout the nations. Israel’s scattering (the diaspora) was complete around 586 BC. Subsequently, in 70 AD the Romans committed genocide against the Jews, smashed the Temple in Jerusalem and declared the land of Israel would be no more. To this end they renamed the land of Israel, principally Judea, as ‘Palaestina‘ (modern Palestine) which some believe as an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the land of Israel.

Let’s look at all this in more detail.

The Promise of a Great Nation – the Abrahamic Covenant

God told Abram that his descendants would become a great nation and that through this nation all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12.1-7).

FACT: the blessing came through Isaac, Jacob, Judah … to Christ – salvation for all mankind is of the Jews (Jn 4.22). To confirm this promise God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning ‘father of many nations’ (Gen 17.5) and He made a covenant with him:

I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you … I will give to you and your descendants … all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God
(Gen 17.7,8)

This covenant was ratified by God alone, meaning that the covenant is eternal and unconditional (Gen 15).

A Chosen Nation – A Special People

Note that God said: ‘I will be their God’. Here, God was claiming Israel to be His own; ‘You are Mine’ (Isa 43.1). So here we have God identifying Himself with a particular people. Here we have the God of Israel – they are God’s very own people, forever (2 Sam 7.24). Why did God do this? God made a people for Himself for a very real purpose. Besides blessing all nations through Christ, God made Israel to be His witness to the nations (Isa 43.10) and to be His servant (Isa 49.3). Israel is unique since it is the one nation on earth that God uses to make a name for Himself. As King David exclaimed:

Who is like Your people Israel, the one nation on the earth whom God went to redeem for Himself as a people, to make a name for Himself
(2 Sam 7.23).

FACT: God chose the servant nation Israel to be His special witness in the world, and the survival of the Jews throughout the ages is strong evidence of His presence.

history of Israel

Fig.2: Settlement of the tribes of Israel
Biblical maps

The Promised Land – Canaan

As stated, the covenant between God and Abraham was unconditional and everlasting, although God later warned Abraham’s descendants that they may suffer (temporary) exile if they were disobedient to Him (Deut 28.15-37). But, irrespective of how they behaved, it was certain that from Abraham would eventually come a great nation and a great blessing to the nations, and Abraham’s descendants would be given the so-called ‘Promised Land’ of Canaan as an everlasting possession (Gen 17.8).

What was this land? On the day of the covenant, God defined the boundaries as from the river (brook) of Egypt to the River Euphrates (Gen 15.18). FACT: the kingdoms of David and Solomon c1000 BC did indeed stretch from the brook of Egypt on the Sinai peninsula (not the Nile), across the Syrian Desert to Tiphsah on the Euphrates. Prior to these kingdoms, God gave Moses the boundaries of Canaan as the children of Israel entered the land (Num 34.1-12). The southern border went through the Wilderness of Zin to the brook of Egypt, the western border was the Mediterranean Sea and the eastern border ran north from the dead sea along the Jordan up to Zedad (modern-day Sadad in Syria) in the north east. Virtually identical boundaries to those given to Moses are given in Ezek 47.13-21.

FACT: these timeless biblical boundaries clearly include both the Gaza strip and the West Bank. They also include significant parts of present-day Syria i.e. up to Hamath (modern-day Hama), and most of present-day Lebanon. So according to the Bible, Israel today is not “occupying Palestinian land”.

The Birth of the Jewish nation, Israel

Abraham’s wife Sarah bore him a son, Isaac, and Isaac’s wife Rebecca bore Jacob (meaning ‘supplanter’). History shows that God had a special task for Jacob and his descendants and He changed Jacob’s name to ‘Israel’ after he had struggled with an angel – and prevailed (Gen 32.28). The etymology of the name Israel is not clear, link, although Gen 32.28 implies that Jacob and his descendants would struggle but prevail. The history of Israel confirms this thought; Jacob’s descendants, the twelve tribes of Israel (the Hebrew Israelites) have suffered but prevailed for 3,000 years.

The descendants of Abraham formed a nation (Israel) around 1300 BC after their Exodus from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. But before they could enter Canaan they had to spend 40 harsh years in the desert wilderness (the Sinai Peninsular) due to their disobedience and unbelief. They finally settled mainly in the area currently known as Israel, including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, although the tribes of Benjamin, Gad, Reuben and part of Manasseh settled east of the Jordan, Fig.2.

In 1004 BC King David established Jerusalem as the capital of the Kingdom of Israel, and in 960 BC his son Solomon built the first Jewish temple. Then, in 922 BC the twelve tribes split into a southern kingdom (called ‘The House of Judah’, embracing Judea and Jerusalem) and a northern kingdom comprising ten tribes and called ‘The House of Israel’, or simply ‘Israel’ (Jer 11.10).

Jews: Historically, the tribe of Judah (Heb ‘Yehuda’) gave rise to the term ‘Jew’ (Heb ‘Yehudi’). So initially, the term ‘Jew’ referred to a member of the tribe of Judah, but later it came to refer to all the Israelites, regardless of their tribal ancestry (see also Jews and Judaism). Historically, the Jewish people are generally referred to as the Children of Israel, signifying their descent from Jacob.

The Scattering or Diaspora

The House of Israel had a succession of godless kings and despite repeated warnings from the prophets, they rebelled against God. Eventually God’s warnings gave way to judgement and He uprooted them from the Promised Land and scattered them throughout the nations, as pre-warned by Moses:

And the Lord will scatter you among the peoples (Deut 4.27)

From here on, the House of Israel ceased to be a kingdom and the Babylonians and others settled in the cities of Samaria in their place (2 Kings 17.24). The scattering was complete around 722 BC. The House of Judah was also rebellious and eventually suffered the same judgement. History indicates that Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah and Jerusalem initially in 604 BC. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed around 597 BC and by 586 BC all of the southern kingdom had been deported to Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar. Apart from a remnant of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi which returned to rebuild Jerusalem, the whole of national Israel (all twelve tribes) was now dispersed amongst the nations and Jerusalem was occupied by Gentile nations. Both kingdoms had broken God’s covenant and were now scattered throughout the nations (Jer 11.10, Deut 4.27, Ja 1.1). The dispersion was complete in 70 AD  when the Roman general Titus sacked the city.

FACT: at the start of the 20th century the land of Israel was a mix of many peoples, representing some 50 languages [1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica]. According to historian Richard Hartmann, these communities were “ethnologically a chaos of all the possible human combinations” and so did not share a common Arab identity. Moreover, there was no distinctive ‘Palestinian people’, and Israel’s scattering was still evident.

The Faithful Remnant

After the Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC the land of Judah and Jerusalem remained vacant (at rest) for 70 years until the Lord brought a remnant of His people back to the Promised Land:

After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform My good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place (Jer 29.10)

Why 70 years? Before their dispersion the house of Israel and the house of Judah refused to observe God’s sabbaticals and Jubilees. So the prophet Ezekiel was told to bring this fact to the attention of the exiles in Babylon through a dramatic act. He lay on his side for a total of 390 + 40 = 430 days (Ezek 4.4-6), symbolizing the 430 years of sabbatical rebellion on a year for a day principle. This actually corresponds to 70 Sabbath years, link, corresponding to the 70 Sabbath years that the land was kept from its rest. So the exiles had to endure 70 years in exile to pay their debt to God. The 70 years span the years from the first deportation (605 BC) to the first return after 536 BC, or from the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BC to the building of the Second Temple in 516 BC.

The Return: God was faithful to His promise of their return, and when Cyrus the Persian captured Babylon in 539 BC the Jewish captives were free to return to Judah (Isa 44.28). The first group of returning exiles arrived in Judea sometime after 536 BC under the leadership of Zerubbabel, a second group returned under Ezra, and Nehemiah led the last group back in 444 BC, link. In all, a remnant of some 50,000 Jews returned to Judah, but most remained in Babylon.

But who actually returned? The book of Ezra states it was the houses (tribes) of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites (Ezra 1.5). The tribe of Judah is very significant here (in fact, the Bible speaks more about the tribe of Judah than any other single tribe of Israel). In Jacob’s blessing of his sons he said of Judah, “the scepter shall not depart from Judah .. until Shiloh (the Messiah) comes” (Gen 49.10). So, in returning, Judah held the royal symbol of kingship in Jerusalem until Christ came. It is important to note that, despite the diaspora and subsequent persecution over the centuries, God always preserves a faithful remnant of His people. Paul refers to an enduring remnant of Israel:

Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved … at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace (Rom 9.27, 11.5)

At the very end of this age, it is just a remnant of Israel who come through the times of tribulation, ‘refined by fire’ and fit to serve the LORD in the millennial age (Zech 13.9). And it is the tribe of Judah who the LORD uses to defend Jerusalem (Zech 12.1-9).

History of Gentile Rule Over Israel

From around 586 BC until modern times, the land of Israel or Holy Land was ruled by Gentile powers:

  • 586-538 BC: Babylonian Empire. Jews exiled to Babylon, destruction of the first Temple
  • 538-333 BC: Persian Empire. Some exiled Jews return to restore the Temple (completed 517 BC)
  • 333-63 BC: Greek Empire. Desecration of the Second Temple by Antiochus IV
  • 63 BC-313: Roman Empire. Destruction of the restored Temple (the Second Temple) in 70 AD
  • 313 – 636: Byzantine rule. Israel becomes a predominantly Christian country
  • 636 – 1099: Islamic rule. Increasing suffering of Jews (as ‘dhimmi’) under caliphates
  • 1099 – 1291: Crusader rule. Non-Christians, including Jews, suffer
  • 1291 – 1517: Mamluk rule. Gradual decline of towns, commerce and Jewish communities
  • 1517 – 1917: Ottoman rule. Further decline of the land, but increasing Jewish population
  • 1917 – 1948: British rule. The 1922 British Mandate for Palestine encouraged immigration (aliyah)
  • 1948: On May 14 1948 the Jews proclaimed an independent State of Israel and the British withdrew from Palestine

 

World Government: The four historical empires in bold type (Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman) are in fact the four great empires prophesied to rule over Israel before the Second Coming of Christ (Dan 2.31-45). The last one, Rome, is very relevant even today since prophecy strongly suggests that a form of the Roman Empire will be in existence when Christ returns (Dan 2.34). For more, see Israel’s Future and World Government.

End of Gentile Rule: The declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 effectively ended over 2500 years of Gentile rule over Israel, although Jerusalem itself was not fully liberated until 1967. Some see the taking of East Jerusalem in 1967 by Israeli forces (see below) as the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy:

Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Lk 21.24)

Recent History of Israel: Aliyah and Restoration

The scattering of Israel was fulfillment of Bible prophecy, but recent history has also seen the fulfillment of Bible prophecy in the ingathering of Israel. FACT: despite the scattering, God did not destroy national Israel – He simply gave her a ‘writ of divorce’ (Jer 3.8). There are many prophecies of the ingathering of national Israel and her ‘remarriage’ to her God. For instance, In the end-time context of the restoration of national Israel, God sets Israel as a ‘banner (or sign) to the nations’ and gathers Israel and Judah ‘from the four corners of the earth’ (Isa 11.12). The prophet Ezekiel saw this restoration of Israel in his vision of ‘the valley of dry bones’ (Ezek 37). Here, God says:

Behold, I will take the sons of Israel from among the nations where they have gone … and bring them into their own land
(Ezek 37.21)

In the New Testament, Romans 11.24 speaks of this ingathering as a ‘grafting’ of scattered Israel into their own cultivated olive tree (whose rootage was in the Patriarchs, particularly Abraham). In other words, Israel returns (largely in unbelief) to the land and heritage covenanted to Abraham and his descendants. And it is at this time that wayward Israel is ‘remarried’ to the Lord (Hos 2.16, Isa 54.5,6). The scattering of Israel caused the nations to dishonour the God of Israel, and God is now gathering the remnant of Israel and Judah to restore His holy name (Isa 11.11,12 Ezek 36.20-24). Today’s term for this ingathering or immigration of Jews to Israel is aliyah (Heb ‘ascent’).

Key Events in Israel’s Recent History

Around 1880 the Turks ruled Israel/Palestine as part of the Ottoman Empire and there was only a small Jewish presence. There were just 24,000 Jews living in Israel, amounting to just 8% of the total population, link. The ingathering commenced in the late nineteenth century and key dates in the historic restoration of Israel are as follows:

history of Israel

Israel’s National Water Carrier (click to enlarge). Image: NielsF, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia

  • 1882: Start of the first wave of emigration (the First Aliyah) to Palestine. During 1882-1903 some 25,000 Jews emigrated from Russia and Romania
  • 1897: Theodor Herzel convened the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland
  • 1904: Start of the Second Aliyah, mainly from Russia and Poland. During the next ten years some 35,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine
  • 1909: Israel’s first kibbutz was founded by young Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Kibbutzim played a key role in Israel’s agricultural development, defense and political leadership
  • 1917: Balfour Declaration: the British government supported Zionist plans for a Jewish national home in Palestine, and General Allenby liberated Jerusalem from the Turks, giving Jews access to the city
  • 1920: The San Remo Peace Conference gave Britain a provisional ‘Mandate for Palestine’ based upon the Balfour declaration
  • 1922: The League of Nations gave unanimous approval for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine and formalized the British Mandate
  • 1947: Arab nations reject the UN Partition Plan for an Arab state and a Jewish state
  • 1947: The Exodus, a refugee ship, was captured by the British off Palestine and 4,500 Holocaust survivors returned to German prison camps
  • 1948: Establishment of the State of Israel and declared open for Jewish immigration. David Ben-Gurion became the first Prime Minister. Five Arab armies (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq) then immediately invaded Israel, starting the War of Independence
  • 1948: Start of mass immigration to Israel (despite the war), averaging nearly 200,000 a year until the early 1950’s
  • 1949: UN Security Council Resolution 62 called for implementation of armistice agreements leading to peace, and Israel’s borders re-established along the ‘Green Line’. As a result of war, Egypt held the Gaza Strip, Jordan held Judea and Samaria (the ‘West Bank’) and the Old City of E.Jerusalem
  • 1950: Law of return passed by Israel’s Parliament – opening Israel to Jews from over 60 countries
  • 1964: National Water Carrier completed, transporting fresh water from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) in the north of Israel to Mitzpe Ramon in the south (a new National Water Carrier was completed in 2014)
  • 1967: Six-Day War (June 5–10). The armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon (and later Iraq) attacked Israel with the goal ‘to wipe Israel off the map’. As a result, all of Jerusalem came under Jewish rule
  • 1973: Yom Kippur War: Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel during the Jewish holiday of ‘Yom Kippur’
  • 1980: Jerusalem, complete and united, is declared the capital of Israel (Knesset Basic Law, link)
  • 1982: Hebrew becomes an official language of Israel (Hebrew and Arabic are currently official languages of Israel)
  • 1984: Operation Moses – a secret operation bringing approximately 8,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Sudan
  • 1988: Jordan formally renounced any claim to the lands (West Bank and East Jerusalem) that had been lost in the 1967 war
  • 1991: Operation Solomon – a secret operation bringing approximately 14,400 Ethiopian Jews to Israel
  • 1994: Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty and Israel withdrew troops from Gaza and most cities and towns of the West Bank by 1996. Palestinians authorities take control
  • 2002: Israel reoccupied all of the West Bank following waves of Palestinian suicide attacks, and begins construction of the West Bank Fence along the Green Line in order to protect Israeli civilians from terrorism
  • 2005: Israel unilaterally withdrew all of its military occupation forces and settlers from the Gaza Strip (evacuation of 8,500 Israelis from 21 Jewish settlements), but retained civil and security control of the West Bank, link
  • 2014: New National Water Carrier completed, based on five desalination plants on the coast, link
  • 2014: Some 7,000 people of the Bnei Menashe tribe in India returned to their claimed Jewish roots in Israel. Overall, 2014 saw the arrival of 26,500 fresh immigrants (a ten-year high, link)

Clearly, there have been dramatic changes in Israel/Palestine in little over 100 years, and not least in Israel’s demographics. During these years the ingathering from the nations into Israel has been remarkable, as shown by Jewish population statistics: 1882: 0.025m; 1918: 0.06m; 1948: 0.72m; 1965: 2.3m; 1985: 3.5m; 2005: 5.3m; 2014: 6.1m; link. So in just 100 years the Jewish population of Israel increased by an amazing 7400%.

Summarizing:
In recent history 1) Israel’s Jewish population has increased dramatically, 2) the State of Israel has been declared, 3) all of Jerusalem has come under Jewish control, and 4) Jerusalem has been declared the capital of Israel by the Knesset, link.
See also Jeruslaem’s Future and Israel’s Future Borders