From Joshua to the Exile: The People of Israel in the Promised Land

Moses led the people of Israel in the desert for forty years after they escaped from slavery in Egypt. But when the people were camped in the lowlands of Moab on the east side of the Jordan River, Moses died, and Joshua became their new leader. The promise God made more than five hundred years earlier to Abraham Gen 12.1,2; 15.7-21 and repeated to Joshua Josh 1.1-8 was about to be fulfilled. Abraham's descendants, the people of Israel, were ready to take over the land of Canaan. But this would not be easy. Other people had lived in Canaan for thousands of years. They had built walled cities and farmed the land, and they were not simply going to give their land to the people of Israel.

The People of Israel Enter the Promised Land

The story of how the people of Israel conquered the people of Canaan is told in Joshua. Like the biblical books that tell about how Moses led the people (Exod, Num, Deut), Joshua is full of miracles. Before the people of Israel could enter Canaan, they had to cross the Jordan River. Once again, God was with them and helped them in a miraculous way. Just as God had helped Moses by opening up the waters of the Red Sea (Exod 14), so God made the waters of the Jordan River stop flowing when the priests of Israel stepped into the river Josh 3.15-17. After they crossed the river and came to Gilgal, the people made a monument using twelve rocks, one rock for each tribe of Israel. Then they set up camp there.

Here the people of Israel prepared to capture Jericho, a nearby walled city that stood on a mound along an important east-west trade route in the fertile Jordan River Valley. The conquest of Jericho is another miraculous story. After the Israelite priests and army marched around the city for seven days as the Lord had instructed, the priests blew their trumpets and the people shouted. The walls of the city fell flat and the Israelites captured the city (Josh 6). From Jericho, Joshua and the people moved into other parts of Canaan, capturing other cities in battle or making agreements with the people who already lived in the land.


The Tribes of Israel and Their Lands

Eventually Joshua gave different parts of the land of Canaan to each of Israel's twelve tribes (Josh 13 – 21); see also the map. These tribes were like big extended families, with the oldest male (father) serving as the center of authority. As the tribes took ownership of their pieces of land, they settled down to build towns, grow crops, and raise herds of sheep and goats. The land these tribes owned was believed to have been assigned by God, and so no one was to sell or give their property to anyone else. If that did happen, the land was to eventually be given back to the tribe God first gave it to. This would happen during the Year of the Celebration which was celebrated approximately every fifty yearsLev 25.8-17,23-28.

The tribe of Levi did not get their own land, because they were given a special task and would not be farmers or herders. The Law of Moses said they would be in charge of offering sacrifices to God (Deut 18.1). The other tribes were to provide these sacrifices, and the Levites were allowed to keep some of the food sacrifices for themselves. Thus, the Levites (priests from the tribe of Levi) had an important place as the religious leaders of the other tribes: they would be the priests for all Israel.

Even though the twelve tribes were scattered in different areas around Canaan, they shared a common history and followed the Law of Moses. Just before Joshua died, he called all the tribes together for a meeting at Shechem. He challenged them to remain faithful to God and never to worship other gods (Josh 24.14-24). The people promised to remain faithful, and Joshua set up a stone as a witness to their promises (Josh 24.25-27).


Judges Are Chosen To Rule the People of Israel

After Joshua died, the tribes of Israel continued to fight against the Canaanites (Judg 1), but they did not drive out all the people who had lived in the land. In addition, the tribes of Israel were also surrounded by other peoples who were not friendly.

At this time, the Israelites began to forget the promises they had made to the lord while Joshua was still alive. Some of them worshiped the Canaanite gods, Baal and Astarte, as well as idols of other gods from nearby lands (see the article called The Ancient World: Peoples, Powers, and Politics). The lord was so angry that he let the surrounding nations raid Israel's lands and steal their crops and possessions (Judg 2.6-15).

When the people cried out for help, God felt sorry for them. Help came from special leaders known as judges. The judges sometimes settled legal cases (see Judg 4.4,5), but most of them were more well known as military leaders chosen by God to lead the Israelites in battle against their enemies. The lives of these judges are described in judges, chapters 3 - 16 (see also the Introduction to judges).


Samuel: Prophet, Priest, and Leader

Near the end of the period of the judges, a boy named Samuel was born to Hannah and Elkanah (1 Sam 1). They took him to Shiloh, where he was dedicated to the lord by the priest Eli. Samuel stayed with Eli in Shiloh and helped Eli serve the lord. While Samuel was still very young (1 Sam 3), the lord chose him to be his special servant and he grew up to be the lord’s prophet (1 Sam 3.19; 4.1; 7.3-5). Samuel also served as a priest (1 Sam 7.9-10)and was a leader in Israel all his life (1 Sam 7.15). Because his time as Israel's leader immediately followed the period of judges, he is sometimes called the last of Israel's judges.

Kings and Kingdoms

When Samuel was getting old, the leaders of Israel's tribes asked him to choose a king to rule over them, because all the lands around them were ruled by kings. Samuel did not really like this idea. He believed that a king would not treat the people well (1 Sam 8.9-18), and he thought that the people's request for a king showed their lack of trust in the lord as their leader (1 Sam 10.17-19). But when Samuel prayed about the situation, the lord told him to go ahead and give the people a king (1 Sam 8.1-22). This was a major change in the history of the Israelite people. For a long time they had been a loosely connected group of tribes with one God but separate leaders. Now, they were about to become a single nation made up of tribes united not only by one God, but also under a king.

The people of ancient Israel were ruled by kings from the time of Saul (about 1030 to 1010 bc) and David (1010 to 970 bc) to the reign of Zedekiah (597 to 587 b.c). Some of the kings were strong rulers who remained faithful to God. But other kings actually led the people away from worshiping God, made bad agreements with Israel's enemies, and treated the people cruelly and unfairly. The history of the kings is told in 1 and 2 samuel, 1 and 2 kings, and is retold in 1 and 2 chronicles.


Saul: Israel's First King

The period of the kings is divided into two main parts. The first part is known as the time of the United Israelite Kingdom, when there was just one king for all of the Israelite people and tribes. Samuel chose Saul to be the first king of Israel 1 Sam 9,10 and he was accepted by the tribal leaders because of his courage and military abilities 1 Sam 11. He ruled for about twenty years and did much to bring the tribes together and to defeat some of Israel's enemies. But Saul was also a troubled man who was unfaithful to God at times.


David Becomes Israel's King

While Saul was still king the lord told Samuel to go to Bethlehem to find the next king. This turned out to be David, the youngest son of Jesse (1 Sam 16.1-13). David soon entered Saul's court as a special servant who played the harp to console the troubled king (1 Sam 16.14-23). Another account of David's life shows him to be an amazingly brave soldier who trusted in the lord. David killed the giant Philistine Goliath (1 Sam 17.1-54) and impressed the king so much that Saul made him a high officer in the army (1 Sam 18.5). Eventually, the king became suspicious of David and jealous of his military successes. Saul tried several times to have David killed, but was never successful. Eventually, Saul committed suicide after being injured in battle against the Philistines (1 Sam 31.1-13).

After Saul's death, there was a short period when the people of Israel were divided between loyalty to Saul's only living son, Ishbosheth, and to David, the powerful military leader. David became king of the people of Judah at Hebron (2 Sam 2.4), and then king of all of Israel after the murder of Saul's son (2 Sam 5.1-3). He then conquered the Jebusite city Jerusalem and made it the capital of the United Israelite Kingdom (2 Sam 5.6-12). He put the sacred chest (see the mini-articles called The Sacred Chest  and The Sacred Tent on the hilltop where the temple would later be built (2 Sam 6.1-19). The prophet Nathan told David that God would dwell in the great temple in Jerusalem some day. But he said that David's son would build it, not David (2 Sam 7.1-17).

One of greatest things David did was to defeat the Philistines in battle and take control of all the land east of the Jordan River and north of Damascus in Syria as far as the Euphrates River (2 Sam 8).  psalms and the books of the prophets describe David as a model king who had a close relationship with God. In many ways, he became a symbol of new life for God's people and of God's rule in the world (2 Sam 23.5; Ps 89.3,4; Isa 9.1-7; Jer 33.14-26; Mic 5.2-5). However, David also had his faults; he was not always perfect (2 Sam 11,12). See also the mini-article called David.


Solomon: Israel's Wisest King

David's son, Solomon, became king after David died and ruled from about 970 to 931 b.c. Solomon was known as a wise man (1 Kgs 2.9; 3.12,28; 4.29-34), and he was in charge of building Israel's first temple in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 5-8). He expanded his father David's kingdom, built an enormous palace (1 Kgs 7.1-12) and many fortresses, established store cities, and made Israel a very rich country (1 Kgs 4.20-28). But in doing this he married foreign wives and allowed them to set up shrines and monuments to other gods (1 Kgs 11.1-13), things which were certainly not pleasing to the lord.


The Kingdom Is Divided

When Solomon died around 922 b.c., his son Rehoboam became king. Shortly after that, the ten northern tribes rebelled against the king and formed their own kingdom. This period of Israel's history became known as the Divided Kingdom.

The tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south became known as the kingdom of Judah (or the southern kingdom). The rest of the tribes to the north formed the kingdom of Israel (or the northern kingdom). See the map called The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Each kingdom had its own king. In Judah, the kings continued to be descendants of King David, but in Israel the tribal and military leaders had to fight to become king. Sometimes a family would reign for a period of years, only to be defeated by an opponent who then ruled for a time.

The capital of Judah was still Jerusalem where the people of Judah continued to worship the lord in the temple. But in Israel, King Jeroboam I made a shrine in Bethel so that people could offer sacrifices there instead of going to the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 12.25-33). Later, Samaria became the capital city of Israel (1 Kgs 16.24-29).

 

Israel: The Northern Kingdom

In the northern kingdom of Israel, some rulers allowed the people to worship idols such as the Canaanite god Baal. This practice was condemned by a number of the prophets who preached in Israel during this time. For example, the prophet Elijah spoke out against King Ahab and his wife Queen Jezebel, who openly encouraged the worship of Baal and supported Baal's prophets (see 1 Kings 18.1--19.18).

The practice of allowing the people to worship other gods led to Israel's downfall. They fought civil wars with Judah and battled with neighbors like Syria and Moab. Eventually, the Assyrians invaded Israel and attacked the capital city of Samaria. In 722 b.c. the city was conquered and many of the Israelites were captured and taken away to Assyria as prisoners. Others stayed in the area, lived with, and sometimes married the people the Assyrians brought in to settle the land. The northern kingdom of Israel never regained its power as a nation.

 

Judah: The Southern Kingdom

Meanwhile, Judah in the south had its own problems. Though many of its kings, such as Hezekiah and especially Josiah, were faithful to God and followed the teachings of the Law of Moses (2 Kgs 18.1-8), other kings, like Manasseh, did things to make the lord angry (2 Kgs 21.1-18). Eventually Judah could no longer hold out against the attacks of its powerful neighbors. The kingdom of Babylon finally invaded and destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 587 b.c. Many of the people of Judah were taken to Babylon as prisoners. During the next fifty years this group of Israelites remained in Babylon and could not return to their own land. This period of time is known as “the exile.” (See the mini-article called Exile). To learn about how the people of Israel were allowed to return to their homeland, see the article called After the Exile: God’s People Return to Judea.