There are some peculiar people in the world who want things to be ‘cut and dried’, as we say in England. I am one of those peculiar people. My tendency is to want things to be tidy. I want stories to have a beginning, a middle and an end. I want my heroes to be good, and the bad guys to be bad.
I have had to overcome this tendency, because the world is not like this.
I like to have the chairs in this room lined up evenly. And I like to have my facts lined up.
We’ve been talking about history. History is the telling of facts about the past. Not all the facts, but enough to give us a clear picture of what happened and why. Except that it doesn’t work like this in practice. There are far fewer facts than we would like and more contradictions.
When we tell the history of the Hebrew people, we want to make it neat and tidy. We say the ten tribes of Israel were taken away by Assyria and never came back. The two remaining tribes of Judah were taken away to Babylon, and there were no Hebrews in the promised land.
The reality is more messy than that.
The ten tribes were taken away, but it wasn’t neat and tidy. People escaped, people were left behind. There are stories of how some groups went to Britain, others fled to Africa and still others to India. These are just stories. There are few facts.
The ten tribes that disappeared were: Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulun.
The two tribes that were taken to Babylon were: Judah and Benjamin.
What is wrong with this list? If you look closely you may realise that although there are indeed 12 tribes on the list, there is a missing tribe. This is the tribe of Levi.
The tribe of Levi is slightly different than the rest of the 12 tribes. They did not have territory but were set apart for service to God. Numbers 35 explains that instead of land, the Levites were to have certain cities. At Sinai, only the Levites remained loyal to God by not worshipping the Golden Calf, and therefore the Levis were designated as the priestly tribe. From among them, the descendants of Aaron were set apart to be the priests and serve in the Temple.
So the Levites were a tribe with no territory and lived in both Israel and Judah.
If you meet a Jewish man with the surname Cohen, it signifies that he is from the priestly family of Levi and can trace his family lineage back to Aaron.
The events we describe didn’t happen overnight.
It took the Assyrians between 20 and 40 years to conquer Israel and remove the ten tribes. The rough date when this was completed is 720bc.
Almost 100 years later it took another 20 years for Babylon to complete the exile of the people of Judah and destroy all their cities, including Jerusalem. The first group of people were taken away in 606bc. They included the royal court. The Babylonians seemed to have thought it would make it easier to control the territory of Judah if they removed the leaders. Daniel and his friends were in this group.
There was still some resistance so they came back nine years later.
The next group was taken away in 597bc. This time the Babylonians removed the merchants and craftsmen, destroying the economy. One of these craftsmen was the priest Ezekiel.
The stubborn people of Judah still rebelled. After another nine years the Babylonians took away some more people and razed the temple to the ground. Jerusalem was left deserted. Judah was almost empty, with perhaps a population of 20,000 people.
Seventy years later, exactly as Jeremiah had prophesied (Jeremiah 29:10), the return began. People returned in three waves, matching the three deportations. Not all the people came back. Many were settled and had comfortable lives, so they remained in Babylon.
The first group of 50,000 returned in 537bc. They were led by Zerubbabel, one of Jesus’ ancestors as listed in Matthew. They started to rebuild the temple. Ninety years later a second group returned with Ezra the priest. He brought back the Levites and restored worship for the people of Judah. Ezra could find only 1,800 people willing to go with him.
Around 14 years later Nehemiah led a group back to Jerusalem. In 444bc he took the craftsmen home and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, making it safe from attack.
The journey home was 900 miles and took four months. This is perhaps the biggest reason so few people made the trip. They had good lives in Babylon and weren’t slaves, so they stayed.
From start to finish this period of history spanned around 330 years. That is around 11 generations. God did what he said he would do, but he didn’t do it overnight. He didn’t even do it quickly by our way of thinking. The USA is by comparison a mere 239 years old this year.
The few Hebrews left behind were mostly farmers and shepherds. They didn’t live in Jerusalem. But they did preserve a form of the old faith and thought of themselves as the chosen people. The people who came back had different ideas and rejected them, especially because they were not pure blood. Eventually the ones who had stayed and married gentiles became the Samaritans, and the ones who had returned became Jews. There were no more tribes.
The most serious problem of this time was a question of faith. It was a core belief that the one true God had chosen the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for his own. And that he had promised them the land of milk and honey.
In Genesis 12:7 God said to Abram, “I will give this land to your descendants.” And in Deuteronomy 1:8 God says to Moses, “Look, I am giving all this land to you! Go in and occupy it, for it is the land the Lord swore to give to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to all their descendants.”
There was also the faith that God lived in the temple and Jerusalem was his home. There was the idea that with God living among them their enemies would always be defeated.
When all 12 tribes were remove from the land, there was a crisis of faith. What did it mean that the land was lost? Had God broken his promise? Had they been mistaken all along? And if that promise was wrong, what about all the other promises?
Through the many years it took for this disaster to slowly unfold, they clung to the belief that God would not allow it. They refused to believe the evidence of their eyes. They waited for his intervention to the last moment.
It was because of the warnings of the prophets that they had a theology to lead them through. They were able at last to see that God had been serious with his warnings.
This is also a challenge to us in our lives when it feels as though God has misled us. It is hard to keep faith when everything God promised is gone, and there is no way we can imagine that it will be given back. We listen to the prophets and realise it is his love. God is saving us.
Among many examples is Jeremiah, who warned so clearly why disaster was coming. It is worth reading all of chapter 7, but because of the time let’s read only verses 13–15 – “While you were doing these wicked things, says the Lord, I spoke to you about it repeatedly, but you would not listen. I called out to you, but you refused to answer. So just as I destroyed Shiloh, I will now destroy this Temple that bears my name, this Temple that you trust in for help, this place that I gave to you and your ancestors. And I will send you out of my sight into exile, just as I did your relatives, the people of Israel.”
Because of this understanding, the faith survived. When the people returned, the priest Ezra enforced the law for the people. He demanded they all attend a meeting and he preached. It is recorded in the book of Ezra.
‘Within three days, all the people of Judah and Benjamin had gathered in Jerusalem. This took place on December 19, and all the people were sitting in the square before the Temple of God. They were trembling both because of the seriousness of the matter and because it was raining. Then Ezra the priest stood and said to them: “You have committed a terrible sin.”’ (Ezra 10:9)
Under Ezra’s leadership, the faith was restored. The people obeyed and were purified. They started to prepare for the arrival of God’s Messiah in 400 years. How terrible it is to be purified by our God, and also how wonderful to know he will cleanse us of our sins and save us.