In our previous study, we saw the background of the person named Israel. Israel was the younger brother by a few minutes. He went from being a deceiver to one who wrestles with God. Apart from any good deeds of his own, God decides to bless him and his descendants with some of the best territory known to mankind of his day.
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Israel’s family had some issues though. As any good rendition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will remind you, there were not good feelings between his sons. It starts when Israel plays favorites with his wives (a good start to any dysfunctional marriage). After having 10 sons with his second-favorite wife and two maidservants, he finally has a child with his favorite wife. This child, Joseph, is later sold by his brothers to their distant cousins. Joseph ends up in Egypt and rises in the ranks. Ultimately he saves Egypt and its neighbors (including his relatives in the land of Canaan) from famine. Pharaoh honors Joseph by inviting Jacob/Israel and his descendents to take some of the best land in Egypt.
A generation later, the Egyptians weren’t so happy about Israelites living in their best territory, so they enslaved them. Four hundred thirty years later, God delivered those Israelites out of Egypt into the land he originally promised Abraham: Canaan. This nomadic nation that had never possessed a permanent homeland was on its way to its final(?) destination.
Why make them wait over 400 years? There seems to be one practical reason and one theological reason. First, there were 70 people in Israel’s family when they went into Egypt–hardly enough to occupy a country. When the Exodus occurred, there were 600,000 men, or probably 2-3 million people. (By my math, that’s 5 kids per couple for about 12, 30-year generations.) That would fill a small country nicely in those days. The theological reason comes in when God is making his covenant with Abram. God tells him that his descendants will be enslaved but that it won’t be permanent. Then Abram is told the reason: “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” The Amorites were one of the nations in the “Promised Land” of Canaan. My understanding of this statement has been: The Canaanites aren’t bad enough to deserve losing their homeland yet… but give it 400 years.
These descendants of Israel come out of Egypt, spend 40 years having their faith tested in the wilderness, then they spend several generations trying to wrest control of Canaan from the Canaanites, only to cave in to their ways of living in worshipping. The rest of the story of the Old Testament is a struggle between a few God-fearing people who hate idol worship and a majority who would rather be just like the Canaanites. The books of Joshua thru Malachi trace the story of those few who stand against the majority and sometimes cave in themselves.
The trough of Old Testament story comes with the fall of most of Israel’s descendants to the Assyrians. This was followed within a few generations by the fall of the dominant tribe of Judah to Babylon. The next 70 years that Israel spends in exile in Babylon became the defining moment in its identity. For the first time in 1000 years, the nation didn’t have a land of its own. From that point until this day, there have always been Jews (hear the name in Ju-dah?) outside of the “land” of Israel. God had a lesson in humility to teach to this nation. Several, like Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah, and Ezra passed the test. God restored Judah to their ancestral land in former Canaan, and they began to rebuild.
This people group re-established its nation in the Levant slowly with the permission of the Persians (who had supplanted the Babylonians). However, it never had complete sovereignty for more than a few years here-and-there. These remaining Israelite descendants who held to their “promised” land lived under the rule of Persians, various forms of Greeks, and finally Romans. Rome had enough of their monotheistic ways and obliterated this Jewish land once more, exiling its inhabitants in 70 A.D. Jews would not live in this land again in any significant numbers for another 19 centuries.
Describing the history of a people that covers this much time will always do injustice to the nuances, but I hope you can see the trajectory of Israel as a people through its ancient history. Next, I hope to uncover what it means to say Israel is a land.