Israel’s Population

J. R. Charlesworth, Barnstaple

Part 2 of 6 of the series Aspects of Jewish Life

The land of Palestine has been peopled since primeval times. Some settlements of great antiquity have been discovered by archaeologists whose conclusions, as one would expect, confirm the correctness of the Biblical records.

After the flood, town life spread throughout the land. Six chief tribes emerged: the Hittites, Hivites, Amorites, Jebusites, Perizzites and Girgashites. The communities along the coast doubtless came within the stimulating influence of the Old Empire of Egypt. Abram, as he travelled "in the land of Canaan", Gen. 13. 12, encountered ten distinct societies, 15. 19-21.

By the time Joshua led the twelve tribes of Israel into their father's homeland, the Amorites had gained control of the wild hill country and the indigenous Canaanites occupied only the lowland areas, Josh. 10.6. There were still, however, many separate tribes in the region, 9. 1. After the cataclysmic con­quest of Jericho, Ai and similar cities, 10. 28-43,tne Israelites made a gradual infiltration, Judges 1. They were unable to dislodge the Canaanites of the western plains, who used "chariots of iron", 1. 19 j in fact enemies like Jabin with his nine hundred iron-shod vehicles oppressed the Israelites, 4. 3, hindering their advance and later harrying the rural areas they held. The Israelites, possessed by their sinful inclinations, never completely managed to drive out all their enemies from "the glorious land". Aggressive peoples, such as the Amale-kites, were a constant worry. Invaders, like the groups from Asia Minor and the Aegean, who constituted Philistine com­munities along the Mediterranean seaboard, harassed the Israelites throughout the period of the Judges and Saul's reign. By the close of the eleventh century, however, the Israelites were strong enough to keep the Philistines at bay, and the capture of Jerusalem about 1000 B.C. enabled the twelve tribes to be unified geographically and politically under David. Idolatry soon wrecked this united monarchy. The people whose fathers had clamoured for a king "like all the nations", 1 Sam. 8. 5, quickly copied the heathen practices of those around them. God, as He had intimated. Lev. 26. 27-35, sent punishment in the form of captivity in Mesopotamia. The Northern Kingdom of ten tribes, which had seceded after Solomon's death, fell to the Assyrians first. The smaller Southern Kingdom of Judah, under godly Hezekiah, withstood this Assyrian threat about 700 B.C. and survived for more than another century before finally succumbing to the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar.

This sad history should have a signal effect upon us. The nation of Israel had had the pathway of blessing explained to it, (see e.g. Josh. 24). Leviticus 26. 3-13 gives a beautiful description of the peace and prosperity that could have been the national heritage, Jer. 3. 19. But the people refused to walk before Jehovah as a redeemed and sanctified nation, even though verbally they had agreed to do so. Do we miss much spiritual blessing today "having loved this present world" similarly? Do we recognize our responsibilities as "sons and daughters of the living God", while surrounded by dead ungodliness?

Among the nobility carried away captive after Nebuchad­nezzar's first invasion, was Daniel, Dan. 1. 3-6, who, with a few contemporaries, lived right through the seventy years of banishment, Jer. 25.11. Ultimately all but the poorest peasants were removed, 2 Kings 24. 14. In the north the Assyrians set up a colony of their own peoples, the descendants of which became known as Samaritans, Ezra 4. 10. Further south, in the hills of Judah, Ishmaelites and Edomites intermarried and became strong possessors of the arid area generally designated Edom in the Old Testament. Subsequently other nomadic tribes overran Edom, pushing the descendants of Esau further south to the region called Idumea.

The racial admixture in Palestine which followed the over­throw of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah caused the pious Jews who returned at the end of the captivity to refuse to be associated with the population they found in their home­land, even though some of the residents claimed Jewish ancestry, Neh. 13. 23. Under leaders such as Zerubbabel, Nehemiah and the godly remnant rebuilt Jerusalem and its temple and re-established national life.

Soon the influence of Greek culture, art and religion was felt as Alexander brought the Middle East under European control. Many of the Jews rigidly rejected western ideas, but the Sadducees welcomed the Hellenistic trends so that, in course of time, considerable changes took place.

After a revolt led by the priest Mattathias and his sons, one of whom was Simon Maccabaeus, the Jews enjoyed a brief spell of unsettled independence before the Romans, under Pompey, captured Jerusalem in 63 B.C. In 40 B.C. Herod the Great became sole governor of Judea under Roman sovereignty. It was towards the end of his administration that the Christ was born in Bethlehem. Several nationalities were represented in Palestine during the Roman occupation. Some of the ones mentioned specifically in the New Testament deserve our attention.

The Jews. This word first occurs, with reference to the tribe of Judah, in 2 Kings 16. 6. Later it became a general term for the descendants of Judah and Benjamin who, together with many Levites and others who remained loyal to the house of David, constituted the Southern Kingdom. The appellation was then applied to all the members of the Hebrew race who returned after the Babylonian captivity, and, ultimately it came to refer to all Jacob's descendants, Est. 2. 5; Acts 2. 5.

The majority of the seventy thousand Israelites who returned to their fatherland after the decree Cyrus made about 541 B.C., were relatives of those who had previously lived near Jerusalem, and consequently a large proportion-but not all (see e.g. Luke 2. 36) - of the subsequent Israeli population consisted of members of the tribes of Judah and Levi, Luke 10. 32; John 1. 19; Heb. 7. 14.

In the Gospels this title is found only in the plural and speaks of that local representative body of the Lord's earthly nation, who received Him not, John 1. n. In spite of their hostile attitude the Lord never lost His special compassion for this stiff-necked people, Matt. 23. 37; Luke 19. 41. Wise in their own eyes, the Jews were blind to their own waywardness. They were more concerned with their Abrahamic parentage than with their filial relationship to God. Let their tragic mistake be as a beacon of warning to us: "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall".

The families that formed "the remnant of Israel" never turned aside to the pagan idolatry which had so characterized their ancestors, 2 Kings 23. 5; Isa. 10.11. They did, however, trade with other countries and some intermarriage took place. By the apostolic period, groups of Jews were to be found in almost every part of the Eastern Mediterranean area, Acts 2. 9-11.

The Grecians. These were Greek speaking Jews, Acts. 6. 1; 9. 29, born, not in Canaan, but in areas predominantly Hellenistic. Hellenism was exciting and attractive to many Jews. It encouraged radicals to rethink old concepts, to specu­late and reason, and to argue logically. Vigorous thinking leads to positive action, and bold energetic men like Stephen and Philip the evangelist were typical products of a Grecian back­ground. Doubtless their early education in the atmosphere of Greek philosophy gave them a broader view of social problems than the pedantic training of the rabbinical hierarchy normally gave to Jewish boys. The Grecians who believed the word of truth became honourable disciples. They tended to be more pliable in the Lord's hands than were their Judaistic brethren, and could more easily grasp the universal application of the gospel of the grace of God.

The Romans. The Roman occupation of their lands was never acceptable to the Semitic nations. The rumbling of dis­content in Israel flared up into open animosity in the second half of the first century A.D., and led to the disastrous sacking of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Ever since, this city (so centrally placed in the continents of the earth) has been "trodden down of the Gentiles", but will yet receive a glory far greater than anything king Herod could conceive in his passion for superb edifices of outstanding architectural beauty.

Whenever the Romans acquired fresh tracts of land to add to their huge empire, colonies of Italians were rehabilitated in key towns within the new province. Apart from the com­munities at Caesarea and a few other such colonies, most of the Romans in Israel were military personnel. Mention is made in Scripture of a few of the centurions each of whom was responsible for one hundred soldiers. They all appear to be honest men of unimpeachable character and unusual percep­tion, Matt. 8. 5; Luke 7. 6; Acts 10. 1; 23.17; 24. 23; 27. 1.

It is not surprising that some of the soldiers, stationed in Israel far from their homes and friends, were responsive to the preaching of Christ crucified; but it is perhaps a little un­expected when Paul informs us that there were saints even among Caesar's household, Phil. 4.22. The power of the gospel made inroads through every stratum of Roman life.

The Samaritans. In general this word signified inhabitants of the repopulated region of Shechem, Shiloh and Samaria, 2 Kings 17. 26; Matt. 10. 5; Luke 9. 52; 10.33; 17. 16; John 4. 9-40; Acts 8. 25.

The Samaritans' religion corresponded with their multi­racial background. The infestation of wild animals which followed the Assyrian devastation was attributed, by the new colony, to the anger of "the God of the land", 2 Kings 17. 24-28. At the request of the immigrants, a priest was des­patched to Bethel by the Assyrian monarch. His duty was to instruct the people in the faith of Jehovah. But what they learnt, possessing the Samaritan Pentateuch only, was neither a complete nor a pure religion. "They feared the Lord and served their own gods." The influence of Josiah's reforms reached them, 2 Kings 23.15; 2 Chron. 34. 6-7, but they were never integrated into the Judaism of the Southern Kingdom.

After the Babylonian captivity, the Samaritans wanted to share in the responsibility of reconstructing the temple in Jerusalem, Ezra. 4. 2. Their approach was sternly rebuffed. Hence Sanballat's interference with the building programme., Neh. 2. 10 to 4. 6. A schismatic temple was erected on Mount Gerizim and animosity grew steadily. Malcontented Jews defected to Samaria, John 8. 48, and so by the time of our Lord's ministry a bitter hatred existed between the two nations. In John 4, the Saviour lays bare the transience of both the inadequate Samaritan revelation and the prejudiced Judaistic tradition. In His dealings with the woman of Sychar, the Lord set the pattern for Christian work among despised and down-trodden people (cf. Acts 8. 5-25). Such folk are often heedful of the gospel while others remain unaffected.

The Syrophoenicians. These were natives of Tyre and Sidon, namely Phoenicia which is now Lebanon. The woman mentioned in Mark 7. 26 maintained a humble disposition for which she was rewarded.

The Libertines. It is probable that these were liberated, repatriated Jews who had previously been carried captive away from Israel during Ponipey's Palestinian campaign. They built at least one synagogue (perhaps to commemorate their release), Acts 6. 9.

Strangers and Foreigners. To the Jews, members of all other races were Gentiles, and the Jews always refrained from eating with such. To the Romans, anyone who had not Roman citizenship was a Stranger, and was classified as being inferior.

Foreigners were never really welcome in Israel; but now, in the Church, the Holy Spirit has moulded into "one new man" both Jew and Gentile, Greek and Barbarian, bondmen and freemen. All believers share heavenly citizenship, Phil. 3. 20. In a sense, therefore we are "strangers" through this earthly pilgrimage, 1 Pet. 2. 11.

After a final rebellion in A.D. 134 the Jews were banished from their metropolis and forbidden to approach the surround­ing area. Some gradually drifted back, however, and lived relatively peaceably among Arab communities and other settlers. From the seventh century to the early sixteenth century the Moslems controlled the whole of Palestine. (This rule was interrupted for ninety years by the Crusaders and for a longer period by the Mamelukes.) In 1517 the Ottoman Empire spread across Palestine which then remained in Turkish hands until the First World War. Throughout that time Arabs and Jews continued to occupy the Holy Land, neither having any affection for the Turks. Rivalry between the Moslems and the smaller Jewish community flared up after the British Government's "Balfour Declaration" in 1917 which astounded the Arabs by recommending for the first time the establishment of a recognized Jewish state in Palestine. At that particular period, Jews made up seven per cent of Palestine's population and held about two per cent of the land. In 1922 the country became a British mandate. Britain, having failed to discover any solution to Arab-Israeli irreconcilability, finally referred the problem to the United Nations in 1947. As a result the Jews declared the State of Israel on 14th May 1948. The fig tree, Matt. 24. 32-35, is beginning to show life. We recognize the signs that indicate dramatically that "the end of the age" is rapidly approaching. At present the population of this tiny state is about three millions (of whom around fifteen per cent are refugees, etc.). Israel has, of course, the allegiance of Jews worldwide; the daily world news acts as a rallying cry to them to support their "nation, great, mighty and populous".