The Dispersion of the Jews
Israel in Bible Prophecy
[read in Lamplighter (pdf)]
In approximately 1440 BC, Moses led the Jewish people out of Egypt, beginning a journey to the land God had promised them in Canaan.1 The journey should have taken 11 days (Deuteronomy 1:2). But, instead, it took them 40 years!
The extended length of the journey was due to the people's lack of faith that ultimately motivated some of them to rebel against Moses (Numbers 14:1-4 and Psalm 78:17-42). This behavior prompted God to decide that the generation that departed from Egypt would have to die in the wilderness before their descendants would be allowed to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 14:26-38).
Accordingly, it was about 1400 BC when the children of Israel were finally poised to cross the Jordan River and enter the land they had been promised. On that auspicious occasion, Moses paused their journey to summarize God's Law for them (Deuteronomy 5-27). He also used the occasion to provide them with a detailed warning (Deuteronomy 28-29).
The Land Use Covenant
God had already given the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob the title deed to the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:1-8; 26:1-5; and 28:13-14). Now, through Moses, He was going to make another covenant with them that would be related to their use of the land. Basically, what Moses told them was that even though they had an everlasting title to the land, their use and enjoyment of it would depend upon their obedience to God's Laws which had been revealed to them during their wilderness wanderings.
Moses proclaimed that if the people were obedient to God, He would shower them with blessings (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). Their children, their crops and their animals would be blessed (28:4). Their enemies would be defeated and they would "abound in prosperity" and be established as "a holy people whom the rest of the world would fear (28:7-11).
Moses proceeded to sternly warn them that if they were disobedient to God, He would place curses on them. Their children would rebel, their crops would fail and their animals would not reproduce (Deuteronomy 28:16-19). They would also suffer from diseases, drought, and foreign domination (28:21,24,33).
Moses further warned that if they did not respond in repentance to these remedial judgments, the Lord would intensify them: "...then the LORD will bring extraordinary plagues on you and your descendants, even severe and lasting plagues, and miserable and chronic sicknesses... all the diseases of Egypt of which you were afraid..." (28:39-60).
Moses then declared that if these extreme measures did not produce repentance, God would subject them to the worst possible punishment — exile from their homeland: "Moreover, the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known" (Deuteronomy 28:64).
Moses had already briefly mentioned this ultimate punishment of God in the survey of the Law which He had presented in the book of Leviticus. After listing many possible remedial judgments (Leviticus 26:14-31), just as in Deuteronomy, Moses warned that God's ultimate judgment would be their "scattering among the nations" (26:33).
The Unfaithfulness of the Jewish People
At the conclusion of Moses's warning recorded in Deuteronomy, the children of Israel crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. And they proceeded to violate God's commands. They failed to annihilate the wicked Canaanite people, and they began to intermarry with them. This led the Jewish people into the worst sin of all — the practice of idolatry.
In response, God began to afflict them with remedial judgments. He also sent prophets like Elijah to call them to repentance.
The problems of rebellion and idolatry were particularly bad in the northern kingdom of Israel. The unified kingdom of David and his son, Solomon, had broken apart after Solomon's death. The son of one of Solomon's servants, a "valiant warrior" named Jeroboam, rose up against Solomon's son, Rehoboam, and wrested ten of the tribes in the north from his control (I Kings 12: 1-28). He also set up an alternative center of worship to Jerusalem, establishing it in the hill country and calling it Shechem (I Kings 12:25. The capital was later moved to Samaria).2 This rebellion split Solomon's kingdom, producing the northern kingdom of Israel with ten tribes and the southern kingdom of Judah with two tribes (Judah and Benjamin).
Having been born in rebellion, the northern kingdom of Israel continued in its rebellion throughout its history. It lasted 208 years, from 930 BC to 722 BC, and never once during that period of time did the kingdom ever have a righteous king — not one out of a total of 19!
Just as He had warned through Moses, God responded to Israel's persistent rebellion by sending remedial judgments and raising up prophetic voices to call the people to repentance.
The Prophets to Judah
Seventy years into the history of Israel, the prophet Elijah suddenly appeared on the scene. He confronted the evil king Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, and he called the whole nation to repentance, saying (1 Kings 18:21):
How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him.
Even though both the leaders and the people of Israel refused to respond in repentance, God in His patience continued to warn. Next, He called an unusual man to speak His warning — a fig-picker from the rural village of Tekoa in Judah. It would be like God calling a cowboy from Calgary, Canada today to deliver a prophetic message to the President of the United States!
His name was Amos, and although he was an uneducated man, he was a fearless and obedient servant of God. He proceeded to read the riot act to the people of Israel (Amos 2:6-8):
6) The LORD says, "The people of Israel have sinned again and again, and I will not forget it. I will not leave them unpunished any more. For they have perverted justice by accepting bribes and sold into slavery the poor who can't repay their debts; they trade them for a pair of shoes.
7) "They trample the poor in the dust and kick aside the meek. And a man and his father defile the same temple girl, corrupting My holy name.
8) "At their religious feasts they lounge in clothing stolen from their debtors, and in My own Temple they offer sacrifices of wine they purchased with stolen money." (LBP)
Amos even had the audacity to attack the sinful, greedy women of Israel, calling them "fat cows of Bashan" (Amos 4:1 LBP).
The prophet was particularly appalled by the religious hypocrisy that was rampant in the land. He pointed out that despite all their religiosity, they lived like pagans and denied social justice to the poor (Amos 5:21-24).
He reminded them of the many remedial judgments God had sent — including drought, famine, mildew, locusts, pestilence and defeat in wars (Amos 4:6-11). He concluded by declaring that if the nation persisted in its rebellion, God "will destroy it from the face of the earth" (Amos 9:8).
Israel's Final Prophet
But they did not listen. So, God raised up another prophet, from among their own people — a man by the name of Hosea. For the next 20 years, right up to the time of the kingdom's destruction, Hosea called the people to repentance. And like Amos, he confronted them with a litany of their sins, beginning with these words (Hosea 4:1-3):
1) Listen to the word of the LORD, O sons of Israel, for the LORD has a case against the inhabitants of the land, Because there is no faithfulness or kindness or knowledge of God in the land.
2) There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed.
3) Therefore the land mourns, and everyone who lives in it languishes along with the beasts of the field and the birds of the sky, and also the fish of the sea disappear.
Hosea focused on the sin of idolatry, referring to it vividly as "the spirit of harlotry" (Hosea 4:12 and 9:1). And like Amos, he also railed against the people's religious hypocrisy, proclaiming: "I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings" (6:6).
Hosea pleaded with his fellow countrymen to "return to the LORD your God" (14:1), and he warned specifically that if they failed to do so, God would destroy their kingdom through the Assyrians (11:5-6). He also pointed out that should this happen, they would have no one to blame except themselves (13:9).
Meanwhile, in Judah, the prophet Isaiah, who was called by God to be a prophet to his own kingdom, also issued a warning to Israel. He cried out, "Woe to the proud crown [the capital city of Samaria] of the drunkards of Ephraim [the kingdom of Israel]" (Isaiah 28:1). He then declared that God was raising up "a mighty agent" to destroy the kingdom (28:2). This was, of course, a reference to the Assyrians whom Isaiah had referred to earlier as "the rod of God's anger" (10:5).
I think it is fascinating to note that near the end of the reign of Israel's very first king, Jeroboam, a prophet named Abijah prophesied the ultimate destruction of the kingdom of Israel: "For the LORD will strike Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water; and He will uproot Israel from this good land which He gave to their fathers, and will scatter them beyond the Euphrates River, because they have made their Asherim, provoking the LORD to anger" (1 Kings 14:15 — Asherim were totem poles that were erected to honor the female God named Asherah).
The Destruction of Israel
All these appeals and warnings fell on deaf ears. The result was the destruction of the kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC. The kingdom had lasted 208 years. There had been 19 kings, and not a single one had been considered righteous in the eyes of God.
The reasons for their destruction are summed up in 2 Kings 17: "They set for themselves sacred pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree" (10), "they burned incense on all the high places" (11), "they served idols" (12), "they made for themselves molten images... and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal" (16), and "they made their sons and their daughters pass through the fire, and practiced divination and enchantments" (17).
The Assyrian conquest of the kingdom of Israel marked the beginning of the dispersion of the Jewish people in accordance with the prophecy of Deuteronomy 28:63-64. The ten Jewish tribes of that kingdom ultimately ended up being scattered all across the Eurasian continent, from Assyria to China and even into the Indian subcontinent.3
The Kingdom of Judah
The southern kingdom of Judah began with King Rehoboam who was the rightful heir to the throne, since he was the son of Solomon, but he veered off the path of righteousness, and his son, Abijah (also known as Abijam), followed in his steps. It was not until the 20th year of the kingdom that a good king by the name of Asa ascended the throne. He reigned for 41 years and was followed by his righteous son, Jehoshaphat, who ruled for 25 years.
It was up and down after that with regard to the kings, but overall, there was a steady descent of the society into spiritual darkness. It is a tragic story because no other nation had ever been blessed as much as Judah. God prospered its people and gave them many righteous kings. More important, His Shekinah Glory resided in their Temple in Jerusalem. But the people of Judah took their eyes off the Lord and began to wallow in pride, which led them into a multiplicity of sins.
The Prophets to Judah
The earliest prophet to speak out against Judah's increasing apostasy was Joel. He appeared on the scene during the reign of King Uzziah (783-732 BC) when the kingdom was almost 150 years old. This would have been before the fall of Israel.
Judah had just experienced a terrible locust invasion that had made waste of the kingdom's agricultural production. The nation was facing famine. Joel's message was a tough one. Basically, he said, "If you think this locust invasion is bad, just wait and see what God has in store for you if you do not repent." He then warned that God was going to send an army that would do far greater damage than the locusts.
He cried out to his people in behalf of God, saying, "Return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning; and rend your heart and not your garments" (Joel 2:12-13).
In the year of King Uzziah's death (732 BC), God called Isaiah to be a prophet to Judah (Isaiah 6:1). As his first assignment, the Lord instructed him to make an inventory of the kingdom's sins.
The list appears in Isaiah 5, and it is an alarming one. It included injustice, greed, pleasure seeking, blasphemy, moral perversion, intellectual pride, intemperance and political corruption (Isaiah 5:7-23). And keep in mind that this list was compiled at the end of the 52 year reign of a righteous king!
The cause of all this spiritual pollution was summed up by Isaiah in the following words: "For they have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel" (Isaiah 5:24).
Isaiah pulled no punches in warning Judah of the consequences of its sins, if the nation refused to repent. He pointed to what had happened to Israel: "Shall I not do to Jerusalem and her images just as I have done to Samaria and her idols?" (Isaiah 10:11). He even prophesied that Babylon would be the empire that would destroy Judah, referring to the Babylonians as His "consecrated ones" and His "mighty warriors" (Isaiah 13:3).
The Message of Jeremiah
About 60 years after Isaiah's death, God called the prophet Jeremiah to take his place. And once again, the Lord instructed him, like Isaiah, to begin his ministry by compiling an inventory of the kingdom's sins (Jeremiah 5:1-2).
When Jeremiah reported back, the list he had compiled was identical to Isaiah's (Jeremiah 5-10), except that he added the sin of religious corruption: "An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority..." (5:30-31).
Jeremiah's report contained three graphic summary statements:
- They have made their faces harder than rock (5:3).
- They have stubborn and rebellious hearts (5:23).
- They do not even know how to blush (6:15).
Jeremiah then went forth to call for repentance and to warn of impending destruction. He began his ministry by preaching a powerful sermon in the Temple in Jerusalem. He called upon the people to amend their ways and practice judgment, or else their Temple would be destroyed (7:1-7). He then asked them a piercing question (7:9-10):
9) "Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known,
10) then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, 'We are delivered!' — that you may do all these abominations?"
The religious leaders reacted in outrage, banning Jeremiah from the Temple (36:5). The people mocked him, claiming that God would never allow anyone to destroy the Temple that was inhabited by His Shekinah Glory (7:4).
Jeremiah never let up in his call for repentance and his pronouncement of warnings. And the people of Judah never wavered in their hostile response. He was attacked by his brothers (12:6), imprisoned (37:18), beaten and put in stocks (20:1-2), thrown into a cistern (38:6), denounced by a false prophet (28:1ff) and constantly threatened with death (38:4).
Jeremiah was very specific with his warnings (20:4-5):
4) For thus says the LORD,"... I will give over all Judah to the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will carry them away as exiles to Babylon and will slay them with the sword.
5) "I will also give over all the wealth of this city, all its produce and all its costly things; even all the treasures of the kings of Judah I will give over to the hand of their enemies, and they will plunder them, take them away and bring them to Babylon."
Not only did he specify that the nation would be destroyed by Babylon and that the people would be carried away to captivity, he also specified that this exile would last exactly 70 years (25:11-12). But all the warnings fell on deaf ears. Here's how the response is described in Jeremiah 17:23 — "Yet they did not listen or incline their ears, but stiffened their neck in order not to listen or take correction."
The Destruction by Babylon
So, God sent the Babylonians as His "war club" (51:20), and they destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Most of the residents of Jerusalem were either killed or captured and sent into exile. Many others, who were able to escape or who were left behind, decided to flee to Egypt (43:1-6).
The conquest of the city of Jerusalem and the destruction of the kingdom of Judah produced two of the saddest verses in the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Chronicles 36:15-16):
15) The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place;
16) but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, until there was no remedy.
The Babylonian captivity (608-538 BC) produced the second great Jewish dispersion — to Babylon and Egypt. And when the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland 70 years later by the Persian King Cyrus, the majority decided to remain in Babylon.4
The Widespread Dispersion of the Jews
Shortly before the time of Jesus, in the late First Century BC, a Greek geographer named Strabo stated that you could not go anywhere in the civilized world without encountering a Jew.5 By the time of Jesus in the First Century AD, scholars estimate that the majority of the Jewish people (more than 5 million) were living in the Diaspora.6 The Egyptian city of Alexandria was 40% Jewish, amounting to approximately one million Jews.7
The widespread dispersion of the Jews at the beginning of the First Century AD is attested to in the New Testament. On the Day of Pentecost in about 30 AD, when the Apostle Peter preached the first Gospel sermon, a great multitude of Jews from the Diaspora had gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast Days (Acts 2:9-11):
9) Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
10) Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
11) Cretans and Arabs...
Also in the New Testament you can find a reference to "the Diaspora among the Greeks" in John 7:35. The book of James is addressed "to the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad..." (James 1:1). Likewise, Peter's first epistle is addressed to "those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia..." (1 Peter 1:1).
There is the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8. This was a Black Jew from Africa who had come to Jerusalem to worship. As he was traveling back home, he encountered a Christian evangelist by the name of Philip who shared the Gospel with him. The man accepted Jesus as his Savior, was baptized and went on his way rejoicing — becoming the first African convert to Christianity (Acts 8:26-40).
The Destruction by the Romans
In 63 BC, Judah became a protectorate of Rome, and in 6 AD, the kingdom was reorganized as a Roman province.8
Roman rule proved to be harsh. The Jews were heavily taxed, and their religion and culture were held in contempt. The Jewish people were particularly outraged when the Romans took over the appointment of the High Priest, resulting in the selection of Roman collaborators.9
"Ultimately, the combination of financial exploitation, Rome's unbridled contempt for Judaism, and the unabashed favoritism that the Romans extended to Gentiles" brought about a revolt in 66 AD.10
The revolt led to a siege of Jerusalem by Roman troops in 70 AD. After a stand-off of almost six months, the Romans finally breached the walls and then systematically destroyed the city and its temple. In the process, they slaughtered tens of thousands of its inhabitants.
But this great tragedy failed to quell the rebellious spirit of the Jews. Fifty-two years later, they rose up in rebellion once again in a well-organized guerilla campaign that lasted three years (132-135 AD).
This revolt proved to be the last straw for the Romans. Hadrian, the Roman Emperor, responded brutally. According to Roman historian Cassius Dio (c. 150-235 AD), 580,000 Jews were killed, and 50 fortified towns and 985 villages were razed to the ground.11 Those who were not killed were sold into slavery.
Additionally, Hadrian ordered Jews to be banned from Jerusalem, except on the day of Tisha B'Av (the day of mourning over the destruction of the first two temples). He changed the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina (after his family name, Aelius, and the Capitoline Triad of gods — Jupiter, Juno and Minerva).12 And he changed the name of the Jewish homeland from Judah to Syria Palestina (Palestina being the Latin name for the Jew's ancient enemies, the Philistines).13
The ultimate result of the destruction of the kingdom of Judah was the worldwide dispersion of the remaining Jewish people. Yes, there were small pockets of Jews who remained in their homeland, settling mainly in the Galilee and in the city of Tiberias. But the vast majority were scattered to foreign nations — all of which was in fulfillment of very specific warnings God had supplied through His prophets over a thousand years before.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, writing near the end of the First Century AD, stated: "There is no city, no tribe, whether Greek or barbarian, in which Jewish law and Jewish customs have not taken root."14
By the end of the Middle Ages (400 to 1400 AD), there were four identifiable groups of Jews in the Diaspora:
- The Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.15
- The Sephardic Jews of the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain).16
- The Mizrahi Jews of Persia.17
- The Anusim Jews which consisted of those who were compelled to convert to either Christianity or Islam.18 They were sometimes referred to as "Crypto-Jews."
Each of these groups, in their isolation from each other over the years, developed distinctive forms of dress, worship and language.19 With regard to language, Hebrew became the language of the synagogue. It ceased to be spoken in daily conversation. Among the Ashkenazim, they combined German with Hebrew to produce a language called Yiddish.20 The Sephardim, on the other hand, combined Spanish with Hebrew to produce Ladino.21
In 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, the Sephardic communities migrated to North Africa and throughout the Ottoman Empire. Later, some of them even went to the newly discovered Latin America.
This subsequent dispersion into the Ottoman Empire resulted in the growth of Mizrahi Jews, because that term came to be applied to those who ended up living in areas dominated by Muslims. As would be expected, they developed a mixed language called Judeo-Arabic.22
For 600 years, Babylon was the center of the Diaspora, from the 5th to the 11th Centuries. During the 11th Century, Jewish migration shifted the center of the Diaspora population to Spain, France and the Rhineland, where it remained until the 15th Century. At that point, expulsions and offers of refuge led the Jews either to Poland or the Ottoman Empire. Those two regions remained the principal centers of Jewish life until the 19th Century.
During the 19th Century, the Jews in the Diaspora began to migrate in significant numbers to the Western Hemisphere, including South America. Between 1840 and 1939, the Jewish population of North and South America increased from 1.1% of the world's Jews to 33.1%.23 During that same time period, worldwide Jewry increased from 4.5 million to 16.7 million.24
The Nazi Holocaust resulted in the deaths of 6 million Jews, including 1.5 million children. This reduced the worldwide population of Jews to approximately 10 million. Since that time, the population has grown to 14 million, with 6 million now residing in the re-established state of Israel.25
According to Roman records, there were about 8 to 10 million Jews in the First Century. Since that time, the population of China has grown from 30 million to over one billion. Based on growth statistics like this, demographers estimate that there should be 500 million Jews alive in the world today.26 Instead, there are only about 4 million more today than 2,000 years ago. This fact is the fulfillment of a prophecy found in Deuteronomy 4:27 — "And the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you shall be left few in number among the nations, where the LORD shall drive you." That prophecy was delivered by Moses over 3,400 years ago!
The Jewish people have been dispersed all over the world, just as God warned they would be if they were not faithful to Him. Likewise, as I will show in the next installment of this series, they have been severely persecuted everywhere they have gone — again, in fulfillment of a prophecy delivered by Moses (Deuteronomy 28:65-67):
65) Among those nations [where the Jews will be scattered] you shall find no rest, and there will be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul.
66) So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you will be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life.
67) In the morning you shall say, "Would that it were evening!" And at evening you shall say, "Would that it were morning!" because of the dread of your heart which you dread, and for the sight of your eyes which you will see.
The great miracle of the Diaspora is that the Jewish people have survived to this day — again, in fulfillment of Bible prophecy (Jeremiah 30:11):
"For I am with you," declares the LORD, "to save you; for I will destroy completely all the nations where I have scattered you, only I will not destroy you completely. But I will chasten you justly and will by no means leave you unpunished."
We will also take a look at this miracle of preservation in our next installment.
A Warning to America
Let me conclude by emphasizing a point that I have made many times, particularly in my book, America the Beautiful?27 It is the fact that I am convinced that ancient Judah is a prophetic type of the United States.
Just like Judah, God has blessed us with great leaders, freedom and prosperity. More important, just like Judah, our nation was founded upon God's Word. And just as God blessed Judah with His spiritual presence in the nation's temple, He has given America the great spiritual blessing of spreading the Gospel all over the world.
Yet, despite our blessings, we have responded just like Judah with pride, apostasy and rebellion. And just as with Judah, God has been calling us to repentance and warning us of impending destruction through remedial judgments like 9/11 and through prophetic voices like Dave Wilkerson.
And just as the people of Judah laughed at the warnings and said, "God dwells in our temple and would never allow an enemy to destroy our nation," the people of America are saying, "God sits on His throne wrapped in an American flag and will never allow us to be destroyed."
We need to remember the words of the prophet Nahum:
The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means leave the guilty unpunished... (Nahum 1:3).
The reference notes for this article will be posted here shortly.