Israel & Judah – comparing the nations

  • Question 169, from Geraint T

    What is the difference between Israel and Judah, not just in a historical sense, but in the way they are referred to and referenced in the Bible?

    The terms ‘Israel’ and ‘Judah’ refer to several different things in the Old Testament. ‘Israel’ is the new name given to the Hebrew patriarch Jacob, grandson of Abraham, after his night spent wrestling with God (the story is in Genesis chapter 32). As the ‘children of Jacob/Israel’, the Hebrews were eventually referred to corporately as ‘Israel’.

    Judah is one of Jacob’s sons, and a brother to Joseph and thus becomes a founding father of one of the Hebrew tribes. Initially an unimportant people group within Southern Israel, Judah rose in importance when David became King. From the tribe of Judah himself, David’s capital initially was Hebron, the central city of Judah, until he led the invasion and capture of Jerusalem which he established as a new capital in order to unite the tribes of Israel.
    Towards the end of David’s reign there were several coup attempts. Often these rebellions started in the North of the country, where David’s predecessor Saul had always had a strong following. David’s chosen successor, Solomon, faced similar problems and after Solomon’s death the Northern and Southern kingdoms separated into Israel and Judah.

    Although Israel was geographically larger, the Southern kingdom of Judah (now incorporating the territory of the tribe of Benjamin) lasted longer as an independent nation. The two were quite clearly interdependent for much of their history, although there was a sense that Judah remained more loyal to both the Davidic kingly line and the worship of Yahweh that was centred on the Temple that Solomon had built in Jerusalem.

    Israel was destroyed as a nation by the Assyrian empire in the eighth century BCE and its people were scattered. Judah meanwhile continued as a vassal state of the Assyrians and the Egyptians until they were eventually conquered by the Babylonians / Chaldeans in the sixth century BCE. These were the Hebrews taken into ‘Exile’, who returned to the land seventy years later.

    Because much of the Old Testament was written after the fall of Israel, the words Judah and Israel became virtually synonymous to later writers. The word ‘Israel’ began to be used more frequently to refer to the ‘remnant’ of Judeans who returned to their homeland from exile in Babylon (see Ezra chapter 2), and not the original Northern nation.

    After the exile Judah was increasingly regarded as the ‘true Israel’, once the progenitor of Israel’s greatest king, David, and, according to prophecy, the source of the great king to come, God’s ‘anointed one’; the ‘messiah’. The ‘messianic’ title ‘Lion of Judah’ underlines the way ‘Judah’ was considered the ‘true Israel’.

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