The Jews are one of the most ancient people groups in the world today. Their history has been extensively recorded in the Bible, by historians outside of the Bible, and with the discovery of archeological artefacts. We have more facts about their history then any other nation and these data provide a continuous account going back about 4000 years. To make the history of the Israelites (an earlier Old Testament term for Jews) easier to follow, I will build a series of timelines showing their history based on the Bible and facts from these other sources.
Abraham: Family Tree of the Jews begins
The timeline starts with Abraham, one of the most recognized characters in ancient history. He was given a promise of nations coming from him and had encounters with God culminating in a symbolic enactment of sacrificing his son Isaac. This sacrifice is still mysterious to many today but it was a sign of future events. The timeline continues in green when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. This period of time started when Joseph, grandson of Isaac, led the Israelites to Egypt, but they subsequently became slaves there.
Moses: The Jews become a Nation under God
Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt by inaugurating the equally mysterious Passover Festival, allowing their Exodus from Egypt and their arrival at the land of Israel that had been promised to Abraham hundreds of years before. Moses pronounced Blessings and Curses on the Israelites at the end of his life as he finished the writing of the Torah – when the timeline goes from green to yellow. These Blessings & Curses have followed the Jews ever since – as one can see by learning their history.
For several hundred years the Israelites lived in this land but they did not have a King, nor did they have a capital city of Jerusalem – it belonged to other people in this time period. However, with David about 1000 BC this changed.
David establishes a Royal Dynasty at Jerusalem
David conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital city. It was he who received the promise of a coming ‘Christ’ and the anticipation of this title started with him. His son Solomon ruled as his successor and built the First Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The descendants of King David continued to rule for about 400 years and this period is shown in green-blue (1000 – 600 BC). This was the glory period for the Israelites – they started to see the Blessings promised. They were a world power, had an advanced society, culture, and their Temple. But the Old Testament also recounts their descent into social and religious corruption and idol worship during this time. Many of the Old Testament books written in this period were warnings that the Curses of Moses would come upon the Jews if they did not change. But these warnings were not heeded. A series of prophecies of a coming ‘Branch’ from David started in this era.
The First Jewish Exile to Babylon
So finally around 600 BC the Curses came true. Nebuchadnezzar, a powerful King from Babylon came – and just like Moses had predicted in his Curse when he wrote:
The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away … a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. … They will besiege all the cities throughout the land. (Deuteronomy 28: 49-52)
Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, burned it, and destroyed the Temple that Solomon had built. He then took the Israelites and deported the majority across his vast Babylonian Empire. Only the poor Israelites remained behind. This fulfilled the predictions of Moses that
You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. (Deuteronomy 28:63-64)
So for 70 years, the period shown in red, the Israelites lived as exiles outside the land promised to Abraham and his descendants.
Return from Exile under the Persians
After that, the Persian Emperor Cyrus conquered Babylon and Cyrus became the most powerful person in the world. He issued a decree that permitted the Israelites to return to this land.
However they were no longer an independent country, they were now a province within the vast Persian Empire. This continued for 200 years and is shown in pink in the timeline. During this time the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt (known as the 2nd Temple). Also, the ‘Branch’ theme develops further by identifying the name of the coming Branch as ‘Jesus’.
The period of the Greeks
Then Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and made the Israelites a province in the Greek Empires for a further 200 years. This is shown in dark blue.
The Period of the Romans
Then the Romans defeated the Greek Empires and they became the dominant world power. The Israelites again became a province in this Empire and it is shown in light yellow. This is the time when Jesus lived and this explains why there was a Roman Governor and Roman soldiers throughout the gospels – because the Romans ruled the Jews in the Land of Israel during the life of Jesus.
The Second Jewish exile under the Romans
From the time of the Babylonians (600 BC) the Israelites (or Jews as they were called now) had never been independent as they had been under the Kings of David. They were ruled by other governments of other people. The Jews resented this and after Jesus they revolted against Roman rule. In this war the Romans came and destroyed Jerusalem, burned down the 2nd Temple and deported the Jews as slaves across the Roman Empire. This was their second exile. Since this Empire was so vast the Jews were effectively dispersed across the whole world.
And this is how they lived for almost 2000 years: dispersed, fragmented, living in foreign lands and never accepted in these lands. As they lived in these different nations they periodically suffered great persecutions. This was the same period where Christianity spread and the persecution of the Jews was particularly true in Christian Europe. From Spain, in Western Europe, to the pogroms in Russia the Jews lived often in a precarious state in these Christian kingdoms. These specific pronouncements of Moses back in 1500 BC became vivid and accurate descriptions of how they lived.
… Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. (Deuteronomy 28:65)
The Curses against the Israelites were given to make peoples ask:
All the nations will ask: “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?”
And the answer was:
“ … the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land…” (Deuteronomy 29:24-25)
The timeline below shows this 2000 year period which follows after the history of the Jews from the time of the Bible. This period is shown in a long red bar.
You can see that through their history Jews went through two periods of exile but the second period of exile was much longer than the first period of exile (which was only from 600 – 530 BC).
The 20th Century Holocaust
Then the persecutions and pogroms against the Jews reached their peak. Hitler in World War II, through Nazi Germany tried to exterminate all the Jews living in Europe. And he almost succeeded by creating a mechanised system of exterminating them in gas ovens. However he was defeated and a remnant of Jews survived.
Modern Re-birth of Israel
And then in 1948 the Jews, through the United Nations, saw the remarkable re-birth of the modern state of Israel. It is remarkable just in the fact that there were people still around who identified themselves as ‘Jews’ after all these millenia without a homeland. But this reality allowed for the final words of Moses, written down 3500 years ago, to come true. There was a “Jewish’ people around to see this final prediction fulfilled in our time.
…then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. (Deuteronomy 30:3-4)
It was also remarkable in that this state was founded in the teeth of opposition. Most of the surrounding nations in that region waged war against Israel in 1948 … in 1956 … in 1967 and again in 1973. Israel, a very small nation, often found itself at war with five nations at the same time. Yet not only did they survive, but their territories increased. In the war of 1967 the Jews regained Jerusalem, their historic capital city David had founded 3000 years ago. The aftermath of the creation of the state of Israel, and the fallout from these wars has created one of the most intractable conflicts and political problems of our world today. Strange how Moses’ words so long ago echo still today even though very few are even aware of what he wrote.