The first essay in this series provided an introduction to the Jewish Prophets during a five-hundred-year period of Israel’s history from the tenth to the sixth centuries, BCE. This essay provides a historical context to their voices.

The beginning of biblical creation can be dated to approximately 4000 BCE.[i] This story dates the call of Abraham to approximately 2000 BCE, while the Exodus from Egypt occurred approximately 1450 BCE. It was Joshua (1355-1245 BCE) who led the Jewish people into the land of the Canaanites after Moses death, before the leadership of Israel passed to a series of Judges (1200-1050 BCE) and then Kings. Most notable among the latter were Saul (1043-1000 BCE), David (993-961 BCE), and Solomon (970-931 BCE) who was responsible for the construction of the temple in Jerusalem. With the succession of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, to the throne, Israel was divided into two kingdoms in 931 BCE.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel had Samaria as its capital, while the Southern Kingdom of Judah contained Jerusalem and the temple. Both kingdoms prospered initially with their elite enjoying great privileges at the expense of their own poor and the Canaanite people who had remained in the land of their conquerors. With this co-existence came a multitude of intermarriages and the adoption of many Canaanite cultic practices by the Jewish people. The result was fractured covenant relationship with Yahweh. In addition, as both kingdoms intermittently faced threats from powerful political alliances forming against them, the Jewish kings sought protection from Assyria and later Babylon in the North, and Egypt in the South. Their safety came at the price of heavy tributes and life as vassals of their more powerful protectors.

It was during these years that many of the great Jewish prophets emerged. While each had a distinct character, their message was similar. They challenged the Jewish people to rely on Yahweh alone, not political alliances, and return to covenant relationship.

In the Northern Kingdom, where peace and prosperity reached their peak under the reign of king Jeroboam II (786-746 BCE), the prophets Amos (760-750 BCE) and then Hosea (~725 BCE) denounced Israel for its oppression of the poor, its idolatry and immorality, and its political alliances to counter the threats of Assyria. Amos was eventually forced to leave the Northern Kingdom and return to Judah, while Hosea, who had predicted Israel’s destruction at the hands of Assyria, stayed among his people until their defeat and forced migration into Assyria in 721 BCE.

In the Southern Kingdom, Isaiah (742-701 BCE) denounced the social injustice of the people of Judah and Jerusalem, and cautioned King Ahaz (735-715 BCE) against an alliance with Assyria against Syria and the Northern Kingdom who sought retribution for his refusal to join with them against Assyria. Like the prophets of the Northern Kingdom, Isaiah preached reliance on God alone to no avail as the king accepted Assyria’s protection, leaving his people as subjects of Assyria. Later attempts to seek the assistance of Egypt against Assyria’s oppressive control over the Southern Kingdom would fail.

Meanwhile, Micah (737-696 BCE), a younger contemporary of Isaiah, also railed against the prevalence of social injustice in the Southern Kingdom and predicted the eventual destruction of Jerusalem as a consequence of its betrayal of covenant relationship with Yahweh. Micah also spoke of a divine forgiveness and the eventual restoration of his people to the land of their ancestors.

One century later, Jeremiah (~625 BCE) prophesied that Jerusalem and Judah would fall to Babylon, Assyria’s successor as the dominant power of the world of that time, for its betrayal of Yahweh. In 586 BCE, Babylon overwhelmed the Southern Kingdom, destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and took its people off to captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah accompanied them before eventually predicting their return to Jerusalem at some future time.

Habakkuk (608-598 BCE) and Ezekiel (593-563 BCE) were contemporaries of Jeremiah during the years of Babylonian captivity. The former continually asked why God would allow the devastation of a people more just than their oppressors, only to realize God is sovereign over all people and would act in due time to bring justice to even the wicked. The latter warned of Jerusalem’s fall, but offered hope in the abiding presence of God among the vanquished. He eventually predicted the future restoration of his people to a post-exilic Jerusalem.

In 539 BCE, Babylon fell to King Cyrus II of Persia who soon thereafter allowed the Jewish people to return to Palestine, even offering resources to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. It was during these years that Isaiah II described Israel as the Suffering Servant of Yahweh that had taken on the sins of the world and who now lived as a sign of redemption and a light to the nations.

Subsequent articles will feature the prophets from these times in more detail, the emergence of Jesus of Nazareth and his proclamation of the kingdom of God five centuries later, and the prophetic voice today.


Note: The last article on the Prophets contained a typographical error concerning the date of the fall of Jerusalem and Judah to Babylon. It occurred, as noted here, in 586 BCE.

[i] A. Heschel, The Prophets, An Introduction, (Harper & Row: New York, NY, 1969), vols. I and II. A modern view of creation would date its beginning to approximately 13.8 billion years ago.