(29) So the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them from his presence – 2 Kings 17:18

Elijah was familiar with the passage in the law that talked about what would happen to the people of Israel if they obeyed or disobeyed God’s law. Disobedience would lead to famine, disease and defeat in war – all of which Israel had experienced before and during the time of the kings – but the ultimate curse at the end of Deuteronomy 28 was that God would remove his people from the land altogether. The land, promised to Abraham and his descendants, was the ultimate symbol of God’s blessing to them but it was dependent on them keeping his covenant.

After King Ahab’s death, his son Joram was assassinated by Jehu, a man of action who was known for driving his chariot like a maniac (see 2 Kings 9:20). He killed Jezebel and all the rest of Ahab’s family as well as the remaining prophets of Baal. His reward for this was to have the longest dynasty in the history of the northern kingdom – four generations of his family ruled in Israel. His great grandson Jeroboam II was the greatest king that Israel knew and he brought a temporary period of peace and prosperity to the land during his reign. But this was short-lived. His son reigned for just six months before he was assassinated and Israel then went into a period of political instability.

During most of their existence, Israel’s main enemy was neighbouring Syria. Wars took place on a regular basis with territory changing hands from generation to generation. But in the eighth century BC a new enemy emerged, Assyria. The Assyrian empire started in modern day Iraq and became the dominant empire of the region. The Assyrians were ruthless and cruel in their expansion, using the latest military technology – chariots and siege weapons – as well as psychological warfare. When a city fell the next city was asked to surrender. If it refused then the heads of the citizens from the neighbouring town were used as cannon balls to terrorise the people into submission.

After the assassination of Jeroboam II’s son, Israel came under increasing attack from Assyria. Initially they levied tax, then they took some of the northern cities, and then under Israel’s last king, Hoshea, Israel became a vassal state under Assyrian control. Hoshea, very unwisely, turned to Egypt for help to throw off Assyrian rule but they returned and besieged Samaria for three years before capturing it.

Conquering a country with an efficient war machine is one thing, but, as Israel demonstrated, keeping the people subdued is another. Once the Assyrians had conquered a territory their approach to keeping it under their control was to take the people and relocate them to other places, resettling captives from other conquests into the captured land. The purpose was to destroy the nationalistic spirit that could lead to a people rebelling against them as people had no allegiance to their new home.

Israel now suffered from this policy and after the fall of Samaria the people of Israel were deported from their land. The writer of 2 Kings explains this at length in chapter 17, starting with the simple statement that “All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God” (2 Kings 17:7). The Assyrians resettled the land of Israel with people from their other conquests and these people took on some of the worship of the Lord alongside their own religion. They were named Samaritans after the capital city. Seven hundred years later in Jesus’ time the Jews treated the Samaritans with contempt, but Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman and made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most well know parables, the Good Samaritan.

It is hard to accept that God would punish his people in this way. However, despite Jeroboam’s sin in setting up idol worship in the northern kingdom of Israel, and even though Ahab and Jezebel took disregard of God’s laws to new levels, it took over two hundred years for God to carry out his threat to remove them from the land. When the Lord revealed his name to Moses he called himself “The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6) and his patience with his rebellious people was demonstrated in that through generation after generation of wickedness he waited and gave the people a chance to turn to him.

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