Summary: Jacob had returned to Bethel before he settled Canaan with his family. Many years later, his descendants were carried away captive and foreigners were brought in to settle some of the cities. One of these was Bethel. What happened to this second group of people at Bethel?
Introduction: This is the second message in a two-part series on the theme, “Back to Bethel”. The first message was based on Jacob’s return to Bethel, in Genesis 35, and how he led his family to get right with God. This message displays the other side of that concept, namely, a much different “back to Bethel” experience happening many years later. There is always a danger of a wrong kind of Bethel experience!
The text comes from the Old Testament book of 2 Kings. In the background, the northern kingdom, the 10 tribes, are almost at the end of the line. Their capital city, Samaria, has been under siege for a couple of years but it’s almost over. Let’s read the text:
Text: 2 Kings 17:24-28, NASB: 24 The king of Assyria brought men from Babylon and from Cuthah and from Avva and from Hamath and Sepharvaim, and settled them in the cities of Samaria in place of the sons of Israel. So they possessed Samaria and lived in its cities. 25 At the beginning of their living there, they did not fear the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them which killed some of them. 26 So they spoke to the king of Assyria, saying, "The nations whom you have carried away into exile in the cities of Samaria do not know the custom of the god of the land; so he has sent lions among them, and behold, they kill them because they do not know the custom of the god of the land." 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying, "Take there one of the priests whom you carried away into exile and let him go and live there; and let him teach them the custom of the god of the land." 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away into exile from Samaria came and lived at Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the LORD.
The chapter itself is rather long, so I won’t read all of it but will point out selected items as we go along. The first several verses speak of the last king of the northern kingdom, and how he basically was not much more than a puppet ruler. We need to remember that there were very few independent kingdoms in those days. You maintained your “independence”, such as it was, by either paying tribute or blackmail money to a stronger power, or, you had enough of a military strength so that people wouldn’t bother you. Assyria, modern day Iraq, was a very strong power in those days and they enforced their rule by very cruel means. I mean, what they did to captives was not something pleasant. I won’t go into too much detail.
A word about siege warfare: this was one means of war practiced often in that era. It was very simple: the enemy army surrounded your city and waited for you to either surrender or starve. It was a simple and effective way to win a battle, if you were the attacker—but it was horrible if you were on the inside, or the losing side.
The next several verses describe how most of the citizens were carried away. It wasn’t a pleasure walk, by any means: the Assyrian king re-settled the Hebrews in cities far away from Israel. Some of the territory, their new homeland, was as far away as modern day southern Iran.
And they never returned to the land God had promised them. Such is the result of sin, because the Israelites had abandoned the God of their fathers and imported religious practices from other nations. They had been warned, many times, but paid no attention. Now God’s wrath was revealed, and now God’s judgment was going to fall on them. But none of that would have happened, if they had repented of their sins.
Thus far we’ve observed the rebellion and removal of the native Hebrew people in verses 1-6, but now we see the re-population of the northern kingdom by others. Verses 24-25 tell of the newcomers, all former captives or subjects of the Assyrian powers, none of whom had much choice while they were in captivity. When the king said, “Move!” you better say “where?” or else suffer the consequences. These consequences, in a word, weren’t pretty.
It’s bad enough that these newcomers came in with the intent to stay, taking advantage, perhaps, of the wide open spaces and at least semi-fertile land. One major problem, however, was that these settlers brought their own religions and idols along with them! There was one unifying factor, though, in that God sent lions among the people and the lions were apparently having a field day, killing people near the cities of Samaria.
May I digress for a moment and share a similar kind of incident? I used to enjoy a “manage the world” kind of computer game where I built Roman colonies in various places. The idea was to start small but keep improving, tearing down older things and replacing them with new. Well, one episode has stayed with me for several years. The colony’s location was near a pack of wolves, and the wolves were just having a feast with my colonists! I’m almost positive I saw a smirk on the computer’s wolf displays when they grabbed another snack, so to speak. Even one of my children noticed my score going down, and exclaimed, “Dad, your people are being eaten by wolves!”