The prophet David was the first king to rule over all twelve tribes of Israel centered around the city of Jerusalem. But the unity enforced by King David did not endure very long. After the death of David’s son Solomon, David’s grandson Rehoboam enforced a very severe regime. Eventually, ten of the northern Israelite tribes separated from this tyrannical king and chose for themselves Jeroboam, from the tribe of Ephraim, as their king, establishing a new kingdom which they called Israel. The other two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, remained with the dictatorial Rehoboam and formed the Judean kingdom.
For modern readers of the New Testament, the Kingdom of Israel encompassed the familiar regions of Galilee and Samaria. The Kingdom of Judea consisted basically of the southern Jewish homeland around Jerusalem and Jericho and Bethlehem. So the Jewish homeland became two kingdoms: Judah on the south and Israel on the north. The city of Jerusalem remained the capital of the Judean kingdom, and the city of Samaria became the capital of Israel.
Tough times were in store for both the northern and southern Jewish kingdoms. Envy of the more dominant nations surrounding Israel began to take the Israelites’ attention away from the God of their fathers and to focus it on the wealth, power and prestige of their pagan neighbors. God left the northern Kingdom of Israel to its own devices and the nation fell to the Assyrians about the year 800 B.C. Many of the Israelites were taken off into exile and many of the invading Assyrians intermarried with the Israelite residents. This mixed breed population became the Samaritans still looked upon with scorn in Jesus’ time. The Israelite kingdom had lasted 250 tumultuous years.
The Judean kingdom managed to hang on for another 100 years. Although this southern kingdom enjoyed the rule of a few pious kings, like the northern kingdom, the temptation to align itself with its powerful neighbors proved irresistible. Around the year 600 B.C., the Kingdom of Judah fell to the invading armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. At first, this Babylonian king preserved Jerusalem and did not destroy the Jewish kingdom. He preferred to make them a subject people who owed tribute to Babylon. Here enters the prophet Jeremiah from whose writings the first reading at this Sunday’s Mass is taken. Jeremiah knew clearly that the Babylonians had been sent against the Jews by God as a punishment for the sins of both king and people. The Judeans had also abandoned the faith of their fathers trusting in the gods of their mighty neighbors. The message of Jeremiah to his fellow citizens was pray, repent and reform.
But instead of turning back toward God and religion, the Judeans revolted against their Babylonian captors. Nebuchadnezzar then took the city of Jerusalem by storm, looted it, set it ablaze and ransacked Solomon’s proud Temple. Jeremiah, who witnessed all these tragic events, managed to seize the Ark of the Covenant from the midst of the Temple hiding it wisely in a grotto. Like their northern neighbors, many of these southern Judeans were taken into captivity, this time to Babylon, where they endured seventy years of exile. The poorest Judeans were left behind to eke out a meagre existence from Judea’s fields and farms.
The much forlorn Jeremiah remained behind with his impoverished fellow citizens, saddened by the godlessness of his people, discouraged amidst the ruins of his beloved city, and intent on converting those few who would listen.
In the light of the infidelity and treachery recounted above, the soothing message of Jeremiah is especially effective. Perhaps our modern society which has known its own share of faithlessness might welcome a new reform in our own day: The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the LORD. All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.