In order to understand what Luke is about to describe, we need a refresher course in Jewish history.
We have said much already about the long-awaited restored Davidic kingdom, which was very much on the collective Jewish mind at the time of Jesus birth, throughout His earthly life, and especially visible at the time of His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. But now we must turn our attention in the opposite direction and consider events that began during David’s original kingdom. Or, more precisely, the end of his son Solomon’s kingdom.
The land of Israel from the time it was occupied under Joshua was divided into twelve geographic regions that can be thought of similarly to states in the United States of America (although they were more the size of counties). When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam was made king over all twelve tribes. But in his very first official act he chose to increase his father’s taxation of the people dramatically. As a result, the other eleven tribes rejected the reign of Rehoboam and seceeded suddenly. War was imminent, and Rehoboam quickly assembled an army of 180,000 men from his own tribe (Judah) and the neighboring tribe of Benjamin. They were ready to go to war, but God told Shemaiah the prophet to tell Rehoboam not to go to war against his brothers because the split was by God’s design. (I Kings 12:1-24).
To understand why, we must turn back one chapter. Solomon’s life and reign has been characterized by Walk Through the Bible Ministries as “half-hearted.” In Chapter 11 we learn that Solomon’s many foreign wives turned his heart away from God to the worship of their own false gods. God appeared to Solomon twice, commanding him not to go after other gods (vv9-10). As a result of Solomon’s disobedience, God told him that He would “tear the kingdom from” him and give all of the tribes except Judah to a man who was merely Solomon’s servant. God would spare Solomon from this during his own lifetime, because of his father David’s faithfulness, but as soon as he died it would happen (vv11-13).
God set the wheels in motion immediately by empowering three enemies of Solomon, Hadad, Rezon, and Jeroboam. Each brought something important to the rebellion. Hadad and Jeroboam had both fled to Egypt to escape Solomon’s wrath, but for different reasons. David’s Commander of the Army, Joab, had destroyed the neighboring nation of Edom, killing all the males. But Hadad escaped to Egypt and eventually became the Pharaoh’s son-in-law. When he heard that Solomon was dead, he wanted to return to Edom. He brought great wealth and political power back to Israel’s old enemy Edom. Rezon was a marauding bandit who rose to power after David slew the men of Zobah, establishing his headquarters in the city of Damascus far to the northeast of Israel’s northernmost tribe of Dan.
Jeroboam was a young, valiant and industrious member of Solomon’s army who had taken the King’s notice and been appointed taskmaster over all of the forced laborers from the two half-tribes descended from Joseph. By God’s design, he was met on the road one day by the prophet Ahija, who took his new cloak and tore it into two pieces, a large one and and a small one. He gave the large one to Jeroboam and told him that God would tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and make him ruler over ten of the twelve tribes. The prophecy became known to Solomon, and Jeroboam fled for his life to Egypt. When Solomon died, he was called back by the leaders of the rebellious ten tribes and made king.
Judah and Benjamin held the southernmost portion of Israel while the other ten tribes held the central and northernmost portion of Israel. The line was drawn between them, and so the now-divided kingdom is referred to as the Northern Kingdom (in rebellion under Jeroboam) and the Southern Kingdom (under Rehoboam). From this point on the Northern Kingdom is often referred to as Israel, and the Southern Kingdom as Judah. Remember, Rehoboam was the son of Solomon, descended in the kingly line of David, while Jeroboam was just a soldier in Solomon’s army. God had brought to pass what He had told Solomon, that the kingdom would be torn from his descendants and given to his servant.
Jeroboam feared that the people of the Northern Kingdom would visit Jerusalem for the special days decreed by God for national worship, and their hearts would be turned back to the Southern Kingdom and Rehoboam. (We will have more to say about God’s commands to worship Him only in Jerusalem later, for it is the determining factor for who was present in Jerusalem for Pentecost.) To keep them from doing so, he reconstructed the Golden Calf from the days of Moses and the Exodus, making two of them and declaring them to be the gods who had brought Israel out of Egypt. He placed one in Bethel, just to the northeast of Jerusalem, and the other in Dan, about as far north in Israel as it could be. Dan, in fact, was closer to Damascus (headquarters of Solomon’s enemy Rezon) than it was to Jerusalem. This was a grevious and repugnant sin, accompanied by many other offenses (vv12:31-33), and was a constant stumbling block in the Northern Kingdom.
There followed in both the Northern and Southern kingdoms a series of kings who were evil and rebellious for the most part. In truth, what had happened was the opening aria to what Moses had predicted — that if they forsook God they would be removed from the promised land. God, in His patient mercy, tried to woo them back, but finally in 721 BC the Northern Kingdom was overrun by Assyrian armies. The Southern Kingdom followed suit in 586 BC, but in the ensuing 135 years the landscape of world power had changed — Assyria had been conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.
Assyria and Babylon dealt with conquered territories in completely different ways. Assyria scattered all but a skeleton crew of Israelites to the four winds, dispersing them throughout the known world as a means of preventing them from regrouping and revolting. In the same way, the Northern Kingdom was repopulated by the Assyrians with captives from all over the world. This made the bloodlines of the Northern Kingdom’s ten tribes nearly impossible to maintain and preserve. Babylon, on the other hand, hauled captives to the city of Babylon for use as slave labor. They took note of the “cream of the crop” and pressed them into service in Nebuchadnezzar’s court, thus giving us the story of Daniel’s rise to power. This preserved the bloodlines of Judah and Benjamin, and allowed them to return to Israel some seventy years after their deportation when the Medes and Persians overthrew Babylon.
It is the dispersion of the northern tribes that interests us the most as we study the event known as Pentecost. The Northern Kingdom, the larger part of Israel, had been scattered throughout the known world. In the intervening years leading up to the time of Jesus, world power shifted hands again — first to the Greeks and then to the Romans. Several historical events associated with these shifts in power caused additional migrations of Jewish clusters throughout the Mediterranean and European region. (See Conybeare and Howson’s The Life and Epistles of Saint Paul for an excellent and thorough description of these events.) Note that about 750 years have passed from the time of the Assyrian conquest to the time of Jesus adulthood, nearly four times the age of the United States! These scattered Jewish people are referred to collectively as the diaspora, the “dispersed ones.”
Many, perhaps the majority, of the diaspora intermarried with the gentiles and left behind their culture and religion. All certainly learned the language of their new homelands, but many were able to preserve their use of Hebrew and Aramaic as well. They succeeded not only in preserving their religion for 750 years but in constructing synagogues and rising to positions of high respect in their foreign communities. Many family generations had passed over this long period of time, and they became increasingly enculturated, taking on the characteristics of their societies. By the time of Jesus day, many of them are independently wealthy and politically influential — so much so that they are able to maintain seasonal lodging in Jerusalem, leave their businesses in the hands of underlings for weeks at a time, and travel to and from Jerusalem for the “high holidays” commanded by God in the Old Testament. Once gathered in Jerusalem, each nationality was easily distinguished by their clothes, accents, and daily habits.
We should also mention that many gentiles in these scattered lands had taken note of the religion of the Jews, to the point where they had adopted it as their own religion. Many were so serious about it that they were circumcised as adults in order to enter the Temple grounds in Jerusalem to worship. Though they were not genetically Jewish, they committed their lives into Jehova’s hands and became practitioners of the Law of Moses. Such individuals were allowed into fellowship under provisions in the Mosaic Law, and were known as proselytes.
It is also worth noting here that the Greek empire had left a lasting impression on the world, even though Rome was now in power. One of the most influential groups in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day was a genetically-Jewish sect from Greece known as the Hellenists. We will meet them much later in the Book of Acts when Paul returns to Jerusalem for the last time and is arrested in the Temple.
Finally, it is important to remember what we have already learned. The church of the Age of Grace is still nowhere in sight at this point in the narrative. Everything is still about Israel as you will see as we study the second chapter of Acts verse by verse. Here it will be especially important to take a fresh look at what the Scriptures say, and not jump thoughtlessly to long-held but false interpretations of this passage. Are the things we are about to study sacred cows because men have made them so? We, like the Bereans of old, must study the Scriptures, not the writings of men, to see if these things told to us by others are true!