The division of Israel and Judah plays a big role in Bible history and prophecy, though this is confusing to many today. What is the difference between Israel and Judah? When will they be reunited?
After the death of King Solomon of Israel, the 12 tribes of Israel divided into two kingdoms, and this has had a major effect on biblical history. And the split between Israel and Judah is a major theme in Bible prophecy as well.
The history of Israel and Judah
The 12 tribes of Israel descended from the patriarch Jacob, who was renamed Israel by God. One of the prominent tribes throughout the years was Judah.
All 12 tribes of Israel were united under the leadership of Moses and Joshua, but the history during the time of the judges was more complicated. It seems most Israelites were more focused on local concerns. The book of Judges ends with, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
This changed when the people of Israel demanded a king like the nations around them. God allowed this, and Saul became the first king of all 12 tribes of Israel.
King Saul’s sins disqualified his family from a continuing dynasty. God chose David, from the tribe of Judah, to be the next king. But the transition would not be a smooth one.
The first short split between Israel and Judah
At Saul’s death, the tribe of Judah made David their king, but the other tribes of Israel followed Saul’s son Ishbosheth. This led to war between Judah and the rest of Israel. “Now there was a long war between the house of Saul [leading Israel] and the house of David [leading Judah]. But David grew stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker” (2 Samuel 3:1).
King David worked hard to reunite all 12 tribes of Israel, and after seven years and six months he was welcomed as king of “all Israel and Judah” (2 Samuel 5:5).
His son Solomon also reigned over Israel and Judah together. Though he started well, Solomon disobeyed God and sowed the seeds of the future split of his kingdom.
God chose one of Solomon’s servants to lead the northern tribes of Israel after Solomon. Here’s what God told Jeroboam about why the split between Israel and Judah was coming:
“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Behold, I will tear the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon and will give ten tribes to you (but he shall have one tribe for the sake of My servant David, and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel), because they have forsaken Me, and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Milcom the god of the people of Ammon, and have not walked in My ways to do what is right in My eyes and keep My statutes and My judgments, as did his father David” (1 Kings 11:31-33).
When did Israel and Judah split?
Solomon died around 930 B.C., and soon after the northern 10 tribes sent a delegation to Rehoboam, his son, to ask for relief from the heavy burden of taxes they had been carrying.
But Rehoboam took bad advice and threatened to raise taxes instead. This led to the split that God had predicted.
So why did Israel and Judah split? The immediate argument was over taxation, but God’s prophecy makes clear the real problem was sin.
Jeroboam and Rehoboam
After the split, Rehoboam became king of the southern kingdom of Judah. The kingdom of Judah was comprised of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin and much of the tribe of Levi, the tribe that served at the temple.
Jeroboam, the former servant of King Solomon, became king of the northern kingdom of Israel as God had promised. The kingdom of Israel was comprised of the remaining 10 tribes (1 Kings 11 and 12).
Even though all the tribes were descendants of Jacob (also called Israel, Genesis 32:28; 35:10) and were known as Israelites under the single nation with this name, these peoples were now separated into two nations.
The Bible reveals that Israel and Judah will eventually be reunited as one nation. Before we look at this prophecy, consider a brief history of what happened to these two groups of people.
What happened to Israel and Judah?
It is important to note the distinction between the peoples of these two nations: Israel and Judah. While all Jews were Israelites because they were descendants of Jacob (Israel), not all Israelites were Jews. Some Israelites came from tribes other than Judah and Benjamin.
Reflecting this distinction, the first time the word Jew appears in the King James Version of the Bible, the nations of Israel and Syria are at war with the “Jews” (2 Kings 16:5-6). For many years wars and rivalries pitted Israel vs. Judah and Judah vs. Israel.
Eventually, because of disobedience to His laws, God allowed the northern kingdom of Israel to be taken into captivity by the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C. The Assyrians took these Israelites captive in successive deportations and settled them “in the cities of the Medes” (2 Kings 15:29; 18:9-12). Since this time, these people are known in history as the lost 10 tribes of Israel.
Less than 150 years later, during the sixth century B.C., God allowed the nation of Judah, which likewise continued to sin, to fall to the Babylonian Empire. Many Jews, including the prophet Daniel and his three friends, were taken as captives to Babylon. After 70 years, the Jews were given their freedom and allowed to return to Judah and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the temple. They were still in their land when the Romans conquered Judea in 63 B.C.
Israel and Judah in the first century
Although there had been some mixing of the peoples of Israel and Judah (2 Kings 18:9-13; 2 Chronicles 34:9) during their respective captivities, during the first century it was still understood that these remained distinct groups of people. Since he was of the tribe of Benjamin, Paul told people that he was both a Jew (Acts 21:39) and an Israelite (Philippians 3:5).
When James wrote his general epistle, he addressed it to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1).
Writing during this same time period, the Jewish historian Josephus said, “The entire body of the people of Israel remained in that country [Media]; wherefore there are but two tribes [Judah and Benjamin] in Asia and Europe subject to the Romans, while the ten tribes are beyond Euphrates till now, and are an immense multitude, and not to be estimated by numbers” (Antiquities of the Jews, 11.5.2, Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, combined translations of William Whiston, 1867, and the Standard Edition, 1960).
Learn more about the migrations of the 10 tribes of Israel in our articles “Lost Tribes of Israel” and “12 Tribes of Israel Today: Who Are They?”
What country is Judah today?
When the modern nation of Israel was founded in 1948, it was established as a haven for Jews. It is the only nation in the world today that is predominantly from the tribe of Judah. Many Jews have moved there, but still over half of people of Jewish descent live in other countries around the world.
Some have mistakenly assumed that because its founders chose the name Israel, this nation is now home for all of the descendants of ancient Israel. Several passages in the Bible make it clear that the modern nation of Israel does not represent all of the ancient Israelites.
First, we must realize that the Bible speaks of Abraham’s descendants as being an extremely large number of people—“as the sand of the sea” (Genesis 32:12). With the modern nation of Israel’s population approaching 9 million, compared to the earth’s current population of approximately 7.7 billion, the belief that the modern nation of Israel represents all of Abraham’s descendants doesn’t adequately respect or do justice to the promise God made to this patriarch.
Furthermore, Abraham’s descendant Ephraim was prophesied to “become a multitude of nations”; and his brother, Manasseh, a “great” nation (Genesis 48:19). Again, the modern nation of Israel has not fulfilled these biblical prophecies.
Israel and Judah reunited
While delivering prophecies to the ancient peoples of Israel and Judah of the upcoming demise of their nations because of their disobedience to God’s law, several prophets also spoke of a time of restoration after Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth.
Jeremiah wrote: “‘In those days and in that time,’ says the LORD, ‘the children of Israel shall come, they and the children of Judah together; with continual weeping they shall come, and seek the LORD their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with their faces toward it, saying, “Come and let us join ourselves to the LORD in a perpetual covenant that will not be forgotten”’” (Jeremiah 50:4-5). This prophecy speaks of both Israel and Judah jointly coming to God.
More explicitly via the use of a visual aid, God revealed through Ezekiel His plan to unite the two nations. “‘As for you, son of man, take a stick for yourself and write on it: “For Judah and for the children of Israel, his companions.” Then take another stick and write on it, “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel, his companions.” Then join them one to another for yourself into one stick, and they will become one in your hand.
“‘And when the children of your people speak to you, saying, “Will you not show us what you mean by these?”—say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Surely I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel, his companions; and I will join them with it, with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they will be one in My hand.’” … Then say to them, “Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Surely I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all; they shall no longer be two nations, nor shall they ever be divided into two kingdoms again’”’” (Ezekiel 37:16-19, 21-22).
The descendants of the ancient Israelites who had been part of the ancient nations of Israel and Judah will be reunited. They will once again be one nation enjoying peace and prosperity in the wonderful Kingdom of God.