Palestine under Roman Rule

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the land of Israel (now called Palestine by the Romans) was ruled by the Romans, who had granted Herod the Great the title of “king” over the region. His domain included most of the land that once belonged to Israel. After his death, the Romans granted Herod’s wishes that his kingdom be divided among his sons Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip. The region of the Decapolis (“Ten Cities”) was never included in Herod’s kingdom and had a distinctly Gentile population and character. The cities of this region enjoyed semi-autonomous status under the Romans. By the time of Jesus, the Sea of Galilee had developed a thriving fishing industry, and many of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen. Jesus chose the fishing town of Capernaum as the base of his ministry in Galilee (Matthew 4:12-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11). The town of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast was the headquarters of the Roman forces in Palestine and had a distinctly Gentile character as well. The arid region of the Dead Sea had become home to those alienated from greater Jewish society, such as the community at Qumran.

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The Kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon

When Israel first settled in Canaan, they operated as a coalition of twelve tribes with no single ruler, though from time to time local leaders would rise up as needed to face certain threats (Judges 2-16). Beginning with Saul, however, the twelve tribes of Israel united under a single king in order to be more like the nations around them (1 Samuel 8). Saul was effective in fighting Israel’s nearby enemies, such as the Philistines and the Ammonites (1 Samuel 11; 13-14). Over time, however, Saul proved unfaithful to the Lord (1 Samuel 15), so the Lord chose a young man named David to replace him (1 Samuel 16). Initially David reigned over only his native tribe of Judah (2 Samuel 2-4), but eventually all the Israelites tribes united under his rule (2 Samuel 5:1-5; 1 Chronicles 11:1-3). For the remainder of his reign David fought war after war with the nations surrounding Israel, and he expanded Israel’s kingdom as far north as Zobah and as far south as the Red Sea (2 Samuel 8-10; 1 Chronicles 18-19). Though David’s son Absalom attempted to set himself up as king and David’s son Adonijah attempted to make himself David’s successor, David passed on the kingship to Solomon, his son by Bathsheba (2 Samuel 15-19; 1 Kings 1). Solomon proved to be an able leader as well, annexing the nation of Hamath and expanding Israel’s territory to the great Euphrates River (2 Chronicles 8). Solomon’s dominion over this vast territory gave him control over the very strategic and lucrative land routes that passed through the region, making him very wealthy and powerful (1 Kings 10; 2 Chronicles 9).

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Jerusalem during the Later Old Testament

The Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord in 586 B.C. and exiled many Judeans to Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-21; 2 Chronicles 36:17-21; Jeremiah 39:1-10; 52:1-30). Several decades later (539 B.C.), King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and declared that the Judean exiles were free to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4). A small portion of the exiles did return and rebuild the Temple (Ezra 1:5-6:15; Nehemiah 7:5-65), but it wasn’t until about 444 B.C. that they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah. The work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls is recorded in Nehemiah 3, and it appears that the rebuilt walls did not include the western hill that had been enclosed under Hezekiah’s leadership hundreds of years earlier. The walls surrounding that area were rebuilt during the Maccabean era.

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The Battle at Elah

1 Samuel 17

When the Philistines prepared for battle near the strategically located Valley of Elah, the Israelites assembled on the other side of the valley to face them. After the Philistines’ champion Goliath had challenged the Israelites for forty days to select a champion to fight him, young David, who had already been anointed as the next king of Israel by the prophet Samuel, slew him with a stone from his sling. The terrified Philistines fled, and the Israelites chased them as far as Gath and Ekron.

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