Why did the survivors of the Kingdom of Judah (golah, she’erit, Diaspora, returnees) in the sixth century adopt/appropriate/retain the identity “Israel,” even though the two polities had not been united under the same monarch since the tenth century?
Maybe it’s not a question you’ve considered, but it is the subject of Daniel Fleming’s fascinating book, The Legacy of Israel in Judah’s Bible: History, Politics, and the Reinscribing of Tradition (CUP, 2012). It’s easy to assume the inevitability of what has happened, but things could have turned out differently.
One answer is that there were survivors of the Kingdom of Israel who migrated south in the wake of the Assyrian conquest (722 BCE). But why were the Northern religious, historical and literary traditions (portions of the Tetrateuch, Joshua and Judges, and prophetic books) and the “Israel” terminology/imagery central to the self-identification of Yehudians in the Persian period?
I’ve considered this question over the last few years in relation to the “Benjaminite” identity. Perhaps my own ethnic and religious situation may be analogous to certain aspects of the Yehudian situation—at least, my situation may indicate what is plausible.
I am a white Protestant American raised in an English-speaking household in the late twentieth century CE. Even though I am not an Anglican, my own religious tradition is influenced by English and Scottish writings and traditions. The English Bible used in my church stands in the tradition of the King James Bible. My parents read children’s books by British authors to me and my siblings as a child (Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, C.S. Lewis, etc.). I read British literature in high school and college; Adam Smith, Jane Austen, John Donne, and Jonathan Swift are among my favorite authors. I watch movies and TV shows produced and/or set in the UK. When I visited London for the first time as an adult, I felt a certain familiarity with the geography and mythology.
Yet I am not and have never been a subject of Queen Elizabeth II of England. The United States has been independent from the Kingdom of Great Britain for nearly two-and-a-half centuries. Like many Americans I have diverse ancestry, but only a small portion of it may be traced to settlers from the British Isles (Wales, to be precise). On my father’s side, all my ancestors are immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Syria—no one in the family spoke English or lived in the United States in the year 1900, as far as I am aware.
How strange it is, then, that I feel such an affinity to Britain! Language is probably the most significant connection between me and the British Isles. But the affinity caused by shared language guided other historical events that cemented ties between the United States and Britain. Since the early nineteenth century, the two nations have been close economic, political and military allies. The two World Wars—in which these countries were allies—loom quite large in the collective psyches, literature, and film of the two nations.
The further back in history I go, the easier it is to celebrate common symbols with contemporary Britons. General George Washington, who led the Colonial Army against the British in the War of Independence, was previously Colonel George Washington, hero of the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War).
A grade-school textbook in the USA will present the War of Independence (1775-1783) in a differently light from the way a textbook for UK students would present that same episode in history—the USA textbook will tell of the violations of the colonists’ rights and lack of parliamentary representation, whereas the UK textbook will describe the relatively small tax burden enjoyed by the colonists in exchange for the protections afforded by the British military from the French and the Native Americans. But how much does that really matter to the contemporary relationship between the two nations, or between individual constituents of those polities? I have friends and acquaintances who are UK nationals, and the disagreements that led our nations to war two-and-a-half centuries ago has no bearing on our relationship—indeed, we belittle those differences by needling each other about them.
Examples of affinity between disparate peoples could be multiplied. How surprising is it really, then, that inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah and Yehud Province in the 8th through 4th centuries BCE sought to retain and incorporate the memories, traditions, and written texts of the conquered people of Israel to their north? The two polities had not been ruled by the same sovereign since the Israelites broke away from Rehoboam (or, as Fleming more accurately describes it, when Rehoboam refused to accept deposition by the majority of tribes during his probationary period). However, they shared a language and a deity (even though they disagreed on cultic practice and location). They also appear to have shared founding myths and origin stories.
A great deal of work still needs to be done on Israel and Judah, especially as new insights from archaeology are integrated into our reconstruction of the period. Yet it should not be so surprising that Judahites (Kingdom of Judah and Yehud Medinata’) continued to consider themselves as “Israelites” also.
 Fleming, Legacy of Israel in Judah’s Bible, 298.
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