Sins of Israel & Judah in the Old Testament

Moses ordered 3,000 Israelites killed for worshiping a false idol.
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After the death of King Solomon, Israel split into two kingdoms.

Ten of the 12 Israelite tribes formed their own kingdom, Israel.

The tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained in the south, forming the Kingdom of Judah, with the holy city of Jerusalem as its capital.

But, as described in Ezekiel 1:1-24:27, the two kingdoms wavered in their fealty to the Hebrew god, Yahweh. They indulged in the worship of other deities, constructing false idols in direct disobedience of their own god.

Yahweh was patient with his people, imploring them to repent. But they didn’t and within a few centuries, both kingdoms were overrun by foreign invaders and their inhabitants forced into exile.

1 The Israelites Sin Against Their God in the Desert

Again and again, the Hebrew god Yahweh sees his chosen people give in to the temptation of worshiping other gods and false idols. In Exodus 32:1-6 when Moses goes up to Mt.

Sinai where he receives the Ten Commandments from Yahweh, he’s gone for 40 days and the people demand a god to lead them. Moses’ brother Aaron builds a “golden calf.” The people worshiped this false idol with pagan rituals, and Moses was forced to plead with Yahweh not to destroy his people then and there. Yahweh agreed to wait until a later time to mete out his own punishment.

Moses then called for anyone who stayed faithful to Yahweh to come to him. The members of the tribe of Levi answered his call, and Moses ordered them to kill 3,000 of the calf-worshipers.

2 Sins of the Israelite Kings

The 12 tribes lived in God’s promised land, governed by judges who interpreted God’s law. Life was hard and the Israelites demanded a king to lead them. This itself was a sin. Yahweh alone was king. Warning his people they would pay for their decision, Yahweh grudgingly agreed.

He chose a warrior named Saul -- who promptly disobeyed Yahweh’s orders, offering animal sacrifice without a priest before battle. Suffering defeat, Saul committed suicide by impaling himself on his own sword.

His son-in-law David, while a great king, angered Yahweh by taking a census. To Yahweh, collecting empirical data about God’s people displayed an astonishing lack of faith. Yahweh retaliated, killing 70,000 Israelites with pestilence.

David’s son Solomon was a wise king who built the first temple, but his appetite for foreign women who worshiped their own gods led him into debauchery. He built shrines where his foreign wives held pagan rituals. When Solomon’s incompetent, tyrannical son Rehoboam ascended to the monarchy, the kingdom of Israel erupted in revolt.

3 The Kingdoms of Israel and Judah

The tribes that revolted against Rehoboam formed their own breakaway kingdom of Israel. They lost their faith in Yahweh, worshiping the Canaanite god Baal, engaging in pagan festivals and outlawing pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. When the Assyrians invaded Israel, the 10 tribes were scattered across many different countries where they vanished from history. The Kingdom of Judah maintained a more righteous path, but they finally fell into the temptations of the false gods. A Mesopotamian invasion resulted in the people of Judah, the Jews, exiled into Babylon, ending the kingdom of the Israelites.

4 The Modern Jewish Concept of Sin

In Judaism, there is no concept of “original sin.” People are born pure, but everyone has both good and evil inclinations. The way to avoid sin is to follow God’s law, laid down in the Torah. The law evolved over time. In Moses’ time and in the two kingdoms, God was obsessed with proper ritual worship. The sins of the Israelites in this period usually involved breaking these rituals or dishonoring Yahweh is some other way. Late in the era of the two kingdoms, came a series of reformers, known as prophets. The first was Samuel, followed by, among others, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. The heroic prophet Elijah, who faced down the wicked king Ahab, was the last of these great prophets. These radical reformers preached not ritual, but righteousness. The prophets taught that Yahweh’s true law was a code of justice and ethics, right and wrong. It was not merely a handbook for correct ritual.

Where the greatest sin had previously been to worship competing gods, the prophets introduced a new concept of sin, namely, to do wrong against one’s fellow man.

The teachings of the prophets created a modern religion that still exists today. It is called Judaism.

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.