Forced migration was the most serious consequence of the fall of Samaria. Fortunately, the Israelites were still alive, but they were scattered across Assyria, destined to lose their Jewish identity. Only those who have been ripped from their heritage and compelled to live among strangers can understand how a refugee’s world is turned upside down. Their identity is stripped from them, and they no longer know who they are. Hoshea’s final rebellion destroyed the northern kingdom. It was over, or was it? When all hope is gone, there is still hope for those who trust in God. Israel could still return to its land.
The records of Sargon II indicate that he deported 27,900 people from Samaria. It’s not clear how many more may have been deported from other cities in Israel. Assyria often used this method of moving masses of people from conquered territory in order to break down local pride and make them Assyrians. Israelites were moved to areas that stretched from northern Syria to cities of the Medes in the far East (2 Kings 17:6). That was at least 800 miles away. The deportation was violent, as pictures and texts describe people being led away with fishhooks in the noses and lips. Then the Assyrians brought people from as far away as Babylon to replace the Israelites. They came from at least five cities that are mentioned in 2 Kings 17:24. These people from the East were placed in “cities of Samaria”, so the entire region was transformed.
Some Israelites remained in the land, but not an influential number. In fact, people attributed an increase in wild lions to the absence of the Israelites. Because of that, the king of Assyria brought a Jewish priest back to Bethel to teach the worship of Jehovah to the new arrivals (2 Kings 17:25-41). They ended up practicing the worship of Jehovah along with the worship of the gods of all the regions from which they came.
The amazing thing is that six years later, the Israelites still had a chance to return to their land, if they had wanted to. The occasion was Hezekiah’s revival, when the land of Judah returned to whole-hearted temple worship, and invited the remnant in the north to join them. In fact, the princes sent out messengers to all the cities of the North, all the way to Dan, which was the farthest city to the north. Most of the people mocked, and only a small number showed up to join in the temple worship.
It was very clear that the deportation was not an arbitrary event of history, but the result of Israel’s actions. 2 Kings 17:7-23 describes the many practices that offended Jehovah, such as “walking in the customs of the nations”, even though they were warned many times not to so by the prophets. It was also clear that the deportation did not come from one mistake, but from “a multitude of sins”. How did that work? According to the law, Israel deserved to be punished the first time they sinned, but God waited and was patient, forgiving, and longsuffering. The distance between punishment deserved and punishment received is the measure of God’s grace. There is a point at which warnings are replaced with action. But that’s not necessarily the end.
The couriers sent this message: “O people of Israel, return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, that he may turn again to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria.” (2 Chronicles 30:6)
Then they continued with this promise: “For if you return to the Lord, your brothers and your children will find compassion with their captors and return to this land.” (2 Chronicles 30:9)
Even after they had been spread across the Assyrian empire from one side to the other, God promised to bring them back, if they would repent. That’s what happened when Judah went into captivity in Babylon. They repented and returned. What a shame! Israel was so close and yet so far away.