Many promises had marked out Ephraim for greatness, and at first the new kingdom seemed quite to overshadow the little rocky Judah. But the founder of the dominion of the ten tribes sowed the seeds of decay, because, like Saul, he would not trust to the God who had given him his crown. He was afraid his subjects would return to the kings of the House of David, if he let them go to worship at Jerusalem, and therefore revived the old symbol of a calf, which he must have seen in Egypt in his exile, setting up two shrines at Bethel and at Dan, the two ends of his kingdom, bidding his people go thither to offer sacrifice. Thus he made Israel to sin; and while hoping to strengthen his power, was the cause of its ruin. Prophets warned him in vain, that his line should not remain on the throne; and in the reign of his son Nadab, the rebel Baasha arose and slew the whole family of this first king of the idolatrous realm, in the year 952. Baasha was not warned by the fate of Nadab, but followed the same courses; and his son Elah and all his house were destroyed in 928, when after the slaughter of two short-lived usurpers, the captain of the army, Omri, became king. Omri belonged to the city of Jezreel, in the inheritance of Issachar; but he built Samaria in the midst of Ephraim, between the two hills of blessing and of cursing, and this town becoming the capital, gave its name to the whole kingdom. In 918, Omri left his crown to his son Ahab, who allied himself with the rich Phoenicians, and took the Zidonian princess Jezebel for his wife; the most unfortunate marriage in the whole Israelitish history. Sinful as had been the calf-worship, it was still meant for adoration of the true God; but Jezebel brought her foul Phoenician faith with her, and tried to force on the Israelites the worship of Baal as a separate god, in the stead of the Lord Jehovah.
Ahab was weak, and yielded; and the greater number of the nation were so much corrupted by the breach of the Second Commandment, that they were not slow to break the First, although God had sent the most glorious of all His prophets to prove to them that "the Lord, He is the God." Three years of drought showed who commands the clouds, and then came Elijah's challenge to the four hundred prophets of Baal, to prove who was the God who could send fire from Heaven! All day did the four hundred cry wildly on their idol, while Elijah mocked them; at evening his offering was made, and drenched with water to increase the wonder of the miracle. He prayed, the fire fell at once from Heaven, and the people shouted "The Lord He is the God!" and gave their deceivers up to punishment; and when this partial purification was made, he prayed upon Mount Carmel, and the little cloud arose and grew into a mighty storm, bringing abundance of rain on the thirsty land.
Who could withstand such wonders? Yet they only hardened Jezebel into greater cruelty, and Elijah was forced to flee into the utmost desert, where he communed with God on Mount Sinai, even like Moses. Only once more did he appear again to Ahab, and that was to rebuke him for having permitted the murder of a poor subject whose property he had coveted, and to foretell the horrors in which his line should end.
Ahab was not wholly hardened, and often had gleams of good which brought favour upon him. A new enemy had risen up since the Canaanites had been destroyed, and the Philistines repressed, by David; namely, the Syrians, a powerful nation, whose capital was at Damascus, a city which is said to be a perfect paradise, so delicious is the climate, and so lovely the two rivers, one making the circuit of the walls, the other flowing through the middle of the town. These Syrians were appointed to bring punishment upon Samaria; but at first, two great victories were vouchsafed to Ahab, because Benhadad, King of Syria, fancied that the Israelites only won because their gods were gods of the hills. Afterwards, when Ahab went out to recover Ramoth Gilead, wilfully trusting to lying prophets, and silencing the true one, not all his disguise could avail to protect him; he was slain in the battle; and when his chariot was washed, the dogs licked his blood, as they had licked that of his victim Naboth.
Ahaziah, his son, soon died of a fall from the top of his palace, and the next brother Jehoram reigned, trying to make an agreement between the worship of God and of Baal. It was now that Elijah was taken away into Heaven by a whirlwind, leaving behind him Elisha to carry on his mission of prophecy and to execute the will of the Lord. It was Elisha who sent a messenger to anoint Jehu, the warrior who performed the vengeance of the Lord upon the House of Ahab. In the year 884 Jehoram was slain in his chariot; Jezebel, thrown out of window by her own slaves, perished miserably among the ravenous flocks of street dogs; and all the princes of the line were slaughtered by the rulers of Samaria; the worshippers of Baal were massacred, and the land purified from this idolatry. Still Jehu would not part with the calves of Dan and Bethel; and he was therefore warned that his family should likewise pass away after the fourth generation.
Elisha had already wept at the fore-knowledge of the miseries which Hazael of Syria should bring upon Israel; and Hazael, murdering his master Benhadad by stifling him with a wet cloth as he lay sick on his bed, became a dreadful enemy to Samaria. So much broken was the force of Jehoahaz, Jehu's son, that at one time he had only one thousand foot, fifty horse, and ten chariots; but after this, prosperity began to return to the Israelites. Joash, his son, was a mighty king, and would have been still greater, if he would have believed that obeying the simple words of the prophet Elisha on his death-bed would bring him victory. Yet so much greater was his force than that of Judah, that when Amaziah sent him a challenge, he replied by the insulting parable of the thistle and the cedar. Jeroboam II., his son, was likewise prosperous; but neither blessings nor warnings would induce these kings to forsake their golden calves. Amos, the herdsman-prophet of Tekoa, was warned to say nothing against the king's chapel at Bethel; and Hosea in vain declared that Ephraim was feeding on wind, and following after the east-wind, namely, putting his trust in mere empty air. So in the time of Zechariah, son to Jeroboam, came the doom of the House of Jehu, and in 773 the king was murdered by Shallum, who only reigned a month, being killed by his general, Menahem. Again, Menahem's son, Pekahiah, was killed by his captain Pekah, a great warrior, who made an attack upon Ahaz of Judah, and slew one hundred and twenty thousand Jews in one day. Many more with all their spoil were brought captives to Samaria; but there was some good yet left in Israel, and at the rebuke of the prophet Oded, the Ephraimites remembered that they were brethren, gave back to the prisoners all their spoil, fed them, clothed them, and mounted them on asses to carry them safely back to their own land. But Pekah, and his ally, Rezin of Damascus, were sore foes to Ahaz, and cruelly ravaged his domains; and though God encouraged him, by the words of Isaiah, to trust in Him alone, and see their destruction, Ahaz obstinately resolved to turn to a new power for protection.