Act 3, Part 2: Israel Becomes Part of the Problem

Act Three, Part Two: Israel Becomes Part of the Problem

In our last study we left Israel at the base of Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19) as they heard from God about the divine vocation that was being given to them. That vocation was to be “a kingdom of priests,” which was a kind of reassignment of the original creation mandate. Israel, of course, would not rule over the whole world, but they would rule over one strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, where their example would serve as a witness to the nations of the world about what it meant to be made “in the image of God.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

As we pick up Israel’s story again, we go from the base of Mt. Sinai to the banks of the Jordan River. Forty years have now passed. Israel has wandered in the desert for all these forty years and the original generation that crossed the Red Sea out of Egypt has now died. There is a reason for this…the people of Israel were disobedient to God. Because of their disobedience God promised that none of the original generation would get to cross over into the promised land.

So forty years later a new generation has arisen and they are now preparing to take over the land of Canaan that God has prepared for them. Even Moses himself will not get to cross over into the promised land because of an instance of disobedience. Therefore, before Moses dies, and before the people of Israel cross over into their promised land, Moses has something important to share with them about their life in their new home. The content of this message is found in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy.

We do not have the time or the space in this article to cover everything that is said by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. But the general gist of it can be boiled down like this. Israel was not chosen by God because of their inherent goodness. As a matter of fact, there was nothing about their own righteousness that made God choose them. He had other reasons in mind. However, now that God has chosen them, they have a choice laid before them. If they obey God and keep his commandments, then everything will go well for them in the new land that God is giving them. God will bless them and they will be a fruitful and prosperous nation. However, if they do not obey him and keep his commands, then God will curse them. More specifically, he will take them out of the land he has given them, and once again they will become slaves to a foreign nation. This is the conditional covenant that God makes with the people of Israel.

So, how does Israel’s story develop from here? Their story can be seen in four distinct phases. The first phase is known as the period of the Judges. In this period, Israel moves into the promised land and settles there under the leadership of Joshua. In Israel’s early years in the land of Canaan they had no king to rule over their people. God was supposed to be their king. However, the people were ruled by a series of judges who helped mediate justice. Unfortunately, things did not always go well for Israel in this period. A cycle kept taking place. The people of Israel would grow idolatrous and rebellious, and God would send in foreign armies to punish them. Israel would live under subjugation for a while, and then they would cry out to God for deliverance. God would deliver them through another judge, and the whole process would repeat itself. This cycle took place a number of times over a period of around 500 years.

The political tumult that took place during these years led to the next phase of Israel’s story–the Monarchy. Israel cried out to God to give them a king like the other nations of the world. They mistakenly thought that a king would bring them peace and stability. They did not realize it was their disobedience that caused their problems. God warned them what a king would do to them, but Israel begged God for one anyways. So finally, God gave in to their demand. The first three kings in Israel’s history were great kings–David and Solomon being two of the finest. However, in time, the kingdom of Israel was split into two different kingdoms due to political rivalry, and once again the people of Israel turned away from God and became wicked. Their kings were often the most wicked among them.

This leads then to the third phase of Israel’s story–the prophets and foreign captivity. At this period in Israel’s history God repeatedly sent prophets to try to turn Israel from their wicked ways. However, the people of Israel were stubborn and hard hearted, and refused to listen to them. The prophets warned that God would make good on his promise to send them into foreign slavery if they did not listen and amend their ways. The people of Israel persisted in their evil. After a period of great patience on God’s part, he finally did what he said he would do, and led Israel into foreign captivity. The northern kingdom of Israel was taken over by Assyria. A number of years later, the southern kingdom of Judah was captured by the Babylonians.

The final phase of Israel’s story is the account of Israel being allowed to come back to the promised land. Ezra and Nehemiah led a campaign to bring Israel back, rebuild the city, and rebuild God’s temple. However, Israel never regained the glory they once had under David and Solomon. In their minds, because they remained under the power of foreign influences, they thought of themselves as still being in captivity, even in their own land. The Old Testament ends with the expectation of a Messiah who might come and deliver them from their oppression. In other words, at the end of the Old Testament, Israel’s story is a story still in need of an ending.

Unfortunately, Israel’s epic is a sad one. God had called them out to be his special people and to reassign to them the great human vocation to rule as people made in God’s image. Rather than fulfill this mission, they joined the rest of the world and became part of the problem. But as we will learn as the story presses on, God was not caught off guard by this. Indeed, he knew it would happen. But nonetheless, Israel still plays a vital role in bringing to pass what will end up being the great climax to God’s story.

Stay tuned. More to come!

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