Israel is a Land

The land of Israel has gone through many names and forms over its history. In prehistory it was inhabited by various nomadic groups including Abram, Israel’s grandfather. When Abram was on his journey from Ur of the Chaldees (near the coast of the Persian Gulf) toward Egypt, he had a conversation with God while in the land of Canaan. There, God tells Abram that all that he can see will belong to his descendants forever. However, God gets more specific later. On 4 different occasions, God specifies the boundaries of this land. To Abram He says, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” Five hundred years later, after Abraham’s descendants are enslaved in Egypt, as he was forewarned, God tells Moses, “I will fix your boundary from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River [Euphrates].” Forty years after this, when they were about to actually enter this “promised” land, God further clarifies these borders to Moses using over 20 specific geographic references. There is also a specification made to the prophet Ezekiel some 1000 years later about the return of the 12 tribes to these ancestral boundaries. There is no little debate about what this section of Ezekiel’s prophecy exactly describes. (For example, it also mentions a new river flowing out of the east gate of the temple and turning the Dead Sea into a freshwater lake.)

Despite all of these promises, Israel as a people never filled out the entire boundaries of the land, though they often thought they had covered it enough. The general story of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings is that the people, judges, and kings generally grew exasperated with conquering their neighbors because they found their neighbors’ practices quite appealing. The largest the nation ever became was under the reign of Solomon, son of David. His son’s foolishness caused a division in the kingdom that was never healed. The land has gone under many governments since that day, and what God promised about the future of this land fills volumes of debate.

There are two things that drive me as a teacher: making the complex simple and giving context to controversy. I realize this doesn’t answer much in the modern conversation, but I hope this provides some ancient context to our modern conversations.


Israel is a People

In our previous study, we saw the background of the person named Israel. Israel was the younger brother by a few minutes. He went from being a deceiver to one who wrestles with God. Apart from any good deeds of his own, God decides to bless him and his descendants with some of the best territory known to mankind of his day.

Israel’s family had some issues though. As any good rendition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will remind you, there were not good feelings between his sons. It starts when Israel plays favorites with his wives (a good start to any dysfunctional marriage). After having 10 sons with his second-favorite wife and two maidservants, he finally has a child with his favorite wife. This child, Joseph, is later sold by his brothers to their distant cousins. Joseph ends up in Egypt and rises in the ranks. Ultimately he saves Egypt and its neighbors (including his relatives in the land of Canaan) from famine. Pharaoh honors Joseph by inviting Jacob/Israel and his descendents to take some of the best land in Egypt.
A generation later, the Egyptians weren’t so happy about Israelites living in their best territory, so they enslaved them. Four hundred thirty years later, God delivered those Israelites out of Egypt into the land he originally promised Abraham: Canaan. This nomadic nation that had never possessed a permanent homeland was on its way to its final(?) destination.
Why make them wait over 400 years? There seems to be one practical reason and one theological reason. First, there were 70 people in Israel’s family when they went into Egypt–hardly enough to occupy a country. When the Exodus occurred, there were 600,000 men, or probably 2-3 million people. (By my math, that’s 5 kids per couple for about 12, 30-year generations.) That would fill a small country nicely in those days. The theological reason comes in when God is making his covenant with Abram. God tells him that his descendants will be enslaved but that it won’t be permanent. Then Abram is told the reason: “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” The Amorites were one of the nations in the “Promised Land” of Canaan. My understanding of this statement has been: The Canaanites aren’t bad enough to deserve losing their homeland yet… but give it 400 years.
These descendants of Israel come out of Egypt, spend 40 years having their faith tested in the wilderness, then they spend several generations trying to wrest control of Canaan from the Canaanites, only to cave in to their ways of living in worshipping. The rest of the story of the Old Testament is a struggle between a few God-fearing people who hate idol worship and a majority who would rather be just like the Canaanites. The books of Joshua thru Malachi trace the story of those few who stand against the majority and sometimes cave in themselves.
The trough of Old Testament story comes with the fall of most of Israel’s descendants to the Assyrians. This was followed within a few generations by the fall of the dominant tribe of Judah to Babylon. The next 70 years that Israel spends in exile in Babylon became the defining moment in its identity. For the first time in 1000 years, the nation didn’t have a land of its own. From that point until this day, there have always been Jews (hear the name in Ju-dah?) outside of the “land” of Israel. God had a lesson in humility to teach to this nation. Several, like Daniel, Esther, Nehemiah, and Ezra passed the test. God restored Judah to their ancestral land in former Canaan, and they began to rebuild.
This people group re-established its nation in the Levant slowly with the permission of the Persians (who had supplanted the Babylonians). However, it never had complete sovereignty for more than a few years here-and-there. These remaining Israelite descendants who held to their “promised” land lived under the rule of Persians, various forms of Greeks, and finally Romans. Rome had enough of their monotheistic ways and obliterated this Jewish land once more, exiling its inhabitants in 70 A.D. Jews would not live in this land again in any significant numbers for another 19 centuries.
Describing the history of a people that covers this much time will always do injustice to the nuances, but I hope you can see the trajectory of Israel as a people through its ancient history. Next, I hope to uncover what it means to say Israel is a land.

Israel is a Person

Israel is a frequent focus of attention in American Christian circles, but I suspect that a lot of people don’t have a good “big picture” idea of the role of Israel in the world according to the Bible. I would like to take you on a quick flyover of Israel’s history so that we can better understand what the Bible says about Israel’s role today.

(I pray you would consider this series for its own merits without assuming I’m going to fit in a certain niche. I’m going to try to avoid making conclusions that Scripture itself doesn’t make.)

First, we need to know who, (not what,) the “original” Israel was. Israel is a person, and for him, we need to go to Genesis. The Old Testament (i.e. Old Covenant) is a series of covenants that God made with man, and Genesis tells us about the first two. Noah gets the first one, sealed by a rainbow, including the promise that God will never again flood the whole earth (with water, that is).

Abram

The second covenant is given to Abram (Noah’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson). Here, God promises that Abram (a 75-year-old man whose 65-year-old wife, Sarai, is infertile) that he’ll be a “great nation”. Abram, whose name means “father,” is told to leave his homeland, move across the known world, and settle among strangers. Once he arrives, he’s told that his (non-existent) descendants will inherit the land of the Canaanites. (I’ll talk about them, and their land, in a later installment.)

This is a real problem for “Father” Abram. If he died childless, the whole “nation” thing wasn’t going to happen. After 10 years of waiting for this promised child, Abram and his wife thought it would be a good idea to for him to have a child with their servant Hagar. It works, and God does indeed bless that child, Ishmael, with several children himself later on, but it wasn’t exactly what God was indicating in his promise to Abram.

Fast-forward to a 99-yr-old Abram, 89-yr-old Sarai, and 13-yr-old Ishmael. God appears to Abram, changes his name to “Father of many nations”–Abraham, and promises that Sarai (now, Sarah) herself will have a child. God specifically promises that this child, Isaac, will be the recipient of Abraham’s covenant. Isaac is born within a year.

Isaac

Isaac doesn’t get as much “air time” in Genesis compared to his dad and sons. For our purposes, we need to focus on the birth of his twin boys, Jacob and Esau. Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, struggled to conceive for 20 years, but God answered their prayers and gave them twins. In a day before sonograms, Rebekah was wondering why the baby was kicking so much, so God told her:

“Two nations are in your womb;
And two peoples will be separated from your body;
And one people shall be stronger than the other;
And the older shall serve the younger.

Esau gets his red head out first, Jacob literally pulling his leg. In later years, Esau, like Ishmael, is blessed with wealth and a large family, but not with the unique covenant given to Abraham and Isaac.

Jacob

So, where does Israel come into the story? One day, preparing to meet his estranged brother, Esau, Jacob wrestles a guy. This guy may in fact be God. This guy tell Jacob (which basically means “deceiver”, a fitting description for Jacob so far) that his name is now “Wrestles-with-God”–Israel.

Earlier in his life, Jacob/Israel was taking a nap in northeast Canaan when God told him, “the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants.” Later, God also says, “The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you.” As a result, God later calls this his covenant with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.

Israel

So, before we proceed with the series, we need to know first who Israel, the person, was. His story covers a lot of family conflicts, but results in a strong, powerful group of people. We’ll talk next time about how Israel is a people.


Mothers in the Bible

To get this blog going again, I will be re-posting some of the most popular theology material from my former blog. This is from May 2008.

When we think about Biblical mothers, we all know about Eve, the mother of us all, and Mary, the mother of Christ. However, we don’t often think about the many other mothers that influenced the stories of God’s people.

Jochebed
The Hebrew slaves had become quite numerous in the land of Egypt, and Pharoah gave the command, “Throw every newborn Hebrew boy into the Nile River. But you may let the girls live.” Jochebed was a Hebrew woman and became pregnant during this time. She did throw her baby into the Nile but took some extra precautions first. “She saw that he was a special baby and kept him hidden for three months. But when she could no longer hide him, she got a basket made of papyrus reeds and waterproofed it with tar and pitch. She put the baby in the basket and laid it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile River.”

God honored the actions that Jochebed took and protected her baby in a most ironic way. “The baby’s sister then stood at a distance, watching to see what would happen to him. Soon Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, and her attendants walked along the riverbank. When the princess saw the basket among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it for her. When the princess opened it, she saw the baby. The little boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrew children,’ she said.”

The woman was not ignorant of the baby’s origin but cared for him anyway. This baby boy who was passed from one mother to another was Moses, the future liberator of the slaves.

Hannah
There was a man from the hill country with two wives; one wife bore him children, and the other wife Hannah was not able to. Rather than belittle her like many men would have, he tried his best to encourage her. ” ‘Why are you crying, Hannah?’ Elkanah would ask. ‘Why aren’t you eating? Why be downhearted just because you have no children? You have me—isn’t that better than having ten sons?’ ”

Apparently it wasn’t. She sought God for a son and said, “O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, if you will look upon my sorrow and answer my prayer and give me a son, then I will give him back to you. He will be yours for his entire lifetime…”

God answered her prayer and she gave birth, naming the son Samuel. She and her husband agreed that they would dedicate the child after he had been weaned, and they held to that promise.

She showed her amazing dedication to the Lord with the phrase, “Now I am giving him to the Lord, and he will belong to the Lord his whole life.”

Elizabeth
Elizabeth’s story is a strong New Testament parallel to Hannah’s, she too was without a child. An angel appeared to her husband and said that their prayers would come true, and that their son “will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”

What an amazing promise! Elizabeth is six months pregnant when she learns that her cousin Mary (yes, that Mary) was also pregnant. Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist (a descendant of Jochebed), later paved the way for the ministry of Mary’s son, Jesus. Elizabeth’s faith and encouragement had a strong impact on the life of Mary and of her son John.

Eunice
Finally, the story of Eunice is very short, but is a often-cited example of a mother training her son well. Paul wrote a letter to his friend Timothy saying, “I remember your genuine faith, for you share the faith that first filled your grandmother Lois and your mother, Eunice. And I know that same faith continues strong in you.” Lois and Eunice must have done something right, as Timothy was a very effective minister in one of the most influential cultural centers of the Roman Empire. If it wasn’t for Eunice’s training, the church would have been without a central figure in its historical development.

These mothers are not well-known at all. However their dedication to and faith in God lead to the development of great, godly children. Take the time to thank your mothers for their training, and pray that you will be as effective as these women were.

(All biblical quotes in this post are from the New Living Translation by Tyndale House Publishers.)


What is the Purpose of Life?

To get this blog going again, I will be re-posting some of the most popular theology material from my former blog. This is from February 2011.

This question has been asked by every person that ever lived. We want to know why we are here and what we’re supposed to do. There is a book in the Bible that was written to answer this question. It was probably written by King Solomon near the end of his life. Solomon was well known for being very wise. He looked at all the things he had done and tried to find meaning in them. Today, we will look at what he found and his advice to others.

In this book, Solomon calls himself the “Preacher” or “Teacher”. In Greek this is “Ecclesiastes,” the name English-speakers use for the book.

Ecclesiastes 1:2
“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

Have you ever felt this way? Sometimes it seems like everything is meaningless. We want to look at the things we have done in our lives and think that they were worth something. We want to do good things that have value. We think that by working hard, we will add meaning to our lives. We think that living a long time will give our lives meaning. We think that getting more money or wealth will make our lives meaningful. The Preacher thought these things were true too. But he found later in life that it was not true.

The Preacher was saddened by the idea that both good people and evil people had to die. He also saw many examples of injustice. He wanted to find meaning in all of this.

Ecclesiastes 2:1
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless.

The Preacher determined that the purpose of life might be trying to be wealthy. He tried to have as much pleasure as he could. He collected gold. He drank a lot of wine to feel good. He built extra houses, pools, and gardens. Anything that looked good, he wanted.

At the end of this pursuit, he gave up. He called it “chasing after the wind”. He learns that pursuing wealth and pleasure is not the purpose of life.

Ecclesiastes 4:8
There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
“and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
a miserable business!

The Preacher saw people working hard all around him. He thought that hard work might be the purpose of life. He tried working harder than normal and enjoying the benefits of work. But, as he saw people around him working, he realized something. No matter how hard someone works, they will still die. All that they have earned will be given to someone else. He saw that people are born with nothing and die with nothing.

The Preacher determined that hard work is wise and a good thing. However, hard work is not the purpose of life.

Ecclesiastes 6:6

“even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?”

If all of our money and wealth disappear when we die, then they cannot be the purpose of life. The Preacher thought that the purpose of life may be to live as long as possible. This way, a person can enjoy their wealth as long as possible. However, the Preacher saw that everyone dies in the end, so living a long life is not the purpose of life.

Ecclesiastes 6:7

Everyone’s toil is for their mouth,

yet their appetite is never satisfied.

The Preacher is still looking for answers. People are always eating. Maybe the purpose of life is to eat good food, and eat it a lot. But, the Preacher also realized that the reason people are always eating is because they are never full. They can never get enough food. Getting more food it not the purpose of life

Ecclesiastes 9:16
So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.”

The Preacher begins to discuss the value of wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom lets a person enjoy life more. Wisdom also leads to a longer life. Wisdom makes a person stronger than physical strength can. Wisdom by itself is not the purpose of life, but wisdom is worth seeking. Wisdom will lead you to the purpose of life.

Ecclesiastes 12:1
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”

The first great wise teaching the Preacher gives is this one. Young people should remember and honor the Creator. It is important for young people to do this because they are still excited about life. It can be difficult for an older person to submit to the Creator, because they are sometimes disappointed in life. Everyone should draw close to God early in life. This is the first part of the purpose of life.

Life is all about the creator of life. The reason we exist is to bring glory to the One that made us. The Preacher realized that the reason for life is outside of life itself. The purpose for our existence is to come back to God. We were made by him and for him.

Ecclesiastes 12:13
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

The Preacher has reached an important conclusion. Nothing in life has lasting meaning because it will all disappear. Therefore, the only thing that could have meaning is something that lasts after death. After we die, our deeds will be judged. God will reward us for the times we have obeyed him. The way to fear God is to obey the commands he has given.

It is important to remember that every action we perform is seen by God. Jesus teaches that “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.” Since God will reward us, we must be constantly aware of our obedience.

Sometimes it seems like the wicked are being rewarded by the world. The Preacher encourages us not to worry.

Ecclesiastes 8:12-13
Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.

What exactly are God’s commands? Two of the most repeated commands in the Law that the author of Ecclesiastes would be familiar with were “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

One way that we can show our obedience to God is by repenting when we fail. This requires admitting our faults and changing our behavior for the future. God’s grace is great. He forgives wickedness for those that repent.

As the Preacher looked for purpose in life, he found many wrong answers. Purpose is not found in pleasure. There is no eternal benefit to having great wealth. Even a long life must end. True meaning comes from obeying the commands of God. This is the only thing that lasts after death.

Ephesians 6:8

“you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do”

Let us live lives of meaning. Let us strive for these rewards!


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