Thursday, April 1, 2010

Israel's fall and redemption

When I was a child of the ‘70s, I saw Star Wars for the first time in a theater when it was a new release. At that point, it was just Star Wars, not Star Wars IV: A New Hope. At the time, it seemed to be the exciting story of Luke Skywalker and his friends in their fight against the evil Empire. It was only years later, as the newer prequels were released, that I realized that Star Wars was not the story of Luke. It was actually the story of his father, Anakin Skywalker, and his fall into the dark side and ultimate redemption.

The Bible can be viewed in much the same way. On a small scale, it can be viewed as a collection of stories about people in ancient history, along with poetry and prophecy about the future. However, when viewed on a larger scale, as a single work, we can see that it is the story of the nation of Israel, its fall into sin and rebellion, and its ultimate redemption in times yet to come.

The Bible begins in the beginning. Most of us are familiar with the stories of creation, of Adam and Eve, and Great Flood of Noah, but also important are the genealogies that lead to the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Shem was the forefather of Abram (Genesis 11:10-27). Abram, in turn, fathered Ishmael (Genesis 16:15) and Isaac (Genesis 21:3). Ishmael founded the Arab race [1], while Isaac fathered Jacob. Jacob tricked his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that rightly belonged to his older brother Esau (Genesis 27:22-29). His name was later changed to Israel (Genesis 32:28) and his sons fathered the twelve tribes of Israel.

Genesis also contains God’s first promises to Abram, who is renamed Abraham. Repeatedly, God promises Abraham that he will be the father of nations with offspring as numerous as grains of dust (Genesis 12:1-3, 13:14-17, 15:7-21, 17:1-14). Abraham’s offspring were also promised possession of the land of Canaan, which eventually became the nation of Israel. God also says that he will bless those who bless Abraham’s descendents and curse those who curse them. These descendents were through the family line of Isaac and Jacob and became known as Israelites, Hebrews and Jews.

A covenant was also extended to Ishmael (Genesis 16:11-13, 17:20, 21:13). His descendents, the Arabs, would also become a great nation, but they would live in hostility with their half-brothers, the Jews.

God’s covenant to the Jews was repeated to Moses after the Israelites left Egypt (Exodus 19:3-6, 24:3). God’s stated intention was for Israel to become a nation of priests that would share God’s word with the world. In Leviticus 24, the Jews were promised a multitude of blessings if they obeyed God’s commandments, but they were also warned that they would be punished if they disobeyed. God’s warning eerily foreshadows the fall of Jerusalem, the exile of the Jews from their Promised Land, and centuries of massacres, pogroms, and racial hatred that continues to this day (Lev. 26:27-39). Nevertheless, God promises that He will never reject them or forsake His covenant with them (Lev. 26:44-45).

The Bible goes on to describe how, with God’s help, the Israelites conquered the tribes of Canaan. Under King David, the nation of Israel became unified and strong. David’s son, Solomon, was chosen to build a temple to the Lord, to replace the tabernacle tent that had been used thus far (2 Chronicles 28:2-11). The site of the temple was the site of an altar built by David where an angel afflicting Israel with a plague had been stopped the Lord (2 Samuel 24:15-18). There is also speculation that this is the same site where Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 21:1-15) and where Jacob dreamed of a ladder to Heaven (Genesis 28:10-22), but this is by no means certain.

The temple in Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish religion until it was destroyed, not once, but twice. The original temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC [2]. Seventy years later, Ezra returned from exile in Babylon and led the Jews in building a second temple. This temple, often referred to as Herod’s Temple, was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 [3].

The destruction of both temples, as well as Jerusalem itself, was foretold in Old Testament prophecies in accordance with God’s covenant with Abraham. Much of the prophecy of the Bible consists of warnings to the people of ancient Israel and Judah that if they persisted in idol worship they would face divine judgment. Micah warned against corrupt officials who believed that they were untouchable because they were under God’s protection and said that “Jerusalem would become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets” (Micah 3:11-12). The prophet Jeremiah specifically named the king of Babylon as the one who would destroy Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple because of the evil that the people of Israel and Judah had done (Jeremiah 32:30-41). Nevertheless, Jeremiah also promised that God would restore the Jewish people back to their land and “never stop doing good to them” (vv. 37-40).

The second temple was destroyed after Israel’s rejection of Jesus. Jesus Himself predicted the destruction of Herod’s Temple (Mark 13:1-2). God permitted the destruction of Herod’s Temple because after the time of Jesus it was no longer needed. The destruction of Herod’s Temple and Jerusalem was also foretold by the Old Testament prophet Daniel (Daniel 9:26) hundreds of years before it happened.

The function of the temple was to serve as a center for sacrificing animals to atone for sins. The Levites served as temple priests who performed the sacrifices and interceded for the people. With the sacrifice of His life, Jesus assumed the role of both priest and sacrifice (Hebrews 9:6-28). After Jesus conquered death, there was no longer any need to atone for sin with animal sacrifices.

Many of the first converts to Christianity were Jews (Acts 2). In time, however, most retained the traditional form of Judaism for a variety of reasons. There was likely intense pressure from Jewish leaders who knew that Jesus had been resurrected, but who nevertheless attempted to cover up the fact to preserve their own power (Matthew 28:11-15). In fact, Paul, who later spread the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, began as a Jewish official whose job was to persecute those who believed in Jesus (Acts 9:1-2). A good portion of the blame also probably belongs to gentile Christians who pressured Jews to reject their culture as well.

The Bible makes clear, however, that God never entirely rejected the Jews. In Romans 9-11 Paul discusses the question of whether God has rejected Jews because they rejected Him and His Son. Paul’s conclusion is that when Israel failed to uphold the covenant, God extended salvation to the gentiles in order to make Israel jealous (Romans 11:11). Paul goes on to state that when the full number of gentiles has been saved, all of Israel will be saved (Romans 11:25-27).

The Old Testament prophets also agreed that Israel would one day be restored. Jeremiah said that the Jews would be “brought up out of the land of the north and all the countries” where they had been scattered (Jeremiah 16:14-16). Ezekiel also foretold the return of the Jews to their homeland (Ezekiel 20:39-44, 37:11-14). Zechariah wrote that Israel would one day accept the Messiah as God pours out His grace on them (Zechariah 12:8-10). John also wrote in Revelation about a remnant of who would worship Christ (Rev. 7:1-8).

Part of these prophecies has already come true. After WWII, Jews from around the world returned to what was then called Palestine. The United Nations voted to create separate Arab and Jewish states in Palestine in 1948. The Jewish state, called Israel, was immediately set upon by its Arab neighbors. Israel’s very survival over the next six decades is almost miraculous in itself. However, it has not only survived, it has thrived. Its territory has been enlarged and it has become prosperous, even without possessing oil.

But the story of Israel is not yet over. There are more Bible prophecies concerning Israel that have not yet been fulfilled. One of these is Ezekiel’s vision of a third temple (Ezekiel 40-43). This temple has never been built and cannot be today because a Muslim mosque occupies the ancient Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock mosque was built around AD 638 and is one of Islam’s sacred sites [4], even though Mohammed only went there in a dream [5]. The Dome of the Rock is currently under Israeli government protection, although there is a group of religious Jews, the Temple Mount Faithful, who are preparing for the day when a third temple can be built. It is possible that the Dome of the Rock may be destroyed in the war described in Ezekiel 38-39.

There are numerous references in prophecy to a final climactic war in which the whole world is aligned against Israel. Zechariah wrote that Jerusalem would send surrounding nations “reeling” and that they would “injure themselves” trying to move it (Zechariah 12:2-3). Zechariah says that “all the nations” will fight against Israel, and then the Lord Himself will return to defend Israel (Zechariah 14:1-4). This may be the same battle described in the book of Revelation where the army of the Antichrist gathers at Armageddon and is destroyed (Rev. 16:16, 19:11-21). The Bible also warns us that the nations will be judged based on their treatment of Israel and the Jews (Joel 3:1-2).

The story of Israel is one of a fall from grace and ultimate redemption. But this isn’t only the story of an ancient nation and its people. The story of Israel is also an allegory for our own lives. Like the nation of Israel, we all cannot live up to God’s holy standard (Romans 3:23). We all face punishment for our sins and shortcomings (Romans 6:23). As God has supernatural patience and love for the people of Israel, He also loves and offers forgiveness for the rest of us (Romans 10:9-13). That is the real story of Israel and the Bible.

Happy Easter!

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