Covenants, Exiles and Return

History of Judaism (Part 1)
Shabbat, April 11, 2015

The Director of Christian Education of St Paul’s UCC Church in Cherryville asked me to give a lecture on the history of Judaism, in two hours. My response was—only two hours?

Abba Eban’s TV mini-series, 1984

The history of the Jews is vast & stunning. To sample vast: Abba Eban’s TV mini-series Heritage: Civilization and the Jews was 9 hours long and fills up 4 DVDs & it’s still just a panorama.

To sample stunning: Over 300 years ago, King Louis XIV asked French philosopher Blaise Pascal, for proof of the supernatural. Pascal answered: “Why, the Jews, your Majesty—the Jews.” In his Pensees (para. 620, p. 285), Pascal explained that the fact that the Jewish people survived until the 17th century—was nothing short of a supernatural phenomenon. Plenty has happened since then!

Mark Twain, an agnostic and self-acknowledged skeptic, penned in 1899 in Harper’s Magazine: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. The Greek and Roman followed, made a vast noise and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up, and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

That was 1899. Since then, Einstein, Freud, 194 Nobel Prize winners, founders of every major Hollywood studio (Goldwyn & Mayer, Warner brothers), Irving Berlin, Harry Houdini, Benny Goodman, Bob Hope, Paul Newman, Leonard Nimoy & William Shatner, Marilyn Monroe, Kate Hudson, Billy Joel, Henry Kissinger, Calvin Klein, Jonas Salk, Neil Simon & Paul Simon, Marc Chagall, Stephen Spielberg, he Holocaust, the reestablishment of the State of Israel… Oy! Oy gevolt!

 

So I will content myself with rehearsing an overture in four movements (and only the first two today):
I. Covenant. II. Exiles & Returns. III. Synagogue & Church. IV. Restoration.

 

Covenant is a crucial theme of Biblical history: the Hebrew word, b’rit, occurs 287 time, and the Greek word, diatheke, occurs 33 more times—so the New Covenant writers well understood its importance.

King Jehu of Israel giving tribute to King of Assyria

Other ancient civilizations of the Middle East had covenant documents—kings or suzerains made covenants with their vassals—only in these covenants, the overlord boasted about past favors and offered few duties while the vassals pledged total allegiance, taxes, military support, etc. But in the Hebrew Bible, the God of Israel makes covenants in which He unilaterally lavishes extraordinary promises on unsuspecting or undeserving servants.

Most ancient gods were generally capricious, cruel, and unconcerned with the welfare of ordinary human beings. But in Genesis 15:8, “ADONAI cut a covenant with Abram, saying, “I give this land to your seed, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River.’”—a vast territory to Abram’s posterity— a seed to be as numerous as the stars, a covenant “bless those who bless you, and to curses those who curse you, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3)— an extraordinarily gracious promise that extends far beyond Abram as “an everlasting covenant” (17:7).

To Abraham’s descendants, the LORD promises in Exodus 19:5 “if you keep My covenant, then you will be My own treasure from among all people, for all the earth is Mine.” The Ten Commandments then spelt out Israel’s allegiance and duties to God, and in Exodus 24, Moses solemnized the cutting of covenant by sprinkling blood on the children of Israel.

 

Ancient Middle Eastern treaties also included consequences for upholding or violating a covenant. The consequences—blessings and curses—are also emphasized in the Mosaic covenant.

In Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, God promises rain for crops, shalom in the land, victory over enemies and more as blessings for obedience, but drought, disease, defeat & dispersion from the land for disobedience. As a witness, in Deuteronomy 27 the tribes recited the blessings and curses from Mounts Gerizim and Ebal—which face each other and form a natural amphitheater, so all could hear.

The Mosaic covenant was not merely retrospective but predictive— in Deuteronomy 29:23-24, Moses foretells that “All the nations will say, ‘Why has ADONAI done this to this land? Why this great burning anger?’ Then they will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of ADONAI, the God of their fathers, which He cut with them when He brought them out from the land of Egypt.”

 

Pharaoh Raamses attacking the Hittites (actually the Egyptians had heavy losses)

When ancient nations preserved their histories, they exalted their Pharaohs or kings, as larger-than-life.

But Jews presented history through the perspective of God’s covenants—their rulers were mortals, judged by how well they kept the covenant—mostly, the Chroniclers say, not so good!

Even the High Priest: in 1 Samuel 2:12, “Eli’s sons were worthless men, who did now acknowledge ADONAI,” because of their abuse of ministry & sexual immorality, so Samuel foretells their demise.
When they took the Ark of the Covenant in battle, the Philistines routed and killed them. When Eli heard the news, he fell off his seat at the gate, broke his neck and died (1 Samuel 4:14).

Samuel was Israel’s presiding prophet & priest, yet his sons weren’t good—so the people demanded
a king. Yet even the kings of Israel were subject to the moral requirements of the covenant. Deuteronomy 17:18-19 stipulated, “Now when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll….It will remain with him, and he will read in it all
the days of his life, in order to learn to fear ADONAI his God and keep all the words of this Torah.”

Saul was defeated because of his disobedience, ultimately for consulting with the witch of Endor.

Though David was Israel’s greatest king and came closet to fulfilling the territorial promises to Abram, he was severely judged, even after he repented, for his adultery and abuse of power.

Though Shlomo (Solomon) was renowned for wisdom and building the Temple, 1 Kings 11:4 records “that his wives led his heart away after other gods, so that his heart was no longer wholly devoted to ADONAI his God”— therefore his kingdom was divided, with his son Rehoboam keeping Judah in the south and his rebellious servant Jeroboam tearing away Israel in the north.

Both Rehoboam and Jeroboam and their descendants were judged on the basis of their moral sins.

Stop for a moment and consider: are political leaders usually judged harshly because of their sins?

Perhaps enemies in war, and especially if they lose, but otherwise kings and presidents tend to get a free pass for their immorality—who judges Alexander the Great, Henry the VIII, JFK or Bill Clinton the way the Bible judges David and Solomon? (Or Israel’s recent Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert?)

Yet 2 Chronicles 12:14 judges that Rehoboam “did evil because he had not set his heart to seek ADONAI”—it was a refrain repeated for most of their successors on the thrones of Judah and Israel. The sins of Jeroboam—starting with the idolatrous calves in Bethel and Dan so his people would keep making pilgrimage to Jerusalem in his rival’s kingdom—became a byword of judgment on him and his descendants. 2 Kings 15:26 reports that Jeroboam’s son “also did what was evil in ADONAI‘s eyes, walking in the way of his father and in his sins that he caused Israel to commit,” and so “Baasa slew him and struck down all the household of Jeroboam.”

However, things didn’t get much better, as the kings of Israel continued in the sins of Jeroboam. The prophets of Israel—Elijah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah—confronted her kings, but the moral decline persisted, so that the prophets foretold Israel’s complete defeat and destruction by the Assyrians.

Similarly, the prophets of Judah—Micah, Habakkuk and Jeremiah—confronted the southern kings. Because King Hezekiah of Judah feared ADONAI, the Assyrians miraculously gave up their invasion of Judah and siege of Jerusalem; there was also a great national revival during his reign
as well as during the reign of Josiah nearly 200 years later.

Jeremiah confronts King Zedekiah

But the idolatry and moral decline of Judah continued, so that the Chronicler judges her last kings, ending with Zedekiah in 2 Chronicles 36:12, who “did evil in the sight of ADONAI his God and did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet who spoke from the mouth of ADONAI.”

Nor was the judgment limited to the king, as is solemnly recorded in verses 14-17, “Furthermore,
all the leading priests and the people became very unfaithful…. They defiled the House of ADONAI, which He had consecrated in Jerusalem. ADONAI sent word to them through His messengers again and again, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God and despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets until the wrath of ADONAI rose against His people, until there was no remedy. Therefore He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the House of their Temple. He had no pity on young man or virgin, elderly or infirm—He gave them all into his hand.”

Exile to Babylon, 586 BCE

Any survivors were exiled to Babylon as slaves.

 

For most nations, total defeat, destruction and dispersion would have been the end of the story. But Moses foretold all these consequences—and also foretold that ADONAI would bring them back.

Israel’s covenants are unusual, yet the hope that preserved a people in exile until an eventual return—not once but twice—is unparalleled in history.

In Hebrews chapter 11, towards the end of the “hall of faith,” starting in verse 33, we read of those “who by faith … performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong.”

Daniel and his friends refusing non-Kosher food in Babylon

Who were these heroes? Daniel shut the mouths of lions; his friends with the Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego quenched the power of fire—by faith. As boys they were taken as captives from Jerusalem in Judah to Babylon, along with Ezekiel & others: by faith they “escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong.” It was a generation that was expected to assimilate into the Babylonian culture, as most of those taken from the northern kingdom of Israel over a century earlier had assimilated into Assyrian dominions.

But this generation did not assimilate. Instead they were willing to be different, standing up for the God of Israel, and became “a light for the nations.” This generation proclaimed the God of Israel as the God of all the nations—in spite of Israel’s defeat! This generation preserved the Torah and history of Israel, but recorded most of the prophetic writings. This generation of exile, when things could have looked hopeless, produced Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch, Ezekiel, Daniel, the Chronicles-recorder & many heart-rending yet noble psalms.

For example, Psalm 137 (Tree of Life Version):
By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors demanded songs and our tormentors asked for joy:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
How can we sing a song of Adonai in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I cease to remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Here’s what Dr. Seif and I wrote in our TLV Psalms & Commentary about these verses: “This poem is a tough one. For openers, the psalmist is extremely discouraged. It’s more than just a bad day at the office. He has lost his home. He is a refugee. He has barely survived the fall of the Davidic dynasty, the ravaging of Jerusalem and the Temple—and who knows what else in his personal life. As if that is not bad enough, while being dragged off in chains (possibly in a slave market), his captors torment him and his comrades by demanding them to “sing us one of the songs of Zion” (3). The songs of Zion all tell of God’s greatness, power, and love for His people. “Let’s hear some of those now,” taunt their captors. The singers of Zion respond (5): “How can we sing a song of Adonai in a foreign land?” It wasn’t easy. They could have sunk into the despair of depression. But they didn’t. They sang to God.

Psalms 74, 79 & 126 are others haunting poems about the Temple’s destruction. From Psalm 74:4-6:
Your adversaries have roared in the midst of Your meeting place.
They have set up their standards as signs.
It seemed like bringing up axes into a thicket of trees—
and now all its carved work they smash with hatchet and hammers!

Nazis burning synagogue, 1938

How it hurts to imagine this same scene replayed when the Romans demolished the 2nd Temple, or when centuries of hate-mongers burned down precious synagogues.

Generations of Jews have chanted, even into the ovens of Auschwitz, Ani ma’amin, ani ma’amin.

I believe, I believe, with a perfect faith I believe!

Even in the face of devastation and exile, the God of Israel has preserved a remnant who believed.

 

Even before the generation of the return, a remnant of the generation of exile received a new heart. So it must be with every generation: before we can return to God, we must face our exile from Him, which is the consequence of our idolatry and sin. We cannot afford to live in denial. We must accept responsibility for the consequences of sin.

Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Daniel faced the sins of their ancestors and the devastating consequences. Then they were able to return with all their heart and soul.

 

The generation of exile began the custom of praying toward Jerusalem. Daniel 6:11, “Now when Daniel learned that the document had been signed, he went into his house. The windows were open in his roof chamber toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he prayed on his knees and gave thanks before his God, just as he did before.”

So ever since, Jews have been praying toward Jerusalem. Which way is Jerusalem? That’s why we face that way when we say the Shema.(Deuteronomy 6:4). From ancient times, synagogues were built facing toward Jerusalem—the synagogue in Capernaum, where the fishermen-disciples and their Master Yeshua prayed, faced toward Jerusalem.

Mizrach, facing toward Zion

That’s why many Jewish homes have a mizrach—a wall plaque or tapestry reminding us to pray
for Jerusalem. The idea is not just to pray towards Jerusalem, but to pray for Jerusalem, and to pray for our return to Jerusalem. Psalm 122:6 urges us, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”

 

The generation of exile cultivated a love for Israel’s Scriptures, preserving and the scrolls—the record of both the bad and the good, the failures of Israel and the promises of God.

For example, before the exile began, Jeremiah foretold that it would last 70 years. Jeremiah 29:10, “For thus says the LORD, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.”

During the exile, Daniel 9:2 says that while he was studying the scroll of Jeremiah: “I, Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years.”

What would have happened if the generation of Daniel had not preserved the words of Jeremiah—even though so many were hard words? We might not have them today! Moreover, they might not have remembered the promise of the return after 70 years, and missed it!

Yet the generation of the exile prepared, by faith, for the generation of the return. Jeremiah and Ezekiel as well as Isaiah foretold both the return to the land and the spiritual restoration. Daniel interceded on the basis of Jeremiah’s prophecy. The Psalmists of exile longed for the return and interceded on the basis of God’s covenant faithfulness.

Ezra records the return. It’s nothing short of a stunning fulfillment of prophecy! Ezra 1:1 sees fulfillment: “Now in the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, Adonai stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, king of Persia, to accomplish the word of Adonai from the mouth of Jeremiah.”

Like Daniel, Ezra remembers Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years. Jeremiah 25:11–12 says, “This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the LORD, “and will make it desolate forever.”

The Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and began their domination of the nations in 609 BCE.
In 539 B.C., Daniel reads the handwriting on the wall & Cyrus conquered Babylon. That’s 70 years.

But Daniel wasn’t satisfied. There still was no Temple in Jerusalem. In 586 B.C.E., Jerusalem and the Temple were burned to the ground. Though Cyrus issued an edict for the return and the rebuilding of the Temple, obstacles occurred, and the Temple rebuilding project stalled. It was completed in 516 BC—70 years after it was destroyed. That’s a second timeline. Which one is right? Both! Both are amazing fulfillments.

 

Speaking of second times, let’s consider the prophecy of Isaiah 11:11-12, “It will also come about in that day that my Lord will again redeem—a second time with His hand—the remnant of His people who remain from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathos, from Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and from the islands of the sea. He will lift up a banner for the nations, and assemble the dispersed of Israel, and gather the scattered of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”

The first return was primarily from Babylon and Egypt. Yet here the prophet foretells a second return of the dispersed of Israel from the four corners of the earth. Moreover, it would happen when  the Spirit of Messiah lifts up a banner for the nations. The story of the modern return is not complete without also telling about of banner of the nations—the banner of Allenby, Balfour, and many Christians who are also lovers of Zion and the Jewish people.

 

In the diaspora, we say at the end of our Passover Seders, “Next year in Jerusalem!” In the diaspora, we say at Hanukkah time, “A great miracle happened there” (there rather than here). In the diaspora, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem and we send our support, monetary and spiritual.

Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel, is actually the anthem of the exile. It means “the hope.” It is the hope of all the generations of the exile to return to the Promised Land.

 

Does anyone see an even wider application of this hope? Hebrews 11 declares, “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”

All who live by faith in God’s eternal promise see themselves as “exiles on the earth.” Just as we connect with Ivy in Israel, we also connect with Phyllis Gordon and others in heaven. Hebrews 11:16, “Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.” Are we longing?

Thus every generation is the generation of exile, preparing for the generation of return. Amen?

This sermon may not to be reprinted in whole or in part without the express written consent of Messianic Rabbi Glenn D. Blank of Beit Simcha.  Your generous support for our ministry and building project is appreciated!

 

 

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