Act 3: Israel
Act 3 of The Drama of Scripture spans the remainder of the Old Testament. Bartholomew and Goheen do run quickly over all of these details, but I’ll be sparse here on the exact details of the narrative and simply point to some other great resources: Taste and See completed as a collaboration between the Canadian Bible Society and Scripture Union Canada as well as Bible Intro by the Canadian Bible Society.
Establishing God’s People
Picking up after Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden, the “first stage” of this act covers the remainder of Genesis. Adam and Eve’s son Cain kills his brother Abel, committing the world’s first murder. God starts over in frustration at humanity’s wickedness with a flood that resulting in Noah functioning as the new Adam, father of humanity. People build a tower in Babel as an extreme act of hubris and God is forced to scatter them. Generations later we see the patriarchs of Israel – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his sons which become the twelve tribes – complete with a wide range of family problems, more evidence of the nature of sin driving apart relationships (as discussed in Act 2).
Part of Jacob’s story includes a night in which he wrestled with God. As a result, Jacob is given a new name: Israel, meaning “one who wrestles with God.” A name in Ancient Near Eastern culture was more than just an identifier; it was a summary of a person’s very being. There is deep meaning here that shouldn’t be skipped over as we see Israel’s descendants take on the name of Israelites (and then in modern Israel, the name of Israelis). God’s people would therefore be known primarily as those who wrestled with God. This serves as an important check against the impulse, particularly in the Western world, to reduce Christianity to an intellectual faith of accepting certain doctrines.
Due to famine, Joseph – one of Jacob’s twelve sons – leads his brothers to Egypt in a remarkable story filled with family betrayal, doing the right thing in the face of lies, and forgiveness. The Israelites multiply too quickly and generations later the Pharaoh decides they are a threat who must be enslaved. Their cries rise up to God and he sends Moses to lead them out of slavery back to the land promised to the patriarchs. In this Exodus story we see that God cares about his people, putting in place ways to rescue them when they are in unfair conditions. For Christians who have been traditionally in positions of power, this story is an easy one to minimize. To do so misses key liberation themes in the story of Scripture, themes which have been very important to the Jewish people as well as many others who have been oppressed throughout history. The God of Scripture is one who seeks restoration of the world, which includes radical equality.
Israel’s Golden Age… Sort Of
Once settled in the promised land, the Israelites are initially led by a succession of judges, male and female, who functioned as a combination of religious and political leader. After each judge, though, the Israelites slipped back into doing whatever they thought was right in their own eyes. They try kings instead, but with few exceptions such as David, this doesn’t make Israel any better at following God’s plan for them. Most of the kings and queens care more about their own wealth and power than about being God’s representatives to bless other nations. They consistently turn to worshipping gods of other nations. They fight amongst each other, dividing into two kingdoms not long after David’s rule. Here we see a strong example of what does not work in building out God’s Kingdom, namely, the attempt to dictate right living in a top-down legal approach. Many prophets are even called to warn Israel about the dangers of their path – both in their religious idolatry and in their social inequalities – but they rarely listen and so continue to decline until they are conquered by the Babylonian Empire, which is where we’ll pick up the story in Part Two.
Babylonians and Persians
Ultimately the nations of Israel and Judah fall apart and is conquered by the Babylonian Empire. This Exile, many scholars have argued, is the centrepiece to the authorship of the majority of the Hebrew Scriptures: prophesying forward to it, being written down during it, or reflecting back on it. Many suggest that this is when many texts were first written down out of oral history, precisely in order to serve as an anchor for Jews continuing to practice their faith in Exile. Years later, the Persian Empire – which has now conquered the Babylonian Empire – allows the Israelites to return home, although the majority remain in diaspora. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the primary storytellers of this rebuilding process, setting up Israel to once again try to be the holy (definition: set apart) nation which God has called them to be. These Israelites who did return succeeded in rebuilding the Temple and a wall around the city, but they also experienced a lot of problems: violence from neighboring nations, the Temple as a shadow of what it had been under Solomon, and the simple fact they were still under the rule of a foreign Empire, albeit a relatively benevolent one.
What’s the lesson of the overall act? Bartholomew and Goheen specifically point out the theme of idolatry, which is clearly an important one. Others have framed it primarily around saying that the story of Israel is the story of what does not work. Legislating the rules from on high without changing people’s hearts through relationship does not work. Seeking to be just like everybody else does not work. The two framings can work together perfectly, though, as these examples of what does not work are all forms of idolatry. Even putting the forms of your religious practice ahead of the God who they are designed to worship makes those practices idols, something criticized by multiple prophets. In some ways it seems easy to dismiss Israel as being foolish in their constant turning from God, but the real question here is what ways we are doing the exact same thing and what we need to do to stop it.