Part Three: Ancient Israel: The Radical Monotheists 2400 – 516 B.C.E. Date is based on the Biblical account from, “The Age of the Patriarchs” to Abram’s calling from God to the rebuilding of the second temple after its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E and seventy years of exile.
A Tale of a People called to be Different:In the Bible we see a man called, Abram, called by God to journey to a land that will be given to his descendents (Gen. 12:3-5). God promises Abram that he will be the father of many nations and through him, God will build up a people which He will have an everlasting covenant with (Gen. 15). From that moment on Abram’s name is changed to Abraham which means, “Father of many nations”. God demonstrates that all the nations around Abraham seek and worship false gods, and that He alone is the one true God. The Bible does not provide us with what Abram’s life was like prior to this incredible encounter, but the Midrash (literally means: between the lines- it is a collection of stories and narratives from Jewish Oral History), paints us a picture of when Abram was young growing up in the land of Ur.
The story tells us that Abram’s father was an idol maker and one day, Abram decided to test the validity of these “false gods” and so he smashed them all and then put a hammer in the hands of a large idol. When his father came home, Abram is said to have explained that there was a ferocious battle and the large god smashed all the other gods with the hammer. To this, Abram’s father exclaimed that this was simply ridiculous and impossible, to which Abram scoffed at the senselessness then in manufacturing such images and worshiping them. It was after this, he left Ur and it was then that the true God, called to him.
Whether true or not, this story would most definitely make sense aligned with the incredible test of faith and endurance we see Abraham go through. He and his wife are of old age, and are visited by an Angel of the Lord who tells them she will conceive of a son whom will be the promised son of Abraham with which this covenant between him and God will pass through. Abraham’s wife, Sarai, scoffs at the angel and her name is changed to Sarah which takes its meaning from, “one who laughs”. Later, when nothing seems to happen, Sarah convinces Abraham to take the Egyptian maid-servant, Hagar (Genesis 16) into his bedchamber and later a son is born and named, Ishmael.
This would have been acceptable in the culture which Abraham lived in, as sometimes a surrogate mother was available in times where a wife was barren. Once the child would be born, it would be considered that of the flesh and blood of the father and barren mother, so that it would take on their name to see their family line continue. In the case of Ishmael though, God was not pleased and he was not intended to be the promised son that we see God declare to Abraham in Genesis 12,15. Shortly after this, we see Sarah conceive and give birth to Isaac, who is to take the inheritance of his father, and through him to bear the covenant of God as His chosen people destined for a Promised Land which later is the land of Canaan as described in: Gen. 26:3-12, 28:4, 28:13, 28:15, 35:12, 48:4, 48:21; Ex. 3:8, 13:11, 23:31, 32:13, 33:1; Lev. 20:24, 23:10, 25:2, 25:38, 26:42; Num. 14:8, 15:2, 26:53, 26:55, 32:22, 33:53, 34:2, 34:12, 34:29, 35:34; Deut. 1:7-8, 1:21, 1:35-36, 3:18-20, 4:1, 4:21, 4:38, 4:40, 6:3, 6:10, 6:18, 6:23, 7:1, 7:13, 8:1, 8:7-15, 11:31, 12:1, 12:10, 25:19, 26:9, 26:15, 27:3, 28:11, 30:5, 31:7!!!!! (I have just listed passages from the Torah, which are the first five books of the Bible, although many more exist about Israel’s place in the land such as Psalm 105:8-11; Isaiah 56:5, 61:1-7; Jeremiah 31:35-36, Ezekiel 36:24, 37:21-28, and many more!)
From the father of Isaac, whose name was Jacob and later changed to Israel, we see a God who interacts with man desiring a relationship with them and to glorify His name through the entire world. Through this relationship, so different from all the other nations around, Israel was given the Law (Torah), covenant, responsibility to bear a witness of God, blessings and warnings if they should or should not choose to obey God. As we see in Genesis 15, God “Cut a Covenant” with Himself in the presence of Abraham who was seeing this in a vision.
Cutting a Covenant was an ancient custom seen through Mesopotamia where two parties would come together over a matter (real estate, purchase, goods, etc) and cut animals in half scattering pieces on either side of them. Then, the two people would walk through the center in front of witnesses, therefore declaring that if either one broke the promise that they would become like the dead carcasses. In Abraham’s case, he would have been baffled when God gave him this instruction. He would have known right away what was about to happen, but puzzled because the performance of Cutting a Covenant meant the two people were equal, and how could man be equal to God? However, we see something incredible, God puts Abraham to sleep and in a vision, Abraham see’s God as a fiery pot pass between the pieces by Himself, thus God makes the pact with Himself because man would never be able to uphold any kind of deal or covenant with God. God makes the covenant binding, and Abraham must have blown a sigh of relief because he would know he could never have upheld his end of the covenant.
Along with such a covenant, we see God outlining clear blessings and curses if Israel would not adhere to being a righteous people. If Israel was to follow God, trust in Him, and honor Him totally, there would be physical blessings (rain, crops, birthrate, wealth, national influence, etc). Yet, if Israel would turn away from God and chase after abominations such as false gods, taking foreign wives, and making covenants with pagan nations, God would judge His people. We see these warnings very clear in passages such as Exodus 23:33 and 34:15. In Leviticus 25:38 it states, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God.” This land of Canaan, which would become the Kingdom of Israel/United Monarchy (1020-931 B.C.E.) and even though two millenia have passed, it is still the Land of Israel, God’s nation and God’s inheritance for His people. This amazing truth reemerged upon the world scene again on May 14th, 1948 when the State of Israel was reborn. It shows God’s stamp and that He is the God of history and the future, nothing catches Him off guard.
The High Places: (Mentioned 74 times in the Bible): In the Biblical book of 1 Kings 3:3 we see Solomon, who is the King of Israel, (and King David’s son) begin to offer incense and tribute to the gods of his foreign wives. All of this is done on, “the high places” and we see him build such places through “state sponsored” actions. In the Book of Hosea 10:8 the prophet (same name as the book) rebukes the Kingdom of Israel and proclaims that these high places are blasphemous and that thorns and thistles should grow on their altars. To add to this, Hosea shouts that because of such places mountains and hills should collapse and crumble upon them.
Sadly, despite the law, proclamations, warnings, judges, prophets, and righteous kings, this is a common theme we see interwoven through the Book of Leviticus to the end of the Hebrew Bible/TaNaK. The main problem exists in two realms. One, Israel is surrounded by pagan nations and so this, naturally would be an enormous pressure upon them to be like the other peoples, especially with the threat of intermarriage. Second, whenever Israel took her eyes off of God, they strayed away and did their own thing, which at that time was to adopt paganism and conform to those patterns. Thus, we see many times in the history of ancient Israel, the sinful Israelite’s bringing in foreign wives and idols, constructing temples and altars to false gods, and ascending up to the “high places” which were the seats of idolatry in the land that the true God had given them as an inheritance.
The perfect example is the Golden Calf (Ex. 32) which was set up at the base of Mount Sinai (or Mount Horeb) in the wilderness. Moses had ascended up the mountain to be with God, and had been away for weeks. The people, thinking he was dead, pressured Aaron into constructing a calf of gold (ironically like the idols in Egypt) and set this up next to an altar to the Lord. This early form of syncretism was evident as the people proclaimed to the gods of gold that they would serve and worship them. This account of apostasy ends with Moses destroying the tablets of the Law, rebuking the people, and God’s wrath swallowing up thousands. This even after God had led them from Egypt in glory, descended upon the mountain in smoke and fire while they were encamped around it (Ex. 19), and had revealed Himself in countless ways, showing to be true to His word.
Kingdom of Israel: (931-722 B.C.E.)
The prophet Amos states in Amos 7:9, “The high places (venishmol behmot- Hebrew for breathing idolatry) of Isaac shall be desolate, and the sanctuaries (temples) of Israel laid to waste. I will rise with the sword against the house of Jeroboam.” King Jeroboam of the Kingdom of Israel, in an attempt to steer his people away from pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship, is seen in the Bible as erecting two pagan temples, one in Bethal and the other in Dan. Scripture says he set up a golden calf in each, and declared them to be the gods of Israel. The prophet of Amos clearly speaks harsh judgment upon the Kingdom of Israel which would eventually be destroyed and carried off into exile by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E. because of their wickedness. Through the warlike Assyrians, their practice of assimilation would later bring about the half-breed people called, Samaritans (discussed in the Christian Scriptures) as these people were considered half Jewish. The Assyrians took into captivity the brightest and best of the population, leaving behind the poor, and then would send its own colonialists back into the conquered land to farm it and settle. For Assyria’s reign in the ancient world, this proved to be an effective tool and method of gaining and controlling power for years.
Idolatry was clearly despicable in the sight of the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who ultimately would show His superiority over any fictitious belief in gods by allowing to be built His Holy Temple upon the “high place” of Mount Moriah and no where else. This was not to be any such high place, but one designated by God clearly and with specific detail. Except in this case, faithful Jews who worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem, did not worship and sacrifice to a false gods.
Kingdom of Judah: (931-586 B.C.E.)
Finally, the tale of the high places ends for the southern Kingdom of Judah in the year 586 B.C.E. when the armies of Babylon under the kingship of Nebuchadnezzar, plundered the land, sacked Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple built by Solomon. This disaster would see a large segment of the Kingdom of Judah taken into exile for a period of 70 years before returning under Nehemiah, Zerubbabal, and Zachariah as the second temple would be built. The cause for exile laid in the hands of the king of Judah called Manasseh, who did horrible things which included offering up children as sacrifice into the fires of the Hinnom Valley to the god Molek, and later murdering the prophet Isaiah by sawing him in two. Like, king Jeroboam of Israel before him, Manasseh’s evil was the last straw for Judah as God would pour out his wrath upon them through the conquest of Babylonia.
The ancient history of Israel is fascinating as it shows a unique people chosen by God, not because they were mightier, stronger, richer, or more numerous then any of the other nations around them, but for one simple reason, to have His name glorified in the earth. Despite their failings, the Jews have been true to preserving the Word of God, and through them giving birth to Christianity and the Jewish Messiah Yeshua (Jesus). Prophecy, written so long ago about the Jews returning to the land, and Zion being rebuilt, and prospering once more has come true as millions of Jews now reside in the reborn State of Israel. They have preserved their faith through their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and have survived countless attempts at annihilation by enemies throughout time. Through nearly four thousand years of trials, hardships, and blessings, God has been faithful to His word and preserved them. No other nation could have ever taken what the Jews have experienced and still come out on top. They stand apart from every other nation, as a people handpicked by the Almighty to show the world that God moves powerfully through men and that He has a plan to restore His name in a fallen, corrupt, and wicked world.
Israel exists today, God’s covenant with His people remains, and He has kept His word, because of that we have assurance that the Bible is truth and we can trust in Him as a faithful, just God who will see evil crushed and truth prevail.
By, Peter J. Fast