Sorry, but we need to set the stage for what was a traumatic time for the Israelites.
King Solomon managed to trouble the people before he relinquished the throne, and his two sons disputed who should be king, which led to the formation of Israel as a separate state, with Samaria as its capital, to be joined by 10 of the 12 tribes of the Jews; only 2 tribes remained within Judea, its capital Jerusalem. Both the people of Israel and Judea became enemies and eventually the Assyrians launched an invasion of Israel, destroying Samaria (hence the hatred between the two countries)
True prophecy begins with a trio of prophets, operating around the ministries of Isaiah, Hosea and Amos; and their role, is not so much to foretell the future; but looking at the political scene around them and the various alliances, can see what the consequences will be for the “Chosen People”.
Isaiah whose life and prophecies lasted for some 40-60 years, began with the reign of King Uzziah around 740 BC,
Uzziah (who was one of the good monarchs of Judah) was desperately ill, but Isaiah encouraged him to trust in God, giving him extra years to live.
God’s call to the prophet happened in the year that King Uzziah died (see Isaiah chapter 6) giving him the task of warning the people of Judea (centred on Jerusalem under now King Ahaz) that they were to listen to the word of God warning them to change their ways, obeying the true God rather than the idolatrous Gods to whom the people had turned.
A joint invasion of Judah by Syria and Ephraim failed to capture Judea and so, although when the Assyrians entered the fray, Jerusalem was saved until with the final victory, when the Babylonians there began the exile in Babylon of the ruling classes which lasted for 40 years.
The Judean exiles were enabled to return under the reign of King Cyrus (the Great) to rebuild the shattered Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. He provided all the building materials to rebuild the Temple. Ezrah’s task was to recall the Judeans to a new relationship with God, whilst Nehemiah oversaw the building work.
Isaiah’s ministry began in 698 BC and his opening message was that God abhorred the present sacrificial worship, exhorting the people that the sacrifice that God required was that of obedience to a concern for the outcasts, the poor, the homeless and the hungry. What was required was social concern.
This was a message that other contemporary prophets such as Amos preached .
It may raise the question as to how much of the book of Isaiah was written by him.
The general opinion of scholars is that chapters 1-39 are the work of Isaiah himself; the remainder that of prophets who reiterated his basic teaching, but whose vocabulary and style was markedly different.
Isaiah presents us with beautiful and telling poetry, and so we will leave an expansion of that with Amos until next week (if you can stand it).
Now, there are prophets and “prophets” and not all of them are the same.
There are the Major prophets and the Minor prophets; the first group are people like Moses and Joshua, who were great leaders in the battle to take over the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants.
But there are the Major prophets like Elijah. Elisha, Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea, who, whilst condemning the disobedience of the Jews, threatening Divine punishment, also importantly gave us insights into another, compassionate side of God.
Reading the earlier chapters at the beginning of the Old Testament, one is horrified, not only at the slaughter of the pagan nations, but also of the numbers of creatures that were part of the vast sacrificial system, where, if it is correct saw every living creature (except fish), offered under the great panoply of sacrificial ceremonies.
Elijah and Elisha who both had to contend with the growth of pagan gods with their mixture of offences (mainly sexual) attracted the populace, and both of these prophets were condemned by the King and his cohorts (not least the Queen) seeking their deaths.
It isn’t generally realised that what had been a United Kingdom became divided. King Solomon had fallen out of favour with God and the people. There was a rebellion and Solomon’s successor (Rehoboam) became King of Judah which only comprised 2 of the twelve tribes of Israel with its capital at Jerusalem whilst his cousin Jeroboam became King of Israel, based around the capital Samaria (922 BC) supported by 10 of the 12 tribes.
Both kings were enemies and so we find the two kingdoms opposed to each other (hence the enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews).
It was during this period that the prophets took on a different task, namely, to declare what God wanted in social reform, and indeed, His very nature.
It is interesting that the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Hosea were in action defining that God was on the side of the poor and disadvantaged and there are foretastes of this in sections of Deuteronomy.
Isaiah (who lived throughout King Uzziah’s reign (740 – 700 BC) began his attack on the religious scene by condemning the sacrifices offered as being not what God desired (Isaiah chap. 1 & 58, vv1-9).
Rather, all the current worship of burnt sacrifices (including their children) was abhorrent. The only sacrifices were those of the heart; “fasting” was only relevant if it was accompanied by social reforms.
This to some extent was echoing the teaching of Deuteronomy, which demanded that the needs of the under-privileged, widows, orphans, strangers (ie. “immigrants”) were to be priorities for any worshipper.
Elijah and Elisha succeeded in stemming the tide of idolatry, but their role was different from that of their successors, particularly those who were living through the tumult of the Exile of Judah for another 40 years.
If you are going to understand the Old Testament, you need to realise that this is a work that was edited and written over a period of centuries, the last such between the 5th and 7th BC.
We stand back in horror when we read of the massacre of everything, men, women, children, domestic animals, when the Jews invade Canaan, killing everything they meet regardless.
However, we cannot condemn them, because in that age of religious development, there was something called a “ban”.
Everything that was living when a community was successfully conquered (with the help they believed of God), everything that was killed or taken had to be offered to the god (of whatever belief).
They were sacrifices to be offered to the deity; nothing had to se excepted. We find instances where a father such as Jepthah sacrificed his own daughter as he had promised, prior to a successful battle that he would sacrifice, whatever or whoever he first met on his triumphal return. Sadly that was his daughter.
Yet, we find passages in the early books of the OT, where in Deuteronomy for instance, all whom the Israelites encountered were to be treated kindly, even if they were “immigrants”, described as “strangers”.
Isaiah (58, vv1-9) proclaims that God does not require sacrifices of animals; what He requires is obedience to His laws. Indeed, according to the prophets, that obedience is to provide hospitality and acceptance of everyone.
Reading the OT, one is reminded that the relationship between the Israelites and God was an uneasy one, for, whilst promising to obey all His laws, they were rewarding Him for all His protection by turning their devotion to pagan gods whom they found in the conquered lands.
There is also a conflict between the prophets and the secular authorities, and in the years when the great prophets were most active, their manifesto sounds like pure socialism. We shall discover this most starkly, when we study the prophets in detail during the next few weeks.
It is impossible to suggest that every word of the OT is to be taken literally, for It is full of exaggerations. When you study for instance, the ceremonial laws given in the desert, with commands that the sacrificial altar and all that accompanies it, must be covered with pure gold; the priestly robes had to be extraordinarily rich and you wonder where materials for all this could be found in a desert.
Likewise, later, one suspects that the thousands of fighting men for the armies, together with their horses and chariots may be more imaginative figures by the recorder to enhance their king’s reputation.
As you will (I hope) realise, that you cannot judge what happened in the 2,000 years between Moses and the completion of the Old Testament (somewhere about the 6th century BC) by our standards.
When Jesus says “But I say unto you” in response to queries abgut the Law, this is the true voice of God, superseding all that has gone before.
When is a miracle a miracle?” That’s a fair question, because of the wonderful deliverance of the Israelites, when God commanded the waters of the Red Sea to stand back while the escaping Jews crossed, and the pursuing host of Pharaoh’s army were drowned.
An event that is stamped into the memory of every Jew until this day.
But what is a miracle?
It could be fairly stated that, whilst the shallow Red Sea (Red = "Sea of reeds") was at the right moment able to be crossed in bare feet and being shallow (as in Ryde’s case) the tide returned swiftly, was this a miracle, that it happened at just the right moment to the pursuing army’s discomfort?
In other words, the event itself was not “miraculous”, but it was a miracle when it happened at just the right moment.
That does not devalue the event in the Israelites’ eyes, because the wonder is that by some divine intervention God’s People were rescued from annihilation, enabling them to continue to make their way to the Promised Land.
However, wen we come to Noah and his Ark we are in a different scenario: this is an event that is part of folk stories, preceding the possible date of the Ark as described in Genesis 6-9.
Here, we are on “dodgy” ground.
A gigantic flood is recorded in several ancient myths, particularly a Babylonian story of The Epic of Gilgamish and for this there is no other reason why God should do this except perhaps as a sample of divine caprice.
In all this, we have to realise that most of the Old Testament has been worked over by reputable scholars and these are identified by them through the vocabulary and writing style of sections.
The final editing seems to have taken place at the end of Israel’s enforced exile in Babylon when under Cyrus, the king of Babylon, the Jews were allowed to return in 538 BC.
Over the centuries, many attempts have been made to find the wreckage of the Ark, many since the Reformation, where Evangelical Christians (mainly from America) have discovered ancient timbers that unfortunately proved to be fakes.
Space or reader’s possible boredom may discourage you from digging deeper, but unless we realise that various forces were at work in the transmission of the events through what were very formative years, then we shall find ourselves struggling.
The first 5 books of the OT(described as the 5 books of Moses) carry the influence of editors until as late as the 5th or 6th centuries BC when there are elements that are characteristic of this later period.
Fear not, because we discern the witness of the Prophets such as Isaiah, and they provide a different view of what is happening and interpreting events from God’s point of view.
What is important as I stressed previously is to discover that there is one theme running throughout the OT and that is, that through their lives the Jews are discovering that God is walking with them.
No, not all you read in the Bible is true, but it seeks to convey the essential truth of God’s caring nature until we open the New Testament finding that “God so loved the world that He gave is only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life”.
Next week: “Is God a loving Father or a cruel blood-thirsty tyrant?"
Everyone knows about the fig-leaves as Adam and his wife struggle to cover their nudity; all the result of eating the forbidden fruit in defiance of God’s orders regarding this tree, “If you eat it, you will die”.
But they don’t; instead, kind-hearted God replaces their skimpy modesty covering with animal skins (Genesis 3, v20) , and, do they die? Nope.
Here is an indication, not of the blood thirsty events that follow throughout the early books of the Bible, for rather than destroy them, they are punished by God banishing them from the beautiful garden.
Here is a sign of Divine compassion.
In this story (a myth), we find primitive man exhibiting the same behaviour as we do now; not a true story, but one that illustrates the God who saves.
However, study the episode and you will find that you are following the whole pattern of temptation as we find it now, 4,000 years later.
There is for us a tempting voice, not from a snake, but from that disobedient impulse that has cursed mankind ever since.
When confronted with a choice between what we perceive God would have us do and what we are inclined to do, isn’t there an inner voice that says, “Go on, do it (whatever it is), “you won’t be punished”, or “No one will know”, “nothing will happen”. Often when we are young we succumb to the “dares” when friends urge us to defy School, Society’s or Parental rules?.
The serpent is ideal as an example, for they can slip unnoticed into places where they should not be, and this will have happened to every one of us.
You wonder why God, starting from scratch gave us free-will, to obey or disobey; wouldn’t life have been easier for all of us, if we were programmed to do only what God commands?
Well, yes; if we are not free to do as we wish, then there is no moral value to our actions. We should do things, not because we are afraid of punishment, but because they should be a response to a loving God.
What value is there to an action that we are forced to take?
We could have been programmed, so that when we hear the church bell, calling us to worship, we could do no more than obey and trot into do so; what moral value would that have been?
Here God took a calculated risk and sadly we observe how disastrous that has been for mankind, but could it have been any other way?
We see how disastrous that becomes, when of their two sons Cain lures his brother Abel into the field, killing him in jealousy.
Cain, when asked by God, “Where is your brother?” makes that chilling response “Am I, my brother’s keeper” , of which the answer is “Yes, and your brothers’ and sisters’ keepers too”.
If we took that to heart and lived by it, what a wonderful world this could be.
In the first five books of the OT, we shall find many sections which show God eager to punish with death by the slightest infringement of His commands, but there follows Adam and Eve, not being killed for their sin. Equally is telling is the way in which God, for fear of a lynch mob trying to kill Cain the murderer, sets a mark on him to protect him so that he can escape to another country (Genesis 4, v1-16).
Biblical scholars have identified by vocabulary and style at least four different editors to Genesis, adding to the difficulties of interpreting these early events, making life even more confusing.
Some of these five books, attributed to Moses, were probably, as I have said, not entirely historical fact, but ideas orally transmitted (by word of mouth) as the ancients tried to fathom what had been and why.
These stories may not be necessarily historically true, but underneath through them we find truths over which we may ponder.
One thing is clear, that they had deduced that God is a being of compassion as well as of judgement.
9 August 2020
Next week: “What about Noah, the Ark and the crossing of the Red Sea?”