Contrasting Messages in the Bible - What is God saying to us Today?
Rev. Dave Rogalsky October 21 2018
Scriptures: Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 60:1-18; Isaiah 66:18-21; Ezra 9:1-2; Ezra 10:1-5; Ruth; Deuteronomy 23:3-4; Jonah; Zephaniah 2:10-15
Last week we looked at the message of the prophetic books in the Bible. Of course we only touched the surface of that material, but we looked at the story of the Jewish people as told by the prophets. Today we’ll see that their message developed over time, and that it was not the only message in the Bible. The editors who pulled together all the material in the 300s to 200s before Jesus did not remove material that was at odds with other material. Instead they left it in, leaving us with a conversation between various groups of God’s people within Judaism that went back and forth for centuries – and may not have ended yet. This week we will look at the contrasting messages which the Bible contains as the people of God returned from exile in Babylon to the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem. What is God saying to us today?
The understanding of who they were, and of who God was, developed over time for the Jews. At first, about 2000 years before Jesus, they thought of themselves as the family of Abraham and Sarah, nomadic herders who worshipped the God they called El. Over time they came to see themselves as a people with a right to the land of Canaan, in a covenant relationship with El, whom they came to call YHWH. This covenant included the king/God ruling by law, and caring for the people. And it included the people obeying the law of the king/God, and worshipping this God first and foremost. They saw themselves as God’s people, as YHWH’s people, just as other peoples saw themselves as the people of their gods. This idea of being YHWH’s only people grew in them and they expected that anyone who would worship YHWH would acknowledge that the Jews were God’s people alone. There was an expectation that they would one day conquer the whole world for their God and rule over all peoples.
Last week we saw that the prophetic material in the Bible, which includes the history books Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, as well as all 16 prophetic books, tells the story of God acting in love to preserve the Jews, and to help them to prosper if they would worship God primarily. The Jews were for much of the Old Testament story worshippers of many gods. They were polytheists instead of monotheists. Eventually this primarily became worship YHWH alone. This happened just as the Jews were attacked by and overcome by the Babylonians in the early 500’s BC.
The material they wrote down then was full of the idea that just as God had rescued them from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, so too would God now rescue them from their exile in Babylon. God would do this because God loved them, and them particularly, among all the peoples of the world. They were God’s own people, called by God’s name, beloved, forgiven, and they would be restored. The material shows that they thought this meant that they and they alone were God’s people.
Some people were even excluded by name. In Deuteronomy 23:3-4 they wrote:
3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD, 4 because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.
This is just one example of the exclusiveness of their thought during this time.
They thought in this way particularly about their enemies like the Ammonites and the Moabites. In the prophet Zephaniah we read about what the prophets thought God’s intentions for the Jews’ enemies was:
10 This shall be the( Moabites and Ammonites (from verse 8) lot in return for their pride, because they scoffed and boasted against the people of the LORD of hosts. 11 The LORD will be terrible against them; he will shrivel all the gods of the earth, and to him shall bow down, each in its place, all the coasts and islands of the nations. 12 You also, O Ethiopians, shall be killed by my sword. 13 And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and he will make Nineveh a desolation, a dry waste like the desert. 14 Herds shall lie down in it, every wild animal; the desert owl and the screech owl shall lodge on its capitals; the owl shall hoot at the window, the raven croak on the threshold; for its cedar work will be laid bare. 15 Is this the exultant city that lived secure, that said to itself, "I am, and there is no one else"? What a desolation it has become, a lair for wild animals! Everyone who passes by it hisses and shakes the fist. Zephaniah 2:10-15
At the time that this was written, most probably just before the exile to Babylon, the northern kingdom of Jews, known as Israel or Samaria, had been destroyed by the Assyrians with their capital of Nineveh.
The thought was clear – Jews were God’s special people, loved by God. They were the only people loved by God.
But a funny thing happened. The Jews did not all agree with this. Other writers, some of them prophets, others story writers, embraced an alternative perspective, one in which God included and loved all people.
Someone wrote the story of King David’s great-grandmother. Ruth was married to Boaz and together they had a son Obed, who was the father of Jesse, the father of David who became the Jews’ second king. It’s a beautiful story and tells us much about the time. What it stresses is that Ruth was from Moab. She was one of those hated and excluded people, the Moabites, eternal enemies of the Jews. Boaz should never have married her. But since he did none of her children should have been considered Jews, nor her grandchildren or great-grandchildren until the 10th generation. But her great-grandson was the Jewish king. Hmmm, not quite what the prophets had said was the law. Seems like the rules were being bent and broken all along to include!
And then there is the little book of Jonah. Included in the prophetic books instead of as a history, Jonah is clearly a story written for edification, rather than a book of historical facts. The story runs like this: Jonah, a prophet in the northern kingdom of Israel or Samaria, was sent by God to the Israelites’ enemy, Assyria with its capital at Nineveh. There he was to call on them to turn to the true God and repent of their violence. If they did, God would spare them from a plague which would destroy them. Jonah thought, if I don’t go, then our enemy will be destroyed! So he fled for the opposite end of the Mediterranean. But God arranged for him to be deposited back home and told to obey. So he went, preached, the Ninevites repented, and God didn’t destroy them. In a pout about this Jonah camped out beside the wall of the city. There he sat in the shade of a castor plant. When it died he sat in the sun complaining to God. Then God said:
9 But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And he said, "Yes, angry enough to die." 10 Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?" Jonah 4:9-11 (NRSV)
Though a prophet had proclaimed doom on the Ninevites because they were an enemy of the Jews, another prophet heard something different. God was concerned with people and not just Jewish people.
This shows up again when the Jews returned from exile under the leadership of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor. Ezra was of the opinion that the exile had happened because the Jews had broken the laws of God, and God had punished them for this. The marriage of women who were not Jewish was one of those laws. Yes, it was very patriarchal – the focus was on the behaviour of the Jewish men. As it turned out the Jews had not stopped doing this. There were many among the Jewish men who returned from exile who had non-Jewish wives. The only solution, according to Ezra, was mass divorce and the disinheriting of the children from such marriages.
1 While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him out of Israel; the people also wept bitterly. 2 Shecaniah son of Jehiel, of the descendants of Elam, addressed Ezra, saying, "We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. 3 So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. 4 Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it." 5 Then Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said. So they swore. Ezra 10:1-5 (NRSV)
What a horrible scene! But not all Jews were in agreement. Around the same time a prophet in the school of Isaiah wrote this:
1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms. 5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah (Arabia –child of Abraham’s Canannite wife after Sarah had died); all those from Sheba (West Africa where the Queen of Sheba reigned) shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. 7 All the flocks of Kedar (Arabia – a son of Ishmael) shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth (Arabia – a son of Ishmael) shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house. Isaiah 60:1-7 (NRSV)
People who had long been split off from the Jews, including perhaps Solomon’s children by the Queen of Sheba, all will be included. No one will be excluded! The children who weren’t Jewish will included! The wives who weren’t Jewish will be included. God wants a big family made of many smaller families. God wants to include many, in fact everyone, in God’s loving hope.
So, why did the editors of the Old Testament include both these views? Because when the Old Testament part of the Bible was edited together this question of who God loved and would save was not finished. In Jesus’ day, three hundred years later, the Sadducees and Hellenizing Jews were into accepting Greek culture and intermarriage. But the Pharisees and Essenes were into purity and law keeping. Next time we look at the Bible together we’ll look at how Jesus fit into this mix.