People who read the Bible somewhat seriously are well aware of the Biblical story leading up to the nation of Israel; their near-total rejection of their redeeming God; His attempts to retrieve them from their apostasy; and their ultimate destruction as a nation and collection of tribes in 70 and 135 AD. What some may fail to notice is that even before they entered the “promised land”, God had foretold their apostasy and that, as a result, they would endure the curses articulated in His covenant made with them at Horeb.
Thumbnail History of Israel
I’ve written elsewhere that ancient Israel was humanity’s metaphor – that their history of failure and judgement by God only appears so tragic because we know so much about it. God put the microscope of His prophets on its history to make clear to us that they were just like the rest of us – revering things more than God (idol worship), adultery, dishonesty, not caring for the dispossessed (widows and orphans), etc.
Israel began with God’s call on Abram; His promise to him that he would be the father of many nations, that he/they would inherit a land God would show him, and that his “seed” would be a blessing to many nations. Abraham fathered Isaac with Sarah and Isaac fathered Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of the nation.
While Jacob was still alive a drought forced the family to seek food in Egypt. Fortunately for them, its Administrator turns out to be their brother Joseph that they had left for dead in the desert in years past, who provides for their sustenance. Jacob ends up moving his household to Egypt, where they prospered. But when they had grown to a huge population, the then-Pharaoh was nervous that they might seek to overthrow him. So he committed them to heavy labor hoping to keep them distracted and too busy to produce more children. But they continued to grow in population.
It’s here we meet the Hebrew Moses. Pharaoh had decreed that all Hebrew boy babies were to be drowned at birth. So following his birth his mother covertly sets him loose in a basket on the Nile where he is found and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, and then raised in Pharaoh’s household.
As an overseer, Moses revolts against the treatment of the Hebrews and thereafter escapes from the country. It’s here that God calls Moses to serve Him in freeing the Hebrews, appearing and speaking to him from a “burning” bush. Reluctantly, Moses takes this commission, returns to Egypt, and makes a series of appeals to Pharaoh to free the Hebrews. Each of these brings with it a plague for noncompliance, culminating with the death of every firstborn in Egypt that the Hebrews are spared from if they have the blood of a sacrifice painted on their doorpost.
In response to this final plague that takes his own son, Pharaoh relents and lets Moses lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. God meets Moses and the Hebrews at Mt. Horeb (Sinai), gives them His law, and the blessings they will experience if they follow it, and the curses they will suffer if they do not.
Immediately the Hebrews violate God’s law, building a golden calf “god” to worship, causing God to, rather than lead them to the land He had promised their father Abraham, lead them off through the wilderness for 40 years, so that the unfaithful generation will age and die off.
Ultimately the descendants enter the land promised to Abraham under the direction of Moses’ successor, Joshua. They conquer many cities and villages in the land from its Canaanite inhabitants. But they disobeyed God by allowing some Canaanites, worshippers of the pagan god Baal, to live, and live with them in the land.
Unfortunately, the now-Israelites immediately adopt the worship of Baal and other pagan gods, and essentially ignore God’s law altogether[i], leading God to first exile the 10 northern (most apostate) tribes to Assyria. But ultimately, 150 years later, God judged Judah (then “Israel”) to be devastated by Babylon and exiled from which very few, eventually, returned.
The Israelites were pretty good at doing the things they were commanded to do in the law – circumcision, Sabbath observance, festival observance (Leviticus 23), hygiene laws, making sacrifice, etc. (the exceptions were matters of the heart, such as caring for the poor). What they weren’t particularly good at was not doing what the law forbade them from doing (e.g. worshipping other gods, adultery, even going so far as the sacrifice/murder of their own children [2 Kings 17:17]).
Is Israel’s Failure a Moral Issue for God?
God knew that Israel would fail Him by persistently violating the terms of His Covenant with them (Dt. 31:16-17). Yet He relented after the forty-year wilderness exile and allowed the then-current generation (in fact commanded them via Joshua [Joshua 1:1-9]) to enter and take the promised land. Since God knew that Israel would disobey Him and incur His curses of the Covenant, should He be accountable for this? Couldn’t He have intervened to correct them? Yes, He could have. But we need to not lose sight of His promise to Abraham – that through his “seed” (which Israel was in their role as progenitors of the future “seed”) the nations would be blessed.
God had committed to Abraham, saying (Genesis 13:14-17) that his progeny would live in the land God was deeding to him. This promise, or covenant, was not conditional. God didn’t say “if you do this I’ll give you and your descendants the land”. He just unilaterally promised it to him.[ii]
So if God was to honor this pledge (which was the only possibility for Him), He had to, for “His name’s sake”, follow through. But it wasn’t as if God was coerced into this action by His righteousness or His desire to uphold His reputation. Yes, He must act righteously and justly. The question here is not whether in the future that He knew was coming that He would have to discipline (judge) Israel. The question is whether letting them act out their disobedience for a few hundred years, then them being attacked, devastated, and exiled by the Babylonians was the best solution; not just for them, but for His promised blessing for all the nations.
Here we have to understand that God saw the whole panorama of the future in laser focus and knew in His omniscience that He would give His best for the Hebrews: His merciful patience; and His righteous justice from which some of them, at least, would be convicted of their sin and repent from it, becoming, for Him, His “servants” (Isaiah 65:9, Ezra 9:15, Malachi 3:16-17). And from this faithful remnant would one day come His Messiah, the One He anointed to redeem His people and distribute His blessing to the nations – Abraham’s “seed”.
So did God treat Israel badly, meaning disproportionately to their offenses to Him? The answer depends on your perspective. Do you support and believe God’s ultimate purpose to be achieved through them? Or do you identify with their judgement and suffering, which you see to be unrighteous – that they were victims positioned into their victimhood by God? If so, does God assume the responsibility for Israel’s behavior because He knew what it would be? Or, are the ancient Israelites personally responsible for their own behavior? I would suggest that the ones intentionally violating their covenant with God are uniquely responsible for the consequences of their own behavior.
If you find yourself in the latter camp, I’m afraid that you are one who hasn’t yet acknowledged God’s sovereignty over His creation. It was God’s eternal purpose for Israel that through them ”all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18), though they could not properly imagine how that would be accomplished. Had it not been for Israel the rest of the world would have continued to suffer in separation from their God. And, through them, indeed, the world was blessed.
Could God have foreshortened Israel’s suffering and exile? Yes, of course. But would He then have impeded the realization of His Son, the descendant of the faithful remnant that returned from Babylon? That seems likely.
The perspective I think we need to have is God’s. He understood that people – even His chosen people – would never naturally live in faithfulness to Him, Law or no Law. Therefore it was essential that if He was ever to build a family of man with Him who were destined to live with Him eternally, He was going to have to change their natures (Dt. 30:6, Jer 31:33, Eze 36:26-28). And, this is precisely what the sacrifice of Christ achieved as implemented by God’s Spirit following Pentecost.
[i] It is incredible but true that the Israelites lost Moses’ scroll for 800 or so years of their initial existence. See this story here.
[ii] God did, however, say through Joshua (Joshua 23:16) that if Israel sinned He would expel them from the land.