Those familiar with the Jewish Bible — the Tanakh — or what Christians call the Old Testament, have puzzled for centuries over the meaning of the failed history of the Israelites, culminating in the destruction of their Temple and Jerusalem in 70AD, and their destruction or banishment from their homeland in 136 AD following the Bar Kokhba revolt. What exactly does it mean that God chose the Israelites from all the peoples of the world, led them, gave them a homeland and, for a time at least, heaped blessings on them only to have them nearly universally turn their backs on Him and His prescriptions for living? And what can we learn from their experience?
Rejection of God by Israelites, God’s Discipline, God’s Forgiveness, Repeat
If we didn’t know that the history of the Israelites laid out in the Old Testament was a recounting of reality, we would be hard-pressed to view it as even possible. It’s more akin to an ancient tale of ego, perceived privilege, deceit, destruction and enslavement, and reprieve, not totally dissimilar with modern day redemptive novels. Except that it ends badly. God had indeed chosen the Israelites. But they rejected Him. This site provides a nice summary of Israel’s national failures recorded in the Tanakh.
What’s quite stunning about the story it tells concerning Israel’s mass rejection of God is its scope and persistence. Starting in Egypt with their complaining about Moses’ adequacy to secure their freedom, to the shores of the “Red” (Reed) Sea where a near rebellion breaks out, to Sinai, to the desert for 40 years (so that the Sinai generation dies off), to the Promised Land where they don’t follow their instruction to eradicate the (child-sacrificing) locals, to… well, even though this is just the first 50 years or so, you get the picture. And this rebelliousness and God’s resultant discipline continued on to the very end – perhaps 1,600 years in all.
What’s also striking about the story is that, unlike today in the post-prophet, post-Christ period, the Israelites behaved as they did despite having repeated direct warnings from God, via His prophets, of the consequences that would ensue if they continued to rebel. And they simply continued to rebel.
After 136 CE the surviving Israelites were banished from Israel. The early church period and middle ages was a time in which the Rabbis struggled to reinterpret their history and the promises they thought God had made to them as a people but had not fulfilled. This was an anguishing time for faithful Jews. They had to reconcile how it was that as they saw it, God had promised to bless them, to live with them and to spread their renown to the world such that the “nations” would stream to Jerusalem to marvel at His work, praise Him and treat His chosen people, the Israelites, with honor and respect. Oh, and if all else failed, their Messiah would be sent who would sit on Zion, defeat Israel’s enemies, and restore Israel to its rightful place of blessing and esteem as the chosen of God.
Didn’t happen. And hasn’t happened, at least yet. This wrestling with why it didn’t happen persisted into the middle ages giving rise to the Kabbalah, a school of devout Jews who adopted mysticism and spiritual reinterpretations of their history to rationalize their reality.
Then What’s the Meaning of The Story of Israel?
We, like the later Talmudic scholars and Kabbalists, are left with trying to understand what God is up to here. To understand it we need both an understanding of God’s intention for humanity, a basic understanding of His promise to Abraham, and an understanding of His promise of a Messiah.
God directs Abraham (then Abram) to pull up stakes from home and go to the land of Israel (Gen 12:1-3). When he gets there God tells him that he will give to him and his offspring (seed) that land ‘forever’, and that in him (Abraham) all the families of the earth would be blessed. Abraham obeyed God. Later God tells him that he will be the father of offspring as numerous as the stars (Gen 15:5), perhaps a stunning revelation to Abraham who at this time may have been 80 or 85 years old.
But wait a minute, you might say. Israel hasn’t been in the possession of the Jews “forever”. Didn’t they only just retake control of it in 1948 after a nearly 2000 year absence? Well, yes. “But”, you might protest, “how could this unconditional covenant God made with Abraham be violated?” Great question.
The word(s) here rendered “forever” are: עוֹלָם עַד (ad olam) which means something like “for as long as a very long time”. And it was a long time. From Abraham to 70 AD (which included the 430-year tenure of the Israelites in Egypt) was something like 1895 years. So it wouldn’t be wrong to consider God’s land promise to Abraham fulfilled.
The Coming of A Messiah
The Bible refers to many Messiahs, literally “anointed ones”. King David, for example, was a Messiah. But the one we’re interested in here is the one promised to David himself. 2 Samuel 7:12-16 is where God announces this Messiah to David. In it, He promises that “He shall build a house” (בַּיִת) “for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” Here בַּיִת is normally translated ‘house’ but can also mean ‘family’. Either way, God intends to build some sort of structure (human or architectural) where His name reigns. Notice also God intends to carry out discipline on this Messiah if His needs be. And finally, He says that the throne of this Messiah will be established “forever”.
The intriguing aspect of the Tanakh’s references to this Savior is that they don’t make any distinction between those that describe his restoration of Israel and world-governing Kingship, and the seemingly incongruous requirements on Him to suffer and die. The following excerpt lays out the basic Jewish understanding and prophecies for his restoration and rule to this day:
From Mashiach: The Messiah: “The mashiach will bring about the political and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people by bringing us back to Israel and restoring Jerusalem (Isaiah 11:11-12; Jeremiah 23:8; 30:3; Hosea 3:4-5). He will establish a government in Israel that will be the center of all world government, both for Jews and Gentiles (Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:10; 42:1). He will rebuild the Temple and re-establish its worship (Jeremiah 33:18). He will restore the religious court system of Israel and establish Jewish law as the law of the land (Jeremiah 33:15).”
The requirements for Him to suffer and die as a sacrificial atonement are contained both in the “forbidden chapter” of the Tanakh, Isaiah 53, and in Zechariah 12:9-14 and 13:6-7.
When is this Messiah to come? For this we need to consult the prophet Daniel. Writing from Babylon at a time when the first Jewish Temple and Jerusalem itself lay in ruins, thanks to the Babylonian invasion, Daniel receives a message from Gabriel relating to things to come, and how long it would be that Israel would continue to suffer under Babylonian captivity. In Da 9:26 he says that a ‘prince’ will come in the future and his people will once again destroy the city (Jerusalem) and the Temple. This ‘prince’ was the Roman general Titus. The year was 70 AD. By that time, the ‘anointed one’ (Messiah) was to be “cut off, and shall have nothing.” Translation: the Davidic Messiah has already come and has fulfilled the requirements of atoning redemption. But what has not yet apparently happened is the period of His rule on earth from Zion. (This is the key stumbling block for Jews: the fact that there are two distinct eras of Messianic presence in the world.)
God’s Intention for Humanity
What we know for sure is that humanity was created for God’s glory (Is 43:7). How He intends to achieve that we have to infer. Based on His characteristics, principally his love for us, however, it seems quite likely that He is preeminently interested in restoring humanity to Himself so that we reciprocate His love for us.
What the history of the nation of Israel shows us is that we don’t really want that, thank you. We’d just as soon ignore God and get on with seeking after our own gods, whatever worldly desire they may represent.
Based on the foregoing, it seems clear to me that the history of Israel and its people is a metaphor for the experience and condition of all humanity — all Creation. We all were ‘chosen’ by God, at least in the sense that God saw fit that we come to exist, just as Israelites were ‘chosen’. We all fail at pursuing and loving God and remaining obedient to Him, just as Israel so graphically demonstrated for their initial 1,600 years of existence. Israel, as the meta-humanity, clearly showed that man doesn’t naturally want to pursue and follow God. And, we can speculate, the story of their disciplining by God seems to have continued to be played out in world history ever since, through wars, sicknesses, famines and the like.
Israel was God’s teaching tool for the world. It was His master class for all to learn that they were wholly inadequate to the job of following Him, in and of themselves. The lesson seems to be quite stark and hard to miss. But we just seem to be very slow learners.
Though I am a Christian, I don’t think I need to put too fine a point on who Israel’s Messiah was. It is quite obvious to anyone who will objectively examine the scriptures, particularly Daniel 9, to see. The Jews’ continuing expectation of their savior and ruler is such a tragic image, in that it underscores their utter lack of understanding of the meaning of their own history.
The only point here is that the rationale for Israel’s history is as an allegory of the condition of humankind generally, and God’s response to it in leading us to His saving Grace by which we can gain access to spiritual union with Him in His Kingdom.
We each have the prerogative and ability to reject God, just as ancient Israel repeatedly did (except a small, faithful remnant). But certainly, their history should begin to inform us of the assured consequences of that rejection.
As for Israel, sadly, their epiphany is still unfulfilled. (Zec 12:10-14) And my sadness is indeed sincere. I love Israel and its people, having worked and toured many summers there. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why they can’t see what happened, and why.
 Technically we really don’t have a Hebrew people/nation described in the Tanakh until those called out of slavery in Egypt by Moses. And only then does God get involved directly with them as a people. Of course they had ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc. – with whom God dealt individually.