Passover, Jesus – and Jewishness questions

The Times of Israel published an intriguing article describing how Christians are beginning to celebrate Passover – complete with the traditional Seder meal.  The article states that the largest Seder gatherings (with over 600 together) are being celebrated by Christians along with Jews, a trend that has been developing “within the past 20 or 30 years”.  To my mind this raises some worthwhile questions:

Why are Christians celebrating Passover?

According to the article, these are Passover celebrations “in which Jesus Christ stars as the paschal lamb”.  But why would Jesus Christ be celebrated as the paschal lamb?  If we look into the gospels (the eyewitness accounts written by the Jewish followers of Jesus) we learn when Jesus was arrested, brought to trial and put to death.

“Then the Jews led Jesus … to the palace of the Roman governor [Pilate]… to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover” … [Pilate] said [to Jewish leaders] “…But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”   (John 18:28, 39-40)

This all happened on Passover Day.  In fact, the well-known ‘Last Supper’ of Jesus was his Seder meal celebrated with his disciples – also on Passover since Passover began at sundown on Thursday evening.  With Jesus’ Last Seder, arrest, trial, and execution all occurring on Passover there is a direct historical link between Jesus and Passover.

Moses, Passover & Jesus

But when one looks back at the account of the first Passover, in the Torah, when Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, then this link takes on special meaning.  The complete Torah account is here, but when G-d, Blessed be He, explained to Moses how Passover (Pesach) would unfold it states:

For that night, I will pass through the land of Egypt and kill all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both men and animals; and I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt; I am Adonai. 13 The blood will serve you as a sign marking the houses where you are; when I see the blood, I will pass over you — when I strike the land of Egypt, the death blow will not strike you. (Exodus 12:12-13)

The blood of the Paschal lambs was a sign to the people, not to G-d.  Though G-d would look for the blood, and when He saw it Death would pass over (Pesach), the blood was a sign to ‘serve you’ – the people, and by extension to us who read the account in the Torah.  But in what way was the blood a sign to the people? Think what signs do by considering these signs.

Signs are pointer in our minds to get us to think about what the sign points to
Signs are pointer in our minds to get us to think about what the sign points to

When we see the ‘skull and crossbones’ sign it makes us think of death and danger. The sign of the ‘Golden Arches’ makes us think about McDonalds. The ‘√’ on Nadal’s bandana is the sign for Nike. Nike wants us to think of them when we see this on Nadal. Signs are made to direct our thinking not to the sign itself but to what it points to.  In that first Passover, death hung over every household in Egypt.  Over every Hebrew house as well as all Egyptian houses.  But the blood of the Passover lamb, painted on the doorposts, would cause death to pass over.  Death today also hangs over every household – Jewish as well as Gentile – since we are all destined to die.

In the eye of his first followers, Jesus’ death was seen as a triumph.  As one stated

For the Messiah’s love has hold of us, because we are convinced that one man died on behalf of all mankind (which implies that all mankind was already dead),  (2 Corinthians 5: 14)

In the same way that the Passover lamb died on behalf of any Hebrew who put its blood on his doorway, Jesus was understood to have died on our behalf.  Thus, not only is there a direct link by calendar date between Passover and Jesus, but the meaning of the respective deaths were the same.  For this reason one of the titles given to Jesus by his contemporaries was:

The next day John (i.e. John the Baptist) saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world… ’”. (John 1:29)

Jesus was designated as the pashal lamb of G-d. So it makes sense that Christians see the Jewish roots of their faith and want to participate in the celebration of Passover.

Why is Easter on a slightly different date than Passover?

Jesus died on Passover.  Easter is the Christian celebration of the death of Jesus, with Good Friday remembering his death and Easter Sunday recalling his resurrection.  In that case should not Easter and Passover occur on the same day?  At first they were celebrated on the same day.  But In 325 CE the Christian Council of Nicaea established that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after equinox on March 21.  This changed how Easter was calculated, moving it off from the Passover date.  Easter and Passover now are usually very close in the calendar, usually just a few days apart.

Because of this change in the dating of Easter, Christians largely forgot the Jewish Passover roots of Easter.  As one of those interviewed for the Times of Israel article said, “A lot of times, Gentile Christians are willfully ignorant, sometimes even surprised by the connections between Judaism and Christianity”.  Learning about and celebrating Passover serves to inform Christians about Jewish roots to their faith. The flip-side is also true – with the Christian camouflage that has increasingly been painted on Jesus, Jews have not been able to see him as Jewish.  His Jewishness has been hidden from them.

Is Jesus a legitimate Jewish pursuit?  

There is wide diversity in what it means to be a Jew.  A Jew can be secular, orthodox, ultra-orthodox, reformed, conservative, and even an atheist.  One can be a Zionist Jew – but one can also be anti-Zionist and still be a Jew.  Most Jews are heterosexual but there are LBGT Jews.  Some are observant, others not, and still others only partially so.  Whatever categories one uses to classify people: whether language, clothing, religion, country of residence, wealth, education, skin color, political views or sexual orientation – Jews will fill in all the categories – and still be considered a Jew.  Wrong perhaps, misguided even, but nonetheless accepted as part of that broad family of Abraham.

The Times of Israel Passover article showed that this Jewish diversity now extends so far as to also include the ‘Messianic Jew’.  These are Jews who believe that Jesus (Yeshua as they call him) is the Messiah promised in the Tanakh.  For centuries this has been considered self-contradictory.  If one was a Jew he/she did not think about Jesus, let alone believe in him, or if one believed in him one could not be a Jew.  But it was decisions made long ago, like detaching Easter from Passover, creating medieval ghettos and pogroms in Europe, to the later anti-semitism in the Christian West, that diverted attention away from crucial historical facts:

  • Jesus of Nazareth, arguably the most influential person to have lived on this planet, was a circumcised, practicing Jew descended from Abraham, fully learned in the Torah.
  • His immediate followers were also all observant Jews, adhering to the Torah.
  • All the books of the New Testament were written by Jews (with the possible exception of Luke)

At the close of the 2nd Temple Period and even up to the time of the Bar Kokhba (135 CE) rebellion it was a very Jewish preoccupation to discuss, debate and argue over whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah or not.  The Roman Historian Suetonius describes the effect this debate had in Rome.

“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome”  (Life of Claudius xxv 4)

In other words, Jews in the city of Rome were discussing and debating about Chrestus (i.e. Jesus Christ) so intensely that the Roman Emperor Claudius was irritated and expelled all of them (Messianic or not) from Rome (in 49 CE).

Notice how the Jewish Historian Flavius Josephus (writing about 90 CE) writes about James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth and the first leader of Jesus’ Jewish followers in Jerusalem, (who also wrote the book of James in the New Testament)

Ananus took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper and very insolent; he was also of the sect of Sadduccees, who were very rigid in judging offenders … assembled the Sanhedrin of the judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, whose name was James, and some others, … formed an accusation against them … and delivered them to be stoned.  But as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done, they also sent to the King (Agrippa) desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more   Antiquities of the Jews,  Book XX, Chapter IX, 1

You can see how the debate went back and forth amongst the Jews concerning James, the brother of Jesus.  No matter what ‘side’ of the debate they were on it was obviously a very Jewish concern.  Josephus even writes directly about Jesus, and in a way that indicates he personally was moved back and forth in this debate

At this time there was a wise man … Jesus. … good, and … virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned Him to be crucified and to die.  But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that He had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that He was alive. .. Accordingly, He was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders.  And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day…   ANTIQUITIES Book XVIII, III, 3

Whether Jesus was the Messiah or not, the arguments for and against, can be taken up later.  As both Jews and Christians are re-learning the ancient Jewish roots of Easter and the link between Passover and Jesus, it suffices to remind us that this is an authentic Jewish question, not to be relegated simply for Christian Gentiles to discuss.  Passover itself shouts to the Jewishness in the puzzle of this man Jesus of Nazareth.

Isaiah & the re-gathering of Jews to Israel

Probably the most influential book in the Prophets (Nevi’im = נְבִיאִים ) of the Tanakh is Isaiah,  named after the human author – Isaiah – who lived in the First Temple Period around 750 BC.  The figure below shows where he sits in a historical timeline.  This timeline is taken from History of the Jews, zoomed to the two Temple periods.

Historical Timeline of Isaiah in Temple Periods
Historical Timeline of Isaiah in Temple Periods

The Welcome article highlighted the curious fact that Jewish history is like a dance between The Book (Bible), the Land (Israel), The People (Jews) and other Nations.  No other nation has such a complex dance.  If Moses’ Blessings & Curses have controlled the broad movements of this dance for the last 3500 years, Isaiah’s prophecies are guiding its precise steps into our times.  Isaiah also added a new partner into this dance (though he is not the first to do so, but this new partner takes prominence in Isaiah).  This is seen in his far-reaching vision of history in Isaiah 11.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:1-2)

Jesse was the father of King David who founded the city of Jerusalem about 1000 BC. When Isaiah wrote these words Jesse had been dead 300 years but through David the royal dynasty from Jesse was ruling in Jerusalem in Isaiah’s lifetime. Isaiah prophesied that this dynasty, like a tree felled by an axe, would one day be reduced to a ‘stump’, i.e., the kingdom would fall. But then after this dynasty a ‘Branch’ would ‘shoot’ up from that very same stump. This Branch was a ‘him’ (male human) who would ‘bear fruit’. Who would this Branch be?  What kind of ‘fruit’?

As Isaiah continued it is not immediately clear whether he was speaking metaphorically or literally.  But then he wrote what, for us in the 21st century, should make us sit up and take note:

10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. 11 In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Sea.

12 He will raise a banner for the nations
and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah
from the four quarters of the earth. (Isaiah 11: 10-12)

Isaiah predicted a re-gathering of the Jewish people (as Moses did in his Blessings and Curses) but Isaiah wrote that this would be for the ‘second time’.  Below is the Timeline from History of the Jews with the re-gatherings of Jews to Israel (in green) and Isaiah in red.  You can see there have been two different re-gatherings of Jews from the nations back to Israel, both after he lived.  From Isaiah’s time (750 BC) you might think that he was writing about the re-gathering of Jews to Israel from the Babylonian captivity but because he specifically wrote of the ‘second time’ we know he is looking beyond that re-gathering.  The ‘second’ (and only other) re-gathering is the one that is happening now, as part of the re-birth of modern Israel.  His description of the re-gathering from the ‘four quarters of the earth’ (i.e. from North, South, East, West) precisely describes what is occurring today as Jews from every continent on the globe are now doing Aliyah to Israel in a precise and literal fulfillment of what Isaiah wrote 2700 years ago.

Historical Timeline of the Jews - featuring their two periods of exile
Historical Timeline of the Jews – featuring their two periods of exile

Some of the countries he lists are obscure because he is naming countries in 750 BC.  But the countries he specifically lists: Elam (= Iran today), Cush (= Ethiopia today), Babylonia (= Iraq today) along with Egypt are countries almost emptied of Jews making Aliyah to Israel since 1948.

Isaiah continues with further details surrounding this ‘second’ re-gathering.  To help us identify countries Isaiah mentions, a map compares countries named in his passage with those today.  Isaiah continues:

Ephraim’s jealousy will vanish,
and Judah’s enemies will be destroyed;
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah,
nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim.
They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will subdue Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them. (Isaiah 11:13-14)

Map of Israel + Judah and surrounding countries in 750 BC (1st Temple Period) vs. map of Israel and countries of today
Map of Israel + Judah and surrounding countries in 750 BC (1st Temple Period) vs. map of Israel and countries of today

You can see that in the 1st Temple Period the Jews were politically divided into two rival kingdoms – Judah & Israel.  The situation then was like Koreans today who are one people divided into two opposing countries – North & South Korea.  The rivalries between the two Jewish countries in the 1st Temple Period are detailed in the Tanakh in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

Re-gathering to one nation

When Isaiah looked into the future and wrote

Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim (v 13)

He meant that when the Jews re-gathered for the 2nd time from this world-wide exile they would not be politically divided anymore, but united into one nation. That was not a foregone conclusion when he wrote in 750 BC but it happened in 1948 when a United Nations resolution birthed one single modern Jewish state: Israel.

Israeli & Six-Day War

Looking closely on this map of the nations in Isaiah’s day we see Philistia on a coastal strip between Judah and the Mediterranean Sea and Moab, Edom and Ammon directly to the East. Note the states in the corresponding places today and we can see that they are Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan. The West Bank was captured from Jordan in the six-day war of 1967. Knowing this Isaiah’s prophecy makes sense to our modern ears.

They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia (i.e. Gaza) to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will subdue Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.

Isaiah foresaw the Israelites returning from that second, far-in-the-future and world-wide exile and predicted the birth of the one Jewish state.  Then, he predicted, the Israelites would ‘swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west’.  He foresaw a very quick (‘swoop down’) incursion of Israel into Gaza – just as it happened in the Six-Day war.  In that same war the West Bank was won from Jordan, resulting in the ‘subduing’ of the people of Edom, Moab and Ammon – the modern-day Israeli control of the West Bank. It is like Isaiah was 2700 years ahead of events of our time.

Perhaps you agree with me. Or perhaps you think I am reading way too much into Isaiah. But the fact is that Isaiah was part of a very select group whose writings are in the Tanakh.  This theme of predicting the fortunes of Jews, the land of Israel and surrounding nations run through the other writings in the Tanakh and indicates that Isaiah is not just some lucky historical coincidence.  The theme that began with Abraham, was developed by Moses, is now extended by Isaiah.  The prophets of Tanakh hardly ever met since they lived several hundred years apart. You can imagine the immense difficulty in coordinating a consistent theme with others you have never met. Look at the difficulties our political leaders are having in coordinating a consistent response to all the events today – and they communicate regularly.

But so what anyways? So what if Isaiah foretold details of the modern-day re-birth of Israel.  So what if he and other writers of the Tanakh foresaw the global re-gathering of Jews? What difference does that make to you and me?

Isaiah and the other writers of Tanakh never claimed to have innate powers of foresight. He claimed that G-d, blessed be He, who created our planet and the universe, who is sovereign over all states, both Jewish and non-Jewish – revealed this to him. And if he was right about these things visible today then we have reason to take him seriously about his Source.

Even so, much remains still to be understood about what Isaiah wrote.  He began this passage with a coming ‘shoot from the stump of Jesse’ which would coincide with the ‘second’ regathering of Jews to Israel.  How is this ‘shoot’ to be understood?  Before we take up that question it will be worthwhile to see what another writer of the Tanakh wrote about the dance between Jews and the land of Israel.  The prophet Ezekiel, who lived 200 years after Isaiah described in exact detail the time of this re-gathering.  From where we sit, during this re-gathering, we can check if what he prophesied was accurately predicted.  We do this next.

What was the History of the Jewish People?

Jews are one of the most ancient peoples in the world. Jewish history is recorded in the Bible, by historians outside of the Bible, and through archeology. We have more facts about Jewish history than that of any other nation – which we will use to build a timeline to summarize the history of the Jews.

Abraham: The Jewish Family Tree Begins

The timeline starts with Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, who lived about 2000 BC.  He is even named outside the Bible in ancient clay tablets, dated around 1950 BC in contracts between him and kings in Babylonia.

“The name of Abram – Abu-ramu ‘the exalted father’ – is found in early Babylonian contracts”  AH Sayce. The ‘Higher Criticism’ and the Verdict of the Monuments. 1894 SSPCK  p. 159

Abraham and Patriarchs in Historical Timeline

Abraham was a real historical figure, as well as the man who believed promises from G-d, blessed be He, of a land and a people.  The timeline continues with the green bar when Abraham’s descendants were slaves in Egypt. This period of time started when Joseph, great-grandson of Abraham, led the Israelites to Egypt, where later on they became slaves.

Moses: The Israelites become a Nation under G-d

Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt with the Passover Plague, which destroyed Egypt and allowed the Israelite Exodus from Egypt to the land of Israel.  Moses wrote the Torah, and at its end, Moses prophesied Blessings and Curses on the Israelites.  They would be Blessed if they obeyed G-d, blessed be He, but experience a Curse if they did not.  These Blessings & Curses were to follow the Jewish people ever after.

From Moses to David the Israelites lived in the land of Israel, but without Jerusalem and with no king

For several hundred years the Israelites lived in their land but they did not have a King, nor did they have the capital city of Jerusalem – it belonged to other people in this time. However, with King David around 1000 BC this changed.

Living In land of Israel with Davidic Kings ruling from Jerusalem
Living In land of Israel with Davidic Kings ruling from Jerusalem

David establishes a Royal Dynasty at Jerusalem

David conquered Jerusalem and made it his capital city. He received the promise of a coming ‘Messiah’ and from that time Jews have awaited Messiah’s coming.  David’s son Solomon succeeded him and Solomon built the First Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The descendants of King David continued to rule for about 400 years and this period is shown in aqua-blue (1000 – 586 BC).  This was the period of Israelite glory – they had the promised Blessings.  They were a powerful nation, had an advanced society, culture, and their Temple. But the Tanakh also describes their growing corruption and idol worship during this time.  The Israelites split into two different countries.  Many prophets in this period warned the Israelites that the Curses of Moses would come on them if they did not change. But these warnings were ignored.

The First Jewish Exile to Babylon

Finally around 600 BC the Curses happened. Nebuchadnezzar, a powerful Babylonian King came – just like Moses had predicted 900 years before when in Torah he wrote:

The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away … a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. … They will besiege all the cities throughout the land. (Deuteronomy 28: 49-52)

Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, burned it, and destroyed the Temple that Solomon had built. He then exiled the Israelites to Babylon. This fulfilled the predictions of Moses that

You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. (Deuteronomy 28:63-64)

Conquered and exiled to Babylon
Conquered and exiled to Babylon

So for 70 years, the period shown in red, the Israelites lived as exiles outside the land promised to Abraham and his descendants.

Return from Exile under the Persians

After that, the Persian Emperor Cyrus conquered Babylon and Cyrus became the power of the world. He permitted the Jews to return to their land.

Living in the Land as a part of Persian Empire, 2nd Temple period begins
Living in the Land as a part of Persian Empire, 2nd Temple period begins

However they were no longer an independent country, they were now a province in the Persian Empire.  This continued for 200 years and is in pink in the timeline. During this time the Jewish Temple (known as the 2nd Temple) and the city of Jerusalem were rebuilt.  Esther (from which Purim is celebrated) and Ezra & Nehemiah lived in this time period.

The period of the Greeks

Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and Jews had a province in the Greek Empires for another 200 years. This is shown in dark blue.  Later Greek rulers tried to force Greek worship upon the Jews, resulting in the Maccabean revolt, and semi-independence until the Romans came.  Hanukkah is celebrated from this time period.

Living in the Land as part of Greek Empires
Living in the Land as part of Greek Empires

The Roman Period

The Romans became the dominant world power. The Israelites again became a province in this Empire and it is shown in light yellow. This is the time when Yeshua (Jesus) lived, from whom the Messianic hope spread mostly to Gentiles in what is known today as Christianity.  This explains why Romans and Roman government is so prominent in the New Testament – because Rome ruled supreme at that time.

 Living in the Land as part of Roman Empire
Living in the Land as part of Roman Empire

Second Jewish exile under the Romans

From the time of the Babylonians (600 BC) the Israelites (or Jews as they were called now) had not been independent as they had been under the Kings of David. They were ruled by other Empires.  Resentment of this finally boiled over and the Jews revolted against Roman rule.  The Romans came and destroyed Jerusalem (70 AD), burned down the 2nd Temple (only the Kotel remains to this day), and deported the Jews as slaves across the Roman Empire. This was the second Jewish exile. Since the Roman Empire was so large the Jews were scattered across the whole world.  The tragedy of Masada occurred in this revolt.  A further revolt in 135 AD led by Simon bar Kokhba again resulted in defeat and Jews were not permitted to remain in the land.  Rome renamed Judea as Syria Palaestina (where we get the modern word Palestine) and Jerusalem (still in ruins from 70 AD) to Aelia Capitolina.

 Jerusalem and Temple destroyed by Romans in 70 AD. Jews sent into world-wide exile
Jerusalem and Temple destroyed by Romans in 70 AD. Jews sent into world-wide exile

And this is how the Jewish people lived for almost 2000 years: dispersed in foreign lands and never accepted in these lands. In these different nations they regularly suffered anti-semitic persecutions.  Persecution of the Jews was particularly true in Christian Europe.  From Spain (all Jews expelled from Spain in 1492), across Western Europe, to Russia (intense pogroms by the Tsars in 1880’s) the Jews lived often in a dangerous situations in these kingdoms and also in the Islamic caliphates. The Curses of Moses from 1500 BC were accurate descriptions of how they lived.

… Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the Lord will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. (Deuteronomy 28:65)

The Curses against the Israelites were given to make peoples ask:

All the nations will ask: “Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?”

And the answer was:

“ … the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land…” (Deuteronomy 29:24-25)

The timeline below shows this 1900 year period. This period is shown in a long red bar in a timeline extending to modern-day.

Historical Timeline of the Jews - featuring their two periods of exile
Historical Timeline of the Jews/Israelites – featuring their two periods of exile

You can see that the Jewish people went through two periods of exile but the second exile was much longer than the first exile.

The 20th Century Holocaust

Anti-Semitism reached its peak when Hitler, through Nazi Germany, tried to exterminate all the Jews living in Europe with the Shoah. He almost succeeded but he was defeated and a remnant of Jews survived.

Modern Re-birth of Israel

The fact that there were people who identified themselves as ‘Jews’ after many hundreds of years with anti-semitic persecutions and without a homeland and language was remarkable. But this allowed the final words of Moses in the Torah, written down 3500 years ago, to come true.  In 1948 the Jews, through the United Nations, saw the remarkable re-birth of the modern state of Israel, as Moses had written centuries before:

…then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. (Deuteronomy 30:3-4)

It was also remarkable since this state of Israel was birthed in spite of great opposition. Most of the surrounding nations waged war against Israel in 1948 … in 1956 … in 1967 and again in 1973. Israel often was at war with five nations at the same time. Yet not only did Israel survive, but the territories increased. In the war of 1967 Israel regained Jerusalem, their historic capital city David had founded 3000 years ago.  The ongoing conflicts with surrounding peoples has created one of the most difficult security problems in the world today.  Though Abraham’s descendants now have an independent state, the blessing promised so long ago to Abraham seem elusive still.

Moses Prophesies Jewish History: A Sign for both Jews and Gentiles

Moses’ Blessings & Curses in Torah

The call of G-d, Blessed be He, to Abram in Genesis 12 began a theme that will run through Tanakh regarding the relationships between Jews, their promised Land of Israel, and other nations.  These three are clashing today – as we see daily in news headlines.  But the Tanakh can aid us in understanding the root of what is happening.

Moses’ fifth book in the Torah, Deuteronomy, contains his last proclamations given just before he died. These were his Blessings to the people of Israel – but also his Curses.  Moses wrote that these Blessings and Curses would shape Jewish history and should be reflected on, not just by the Jews, but also by all other nations.  The complete Blessings and Curses are here. We reflect on the major points below.

The Blessings of Moses

Moses began by describing the blessings that Israelites would receive if they obeyed The Law – the commands in the Torah.  The blessings were from G-d, blessed be He, and would be so great that all other nations would recognize His blessing. The outcome of these blessings would impact other nations such that:

Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. (Deuteronomy 28:10)

… and the Curses

However, if the Israelites failed to obey the Commands then they would receive Curses that would be opposite from the Blessings. These Curses would be seen by the surrounding nations so that:

You will become a thing of horror, a byword and an object of ridicule among all the peoples where the LORD will drive you. (Deuteronomy 28:37)

And the Curses would extend through history.

They will be a sign and a wonder to you and your descendants forever. (Deuteronomy 28:46)

But God warned that the worst part of the Curses would come from other nations.

The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed … until you are ruined. They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land. (Deuteronomy 28:49-52)

It would go from bad to worse.

You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess. Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. … Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. (Deuteronomy 28:63-65)

These Blessings and Curses were established by a covenant (an agreement) between G-d, blessed be He, and the Israelites:

…to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am making this covenant, with its oath … also with those who are not here today. (Deuteronomy 29:12-15)

So this covenant of Blessings and Curses, would be binding on the children, or future generations – Jews through history.  But the covenant would even be something for the other nations to reflect on.

Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it. … nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. … All the nations will ask: “Why has the LORD done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?”

And the answer will be:

“It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their ancestors, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt….Therefore the LORD’s anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. … the LORD uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.” (Deuteronomy 29:21-27)

The Conclusion to Moses’ Blessings and Curses

But this final prophecy of Moses did not end with Curses. It continued. Here is the conclusion to what Moses predicted.

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors (Deuteronomy 30:1-5)

After Moses, successive prophets of the Tanakh continued with this promise first stated here – that there would be a restoration and re-gathering after the Curses.  These later prophets made bold, troubling and detailed predictions which we look at later.

Did The Blessings & Curses happen?

The Blessings were delightful, but the Curses were utterly destructive.  Jews through history have themselves sometimes been anti-Semitic (ex. Karl Marx).  Other Jews, even today, view Zionism negatively.  But here Moses, even as he states terrible Curses, does not carry an anti-semitic or anti-zion tone.  He concludes with the promise of Zionism – that the Jews in his distant future, will be re-gathered and restored to the land of Israel.  Yet at the same time he is brutally honest about the failures and difficult future awaiting the Jewish people.  This same straight honesty in criticism of the Israelites will re-appear in the pens of later prophets in the Tanakh.  They criticize, condemn and lay bare the failures of the Jewish people.  But they do so as fellow Jews, writing with holy zeal to warn and protect their own people.  They will write in the name of G-d, blessed be He, and this will outweigh any desire they may have had to hide the sins or conceal coming tragedies that the Jews will experience.

Since these prophecies were given in the name of the G-d of Israel, blessed be He, the most important question we can ask is: ‘Did they happen?’ The Tanakh contains extensive records of Israelite history and many Jews have also recorded histories.  The land of Israel also has a rich archaeology.  All of these sources paint a consistent picture of the Jewish history. A summary of this history is given here.

When you compare the predictions of Moses with Jewish/Israelite history, it is clear that his predictions came true – and we are witnessing them still in our modern era.  Though questions remain unanswered, this should cause us to openly consider that there is a G-d who has guided Jewish history.  If this is so, then current events, and future Israeli destiny, murky as it may seem to us, will be guided also by this same G-d.  That may bring us comfort, or strike fear into our hearts.  But it would be foolish to ignore what the later prophets of the Tanakh prophesied about the Jews, their land, and other nations – in the name of this same G-d, blessed be He, who seemingly can control the destiny of His people.

6. The Ageless Promise to unnoticed Abraham – Quiet but Everlasting

As I write this article the world’s attention is focused on multiple sporting championships.  The American NFL is heading for the Super Bowl.  The hockey and basketball champions for this year will soon be decided.  And while these dramas have North American fans riveted, much of the rest of the world is focused on the Australian Open Tennis Grand Slam.  Then there are always soccer (football) matches and championships.

Even with all the attention focused on these championships; they will still be largely forgotten in about six months. What the world takes great note of today will be quickly forgotten as our attention moves on to other amusements, championships or political events. The highlight one day quickly becomes forgotten history the next.

We saw in our previous article that this was also true in Abraham’s day. The important and spectacular contests, achievements and drama that held the attention of people living 4000 years ago are now totally forgotten, but a solemn promise spoken quietly to an individual, though totally overlooked by the world back then, is growing and unfolding before our eyes.

The account of Abraham in the Torah continues with further encounters with this Promise-Making Lord – Blessed be He.  Abraham (and we who follow his journey) learns much more – even moving from history to the eternal.  The story of Abraham is not a trendy but quickly forgotten event like those today; it is one of an unnoticed man taking hold of eternity, so we’d be wise to take note.

Abraham’s Complaint

Several years have passed in Abraham’s life since the Promise of Genesis 12 was spoken. Abraham had made Aliyah to Canaan in what is today Israel. Other memorable events had occurred in his life – except the very one that he waited for – the birth of his son through whom this promise would be fulfilled. So we continue in the Torah with Abraham’s complaint:

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.

I am your shield,

your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:1-3)

G-d’s Promise

Abraham had been camping in the Land awaiting the start of the ‘Great Nation’ that had been promised him. But nothing had happened and by this time he was around 85 years old. He complained that G-d, blessed be He, was not keeping that Promise given to him. Their conversation continued with:

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:4-5)

Here the Lord, Blessed be He, basically repeated His initial promise by declaring that Abraham would get a son that would become a people as uncountable as the stars in the sky – many for sure, but hard to number.  In our time today we know this has literally come true in the Jewish people.  But back then, this promise would have seemed unbelievable.

Abraham’s Response: Everlasting Effect

How would Abraham respond to this Promise? What follows is a sentence that the Bible itself treats as one of the most important sentences in the Bible (since this sentence is quoted several times later on). It helps us understand how shalom with G-d is obtained. It says:

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

It is probably easier to understand this sentence if we replace the pronouns with names, making it read:

Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to Abram as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)

It is such a small and inconspicuous sentence. It comes and goes with no championship fanfare and so we might miss it. But it is truly significant because in this little sentence Abraham obtains ‘righteousness’. This is the one – and the only one – quality that we need for shalom with G-d, Blessed be He.

Reviewing our Problem: Corruption

Though mankind was made in the image of G-d (Genesis 1:26-27) something happened that corrupted that image. Now the Bible says that

The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)

This diagnosis covers all peoples: Jew and Gentile, Arab and Israeli, male and female, educated and simple. The corruption of elves to orcs in the Lord of the Rings movies and how the Bible uses the word ‘miss’ have helped me picture what is meant by ‘become corrupt’ in Psalm 14.  The end result is that we find ourselves separated from Adonai the Lord, Blessed be He, because we have no righteousness. Our corruption has launched us into autonomy from and a tendency to not do good – reaping futility and death as a result. If you doubt that just scan some news headlines and see what people have been up to that last 24 hours – and it is pretty much the same all over the world.  What else is a Righteous G-d to do, but to declare us all unrighteous?

In fact we are separated from the Source of Life and so the words of the prophet Isaiah come true

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

Abraham and Righteousness

But here in the conversation between Abraham and the Lord, Blessed be He, we find, slipped in so quietly that we can almost miss it, the declaration that Abraham had gained ‘righteousness’ – the kind that G-d accepts. So what did Abraham ‘do’ to get this righteousness?  It was not circumcision – that step came years later (in Genesis 17).  The Ten Commandments and the other Laws of Moses came hundreds of years later, so it was not his observance of kosher food and the many other regulations governing life and diet – good though they are.  The Bible simply says here that Abraham ‘believed’. That’s it?!  When you think of the elaborate observance of many Jews, and even look wider afield at the observances of peoples in other religions and read that Abraham, gained the prize of righteousness simply by ‘believing’ it seems to utterly unbelievable – too good and too simple to be possibly true.

But what does ‘believe’ mean?  And what can we learn for our own righteousness?  We reflect on this later.

1. Made in the Image of G-d

Though the Tanakh is a Jewish book, it is remarkable that it begins, not in Genesis 12, with the story of Abraham, but with creation of the world and all mankind.  In this way, it is different than other ancient writings because it does not start with its own people.  Later in the Tanakh, the relationship between the descendants of Abraham (the Israelites/Jews) and the other nations are developed.  But what can we learn from the Tanakh that is common to all mankind?  Can we use the Bible to understand where mankind comes from? Many say ‘no’, but there is much about us that makes sense in the light of what the Bible says.  For example, consider what the Bible teaches about mankind’s beginnings.  In the first chapter it says

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

“In the Image of God”

What does it mean that mankind was created ‘in the image of God’?  It does not mean that the Lord, Blessed be He, has two arms and a head.  Rather it is saying that our basic characteristics come from Him. In the Bible G-d can be sad, hurt, angry or joyful – the same emotions that we have.   We make choices and decisions every day.  G-d also makes choices and decisions too.  We can think and G-d does also.  Being ‘made in the image of God’ means that we have mind, emotions and will because G-d has mind, emotions and will and He created us to be like him in these ways.  He is the source of what we find in us.

We are self-aware and conscious of ‘I’ and ‘you’.  We are not impersonal ‘its’.  We are like this because The Lord G-d, blessed be He, is this way. The G-d of the Bible is not a non-personality like the ‘Force’ in the movie series Star Wars and neither are we because we are made in His image.

Why do we like beauty?

We also value art, drama and beauty. We need beauty in our surroundings, music and books.  Music enriches our lives and makes us dance.  We love good stories because stories have heroes, villains, drama, and the great stories put these heroes, villains and drama into our imaginations.  We use art in its many forms to entertain, relax and refresh ourselves because G-d is an Artist and we are in his image.  It is a question worth asking:  Why do we look for beauty in art, drama, music, dance, nature or literature?  Daniel Dennett, an outspoken atheist and an authority on understanding the brain, answers from a non-Bible perspective:

“But most of this research still takes music for granted.  It seldom asks:  Why does music exist?  There is a short answer, and it is true, so far as it goes: it exists because we love it and hence we keep bringing more of it into existence.  But why do we love it?  Because we find that it is beautiful.  But why is it beautiful to us?  This is a perfectly good biological question, but it does not yet have a good answer.” (Daniel Dennett.  Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.  p. 43)

Apart from G-d there is no clear answer to why all the forms of art are so important to us.  From the Bible’s point-of-view it is because G-d made things beautiful and enjoys beauty.  We, made in His image, are the same. This Biblical teaching makes sense of our love of art.

Why we are Moral?

Being ‘made in God’s image’ explains our moral capability.  We understand what ‘wrong’ behaviour is and what ‘good’ behaviour is – even though human languages and cultures are very different.  Moral reasoning is ‘in’ us.  As the famous atheist Richard Dawkins puts it:

“Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar …  As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. p. 223)

Dawkins explains that our awareness of right and wrong is built into us like our ability to have language, but it is difficult for him to explain why we have this from only physical sources.  Misunderstandings happen when we do not acknowledge G-d as giving us our moral compass.  Take for example this objection from another famous Jewish atheist Sam Harris.

“If you are right to believe that religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers.” (Sam Harris. 2005. Letter to a Christian Nation p.38-39)

Harris misunderstands.  Biblically speaking, our sense of morality comes from being made in G-d’s image, not from being religious.  And that is why atheists, like all the rest of us, have this moral sense and can act morally. Atheists do not understand why we are like this.

Why are we so Relational?

Biblically, the starting point to understanding ourselves is to recognize that we are made in G-d’s image. It is not hard to notice the importance people place on relationships.  It is OK to see a good movie, but it is much better to see it with a friend.  We naturally seek out friends and family to share experiences with and to improve our well-being.  Conversely, loneliness and broken family relationships or friendships stress us.  If we are in G-d’s image, then we would expect to find this same emphasis with G-d – and we do.  For example consider the following from the Torah

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. (Deuteronomy 7:9)

Much is written in the Bible about the importance that G-d, blessed be He, places on our love for him and for.  When you think about it, Love must be relational since it requires at least two people.

So we can think of G-d as a lover.  Many of the prophetic writings in the Tanakh use a ‘lover’ image. If we only think of Him as the ‘Benevolent Being’ we are not thinking of the Biblical G-d – rather we have made up a god in our minds.  Though He is that, He is also passionate in relationship.  He does not ‘have’ love.  He ‘is’ love.  The two most prominent Biblical pictures of G-d’s relationship with the Jewish people are that of a father to his son (Isaiah 63) and a husband to his wife (Hosea).  Those are not distant relationships but are the deepest and most intimate of human relationships.  The Bible says that G-d is like that.

So here is what we have learned so far.  People are made in G-d’s image meaning mind, emotions and will.  We are aware of self and others. We know the difference between right and wrong.  We can appreciate beauty, drama, art and story in all its forms and we will naturally seek out and develop relationships and friendships with others.  We are all this because G-d is all this and we are made in G-d’s image.  Since this comes in Genesis 1, this is true of all mankind – Jews and all other nations.  We continue later to see the Bible’s explanation of why our relationships almost always disappoint us and why G-d seems so distant. Why our deepest longings never seem to work out.

5. Abraham’s Aliyah: 4000 years ago but still heard around the world today

Even though Israel is a small country it is always in the global news.  This news often reports on the unending conflicts between Israeli Jews and their neighbours, and the search for peace.  Even if there is no actual warfare there is continuous tension.  How did this start?  Many people look back only as far back as the birth of Israel in 1948.  But if we are to understand the situation we need to look back much further.  We need to go back to the ancient history of Israel recorded in the Torah. A look at Israel’s history in the book of Genesis of the Bible reveals that 4000 years ago a man, who is now very well known, went on a camping trip in this part of the Middle East.  The Bible says that his story affects our future.  This ancient man is Abraham (or Abram).  We all should be informed of his story so we can understand our situation in difficult modern times.

The Promise to Abraham – Son of Terah

Abraham is introduced in the Bible in Genesis 12 with God making a promise to him:

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you;

I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;

and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Abraham’s name became Great

Many of us wonder if there really is a G-d and if He really is the G-d of the Bible. Jewish history has been so long and difficult that to many people it seems that no G-d has guided it.  But in this promise to Abraham, G-d said ‘I will make your name great’ and today the name of Abraham/Abram is known worldwide.  It is not simply that Abraham is known among the Jews, his descendants.  But literally billions of people on the planet today know the story of Abraham.  These people are from all countries around the world.  This promise has literally come true. The earliest existing copy of Genesis is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and is dated 200-100 B.C. which means the promise has been in writing at least since that time. In that time the name of Abraham was known only among the scattered Jewish remnant.  So the fulfillment of this little promise only came true later, after it was written down.

… by means of his great nation

Surprisingly Abraham really did nothing important in his life.  He was not a great writer, king, inventor or military leader.  He did nothing except camp out where he was told to go and father a few children.  His name is great only because the children became nation(s) that kept the record of his life – and then individuals and nations that came from him became great.  The Jews are the people most known as descendants of Abraham.  This is exactly how it was promised in Genesis 12 (“I will make you into a great nation … I will make your name great”).  No one else in all history is so well-known only because of descendants rather than from great achievements in his own life.

…Through the Will of the Promise-Maker

Jews who descended from Abraham were never really a nation normally associated with greatness.  Jews did not conquer a great empire like the Romans did or build large monuments like the Egyptians did with the pyramids. Their fame comes from the Law and Book which they wrote; from some remarkable individuals that were Jewish; and that they have survived as a somewhat different people group for thousands of years.  Their greatness is not because of anything they did, but rather what was done to and through them.  The promise says repeatedly that “I will …”.  Their unique greatness happened because G-d made it happen rather than some ability, conquest or power of their own.

The promise to Abraham came true because he trusted a promise and chose to live differently than others. Think how likely it was for this promise to have failed, but instead it has happened, and is continuing to unfold, as it was stated  thousands of years ago.  The case is real that the promise came true only because of the power and authority of the Promise-Maker.

The Aliyah of Abraham – The Journey that still shakes the World

abraham-migration-map2
This map shows the journey of Abraham

The Bible then says that “So Abram left as the LORD had told him” (v. 4).  He began a journey, shown on the map that is still making history.

Blessings to us

There is something else promised as well. The blessing was not only for Abraham. It says that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (through Abraham). We should pay attention because you and I are part of ‘all peoples on earth’.  In fact this is true regardless of whether we are Jewish or not.  No matter what our religion, color, background, nationality, social status, or what language we speak – we are part of ‘all nations’.  This promise for a blessing includes everybody alive today! How? When?  What kind of blessing? This is not clearly stated here but since we know that the first parts of this promise have come true, we can have confidence that this last part will also come true.  We can begin to find the key to unlock this mystery by continuing with the Blessings and Curses of Moses to the Jews.