The Promise of a Homeland
To understand the prophecies of Israel and how they relate to our generation, we need to first go back in time 4000 years, to a world still in the infant stages of civilization. Instead of nations dividing the globe like pieces of a puzzle as they do today, we find an abundance of semi-independent, walled cities called “city-states”. Our fantastic odyssey begins in one of these city-states called Ur, which thrived over two thousand years before the time of Christ. Ur was situated in the heart of the fertile valley running along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, part of a region often referred to as the cradle of civilization. Today, this region corresponds to central Iraq.
In the city of Ur, a small group of people dwelt whose ancestors could be traced back thousands of years, first to Shem, a son of Noah, and ultimately to Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. Their lineage was generally characterized by Godliness, but they were not free of trouble. Abraham’s family was no exception. Although his father, Terah, was said to be an idolater in the book of Joshua, Abraham would carry the tradition of following the one true God to heights never before experienced.
In the beginning, Abraham knew little of the role he would play in the establishment of the people of God. We are told that one day the Lord just came to him as he was living in Ur and commanded him to gather together all his belongings and go off to a new land that the Lord would give him.
“Now the Lord had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show thee…”
The Lord led Abraham north from Ur along a major trading route, stopping briefly at a city in northern Mesopotamia called Haran, and then traveling southwest around the desert to a region known in his day as “The Land of the West”. It was in this rather insignificant and small land that the Lord initiated a plan that would eventually cause the place the world now calls Palestine to become the central political and spiritual hub of the nations.
“And the Lord said unto Abram… Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward,
“For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed forever.
“And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth, so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered.”
The beginning of the prophecies related to the descendants of Abraham, which were made literally thousands of years ago, still stand today as the primary force behind the destiny of Jews everywhere. In the Lord’s own words, the promise relating to Jewish possession of the land of Palestine would stand “forever”. However, there is a problem in that statement, because the Jews never fully realized their promised destiny. Abraham has been dead no less than 4000 years and the Jews have struggled without a homeland for most of that time. What went wrong? The answer to this question is understood only if we look at another promise that God made hundreds of years after Abraham’s time.
Rescue From Egypt
When Abraham’s descendants had multiplied to the extent that they could be considered a nation, they unfortunately found themselves living lives of slavery in the land of Egypt. They had gone to Egypt several generations earlier because of a severe famine which affected the whole Middle East region. The Lord saved the lives of all his people at that time by using Jacob’s son, Joseph, who was an esteemed ruler in Egypt, second only in authority to Pharaoh himself.
With Joseph’s influence, the Israelites and the Egyptians both prospered. It wasn’t long after Joseph’s death, however, that the Egyptians began to fear the Jews. Their number had actually swelled to such an extent that they became an imagined threat to Egyptian autonomy. The Egyptians began to persecute the Jewish people and eventually put them into forced labor camps so their numbers would not translate into political power.
Egypt was then at the pinnacle of its empire. Their sphere of influence stretched from the Nile River valley all the way up to the Euphrates River. Many of the nearby countries were forced to pay tribute to Pharaoh or face the wrath of his armies. It was during this period of Egyptian supremacy, at the very time when everything seemed so bleak for the Israelites that God chose to perform one of the greatest miracles of the Old Testament. To make his plan work, the Lord decided to use the most unlikely of characters: a man by the name of Moses and his brother, Aaron, both of whom had escaped and fled from Egypt after Moses had killed an Egyptian in defense of one of his own countrymen. The Lord’s plan was to use Moses and Aaron as leaders of the people, while his own miracles and judgments would quickly result in the Egyptians willingly freeing his chosen people.
A prophetic understanding of Israel would not be complete without mentioning the tremendous miracle of the Exodus. Again and again the prophets of the Old Testament reminded their readers that the Exodus represented definite proof that God would always stand for Israel.
Immediately after Israel came out of Egypt, the Lord began to prepare them for a new life in the Promised Land by giving them his laws. God’s rules were designed to teach his people how to love him as well as how to get along with and love all people. The lifestyle resulting from these laws would hopefully make Israel unique among all the nations of the world and an example to follow. It was during that early time of instruction, while the Israelites were still in the wilderness of Sinai that God entered into a special agreement with his people. The simple covenant that they made in that day would become the foundation for understanding everything that has since happened to Israel. The basis for this agreement is found in the initial interaction between the Lord and his people when they first reached Mount Sinai. The Lord began to speak to them and say,
“Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine:
“And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.”
The Bible records that as soon as Israel heard these words they answered immediately and said…
“All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.”
Israel didn’t have to follow the Lord. They could have remained in Egypt and took their chances without God’s intervention. The people knew, however, that what God offered was much more than just freedom from slavery. They had just witnessed the miracles against Pharaoh and Egypt to get the Egyptians to release the Jews. They also saw the parting of the Red Sea to let them escape the pursuing Egyptian army. God now said through Moses that if Israel would simply obey his words then everything that was promised to Abraham in the beginning would finally be fulfilled for the entire nation. Moses explained this concept in the book of Deuteronomy…
“And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth;
“And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God.
“Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field.
“Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy cows, and the flocks of thy sheep.
“Blessed shall be thy basket and thy kneading-trough.
“Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out”.
Deut. 28: 1-6
At this point, the Lord had already saved the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. He now wanted to mold them into a nation that the entire world could point to as an example of his goodness. The nations would know for sure that there is a God because of all the wonderful things he would do for his people. Moses explained that all Israel had to do was to continue in the way he had instructed them, and everything they did would turn out well. To an outside observer an Israelite who obeyed the Lord in this way would appear to have an extraordinary streak of good luck. Everything in life would be guaranteed to turn out right for the nation and its people. In fact, so secure would Israel be with God’s protection that they were even told not to maintain a defensive force after they settled in the Promised Land. No enemy would ever be allowed to get powerful enough to threaten their borders, because God himself would defend them.
What a different world the Middle East would be today if Israel had followed Moses’ advise. It doesn’t take an advanced degree in history to know that actual Jewish experience has been in marked contrast to what Moses described here. So what went wrong? Did the Lord back out on his agreement? No. It was actually the other way around. The Lord had sworn never to break his promises. He pledged that his covenant with Abraham would last forever. This agreement also guaranteed that the Jewish people would exist forever, and that the Lord would fulfill these blessings exactly as stated.
The problem with trying to understand what really happened to Israel is made difficult, because we have considered only one side of the issue. There actually was two parts to what Moses said that day, and the second half was just the opposite of the first part. Read what Moses went on to say in that very same chapter of Deuteronomy:
“But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day, that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee.
“Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field.
“Cursed shall be thy basket and thy kneading-trough.
“Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy cows, and the flocks of thy sheep.
“Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out”.
Israel was given a choice of futures that day. They could in essence predestine themselves for greatness merely by following the Lord’s instructions. On the other hand, they could assure a future full of confusion and trouble simply by deciding to turn away from God. It was totally in their hands—be good or be evil. This dichotomy was the prophecy of the blessing and the curse set before them that day.
These same words which were written down by Moses so long ago have been determining the lives of the Jewish people for thousands of years. An Israelite living in disobedience would begin to experience bad luck sent directly from God. If this did not succeed in awakening him to the dangers of falling away, this streak of bad luck could quickly get more serious. In every area in which a believing Jew was promised blessing, a rebellious one would get only curses from the Lord.
When Israel was in the wilderness of Sinai this principle cost them a forty-year delay in entering the Promised Land. Obedience on Israel’s part could have brought them to the borders of Palestine within two weeks. Rebellion, however, caused the Lord to revise his plans one full generation until all the disobedient ones were dead and gone. Only two individuals, Caleb and Joshua, out of the whole company of Jews who came out of Egypt were eventually allowed to enter the Promised Land. Clearly, the principle of the blessing and the curse played an early role in the lives of every Jew, and the result came almost immediately after Moses warned them.
Next: The Scattering