Since the beginning of human history, nations and empires have risen and fallen. We live in interesting times, when the United States Empire and even the West itself appear to have collapsed. Western Civilization will lose the progress it has made in a few decades if things continue as they are. In light of these events, my Easter post this year deals with the death and resurrection of the nation of Israel.
Not many nations have completely destroyed and then restored themselves, but they have risen and fallen. The Old Testament nation of Israel is one such nation. This event obviously affected the people involved; even Its symbolic and eschatological effects went far beyond the original horrifying events.
Many Israelites who lived through it did not lose sight of the greater significance of what had happened. The destruction of this event was long in coming. It didn’t just happen overnight. It reminds me of something Ernest Hemingway said: “At first people go bankrupt slowly, then all at once”. Before this sudden calamity, Israel had been going spiritually bankrupt for a very long time.
On July 18, 586 B.C., the Babylonian army breached the walls of Jerusalem and set the city on fire. In just a few hours, King Nebuchadnezzar would completely destroy the famous temple that King Solomon built, and he would take all but the poorest of the land into captivity to Babylon. But this occurred only after a siege that began on January 15, 588. The starvation from the siege became so bad that many resorted to cannibalism, some even eating their own children. What brought on such a terrible calamity.?
Israel – God’s Chosen People
Of all the nations of the world at that time, Israel held a special place. They were the only nation that had a uniquely conventional relationship with God. There were various metaphors that God used to describe the relationship; one was marriage, and another was father and son. This is where the Jews received the moniker “chosen people of God.”
God chose them merely out of grace based on his sovereign will, not because of any merit on their part. The blessings that Israel had were simply because God had made promises to their forefather Abraham around 2200 (B.C). Eventually, they were freed by a special deliverer that God would raise up, Moses. He promised that the Israelites, who were the descendants of Abraham, would truly be blessed above all other nations in the world. After the Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – had ended 400 years, they would enslave the Israelites in Egypt for 400 years. This occurred around 1400 B.C.
The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.-Deuteronomy 7: 7-8
Later in Deuteronomy, he issues an even more dire judgment of them:
“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people.”-Deuteronomy 32:9
They had nothing to be proud of or to exalt themselves over in regards to the other nations. Their pedigree was not royalty, but slavery. They were not virtuous people, but rebellious people. God did this not only to show his grace and mercy to them but also to other nations through them.
It is like if a teacher had a classroom of thirty students. That teacher may call a student up to the board to demonstrate a math problem so that the rest of the class may understand it better. She may not necessarily choose the best student, but she may choose someone who isn’t as bright as the others. In other words, her choice may have nothing to do with the merit of that particular student. Her interest is in teaching that student and the rest of the class a lesson.
Israel Rebels Against God
God called Israel to be humble because of their lowly beginnings, but instead they became proud. After four hundred years of slavery, they had 400 years of attempting to conquer the Promised Land of Canaan. Judges such as Samson ruled them during this chaotic time. It wasn’t until King David that they finally subdued the Promised Land. David ushered in a period of 400 years of monarchy. Under David’s son, King Solomon, Israel experienced a time of peace and prosperity like they had never experienced before. All of the surrounding nations paid tribute to the nation of Israel under Solomon. He was known for his incredible wisdom above all. That’s why rulers from all over the region, like the Queen of Sheba, would seek an audience with him.
But, alas, prosperity often leads to self-reliance and pride. No longer did Solomon seek the Lord; he started seeking after the pagan gods and goddesses of the surrounding nations. He did this to placate his foreign wives, and did he have many wives and concubines—a thousand in all! His pride and subsequent idol worship led to the corruption of Israel. They introduced these foreign gods which adulterated the pure worship of God. Eventually, the morals of Israel will become corrupted. Right living starts with right worship, which brings up an interesting point that is applicable today. A culture that does not center itself around the right worship of God will never be virtuous.
This began the long and slow decline and eventual destruction of the nation. At first, God judged the nation by dividing it. A rebellion ensued in which an usurper arose against Solomon. Eventually, the nation divided into two nations, Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
There were twelve original tribes of Israel. After the split, the northern kingdom retained ten tribes and the southern kingdom two tribes. Although Judah only possessed two tribes, the one after which the southern kingdom was named was the most significant one.This was the most important because this was the tribe from which the promised Messiah would come. In addition to Judah, the minor tribe of Benjamin was also a part of the southern kingdom.
Their forefather Abraham received circumcision as a mark, which made both Israel and Judah the people of God. It would designate a particular person or family as being in covenant with God, as part of the larger community of his people.
What made Judah unique was the fact that the Temple of God resided in Jerusalem. Besides circumcision, the other important sacrament of God’s people was the animal sacrificial system. The prophecy pointed forward to the sacrifice of Christ to come, as the Messiah was to come from Judah.
Decent into Hell
Jeroboam, the first king of Israel’s northern kingdom, led the country down the path of idol worship, which put the northern kingdom on the fast track to destruction. Of all the Ten Commandments, God emphasized this one more than any of the others. It was particularly reprehensible for His people to turn to false gods. Jeroboam’s first flagrant act after becoming king was to set up two false idols at the extreme north and south parts of the country—one at the city of Bethel and the other at the city of Dan. Every king afterwards was as equally evil, if not more so. Eventually, in 722 B.C., 200 years later, God sent the Assyrian army to completely destroy the northern kingdom of Israel.
There were many reasons for this destruction, the chief one being idolatry. The Israelites, as God’s people, always had a propensity for idolatry. When they left Egypt, one of the first things they did was make a golden calf to worship. Even though God disciplined them severely for these flagrant acts, they still turned to idols as soon as they could.
After the northern kingdom was destroyed, only two tribes remained. Judah was the major one, and Benjamin was the smallest. The southern kingdom of Judah was somewhat different from Israel. There were, of course, evil kings like Manasseh, who was a cruel tyrant, and there were very good ones like Hezekiah and Josiah, who tried to institute reforms in order to stem the tide of evil. Unfortunately, the reforms of the good kings were either only temporary or too little, too late.
Manasseh was the most wicked king to rule Judah. The biblical account of just some of his offenses against God is as follows:
He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them.-2 Kings 21:2-3
He also instituted child sacrifice in Judah:
He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.-2 Kings 21:6
This was something that God never commanded, unlike the pagan gods of the surrounding nations, of which Judah had become like..
They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not nor spoke it, neither came it into My mind.-Jeremiah 19:5
Besides the idolatry which was the worst and would be enough in and of itself to incur God’s wrath, they also committed much injustice against the poor:
They know no limits in deeds of evil; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.-Jeremiah 5:28
This makes perfect sense, for if a society loses its God consciousness, then it certainly will lose its incentive to treat its weakest members with justice, such as children, the poor, and the elderly. Today, people are perpetrating this injustice against the preborn like never before in history.
The Judgment of God Poured Out Upon Judah
God finally made a pronouncement of judgment to cast Judah out of the Promised Land because of her many sins. For they really didn’t own the land of Canaan, but to put it in today’s terms, they were like renters. They could stay in the land provided that they kept the terms of the covenant that God made with them at Mt. Sinai when he brought them out of Egypt. If someone forcefully evicted them, it meant they had not kept the terms of the covenant.
Nevertheless, the LORD did not turn away from the fury of His burning anger, which was kindled against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to provoke Him to anger. For the LORD had said, “I will remove Judah from My sight, just as I removed Israel. I will reject this city, Jerusalem, which I chose, and the temple of which I said, ‘My name shall be there.'”-2 Kings 23: 26-27
As mentioned above, God raised up Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians, to be the agent of His judgment against his own people, a godless nation, to destroy God’s covenant people. The judgment was sure and final. The enemy breached the walls of Jerusalem after a six-month siege, causing the people to suffer from starvation. They burned the city, including the sacred Temple, completely to the ground. Anything of value was taken as plunder, and most of the people were taken into captivity in Babylon. Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet, not only witnessed these terrible events but also wrote a poetic lament about the desolate land that was once a great city, where only the poorest of the poor were left.
How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.
The Lord has rejected his altar-Lamentations 1:1, 2:7
and abandoned his sanctuary.
He has given the walls of her palaces
into the hands of the enemy.
The 70 Year Captivity and the Restoration of Israel
Jeremiah 2 had previously foretold that Babylon would take the Israelites into captivity for seventy years before allowing a small number of them to return. The Persians defeated the Babylonians in 539 B.C. In that same year, he issued his famous decree:
The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem, and may their God be with them. And in any locality where survivors may now be living, the people are to provide them with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.Ezra 1: 1-4
As the saying goes, people didn’t build Rome in a day, and they also didn’t rebuild Jerusalem quickly. Several waves of refugees trickled back over a period of years. Many people stayed in Babylon because they had made it their home, were happy there, and didn’t want to leave. Though an incredible transformation occurred in Babylon. It was in captivity that the “Israelites” became known simply as “Jews”, a shortened version of the word Judah.
But this transformation was far more than just a name change. The Jews were now a transformed people. Since they left Egypt, they had almost always, with only a few exceptions, been openly worshiping idols. They would never do that again. Instead of being stubborn, the returning refugees didn’t seem to believe they could do anything, and they often gave up when they saw how hard it was to rebuild Jerusalem. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah had to push them to not let their idols get in the way and to get over their discouragement so they could keep doing the work God had commissioned them.
It took them about a hundred years, but they rebuilt the sacred altar, temple, and finally the walls, completing them around 442 B.C. with the strong guidance of Nehemiah the governor. The last prophet, Malachi, died around this time, leaving Israel without a prophet for 400 “silent years” until John the Baptist, waiting eagerly for the expected Messiah to come. The history of Israel divides into segments of 400 years, including the patriarchs, with the exception of the 70-year exile. Forty is the number of redemption, and ten is the number of completeness. So 40 x 10 represents God’s completion of his work of redemption through various stages of Israel’s history. In the Old Testament, seven is the number that represents covenant. So 70 x 10 is God paradoxically fulfilling His covenant with the Israelites through their exile; more on that later.
The Hidden Meaning of the Destruction of Jerusalem
There are many oddities to this story. They are most hidden from those of us who are most familiar with the story since we tend to take it at face value. But if we take a step back, we will notice some peculiarities. There are three in particular.
First of all, why did God completely dismantle the nation, bring them into captivity, and bring them back again? There is a material cause that God mentions. In the Pentateuch, in Leviticus 25, God commanded that the land should have a Sabbath rest. Every seven years, the land would lie fallow for one year. In the same book, he warned them that if they disobeyed this command, he would cast them out of the land and allow the land to enjoy those sabbath years that had been neglected.
I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. 34 Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. 35 All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.-Leviticus 25: 33-25
God determined the length of their exile by the years of Sabbath neglect, but primarily cast them out due to their idolatry and all of their other past sins. It turns out that, of the approximately 800 years that they were in the Holy Land, they had neglected the Sabbath for 490 of those years. This would make for a 70-year exile. 4 Even though this is the case, it seems that God could have accomplished the same purpose without having to remove them completely from the land and bring them back again. But there is a very important reason why he did this.
Secondly, this exile and restoration was prophesied to happen in the Pentateuch itself, written 800 years before. How odd that this rebellion and restoration would be codified by Moses in the foundational writings of the nation of Israel!
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….Because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you…Then the Lord will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other.-Deuteronomy 28: 49-50, 53, 64
One may say that this is merely a warning and not a prediction of things that are certain to come. The prophet Moses puts that idea to rest at the end of Deuteronomy:
For I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are. If you have been rebellious against the Lord while I am still alive and with you, how much more will you rebel after I die!…For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall on you because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord and arouse his anger by what your hands have made.”-Deuteronomy 31: 27, 29
That is the bad news, but the good news is that God would restore them:
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.-Deuteronomy 30: 1-3
Moses is stating that these things are destined to happen, rather than just warning them of the disaster that may come upon them if they disobey the covenant.
Thirdly, the amount of space in the Old Testament given to this event that only lasted seventy years appears to be disproportional to the event itself. The exile and restoration narrative, which encompassed most of the rest of the Old Testament except for the Psalms and wisdom literature and included all of the major prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel—and most of the twelve minor prophets, started in 2 Kings. Roughly 20% of the Old Testament is dedicated to events surrounding this seventy-year period, while only four books of the Pentateuch were devoted to the Egypt experience.
I have brought up three peculiarities: the dramatic fashion in which God dealt with Israel; the certain way in which Moses stated that this would indeed happen; and an impressive amount of the Old Testament dedicated to this event. What does all of this mean?
Israel as a Type of Christ
It is no secret that the writers of the Holy Scripture, both Old and New Testament, see the nation of Israel as a type of the Messiah to come. In the Bible, a type is something that points to something that will happen in the New Testament. It can be a person, an event, or something else from the Old Testament. For example, King David was a type of Christ, with the events of his life foreshadowing those of Christ. The New Testament writers, looking back, saw marked similarities between the life of Christ and the Old Testament nation of Israel. For example, just as God called Israel out of Egypt, so too did he call Jesus out of Egypt.
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”-Matthew 2: 14-15
St. Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, which was originally applied to the nation of Israel, and applies it to Jesus. In fact, just as Jesus is the Firstborn Son of God, so God called Israel in the Old Testament:
Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, my firstborn.-Exodus 4:22
Israel crossed the Red Sea after leaving Egypt. St. Paul said that they were “baptized into the Red Sea”.5 So too, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan at the beginning of His ministry. Israel faced temptations in the wilderness for 40 years after crossing the Red Sea. Jesus faced temptations in the wilderness for 40 days after his baptism. There are many other parallels, which I do not have the time to cover, but the most interesting one is the entire point of this article.
The Death and Resurrection of Israel and Christ
We placed so much emphasis on the destruction and restoration of Old Testament Israel because it served as a type of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Just as Egypt witnessed Israel’s emergence, the Jordan baptized them, and they experienced death and resurrection, Jesus also underwent the same process. Israel was a type of the Messiah, foreshadowing the significant events of His life and ministry. Another way of putting it is to say that without the destruction and restoration of Israel, Israel would have been a woefully incomplete type of Christ.
The most important work of salvation that Jesus accomplished for the world was his death and resurrection. This why so much emphasis was placed upon the corresponding event in the life of Israel in the Old Testament. The fact that Moses predicted it years before in the Pentateuch really makes it a focal point toward which the entire Old Testament flows, emphasizing the work of Christ to come. This is also why God chose this method to discipline Israel when he could have accomplished the same thing using many other means. It all makes sense when we look at it this way, as a christological interpretation of the Old Testament.
I remember when my junior high art teacher taught us to draw a city street using a technique called perspective. One simply placed a dot on a piece of paper and oriented all of the horizontal lines of that drawing toward that point.
The point to which all things flow is called the vanishing point. If we look at it this way, the vanishing point of the Old Testament, the event to which all things flowed, was the destruction and restoration of Israel. This is why, as you read the Old Testament narrative, all things seem to move in that direction, almost in an unstoppable way. It is no accident that the Old Testament narrative ends with the exile and restoration of Judah, just like the Gospel accounts end with the death and resurrection of Christ. As the tribe of Judah went, so went the savior that issued forth from that tribe.
And just as the Old Testament narrative moved toward that exile and restoration, so too did the Gospel narratives move toward the death and resurrection of Christ. For someone who couldn’t draw, placing this point on a piece of paper helped tremendously. So too, keeping the central point of the Old Testament in focus will help clear up much of the confusion that is often encountered when reading the Old Testament.
As Israel suffered greatly and was humiliated—an odd thing for God’s only son to experience—so too did Jesus. If you read the book of Lamentations in this new light, you will see so much of Christ’s suffering in it. And just as Israel miraculously returned from captivity—something no other nation in history had ever done—so too did Jesus miraculously return from the dead.
And of course a type is just that: a type. It is a foreshadowing, but not the actual equivalent of that which it represents. The difference in this case is that Judah was punished for her sins, but Jesus was the sinless, innocent victim, sacrificed for the sins of the entire world. Nevertheless, the typology still holds.
Israel leaves Egypt—-Baptized Red Sea—Wilderness40 years–Exile/Restoration
Jesus leaves Egypt— Baptized Jordan—Wilderness40 days—Death/Resurrection
So this Easter, as you meditate on the death and resurrection of Christ, think about how God so carefully and comprehensively embedded this seminal event into the Old Testament narrative. In addition, think about how God has woven death and resurrection into the very fabric of creation itself with the annual phenomenon of the changing of the seasons, with winter death followed by new life in the spring. This was not lost on ancient cultures, with all of them having religious rites that centered around the spring season. Much mythology, like the Greek story of Persephone, had to do with this very thing.
Not only that, but God has woven the death and resurrection narratives into the fabric of your life. As a day draws to a close, you start to get tired and drowsy. You feel weaker than you did earlier in the day. The light outside has been replaced by darkness. You eventually lie down on your bed and lose consciousness, mimicking death. But all is not lost. After but a brief time, the sun shines again as you awaken to start a new day energized and refreshed.
Every day of our lives, we act out this play of death and resurrection. We are practicing for what hopefully will be our participation in the resurrection into eternal life. But there is only one way to participate in that glorious day, and that is to partake of the Holy Eucharist, where the elements of bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Happy Easter!
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.-John 6: 53-54
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- See Exodus 20-24 for the stipulations of the Covenant itself, and Deuteronomy 28 for the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience associated with it.
- Jeremiah 25:11-12, 29:10
- The Pentateuch, written by Moses, literally means “five books”. It is comprised by the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
- Daniel 9: 25-27
- 1 Corinthian 10:2