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God’s greatest promise

In Sydney we can expect lots of promises over the next few months, with a State election in March and a national election in May. Between Genesis and Revelation, the Bible is full of God’s promises. There are thousands of them. This post contains a survey of God’s promises in the Bible in order to determine which one is the greatest. We will see that the promise given to Abraham to bless all nations is the greatest because it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ and it leads to God’s other promises.

Promises in the Old Testament

The best known promises from God in the Old Testament are called covenants. We will summarize five of these that were given to Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jeremiah.

Promised protection

After the flood, God told Noah’s family, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11NIV). He called it “a covenant for all generations to come” and an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 16). It was between God and every living creature on earth and was symbolized by the rainbow (Gen. 9:13). It was an unconditional promise of God’s protection. God has kept this promise: there hasn’t been another global flood.

Promised nation, land and blessing for all nations

After the tower of Babel, people scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages. And God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and to give them the land of Canaan from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:18-21NIV). He also promised that “all peoples [nations]on earth will be blessed through you [Abraham]”. This was an unconditional and  everlasting promise (Gen. 17:7-8). The sign of this covenant was male circumcision (Gen. 17:11). So this covenant was a promise of a nation and their own land. God partially fulfilled this part of the promise when David and Solomon were kings over Israel. But the Bible indicates that Israel will be restored again in the future (Rom. 11). The other part of the promise (blessing for all nations) is discussed below under “The key promise”.

Promised relationship

After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, at Mt Sinai, God promised the Israelites they would be His special people – “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and He would drive out the Canaanites so they could occupy their land (Ex. 19 – 31). It was conditional on obeying God’s laws, and there were blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Lev. 26, Dt. 28-29). The Sabbath day was given to Israel as a sign of this covenant (Ex. 31:13, 17). So this third covenant was a promise of a special relationship with God. God kept His part of this promise, but Israel failed to keep their part, and so were invaded and driven from Palestine.

Promised dynasty

When king David planned to build a temple for God, God promised him an everlasting dynasty, a great name, and peace for the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16, 28; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:3-4). This covenant was unconditional. But it was conditional for Solomon’s descendants (Ps. 132:11-12). A descendant of David ruled in Judah until the Babylonian conquest in 586BC when the descendants went into exile and there was no kingdom and no king for about 400 years. Then King Herod ruled but he wasn’t Jewish as he had Edomite (Idumean) ancestry. At this time Jesus was rejected as king, but since His ascension, He is on His throne in heaven. Peter and Paul said that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29-36; 13:20-24). Jesus is a descendant of David (Lk. 3). And His kingdom is everlasting.

So this covenant was a promise of a dynasty. Because Israel failed to keep their part, the physical dynasty ended. But after a 400 year gap, Jesus established a spiritual dynasty.

Promised revival

We’ve seen that the Israelites couldn’t keep the old covenant that came through Moses. The prophet Jeremiah said that because they had broken the covenant by disobedience and idolatry, God would bring a disaster (Jer. 11). He predicted a Babylonian conquest, followed by a 70 year exile and then restoration for Israel (Jer. 12-13; 25; 27; 30-31).

Jeremiah also promised the Israelites a new covenant, which becomes effective after the 2nd advent of Christ (Jer. 31:31-34). The nation will be revived and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25, 27); they willingly obey the Word of God; they have a unique relationship with God; everyone will know the Lord; their sins are forgiven and forgotten; and the nation continues forever (Jer. 31:35-37). In fact Paul says that Jews will begin to turn to God after the rapture (Rom. 11:25-26). This was a mystery to people in the first century and many are ignorant of it today. This is called the “New covenant” (Heb. 8). It’s an unconditional promise for the Jews, involving Christ’s millennial reign on earth. This covenant was a promise of a future Jewish revival and peace on earth.

That’s five covenant promises. The Old Testament prophets also predicted a Messiah who would bring peace and prosperity.

Promised Messiah

In about 980BC David prayed for deliverance when facing death (Ps. 16). He finishes with joy because he is assured that he will not die (Psa. 16:9-11). But Peter said that this refers to the resurrection of the Messiah (Acts 2:25-33). And Paul agrees (Acts 13:35-37).

In about 700BC Micah said the messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah (Mic. 5:2). And about that time Isaiah said that he would be more than an ordinary child because he would be called Immanuel which means God with us (Isa. 7:14; Mt. 1:22-23). Isaiah also taught about the suffering servant (messiah) who would:
– Suffer for our sins to bring us peace and spiritual life (Isa. 53:5).
– Die among the wicked but be buried with the rich (Isa. 53:9).

In about 520BC Zechariah said the messiah would be humble (riding into Jerusalem on a donkey) and victorious (Zech. 9:9-10).

But all the promises in the Old Testament were given to Jews as individuals or as a nation. They weren’t given to Christians or Gentiles like us. But there are promises given to Christians in the New Testament.

Promises in the New Testament

When I looked at the 60 verses in the New Testament that include the Greek word for promise (epangalia, Strongs #1860) and its close derivatives, I found that they involved four main types of promise:
– Promises given to Abraham and his descendants.
– Eternal life.
– The Holy Spirit.
– The second coming of Christ or end times.
We will briefly look at these in turn.

An email says you’ve won a new car or free airline tickets. Or that you can make easy money working from home or from bitcoin. The promise of romance cost a Canadian woman more than $40,000. Some promises are worthless! But God’s promises have lasting value.

Promises given to Abraham and his descendants

These promises involved three topics:
– God keeps His promises. “After waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised” (Heb. 6:15). God is reliable.
– Jesus was the promised Messiah. We will look at this soon under “The key promise”.
– Salvation (and eternal life) is a gift to be received by faith, not something to be earned. As a result of this salvation, all believers are assured of participating in and receiving the remaining promises.

Eternal life

Eternal (spiritual) life enables us to live for Christ today and to look forward to life after death (1 Jn. 2:25; 1 Tim. 4:8). All believers have eternal life and can look forward to new bodies, the marriage supper of the Lamb and living with the Lord in heaven where rewards are given for serving the Lord.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit indwells a believer when they trust in the good news of God’s offer of salvation. He is God with us on a continual basis—God speaks to us today through the Holy Spirit. He is a great helper and teacher and will remind us of relevant Scripture.

The second coming or end times

The second coming of Christ has two stages. The first is when the Lord returns to resurrect believers and take them to heaven, called the rapture. The second is when He returns in great power and glory to rule the earth with justice. Believers are to look forward to “a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Pt. 3:13). This is the eternal state after God has triumphed over Satan and evil.

The Key promise

One of the promises given to Abraham was that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you [Abraham]” (Gen. 12:3; 18:18). This was explained more fully as, “through your [Abraham’s] offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Gen. 22:18; 26:4). Jacob was given a similar promise, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you [Jacob] and your offspring” (Gen. 28:14).

Who is being blest in these Old Testament verses? According to Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB), the Hebrew word:
mishpachah (Strongs #4940) means “people, nation” (Gen. 12:3; 28:14; 28:14).
– goy (Strongs #1471) means “nation, people” (Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4).
Although the same word is used for family, in this context, it’s not just a family or a tribe, but a larger group of people like a nation.

This promise is explained in the New Testament. Peter quoted this promise to unbelieving Jews, “Indeed, beginning with Samuel, all the prophets who have spoken have foretold these days [the millennial reign of Christ]. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, ‘Through your offspring [Jesus Christ] all peoples on earth will be blessed.’ When God raised up His servant [Jesus Christ], He sent Him first to you [Jews] to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:24-26). Peter applies the promise that was made to Abraham to Jesus. Jesus was the fulfilment of the promise. Through Jesus all peoples earth will be blessed. In this instance, “offspring” means Jesus.

Paul quoted this promise to believers who were being influenced by legalistic Jewish Christians, “Understand, then, that those who have faith are (spiritual) children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you [Abraham]’. So those who rely on faith [believers] are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:7-9). Paul says that all believers are spiritual children of Abraham. They are saved by faith like Abraham was and not by good works. This is the gospel message, that both Jews and Gentiles can be saved by faith in Christ. This explains how the nations are blessed through Jesus.

Who is being blest in these New Testament verses? According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the Greek word:
patria (Strongs #3965) means “nation, people” (Acts 3:25).
ethnos (Strongs #1484) means “nation, people” (Gal. 3:8).
Although patria is used for family, in this context, it’s not just a family or a tribe, but a larger group of people like a nation.

Paul then explains how this happens, “He [Christ] redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal. 3:14). It’s through Jesus Christ. And he says it again, “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ” (v.16). In this context “seed” means Jesus. And he says it a third time: Jesus is “the Seed to whom the promise referred” (v.19). Christ is the seed promised to Abraham. And he says it the fourth time: What was promised to Abraham is “given to those who believe” through “faith in Jesus Christ” (v.22). This says that the blessing is salvation through Jesus. Then he says, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (v.29). Christians are Abraham’s spiritual descendants as we share his faith (Rom. 4:1-25).

All those with faith in God are spiritual descendants of Abraham (his offspring or seed) (Rom. 4:13, 16, 18, 9:6-9). This includes Isaac but not his half-brother Ishmael, Jacob but not his brother Esau, and believers but not unbelievers.

The promise of Gen. 12:3 was to bless all nations of the earth in Abram. The promise of salvation through Jesus included Gentiles as well as Jews. The “seed” referred to Jesus Christ, who was a descendant of Abraham (Lk. 3:34). God promised to bless all nations through Christ. It was through Christ that God intended to fulfill this promise to Abraham. The New Testament version of the promise is, “For God so loved the world [nations] that He gave His one and only Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

The promise of salvation was meant to be received by faith in Christ. This is evident by hindsight after being revealed by the apostles, although it is not clear from reading the Old Testament alone.

When he was accused of being unreliable, Paul said that “all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ” (2 Cor. 1:10NLT). This is shown in a schematic diagram. The promise of blessing for all nations was made to Abraham. Jesus was the fulfilment of the promise. Through Jesus people from all nations can be blessed. Here’s how it happens. Those who trust in the work of Christ by faith are saved and delivered from the penalty of their sinfulness. Consequently:
– They enter the new covenant (a special spiritual relationship with God, which is much better than the old covenant).
– They have eternal life, which is spiritual life that endures forever.
– They are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
– They will be resurrected at the rapture and will share in Christ’s second coming to set up His kingdom on earth.

It’s a key promise because it is the original messianic promise (see Appendix A) and it is the source of the other promises. Paul said, “All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us [believers] with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ” (Eph. 1:3NLT). The spiritual blessings that we are promised are consequences of our faith in Christ. So they were included in the original promise. The diagram shows God’s plan of salvation over a period of at least 4,000 years: the promise was given to Abram in about 2,000BC, Jesus died about AD 30 and we live in AD 2019. That’s the big picture.

So, God’s greatest promise is that people from all nations can be blessed through Jesus. Jesus is the fulfilment of the greatest promise. And salvation through Jesus is the fulfilment of the greatest promise. He is the means by which people can come into God’s blessing.

The guaranteed promise

But promises can be broken. Construction of Sydney’s light rail project was meant to go smoothly and be finished before the State election in March, but there were problems, delays and broken promises and now it’s running at least a year late. But God always keeps His promises.

The writer of Hebrews assures us that “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Abraham was given a son after waiting for 25 years. Likewise, God will keep His promise of our eternal salvation. Because of this, those who have come into God’s salvation “may be greatly encouraged”.  “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Heb. 6:19). Like an anchor holds a ship safe and stops it being shipwrecked in a storm, our hope in Christ guarantees our safety. The storms of life can lead to doubt and despair if we forget that God’s greatest promise can be our anchor.

Today’s meaning of ancient promises

The Bible was written in ancient times. What do promises written thousands of years ago mean for us today? It was also written over a period of at least 1,500 years. Because of this, the Bible is a progressive revelation. Truth gets added as we move from the beginning to the end (the graph goes up with time). So we should read it as those who have the whole book and know God’s whole program of salvation. Let’s look at what the promises we have mentioned above mean to us today.

Protection. This was a promise with Noah and his  sons and their descendants and “every living creature on earth” (Gen. 9:8-9). They were the only ones on earth after the flood. So this promise applies to all people and creatures on earth today. We can be assured that the earth won’t be destroyed by a flood or by climate change (a euphemism for the enhanced greenhouse effect). Part of the promise was “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22). It’s an unconditional  promise that as long as the earth exists the climate will remain within acceptable ranges for plants to live. Of course the Genesis flood was the greatest climate change event in history.

A nation and a land. Abraham and Jacob were promised that they would have many descendants (the Jews) who would be given the land of Canaan (and they did live there). These were promises for the Jews, so it  doesn’t mean that God will give us many children and a house. Those who follow Jesus live under the new covenant and their promised blessings are spiritual, not physical (Eph. 1:3). So the equivalent promise for us is spiritual blessings. That’s the inheritance that we can look forward to – being part of the family of God and having eternal life in heaven.

Blessing for all nations. We have already seen that that the equivalent promise for us is the blessing of salvation through Jesus.

Promised relationship. This was a promise to the Israelites who were to live under the laws of Moses. But that doesn’t mean that we need to obey these laws in order to have a relationship with God. The old covenant wasn’t given to Gentiles like us. The equivalent relationship for us in the new covenant through faith in Christ and His commands in the New Testament.

A dynasty. The Bible says that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David of an eternal dynasty.

Revival. Although the Jews were promised a new covenant, the Bible says that believers enter into it spiritually and enjoy its spiritual blessings. Our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God if we accept the good news by believing that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. The Lord’s Supper is a symbol of this new covenant (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Do we celebrate it regularly and recall our spiritual blessings?

A messiah. Jesus was the promised Jewish messiah. Because He was rejected by the Jews, salvation by faith in His finished work is now available to all nations.

As the other promises we have looked at were made to Christians, this means that they still apply to us today. So Christians have eternal (spiritual) life; they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit; and during the end times they will be resurrected when Christ returns to take them to heaven.

Consequently, we need to be careful in our understanding and application of promises in the Bible (see Appendix B).

Lessons for us

We have seen that God gave Abraham a promise to bless all nations, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and which leads to God’s other promises. Through Jesus all nations can be blessed. The blessing is salvation through faith in Jesus and all that it brings including the Holy Spirit and eternal life.

This is the greatest promise because it’s the source of all God’s promises to believers. Believers have every spiritual blessing because they are united with Christ. The Bible says it’s like an anchor to get through the storms of life. Do we have this anchor to get through difficult times or do we get shipwrecked?

It’s greater than all promises outside the Bible because it’s given by the God who made the universe and continues to sustain it.

In Old Testament times, the physical descendants of Abraham had a special relationship with God, which other people lacked. Likewise, today those who have trusted in Jesus have a special relationship with God that helps them get through life and gives them something to look forward to. What about us? Do we have that special relationship with God? Salvation is a gift to be received by faith.

If we are part of God’s special people today, we receive the blessings of God’s promises. But we don’t know about them unless we read them in the Bible. And we can’t recall them unless we read them in the Bible. So let’s read about them in the Bible so we can appreciate how great and precious they are (2 Pt. 1:4). For example, are we looking forward to Christ’s return to fulfil His promises concerning the future?

Let’s remember that God’s greatest promise is Jesus and salvation through Jesus.

Appendix A: Is Genesis 3:15 a messianic promise?

You may wonder why I haven’t included Genesis 3:15 as the original messianic promise. God’s judgment of the serpent after mankind sinned was,14So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:14-15).

This has been called the Protoevangelium, which means the first announcement of the gospel. It has also been called the first messianic prophecy. In this interpretation, the serpent represents Satan and the offspring of the woman represents Jesus. Jesus’ death and resurrection secures victory over Satan which will be finalized when Satan is thrown into the lake of burning sulfur for eternity (Rev. 20:2, 10).

I haven’t mentioned Genesis 3:15 in this post because:
– I can’t see any direct reference to the statement in Genesis 3:15 anywhere else in the Bible. However, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20) could be an indirect reference. This verse seems to be saying that believers will share in Christ’s victory over Satan. According to the NET Bible, “Rom 16:20 may echo Genesis 3:15 but it does not use any of the specific language of Genesis 3:15 in the Septuagint [the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament]. Paul uses the imagery of God soon crushing Satan’s head under the feet of the church. If Paul were interpreting Genesis 3:15, he is not seeing it as culminating in and limited to Jesus defeating Satan via the crucifixion and resurrection, but extending beyond that”.
– According to the NET Bible, “Many Christian theologians (going back to Irenaeus) understand v. 15 as the so-called protevangelium, supposedly prophesying Christ’s victory over Satan (see W. Witfall, “Genesis 3:15 – a Protevangelium?” CBQ 36 [1974]: 361-65; and R. A. Martin, “The Earliest Messianic Interpretation of Genesis 3:15,” JBL 84 [1965]: 425-27). In this allegorical approach, the woman’s offspring is initially Cain, then the whole human race, and ultimately Jesus Christ, the offspring (Hebrew “seed”) of the woman (see Gal. 4:4). The offspring of the serpent includes the evil powers and demons of the spirit world, as well as those humans who are in the kingdom of darkness (see Jn. 8:44). According to this view, the passage gives the first hint of the gospel. Satan delivers a crippling blow to the Seed of the woman (Jesus), who in turn delivers a fatal blow to the Serpent (first defeating him through the death and resurrection [1 Cor. 15:55-57] and then destroying him in the judgment [Rev. 12:7-9; 20:7-10]). However, the grammatical structure of Genesis 3:15b does not suggest this view. The repetition of the verb “attack,” as well as the word order, suggests mutual hostility is being depicted, not the defeat of the serpent. If the serpent’s defeat were being portrayed, it is odd that the alleged description of his death comes first in the sentence. If he has already been crushed by the woman’s “Seed,” how can he bruise his heel? To sustain the allegorical view, v. 15b must be translated in one of the following ways: “he will crush your head, even though you attack his heel” (in which case the second clause is concessive) or “he will crush your head as you attack his heel” (the clauses, both of which place the subject before the verb, may indicate synchronic action)”.

So, Genesis 3:15 isn’t included in this post as the original messianic promise because its meaning isn’t as clear or as robust as the other promises.

Appendix B: Application of biblical promises

As a result of the findings under “Today’s meaning of ancient promises”, when we read a promise in the Bible, let’s be careful to note:
– The context. Read the chapters and paragraphs of the Bible that describe the context in which the promise was given. Who was it written to? Did they live under the old covenant or the new one? How did they understand the promise? For example, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14) was a promise to the nation of Israel. Under the old covenant, there was a direct correspondence between their obedience and their prosperity, and their disobedience and their hardship (Dt. 28). If they disobey, they will be judged. But if they repent, God will rescue them from the judgment. It doesn’t apply to any other nation because God never promised that if a righteous remnant repents and prays for their nation, that the nation will be saved spiritually or be prosperous. And as noted above, the equivalent promise for us is spiritual blessings (not physical ones).
– The conditions. What conditions need to be satisfied to receive the benefits of the promise?
– The fulfilment. Has the promise been partially or totally fulfilled already? Or has it not yet been fulfilled? Read subsequent portions of the Bible.
– History. Is the promise explained in subsequent portions of the Bible?

Written, January 2019

Also see: God’s great and precious promises


Rebellion and deception at Samaria

trojan horse as depicted in vergilius vaticanus 400pxThe Trojan Horse is a story by Homer about the deception that the Greeks used to enter the city of Troy and win the Trojan War. After a 10-year siege, the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse, and hid a select force of men inside. The Greeks pretended to sail away, and the Trojans pulled the horse into their city as a victory trophy. That night the Greek force crept out of the horse and opened the gates for the rest of the Greek army, which had sailed back under cover of night. The Greeks entered and destroyed the city of Troy, ending the war.

In this post we look at an older example of deception.

A promise and warning

After king Solomon had finished building the temple, God promised that if he was obedient his dynasty would always rule over Israel (1 Ki. 9:1-9; 2 Chron. 7:17-22). But if his descendants turned to follow other gods there would be disaster and they would be cut off from their land and the temple would be destroyed.

Solomon’s disobedience

The Israelites were told not to intermarry with other nations because this would cause them to follow other gods (1 Ki. 11:1-8). But king Solomon “loved many foreign women”, and “his wives led him astray”. “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods” (v.4-8NIV).

The punishment for this disobedience was that the kingdom of Israel would be divided (1 Ki. 11:9-13). And that’s what happened. Ten tribes followed Jeroboam and set up the kingdom of Israel in the north and two tribes followed Rehoboam and set up the kingdom of Judah in the south.

samaria - david roberts 1839 400pxThe kingdom of Israel rebels against God

As Jerusalem was in Judah, Jeroboam set up golden calves to worship in Bethel and Dan and led the Israelites into idolatry. At first Jeroboam was based at Shechem, but then he moved to Tirzah (1 Ki. 12:25; 14:17). The first five kings of Israel reigned from Tirzah, the capital of the northern kingdom. The next king Omri reigned in Tirzah for 6 years before buying the hill of Samaria and building his palace and the city there in about 925BC (1 Ki. 16:23-24). Samaria is 55 km (35 miles) north of Jerusalem.

Omni’s son, king Ahab built, an altar in Samaria to Baal, a pagan god, under the influence of his wife, Jezebel. The palace was called the “Ivory house” (1 Kings 22:39), the furniture and some of the wall decor was made of ivory. In the Bible, Samaria was condemned by the Hebrew prophets for its “ivory houses” and luxury palaces displaying pagan riches.

Ahab was the most evil of the kings of Samaria: “There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel” (1 Ki. 21:25).

All the remaining kings of Israel ruled from Samaria. They all “did evil in the eyes of the Lord” (1 Ki. 22:52) and followed the sins of Jeroboam (2 Ki. 13:2) despite the warnings of the prophets Micaiah, Ahijah, Jehu, Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, Amos, and Jonah.

The false prophets deceive Israel

There were many false prophets in Samaria. During the reign of Ahab there were 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (1 Ki. 18:19; 22:6).

After Aram (Syria) captured Ramoth Gilead from Israel, king Ahab planned a war against them (2 Chron. 18:1-34). He asked for help from the king of Judah. When they asked the false prophets for a message from God, they were told to go ahead because they would be victorious. The Arameans would be destroyed. But Micaiah, a true prophet, predicted their defeat and Ahab’s death. And that’s what happened. Meanwhile, king Ahab had Micaiah imprisoned.

Although the Israelites in Samaria continued to follow the false prophets rather than the true ones, and they continued to worship idols, God didn’t punish them yet.

God’s mercy

In His mercy God delayed His punishment and so provided Israel with an opportunity to repent and obey the covenant once again. The kingdom continued for 130 years after the reign of king Ahab. Although they sinned, God didn’t forget the covenant He had with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God was patient with them. For example:
–  Aram (Syria) besieged Samaria and they were starving. But God miraculously rescued them (2 Ki. 6:24 – 7:20).
– “Hazael king of Aram oppressed Israel throughout the reign of Jehoahaz. But the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion and showed concern for them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To this day he has been unwilling to destroy them or banish them from his presence” (2 Ki. 13:22-23).
– “Since the Lord had not said he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash” (2 Ki. 14:26-27).

God’s judgment – The kingdom destroyed

The climax of the covenant curses for disobedience was Israel’s expulsion from Canaan (Lev. 26; Dt. 28). During the reign of Jeru the kingdom of Israel experienced the beginnings of this curse. God judged Israel at this time by giving some of their land to the Arameans (2 Ki. 10:32-33). Then Pul the king of Assyria invaded Israel and taxed the wealthy (2 Ki. 15:19-20). And Tiglath-Pileser the king of Assyria attacked the northern tribes in 738-732 BC and deported people to Assyria (2 Ki. 15:29). Israel was a vassal under Shalmaneser the king of Assyria (2 Ki. 17:3-6). But when they stopped paying tribute, the Assyrians besieged Samaria for three years and captured the city in 722 BC.

samaria map 400pxThe Assyrians then deported many of the people out of the northern kingdom, and brought in many people from Babylon and other countries to live in Israel. Sargon II claimed to have deported 27,290 Israelites to Assyria. This policy of deportation and re-population was intended to weaken the countries that Assyria dominated, to make it more difficult for a group of people to rise up and try to reclaim independence for their homeland. In time, these different groups of people intermarried and the whole area around the city of Samaria became known as Samaria, and the people became known as the Samaritans. The leadership of Samaria was taken away and replaced by foreign peoples. So the Jews in Judea regarded the Samaritans as a mixed race, and not true Israelites.

God’s promise to Solomon was fulfilled. After they rebelled against God for many years, Israel was eventually “cut off from their land”. They suffered a similar fate to the Canaanites who were driven from their land about 780 years earlier. The Bible says that Israel was exiled because of their sin (2 Ki. 17:7-23). They had repeatedly refused to heed the prophet’s warnings of impending judgment. Instead, they followed idols and disobeyed the covenant obligations. They had been deceived by their leaders and by the false prophets.

Samaria only lasted about 200 years as a capital city. But its name continued as it was used to describe that region of the kingdom of Israel. The Bible says that those who resettled in Samaria continued to worship their national deities (2 Ki. 17:24-41). They also practiced syncretism – they mixed different religions together (this has been confirmed by archaeologists).

In 332 BC, Alexander the Great captured the city and settled Macedonian soldiers there following a revolt by the Samaritans. And in 108 BC, John Hyrcanus (a Jewish Maccabean) conquered and destroyed the city. King Herod the Great later rebuilt the city and named it Sebaste. Today the ruins of the Israelite town, as well the ruins of towns built at this same location later in history, are all adjacent or within the modern Palestinian village of Sebastia.

Samaritans oppose the rebuilding of Jerusalem

In about 627BC, the prophet Jeremiah warned the people of Jerusalem that like Samaria, because of their idolatry, they would be invaded and deported (Jer. 7:15). And in 586 BC, Judea was invaded and Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. Many of the Jews were exiled to Babylon. After the 70 year exile, Zerubbabel returned to rebuild the temple and Nehemiah returned to rebuild the city wall. Both of them were opposed by Samaritans. For example, the Samaritans:
– Pretended that they wanted to assist in the rebuilding of the temple when in fact they wanted to disrupt the work (Ezra 4:1-3).
– Tried to “discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building” (Ezra 4:4).
– “Bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans” (Ezra 4:4). They succeeded in having work on the temple stopped for 20 years until the second year of Darius’s reign (Ezra 4:24).
– Wrote letters to Xerxes and Artaxerxes to try to stop the rebuilding of the city wall (Ezra 4:6-23).

Sanballat and Tobiah led the opposition to Nehemiah. Sanballat was a prominent Samaritan – he held a position of authority in Samaria (Neh. 4:1-2). Sanballat and Tobiah:
– Ridiculed the Jews.
– Plotted to fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it (Neh. 4:8).
– Tried to get Nehemiah to leave his work and meet with them in the plain of Ono in order to assassinate him (Neh. 6:1-4). They did this four times!
– Sent a letter with false accusations to Nehemiah (Neh. 6:5).
– Hired false prophets to trick Nehemiah into sinning so they could discredit him (Neh. 6:10-13).
– Tried to intimidate Nehemiah (Neh. 6:14).

One of Nehemiah’s reforms was to banish the high priest’s son because he was son-in-law of Sanballat the Samaritan!

So the Samaritans opposed those who returned to Judah from the exile in Babylon. This rebellion against the God of Judah was similar to the rebellion that had occurred in the kingdom of Israel.

Good news for Samaritans

In New Testament times the country of Samaria was the area bounded by the Mediterranean Sea (west), the Jordan Valley (east), Judea (south) and Galilee (north). During the time of Jesus there was continuing hostility between Jews and Samaritans (Jn. 4:9; 8:48; Lk. 9:52-53). When the Jews wanted to ridicule Jesus, they said that He was a Samaritan, which was a racial slur (Jn. 8:48).

The disciples were surprised to find Jesus speaking with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (Jn. 4:7-9). He revealed to her that He was the Messiah. And she believed and so did many other Samaritans (Jn. 4:28-42). This showed that salvation was being extended to all the people of the world and not just Jews.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus shows that the Samaritan acted as a neighbour who helped the injured man, whereas the Jewish Priest and the Levite didn’t help the man. So the one that Jesus commended was a hated foreigner. Jesus is saying that the command to “love your neighbour as yourself” crosses national and racial boundaries.

When Jesus healed ten men with leprosy, the only one who thanked Him was a Samaritan (Lk. 17:11-19). This indicates that Jesus didn’t show favoritism to the Jews, but included the marginalized in His ministry.

Jesus told His disciples to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Philip took the gospel to Samaria and churches were established there (Acts 8:5-14; 9:31). And Peter and John also preached in Samaria (Acts 8:25).

Lessons for us

We have looked at what the Bible says about the 200 year history of Samaria as a capital city and about the following 750 year history of Samaria as a region in Palestine. Although it was settled by God’s people, it was a center of disobedience and rebellion against God. The people were deceived by the leaders and the false prophets. And they suffered the consequences. But God kept the promises He made to Moses and Solomon. He said that disobedience would lead to being removed from their land. And that’s what happened.

God was patient, giving them lots of time to repent and change to obey the covenant. But in the long term, judgement comes to those who rebel against God. And  in the long term, false prophets will be shown to be wrong.

Jesus reached out to the Samaritans even though they followed a corrupted version of the Pentateuch. And the apostles preached the gospel to the Samaritans and set up churches.

From these events we learn that:
– If God kept the promises He made in the Old Testament, then He will also keep the promises He makes to us in the New Testament.
– If God was patient in judging the Israelites, He will be patient in judging people today. Peter confirms this, “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9).
– Let’s beware of deceivers (false teachers or false prophets) whose message isn’t consistent with that of the New Testament.
– Let’s include marginalized people in our ministries, not exclude them.
– Let’s spread the good news about Jesus to all nations and races; and not write off anyone as being unworthy of God’s love and mercy.

Written, January 2019

Also see other posts on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Where’s Zion?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Massacres and miracles at Jericho


May we go in there?

Tabernacle 5 400pxImagine an ancient Moabite gazing down upon the Tabernacle of Israel from a hillside. This Moabite is attracted by what he sees so he and his wife descend the hill and make their way toward the Tabernacle. They walk around this high wall of dazzling linen until they come to a gate and at the gate, they see a man.

“May we go in there?” they ask, pointing through the gate to where the bustle of activity in the Tabernacle’s outer court can be seen. “Who are You?” demands the man suspiciously. Any Israelite would know they could go in there. “We’re from Moab”, they reply. “Well, I’m very sorry, but you can’t go in there. You see, it’s not for you. The Law of Moses has barred all Moabites from any part in the worship of Israel” (Dt. 23:3).

The Moabites looked so sad and said, “Well, what would we have to do to go in there?” “You would have to be born again,” the gatekeeper replies. “You would have to be born an Israelite”. “Oh, we wish we had been born Israelites”, they say and as they look again, they see one of the priests, having offered a sacrifice at the bronze altar and cleansed himself at the bronze basin and then they see the priest enter the Tabernacle’s interior. “What’s in there?” they ask. “Inside the main building, we mean”. “Oh,” the gatekeeper says, “That’s the Tabernacle itself. Inside it contains a lampstand, a table, and an altar of gold. The man you saw was a priest. He will trim the lamp, eat of the bread upon the table and burn incense to the living God upon the golden altar”.

“Ah,” the Moabites sigh, “We wish we were Israelites so we could do that. We would so love to worship God in there and help to trim the lamp and offer Him incense and eat bread at that table”. “Oh, no”, the gatekeeper hastens to say, “even I could not do that. To worship in the Holy Place one must not only be born an Israelite, one must be born of the tribe of Levi and of the family of Aaron”. “And even if she was born of the tribe of Levi and of the family of Aaron, your wife couldn’t go in there, because only males are allowed” (Ex. 27:21). Sadly, the Moabite woman turned away. She had no hope in all the world of ever entering there!

The man from Moab sighs again, “I wish that I had been born of Israel of the tribe of Levi of the family of Aaron”, and then, as he gazes wistfully at the closed Tabernacle door, he says, “What else is in there?” “Oh, there’s a veil. It’s a beautiful veil I’m told and it divides the Tabernacle in two. Beyond the veil is what we call ‘the Most Holy Place’”. “What’s in the Most Holy Place?” the Moabite asks. “Well, there’s the sacred chest in there and it’s called the Ark of the Covenant. It contains holy memorials of our past. Its top is gold and we call that the mercy seat because God sits there between the golden cherubim. Do you see that pillar of cloud hovering over the Tabernacle? That’s God’s visible presence. It rests on the mercy seat”, said the gatekeeper.

Again, a look of longing comes over the face of the Moabite man. “Oh,” he said, “if only I were a priest! How I would love to go into the Holy of Holies and gaze upon the glory of God and worship Him there in the beauty of His holiness!’. “Oh no!” said the man at the gate. “You couldn’t do that even if you were a priest! Only the high priest can enter the Most Holy Place. Only he can go in there. Nobody else!”

The heart of the man from Moab yearns once more. “Oh,” he cried, “If only I had been born an Israelite, of the tribe of Levi, of the family of Aaron. If only I had been born a high priest! I would go in there every day! I would go in there three times a day! I would worship continually in the Most Holy Place!”. The gatekeeper looked at the man from Moab again and once more shook his head. “Oh no,” he said, “you couldn’t do that! Even the high priest of Israel can go in there only once a year, and then only after the most elaborate preparations and even then only for a little while”.

Sadly, the Moabite turned away. He had no hope in all the world of ever entering there!

That’s the old way. But it’s not the end! There’s more!

The new way

As Gentiles, the Moabites were, “excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12NIV). But Jesus changed this situation. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off (like the Gentile Moabites) have been brought near (like theJewish High Priest) by the blood (death) of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). The old way to God, which was exclusive to the Jews, has been replaced by the new way, which is open to everyone. Here’s how it happened.

When Christ died “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” by an earthquake (Mt. 27:51, 54; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). This signified that all people could now have access to God through Christ’s vicarious (substitutionary) death. And they don’t have to come via human priests.
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place (like the High Priest) by the blood (death) of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, His body, and since we have a great priest (Jesus Christ) over the house of God (all true believers, Heb. 3:6), let us draw near to God (in prayer, praise and worship) with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings” (Hebrews 10:19-22). The curtain represented the body of Christ and its tearing represented His death. By this act, God indicated that all believers have access to God. They could be close to Him like the High Priest, not distant like the Moabites and the gatekeeper. This new way of approaching God is open to all who trust in Christ’s sacrificial death when they come in sincerity, assurance, salvation, and sanctification (Heb. 10:22).

So today, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). All true Christians have the same spiritual status. “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11). As far as their standing before God is concerned, all believers are on the same level. No believer is spiritually superior to anyone else.

While the old way of approaching God illustrated the new way; the new way is superior to the old way.

Reference
This blogpost is based on an illustration in “Exploring Hebrews” (p.94-96) by John Phillips (2002), which was brought to my attention by Jared Wilson.

Written, March 2016

Also see: What does Galatians 3:28 mean?


A wake-up call from Jeremiah

Sin is serious and dangerous

Fire 1 400pxA warning was given last month in Washington USA when arsonists lit several fires during a period of high fire danger. Some of the fires were started by fireworks. Authorities stressed that fires have a cost and sometimes they costs lives.

Today we look at how Jeremiah gave the Jews a wake-up call by reminding them of the dangerous situation that threatened their lives and their nation. We will see from Jeremiah 2-6 that God will punish them because of their continual sinfulness and the only way out is to repent and turn around and follow Him.

Context

The Israelites were God’s special people whom He rescued from Egypt so they could live in Canaan. The laws He gave them to follow through Moses are given in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy of the Bible. After peaking in the days of King Solomon, their land was divided into two with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Then in 722 BC, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, so only Judah was left.

Jeremiah time line 400pxJeremiah preached for 40 years (626 BC to 586 BC) to those living in Judah during the reign of their last five kings about 600BC. At this time Judah was a weak nation; surrounded by many enemies including the superpowers of Egypt to the south, and Assyria and Babylonia to the north.

Jeremiah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 100 years after Isaiah and Micah and at the beginning he was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Nahum and later of Obadiah and Habakkuk.

The main theme of these prophets was predictions of God’s punishment and God’s restoration of His people. We will see that this is what Jeremiah prophesied as well.

At this time, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies and idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent. They were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Jeremiah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.

Will Judah past the test?

Prophets like Jeremiah spoke God’s words to His people. They were like watchmen up on a city wall who see a threat and sound a trumpet to warn of danger (Jer. 6:17; 2 Ki. 17:13). Jeremiah often says: “The word of the Lord came to me”; “The Lord said to me”; and “This is what the Lord says”. That’s the sign of a prophet. These messages would have been given many times, to many people. They are important pleas, commands and predictions from God, and not just a report of historical events. They demanded a response by the people of Judah.

Jeremiah warning 400pxThere are three main themes in this passage: Judah’s sin, their need for repentance, and God’s punishment. The relationship between these themes is shown in the schematic diagram which shows that because of their sin, God gives them a wake-up call (a warning) through Jeremiah. There are two possible responses. One is to take notice and repent, which leads to restoration. The other is to ignore and not repent, which leads to punishment.

What is sin? The two main Hebrew words that are translated “sin” occur at least 30 times in the book of Jeremiah (Strongs #2398 and #2403). In these verses they mean not obeying God and rebelling against God (by breaking the covenant, by worshipping idols and by rejecting Jeremiah’s messages). They are associated with wickedness, wrongdoings, crimes, and guilt. And they lead to punishment. So sin is rebellion against God (Dt. 9:7; Josh. 1:18). It’s when we prefer anything or anyone above God (Rom. 1:18-32). It’s not being God-centred. And the Bible says when we ignore God, we have a depraved mind.

What is repentance? The main Hebrew word translated “repent” (#5162) means a change of mind, particularly turning from sinfulness to follow God. It’s a change of mind that results in a change of behavior. It’s a change of attitude towards God. Another Hebrew word that means “turn back or return” (#7725) is also translated “repent” (5:3; 15:19; 34:15). So repentance is a U-turn; a change of direction.

In this passage God is testing the people of Judah like a metallurgist tests ore that has been mined (Jer. 6:27-30). How will they respond to Jeremiah’s warning? Will they pass like good ore or will they fail like worthless ore?

We will look at each of these themes in turn starting with Judah’s ongoing sinfulness.

Judah’s sin (2:1-3:10)

In a criminal court a person is charged with a crime. If they are proven guilty of the offense, a judgement is issued as punishment. In this passage Jeremiah gives God’s case against His people Judah (Jer. 2:9). Because God knows and sees everything, they are guilty of these charges.

He lists their sins (2:1-13; 20-36; 3:1-10; 5:1-5, 12-13, 20-31; 6:10-21). He says that everyone rebelled against God; the leaders, the priests and the prophets (2:8, 26). All ages were involved, including grandchildren (2:9). It happened everywhere across the land (2:20; 3:2). Instead of following the God who brought them to Canaan, they followed worthless idols (2:5, 8, 11). The term “worthless idols” is mentioned 8 times in Jeremiah. They are shonky – they can’t deliver what they promise.

It was shocking. They abandoned and ignored God and ran after worthless idols (2:12, 13, 25). So Jeremiah says, “My people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols” (2:11NIV). They broke off their covenant with God (2:20). The covenant was like a marriage covenant – God was like the husband and they were like the bride (2:2). It was also like a Suzerain-Vassal covenant or treaty – God was like the great king and they were like one of his subject kings. But they loved idols instead of loving God (2:25). So they forgot God (2:32).

But they ask God to rescue them from trouble (2:27)! And they blame Him for their troubles (2:29)!

They didn’t learn anything from what happened to the northern kingdom of Israel (3:6-10). About 100 years earlier Israel was conquered and captured by the Assyrians as punishment for their idolatry, but now Judah was practicing the same idolatry. They should have known that God doesn’t tolerate continual sin.

People claimed to follow God, but kept on being unfaithful and wicked (3:4-5, 6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 22). And they had no sense of guilt or shame (3:3; 6:15; Prov. 3:20). It was like leaving their spouse and committing adultery and prostitution (3:1-3). It was spiritual adultery.

They were all greedy (6:13). They oppressed the poor and needy, but say they’ve done nothing wrong (2:34-35; 5:28). No one was honest (5:1-2). They were deceitful and didn’t respect God (5:22-24, 27). Also, instead of trusting in God’s protection, they formed alliances with Egypt and Assyria (2:18, 36).

Jeremiah said, “The prophets prophesy lies (false prophets), the priests rule by their own authority (not God’s), and my people love it this way” (5:31). The false prophets predicted peace while God predicted their defeat and captivity (5:12-13; 6:14).

They ignored Jeremiah’s warning. “The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it” (6:10). It was a sad state of affairs.

Charles Bronson 2 400pxIn 2009, Britain’s most violent prisoner Charles Bronson said he was not ashamed about his past. He has spent 35 years in prison due to violent attacks on prison staff and other prisoners. Like the people of Judah he continued to offend and had no desire to change his ways.

What about us? Do we realise that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Rom. 3:23NLT)? Are we aware of our sins and shortcomings? Have we trusted in Jesus as the Savior who took the punishment for these? Sin is serious because it leads to God’s punishment.

The Bible says that Christians are the bride of Christ (1 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:24-27). Are we faithful to the Lord, or are we guilty of spiritual adultery? How much time do we spend on worthless activities or on worthless idols? Is our conscience working? Or do we keep giving in to sinful desires and let sin control the way we live (Rom. 6:12-14)? Have we stored God’s word in our mind so we mightn’t sin against Him (Ps. 119:11)?

Jeremiah spoke to wake up the people of Judah to their sin and its consequences in order to move them to repent and change their behavior. The second theme is Judah’s ongoing need for repentance.

Judah’s need for repentance (3:11-4:4)

First God pleads for the people of Israel who had gone into Assyrian captivity to acknowledge and confess their guilt and change direction to follow the Lord (3:12-14, 22:4:1). He says “return faithless people, for I am your husband” (3:14). God is willing to forgive His people, but they are unrepentant (3:19-20). They need to repent by turning away from idol worship to worshipping the God who created the universe and gave them wonderful promises (4:1-4). Up to now God thought they would return to Him, but they didn’t (3:7, 10, 19).

If they repent while in exile, God says that He will not be angry forever and will bring them back to Jerusalem (3:12, 15). So repentance leads to restoration. This is consistent with the covenant which says that after they have paid for their sins, confessed their sins and their hearts are humbled, God will remember the covenant and restore them back to their homeland (Lev. 26:40-45).

Although the people of Judah heard this message, they didn’t repent by responding to God’s messages and punishments (5:3). Instead they hardened their hearts “and refused to repent”. But if they didn’t repent, then they too faced certain punishment (18:7-11).

Then there is a vision of the coming time when the Jews will repent (3:21-25). There will be weeping as they confess their sins and disobedience. They will feel shame and disgrace and turn to follow God once again. There is also a vision of the coming time called the Millennium when they will have a change of heart and Israel and Judah will be reunited and restored (3:15-18).

water-rescue 400pxRecently Special Operations Commander Craig Smith was in the middle of teaching a swift-water rescue class on Texas’ Comal River, when he spotted a child who had been swept out of his inner tube by a fierce current and dragged under the water. So he jumped in with a line and pulled the boy to safety. He said the near-drowning served to show how dangerous the water can be. Likewise sin is dangerous unless we are rescued by confessing our sins.

Paul told people to repent and turn to God by trusting that Jesus paid the punishment for our sins (Acts 20:21; 26:20). They needed to change their minds about Jesus. When we confess our sins in this way we are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sins – past, present and future. Our destiny changes from hell to heaven and we can enjoy daily fellowship with God. Have we told God we are sorry for our sins in this way? Many of those who believed in Ephesus showed their repentance by publicly burning their sorcery scrolls (Acts 19:17-19). Is our new allegiance obvious to others?

Sin spoils a Christian’s fellowship with God. When we confess our sins they are forgiven by God and our daily fellowship with God our Father is restored. “If we confess our sins to Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 Jn. 1:9NLT). Do we tell God we are sorry for our sins in this way (1 Jn. 1:5-2:2)?

The third theme is Judah’s punishment if they are unrepentant.

Judah’s coming punishment (4:5-6:30)

One of God’s tests is to send a drought to see if they will turn away from their unfaithfulness (3:3; 5:24-25). Drought was one of the punishments for disobeying the covenant (Lev. 26:19-20; Dt. 28:22-24). They should’ve known this, but they continued in their wicked ways. As they continually refused to repent, the time came when punishment was inevitable.

So Jeremiah predicts that the Babylonians will come from the north and conquer Jerusalem after a siege and take them into exile as slaves (2:14-19, 37; 4:5-31; 5:6-11; 14-19; 6:1-9, 12, 22-26). It will be a terrible time and they are told to “mourn with bitter wailing”. Towns will be destroyed and the land ruined in this disaster. They would lose their houses, fields, wives and children. But a remnant would survive (5:10, 18). The Babylonians are God’s instrument of punishment. It’s punishment for their disobedience as promised in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:31-35; Dt. 28:32-37, 49-68). This happened near the end of Jeremiah’s ministry.

As mentioned earlier, how will they respond to Jeremiah’s warning (6:27-30)? Will they pass the test like good ore or will they fail like worthless ore? They fail because they “rejected the word of the Lord”, which came through Jeremiah (Jer. 8:9).

Croag Patrick 1 400pxIn July 2015 the annual pilgrimage to the mountain of Croagh Patrick in Ireland was cancelled due to treacherous weather conditions. Powerful winds, heavy rain and thick fog reduced visibility to less than 3 meters. However, several hundred people, including families with young children, ignored the warnings and attempted to set out from the base at Murrisk. Some people were treated by medical volunteers, including a 14-year-old girl suffering from hypothermia. So, people ignore warnings today, just like the people of Judah ignored Jeremiah’s warnings.

What about us? The Bible says, “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding (the Mosaic covenant was given by angels; Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19), and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him” (Heb. 2:1-3). If the Jews disobedience was punished, as it was, then disregard for the good news about Jesus will bring greater punishment. Do we pay careful attention or ignore this great salvation?

Conclusion

We have seen that Jeremiah warned the Jews by reminding them of the dangerous situation that threatened their lives and their nation. Continual sin is serious and dangerous. Jeremiah’s message was that God will punish them because of their continual sinfulness and the only way out is to repent and turn around and follow Him. And the punishment is that the nation was conquered and the people were taken as salves to Babylon. But those who repented were able to return to restore the nation 70 years later.

Today God also says that we are in a dangerous situation. Sin is serious and dangerous. Unless we follow Jesus, we face God’s punishment. Because we’re all sinners, we’ll all die unless Christ returns beforehand. What happens after death depends on whether we have decided to follow Jesus or not. Those who don’t repent face eternal torment, while those who do repent face eternity with our creator and redeemer.

Let’s spread the message about the seriousness of sin and ignoring what God has done for us. We need to recognise our sinfulness and repent by turning around and accepting that Jesus took our` punishment.

Written, October 2015


How to start reading the Bible

The Bible is a big book that was written thousands of years ago. Where do I begin to read it? And, what does it mean for a reader today? Here’s a simple outline of the Bible’s structure. It can be divided into two sections. The portion written before the 400 years of silence is called the Old Testament and portion written afterwards the New Testament.

The books of Psalms to Song of Songs are Israelite wisdom and poetry. Most were written 1000 – 700 BC.

Chinese bible 2 400pxWhere do I begin?

A history book or a story book is usually read from the beginning to the end. Stories usually begin with an introduction and then suspense builds up to a climax. The climax is the turning point of the story when the main problem is addressed. After the climax there is relief and it ends with a conclusion.

It’s probably best to begin by reading the introduction and the climax of the Bible.

The introduction of the Bible is a foundation for the rest of the Bible. So start with Genesis chapters 1 to 11. It begins with God creating a perfect universe (Gen. 1-2). But then the first couple, Adam and Eve, disobey God (Gen. 3), which brings conflict and evil into the world. This sinful pattern of behavior and its impact is demonstrated by the events described in the rest of the Old Testament. It is a characteristic of humanity that doesn’t change.

Because of their disobedience and wickedness, God punished mankind with a global flood (Gen. 6-9) and by dispersing people across the earth into different languages and nations (Gen. 10-11).

The climax is when God solves the problem of people’s sinfulness. He does this by coming to the earth and taking the punishment that we all deserve. There are four separate accounts of the life of Jesus Christ: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It’s a good idea to read Mark first because it is the shortest.

The Bible’s climax has two plot twists. Firstly, Jesus’ followers believe He is the Messiah, but their hopes are dashed when instead of setting up His kingdom on earth, He is executed as a criminal. So their great expectations are replaced by grief and loss. Secondly, a few days after His burial Jesus miraculously resurrects back to life and the grief and loss is replaced with joy! What a dramatic fluctuation in emotions!

What’s the main theme?

The Bible is all about God’s solution to the problem of people’s sinfulness. This is God’s promise or God’s rescue plan. It is fulfilled in the history of Israel, from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to king David and to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. It is now fulfilled in the Christian church, which includes all nations. In the future it will be fulfilled in the resurrection of God’s people and the restoration of creation back to its original state.

What does it mean?

In order to understand the original meaning of a passage of Scripture it’s good to know who it was written to. For example, the Old Testament was written to Jews living in Palestine, whereas Paul’s letters were written to Christians living around the Mediterranean Sea. It also helps to know where it occurs in the sequence of events shown in the table. For example, was it written before or after Jesus was on earth? The context is also important – what happens before and afterward the passage?

Other questions can be asked, such as – What does it say about God? What does it say about humanity?

What’s its conclusion?

Choose-your-own-path adventure story books and video games have multiple endings. At the end of each chapter/episode, there is a choice between various options, which determines the path taken and the eventual ending of the story.

The Bible has two conclusions. They are heaven (Rev. 21:9 – 22:5) or the lake of fire (hell) (Rev. 20:15). Which one will you choose as your destiny?

Written, January 2015

Also see: Understanding the Bible
Read the Bible in one year
How to read the Bible in chronological order


Does the Bible condone slavery? Part 1

Welfare for the poor

shacklesI have received this question about the Bible: It seems that slavery was condoned in the Bible and there were forced marriages with captive women, which seems inconsistent with a God who is against abortion and offers forgiveness to sinners … I ask these hard questions for myself as well as unbelievers who use this to justify their hatred of God and the Bible.

According to the dictionary, a slave is a person who is completely dominated by their owner and works without payment. The word “slavery” implies hardship, exploitation and lack of freedom. Slaves are different to servants or employees who are paid a wage and have the freedom to leave their employment. Let’s look at what the Old Testament has to say on this topic.

“Slavery” in the Bible

Slavery was prevalent in ancient times. People could become slaves due to poverty or warfare or being born to slaves (Ex. 21:4; Eccl. 2:7). The English word “slave” or related words occur in 65-310 verses in the Bible, depending on the translation (see below). Translations with lower frequency use the word “servant” where the others have “slave”. The Hebrew word is “ebed” (Strongs #5650), which describes one who serves another as a slave.

NKJV ESV NIV NLT HCSB
65 125 180 245 310

Israelite slavery

The Old Testament describes the history of the Israelites, who were God’s chosen people. Their first instance of slavery was when Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites who in turn sold him to Potiphar in Egypt (Gen. 37:28, 36; 39:17, 19). This included being imprisoned for over two years (Ex. 41:1; Ps. 105:17). After he was freed, his father’s family moved to Egypt because of a famine.

Before this time, God told Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country, which was Egypt (Gen. 15:13-14; Acts 7:6-7). As they felt threatened by Jacob’s numerous descendants, the Egyptians subjected them to slavery (Ex. 1:6-14). Under their slave masters the Israelites constructed buildings and worked in the fields. They were beaten by the Egyptians (Ex. 2:11; 5:14). It was forced labour and a life of oppression, suffering and misery (Ex. 2:23; 3:7; 5:6, 10, 13, 14; 6:6). This continued during the 40 years when Moses was in Midian. After they cried to God for help, He promised to deliver them from the slavery (Ex. 2:23-25; 3:7-10; 6:6-8). The Israelites were finally delivered after the ten plagues and God miraculously lead the exodus towards Canaan (Ex. 13:20-22).

Afterwards they were to remember they were slaves in Egypt (Dt. 16:12; 24:22) and that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 20:2; Lev 26:13; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:11; 13:5, 10; 15:15; 16:12; Dt. 5:6, 15; 6:12, 21; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5, 10; 15:5; 24:18; Josh. 24:17; Jud. 6:8; Jer. 34:13; Mi. 6:4). At the Passover festival they celebrated their release from slavery (Ex. 13:3, 14).

The Israelites then travelled to Canaan where they eventually divided into two kingdoms, with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. At times they were enslaved by the Arameans (Syrians), the Phoenicians (Tyre & Sidon) and Philistia (2 Ki. 5:2; Joel 3:4-6, Amos 1:6). Over a 10-year period the Assyrians attacked Israel until they were conquered and deported to Assyria (2 Ki. 15:29; 17:3-6; 18:9-12; 1 Chron. 5:26). This was God’s punishment for their idolatry (2 Ki. 17:7-23). So the Israelites were slaves to the cruel Assyrians.

Then the Assyrians attacked Judah, but God delivered them (2 Ki. 18:13-19:37). Later Isaiah predicted that they would be conquered and deported to Babylon (2 Ki. 20:16-18). This was fulfilled when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took prisoners back to Babylon where they were captive for at least 70 years (2 Ki. 24:12-1; 25:1-21; 2 Chr. 36:20). Next they were slaves to the Persians (Ez. 9:7-9; Neh. 9:36-37), followed by the Syrians and Egyptians in the inter-testament period. In fact from this time until 1948, Judea was always ruled by other nations.

What’s it like to be a slave? In Psalm 123 the captives in Babylon plead to God for deliverance. They had endured contempt and ridicule from the Babylonians.

So God used slavery to get the Israelites out of Egypt so they could settle in Canaan. He also used slavery as punishment for their idolatry in Canaan. In more recent times, He used the Nazi holocaust, which was worse than slavery, to give Judea back to them in 1948.

Canaanite slavery

When a criminal is convicted of a serious crime, they are sentenced to gaol where they lose their freedom. Gaol or prison is a form of slavery, which I will call penal slavery.

The earliest mention of slavery in the Bible is when Noah cursed Canaan; “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers” (Gen. 9:24-27NIV). The descendants of Canaan were extremely wicked (Gen. 15:16; Dt. 9:4-5; 18:9-13). That’s why they were cursed to be slaves. Because of their wickedness, the Canaanites were to be driven from their lands or destroyed when the Israelites settled in Canaan (Ex. 23:23, 31). But some Canaanites remained in the land and these were used by Solomon to built the temple, the palace, and the city walls (1 Ki. 5:15; 9:15-22; 2 Chr. 2:17-18; 8:1-9; Eccl. 2:4-7). Also the Gibeonites (Canaanites who deceived the Israelites) were woodcutters and water carriers for the tabernacle (Josh. 9:23-25). So the prediction was fulfilled when the Canaanites were slaves to the Israelites. In this case the Canaanites were better off than otherwise – as they hadn’t escaped to another country they should have been killed during the Israelite invasion of Canaan.

The Canaanite slavery to the Israelites and the Israelite slavery to Babylonia were both examples of penal slavery.  A thief who couldn’t make restitution for their crime was also to become a penal slave (Ex. 22:1-3).

How other nations treated slaves

Samson lived when the Israelites were ruled by the Philistines. He had great strength and killed many Philistines. When the Philistines finally captured Samson they gouged out his eyes and bound him with bronze shackles in prison where he worked grinding grain (Jud. 16:21). That was slave labor!

When the Ammonites besieged an Israelite city, they would only agree to a treaty if the right eye of the Israelites was gouged out (1 Sam. 11:2). Fortunately that didn’t happen! Also, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, they put out king Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with bronze shackles and took him to Babylon (Jer. 39:7).

When the Amalekites attacked Israel, they abandoned an Egyptian slave when he became ill (1 Sam. 30:13). After he had been without food or water for three days, David gave him food and water.

Other nations were slave traders – they traded slaves for merchandise (Ez. 27:15). So these nations were cruel to their captives.

How Israelites were to treat slaves

So far we have seen that because slavery was prevalent in ancient times, it is recorded in the Bible. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible doesn’t mean that God approved it. But what does God say to His chosen people about slavery?

Debt slavery

If we can’t meet the repayments on a car or house, they are repossessed. If we are made bankrupt, we are restricted from business ownership and overseas travel and required to repay our debts before we can be discharged. In a world without government welfare and charities, God put laws in place to protect poor Israelites (Lev. 25:35-38). They were to be helped with no-interest loans and sold food at cost. So a Jew could not profit from the poverty of a fellow Jew. But God also put some other provisions in place.

“If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God” (Lev. 25:39-43).

Here we see that a Jew could repay their debt though physical labor. But they were to be treated as household employees or indentured servants, not as slaves. In this way, adults or children could become slaves to pay debts (2 Ki. 4:1; Neh. 5:4-8).

“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today” (Dt. 15:12-15; Ex. 21:1-4; Jer. 34:14).

Debt slaves were to be released after working six years or in the Sabbath Year or in the Year of Jubilee if that came earlier (Dt. 15:1-11). This meant that they could not be enslaved for more than six years. They were not to be perpetual slaves. The reason they were to be released was because God said, “the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt” (Lev. 25:55). The slave was to be released with provisions to ensure they didn’t fall straight back into debt. The NIV Bible calls this slave a “servant”, presumably because they are treated more like an employee than a traditional slave. As employees like servants don’t sell themselves to their employer, this is a form of slavery which I will call debt slavery. It is like a debt repayment scheme. After the work was done, they were freed. After all, Solomon said that“the borrower is slave to the lender (Prov. 22:7).

Voluntary slavery

“But if your servant says to you, ‘I do not want to leave you,’ because he loves you and your family and is well off with you, then take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door, and he will become your servant for life. Do the same for your female servant” (Dt. 15:16-17).

In this instance, we have a debt slave who is about to be released. Instead, they chose to continue working for their master or owner because of the good conditions and lack of oppression. This is a form of household slavery which I will call voluntary slavery. As noted earlier, the NIV calls this type of slave a “servant”. The hole in their earlobe was the sign of a voluntary Jewish slave.

Captive slavery

Prisoners of war are captive to the victors (Num. 31:7-9; Dt. 20:14; 21:10). This is a form of slavery which I will call captive slavery. For example, the Jews were captives of the Babylonians. As the Israelites were not meant to enslave Canaanites and they didn’t usually get involved in distant wars, this would not have been a significant source of slaves in Israel. But when God used Israel to punish wicked nations, the survivors were often captive slaves. The Canaanites mentioned previously were captive slaves. Also, captured Ammonites were Israel’s laborers (2 Sam. 12:31). Such captives could be taxed by their new ruler and used to provide labor and military forces (2 Sam. 8:2).

The Israelites slaves were to come from other nations, not from Israel (Lev. 25:44-46). When the kingdom of Israel defeated Judah they intended to take the men and women as slaves (2 Chron. 28:5-15). But after they were confronted, the Judeans were freed. However, the Jews did have Jewish slaves when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and one of the reasons for the Babylonian captivity was that the Israelite salves had not been released after serving for six years, as God had commanded (Jer. 34:8-22).

Captive slaves were often penal slaves. For example, Israelite idolatry led to Philistine and Ammonite oppression (Jud. 10:6-10; 13:1). This captivity was part of God’s judgement of wickedness.

Rights and privileges

In all the above cases, the owners of Jewish slaves were commanded, “Do not rule over them ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:43, 46, 53). What a contrast to the cruelty of other nations in Biblical times and in world history!

The Jews were to give a foreign slave refuge and protect fugitive slaves rather than returning them to an owner (Dt. 23:15-16). Slaves were to share many of the privileges of others in the household. They were to rest on the Sabbath day and could eat the Passover if circumcised and celebrate Jewish festivals (Ex. 12:44; 23:12; Dt. 5:14; 12:12; 16:10-11, 13-14). A priest’s slave could eat of the offerings, which was prohibited for an employee (Lev. 22:10-11).

Although foreign debt slaves could be bought and owned as a person’s property and passed on to subsequent generations (Lev. 25:44-46), they were to be loved and treated as fellow citizens (Lev. 19:34; Dt. 10:19).

What about allowing a slave to be beaten (Ex. 21:20-21, 26-27)? Slaves were given similar rights to free citizens; the punishment for mistreating a slave was the same as for a free person. There were laws giving punishment if a slave was injured or killed and if a man slept with another’s female slave (Lev. 19:20-22). There was a penalty of death for kidnapping an Israelite into slavery (Ex. 21:16; Dt. 24:7).

Forced marriages?

What about forced marriages? Marriage contracts allowed a family to find a better life for their daughter (Ex. 21:7-11). In a world when most marriages were arranged by the parents, a young girl could be sold as a maidservant so she could be a potential wife or concubine in a wealthy family. The payment could be viewed as a bride price that was paid to the parents of the bride. She was adopted until the marriage was completed. If she became a concubine or wife in a wealthy family she would be better off than in poverty. In this case the woman was to be treated in the same way as any wife or concubine; she was not a sex slave. Whether or not she became a concubine or wife, her rights and privileges were to be protected.

When the Israelites were travelling to Canaan the Moabite and Midianite women enticed the Israelite men into idolatry and immorality (Num. 25:1-18). This resulted in a plague that killed 23,000 Israelites in one day (1 Cor. 10:8). God told the Israelites to take vengeance on the Midianites. So an army of 12,000 men killed all the Midianite soldiers and captured women and children (Num. 31:1-47). But Moses said that because it was the women who had caused the Israelites to sin, they must be killed and only the virgin women kept as the spoil of battle (Num. 31:18, 25-47). These women probably became household slaves; there is no evidence that they were forced into marriage. After all, it is recorded that there were slave girls in David’s household (2 Sam. 6:20, 22).

An Israelite could marry a foreign female prisoner of war if she was not a Canaanite (Dt. 21:10-14). The marriage was of a probationary nature because he could let her go wherever she wished if he was not pleased with her. However, he could not sell her as a slave. This form of captive slavery seems like forced marriage, but it would probably be better for the woman than slavery in a foreign nation. What would you rather be: a wife or a slave? The woman who was released from the marriage also seems to be better off than a slave because she could “go wherever she wished”.

Liberation from slavery

Slaves long for deliverance and release from slavery and suffering into a life of freedom and joy. Debt slaves could be released and redeemed by the payment of a ransom price. If girl slaves didn’t become a concubine or wife, they could be redeemed (Ex. 21:8). The value of a slave was 30 pieces of silver, similar to the amount paid to Judas Iscariot (Ex. 21:32; Mt. 26:15)!

God redeemed (freed) the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 6:6; Dt. 7:8). Jeremiah predicted that God would also redeem them from captivity in Babylon (Jer. 31:11). If Jews were slaves to a foreigner living in Israel, they could be released in the Year of Jubilee or earlier if they were redeemed by a relative (Lev. 25:47-55).

Summary

God’s attitude to slavery in the Old Testament is like His view of divorce. Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (Mt. 19:8). Both slavery and divorce were not God’s plan, but He gave practical ways to deal with them.

The Old Testament regulated “slavery” in Israel by removing the oppression, cruelty, exploitation and racism that is usually associated with it. Instead they were to be treated as employees and given opportunities for liberation. “Debt slavery” was a form of welfare, an employment contract that was a repayment scheme which saved the poor from starving and was so good that it could lead to “voluntary slavery”, which was a form of lifetime employment. “Penal slavery” and “captive slavery” were sentences for wickedness. In all these cases there was a loss of freedom for the good of the person and society.

So “slavery” in Israel was different to that in other nations. This type of “slavery” was different to what is usually called slavery, which makes it difficult to translate the Hebrew word “ebed” (Strongs #5650). As we don’t have an English word for it, many Bibles use the word “servant” instead of “slave”.

Slavery was an important part of Jewish history. Joseph was a slave who reached an exalted position. Jesus took “the very nature of a servant (or the humble position of a slave)” when on earth, but has now been exalted to the highest place (Phil. 2:7-9). The Jewish Passover was a celebration of their liberation from slavery in Egypt. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of our liberation from slavery to sin.

So debt slavery as described in the Old Testament is largely an example of God’s compassion for the poor and disadvantaged people in their community.

Also see – Does the New Testament condone slavery?
Slavery and freedom

Written, February 2013


When did the Hebrews or Israelites become known as Jews?

Star of David 400pxAccording to the Bible, Abraham left polytheism to follow the God who made the universe. Abraham lived about 2,000 BC and he and his descendants were known as Hebrews (Gen. 14:13). In fact the Pentateuch was written by Moses in the Hebrew language. Isaac was Abraham’s son and Jacob his grandson. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel (Gen. 32:28; 46:1). Since this time Israel’s descendants were known as the children of Israel or Israel or Israelites. Israel’s family moved to Egypt where his son Joseph was second in command to the Pharaoh. In Egypt the Israelites grew to 2 million people when they subsequently migrated to Canaan in the Middle East under the leadership of Moses and Joshua.

After the Israelites invaded Canaan, they were ruled by the kings Saul, David and Solomon. King David lived about 1,000 BC. After this, the kingdom was divided into two, with 10 tribes in the northern kingdom of Israel and two in the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 12; 2 Chronicles 10). Samaria was the capital of Israel and Jerusalem the capital of Judah.

The Hebrew noun “Yehudi” (“Jew” in English; Strongs #3064) is derived from the name Judah, who was one of Jacob’s twelve sons. See Appendix A for a summary of how this word was spoken in various languages. Judah was the ancestor of one of the tribes of Israel, which was named after him. “Yehudi” occurs 76 times in the following books of the Old Testament:
– 11 times in Jeremiah (written about 600BC), where it describes Judeans,
– Twice in 2 Kings (written about 550BC), where it describes Judeans who lived about 750BC and 590BC,
– Once in Zechariah (written about 520BC), where it may describe both Judeans and Israelites,
– 52 times in Esther (written about 460BC), where it describes those dispersed after the Babylonian invasions and living in the Persian kingdom, including Mordecai a Benjaminite (Est. 2:5; 5:13), and
– 10 times in Nehemiah (written about 430BC), where it describes exiles who returned to Jerusalem.

A related word “Yehudain” (Strongs #3062) only occurs in the books of Daniel and Ezra (written about 530BC and 440BC respectively). So the most robust answer to our question, “When did the Hebrews or Israelites become known as Jews?” is from about 600BC.

Originally, the word referred to members of the tribe of Judah, but later it described anyone from the kingdom of Judah. This would include those from the northern kingdom of Israel who moved to Judah, including Mordecai’s ancestors. Also, as those who returned after the exile settled in Judea, they were called Jews regardless of their ancestoral tribe. In the New Testament, the words, “Hebrews”, “Israelites”, and “Jews” are used interchangeably to describe the descendants of Jacob (Jn. 4:9; 2 Cor. 11:22). And this is the case today – the words “Hebrews”, “Israelites”, and “Jews” are used as synonyms (see Appendix B).

In 722 BC, Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians and the Israelites were dispersed into surrounding nations (2 Ki. 17). As they assimilated and now have no national identity, they are known as the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”. However, they weren’t all lost because some remained in Israel and some moved to Judah (2 Chron. 15:9; 35:18).

In 605 BC and 598 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia invaded Judah and in 586 B.C. Jerusalem was destroyed. Many of the Jews were taken to exile in Babylon. When the Persians conquered Babylon in 538 BC, the Persian King Cyrus permitted the Jews to return to their homelands and many returned to Judah. After the Babylonian exile, “Jew” replaced “Israelite” as the most widely-used term for these survivers. This was because, by that time, virtually all Israelites were descendants of the kingdom of Judah. Also, the Jewish religion was known as Judaism.

After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. Although the terms “Hebrew” and “Israelite” continued in use into the New Testament period (Rom. 9:4; 2 Cor. 11:22; Phil. 3:5), by then the term “Jew” was more commonly used. At His death, the Romans referred to Jesus as the “king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37).

In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem (this didn’t destroy all the Jews as many were living in other countries) and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries including Europe and North Africa. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Despite these difficulties, the Jews maintained their identity, even in foreign lands. The need to find a homeland for Jewish refugees led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

How amazing – the Jews survived 1,900 years of exile! No other people has ever gone into exile and survived this long and returned to re-establish a national homeland. And the Jews went into exile twice! They also survived the persecutions of the the Hamans and Hitlers of this world (Est. 3:1-15). Surely this is evidence of the Bible’s inspiration, and of the existence of the God who promised to preserve the Jews, return them to their homeland, and bring them to a time of great national blessing in the last days.

In common speech, the word “Jew” is now used to refer to all of the descendants of Jacob and those who adhere to Judaism.

Appendix A: Historical summary of usage of the word “Jew”.

The Hebew word translated “Jew” in the Bible originally meant the tribe of Judah and the kingdom of Judah. Judah’s father Israel died in about 1680BC. So the name “Judah” originated in the 17th century BC. With the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, the kingdom of Judah became the sole Jewish state and the term word was applied to all Israelites. The Hebrew name for “Judean” (or “Jew”) appears in the Bible from about 600BC. This name was also applied to those who were dispersed in 586 BC. After the Israelite exiles returned to Palestine, the region began to be known as “Judea”. And the dispersed Israelites began to be known as “Judean”. Here’s the word in various languages:
– Yehudi – Hebrew
Yehudai – Aramaic
– Ioudaios – Greek
– Iūdaeus – Latin
– Judeu, then Juiu, then Juif  – French
– Gyv, then Ive, Iewe, Iew – Old English
Jew – English (1775)
These are the same word as it is spoken in various languages.

So, the Hebrew word translated “Jew” in the Bible is used for all the descendants of Jacob (or Israel). Today, depending on context, it can also mean one who follows the Jewish religion.

Appendix B: Biblical description of the descendants of Abraham/Jacob

Hebrews: Abraham is called a Hebrew (Gen. 14:1). This is the first use of the term. Joseph is also called a Hebrew (Gen. 39:14, 17; 41:12). The people whom God (through Moses) rescued from Egypt were called ‘Hebrews’. The word ‘Hebrew’ may be derived from the name of one of Abraham’s ancestors, the patriarch Eber (Gen. 10:21–25, 11:14–17).

Israelites: means a descendant of Jacob, who in later life was given the name ‘Israel’ by God (Gen. 32:28).

Jews: this word derives from Judah (Hebrew Yehudah), one of Jacob’s 12 sons, and the one who was the ancestor of Jesus Christ (Mt. 1:3, Lk. 3:33). Thus Jesus is Jewish, and the Hebrew version of His name is Yeshua Hamashiach = Jesus the Messiah. However the term ‘Jew’ became used for all descendants of Israel. So the term ‘Jew’ was used interchangeably with ‘Hebrew’ and ‘Israelite’. Thus a Jew is biblically defined as a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Also note that in the Bible, Jewishness was determined through the father’s line, as is clear from the genealogies.

Acknowledgement

Appendix B was sourced from Sarfati “A brief history of the Jews”.

Written January 2013; Revised January 2019