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The journey of those who followed Moses in the wilderness was not an easy one. At first, the people lacked a shared identity or common bond. They were held together by their desire to escape from bondage, but as they traveled, they would begin to be identified as God’s chosen people.
Their travel was filled with all kinds of difficulties: food and water were scarce, there were hostile tribes roaming the area who would capture them and make them slaves or kill them. It was a time when the Hebrew people put God to test continually, challenging God.
Exodus 16 tells us of some of the obstacles and challenges. When the people complained about the lack of food, God gave them Manna and Quail. The word Manna comes from the question “man hu” which is Hebrew for “what is it?”
Moses told the people that this is the bread that God had given them to eat and, for the next forty years, they ate the Manna.
But they still weren’t satisfied: they kept on wanting, they kept on complaining and grumbling.
Finally, the people arrived at Mount Sinai where they were given an opportunity to think about the experiences that had brought them together. Mount Sinai is an important place in the story of the people of God – it is the place at which renewed the first covenant with the people in the days of Abraham.
“Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own people. The whole earth is mine, but you will be my chosen people, a people dedicated to me alone.”
Mount Sinai is also the place where God through Moses gave the people the Ten Commandments. We must understand these commandments NOT AS LAWS but as a means by which the Hebrew people could demonstrate their responsible relationship to God. Look at the Ten Commandments as they are found in Exodus 20:1-17
The first four commandments deal with the people’s relationship to God and the last six deals with their relationship to one another. Moses went up on the Mountain to receive the Ten Commandments and it was a long time before he came back down. The people were afraid that he would not come back, so they had Aaron make an idol for them: a golden calf.
Later, when Moses returned and saw the golden calf, he was overcome with anger and smashed the stone tablets on the ground. This told the people that the covenant God had made with them was now broken.
When he saw the people were sorry for what they had done, Moses pleaded with God for a second chance and God gave Moses a second set of the commandments. With these, the people of God would learn to be God’s people.
Read Numbers 14:26-35. Mount Sinai marked only the beginning of a long and difficult experience by which the Hebrew people would grow into a nation. According to tradition, the Hebrews spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. We are told that none of the adults who left Egypt were permitted to enter Canaan, but that all of them died during the time in the wilderness. And so it was a new generation who was to settle the promised land.
Because of Moses’ disobedience, Joshua brings the people into the promised land. This account is found in Joshua 1-12. In these verses, we find the initial invasion (remember this land was not empty, there were people living there) and the famous battle of Jericho.
According to the account, the people marched around the walls of Jericho once each day for 6 days. On the seventh day, he commanded that they march around the city seven times, and during the seventh time, the priests were to blow their trumpets and the people were to shout. They did and the walls came tumbling down. Without the protection of the walls of the city the Hebrew people went in and destroyed all the inhabitants of Canaan.
Once they settled down the people needed rulers. Judges were called by God to remind the people of God’s will for them and were representatives of God.
But soon the Hebrews, called Israelites, wanted to be like other nations and have a human king to rule over them. The prophet Samuel warned the people that the rule of a king would be harsh and demanding, but the people persisted. Finally, the Lord spoke to Samuel and told him to give the people a king.
The first king was Saul. His kingship was not really impressive, people listened to him but no one really respected him. We can read about his downfall in 1 Samuel 13:5-14.
He becomes Jealous of David and in the 16th chapter we read that “the Lord’s spirit left Saul“. In fact, we read that Saul was so jealous of David that all he could think about was killing him.
The prophet Samuel saw what was happening to Saul and he began to look for a new king for the people. That king was David, but he did not take office until after Saul died in a battle with the Philistines.
One of the reasons for David’s success was that he was willing to live under God’s rule. But as king, David was not perfect. His affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah were sinful acts. And yet David was acceptable to God because he was willing to admit his sin and repent.
One of the things that David did was capture the city of Jerusalem and make it his capital. Sometime later, he ordered the Ark of the Covenant to be brought to Jerusalem so that the city might become the religious as well as the political center of the nation.
David ruled for forty years and even following his death, the people would look back to his rule as a sign of the coming rule of God.
When David died in 961 BC, Solomon (his son) became king. Unlike his father, Solomon was not a great military leader, but he was a wise leader and his wisdom enabled him to be an effective king over Israel. One of the great accomplishments of his reign was the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Bible suggests that Solomon was a shrewd politician and diplomat. It is believed that he had 700 wives, many of whom he married for the sake of establishing stronger political ties with surrounding nations.
However, we read in 1 Kings 11:3-4 that Solomon’s wives made him turn away from God, and by the time he was old, he was worshiping a foreign God.
The Kingdom Divides
By the time of his death, Solomon had reigned over Israel for 40 years. When Solomon’s son – Rehoboam – became king, the country was having a hard time and were being oppressed. The tribes of the Northern Kingdom, which was Israel, asked Rehoboam if he might make their burden a little lighter.
However, after seeking the advice of the younger men Rehoboam said, “my father placed heavy burden on you; I will make them even heavier. He beat you with whips; I’ll beat you with bullwhips” (1 Kings 12:11).
This was the last straw! The Israelites of the central and northern tribes seceded from the southern tribes and the kingdom divided.
During the period when the kingdoms were divided, the prophets played an important role. The kingdom was more concerned with their political structure and began to turn their backs on God’s purposes. So, God called the prophets to summon the people back into obedience.
Their primary task was to declare God’s word to the present time. Many times people would think that they were fortunetellers. Prophets were called to straighten out people’s evil ways.
During the reign of Ahab in the northern kingdom, the prophet Elijah appeared. He condemned those who turned away from God and challenged them to declare their faithfulness and allegiance again to God. The people could not make up their minds as to whom they would serve, so Elijah suggested a contest. Let us read about this contest on Mount Carmel, in 1 Kings 18:20-40.
As the years passed, Israel and Judah gone back together again in peace and enjoyed prosperity. Also, during this time, the prophet Amos appeared. Amos had been a shepherd and caretaker of sycamore trees when God called him to be a prophet.
God called Amos to speak out against the rich who were getting drunk, bathing themselves in rich oils and having great feasts while the people outside their houses were starving to death. The rich had grown richer by taking unfair advantage of the poor through cruel lending practices, fines and by bribing judges in court.
Amos’ message to the Israelites was a call to either repent and do the will of God or perish! Amos proclaimed that God is a God of righteousness who demands justice and morality. God will support those who do right but punish those who do wrong.
The people did not believe Amos. So, God led the Assyrians to attack them, and in 722 BC, most of the people of Israel were deported to faraway places, leaving only the people of the southern kingdom, which was Judah as a remnant of the original community of faith.
But Judah also turned away from God. So, God called Isaiah to serve as a prophet. The call of Isaiah is important because it shows how impressed Isaiah was with God’s holiness as contrasted to his own sin (Isaiah 6). Isaiah condemned the people for the way they were living. He accused them of being corrupt and denounced their leaders for taking unfair advantage of the poor.
He told the parable of the Vineyard in which he portrayed God as a vinedresser who had worked hard in his vineyard and who expected his vineyard to produce wonderful fruit. But, when the harvest came, instead of finding wonderful fruit God only found wild, small and sour grapes.
The Vineyard was the house of Israel and the fruit was the people of Judah.
Isaiah warned the people that just as the vineyard was trampled under the foot of the vinedresser, so Judah would fall to God’s judgment if they did not change.
The people of Judah didn’t change and Assyria conquered both Egypt and Judah and forced Judah to worship pagan gods. During all this time of pagan worship and oppression, there remained a small band of people who collected the ancient Israelite teachings and laws and produced a law book, which they hid in the temple.
As the years went on and the corruption was weeded out of the land, the people of Judah tried to find their way back to God. One day, the ancient law book, which was hidden in the temple, was found and taken to King Josiah, who was a good king and, when he discovered how far from God they had traveled, he tore his clothes in dismay. Then they went through the whole country and destroyed all objects of Baal and other gods and ordered the idolatrous priests removed.
It is one thing to destroy idols, it is another to change the ways people believed. In 626 BC, the prophet Jeremiah was called to spread the word of God. Jeremiah warned the people again and again but they would not listen and, in 598 BC, Judah was defeated by Babylon and the people were made slaved in a foreign land.
When Jerusalem fell in 597, the Babylonians took the remaining Judean people into captivity, killed their leaders and destroyed the temple.
Jeremiah tried to encourage the people telling them that one day God would deliver them again and establishes a new covenant with them, but the people were very discouraged.
It wasn’t until Ezekiel began his ministry that the people saw any hope. Ezekiel told the people that God would bring the dry bones (the house of Israel) back to life.
After 41 years in captivity, the Jewish nation was allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild their life. One hundred and thirty years after they were taken into captivity, Jerusalem was repaired and a new temple built, but it would never be the glorious one it was before.
Many people decided to stay in Babylon, but those who returned would cling to the promises of God. Their hope would live on and in time God would send a Messiah, who would usher in a new age and a new beginning to God’s work of redeeming the world.
This Messiah was Jesus.
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