Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Introduction to the Bible 2

The Bible tells the story of God’s people and his relationship to them. As the relationship develops, we see that God is faithful and consistent in his love and affection while his people are quite the opposite. They constantly turn away from God. Through his love and sacrifice (chiefly in Jesus, the God-man), he transforms his people from a group of morally-depraved, poor, ignorant slaves into a group of reforming, generous, well-informed servants of God, freely giving their lives away to the benefit of all those around them, and to the glory of God.

Genesis 1-11 is the back story, the prelude to the story. It sets the stage for the story. If the story were a musical, this is the opening orchestral themes before we meet the characters. This section of scripture tells us that there is one God. He is the Creator and sustainer of all things. He created us good and charged humankind with managing his creation. However, we corrupted the earth and everything in it. As such, we are all depraved. Instead of loving each other, we fight against everything and everybody (even ourselves). Time does not fix this problem. And though God is clearly angry and disappointed (the Flood), it becomes clear that he is not going to give up on his creation (the Ark). Rather, he is going to work through the depravity, which will show his glory all the more.

The story begins with Father Abraham, the founder of our faith. God comes to Abraham and picks him – at random, it seems. God promises to be faithful to Abraham and his offspring. He promises to give him his own country, and that he and his family will be a blessing to the entire world. Abraham leaves his home and begins to wander around the area we now know as “the Promised Land.” Abraham has a son, Isaac, whose son is named “Israel” by God. Israel has many sons who take wives and have lots of kids, and God’s family begins to grow. One of Israel’s sons is named Joseph. Through a wild series of events, Joseph is estranged from his family and ends up in Egypt as the “vice-Pharaoh” during a severe famine that hit most of the Ancient Near East. Joseph’s family comes to see him, looking for food and the family is reunited in Egypt.

Our story jumps ahead 400 years. Joseph’s family (now many thousands of people) did not integrate into Egyptian society, but remained separate. They became outcasts of the culture and finally became slaves. They were involved in the manual labor of building the monumental architectural masterpieces of Ancient Egypt. God appears to Moses as he did to Abraham, seemingly at random. He tells Moses to lead the Israelite slaves out of Egypt, and back to the “Promised Land.” No small task in the middle of the Pharaoh’s construction projects. After a series of great miracles, including the parting of the Red Sea, he does so. And a group of more than one million people finds themselves in the Sinai desert. Just after they enter the desert, God gives Moses the “Ten Commandments.” These are “house rules” for God’s family. Moses writes an incredible commentary on these Ten Commandments by giving hundreds of case examples of how they are to be followed. Forty years later, Moses dies and Joshua succeeds him. Joshua is a great military leader who leads a short but very successful campaign in taking the major cities of the Promised Land.

As Joshua dies, he commissions the rest of Israel to continue the war and fully inhabit the Land of Israel. They don’t. Instead, they try to live peacefully for 400 years with the native residents in the various towns and cities. This becomes a nightmare, and the stories of the book of Judges are some of the most violent and abusive in the entire Bible. Various leaders, misnamed, “Judges,” lead God’s people, but none is able to bring peace for long, and none organizes all God’s people together. This sad state of loosely connected Israelites is one of the darkest periods in Israel's history. Soon, the people begin to organize and demand a king, “like all the other nations.” A king will organize them, centralize government, and provide peace and prosperity to all.

Golden Age
Around 1000 BC, by God’s direction, the prophet Samuel anoints Saul to be the King of Israel. The people love having a king and a royal court to centralize the government, but Saul turns out to be . . . less than what they expected. God works specially with an outcast boy throughout his life, and when Saul dies in battle, David becomes king rather than any son of Saul. David becomes the best king Israel ever has. He is a warrior poet par excellence. God promises to David that one of his descendants will rule Israel forever, bringing peace to the whole world. When he dies, David’s son, Solomon becomes the greatest peaceful king. He builds a magnificent temple for the corporate worship of God, and a palace that becomes the envy of all other countries. He expands the national defense, public works, and education. Of course, all this takes lots of money.

Split Kingdom
During the reign of Rehoboam, son of Solomon, the country splits over the issue of taxes. More than half of the country proclaims Jeroboam their King. This new Northern Kingdom retains the title, “Israel,” while the Southern Kingdom takes the title of their largest tribe (or state), Judah. Our current term “Jews” comes from the word Judah. The Bible follows the stories of the Israel and Judah.

Israel has many short dynasties – the political story is full of espionage, assassination and scheming. In 722 BC, the Assyrians conquered Israel. There was a massive and permanent foreign exchange program that quickly assimilated all the Israelites into the Assyrian culture, and they were never heard from again.

Judah keeps the dynasty of David in tact (just barely, at times). They are finally defeated by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Babylonians took many Jews by force back to their home country. Different from Israel’s exile, however the exiled Jews never assimilated. The Persians defeated the Babylonians, and the Jews became exiles to Persia, who did not have the history of bad blood with the Jews. The Persians let the Jews go back to their homeland 70 years after they were taken captive. When they return, they rebuild the cities and the temple.

400 years
There are 400 years between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. During this time, we have good historical documents regarding the Jews, known as the Apocrypha. Basically, several different civilizations come into the Jewish territory and exert various levels of influence, resulting in a few different revolts. Finally, the Romans end up occupying the territory and exerting significant control and providing protection.

Jesus was born between BC and A.D. He is a descendant of David and claims to be the one predicted that would rule forever. He intentionally picks his followers and they accompany him in his ministry of miracles and teaching. He is an authoritative teacher that explains the Old Testament law (from Moses) in simple, yet profound ways. His bold, authoritative, in-your-face words are contrasted with his humble, loving, gracious, gentle actions. Rarely do these go together and he becomes instantly popular with the lower classes, while the ruling classes seek to kill him.

The Romans did not consider him a threat as much as the Jews did. In fact, the Romans were glad to have such a character that raised the morale of the lower class. The Romans prohibited the Jews from capital punishment, but the Jewish leaders were outraged by Jesus’ clear claim to divinity. Finally, the Jewish leaders convinced the Roman officials that Jesus was a threat because he believed that he was better than Caesar. On this charge, the Romans, urged strongly by the Jewish leaders gave him the death penalty. His leaders thought he would be the King like David. They hoped he would rise up an army and defeat the Romans, but instead He was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead.

Early Church
He met with his disciples for 40 days after his resurrection. They were astonished and began to understand Jesus’ kingdom as unfolding slowly and through love rather than quickly, and by force. They stayed in Jerusalem (the capital city of Israel) for a long time, enjoying each others’ company and converting more and more Jews to follow the now-absent Jesus. As the Jewish leaders began to feel threatened again, the Romans gave them more liberty and they began killing the new Christians. As a result, the Christians spread throughout the Roman world and started churches in most major cities. One of the most ardent Jewish leaders tracking down the Christians was named Paul. He had a miraculous conversion experience, and became the primary spokesman for the new Christians, and is responsible for starting most of the new churches in the various cities.


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