Ancient Israel's Relationship with God
Ancient Israel’s often shaky and one-sided relationship with God is possibly, and very probably, the most important part of the Old Testament in the Bible. There are other stories in the OT, but they often also involve Israel and Israel’s relationship with God, in one way or another. Anyone reading the OT, even casually, will perhaps come to the conclusion that the Israelites had a very uncertain, even downright painful, relationship with God, the God who had specifically chosen them out of all the tribes and nations of the world at that time. Because of this crocked relationship with God, the Israelites in general almost seem to go from one disaster to another with alarming regularity. It seems as if they go from one round of punishment and correction after another, and even then they still never really learn their lesson. It was at best a highly one-sided affair with the Israelites falling away from God time and time again, while God was always waiting for them to return. It usually needed a lot of hard and harsh lessons to bring the Israelites to their senses.
I believe in some way that this shaky relationship reflects some individual Christian’s also often shaky relationship with God at the present time, and I could add it certainly mirrored my Christian life for a long time. The story of the Israelites relationship with God throughout the OT can often reflect our own Christian walk with God. Because the Israelites were specifically chosen, I think eventually that they began to take this calling for granted, and then began to God for granted too. It is possible that many Christians take their calling from God for granted, perhaps thinking that it gives them licence to do anything they want because God, they think, is on their side, and then they too begin to take God for granted. And no one can or should take God for granted. When we do, we may very well run into the same problems the Israelites did. If we abandon God, He will abandon us and leave us to our own devices. If we abandon God to live in sin, He will very probably, almost certainly, punish us one way or the other for that sin.
At the start of the Israelites relationship with God all seemed or appeared to be ‘sweetness and light’ but as time went by, and more and more, the relationship began to fizzle out and falter because of the Israelites refusal to serve God wholeheartedly, and also worship Him wholeheartedly. Because of this, God time and time again abandoned them to their own devices until they learnt the bitterness of being separated from God and came back to Him repentant and ready to serve Him again. God, although righteously angry and punishing them for their sin and disobedience, was always willing to give the Israelites a second chance, a fresh start in fact. I think many Christians are enthusiastic about God when they are younger and as they are getting to know God more and more, but after a while we can get distracted, or lose interest, or become embroiled in things that are not God’s plan for us. It is then that we might start drifting away from God, and He also might start to distance Himself from us. In my own life as a Christian, I can identify solidly with Israel’s half-hearted, corrupt and weak relationship, and a relationship that was sometimes one-sided and unenthusiastic. In my life, I have fallen away from God many times and for many reasons, and at times He has corrected me, and at other times He has punished me for my sins and transgressions, just like He did to Israel. They were sinners, like I have been; they were flesh and blood, like I am. They make so many mistakes, make so many bad choices, sin so much and rely on God so little, that they begin to look like idiots who never learn. But in many ways, we have all probably done the same. And we are wiser after the fact, because we can read about them and their mistakes, with all emphasis on not making the same mistakes as them. That’s the theory anyway! And I am brought to this fact, when I reflect on their troubles: I feel in many ways that though the Israelites were God’s chosen people, and though they were disobedient to Him and His ways, I think that also many of them at times just didn’t want to know God at all. I think many calling themselves Christians can be the same. And then we wonder why God seems so distant!
In just what ways were the Israelites disobedient to God? For that matter, in just what ways are Christians today disobedient to God? In reading the OT many times, and in studying the relationship between Israel and God, I think there were a number of ways that the Israelites were disobedient to God. They were disobedient to God by sometimes not taking Him at His word, and they were disobedient by not worshipping God in a wholehearted fashion or serving Him in a wholehearted fashion. They were half-hearted, and sometimes worshipped other nation’s gods as well. And they were warned not to marry into other tribes, which they did, in case their worship of God became ‘contaminated’ by other beliefs, and they picked up ways of living that God didn’t want them to pick up. God was not only angry with them for these reasons though; some of the OT talks about people being treated badly, and that some Israelites were ruthlessly oppressing their own tribes people and were grabbing land and becoming rich at the expense of other people. It wasn’t just about shoddy worship and disobedience then, God was also concerned about people being treated unfairly and being exploited. It’s an old story. To come to the second question, in just what ways are Christians today disobedient to God? I think there are numerous ways that Christians can be disobedient to God today quite frankly. Firstly, we can be disobedient by not taking God at His word, and living as half-hearted Christians. Perhaps Christians who are ‘sort-of’ Christians, but when it comes down to it, are not really Christians at all. We can be disobedient by living in sin, or doing something we know is wrong, when we know that it doesn’t please God. Half-hearted living for God can also encompass many things. We are half-hearted if we live compromised lives as Christians, perhaps drinking too much, or indulging too much, or taking illegal drugs, or even when the value system we have doesn’t match our liveable reality. By this I mean that we can know what is good and right, but then we choose not to do it, or turn a blind eye to injustice or blatant unfairness or exploitation and so on. So, there can be many ways that a Christian can be disobedient to God. And also many ways to be a half-hearted Christian.
Throughout Israel’s history with God, and their ‘on-off’ relationship, God warned them many times about their behaviour and their attitude to Him. Time and time again God sent all kinds of prophets warning solemnly how He would punish them if they did not repent and turn back to Him. We can read these prophets in the OT, and they Include Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Amos to name but some of them. Some of these prophets and their message covers at length what they wanted to say, while others are briefer and to the point. But whatever the case, God sent and inspired them to preach warning after warning of what would happen to the Israelites if they continued to defy God, and be disobedient to Him. In many cases, their warnings seemed to fall on deaf ears, but God gave them the benefit of the doubt anyway. Sometimes these prophets were treated harshly, sometimes they were asked and then told not to speak any ‘bad news’, and occasionally they had to disappear and hide for fear of their lives. Why did the main body of Israelites refuse to listen to these warnings, even when they knew God and had a relationship with Him? I am brought to the conclusion that people even at their best can refuse to accept what is right and correct, even to their own detriment and downfall, as with Israel many times. Are we any better as Christians today? If we look around us, and the way societies are run, we can probably say that humans never seem to learn, and perhaps only when it is too late. Even in wealthy democratic societies, there is poverty, division, injustice and exploitation when there need be no such things. And even with people who proclaim to be Christians, their very actions or what they say can often be at odds with even basic Christianity. It is possible to say you are a Christian after all, but also possible to not be a Christian by the way you act and behave, even if you think you are.
Why did God choose Israel, just why did God want and start a relationship with a particular people, the Children of Israel? Why didn’t He choose the powerful, wealthy and religious Egyptians or the sophisticated and civilised Babylonians? God’s choices may seem odd to men, but they make perfect sense to God! Where His purposes fulfilled merely by choosing them, or did He have other long-term purposes in mind? In trying to answer these and other questions, we might begin to get to the truth of God, who He is and what He is about. God is about justice, God is about fairness and He is about equality, when often most societies at large are not. In choosing lowly and tribal Israel over other more wealthy and powerful and sophisticated societies, we can see that God often chooses the outcast, the despised and the low-born, to make a point about human society and even human nature. His choices to the worldly and important may seem odd, but to God they speak about His nature and His design for the world. I believe ultimately that God’s purpose in choosing Israel went far beyond that choice, and was a design that encompasses the whole world and all the people in it. In the end, God wants every human to serve Him, but of course it is obvious that many will not; not at this time anyway. I can say then that God had a purpose for Israel, as He now has a plan for the whole world.
The nurturing of Israel was to come into one sort of fulfilment with the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, who was fully man and fully God. Jesus came into the world to reconcile sinful men and women to God, and perhaps also to each other. And He was the fulfilment of many prophecies about Him in the OT. He was, and is, the promised Messiah, come to bring light into a dark world. Why did Israel largely reject Jesus, and why did many gentiles accept Him and particularly His message? Is there a bigger reason, one that sometimes people fail to see, for this rejection by His own people? He was seen as an ‘upstart’ by some of the powerful, wealthy and religious hierarchies of His own people, and yet He was accepted by many poor and powerless of His own people, as well as His message being accepted by gentiles. I feel absolutely that God knew Jesus and His message would be largely rejected by His own people, and accepted by gentiles for the purpose of taking this message to the whole world, and letting every one know that God’s love and purpose for mankind is boundless and without limit. All who call on Jesus wholeheartedly will be heard.
Finally, why did God concern Himself so much with a sometimes aberrant and not-particularly-religious tribe of people anyway? Why didn’t He just let them do their own thing? In answering this question, we might get closer to the nature of God. He concerned Himself with a low-technology people because He wanted to prove that with the right emphasis, and with God’s guidance, any person from even the lowliest background can become a glorious success. He didn’t let them do their own thing, because He wanted to shape them for the purpose of letting later generations know, through the Bible, just how God does work with all kinds of people, even not-particularly-religious people. What is the nature of God? Perhaps we could say His nature is one of an abiding love, but we could also say He is merciful, just and utterly fair in His dealings with all kinds of people. The closer we get to God, the more we will understand His nature; that He isn’t just a God of the powerful, the mighty, the important and the very religious, He is also the God of ordinary people too!