Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Ancient Hebrews and Us

Recently, I've been reading, "Walking With God," by Jeff Cavins and Tim Gray. It walks you through the narrative portions of the Bible, showing how it is one long story of salvation history. I've found it fascinating, and as I haven't delved very deeply into the Old Testament before, I have learned a great deal.

As I read about the plight of Israel, and learn more about the things they went through prior to the birth of Jesus, I am finding so many parts of the story I wasn't familiar with; levels of meaning that are deeper than the "Bible story" versions I remember. For instance, when Moses first goes to Pharaoh, he does not ask for his people to be set free from slavery entirely; he merely asks that they are allowed to leave for three days to worship God in the desert. And the various plagues God unleashed upon Egypt were calculated to attack the power of specific Egyptian deities, showing that He is the true God, not them. The entire Exodus story was not just a story of a people freed from a life of slavery; it is the story of God trying to wrestle his people from the grip of idolatry.

The ancient Hebrews were living in a world of pagan cultures. From their time amongst the Egyptians, to being surrounded by Canaanites, Philistines and others; to their time of exile amongst Babylonians and Assyrians, to being conquered by Greeks and Romans, the Hebrews were constantly living in and around cultures who had dramatically different beliefs, customs and practices. Time and time again, they veered from God's law, and took up the practices of their neighbors. In reading the scriptures, it is easy (at least for me), to wonder how it was that they slipped into idolatry so easily. How could they forget what God had done for them and abandon his ways, even in the face of danger and difficulty, even when they had prophets trying to guide their way? The very voice of God spoke to them on different occasions. They witnessed amazing miracles and clear signs of God's favor or disapproval.

But what one needs to remember is how different their life was supposed to be from their neighbors, and how difficult that must have been.

What has struck me, is how the story of the Hebrews and their pitfalls and trials, so mirrors the story of any one of us today. We may no longer be called to adhere to strict cultural laws that govern what we eat, maintain cleanliness, and how we worship God. But we are called to adhere to God's commands, and to live a life that is different from many around us. No longer are God's people living amongst pagan cultures such as the Egyptians, Assyrians or Greeks. We now live in world of secular idolatry. The new paganism that we are surrounded by is the secular culture of our day; a world in which many of the ways we, as Christians, are called to live are contrary to what we see around us. We are asked to set ourselves apart, and live differently. And like the ancient Hebrews before us, that's hard to do.

Instead of having to choose whether to adhere to the traditions and practices of our fathers, or worship the statue down the street, we have to choose whether to remain steadfast to the teachings of Jesus and the Church, or allow ourselves to be swept up in the tide of modern culture. It isn't easy to choose to live a life that is different from many of those around you; to hold fast to different beliefs and practices. To continue to go to mass, to pray, to stand up for what we believe to be right. Like the Hebrews before us, we are surrounded, in the midst of a mass of people who do not know God, or if they do, have chosen to reject Him. In the midst of this, we are asked to be different, to be faithful, to trust.

And the worst part is, when you read the Scriptures, you realize how terribly the Hebrews failed! They failed time and time again. God would send them instructions, and they would ignore them. God sent prophets, messages, even angels! And still, the Hebrew people seem almost fickle in their wavering from faithfulness to rejection of God's ways. The hope inherent in these stories is of course that God's mercy and forgiveness are always offered, if the people will be obedient and follow Him.

We know, 2,000 years later, that in Christ Jesus, we have forgiveness and redemption. We know the law was fulfilled in him, and we understand more of what it means to live according to God's law. And yet, like the Hebrews before us, we fail. Even when we believe, even when we try to dedicate our lives to God and live the way He wishes for us, we fail. We mess up. We aren't faithful. We don't trust. I know I don't, far more often than I really want to admit.

But again, like the Hebrews before us, we find our ultimate redemption, and ultimate hope, in Jesus, and in the everlasting mercy and forgiveness of God. If God can hang in there through the ups and downs of the Hebrews, I'm quite certain He can hang in there with the least of us. It has been a comforting, and yet eye opening discovery. It makes me wonder how I can learn from those people of so long ago - learn to trust and be faithful, even when it is hard.

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