4. From Conquest to Collapse
The Nation of Israel had a mission from God. They were chosen to live in such a way as to reveal that what God was offering was the best we can hope for in this fallen world.
Keep in mind the nature of this covenant. God had come as an powerful rescuer, pulling Israel out of the fire. They had been won back from Pharaoh. At the mountain, God offered them a treaty that was quite common to that time and place. He would be their emperor and they would become His vassals. He promised abundant provisions and protection if they would commit themselves to learning His ways. They agreed to it unanimously.
But they were too weak to keep up their end of the deal, so God left them sitting in the wilderness until a fresh generation grew up that had known only tents and wilderness, along with some warfare. They were able to handle anything, but kept falling short.
Don’t let anyone kid you about the Canaanites. They were a threat to whole human race because of their unspeakable depravity. The world is already a fallen and nasty place, but these folks were off the scale. The Law of Moses was from God’s own mouth, and He condemned these people to death. After the first flush of destroying some demonic temples and those who served in them, Israel kept backing off and not dealing with the rest. So the Lord left these morally filthy nations there to tempt Israel and keep them weak.
Things got so bad that at one point, they completely lost all copies of the Covenant for some fifty years. Old Testament history is a long sad tale of decline punctuated with a few bright moments of glory. Finally God took away the land He promised to give the descendants of Abraham. First the Northern Kingdom was hauled away, and then the Southern. But at least the southern half were determined to keep their identity as a nation.
They sat in Babylon for a while and absorbed some of the culture and mythology. They picked up this crazy notion that money was important in religion, a peculiar Babylonian idea. When the Persians came, they also thought so, but added a new troubling element. The Medo-Persian Zoroastrian religion caused them to believe that once a ruler issued a decree, even he could not rescind it. Somehow the Israelites absorbed this crazy notion and began thinking it applied to their God.
The small handful of Israelites who returned to their homeland were mostly those who weren’t making it big in Babylon, and had little to lose by leaving. But they brought with them a heavy dose of materialism they didn’t have before, and that crazy notion that God could not punish them because they were following the rules. About the only good lesson they learned was to stay away from blatant idolatry, but now they were suckers for a subtle form of mental idolatry. It ate away at their faithfulness. By the time Alexander the Great marched into the land, they capitulated and began absorbing his Hellenism. Hellenism was openly hostile to the ancient Hebrew culture.
Moses had been the very soul of Hebrew mysticism. For centuries the core of Hebrew culture was an otherworldly call to see through the provisions of the Covenant and embrace the faith of Abraham. By the time Christ was born, they had nearly forgotten all of that. They were so enamored with this new worldly form of logic and reason that they used it to pervert their understanding of the Word. The result was the hideous legalism we saw with the Pharisees.
In the minds of the Pharisees and their religious allies, their reason was their god. Their legalistic assumptions included the idea that God owed them because they were so wonderful. They taught that God was bound by their reasoning about His Law. Their oral traditions trumped the Old Testament writings. A great many of them never even read the Scriptures, but spent their time memorizing the rulings of previous scholars, and dreaming up new rules to pile on top. None of their heroes would have recognized this highly evolved religion; the Old Testament saints would have been horrified of what it had become.