We can learn a lot from the Isrealites. If you had told me I would be writing about the Isrealites a few years ago, I would have laughed at you. Truth is, I didn’t read my Bible enough. If we are being honest, not only was the Old Testament foreign to me, it was also…boring. There, I said it.
Sure, we might know the age old Bible stories of the Old Testament with notable characters like Noah, Moses, Joshua, and Daniel. I have read these stories to my children. In Bible story books, these guys always make the cut and are given several pages in technicolour. If you grew up going to church you may remember these stories presented on die hard flannel graphs. (I say die hard because a few years ago the church I attended at the time packed up all their flannel characters and flannel boards and sent them off to Africa and they looked as if they were in the same condition they had been in back in 1970s.) But what but the rest of these stories? The lesser known stories of the Old Testament and what we can learn about them are great in numbers. (Ha! See what I did there?)While the stories are numerous, we really need to take a step back and look at the Isrealites as a whole.
I used to hate History. In fact, I was failing it way back in middle school and my parents bribed me with the prospect of new shoes if only I could get a B. It must have worked, because I ended up getting an A and two pairs of shoes. And I also ended up realizing something about History that was a game changer for me. History really is just all about people and how they lived. History is important because we need to learn from their mistakes and successes and grow and change as needed. So let’s take a good look at a really old group of people and see what we can learn.
The Isrealites. To begin with their story we need to look at one man named Abraham. We first see Abraham in Genesis 11. Way back in the beginning – and he had a different name, Abram. In the beginning of chapter 12, we see Abram being called by God. Abram hears God telling him to leave everything behind and go to a place where He will show him. All of his relatives, all of his possessions – everything. And Abram does just that. One of the things we can learn about Abraham specifically is that he always trusted God and did as He was asked. God could see this and wanted to give Abraham a gift, and not just his new name. In Genesis 5:15, God promises to give Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars. He started with a son named Isaac who had a son named Jacob who was the father of 12 different sons who formed 12 different tribes that made up the nation of Isreal. The twelve sons were Rueben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Isaachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. (Genesis 35:25-26).
So that is the history behind how Isreal came to be. Their story really begins with the brothers turning against their younger brother Joseph, which you can read about here. This leads them to Egypt, where things go well for a time. At the time of Joseph’s death, there are a lot more than just the 12 brothers. Exodus 1:6-7 says, “in time Joseph and all of his brothers died ending that generation. But their descendants, the Isrealites, had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly they became extremely powerful and filled the land.” We are not talking about a small group of people here. We are talking a huge number. Eventually a new king came to power in Egypt. Long gone was Joseph and the great things he had done for the king and all of Egypt. Long passed were the days where that mattered. The new king was not a fan of these Isrealite intruders who were taking up so much space in his land, so he made them slaves.
Here is the first stage of suffering for the Isrealites. They were treated harshly. Pharoah felt threatened by them and their numbers and hoped slavery would keep them from multiplying, but it didn’t. Exodus 1:20 it says “God was good to the midwives and the Isrealites continued to multiply, growing more and more powerful.” Let’s not miss this. The Isrealites were loved by a very powerful God. He had a plan for them. Even in this time where they had to endure the physical pain of heavy labour, building entire cities with their hands. Even when they were beaten by the Egyptians and forced to endure more than they thought they could bear. God still had a plan.
He sent Moses. Moses was born at a time when the king of Egypt wanted all the Isrealite babies to be killed to stop the nation from growing any further. His mother, wanting to protect him made a basket and placed it in the water. It was no mistake that it was Pharoah’s own daughter who discovered the little baby in the water. God had a plan. She took him in and raised him as her own. He grew up in a life of privilege. Then one day, when he was an adult he looked out over the Isrealite slaves and couldn’t stand to see them beaten so he killed one of the Egyptians who had been beating an Isrealite slave. He then fled Egypt, afraid for his life. But God called to him in hiding and told him he would be the one to lead them out of slavery.
A time of redemption for the Isrealites when God used plagues to convict Pharoah to let His people go. The amazing account of how God split the sea in two so they could cross. Let’s just pause for a minute there and think about how it would have felt to be an Isrealite that day walking on dry ground with walls of water on either side. How it must have felt to know God was showing His love and care in such an amazing way. Not only that, but they they left with many riches. Talk about an amazing deliverance! Sadly, it didn’t take long for the Isrealites to forget.
Here is another period of suffering for the Isrealites. After being freed from the hold of the Egyptians, they were brought through to a period in the wilderness. But before we get into that story, let’s look at something very important here. God gave this decree to the Isrealites as a standard to test their faithfulness to them.
“If you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, obeying His commands and keeping all His decrees, then I will not make you suffer any of the diseases I sent on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord who heals you.” Exodus 15:26
God wanted the Isrealites to obey them. He was leading them to a wonderful place – a land flowing with milk and honey. A beautiful place where the land was prosperous. A place that was GOOD. A place that He had promised to Abraham’s descendants in Genesis 24:7. These were a people that God loved with all of His heart, that are called “God’s chosen people.” In Exodus 22:33, God calls them to be a holy people. This doesn’t mean they were to be perfect, because we will see they are not. This call to holiness is more a call to be devoted to God with their whole hearts.
And here is where we need to take a good, long look at the Isrealites and see the root of their suffering and what we can learn from it. After their period in the wilderness, the descendants of these people enter the promised land under the leadership of Joshua.
Here Isreal is given the land they were promised, divided up between the tribes descending from Jacob’s twelve sons. But is everything good? No. The Isrealites are given the land, but it wasn’t empty. Thus begins the wars that must happen for them to be victorious and claim the land. Before they entered the Promised Land, Moses blessed them. Just before he dies, he gives has a song about how the Isrealites will prosper in the land. He reminds them of the covenants God has made for them, the ten commandments, everything they have learned as they journeyed through the wilderness. Exodus 32:45-47 says, “When Moses had finished reciting all of these words to the people of Isreal, he added: Take to heart all the words of warning I have given to you today. Pass them on as a command to your children so they will obey every word of these instructions. These instructions are not empty words – they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan river.”
It was very clear these instructions that God have given the Isrealites. They entered the land excited for what was to come. I like to think they were on fire with devotion for God, the One who had led them through this time of wandering and living in tents. They must have been excited to receive this blessing of occupying cities and establishing themselves, settling down. But how quickly things get into a jumbled mess.
The Isrealites biggest problem was this – they occupied the lands but didn’t get rid of all of the gods of the people who were living there before them. Instead of worshipping the One true God, they ended up participating in acts of worship with these people. They repeatedly did this. In Judges 21:25, it says “in those days Isreal had no king, all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.”
Okay, let’s be honest. When I read those words they send a chill right through me. They might as well be prophetic. Let’s fast forward to today. Read this again in a different way – in those days, the world had no King, all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. Doesn’t that seem to be the case in the world today?
The Isrealites struggled with getting caught up in other pagan traditions and idol worship. God would send someone to show them the wrong in their ways. They would cry out to God for forgiveness and ask for His help. He would do this for them. Then they would repeat the cycle. How much are we like the Isrealites?
I am going to be bold here and say that some of the Isrealites suffering was a direct result of their sinfulness. Sin is anything that separates us from God. Anything that is not pleasing to God. Now let’s take a step back and look at it in today’s light. I am going to be bold here and say that some of our own suffering is a direct result of our own sinfulness.
Ouch. Might be a little bit painful, but it is true. God wants His people to be holy – to be fully devoted to Him. And anything that we prioritize over Him is considered a god to us. Anything. This is going to hurt, but consider this short list – money, television, sports, creative arts, music. Anything.
I have struggled with this. I know we all do because of who we are. But the beautiful truth? Because of who God is He offers us a freedom from sins and a promise of a fresh start every day and every single moment of our lives. And not only that, we are also loved by the same God who desperately loved the Isrealites. Let’s step away from the Old Testament and look at this beautiful hope in Romans 8:38-39.
“And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death, nor life, neither angels, nor demons, neither our fears for today or our worries about tomorrow – not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or on the earth below – indeed, nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Suffering is sometimes brought on by our own sinfulness. By our lack of God in our lives. Please note I am not saying this is the only reason we experience suffering – I know that is not the case. Still, it stands that we need to continually evaluate where we place God in our lives. We need to continually throw off things of the world that we may be making a priority. That short list? Those things are not sinful in and of themselves. But when we put these things before the Lord, we begin with a slippery slope that can bring us further and further away from the One who loves us the most.
The Isrealites are a good example of both of these things – the sinful suffering, the slippery slope and also the God who loved them through it all and gave them countless second chances. We can learn from their stories that God continually took their suffering and changed it for good – offering them freedom and hope. God will do this for us as well. When we continually seek Him, we receive the peace and release from suffering that we long for.
So seek Christ. Seek Him in your time of suffering. Sometimes these places where you feel farthest away from Him are where He chooses to speak. Where He reveals Himself and allows us to see things the way He sees things. Then you can throw off the things that are not in line with His will and you can find the rest and release you long for.