This is the First and Greatest Commandment: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
Coming of age for Israel happens at Sinai. Prior to this time, Israel had no written covenant. The lack of a written law prior to Sinai led to some interesting stories. A good example of this statement would be the story of Judah, his sons, and Tamar. In the short story, Judah’s sons die from displeasing God in their sexual relations with Tamar yet Judah becomes an ancestor of Christ when he sleeps with his daughter-in-law that he mistook for a Baal temple prostitute (Genesis 38). However, after the covenant was given in literal form at Sinai the sin, judgment, and then salvation cycle really begins. The cycle consist of Israel breaking the covenant of God, in the time of the judges and kings this came about as Baal worship while in the post-exilic time it manifested as lawful lawlessness, Israel would be judged by God for the covenant breaking, and Israel would then repent causing God to save them; each generation repeated the cycle. This cycle stretched from the time of Moses all the way to the day of Jesus, the man-God, who would abolish the cycle and make salvation real and permanent for everyone that believes in him; Jesus is the king that does not fail to follow God’s Law and the leader that does not die, a leader men can follow to righteousness, an eternal David, and an eternal King.
Moses lead Israel in righteousness but he himself became the first and longest example of the sin, judgment, and then salvation cycle . While Van deals well with the metaphysical question of Moses as an example of the inability of the Law to justify, Moses’ example goes farther than that (Van, 2012, p. 2). Moses is an example of how the Law cannot justify and an example of the sin, judgment, and then salvation cycle. Moses breaks God’s word, Moses is judged by being prohibited from entering the land, Moses is then saved by Jesus as he enters the land at the transfiguration (Deuteronomy 34, Matthew 17:1-13). In the one man’s, Moses, experience the nature of Israel takes on a form that will persist throughout the generations to come. Moses does not violate any tenant of the Law to bring about the judgement, what Moses did was depart from God in his heart, even if only for a short time, this is to break the one commandment that God directly cares about: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5, NIV). In the life of Moses it is seen that it’s not a commandment issue that is the problem but a heart issue and that is why the idol worship of the pre-exilic period no better or worse than what Malachi calls Israel on the carpet for: “… not taking it to heart to give honor to My name” (Malachi 2:2, NIV).
Fast-forward a few hundred years to Gideon. Gideon is the perfect example of how the cycle played out in Israel in the age of the judges. The text of scripture says that this is a time when every man did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). Howard says that the book of Judges “… was written to show the consequences of disobedience to God” (Howard, 2007, p. 116). In the time of Gideon Israel was engaging is gross sexual Baal worship. This probably explains why the men of the city got mad at Gideon for destroying Baal’s altar (Judges 6:28-40). The short story is that Israel had once again broken the commandments and gone after other gods. As Moses demonstrated, it was not the other gods that were the problem but the heart of Israel leaving Yahweh. God sent Median to judge Israel and Gideon led Israel to repent. Because of Israel’s heart change God brought about salvation from Median (Judges 6-8). This is a quintessential example of the cycle as it would play out over the next nearly 800 years.
Samuel, David, Solomon, and the Monarchy
The days of Samuel through David were unparalleled God following that was not seen since the day of Joshua. That being said, Israel, in the person or through the person of Solomon, fell to the worship of other gods. Their heart left the most-high God. The judgment came in the form of a split nation and they remained split until post-exile. Koperski said, “The Law’s chief function, which was temporary, was to identify and condemn sin, as well as provide Israel with a guide for preserving its life and covenant” (Koperski, 2002, p. 558). The point Koperski is hitting on, about “preserving its life and covenant”, is again hitting at the heart of the issue, the Law was about how to love God more than it was a set of rules. From the point of the split, each monarchy is now part of a micro sin, judgment, and then salvation cycle. The formula for each monarchy is, good king equals salvation and a bad king equals judgment; each king is judged by how well they lead Israel in keeping the commandments. The Southern Kingdom consisted of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah while the Northern Kingdom consisted of the other ten tribes. The Northern Kingdom started off wrong and never recovered. The first act of Jeroboam, the first King of the Northern Kingdom, was to erect two massive golden statues, one in the far north and the other in the far south. This was a political move on Jeroboam’s part because he feared that if the people traveled to the Jerusalem they would want a united kingdom: ” And he went out from there and built Penuel. Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will return to the house of David” (1 Kings 12:25b-26, NIV). No king coming after Jeroboam in the north would tear down those idols and return the Northern Kingdom to strict Yahweh worship. What king Jeroboam started king Ahab finished. Ahab is widely excepted as the worst of the northern kings: “Of the kings of Judah and Israel, who emerge from the Bible as thoroughly wicked, none is treated at greater length by Josephus than Ahab” (Feldman, 1992, p. 369). Even though the king that followed Ahab, Jehu, did undo some of the evil, Israel’s fate was already set and they were hauled off by the Assyrians a full 80 years before the Southern Kingdom would be taken by Babylon. The reason the Southern Kingdom lasted longer was they did have some kings that returned that kingdom to strict Yahweh worship. The most notable of the northern kings for their wickedness would likely be Manasseh, he is the only King to have it said of him that he sacrificed his children to Baal and also the only one who put the Asherah in the temple which is tantamount to turning the temple into a Baal brothel (2 Kings 21, NIV). It was in the days of Manasseh that God first promised the exile of Judah: “I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down” (2 Kings 21:13, NIV). King Josiah followed Manasseh and Josiah undid the horrors that Manasseh had wrought. He called Judah back to Yahweh, and God saved them for a time and prolonged the days before the judgment that he had spoken to them in Manasseh’s day because of this change of heart. However, the time came when they were all hauled off to exile by the voracious Babylonian empire.
After the time of judgment had passed, Cyrus lets the people go back home and a new situation develops. Instead of falling into sin Israel goes the other way and falls into legalism. As Ezra and Nehemiah begin building the temple there were challenges that kept the people relying on God: “Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other” (Nehemiah 4:17). It is clear that Ezra and Nehemiah were God followers like David and they held Israel to the standard of God commands and each of them is notable for the reforms they brought about: from the prevention of intermarriage to the temple tithe reinstatement. God brought them through those times but Israel fell into Lawlessly following the Law. They did not have the Law of God on their hearts and were more interested in the praise of men. These questions God asks them through Malachi make it clear that Israel had not gone after idols as in the old days but they were not fulfilling the covenant: “When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” (Malachi 1:8, NIV) In reality, it was the same sin as Idol worship; God was not Loved as he should have been. From that point, they started down the road of legalism. This is the same legalism Jesus came against with full force in his day. God’s last words to Israel in the Old Testament are both of impending judgment and salvation: “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves” (Malachi 4:1-2). The fulfillment of this verse is continuing in the person of Jesus and the wrath of the Roman army.
The heart of the problem is the heart; that is what Moses found out. Gideon showed a different problem; when Gideon lead, Israel followed God, but after he died the cycle would begin again. The monarchy exemplified the fact that the leader makes a difference in the people’s heart. The post-exilic period showed that failing to love God was the problem because even though idol worship did not come back, the people were just as guilty of leaving God. So what could be the solution? What could change the heart of the people to honor God and provide an ongoing leadership example for the people? God’s promise to Israel in Ezekiel 36 that he would take them from the nations and put a new heart in them is fulfilled in Jesus (Ezekiel 36:26, NIV). Jesus is the leader that never fails to lead the people to love God and the work of Jesus results in a new birth for the person. David’s prayer is finally answered: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10, NIV)
Feldman, L. H. (1992). Josephus’ portrait of Ahab. Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses, 68(4), 368-384.
Howard, D. M. (2007). An introduction to the Old Testament historical books. Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
KOPERSKI, V., & Lewis, S. M. (2002). What are they saying about Paul and the law? Studia Canonica, 36(2), 557-560. Retrieved from https://lopes.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/docview/214186567?accountid=7374
Van, D. B. (2012). Moses, Elijah, and Jesus: Reflections on the basic structures of the bible. In Die Skriflig, 46(1), 1-7. Retrieved from https://lopes.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/docview/1242001787?accountid=7374