A few weeks ago Jamie and I had a Friday date night and went to an exhibit at our local museum called "Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story". It had some amazing pieces of pottery, tools, art and other items from the time Jesus was alive. They even had a piece of Jerusalem's temple, plus several sections of scrolls from early copies of what we now know as the bible. They had a section of Luke dated around 200 A.D., I believe. The text still stood out clearly on the parchment but it was all Greek to me.
Another section of text there was from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. I wish I could tell you if it was a Greek translation or if it was in the original Hebrew, but I don't remember, because I was fascinated by the English translation posted above the text. What we now know as chapters 43 and 44 of the book tell of the great disobedience of the Israelite people, and how far they've wandered from God. Then Isaiah writes this, as a prophet speaking for God:
"Remember these things, O Jacob, for you are my servant, O Israel. I have made you, you are my servant; O Israel, I will not forget you. I have swept away your offenses like a cloub, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.
Sing for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done this; shout aloud, O earth beneath. Burst into song, you mountains, you forests and all your trees, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, he displays his glory in Israel."
Many times Christians think of the Old Testament as portraying the judgment/ruler side of God, while the New Testatment emphasizes the grace/servant side of God. But things are never so simple. We see plenty of harshness, judgment and even anger from Jesus in the New Testatment. And sometimes pieces of pure grace pour from the pages of the Old Testament, just like this part of Isaiah.
The word for "redeem" in the bolded section above is almost surely not talking about heaven -- it's a reference to the restoration of the nation of Israel, and their freedom from bondage. When Isaiah was writing this (~700 B.C.), his nation was starting to weaken under Assyrian forces, and soon many of his people would be slaves. The book of Isaiah is full of warnings of this impending occupation, and links their military weakness to the preceding cultural, social and spiritual weakness. He basically sees his country falling apart from the inside-out.
Yet peppered throughout the book are frequent passages of amazing optimism and beauty, like the one cited above. And almost every one of them is bookended by long lists of the heinous acts the people have commited. The pattern is like this, as spoken by God:
1) You screwed up
2) Wow, you screwed up big time
3) I love you
4) I have saved you. You are mine.
5) Please come back. You will be so much better for it.
6) You're coming back!
7) Wait... there you go again...
8) Back to #1
Notice the order of #4 and #5, just like in the bolded text. First God saves, then he asks his people to come back to him. The people's strength as a nation is dependent on their strength of heart, because this is a natural consequence of cultures. You can't build a lasting superpower on a foundation of deceit and greed. That's still a good lesson for today, wouldn't you say?
But their status with God didn't depend on their obedience. God chose them anyway, and made them his people. Not because they were awesome. But because he's God, and he said so. The same reason that 7,000 Israelites didn't bow before idols during the time of Elijah (1 Kings 19) -- God reserved them. The original text doesn't give any indication that those 7,000 used their free will to stand strong. It appears God just decided they wouldn't bow to idols, so they didn't.
But like I said earlier, themes of the bible are never quite so simple. There are instances of God's confusing wrath and seeming injustice (Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6, anyone?) and instances of God's confusing grace and seeming softheartedness (criminal on the cross in Luke 23?).
But the confusing moments of grace certainly aren't confined to the New Testament. How odd that because of one man, Abraham, God decided to take millions under his wing, protecting them, building them up as a nation, and telling them they would always be his, no matter how far they strayed. All that forgiveness and blessing over thousands of years, just because God liked the guy who came before them.
That is a theme that surfaces again...
So I stood in the museum, seeing an exhibit linking Judaism and Christianity, being reminded once again that our story truly is the same. And if you read chapters 9 through 11 of Romans, you get an incredibly positive and uplifting picture of the future of the Jews. That's a future I'd be proud to share.
I'm not done yet, but I'm done for tonight. :)