Guests: Paul Dybdahl and Zdravko Stefanovic
Leading Question: Is this world the best that God can do, or are we looking for a better one?
The important questions in this lesson can perhaps be addressed against the backdrop of a chapter that compares the biblical view of history with that of Israel’s ancient Canaanite neighbors. The parallels between that ancient “mainstream” culture and ours today are in some respects quite striking. Israel had it’s eye on the future, a kingdom where evil and pain would be panished. The ancient Canaanite only saw this present world with its repeated annual cycle. The Canaanites didn’t not dream of the kingdom where no one would hurt or destroy. They lived in this world and in this world only.
In our modern world, an evolutionary perspective shares the same fate. There is no final restoration, only the endless cycles of nature. Christians believe God can do better than this. But first the background material, chapter 5, “Could You Invite a Canaanite Home to Lunch?” in Alden Thompson’s, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?
Could you invite a Canaanite home to lunch?
“You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”
– Exodus 19:6
“You shall not walk in the customs of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.”
– Leviticus 20:23
This chapter attempts to speak to a problem that is particularly acute for conservative Christians, for people of deep convictions about the life that God would have them live, for people who do not wish to contaminate the pure and holy with the filth of the world, To borrow a New Testament phrase, it seeks to deal with the problem of being in the world, but not of the world (cf John 17:14-18).
If you have read even a little bit of the Old Testament description of the conquest of Canaan, you will suspect that a faithful Israelite of that period would never invite a Canaanite home to lunch. As I read Joshua and Judges, I get the impression that an Israelite would have been much more inclined to invite him to a lynching, a hanging, an execution, to anything, in fact, except fellowship at a common meal. There are hints in the Pentateuch that the Lord did not intend actually to give the land of the Canaanites to Israel until the “iniquity of the Amorites” was complete (cf. Gen. 15:16). When this iniquity was complete, the land was ready to “vomit them out” (cf. Lev. 18:28; 20:22). The Lord was then ready to give the land to his people Israel. He warned them, however, not to share in the iniquity of their predecessors or the land would vomit them out as well (Lev. 18:24-30; 20:22-23). Small wonder that Joshua and company went about their task with such vigor. And this emphasis on separation has left its mark on both Testaments; “peculiar,” “holy,” “separate.” “Touch not the unclean thing,” “Come out of her my people,” are all well-known watch-words calling for a people apart (cf. Ex. 19:5; Deut. 14:2; 2 Cor. 6:17; Rev. 18:4).
This emphasis on distinctness and separateness for God’s people leads to a two-fold problem. First, it suggests that ancient Israel was to be in almost total isolation from the evil influences in her environment. Yet Israel’s history through the time of the judges and the kings clearly shows that Israel repeatedly fell into worshiping the gods of her neighbors. There is no reason to doubt that record of apostasy, but it does raise the question of Israel’s relationship with Canaanite culture when she was not in apostasy, but was right with her God. Could it really be possible that Israel was one moment in splendid isolation from her neighbors, and the next moment thoroughly immersed in the surrounding evil? Such violent swings of the pendulum are quite possible, but are they realistic when we look closely at the biblical, archaeological and historical record? That is one problem that we need to address.
The second problem touches on the implications for Christian living when one accepts the position that the people of God are to be separate and holy. Is God calling us to stand apart? Or is he asking us to mingle with the world in a life-bringing association with the world? The answer must be yes on both counts, of course, but that is hardly a solution to our problem. Perhaps a closer study of ancient Israel’s relationship to her neighbors can shed light on this practical problem that continually faces the devout and serious-minded Christian living in a polluted world. In fact, I think the case is stronger than just “perhaps,” for I have been very much helped by a clearer understanding of the relationship between Israel and her neighbors. Furthermore, as we study this relationship, we can discover fascinating insights into difficult Old Testament passages.
In previous chapters we have already noted numerous points in support of the view that the Old Testament depicts a drastic accommodation on the part of God to the needs of a fallen people. The handling of the satanic figures in the Old Testament, the remarkable adjustments to culture evident in the laws possessed by ancient Israel, the way in which Israel viewed the gods of her neighbors, all suggest numerous contacts with the surrounding culture, but contacts that were in the process of being purified.
ISRAEL AND THE GODS OF CANAAN
We now need to take a closer look at several specific points that have come to light in recent decades as a result of a remarkable archaeological discovery. The name of the site in the territory of ancient Tyre which has generated so much interest is Ras Shamra, the modern name for the ancient city of Ugarit. Not only have the discoveries been fascinating for their content, but the find is remarkable, also, because the really scintillating discoveries came to light in just a matter of days after work began on the mound of Ras Shamra in 1929. Every true archaeologist tells himself that he must be willing to settle for mundane artifacts as his noble contribution to the science, but no one complains over a glorious discovery like that of Ras Shamra.
In short Ras Shamra has opened up fresh vistas for our knowledge of ancient Canaan, its language, culture, and religion. We now know that classical biblical Hebrew is not really the language of heaven (as much as Hebrew teachers might like to think so), but it is simply the language of Canaan. The Ugaritic language is a very near relation of Hebrew and our knowledge of Hebrew has been greatly enhanced by the study of Ugaritic. But what is particularly interesting for our purposes is the knowledge of Canaanite religion and culture that Ras Shamra has bequeathed us. Among the finds were several tablets containing the myths of these ancient inhabitants of Canaan. Since these texts are dated about 1400 BC, it is not at all unreasonable to conclude that the beliefs and religious practices revealed in these tablets are fair samples of what Israel faced when she entered the land of Canaan.
One of the prominent gods in these tablets is the god Baal. In the art-work of Canaan he is often depicted with a thunderbolt and a bull, symbolizing his role as storm god and bringer of fertility. By recognizing that the bull is Baal’s favorite animal, we can begin to understand the dangerous implications of the golden calf at Sinai and Jeroboam’s two golden calves. The Israelites probably weren’t actually worshiping Baal right then, but what were they doing with his pet bull? That was what Moses and the prophets wanted to know, too. Israel was playing with fire.
But Baal is not the only god that surfaces in the Ras Shamra texts. El, the chief god of the ethical realm, is also prominent. Elyon, the “Most High” god, also finds a place in the Canaanite pantheon. That is not surprising in itself, since all the ancient nations had a complete pantheon of deities. The surprise comes when we turn to the Old Testament and find the names “El” and “Elyon” actually applied to the one true God, Yahweh. But don’t jump to hasty conclusions, for there is no evidence whatsoever in the Old Testament that “official” approval was ever granted for Israel to worship these Canaanite gods. What has happened is simply that Israel borrowed the names and applied them to her God, Yahweh.
A good biblical passage for illustrating this usage of several different names for the one true God is Genesis 14. According to Genesis 14:18-24, Melchizedek was priest of El Elyon (God Most High). He refers to El Elyon as the God who has delivered Abraham’s enemies into his hands. Then Abraham said that he had sworn by LORD Most High (Yahweh El Elyon) not to touch the spoil (Gen. 14:24). Thus the biblical narrative clearly links all three names and applies them to the one true God. Now to borrow the names of Canaanite deities may seem like dangerous business, and perhaps it is, but the evidence from the Old Testament is quite clear. Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves again that the Old Testament is unequivocal in claiming that Israel was to worship only the one true God, Yahweh: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). Perhaps we could illustrate the point by dramatizing a hypothetical conversation between an Israelite and a Canaanite. As the Canaanite begins to chatter away about El or Elyon, the Israelite interrupts and says: “But do you want to know who El really is? He is Yahweh. And do you want to know who Elyon is? Why Yahweh, of course!”
The Bible nowhere indicates why some Canaanite names for God could be used and not others. Apparently some names were just too loaded with dangerous indications. Thus the names of several national deities such as Dagon, Chemosh and Rimmon are never used for Yahweh. But the one name that is really tantalizing is that of Baal. The prophets are vehement in their denunciations of Baal worship. Elijah, for example, took personal responsibility for killing 450 of Baal’s prophets (1 Kings 18:19, 40). Clearly this importation of a foreign god by Ahab’s wife Jezebel, a princess of Tyre, was not to be taken lightly. Yet for all that furor against Baal, tell-tale hints suggest that at one time even the name baal could be used to refer to Yahweh. Probably the reason for this early usage lies in the fact that the word baal was originally simply an ordinary word meaning something like “lord” or “master.” This is probably the meaning in Hosea 2:16 where the prophet reports the words of Yahweh: “You will call me “My Husband,” and no longer will you call me, “My Baal.” In other words, when Israel is restored to God, it will be like the husband-wife relationship, not the master-slave relationship implied by the name baal. So the prophet is clear that the name baal carries with it at least a wrong theological connotation; when you are right with me, you won’t want to call me “my baal” (master), but rather “my husband.”
Going back further in Israel’s history, however, there is evidence to suggest that baal was indeed an innocent title that could be used for Yahweh. Nowhere in the Old Testament is God actually addressed as Baal, but baal appears in some early place and personal names. One story where this is illustrated is found in 2 Samuel 5. Once when David was fighting against the Philistines and Yahweh had given him the victory, he named the place Baal-perazim, saying: “Yahweh has broken through my enemies before me, like a bursting flood.” The biblical account adds the explanation: “Therefore the name of the place is called Baal-perazim” (2 Sam. 5:20). The RSV footnote translates the name as “Lord of breaking through.” Apparently at this stage of Israel’s history the name baal was not seen to be as dangerous as it was at other crisis points in history.
One other clue to the changing attitudes towards the name Baal is found in the names Ishbosheth and Mephibosheth. Both of these names are used in 2 Samuel to refer to the descendants of Saul (2 Sam. 3:7; 4:4). But in the genealogies of Chronicles these same names appear as Eshbaal and Meribbaal (1 Chron. 8:33-34). Comparison shows that these are precisely the same men, but the names are different. Why? One popular explanation focuses on the element bosheth which in Samuel apparently replaces the original element baal in both names. Since bosheth actually means “shame” in Hebrew, many scholars have suggested that pious scribes of a later date substituted the element “shame” in place of the hated “baal” to indicate to the readers the “shameful” practice of former years: the use of the name “baal” among the people of Yahweh. The Chronicler probably relied on older genealogies which preserved the original names, names which, in the view of the author of Samuel, were a shameful mark on the history of Israel.
In the eyes of the faithful scribes of a later era, an era when the implications of worshiping Jezebel’s god Baal were all too clear, the earlier practice appeared most shameful. But originally the attitude towards the name baal was neutral. Hence, even the people of God would be able to use it with no qualms of conscience. With the passage of time, however, a special threat to Israelite religion developed, and that particular bit of “culture” had to be eliminated. That is the way God always works in relationship to culture. He will use those things that are innocent, but when they become dangerous, they must be eliminated. Even the good gifts of God can become perverted. For some, whose passions are particularly strong, certain of God’s gifts may have to remain outside the limit. As for names and words, we all know of perfectly good words that have been ruined by a perverted public. Furthermore, certain words that are innocent in one culture may be quite “loaded” in another and must be avoided if one does not wish to be misunderstood. That was apparently what happened with the name baal: an innocent word had been ruined.
But what was it about the god Baal that ruined the word baal? Here is where the Ras Shamra tablets are again most helpful, for in connection with the worship of Baal, the Canaanites had apparently developed a thoroughly degraded form of fertility worship, so degraded, in fact, that reading the ancient texts can be quite offensive to refined tastes. Baal, as the chief god of fertility, was the focal point of all their lewd rites.
To describe the matter briefly, the Canaanites believed that the fertility of the soil was a reflection of the fertility of the gods. To ensure that the rains would come to nourish growing things, sacred prostitutes, male and female, performed their orgies in the “official” worship of the Canaanite temples. Now we can understand more clearly than ever before why Yahweh told his people not to come near the Canaanites, at least not in respect to their worship habits. The sexual drive can be a powerful force for good or for evil; the Canaanites not only used it for evil, but did so in sacred places. In our day we are, of course, accustomed to the abuse of sex in “sinful” places. Imagine the confusion when it appeared in “holy” places! That was the problem Israel had to face in ancient Canaan.
TWO VIEWS OF HISTORY
But having recognized the great degradation of Canaanite religion and the critical danger that it must have been to Israel, it is most helpful to look at the kinds of concessions that God made so that his people could be in the world but not of the world. To understand those concessions we need to understand something about the basic contrast between the way the Israelites looked at their history and the typical Canaanite view.
To define the difference briefly, we can say that Israel saw history as linear and goal-oriented; the Canaanites saw history as cyclical and natural. The Christian view is so heavily indebted to the Israelite way of thinking in this respect that it is easy for us to overlook how unique her outlook really was. Israel saw God dealing with his world along a time line, marked by the creative and saving acts of her God. Yahweh had created the world; he had delivered his people from Egypt; he had brought them into the land of Canaan; and Israel looked forward to the day when Yahweh would come and judge the world in righteousness (cf. Ps. 98). Christians simply added the events of the Christ event to that time-line and defined the goal more specifically as the Second Coming of Christ. We are in process, we are headed towards a goal; or to use an old gospel phrase, we are marching to Zion. Life may be good now, but the real goal of history is in the future when the full rule of God will be established.
The Canaanites, by contrast, shared the view of the vast majority of ancient civilizations: life is an unending cycle, marked by the unchanging sequence of natural events: autumn, winter, spring, summer; equinox, solstice, equinox, solstice. The more things change, the more they remain the same. History had no goal. Repetition was the key with the ever-recurring cycle of growth and decay, birth and death.
The implications of these two contrasting world-views for religious belief and practice are dramatic. Israel was called to celebrate what God had done for her in history and to anticipate his great acts of the future. Yahweh was always above history yet acting in history for his People. The Canaanites, on the other hand, saw themselves immersed in a natural world which in some strange way was virtually identical with the gods that they worshiped. The world and its inhabitants had somehow emerged from estranged bits of deity. The gods lived and died; they fought and flaunted their prowess in sexual orgies. To ensure the continuance of the natural order humans must imitate on earth what they see taking place in the heavenly realm, and that explains the prominent place of the “sacred” sexual activity. Natural fertility, human fertility, and the fertility of the gods were all closely linked together and all three aspects dominated the worship practices of the Canaanites.
Standing as far removed from the Ugaritic civilization as we do, the implications of the religious texts are not always transparent. Still, the broad outline is clear enough. One scenario that I find particularly helpful in understanding the Old Testament is provided by the annual death and rebirth of Baal. As in all nature religions, the religion of the Canaanites placed great importance on the movement of the heavenly bodies. The autumn and spring equinoxes, the summer and winter solstices were great festive occasions. In Palestine the regular pattern of seasons made an interesting contribution to the worship cycle, for the rains regularly came during the winter, thus preparing for the harvest of the following summer. But the summer itself was normally devoid of rain. Hence, in popular theology, Baal was said to die in the spring. Since there were no storms in the summer, the storm god must surely be dead. But in autumn, he came back to life and brought with him the abundant winter rains. To ensure this cycle, great fertility rites were enacted at the two equinoxes. Presumably, if the ritual were not right, Baal would not come back to life and there would be no winter rains, and thus no harvest the following summer.
Let’s look now at a couple of Old Testament stories which suddenly come alive with meaning if the scenario suggested above is correct. First, the story of Mt. Carmel and the struggle between Baal and Yahweh. The background is provided by Ahab’s apostasy from Yahweh, and his active worship of Baal, the god of his wife Jezebel. The prophet of Yahweh did his best to stem the evil tide, but seemingly was quite helpless. He felt himself entirely alone in his battle, though Yahweh told him later that there were still seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).
Now if Ahab and his Baal-worshiping subjects had also adopted the natural theology of Baal worship, they would have been worshiping Baal and attributing to him the abundance of their flocks and fields. High treason in a land that was ruled by Yahweh! So Yahweh decided to show who was really in charge of the storms and winter rains. Elijah confronted Ahab and announced: “As Yahweh the Elohim of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1). With that outburst, Elijah headed for the hills. Ahab and company could cry to Baal as much as they wanted and perform all their degraded rites, but nothing would happen; and nothing did.
In the third year (1 Kings 18:1), Yahweh brought the matter to a head with a great confrontation between himself and Baal on Mt. Carmel. “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If Yahweh is Elohim, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. And the people did not answer him a word” (1 Kings 18:21). Then Elijah set the stage for the test: “You call on the name of your Elohim, and I will call on the name of Yahweh; and the Elohim who answers by fire, he is Elohim” (1 Kings 18:24). Now notice that Yahweh has touched right at the nerve of Baal worship: Baal is the storm god, the god who brings rain, the god with the fiery thunderbolt. “We shall see,” declared Yahweh, “who really makes it rain and who really controls the fiery thunderbolt.”
The story must be read in its entirety to feel the full thrust of Yahweh’s power, but, in short, no answer came from Baal. It was Yahweh who flashed the bolt of fire and who brought the rain. If anyone in Israel had any questions about who the real storm god was, and who it was who really made the crops grow, now it was clear. In the words of the people on Mt. Carmel: “Yahweh, he is Elohim; Yahweh, he is Elohim” (1 Kings 18: 39).
One further glimpse into this life and death struggle between Yahweh and Baal is found in 1 Samuel 12. The context does not mention the personal deity, Baal, but rather the temptation to serve “Baals and Ashtaroth,” two general terms to refer to the tendency to worship other gods. Nevertheless, in the light of what we now know about Canaanite religion the story is fascinating.
The background of the incident is Israel’s request for a king. Samuel was deeply hurt and rather angry about the whole affair. The people’s request for a king was not only a rejection of his leadership, but of the leadership of Yahweh. Fearing that a king would lead Israel away from Yahweh, Samuel decided to remind the people of Yahweh’s power over the elements. The incident took place in the time of the wheat harvest, that is, in summer. No one would ever expect rain in Palestine at that time of year. The Canaanites, of course, would claim that it couldn’t rain because Baal was dead. But Israel served Yahweh, a God who neither slumbers nor sleeps (cf. Ps. 121:4), to say nothing of lying dead for half the year. Yahweh could make it rain if he wished. In the words of the biblical account: “Samuel called upon Yahweh and Yahweh sent thunder and rain that day; and all the people greatly feared Yahweh and Samuel” (1 Sam. 12:18). Right in the middle of Baal’s off-season, Yahweh struck a blow to show that he, Yahweh, was still lord of the land. The people were indeed terrified and in their fright almost volunteered to take back their evil request for a king (1 Sam. 12:19). Samuel admitted that their request had been evil, but he chose to let them continue in their plans for a king, reminding them that if they would remember Yahweh as their God, all would go reasonably well in spite of their wickedness (1 Sam. 12:20-25).
Both of these stories reveal Yahweh confronting the issues raised by the Canaanite thought world. They show the great threat that Baal posed to Israel’s religion, but also how Yahweh could turn that very threat into a marvelous demonstration of a God who is the true master of the storm and the true overlord of all nature. Perhaps these stories should also suggest to modem Christians the great need to answer the questions that people are asking. To know those questions, we cannot cut ourselves off from culture, We must always be in the world, but never of the world.
ISRAEL’S FESTIVAL CALENDAR
Several other aspects of Israel’s worship activities can shed helpful light on our struggles to remain pure, but also in touch with people and the world. One fascinating aspect is Israel’s festival calendar. Often conservative Christians shy away from a liturgical calendar because of the pagan implications that are so often seen to lurk in such events as Christmas and Easter. So what was Israel doing when the Canaanites were celebrating their wild festivals? They were having their own party, God did not command abstinence from all festivals simply because the Canaanites had evil ones. Rather he gave them a festival calendar rich in the right kind of meaning. The full calendar is outlined in Leviticus 23. The details need not concern us here, but several general aspects are noteworthy.
First, at those times of the year when the Canaanites were having their most flamboyant festivals, Israel also celebrated her greatest feasts, The Passover and Firstfruits came roughly at the time of the spring equinox; the Feast of Tabernacles (also known as Booths, or Ingathering) fell at the time of the autumn equinox. Second, Israel’s great feasts were fertility festivals in a sense, but in no way were they fertility orgies. Israel simply brought her first-fruits as symbols of her gratitude to the great God who had given them prosperity and health. Israel did nothing to bring about the fertility of the soil; Yahweh had already given everything as a gift. Israel could only respond in gratitude and with renewed commitment.
Third, and perhaps most important of all, the primary thrust of these two great festivals pointed to those very deeds which separated Israel so completely from her neighbors, namely, God’s great saving acts in Israel’s history. At the Passover, Israel remembered the deliverance from Egypt; at the Feast of Tabernacles, Israel remembered the entry into the promised land, harking back to the long years of wandering when they had only temporary “booths” or “tabernacles.” Thus the people were led to glorify that God who had acted on their behalf, even though they did not deserve it. And though Israel’s festivals recurred annually, they served as a constant reminder of that linear concept of history which began with creation and followed through all of God’s great deeds for his people. At each of Israel’s festivals, this praise for God’s saving acts in history went hand in hand with gratitude for the fertility of the soil.
On balance, then, Israel’s worship shows some concessions to the practices of the time, but only in a very limited way. Certainly the nature of Israel’s worship was radically different from that of the Canaanites. One could perhaps go so far as to suggest that the time (spring and autumn) and the theme (fertility) were similar, but the use of the time and development of the theme were worlds apart. We have inherited much from ancient Israel, and the very strength of the Judeo-Christian tradition points to the fact that when it comes to the power of a pure religion, the Canaanites and Baal were no match for Israel and Yahweh.
CONCESSIONS TO CANAANITE CULTURE
Several other interesting insights have emerged from the study of Canaanite culture and religion. Brief mention will suffice to illustrate the kind of concessions to culture that God was willing to make for Israel, and can thus be of help to us as we seek to relate to the world around us. In particular, sacred places, sacred buildings, and sacred hymns all have points of contact with the surrounding culture.
The wanderings of the patriarchs and the early days of the settlement in Israel show that a holy place often develops a reputation which makes it attractive to a variety of worshipers. The worshipers of Yahweh could erect an altar to Yahweh; the worshipers of other deities would build altars to their own gods. This same phenomenon is evident in Jerusalem today where holy sites are shared by several world religions, religions that have often been less than friendly towards each other.
Perhaps what is even more surprising for conservative Christians is to realize that the layout of the great Israelite temples was not really unique to Israel. Rather, they shared the same features of the Canaanite temples. God had indeed commanded Moses to make everything according to the pattern which he had seen in the mountain (Ex. 25:40), but putting the archaeological evidence together with the biblical evidence, we would have to conclude that Yahweh had simply given Moses the pattern of a temple that Moses or anyone else would recognize as a temple. What went on in that temple would be something quite different, but anyone walking by Israel’s temple would at least be able to recognize that this was indeed a place of worship.
Sacred music is in some ways the most surprising of all the points of contact with ancient Canaan, yet when we look at centuries of Christian practice, we will have to admit that Christians have taken music and words which originated in quite diverse situations, and have molded them into the service of faith. Apparently that is what happened in ancient Israel. In the light of the Ras Shamra texts we now know that several of our Psalms are remarkably similar to hymns to Baal. Psalms 18, 29, and 93are some of the more notable ones. Does that mean that Israel was singing hymns to Baal? Not at all! They took hymns that described the glories of Baal and scratched out the name of “Baal,” putting in the name “Yahweh” instead: “Do you really want to know who is strong and mighty and shakes the mountains? It isn’t Baal. It’s Yahweh.” The violence and vigor of some of the psalms reflect the violence and vigor of the people who sang them. Even the style of God’s revelation at Sinai was designed to meet that kind of people. You will note that the psalms that show remarkable parallels are those which extol the power and greatness of the deity, not his illicit activities, which would, of course, be abhorrent to the worshiper of Yahweh. But having said that, the evidence suggests that in certain limited ways, it was quite possible for Israel to step right in line with a Canaanite poem, strike a note higher and sing the praises of the great God of the universe. That conclusion still surprises me, but I think it has something important to say to us about the way that God deals with people.
So in conclusion, we can ask the question: when Israel was right with God, was she also in isolation from the world? Not at all! Did she compromise her faith? Yes, quite often, but only when she had turned her back on Yahweh. There was no compromise when under the guidance of Yahweh, she left those things alone which could destroy and adapted those things that she could use. And, of course, there were fresh new things that God gave to his people, things which had no parallel anywhere. They were God’s special gift to his people.
And that is also the way it must be with God’s New Testament people, his church.
Question: How does knowing some Canaanite cultural background help us address our tussles with our culture? If the “blessed hope” has been drilled into you from childhood, it would be difficult to fathom the loss of that hope. But millions in our world who have adopted an evolutionary interpretation of the world live in just such a hopeless world. The following points can help cement in place that crucial Christian that God acts in history and will act once again to renew the world.
Moses and the Festivals. Leviticus 23 lists all of Israel’s major festivals. Note how Israel celebrates its own values at those very points where the Canaanites were celebrating the repetitive and unending cycles of nature. The passover celebrated the deliverance from Egypt around the time of the Spring equinox, the same time that the Caananites celebrated the death of Baal.The Feast of Booths was celebrated at about the time of the autumn equinox. Once again it celebrated an historical event, the entry into Canaan. Israel was always looking for a better kingdom; the Canaanites were simply looking for more of the same.
Samuel and the King. In 1 Samuel 12 one finds Samuel’s demonstration to the Israelites that Israel’s God never slumbers and sleeps. Baal is fast asleep, but Yahweh is alive and well and helping his people celebrate their past as they look to the future.
Elijah and Baal. In 1 Kings 17-18 Elijah celebrates Yahweh’s victory over Baal. Yahweh was prepared to tolerate the degraded worship of Baal in Tyre and Sidon, the home of Jezebel. But in Israel? Not at all. The third command in the decalogue made that abundantly clear: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
The prophecies of Daniel. All the great prophecies of Daniel end in some kind of restoration. In Daniel, the stone fills the whole world; in Daniel 7, the saints receive the kingdom; in Daniel 8-9 the sanctuary is restored; in Daniel 10-12, the resurrected saints become part of the kingdom. Clearly, Daniel presents a linear and goal-oriented view of history. And believers can look forward to that hope with quiet confidence.
Incarnation and Resurrection of God. The incarnation, death and resurrection were one-time events, pointing to the redemption of God’s children. The resurrection, in particular, looms large as the down payment on the hope for which Christians look today. This quote from C. S. Lewis reminds us why the last chapters of each of the four Gospels point to a great restoration to which God’s people look forward in hope:
The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had — and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a “great man,” but against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The “Gospels” come later, and were written, not to make Christians, but to edify Christians already made. (The Screwtape Letters , ch. 23, par. 3).
Jesus’ Second Coming. The New Testament is alive with promises of Jesus’ return. John 14:1-3, Acts 1:9-11, and 1 Thess. 4:13-18 are some of the best known. Paul tells us that in “hope” we were saved (Romans 8:24). Isaiah looked for God’s vegetarian kingdom where no one would eat anyone else (Isaiah 11:6-9), and the author of Hebrews looked for a city with foundations whose builder and maker is God (Heb. 11:10). Are there things about a new world that we don’t understand? Of course. But again C. S. Lewis can remind us of what really matters. After noting in his book on prayer, Letters to Malcolm, that “what the soul cries out for is the resurrection of the senses” (p. 121), he declares
Then the new earth and sky, the same yet not the same as these, will rise in us as we have risen in Christ. And once again, after who knows what aeons of the silence and the dark, the birds will sing and the waters flow, and light and shadows move across the hills, and the faces of our friends laugh upon us with amazed recognition.
Guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be. For ‘we know that we shall be made like Him, for we shall see Him as He is’ [1 Jn. 3:2]. (p. 124) – C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm,124