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Cultural Indicators for Israel's Status as God's People
Overview of Israel
Israel began as a small nation in the most influential section of the world in ancient times. Basing their customs off of the Old Testament laws with an absolute obedience to the Torah (though "absolute obedience" was rarely the case), Israel grew in strength over many generations despite major issues with famine, slavery, and greed. By looking at the cultural and historical information of the time, Israel's famed reign through human history seemed very unlikely at the time.
This article is not an attempt to fight for or against any certain belief. Instead, this is a simple cultural exposition on the peculiar beginnings of the Israel, which holds an absolute merit for any discussion of the modern Western conceptualization of God.
As an informed cultural observer (I should print that title on a business card), Israel holds a special place in my heart. From its humble beginnings as a nation enslaved by Egypt, to its birth and persecution of the Christian messiah, all the way up to the present day Israeli state including the horrors of the Holocaust lingering in the minds of the global conscience and the seemingly endless struggle over the holy city of Jerusalem and surrounding lands, Israel provides an altogether unique look into our human past.
Some may focus on the cultural parallels between Israel and its contemporaries--Babylon and Sumer—without paying nearly as much attention to the incredibly unique qualities found within Israel’s history. Now, yes, Sumer and Babylon have a fair amount of cultural congruences with the Jews, most notably their controversial retelling of a major flood story. *
There are three very interesting pieces of the Jewish narrative that are at least fascinating and, at most, quite supportive of their status as “God’s Chosen People.”
1. Israel’s national identity being born under slavery
2. Israel’s initial interactions with the Christian church
3. The disproportionate level of world impact that the Israelites have had.
*This particular issue is well covered by many on the web, and, in my opinion, this “issue” never receives the proper logical attention that it deserves. But, that is an article for another day.
A Useful Timeline for the Old Testament
Israel: Chased by God and Born Under Slavery
One key element of Israeli culture is hidden in plain sight: it is nearly impossible to believe that the Israelites manufactured their origin story. Ancient civilizations prided themselves upon possessing a long-standing connection with the gods and a heroic autobiography of their amazing, awe-inspiring, autonomous rise to power. The gods would either select them from the crowd at the beginning of time or, more likely, the gods would be so impressed by their unlimited brainpower and hulking physiques that they would be an obvious choice for the gods' favor.
Apparently, Israel didn't get this particular memo. Instead of chasing after God, Israel was constantly the target of God's attention. His plans centered around Abraham, not the other way around. He decided to make a covenant with Abraham, not the other way around. Throughout the Old Testament, God reprimands the Israelites for chasing after false gods, His anger kindling against them. Yet, He remains faithful. The Israelites chase other Gods while God chases them. None of this is to say that these people were presenting themselves as worthy of being desired by God. Instead, Moses (the assumed author for a majority of this text) signals quite the opposite. He refers to the Israelites as a "stiff-necked people" who only barely deserve to continue living in the favor of God. It is also important to note that the Israelites were the only major Monotheistic faith for thousands of years in this area.
So, all of this culminates in a completely unique relationship to God. No other culture claimed to be too inferior for the gods to take favor with. The Israelites' leader did. No other culture denies their own god so frequently. The Israelites do so in almost every other page from the Book of Exodus.
That leads nicely into another important point: the Book of Exodus. The Israelites claim that their entire population left Egypt in a whiny, fearful Exodus after hundreds of years of being enslaved. Does that sound like the bravado of the other ancient cultures? What kind of a proud group of people would choose to say they were only able to build their society after escaping from generations of slavery? Ancient cultures were in complete control over the way they wrote down their own histories. Egypt was especially known for this, seeing as how their hundreds of thousands of Israeli slaves never make an appearance in any of their records.
So, if the Israelites had complete control over their history, why did they focus on their embarrassing moments most? Go ahead, read the beginning books of the Old Testament yourself. The passages detailing great Israelite military victories go by very quickly, whereas the passages detailing the obstinate, the sinful, and the downright embarrassing moments are given a great amount of attention.
The Jews and Jesus Christ
Obviously, the Christian church grew out of the Jewish faith. But, do we ever stop and consider the ramifications of such a situation? If we do, we will find yet another interesting portion of Jewish history.
See, the single largest religion in the history of the world was grown out of the books and traditions of Judaism. It is important to note that there are dozens of instances within the early Old Testament where God orders a very swift, decisive destruction for Israelites or surrounding groups who were dabbling with worshiping other gods. In fact, one of the major themes of God's Laws is the complete rejection of idol worship and false gods.
So, this would have posed a very serious problem for the early Christian followers. Only days removed from their savior's death and resurrection, the Apostles were faced with the enormous task of spreading the story of Jesus to the Jews as well as the Gentiles. Without a doubt, the Pharisees and the Sadducees (the upper crust of Jewish religious society) were two of the biggest opponents of Jesus Christ during his time on Earth. These men were the most influential members of the Jewish community, and their disgust for Jesus' "blasphemous ways" would have been carried down to their followers. Thus, the community that the Apostles were branching off from already held a great amount of hostility toward them because of these two misguided influences.
Christianity spread rapidly throughout the urban settings of the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but, initially, the first 100 or so Christians lived in constant fear of being found out and killed like many of their friends. It was not until this urban spread, decades after Christ's death, that Christians became safe in their own micro-communities.
It is difficult to imagine how this small, extremely persecuted, undereducated, and impoverished set of human beings could survive both the pagan religions of Rome and the Radically Orthodox Jewish sects of this time. And still, they did so. Jesus was born a Jew and was mainly persecuted by his own people. Yet, the Jews were not nearly as aggressive in their campaign to eradicate Christianity as they could have been (or should have been based off of their history of dealing with such insurrection within the community). Many Jewish authorities encouraged Jews like Saul to hunt down Christians, but they did not come close to their goal of ending the new movement.
This leads me to believe that the Jewish community was built in a way that would be, in theory, very inhospitable for the followers of Christ. However, in practice, the Jewish community provided a sort of springboard for the early Christians in a very ironic way.
The Jewish state was located in the middle of the world's largest, most well-connected empires at an awfully convenient time for getting a particular message out.
Understanding the Spread of Christianity
Bombing from the Israeli Conflict
What do you think? Can we call the Jews God's Chosen People?
The Global Impact of the Jews
The Jews are always there. Western civilization was born in the Middle East, the same as the Jews. From there, the Jews found themselves in the middle of both the Roman and Byzantine empires. As power began pushing westward into Central Europe, the Jewish people were found in Poland and Germany. Then, the United States became a world power at nearly the same rate as it accepted Jews into its borders. Now, our news cameras are focused again on the Middle East. Check out the map below to see if you can figure out where the center of the Middle East is located.
Judaism now represents .25% of the world. Compare that with the 5% Buddhism maintains and the 13% of Hindus, 19% of Muslims, and 33% of Christians in the world. To represent such a small percentage, the Jews are by far the most polarizing ethnic group in the history of the Western world.