After they came out of Egypt, God made a covenant with the newly formed nation of Israel, consisting of the famous Ten Commandments, and hundreds of other rules. What was the purpose of such a covenant?
From a national perspective, we could think of it as the founding document for the nation of Israel. It contained a set of laws for how the people of Israel were to treat one another, and how the law was to be administered. We could say it was a contract between God and the people of Israel. The people agreed to it, saying, “All that YHWH has spoken, we will do, and be obedient.” 1
It contained a promise made to Israel by YHWH. By following the covenant, they would receive blessings. They would be prominent among the nations. Their enemies would flee from before them. Their land would be fruitful. On the other hand, a series of curses would come upon them if they failed to follow it. Their land would be come unproductive. They would be defeated before their enemies. A fierce nation would besiege them, and they would be scattered to the nations.
However, in an amazing example of unconditional love, YHWH promised never to abandon them completely. When all the things had come upon them, both the blessings and the curses, and they had returned to YHWH in their heart, he would bring them back to the Promised Land:
“If you are dispersed to the end of the heavens, from there YHWH your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. YHWH your God will bring you into the land your fathers inherited, and you will inherit it. And he will make you prosper, and multiply you more than your fathers.
And YHWH your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, to love YHWH your God with all of your heart and all of your soul, so that you will live. And YHWH your God will put all of these curses on your enemies, and on the ones hating you, who are persecuting you.” 2
Now, this is particularly remarkable, given that it is an open-ended promise with no expiry date. If this was merely the invention of Moses or a later priesthood, it would require this priesthood to be in existence perpetually, and have the power to fulfill it for all time. If humans alone made this promise, it could be invalidated like any other human promise.
However, the history of Israel matches up perfectly with this promise. They have been removed from the Promised Land several times. The northern tribes of Israel were dispersed by the Assyrians, and the southern tribe of Judah by the Babylonians. Decades later, Persian king Cyrus the Great permitted Jews to return to the land and build what came to be known as the Second Temple. Hundreds of years later, the Romans destroyed their Temple and nation. Jews were once again scattered, and the curses described by Moses seemed to come upon them again.
Yet they were never destroyed as a people, and in these later times, we have seen Israel restored once again. Indeed, the prophet Isaiah asked an intriguing question that seems directly related to the founding of modern Israel: ”Before she went into labor, she gave birth. Before birth pains came upon her, she delivered a son. Who has heard a thing like this? Who has seen such things? Will a land be brought to birth in one day, or a nation be born in one moment of time? For as soon as Zion went into labor, she gave birth to her sons.” 3
Nations aren’t normally born in one moment of time, or in one day. Yet the modern nation of Israel came into existence literally in one day and in one moment of time – May 14, 1948 in the Western calendar, at midnight, when the British Mandate in Palestine expired. Indeed, if we equate Zion here with the modern nation of Israel, we could even say that her birth pangs came after she gave birth, for the moment Israel was founded, the surrounding nations went to war with her.
In other words, if we allow for the possibility that this is a divine prophecy, then this passage of Isaiah accurately foretold the unusual circumstances in which the modern nation of Israel would come into existence.
Many naturalistic ideas have been put forward to explain the continual existence of the Jews as a distinctive group of people, while most other cultures and nations of the ancient past have disappeared, and also to explain the modern existence of Israel. At the same time, it is also consistent with the idea that this is the fulfillment of the promises made to their forefathers, by a living God whose name is YHWH. In other words, these things are physical evidence for the existence of God.
Some may object that modern Jews aren’t the same as ancient Jews. But then, not all ancient Jews were physical descendants of Jews either. Some came out of Egypt. Some chose to become Jewish, such as Ruth, the ancestor of King David, who was from Moab. God also allowed Gentiles to become Jews, as long as they became circumcised and followed the Law covenant. Furthermore, people adopt children all the time who do not share their immediate genes, but who nevertheless become part of the family.
Besides, elsewhere the prophets write that God does not restore Israel merely for their own sake, but more importantly, for the sake of his own name. “I am not doing this on account of you, house of Israel, but rather for my holy name, which you profaned among the nations where you went.” 4
The prophet Ezekiel, the same prophet who had the vision that seems to describe the early universe and its particles, also foretold an invasion of Israel “in the final part of the years,” 5 one which God himself would bring about, so the nations would know that he is YHWH.
Another reason for causing this attack is so that “the nations will know that the house of Israel went into exile for their iniquity, because they were unfaithful to me. Therefore I concealed my face from them, and I gave them into the hand of their enemies, and all of them fell by the sword. According to their uncleanness and according to their transgressions I did to them, and I concealed my face from them.”6
Therefore, according to Ezekiel, YHWH restores Israel for the sake of his own name, so he can demonstrate his power, and so the nations can understand the real reason why Israel went out of the land in the first place.
In that regard, we could also say the law covenant for Israel was a kind of tenancy agreement for their possession of the land. YHWH wanted them to be different from other people. “Do not do like the deeds of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, and do not do like the deeds of the land of Canaan to which I am bringing you; and do not walk in their statutes.” 7
God’s law included a prohibition on sacrificing their children to the god Molech, something the Canaanites did. This was a serious crime in the eyes of YHWH, and it was part of the reason why he was giving the land to Israel and ejecting the Canaanites. “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things, for by all these things the nations that I am driving out before you have been defiled, and the land has become defiled; and I will visit its depravity on it, and the land will vomit out its inhabitants.” 8
Now, here is a good time to address the issue of the destruction of the Canaanites. Wearing his “Judge” hat, God had already judged them as a people, especially because of their practice of child sacrifice.
It was also a big reason why the tribe of Judah was later cast out of the same land. They ended up doing the same things, violating their tenancy agreement with God. Speaking on behalf of YHWH about the people of Judah, the prophet Jeremiah wrote: “They have built the high places of the Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, in order to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, which I had not instructed, and that had not come up into my heart. Therefore, look! days are coming, says YHWH, when it will no longer be called ‘the Topheth’ and ‘the valley of the son of Hinnom,’ but instead, ‘the valley of the slaughter.’ And they shall bury in Topheth until there is no room.” 9
The valley of Hinnom later became a burial site, and a place for disposing of and burning carcasses. It appears in the New Testament twelves times, as geenna in Greek, often translated into English as “Gehenna” or “hell.” However, this word didn’t have the meaning some give it today. It wasn’t a place of eternal bodily torment. Most likely it was used as a symbol for the destruction of the wicked, similar to the “lake of fire” used in the New Testament book of Revelation. According to that book, the last thing thrown into the lake of fire is “death” and “hell” or the grave. In other words, death itself is destroyed or abolished. 10
The word “hell” has also been distorted from its intended meaning. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word often translated “hell” is sheol, which usually just referred to the grave. The Greeks also had their concept of a home for the dead, called Hades, which is sometimes used in the New Testament. Once again, it wasn’t viewed as a place of eternal torture.
I have explained these things to show how humans can misrepresent God if we don’t understand the bigger picture. The point of Jeremiah’s prophecy about the valley of Hinnom, later to be called Gehenna, was not to be a place of eternal torture, but came to symbolize the destruction that would come upon those who were practicing child sacrifice. As the ultimate judge and lawgiver, God had the right to do that. If we sentence murderers with imprisonment or even death, what of people who practice and condone the murder of children on a regular basis?
But if anyone objects to YHWH’s sentence upon the Canaanites, I wonder if they would be willing to move their family into a neighborhood where people sacrificed their children to Molech.
Nevertheless, as I have already said, God gave the region advanced notice. It’s possible that God’s promise to Abraham’s offspring, to give them the Promised Land, was already known in the region. If not, it’s likely that people would have become aware of it when they heard about what happened to Egypt; and since Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness, this was plenty of time for Canaanites to leave the Promised Land.
Of course, some may object to them having to leave. However, if YHWH exists, then as the Creator, all the Earth belongs to him anyway. He would certainly be well within his rights to allocate a small portion of it to a group of people he chose in advance, and to serve an eviction notice on the existing tenants for practices such as child sacrifice.
When two Hebrews were sent to spy out Jericho before its conquest, they stopped at the house of Rahab the prostitute. The eviction notice had already been received by the people of Jericho, because Rahab said to the spies, “I know that YHWH has given you the land, and that a fear of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted before you. For we heard how YHWH dried up the waters of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites.” 11
Therefore, it’s likely that many had already left the land to live elsewhere. In fact, God had already said, “I will send a fear of me before you, and I will throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you; and I will send hornets ahead of you, and they will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites and the Hittites from before you.” 12
The same was true of the Amalekites, the first of the nations to attack Israel after they came out of Egypt. In response, God said to Moses: “Write this memorial in the scroll, and put it in the ears of Joshua, that ‘I will totally wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.’” 13
This might sound heavy-handed, but it was probably an effective war tactic. By making an example of Israel’s first true enemy after leaving Egypt, it might have caused those who would have opposed Israel to think twice. Besides, many nations have come and gone throughout history. The Amalekite nation was also to be removed, but individual Amalekites could still have simply gone and lived elsewhere.
1 Exodus 24:7. 2 Deuteronomy 30:4-7. 3 Isaiah 66:7,8. 4 Ezekiel 36:22. 5 Ezekiel 38:8. 6 Ezekiel 39:23,24. 7 Leviticus 18:3. 8 Leviticus 18:24,25. 9 Jeremiah 7:31,32. 10 Revelation 20:14,15. 11 Joshua 2:9,10. 12 Exodus 23:27,28. 13 Exodus 17:14.