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In this fourth lesson of our series, we’re going to dive into one of the most important time periods in the Bible: Period 2. Keep in mind that there are eight periods in our overall Bible plot line, so we’re still in the first quarter of our story. Now in any good movie, the beginning scenes provide information that is essential for understanding everything that is going to happen next. It’s right at the start that the main characters of the story are introduced, we’re told how they know each other, and some major conflict is introduced which will take the rest of the movie to resolve. Here in Period 2, this is exactly what we find.
Our two main characters are Yahweh [YAH-way] and the nation of Israel. The major conflict centers around the timeless theme of unrequited love. Yahweh is more interested in Israel than she is in Him. He wants her to be His devoted bride, loving Him exclusively. But Israel has already devoted herself to many fictitious gods with demonic origins and she refuses to be separated from them. It’s here in Period 2 that a war of wills begins which will continue all the way into Period 8. But before we get started, let’s familiarize ourselves with some of the events of this period.
POPULAR STORIES & FIGURES FROM THIS PERIOD
Moses, the baby in the basket, the ten plagues on Egypt, the Passover, the Ark of the Covenant, the construction of the Tabernacle, the Holy Place & the Most Holy Place (aka the Holy of Holies), the bronze snake, Phinehas, Aaron, Miriam, Nadab & Abihu’s “strange fire”, manna raining down from the sky, Moses getting water from a rock, forty years in the wilderness, Korah’s rebellion & the ground splitting open, Balaam’s talking donkey, the Ten Commandments, Israel worshiping a golden calf, God appearing on Mt. Sinai, the Levitical priesthood established, clean & unclean foods defined, the Old Covenant established, sacrifices for sin defined, twelve spies checking out the Promised Land, Joshua & Caleb, and the burning bush.
This is a very dramatic period, filled with shocking stories and terrifying miracles. Without understanding this period, you simply won’t grasp the significance of the rest of the Bible. From a man being struck down for touching the Ark of the Covenant, to King David’s psalms that swing from praise to prayers for vengeance, to Jesus and the Pharisees warring about the Law, to the apostle Paul expounding on salvation through faith, and John’s vision of Revelation—everything that happens from this point forward will be building on events that happened and principles that were established here in Period 2.
A POLYTHEISTIC WORLD
In Period 1, we picked up some hints that Yahweh was not the only God being worshiped in Bible times. Abraham grew up in a home that worshiped many different idols, and one of Jacob’s wives (Rachel) stole her father’s idols when she moved out of his house so that she could continue to worship them. We don’t know when this inventing of fictitious gods began, but after learning about the human love of rebellion in Period 1, it’s not hard to picture how this tradition got started.
Here in Period 2, the worship of idol gods suddenly becomes a very prominent theme, as does the fact that Israel lives in a polytheistic world. In Bible times, no one questioned the existence of supernatural deities. The moronic notion of atheism is something many people cling to in modern times, but in the Bible, such people would have been written off as idiots. Not only was it super obvious to everyone that greater powers controlled the earth—it was also quite clear that there were many (poly) gods (theists) around, therefore every religion was polytheistic–meaning, the people worshiped many different gods.
Now here’s where things get quite interesting, for we Christians are polytheists as well. The Church’s official stand is that we are monotheists, meaning that we believe in only one (mono) God who has three separate personalities. But this is ridiculous, for in reality, Christians worship three separate and distinct Gods: Yahweh, Jesus, and the magnificent Holy Spirit. If we aren’t worshiping three Gods, then we’re in big trouble, because under the current Covenant, Yahweh demands polytheism (see An Introduction to the Gods of the Bible).
THE JEWS IN EGYPT
Period 2 begins with the Jews living a miserable existence as slaves in Egypt. They’ve been slaves for centuries—ever since the popular Joseph died at the end of Period 1 and a new pharaoh came to power who considered the booming population of foreigners in his land to be a threat. When it comes to their spiritual lives, the Egyptians have swallowed all kinds of demonic delusions. They worship a whole pantheon of gods—they’ve got a god for every aspect of life. A god for the sky, a god for water, a god for fertility, a god for death. There are so many gods that it’s hard to keep track of them all. They make statues of their gods, build temples to them, and make up a bunch of rituals for worshiping them. And after living in the land of Egypt for so long, the Jews have decided to make the Egyptian gods their gods as well.
At this point in history, the book of Genesis hasn’t been written yet. The Jews don’t have any Scriptures, but they do have oral history. They know that they descend from a man named Abraham who worshiped a different God than they are currently worshiping. They also know that the God of Abraham made a lot of pretty promises that one day Abraham’s descendants would inherit some lush land where they could dwell in peace. Well, whoopee. The God their ancestors worshiped isn’t worth much to the Jews who are being treated like dirt in Egypt. For centuries now, they’ve been crying out for Him to save them (after all, they can’t expect the Egyptian gods to save them), and yet no help arrives.
And then, one day, a Jewish man comes marching in from a nearby desert and announces that he has personally spoken to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not only has someone finally made contact with this elusive Deity, but the word is that this God is going to rescue His people from bondage.
All four of the books in Period 2 were written by the same author: a Jewish Levite man named Moses. After being miraculously saved from death as a baby, Moses ends up being raised by an Egyptian princess. He enjoys the finest things in the pharaoh’s palace until the day comes when he realizes that he shares the same blood as the Jews who are being whipped and beaten everyday around him. As he aligns with Yahweh’s convictions, Moses suddenly finds himself in an intense moral conflict and decides he can no longer hobnob with Egyptian royalty while his own people are being abused. His sudden shift in loyalties ends up making him an enemy of the palace, and soon he is running for his life in a desert that borders Egypt. There he meets a man named Jethro [JETH-ro], who is the priest and chief of a clan called the Kenites [KEH-nites]. The Kenites are one clan in the larger tribe of Midianites [MIH-dee-uh-nites]. Moses ends up marrying Jethro’s daughter Zipporah [ZIP-poor-uh] and serving as one of Jethro’s shepherds. He doesn’t plan on ever returning to Egypt where he is wanted for murder.
But then one day God speaks to Moses in a desert bush that appears to be burning, yet is never consumed. In that shocking exchange, God introduces Himself as the God that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob worshiped. For the first time, He uses the Name Yahweh [YAH-way] as a personal identifier. Before then, no one addressed God as Yahweh. You will see the Name used in Genesis—designated as an all caps LORD—but this is because Moses is the one who wrote the book of Genesis, and he used the Name for God that he was personally familiar with.
In this burning bush meeting, Yahweh announces that He has chosen Moses to be His spokesman to the Jews and to the Egyptians. God is planning to rescue the Jews out of Egypt permanently, but He wants to do it in a super dramatic way. Step one in God’s multi-part plan is for Moses to go marching boldly up to Pharaoh and demand that the Jews be released.
Well, Moses’ middle name isn’t Courage and he really doesn’t feel up to this task. He does some fussing and whining, and Yahweh gets mad. But then Yahweh agrees to give Moses an assistant: his older brother Aaron. Now Aaron didn’t grow up in a palace enjoying the finer things, nor has he been relaxing in the desert with his wife and kids and a rich father-in-law. Instead, he’s been mucking it out with the rest of the Jews in the mud pits making bricks for the Egyptian’s endless construction projects. When he’s called upon to be Moses’ assistant for some Divine rescue, he’s glad for the promotion. But when the two brothers make their first bold appearance before Pharaoh, things don’t go as smoothly as they’d hoped.
One illegitimate prince and his slave brother are hardly going to intimidate a powerful pharaoh who has a well-armed military at his disposal. But God isn’t interested in a battle of human brawn. Instead, Yahweh is intentionally provoking the Egyptian gods to war.
But wait–there are no Egyptian gods, for all of the gods they worship are demonic delusions. So who is Yahweh going to fight? He’s going to fight the delusions.
It is critical that we understand how deeply religious the people in the Bible were. Religion wasn’t some side hobby to them, it was a central part of their lives. Real or not, their gods defined them and their culture. People viewed their gods as actively involved in every aspect of their lives, thus they considered it very important to seek the guidance and favor of their gods. When wars were fought, an army didn’t trust in just its own brawn—it also counted on its gods to supply some miraculous aid. Every patch of land in the biblical world was believed to be inhabited by some local deity. So when you invaded someone else’s territory, you ticked off the local gods. If you didn’t have your own gods with you to battle against these angered deities, you would end up suffering a major defeat. And whenever military defeat happened, the first instinct people had was to call upon their gods and try to figure out what was going wrong in the supernatural realm.
When Yahweh goes up against Egypt, from the perspective of both the Jews and the Egyptians, He is taking on the entire pantheon of Egyptian gods. It’s one lone Yahweh against countless other supernatural powers. Now as Christians, we know that idols are powerless. But to the people in the Bible, every god was real, and every god had power. But not all gods were considered equal, so when the gods went to war with each other, the outcome of the battle had powerful theological implications. After all, if you see your god getting spanked by someone else’s gods, suddenly your admiration for your own god is going to become rather weak. If another god comes along who is ten times more powerful than your gods, it would make sense to leave your gods and become a follower of the new, better power. But when you’ve spent a lifetime worshiping certain idols, letting them go is hard to do. Throughout the Bible, we find many occasions of Yahweh proving His supremacy over other gods, only to have the followers of those gods staying fiercely devoted to their powerless delusions rather than change sides.
After seeming aloof for centuries, Yahweh suddenly rises up in the beginning of Period 2 to demonstrate His supremacy over all the gods the Jews are currently worshiping: the Egyptian gods. His goal is to convince both the Jews and the Egyptians to switch their loyalties over to Him. It’s important to realize that the ten plagues on Egypt were not just about the Jews. Yahweh loves all people, and by stomping all over the Egyptian gods, He is showing the entire nation that their spiritual energies are being spent on the wrong things. Through ten horrific plagues which He unleashes one at a time, God proves His ability to completely paralyze other gods who have been previously viewed as very powerful. For example, Hapi [HAPP-ee] was the god of the Nile River—one of Egypt’s most important geographical features. Without the Nile, there was no farming, no fishing, and no watering of livestock. Without the Nile, there was no Egypt.
Whenever people come across something in the world that they feel they can’t live without, demons try to coax them into worshiping whatever it is, so the Egyptians worshiped their Nile River. They did this by inventing gods like Hapi who controlled the Nile’s activities and health. When Yahweh turned the river’s water into blood during the first plague, He proved that Hapi was an impotent weenie. The Egyptians’ natural response to the first plague would be to call upon Hapi to reverse the crisis. Whenever a problem arose in life, the thing to do was to call upon the god who was in charge of that particular department. Failing crops? Pray and sacrifice to the crop god. No rain? Pray and sacrifice to the god who controlled weather. Gifts, bribes, ego stroking—people would do anything they could to try and manipulate their gods into doing what they wanted. They would even go so far as to cut their own bodies, and offer their own live children and infants as special sacrifices. Today the world smiles on graphically slaughtering babies in the womb. In America, we call our coldblooded murder of unborn children abortion and we write laws that pretend it is morally acceptable. Well, back in Bible times, babies were graphically killed outside of the womb in sadistic worship rituals. Today we use individual freedom as an excuse to slaughter children. Back then they used religion as an excuse. So while it’s easy to get judgmental and view the pagans in the Bible as sick creeps, we’re just as bad as they were.
After ten plagues, the nation of Egypt is nearly destroyed and Yahweh is satisfied with His demonstration of supreme power. He leads His people out of Egypt in a victorious march and none of the Egyptians try to stop them. At this point, the Egyptians who are still loyal to their defeated gods are desperate for this new frightening God to leave their geographical vicinity. Gods in these days were viewed as either camping out in a particular region of land, or traveling about with their followers. If the Jews left, hopefully they would take their terrible God with them and the Egyptian gods could recover.
While we’re told that non-Jews join the great exodus (or mass departure) from Egypt, we’re not told how many of them are Egyptians. Sadly, most Egyptians stay behind in their ravaged country and remain loyal to their fictitious gods. Well, no one can say Yahweh didn’t try to reach them.
Meanwhile, the Jews understand that this new God has shown up to rescue them, and it certainly is nice to not be slaves anymore. But from the very beginning, the Jews find Yahweh’s style to be rather aggravating. For one thing, He’s always late. First, He took centuries to even show up in Egypt. Then, He dragged His feet between each plague—giving the Egyptians time to take their anger out on the Jews and treat them even worse than before. And now that they are finally out of Egypt, Yahweh is still proving Himself to be a bit fickle. When Pharaoh decides he’s made a mistake and sends his army to bring the slaves back, the Jews find themselves trapped between the approaching army and a massive body of water: the Red Sea. Once again, Yahweh seems to be too distracted to notice the crisis they’re in, so they immediately start complaining against Him. Then He shows up and parts the Red Sea. Well, that’s convenient. Then He makes the water collapse onto the Egyptian army, drowning them all. Well, that’s more like it.
If the Jews are going to have a new God, they want Him to do exactly what they want all the time. So when they run out of water on the other side of the Red Sea and Yahweh doesn’t instantly supply some, they start grumbling again. Remember that they have been worshiping other gods for years and this Yahweh Guy is a whole new deal. The Jews are intentionally delaying in committing themselves to this God of their ancestors because they’re just not sure that He is meeting all of their requirements. Thus begins a very ironic theme which continues to this very day…
THE FALSE GODS ARE BETTER
One of the most nonsensical attitudes we find happening throughout the Old Testament is the Jews’ constant rejection of Yahweh because He isn’t giving them everything that they want. And yet while they grumble against Him in Period 2 because He doesn’t give them enough food or water, or because the only food He gives them is boring, or because He is taking too long to get them to their Promised Land, they remain fiercely devoted to gods who treat them even worse. After all, the gods they knew in Egypt hardly jumped at their command. They couldn’t, because they didn’t exist. Of course whenever demons got permission from God, they would try to do things to make the idols seem like they were alive. The demons would help their magicians perform miracles, they’d try to prophesy the future (with very little success), and they’d try to make certain events happen in people’s lives. After all, if you want someone to worship a phony god, you have to do something to convince people that that phony god is real. So if the people are praying for rain, demons really want some rain to happen—but only after plenty of worship has gone to their idols.
Behind all of this frenzy over idols we see a clear demonic agenda at work: keeping people spiritually devoted to anyone other than the real God. It’s the same today—demons are busy all over the planet giving people strange visions, helping them see ghosts of the dead, or experience some rush of supernatural power. Because the human race in general desires evil over good (as we learned in Period 1), the phony idols that demons invent will always have more followers than the real God. But still, this is hardly logical. Humans have never experienced any god—real or imagined—who does everything they want. So why do the Jews throw Yahweh aside for a bunch of other twerpy idols? If they can’t get any god to give them everything they want, you’d think they’d at least settle for the One who has proven Himself to have the most power. But this is not what happens. Throughout Period 2 and the rest of the Old Testament (Periods 3-6), we find the Jews fiercely clinging to idol gods while treating Yahweh like He is an inconvenient hassle.
THE ORIGINAL PLAN: A NATION OF BLESSED FREAKS
Today we Christians struggle with the fact that truly following Christ makes us feel like major misfits in the world. By the time we’re done not getting drunk, not sleeping around, and not wallowing in foul media, we have a hard time making friends and we feel like we’re missing out on all the fun. Well, this problem isn’t unique to the New Covenant. Yahweh has always demanded that His chosen people act freakishly different from the rest of the world. It is the differences that attract attention. When people don’t understand something, they try to learn more about it. In Period 2, Yahweh wants to turn His chosen nation into a bunch of freaks who are so mega blessed, that the whole world will want learn more about the God of the Jews.
Remember our earlier discussion about polytheism and how every nation in the Bible worshiped many gods? Well, here is where Yahweh really sets His people apart by telling them that He is the only real God in existence, therefore He is the only One they are allowed to worship. In the Old Testament, Israel was supposed to be a monotheistic (one God) nation. This was absolutely unheard of. No one served just one god. Such a unique religion would have definitely made Israel stand out as a very different kind of nation…if she had obeyed, that is. But just as many Christians today prefer to imitate the world around them, Israel didn’t have much use for standing out. She wanted to blend in with other cultures, not be separated from them. And she certainly didn’t want to miss out on any fun.
Sacrificing children, slicing your body until it’s covered in ugly scars, drinking blood, bestiality, doing drugs, sorcery and fortune telling, trying to conjure up the ghosts of dead people—these were the kinds of activities Yahweh specifically commanded Israel not to participate in as part of His plan to make her stand out as shockingly different. But these were the kinds of activities that all the idol worshipers were into. Why should the Jews be banned from the party? Throughout Period 2, we will come across several incidents of the Jews sneaking off to go have fun with the idol worshipers. Every time they do, Yahweh will retaliate with some severe form of discipline to try and get Israel back in line. Yet for all His efforts, we will see Israel’s idolatrous activities increase exponentially during the next period and throughout the rest of the Old Testament. It doesn’t matter how many punishments Yahweh comes up with, Israel wants to be like the rest of the world and she’s not about to give up the “fun” of idol worship to follow around some stuffy solo God.
Now between the Old and New Testament, centuries of time pass which the Scriptures do not comment on. When we begin Period 7, we are quite surprised to find that what’s left of the Jewish nation has finally put their idols away and become devoted monotheists. They believe in Yahweh and Yahweh only. Then along comes Jewish Jesus who starts making the outrageous claim that there is more than one real God. Even though for centuries Yahweh has been drilling into the minds of the Jews that He is the one and only true God in existence, Jesus claims that He is God as well—and not a lesser God, mind you, but Yahweh’s equal. It’s only when we properly understand Periods 1-6 (the Old Testament) that we can fully appreciate how radical Jesus was, and what a blasphemous Figure He was to the Jewish nation. As He tried to convert the Jews over to polytheism, many of the Jews felt there was only one reasonable course of action to take: Jesus had to die.
According to the Laws that Yahweh gives to Moses in Period 2, it was utter blasphemy to worship any other god besides Him. Yahweh demanded that any Jew who practiced polytheism was to be immediately put to death. This is why we find many occasions of people reaching for stones to hurl at Jesus during Period 7 (the Gospel books). According to Yahweh’s Laws, their actions were technically correct. Of course, if they were really listening to Yahweh instead of just playing religious games, they would have realized that Jesus was actually telling the truth—He really is a second God. But there’s just nothing comfortable about making such a dramatic shift in your beliefs, especially when your Scriptures clearly state that there is only one real God.
In Bible times, every god and goddess had rules for how they wanted to be worshiped. Knowing a god’s requirements was a critical part of relating to him. So after Yahweh rescued the Jews from Egypt, He led them into a wilderness area where they could be alone together. Then, using Moses as His mouthpiece, He began to teach the Jews what His rules were.
Yahweh had a lot of rules. Hundreds, in fact. Many of them would have sounded quite reasonable to the Jews, even though they sound strange to us today. For example, Yahweh required priests to intercede between Him and His followers. That was quite normal. Idols like Baal [BALE] and Molek [MO-leck] had priests as well. Yahweh wanted sacrifices, offerings and tithes—so did all the gods. Yahweh wanted a movable shrine to be built (the Tabernacle) where His Presence could dwell. Other gods wanted statues and temples, so that was normal as well. Yahweh invented a bunch of religious festivals and feasts for the Jews to celebrate at certain times of the year. Every religion has its special days. Yahweh wasn’t strange for giving Laws, nor was He strange for having a lot of picky requirements. What set Him apart was the kinds of things He wanted. For one thing, He was abnormally nice.
While most gods smiled on self-harming rituals, Yahweh banned His followers from cutting themselves or offering their children as sacrifices. He also cared quite a bit about social justice. In the collection of Laws that we now call the Old Covenant, Yahweh lists out many different crimes and specifies what their punishments should be. For example, if a child curses his parents, he is to be put to death. This sounds extreme to us today, but in those days, curses were more than angry words—they were considered to be powerful magic spells. So a child who curses his parents is showing far more than disrespect—he’s displaying very evil intentions. According to God’s Law, such rebellious attitudes were not to be tolerated. It wasn’t three strikes and you’re out, it was one strike and the community is hurling rocks at your skull. Stoning was a popular execution method in these times, and under God’s Law, everyone was called upon to help police the community for moral infractions and share the grim role of executioner. Because God’s Laws were clear and specific, it wasn’t hard to decide when a crime had been committed. But when questions arose, He had a system in place through which people could ask Him to judge their cases for them.
The first Laws that Yahweh gave were the famous Ten Commandments, yet these Laws were soon joined by hundreds of others. There was never any sense in which it was okay to obey just a part of Yahweh’s Laws while ignoring all the others. So when Christians hang up a list of the Ten Commandments in their homes today, it’s really quite ridiculous. Such an action is saying, “See? These are the only Laws of God that I’m choosing to acknowledge. I ignore everything else He commanded—what a great model of obedience I am!”
As Christians, we are not required to obey all of the Laws that Yahweh gave to His people in Period 2. Today we live under a different Covenant which was established by Christ, and the terms of this Covenant supersede the terms of the Covenant Yahweh established with Israel in Period 2. It’s very important to understand this, for today many teachers in the Church will try to tell you that you still have to obey certain laws from the Old Covenant which have been annulled. For example, they’ll say you have to tithe a certain percent, or they’ll say it’s a sin to get a tattoo. It was a sin to tattoo yourself under the Old Covenant, but not because God has no appreciation of body art. Remember that God’s plan was to set Israel apart from all the other nations around her. Many of the things He tells her not to do were ways of stopping her from acting like the idol worshipers around her—it wasn’t because the actions themselves were morally offensive. For example, there’s nothing evil about shaving your head or trimming your beard a certain way, yet Yahweh outlawed these things because they were what the pagans did.
Suppose you move into a new neighborhood where all the naughty kids wear red bandannas around their necks. If you are a protective parent, and your well-behaved child comes to breakfast one day wearing a red bandanna around his neck, you’re going to tell him to take it off. Not because the bandanna is evil, but because you don’t want your kid trying to fit in with the neighborhood punks. You want him to be different than they are. And because a bandanna is hardly necessary to function in life, your rule isn’t going to get in your kid’s way—it’s only going to be a mental reminder to him that he doesn’t belong with the neighborhood twerps. This was the point behind many of Yahweh’s Old Covenant Laws. There’s nothing wrong with trimming your beard into nifty shapes, but God didn’t want His male followers imitating the demon worshiping pagans. There’s nothing sinful about shaving your head when you’re sad, but that’s what the pagans did, and God wanted His people to be different.
Along with teaching His people to view themselves as different than idol worshipers, God also used His Laws to protect their health. In Period 2, we find all kinds of rules that safeguard community health and prevent the spread of disease. When human blood or excrement landed on the ground, it had to be buried to prevent it from easily spreading. All bodily fluids (except for tears) were considered unclean, so if someone’s oozing sore or a woman’s menstrual blood touched you, you had to immediately bathe to get clean again. Many types of animals were off limits to eat, such as pigs, lobsters and dogs. This isn’t because God is anti-ham or anti-seafood, but because He wanted His people to be different.
In Period 2, we learn that disease doesn’t strike at random: it is inflicted by God. Today some Christian teachers say that anyone who is sick must be getting Divinely punished. This is an incorrect assumption to make under the New Covenant, but under the Old Covenant, things were different. God promised earthly health, comfort and prosperity to Israel if she obeyed Him. If she did not, He promised to inflict her with disease, misery, and poverty.
It wasn’t just the Jews who God disciplined with hardships and bad health. Other nations who were wallowing in evil also experienced an increase in sickness and other problems. In Period 2, we learn that the Promised Land that the Jews are looking forward to living in is filled with terrible wickedness. The people are not only having inappropriate sexual relations with each other—parents with their children, siblings with each other, and same gender intercourse—but they’re even having sex with their animals (bestiality). As a result, God is plaguing them with diseases and the whole place is like one big infectious germ. Today we have some pretty scary venereal diseases floating around. Back then, they did as well. When we refuse to respect God’s moral codes, He often uses physical disease as a way of motivating us to return to submission to His Authority.
Leprosy was a common disease in Bible times, and God spends a lot of time discussing leprosy in His Laws. He educates His priests on how to medically diagnose it, and when a case of it is found, He gives requirements for how to contain it. Reading on and on about skin sores can feel tedious, but whenever you come across laws that seem gross or boring, ask the Holy Spirit to help you see Yahweh’s positive purpose behind them. How is He using the rule to help His people practice those essential soul attitudes of submission, trust, dependency and reverence? Behind each one of God’s Laws, there is some positive motivation.
So what about the Ark of the Covenant? And what about the Tabernacle? And how did Yahweh decide who was qualified to serve as His priests? These are the things we’ll talk about in our next lesson, as we continue to learn about this exciting period.
UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 5: God is Holy
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