Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes saw, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life; but make them known unto thy children and thy children’s children (Deuteronomy 4:9).
We have heard that history is written by the “winners,” and for good reason. For many generations stories were told of the “great men” of history, powerful and successful men like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Charlemagne, Napoleon, and their empires. Only recently have historians started paying more serious attention to the “losers,” those people and nations who tend to be overlooked on account of poverty or defeat.
By such historical standards we should not expect to hear much about Israel, a nation whose prominence on the world stage lasted less than a century in the middle of the “dark age” between the Bronze and Iron Ages (David and Solomon, 2 Samuel 2:1-1 Kings 10:29, ca. 1000-925 BCE). Before then they started out as a family from Mesopotamia, were enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, and then were oppressed by foes in their land for another 400 (Genesis 12:1-2 Samuel 1:27, ca. 2000-1000 BCE). Afterward a divided kingdom maintained authority until overrun by the Assyrians and Babylonians (1 Kings 11:1-2 Kings 25:30, ca. 1000-586 BCE); afterward the Israelites would be subject to foreign domination and oppression (ca. 586-167 BCE, 63 BCE-70 CE). If anyone were to be known as the “losers” of history in its “secular” sense, it would be the Israelites. So how do we still know about them?
When other nations assimilated into the cultures of the empires which subsumed them, some in Israel continued to tell and retell their story, making known to each successive generation what YHWH God of Israel had done for Moses, David, and others, just as He had commanded in Deuteronomy 4:9. They spoke of how YHWH created the universe and all that was in it, chose Abraham, and rescued His people from Egypt (e.g. Psalms 8:1-9, 105:1-45). They also told less-than-flattering stories about the disobedience and transgressions of their ancestors, their idolatry and faithlessness (e.g. Psalm 106:1-48, Zechariah 1:2-4). They would emphasize different aspects of the story based on the situation and the lesson that needed to be taught and learned as can be seen by the juxtaposition of Psalms 105 and 106. Israelites would often lament their sad condition and wondered where God’s covenant faithfulness had gone (e.g. Psalms 88 and 89), yet they would also remember that God proved faithful to His promises to Abraham after 400 years, trusted YHWH as their King, and awaited His redemption (Psalms 90-99). As Israel grappled with trials, struggles, and persecutions in seeking to follow YHWH, they always grounded themselves in their history, telling and retelling their story. For some time they had no land; for far longer they had no independence. Yet YHWH had preserved a remnant; they remained faithful in no small part because they made His works known to their children and their children’s children (Deuteronomy 4:9).
It is therefore not surprising that the Apostles would anchor the Gospel in the story of God’s purposes in Israel. Stephen and Paul would begin their defense and preaching, respectively, by rehearsing history (Acts 7:1-50, 13:17-22). They told the story not because their audience did not know it but precisely because they did so. They both told the story so as to highlight their points: Stephen highlighted the Israelites’ constant disobedience to explain how it could be that they had killed their Christ, and Paul established the continuity and fulfillment of the promises of God to David through Jesus (cf. Acts 7:51-53, 13:23-41). In Revelation John is shown the things that would come to pass through the imagery of the judgments and promises seen in the prophets (Revelation 4:1-22:6). YHWH did not abolish the story of Israel through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; instead, He fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17-18).
Israel maintained its identity despite terrible persecution and endured for generations because YHWH sustained them and because they told and retold the story of what God had done for them and through them as He commanded them (Deuteronomy 4:9). The same ought to be true of us. We do well to continually tell and re-tell the story of what God has done for us in Christ, exhorting our children and our children’s children to stand firm in the apostolic faith and its practice (2 Peter 3:1-2). Let us never tire of telling the story of redemption in Christ, but make it known to successive generations!
Ethan R. Longhenry