1. God chose for Himself a special nation, and prepared it for the coming of a Redeemer; this chosen people was the seed of Abraham, usually called by the name of Israelites, or Jews.
Cf. the call of Abraham (Gen. xii.); the Jews to be a priestly nation (Exod. xix. 6). No rejection of the other nations is implied in this election of the Jews, for every renewal of the promise of a Redeemer recalled a blessing that all the nations were to share (Gen. xii. 3; xxvi. 4; xxviii. 14).
The ways by which God prepared His chosen people for the Redeemer’s advent were: the infliction of heavy trials, the imposition of severe laws, the performance for them of miracles, and the giving of a series of prophecies.
The sensuality of the chosen people had to be combated by many trials, such as Pharao’s edict against the children, hunger and thirst in the desert, the fiery serpents, the attacks of their enemies, and their long exile. This same sensuality and insensibility required that the law should be promulgated with the awe-inspiring accompaniments of thunder and lightning. Idolatry was another sin to which the chosen people were prone, as we see in the incident of the golden calf (Exod. xxxii. 1), so miracles were called in to strengthen their faith and trust in God, such as those performed in Egypt, in the passage of the Red Sea and the Jordan, the manna in the desert, the water drawn from the dry rock, and the falling down of the walls of Jericho, etc. The prophesies tended in the same direction, as well as to maintain the desire of the coming Redeemer.
Of the history of the Jewish people the following facts are known to us:
1. The descendants of Abraham first dwelt in Palestine, and went later to Egypt, where they remained for the space of four hundred years, and were cruelly oppressed.
About the year 2000 B.C., God called Abraham and bade him settle in Palestine; here he had a son, Isaac, who was the father of Esau and Jacob; Jacob secured Esau’s birthright and had to fly in consequence. Jacob (also called Israel) had twelve sons, of whom one was Joseph, who being sold into Egypt became the ruler of the land under the king, invited his relatives, some sixty-six in number, to join him, giving them the fertile district of Goshen, lying eastwards of the Nile delta, to dwell in (about 1900 B.C.). Here the Jews increased greatly in numbers and had much to endure later from the Egyptian kings.
2. Under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites left Egypt and wandered in the desert for forty years.
Some 2,000,000 people crossed the Red Sea (about 1500 B.C.) into the Arabian desert, where they were fed with manna and received the Ten Commandments. Moses died on Mount
3. Under Josue they entered the Promised Land, but had to fight under their Judges for over three hundred years, against their enemies (1450-1100 B.C.).
Josue, the successor of Moses, divided the land among the twelve tribes. The Judges were men raised by God for times of special need, such, for instance, as Gedeon, Jephte, Samson and Samuel.
4. The Israelites were then ruled over by kings, Saul, David, and Solomon being especially famous (1100-975 B.C.).
Saul was unhappy in his career and died a suicide. David, his successor (1055-1015), was distinguished for his piety; he composed many of the Psalms and received from God the promise that the Redeemer should be of his family. On two occasions he fell into grievous sin and was visited with severe chastisements. His son and successor Solomon built the Temple of Jerusalem (1012), and was known far and wide for his wisdom and splendor.
5. After Solomon’s death the kingdom was divided into two parts, forming the kingdom of Israel in the north (975-722) and Juda in the south (975-588).
Solomon’s son, Roboam, alienated the ten northern tribes by his taxations, and only the two southern tribes, Juda and Benjamin, remained to form the kingdom of Juda.
6. Both kingdoms fell away from the true God, and were in consequence destroyed, and their inhabitants led away into captivity.
Israel had nineteen kings, who led the people into idolatry in spite of the efforts of the prophets. At last, Salmanasar, in 722, destroyed the kingdom and carried the people away into the Assyrian captivity; the fall of the Assyrian power brought the exiles under the dominion of the Babylonians and in 538 under that of the Persian king Cyrus. The kingdom of Juda had twenty kings, and held out longer, but was finally reduced by Nabuchodonosor; the people were led away into captivity (606 and 599) and Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed.
7. After the return from the captivity (536) the Jews lived in peace until they came, in 203, under the power of Antiochus, King of Syria.
From the year 606 the inhabitants of Juda and Israel dwelt under the same ruler, and came to be known indifferently as Jews. Cyrus, who obtained possession of the Babylonian kingdom in 538, gave per mission two years later to the Jews to return and rebuild their Temple; some 42,000 Jews availed themselves of this concession to return under Zorobabel to Jerusalem, where they raised a new Temple after twenty years of work; in the year 453 Artaxerxes allowed them to build walls; they still remained for about two hundred years under Persian dominion and were well treated. Alexander the Great and his successors then had the mastery, till the time of Antiochus Epiphanes IV., who began a religious persecution, putting the Machabean brothers and Eleazar to death, and placing idols in the Temple.
8. The Jews regained their freedom after a bloody war, and were again ruled for one hundred years by Jewish kings, from 140 to 39 B.C.
Machabeus and his five sons helped the Jews to shake off the Syrian yoke. Simon, one of the Machabees, reigned as high priest and king in 140, and was succeeded by his descendants till the advent of Pompey in 64, who reduced the Jewish king to the subjection of Rome.
9. In 38 B.C., a Gentile, Herod, became King of Judea.
As Judea was always a focus of rebellion, the Jewish king was de posed and replaced by Herod, the first of the kings who was not a Jew. He it was who massacred the children at Bethlehem. At his death he was succeeded by his son Herod Antipas, who put John the Baptist to death and treated Our Lord as a fool. His successor was his uncle Herod Agrippa the Great, who beheaded St. James the Elder, and cast St. Peter into prison. He usurped the name of God and died a miserable death, eaten by worms, in 44 A.D. In 70 A.D. Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus, and the Jews scattered among the nations.
2. The other nations of the earth were prepared for the coming of the Redeemer by contact with the chosen people, or by the influence of exceptionally gifted men, or by other extraordinary methods.
The ordinary intercourse of trade, as well as the enforced exile, afforded means of contact with the heathen, and that this was not unfruitful we learn from Tobias. “Give glory to the Lord, ye children of Israel . . . because He hath therefore scattered you among the Gentiles, who know not Him, that you may declare His wonderful works and make them know that there is no other almighty God besides Him” (Tob. xiii. 3, 4). Such men as Socrates, in Greece, had their mission in decrying the cult of idols, and exhibiting in their persons the virtues of courage, gentleness, and moderation; we might enumerate also Job in Arabia, Joseph in Egypt, Jonas in Ninive, Daniel in Babylon and others. The virtues of such men, their courage in confessing the true God, and the miracles by which their profession was verified, as, for instance, the cases of the children in the furnace of Nabuchodonosor and Daniel in the lions den, furnished abundant motives to the heathen for discerning the true God; and that this was the case is corroborated by the numbers of proselytes. Besides all these, other methods were not left untried; e.g., the miraculous star which led the three Magi to Bethlehem (Matt. ii. 2), the angel’s message to Cornelius the centurion (Acts x. 3), the mysterious handwriting on the wall of the palace where Baltassar was profaning the sacred vessels (Dan. v. 2), the dream of Nabuchodonosor (Dan. ii.), the prophecy of Balaam’s ass, etc.
3. Before the arrival of the Redeemer God permitted that man kind should experience the deepest misery, in order to rouse it to a longing for a Redeemer.
The greatest dissension reigned among the Jews; three different sects claimed precedence: the Sadducees, the moneyed class, denied eternal life; the Pharisees adhered rigidly to the written law; the Essenes withdrew entirely from the world and led a life of strict penance. Among the heathen there was a general ignorance of any religious life, together with monstrous immorality. The gods, according to Hesiod, were too numerous to be counted and were indifferently idols, or men of abominable lives, or even animals, whose worship was signalized by scenes of debauchery and human sacrifices; heathens were not wanting who recognized the sad state of affairs; Horace, for instance, in one of his odes bewails the civil wars, and prays the virgin-born Son to come and reign among His people. Long before him Socrates had expressed the wish that some mediator should come from heaven to teach man his duty to God. Jacob (Gen. xlix. 10) and the prophets (Agg. ii. 8) only echoed the popular feel ing when they called the Redeemer “the expectation of the nations.” As in nations, so is God’s action to be seen in individuals, and the struggles of a St. Paul and a St. Augustine served to make them more open to the action of the Holy Ghost and more zealous in their conversion to God.
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