It was with Abraham that the first indication of a change became apparent. Abraham comes just within the historical period of man’s history. Back to Abraham our knowledge of world history is fairly complete and detailed; prior to his day, we pass into the mythical period, the age of tradition and legend. All that we really know of the world before Abraham is summed up in the burning words of Genesis “every intention of the thoughts of his (man’s) heart was only evil continually”. (Gen. 6. 5.ESV) But it must not be thought that there were none who strove for better things, nor that none of Adam’s race had inherited sufficient of the primal uprightness to seek some better knowledge of God. Some of the old Sumerian penitential psalms, going back half a millennium before Abraham, breathe a fervent longing for reconciliation with God, for a way whereby the consciousness of sin might be erased and the sinner is given peace of mind and rest of body. It was crude, but it was there, and no doubt can exist that when at last God spoke to Abraham and revealed that the tide of affairs was about to turn, it was more than an arbitrary decision on His part that He would now do something for mankind. Much more apparent it is that men were about ready for the first step in the Divine scheme of salvation, and God responded by calling the man best fitted for His immediate purpose.
Now here is something that appears for the first time in the written records of human history—the story of a man who is utterly and continuously devoted to the service of God. After reading the story of Abraham it is easy to see why in after days, the famous patriarch and progenitor of the children of Israel, was called “the father of the faithful”.
It was to this man, citizen of the oldest and in many respects the finest civilisation of the ancient world, that of Sumer, that the next fundamental principle of the Divine Plan was revealed and through whom it was exemplified. The first, demonstrated in Eden, was “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6.23) and for several millenniums that principle had been quite evidently in operation amongst mankind. Now came its complement “the gift of God is eternal life”. Abraham stood and heard the Divine promise that in him and in his seed all families of the earth were ultimately to be blessed. (Gen. 12. 3 & 22.18.) There was no intimation, at the time, how it was to be done; but there was the assurance that a future of happiness was planned for all men and that Abraham and his descendants were to be the Divine instruments in that purpose. Such a promise could only be realised if sin and evil were at the same time abolished, for while these scourges persist, happiness can be neither complete nor lasting; hence this promise, made to Abraham four thousand years ago, is the first clear intimation in history that God does plan to abolish sin and evil.
From this point, almost half-way through the span of human history as we know it, the apparently hopeless course of humanity was checked and an upward trend, the infusion of some hope of better things, is discernible. It is true that the evil propensities of the human character still had free range, and in many respects the wickedness and cruelty of men continued to increase, but there was a new spirit and a new incentive in the hearts of some, even though only a few, a spirit that was destined to extend its influence and capture the hearts and inspire the lives of an increasing number as the years passed by. For a long time, so far as one can gather from the record in the Bible, which is the only detailed history of those days still in existence, this consistent seeking for the knowledge of God’s plans and this intelligent giving of the heart and the life to God in full consecration of purpose and endeavour, which had been so characteristic of Abraham, was limited principally to his own direct line of descendants—and not all of them. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and his brethren, were men of faith, but their faith was a simple one, their lives built around little more than a complete and unreserved acceptance of the absolute supremacy of God in the world and affairs of men. But that was an important advance, a very necessary foundation for the more detailed knowledge of God and of His plans that was soon to follow. To the people before Abraham God was known as El Elyon—the Most High. To Abraham and the patriarchs He was El Shad-dai—the Almighty. To Moses and the Israelites He was Yahweh—the Eternal, but that last conception required the attainment of a stage of development which had not been possible in the patriarchal age.
It was when the descendants of Jacob in the fourth generation, grown to a community of several millions of people, were ready to be welded into a nation that the next phase of the Divine plan was revealed. Moses led, from Egypt to Sinai, a mixed collection of tribes having little sense of unity and none of purpose, and only a very dubious belief in God. They had been born in Egypt, their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had been born in Egypt, and they knew of no other condition of life than that which was traditional to them in Egypt. They came out with Moses, not because they perceived a Divine leading and a Divine purpose in their coming out, but because life in Egypt had become intolerable and the opportunity of flight under Moses’ leadership offered a prospect of release. But away there in the desert of Sinai something happened! Moses led, from the historic mountain and toward the Promised Land, a people, a nation, welded together by the bond of a common ideal, a common purpose. “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant”, the Voice had said out of the darkness that covered the mountain, “you shall be my treasured possession…for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation”. (Exo.19. 5-6) To that the people had enthusiastically responded “all that the Lord hath spoken we will do”. The nation of Israel never really forgot that momentous beginning to their nation-hood. They never really repudiated the contract, although they violated its provisions scores of times. To this day the lineal descendants of the hosts that once surrounded Sinai, the Jews, claim the ancient privileges and proclaim themselves the “people of the Book”—a phrase invented by Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, in the seventh century A.D.—and look forward to the day when God will fulfil His word and make use of them to be a light to the nations, to declare His salvation to the ends of the earth.
The period between Moses and Christ was a training time having that end in view. It was necessary that some clear-cut definition of God’s law be given to the world, but at that comparatively early time in human history, it was not possible to reveal that law in its entirety; none would have been found able to comprehend it. Even today, after two thousand years of Christianity, comparatively few really do understand it. The Divine method, therefore, was to select one nation—Israel—already measurably prepared for God’s use, and by imposing upon that nation a code of laws and a rule of life based upon strict adherence to certain well-defined principles, to begin to accustom men’s minds to the main outlines of that world which is yet to be, when God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. The nation of Israel, with all its affairs, was intended to illustrate, as far as imperfect men could illustrate, the Kingdom of God which will eventually be set up on earth to complete the Divine Plan for mankind. There was one key difference. The Kingdom of the future is to be a world of free men, serving God and living the life that has His approval willingly, voluntarily, in the light of a full understanding of His laws and in full agreement. That aspect of the future state could not be exemplified in Israel because they were by no means wholly converted to God, and the processes of sin working in their members rendered it quite impossible for them to keep the Law in its totality even if they had perfectly sincere intentions; and for the most part they had not even that. It follows therefore that the most pronounced feature of Israel’s national life was its perpetual obligation to a law principally expressed in the negative, the prohibitory sense “You shall not”. In their then state of development that was the only way in which the laws of God could be understood or appreciated by them.
At the same time, this same law did accustom them to the idea that they had become a separated people unto God, called out from the world in general to occupy a special place of responsibility toward Him, and to assume particular obligations with respect to His work amongst mankind. They regarded themselves as the peculiar instruments of God’s purposes in a much more intense sense than did the nations around them with respect to their gods. That made them a better and a nobler people than their neighbours, even although it also bred in them egotism and self-complacency, a spirit of haughtiness and exclusiveness, which the later prophets never wearied in denouncing.
Viewed against the wider canvas of God’s all-comprehensive Plan, this period of the life of Israel shows up many serious defects. There was no general appreciation that God is love. The Hebrews viewed God as stern, a judge, demanding an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and exact retribution for every wrong committed. Any idea that God had created man for a purpose, and was steadily working out the details of that purpose, was still very far away. To this period belong the Old Testament stories of war, slaughter and destruction of enemies, of swift and unmerciful judgment for wrongdoing. The histories, written by God-fearing men of olden times, reflect the temper of their Age. The day was still far distant when a sublimely authoritative voice was to say “You have heard that it was said to those of old…hate…but I say to you, Love!” (Matt. 5. 21, 43,44 ESV). Jesus reproved His own disciples for manifesting the spirit of, and desiring to emulate, men who in an earlier age were but acting up to the limit of the light they had and in fact were already far in advance of those who had been before them.
Another fundamental principle which emerged from the semi-light of this Israelitish Age was the great truth the supreme purpose of human life is to serve God, that human beings have been called into existence by the will and power of God that they might occupy a definite place in His scheme of creation, and fulfil the destiny that He has planned for them, in full and comprehensive acknowledgment of His omnipotent power. It was not until after Christ, that the details of that future destiny were made plain, but the effect of the Law of Sinai was certainly to clarify the question of man’s intended relationship to God. God is the centre of all life and He colours every affair of life. To the extent that any man leaves God out of his life, to that extent he is deficient in purpose and vitality in life, and must one day be brought face to face with the alternative of accepting continued life on the basis of this principle, or losing what he has of life altogether. Israel never lost that understanding, once they had attained it. They always built their national policy around the consciousness and realisation of their special responsibility towards God.