Cynic’s Howl: a skeptical glance at redemption history
This muse is in three parts part 1
From the ancients to the moderns, the epochs of redemptive history seem to have an enigmatic pattern. For four millenniums, each transition follows a 500-year cycle. Heaven’s numinous decrees pierce the palls of earth at every millennial dawn and its median. Even a pedestrian glance will notice this uncanny salvation template. These unfinished thoughts push and pull through my thin understanding of this undeniable redemptive scheme. These thoughts are written under duress. They emerge excruciatingly out of a murky cistern of traditional faith and private doubt. On one hand, I cannot deny the puissant providence of God in historical patterns. Too many events, large and small, cannot be explained with a mere wave of a dismissive happenstance. On the other hand, I also cannot easily concede that redemptive history has somehow been fulfilled according to Biblical anticipations. At the end, all that remains are my personal perception, subjective understanding and cognitive ascent.
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From Abraham to Return From Exile
Four millenniums ago, in a dark night, thousands of shimmering stars interspersed the black canvas of a moonless sky. Yahweh, the Creator God of heaven and earth, reiterated His incredible, incredulous promise to a wandering Hebrew whose name was Abram. Why this moment for this epiphany would soon be obvious. Yahweh God came in a vision, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Years ago, Abram had heard God for the first time, perhaps in his inner voice, “Go you forth, from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land I will let you see. I will make a great nation of you, and I will give you blessing, and I will make great your name. Be a blessing you will. I will bless those who bless you; he curses you, I will damn. All the clans of the soil will find blessing through you.”
The powerful promise aside, the cadence of these words was apodictic. Nothing more was said; nothing more was needed. Abram, his wife, his nephew and their caravan sojourned in a land that God had promised them. Days became years, and this nomad couple were getting old and wrinkled. They were getting worry – for they were childless. They had suffered much because of Yahweh’s promise. Angst became anxiety; anxiety morphed into despair. How could a childless couple become the father and mother of a great nation. So in the darkness of that night, God came again to Abram to reiterate his reassurance – that the Creator God, who made and kept promises, was his Yahweh.
Under that star-dotted midnight sky, God dared Abram to count them. Of course, Abram could not count them all, for they were too many. “So shall your descendants be!” said God. And so it came to pass, in her old age, Sarah made love with her old husband, and bore him a son in their old age. God also gave the old man a new name, “No longer shall your name be Abram – exalted father, your name shall be Abraham – father of multitude.” All this drama of promise making, promise delaying and promise keeping seems like a divine comedy. It seems so superfluous. But what do mere mortals know. What if heavens were playing a practical joke on this hapless, aging couple. Dare they laughed at God! So God insisted that their son be called Laughter. How else would human faith stretch and grow prodigiously under the midnight sky or the noonday sun. In time, this Hebrew family became a great family. As if on cue, heaven’s practical joker visited Abraham’s family again. In a great famine, his grandson, Jacob and his children sojourned to Egypt in search of grains. Jacob’s extended family would never come back to the land of promise alive again. While in the land of the pharaohs, in a strange land of strange foods and strange gods, they became slaves to strangers.
It would be half a millennium later before they returned to the promised land. While in a strange land of much strangeness, and under the whip of their slave masters, the people of promise longed that God would remember his promise. Many a night, they stared up to heaven and wept before heaven. Heaven’s window happened to be opened that one night, and God heard their cries for deliverance. God sent a stuttering savior to them. Moses never did get used to his calling. Nevertheless, as reluctant as he was, through his outstretched hands, Moses delivered his people and returned them to the land of promise. But what was a few days journey became a slow, arduous forty-year sojourn. En-route, the people bickered, argued, complained, and lusted. Some even longed to return to Egypt. God would have relented and returned them to Egypt if not for the stutterer’s pleads. God’s longsuffering made His longsuffering people wander in the wilderness, aimlessly, until that first generation died in the desert.
The next generation did not remember God’s promise to their father Abraham; they barely remembered their fathers’ deliverance from Egypt when they entered the promised land. But they did remember how to bicker, complain and lust. They remembered how to sin before God. They cast long shadows onto the land with their individual infirmities and incorrigible immorality. It would become Israel’s dark ages. As darkness descended on them, they reclined to a spiritual laziness and slouched into a moral nadir. Ordinary people led depraved existences. They perpetrated unspeakable malfeasance and atrocities against themselves. Their own historian lamented, “In those days, there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The king alluded to could well be Yahweh, the King in heaven. Whether this was because they did not recognize the divine king or did not support a human king, it was Israel’s moral darkness.
At the dawn of a new millennium, God decided to send them a king. A wealthy farmer’s youngest son, David, was charismatic, competence, and carnal. Born to be king, he rose and transformed a chaotic tribal community into a glorious united nation. Finally God’s covenant with Abraham was realized in David’s reign. This son of God – for all kings were called sons of God – was promised a dynasty forever by God Himself. David sat on the dirt floor before God and looked down in utter submission. But Israel’s glory did not last. Within mere generations, like a sand castle at ocean’s edge, the waves of history crashed and crushed Israel. Prophets had used marital language to re-imagine God’s covenant with her. As if at the altar of holy matrimony, God vowed, “You shall be my people, and I will be your God.” But Israel, the unfaithful wife, slept with their neighbors and worshipped their gods.
Everything, everywhere, the people of God acted like their pagan neighbors. The notion of transformational power of God’s promise to Abraham’s family seemed so impotent. It failed to change an obstinate people. The nation of Israel was split into two. Soon the northern kingdom collapsed under the heavy sword of her northern enemy. To survive, the southern kingdom on bended knees offered to be a political vassal. To be spared of military annihilation, Judah decided to utterly humiliate Yahweh, as if it was possible. The priests replaced the temple’s holy altar with a replica of a pagan altar and dedicated it to their pagan gods. Worshippers surrendered to cultic prostitution. Some even offered human sacrifices to their conquerors’ gods. Enough was enough. It did not take long before the Southern Kingdom was no more.
Halfway into the millennium, the Babylonians marched into Jerusalem, slaughtered their men, raped their women and enslaved their children. The cultural elites, the royal families, the educated and wealthy went into exile. The people of God could not believe it – that God would actually turn a blind eye in their destruction. Whatever happened to Yahweh’s promise to Abraham, and to David. While in exile, many refused to unpack their luggage. The people of God became the people of the book – the Word of God. They continued to recite the Torah and mimic the Psalms in prayers with their children. On the Sabbath, they gathered as families and rehearsed the liturgies of worship. Men covered their heads with prayer shawls. If not, they covered their heads with their hands as a gesture of high regard for their holy God. In the midst of their praises to God, they wailed to God for deliverance. God heard their wimping cries but decided to wait until the fullness of His time.
As imagined by their prophets, at this second Exodus, a remnant of people gathered their belongings and left a strange land a second time to return to the land God had promised. But this second Exodus did not have the signs and wonders of Moses’ crook. There were no splitting of the sea, dancing pillars of fire, or hovering clouds of smoke. Nothing seemed miraculous. In fact, heaven seemed eerily silent. Years ago, the prophets had warned them, “Behold, the days are coming. when I (Yahweh) will send a famine on the land – not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of Yahweh.” That day finally came. Not a few febrile prophets, priests and sages put hands to mouths as they turned their clotted ears toward heaven for a word from God.
The returned remnant stood on the Mount of Olives and looked across the valley toward Jerusalem. Something did not seem right. Everything was wrong. Even from a distance, the city of God it was not. It was in utter ruins. The city walls were broken down, the palaces were rubbles. Old men wailed as if in death; old women wept as if in a funeral. A gifted governor and a devoted priest organized them, young and old, to rebuild the city of God. “Wiped away your tears,” they urged, “roll up your sleeves. Renew your faith and rebuilt your city.” They repaired the city walls, erected a shabby replica of Solomon’s temple. They read from the Torah and recommitted their resolve to live according to the words of God. But when they saw the little temple, many wailed loudly, not in a celebration but as if in mourning. It would fail them to interpret their return from exile as a miraculous fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.
The nation of Israel would never be again. Between military occupations, political intrigues, economic woes and religious apostasy, the people of God, the people of the promise, the people of the land, struggled to find to themselves, to belong to God, walk with God, worship God. After two millenniums, that incredible, incredulous promise of God was like a fleeting dream. “Whatever happened to God’s promise of a great nation among nations? Who in their right mind would dream the dreams of Abraham,” some dare asked. They turned their heads, they looked around, they looked up, they looked down, they sighed – that Abrahamic covenant, that Sinai covenant seemed as distant as the stars, as remote as the dark sky of that infamous night.
God’s promise of salvation, and of greatness, was like a wisp of vapor, a puff of smoke. The sun rises, and the sun sets, the wind blows to the south, and the wind returns to the north. The sage sighed, “Incomprehensible of incomprehensibles, all is incomprehensible. There is no remembrance of things past, nor will there be remembrance of things yet to come.” If God’s redemption of Israel was an experiment, then at the millennium’s twilight, it had failed. The plans of heaven had failed miserably. If there was any hope left, it was myopic! So it seemed.
continue in part 2