History of the Chosen People
We have considered the origin of the world and the early history of humanity. Now our study turns to a single man and the beginning of a nation through whom God would bring about His purpose for humankind. That man was Abraham; it was from the twelve sons of his grandson, Jacob, that the nation of Israel descended.
God chose the Israelites to be His people because He wanted to have a people through whom He could accomplish His purposes in the world. His choice was intended to produce three important benefits. First, the worship of himself, the true God, would be preserved amid an increasing darkness coming upon the world. Second, His written Word, the Holy Scriptures, would be recorded, guarded, and passed on to future generations. And third, the line of ancestry for the needed and promised Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ, would be continued. The people of God who were to make these benefits possible were called to fulfill a great responsibility!
This lesson will help you see how God displayed His mighty power as He chose, preserved, and delivered His people. What wonderful miracles He did for them! You will gain new understanding of His purpose as you study these events.
A Hope is Given
The Darkness of the Times
Read Genesis 11:1–9. The judgment of the Flood did not cause rebellion against God to stop. The people, who all spoke one language, made an evil and foolish plan. They built a city with a tower which was called the tower of Babel or Babylon. This tower seemed to be an effort to exalt themselves above the power of God himself, just like Satan had wanted to do (Luke 10:18, Isaiah 14:12–14). But God judged them. He confused their common language and scattered them over the earth, each group with a different language. Thus their ability for united rebellion was crushed. The rebellious condition of humankind described in Genesis 11 is a good example of the pattern given in Romans 1.
Therefore the corrupted condition of the people described in Genesis 11, like the corrupted condition described in Genesis 6, was the result of a human choice to reject the truth of God. Remember that all the people described in Genesis 11 were the direct descendants of Noah. They had the knowledge of God.
Historian Arnold Toynbee traced 21 separate civilizations in 6000 years of history. He began with the civilizations of Sumer and Akkad, which came into being soon after God judged the civilization described in Genesis 11. He ended with the recent civilizations of our world today. He found that each one has followed the same pattern of decline. The seed of rebellion which ultimately brings self-destruction is in all people.
The Faithfulness of God
Read Genesis 12:1–3
The time period covered by Genesis 12–50 is known as the patriarchal age because it deals with the lives of the men who were known as the patriarchs—the physical (and spiritual) fathers of God’s people. The patriarchs were Abram (later called Abraham) and his descendants Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Genesis 12–50 tells us about their relationships to God.
There are many wonderful truths we can learn from their lives. They struggled in their lives just as we do, yet they responded to God’s revelation (His telling) and His guidance. We can be encouraged by studying their lives. Though they had human weaknesses and failings, they were sensitive to God’s love. They believed in God’s promise. They obeyed Him and experienced His presence in personal ways and were given a great hope for the future.
Abram (later called Abraham) was from the family of Terah, who lived in the city of Ur in Babylonia. Ur was located in the area called the fertile crescent, which we have already mentioned in Lesson 2. After the Flood, this area came to be ruled by the Sumerians, a non-Semitic people. But the Akkadians, a Semitic people, conquered them. The culture from which Abram came had probably existed in this area of the world for about 1,000 years.
Ur was a thriving city with businesses, factories, courts, and religious activities. It covered more than 150 acres (60.7 hectares), and probably some 24,000 people lived there. Its idolatrous worship centered around a huge tower 70 feet (21.3 meters) tall.
Abram was a descendant of Noah through the line of Shem, as we have studied (Genesis 11:10–26). Yet Abram’s father, Terah, and his people were far from any knowledge of the most high God. Terah and his family worshipped idols (Joshua 24:2– 3).
God’s Call and Promise
Though the times were dark and people worshipped idols, God was faithful! He continued to deal with humankind.
There must have been some testimony to truth in Abram’s heart. Perhaps the message of creation, the first witness to God (Psalm 19), stirred him to search for God. We know that the call of God came to Abram even before his family migrated from Ur to Haran (Acts 7:2).
The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1–3)
Abram’s experience from beginning to end was one of faith. The events which followed show the importance of one man’s faith. First a family, then a tribe, then a nation, and finally the world were affected by Abram’s faith in following God.
A Man Responds
Abram responded to God’s call for him to leave the security and prosperity of his native city of Ur. Hebrews 11:8 tells that “by faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” But God had promised him a better place, and he eagerly looked and waited for it. He expected to find the city which was designed and built by God, the city with permanent foundations (Hebrews 11:10).
Abram first migrated about 600 miles (968 kilometers) north along a branch of the Euphrates river to Haran, a city very similar to Ur. Apparently he wavered in his resolution to do God’s will, for he waited until Terah died before he fully obeyed the Lord. Then he left Haran and traveled 400 miles (645 kilometers) west and south into Canaan itself; to the place called Shechem.
According to Genesis 12:7–8 Abram twice built an altar. His activity was first of all a personal response in which he expressed his worship of the true God of heaven. It was also a witness to the idolatrous communities he lived in. He enjoyed such a close life with God that he received an unusual name.
The First Five Trials
Read Genesis 12:1–16:16. We will now study Abram’s spiritual journey. It is more important for us to understand this journey than for us to know about the places where Abram traveled in his geographical journeys. In Nehemiah 9:7–8 a prophetic message was given to explain Abram’s spiritual journey:
“You are the LORD God, who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and named him Abraham. You found his heart faithful to you, and you made a covenant with him to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites and Girgashites. You have kept your promise because you are righteous.”
If we use this prophetic message as an outline of Abram’s experience, we find that it describes four major events: 1) God chose Abram; 2) God changed Abram’s name to Abraham; 3) God found that Abraham was faithful to Him; and 4) God made a covenant with Abraham and kept His promise. These four major events correspond with several different chapters in Genesis.
Abram’s call is recorded in Genesis 12. In Genesis 15:7–21, God’s covenant with Abram is described. Genesis 12–16 tells about an important time in Abram’s relationship to God and reveals five specific tests by which God found that Abram was faithful to Him. The word found in the original language of the Bible means “thoroughly explore.” Abram’s faithfulness was brought to light; all of its aspects were made plain. Genesis 17 describes the event when Abram’s name was changed to Abraham and God confirmed His covenant.
We will study the tests or trials of Abram in Genesis 12–16 in more detail because these relate to tests that we also may experience in our own lives. Carefully study the following chart and read the Scriptures given. The chart shows the five trials that Abram experienced before the covenant was confirmed.
Notice that the last of these tests involved delay. Twentyfour years had passed since Abram had settled in Canaan. Abram and Sarai had no hope for a son by any human means. Abram had considered appointing Eliezer, his servant from Damascus, as his heir (Genesis 15:2–4). Abram’s suggestion probably shows that this was a custom of that time.
But God rejected Abram’s idea. He had promised Abram and Sarai a son and said that through this son Abram’s descendants would become as numerous as the stars of heaven. Abram believed God (Genesis 15:6), and this was the basis for God’s acceptance of him. Romans 4:3 says that such faith is the basis of all righteousness with God.
Other Events (Read Genesis 17:1–21:34; 23:1–20)
Abram’s human weakness was shown again when he and Sarai planned that Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid, should bear Abram a son. And through Hagar, Abram had a son who was named Ishmael. But in spite of Abram’s error, God appeared to Abram again. He enlarged and confirmed the covenant He had made. Abram’s name was changed to Abraham, Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah, and God promised His blessing to all of Abraham’s descendants including Ishmael (Genesis 17:1–18:15). The act of circumcision was made the sign or seal of the covenant. By receiving and giving circumcision, Abraham agreed to the covenant and acknowledged God’s lordship of his life.
The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18–19), the incident of Abimelech (Genesis 20), the birth of Isaac, the child of promise (Genesis 21), and the death of Sarah (Genesis 23) are all events that take place during this time.
The Last Trial (Read Genesis 22:1–19)
God. It was the climactic and crucial one. Abraham had to move beyond his human reasoning to declare to Isaac that God himself would provide a lamb. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son demonstrated both his obedience and his ultimate faith in God. God the Father not only provided a ram for the sacrifice, but He also reaffirmed His promise to Abraham: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies” (Genesis 22:17).
We have studied Abraham’s life in great detail because he personifies or represents the true issues of faith. Though we will not be able to deal as thoroughly with the lives of each of Abraham’s descendants, we can learn many things about them.
The following diagram is a family tree, which shows the family relationships among the descendants of Abraham. The heavier lines show the parts of the family which the Bible tells about. The diagram indicates, for example, that Terah had three sons: Haran, Abraham, and Nahor. Below each of these sons, are the names of his descendants. However, some of these descendants married each other so they are connected by lines as well. Rebecca, the granddaughter of Nahor, married Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. Rachel and Leah, the greatgranddaughters of Nahor, married Jacob, the great-grandson of Abraham.
Do you remember the three purposes for which God chose a people? (See lesson introduction.) The third of these was to have a line of ancestry through which Jesus the Redeemer would come. Genesis 24–50 tells about three of Jesus’ ancestors who were descendants of Abraham: Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
Read Genesis 24:1–26:35. Isaac’s story seems to be overshadowed by that of his father Abraham and his son Jacob. However, he was an important part of God’s plan. Abraham saw to it that Isaac would not marry a Canaanite woman. Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, followed Abraham’s instructions and brought Isaac a wife from among Abraham’s relatives in Mesopotamia (Genesis 24). God confirmed His covenant with Isaac (Genesis 26:5). Through Isaac, God’s promises were passed on to his son Jacob.
Read Genesis 27:1–37:1. Despite his failures, Jacob valued the covenant blessing of God. He seemed to be enthusiastic about God’s promise of a nation that would bless the world. As we read his story, we see that he had to experience the consequences of his sin as all people do. God tested and chastised him, producing greatness in his life. He treated him as a son (see Hebrews 12:5–8).
Finally, Jacob’s name, which meant deceiver, was changed to Israel, meaning a prince with God (Genesis 32:28). This was the name by which God’s chosen people would be called— Israelites. Jacob’s twelve sons were the heads of the twelve tribes which became the nation of Israel (Genesis 49).
Read Genesis 37:2–50:26. The account of Joseph is one of the fascinating stories in the Bible. It illustrates God’s providence, which we can experience also. Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt when he was 17. At 30 he became a ruler in Egypt. Ten years later, his father Jacob and the rest of the family entered Egypt during the time when there was a great famine in the entire fertile crescent. They numbered 70 persons. Because of Joseph, Pharaoh (the king of Egypt) permitted them to settle in Goshen, east of where the Nile river enters the Mediterranean Sea. This area was suitable for them to make their livelihood as shepherds. There they grew in number, wealth, and influence
God had told Abraham that his descendants would spend many years as strangers in a foreign land (Genesis 15:13–16), so the book of Genesis appears to end in failure for God’s people. The final idea is that of burial (Genesis 50:26). Yet God knew that the Israelites needed to develop in strength and increase in numbers so they would be able to possess the land of promise. They also must be kept from intermarriage with the Canaanites and from the influence of the Canaanites’ idolatrous worship. During their time in Egypt, how wonderfully God built strength and purpose into His people!
A Nation is Born
From a small group of 70 people who went to Egypt, the Israelites increased until they were an exceedingly large number. But in order to possess the land promised to the patriarchs, they needed to be delivered and prepared. They needed to be formed into a nation.
Although this preparation lasted only 40 years, it was so important that one-sixth of the Old Testament is devoted to describing it. This includes all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and most of Deuteronomy. A short outline of this description follows.
Bondage and Slavery
As Genesis tells about the many failures of humanity, Exodus describes the powerful story of God hastening to rescue man. It is the great book of redemption—which means the buying back or buying out of slavery or captivity.
The name of the book itself means going out or way out. The opening chapters recount one of the most exciting and dramatic times in the history of God’s people: how God gave them a way out, delivering them from the power of one of the mightiest rulers of their day—the Pharaoh of Egypt.
As Exodus begins, we read of the dark time when the hope God’s people had for a promised land was at its lowest ebb. Joseph had died at 110 years of age, and a new king arose, “who did not know about Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). The Israelites, who had increased greatly in numbers and wealth, came under suspicion and were reduced to the most miserable slavery. It was a difficult time for them. Yet it led to the stirring of their almost-forgotten dreams—the promise of Canaan, the hope of being a special people of God.
It is indeed possible that the Israelites would never have left Egypt to go to the promised land if they had been comfortable and prosperous in Egypt. But God did not place their comfort as His highest interest. He wanted to develop their character and usefulness. God has a similar purpose for us—for we, too, are His people. We must keep this purpose constantly in mind.
God’s people had been strengthened and made hopeful through hardship. They were ready for the next steps in God’s purpose to use them as a witness to himself.
Redemption and Deliverance
God Chooses a Man
Read Exodus 3–6. As we study God’s plan for humanity, we see that it always involves a chosen man or woman. This was true when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt. During the last weary years of Israel’s bondage, a son was born to parents in the tribe of Levi. Pharaoh had ordered that all males born to the Israelites were to be killed. But this son was hidden by his mother in a small basket which was left among the reeds in the Nile river.
The son was found by the daughter of the Pharaoh, who called him Moses, a word meaning to draw out, for she had drawn him out of the water. Through the influence of Moses’ older sister, Moses’ own mother was brought to care for him. The events of Moses’ life lead us to conclude that his mother taught him things about his people and the living God.
After his early years which he spent under his mother’s care, Moses was raised in the court of the king and had the wealth of Egypt at his command. He learned many things during the 40 years in Pharaoh’s palace. Yet, he did not cease to identify with his people the Israelites, even in wrong ways (Exodus 2:11–16). Moses was imperfect like all of us are. God had to put him into the desert of Midian for the second major part of his education, where he lived for the next 40 years of his life.
Finally, when Moses was 80 years old, the eternal God appeared to him. As Moses stood at the burning bush in the desert of Midian, God said to him, “‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’” (Exodus 3:6). This affirmation linked Him with the covenant promises made to the patriarchs. God told Moses what things His plan for Moses’ life included (Exodus 3:1–4:17). During the last 40 years of his life, Moses led God’s people out of Egypt and toward the promised land.
It was Moses who wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). His training in Egypt along with his spiritual experience would have given him the necessary ability to do this important task.
God Delivers the Israelites
Read Exodus 7–14. Freeing God’s people from a Pharaoh of overwhelming power looked like an impossible task. The might of Egypt had greatly increased; it extended from Egypt through Palestine up to the Euphrates area.
When Moses later asked Pharaoh to release God’s people, Pharaoh replied, “‘Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go?’” (Exodus 5:2). God supported Moses’ request with supernatural plagues. The first nine plagues were similar to natural events that sometimes happened in the Nile River valley—dead fish, swarms of dying frogs, lice and gnats, swarming insects and pestilence, boils and crop-destroying hail. The last one was a judgment on all of the gods of Egypt.
At first Pharaoh remained stubborn, or as the Hebrew language says it, he hardened his heart. Then God made him stubborn, or as the Hebrew language says, caused his heart to stand firm. Thus we see that God only made more sure what Pharaoh himself had already decided. Pharaoh by his own will made the decision to resist, but God held him to it for His own glory. The plagues demonstrated the power of Israel’s God to both the Egyptians and the Israelites. Each plague brought greater realization of God’s supernatural power. Finally, God sent the last plague. The results of this one were so severe that the Egyptians insisted that the Israelites leave immediately (Exodus 12:33).
The Israelites left at once, carrying with them the wealth of Egypt. They went towards the Red Sea. This was not the most direct way to Canaan. By the well-traveled coastal road, which was used for commercial and military purposes, they could have reached Canaan in two weeks. But God chose to lead them towards the Red Sea. Remember, they were a disorganized mass of former slaves. Time and opportunity for them to become united was very important. God did not want them to turn back to Egypt. And He was going to do one more mighty act. This act would have a great effect on the Egyptians; they would know that He was the Lord (Exodus 14:4).
God led the people by a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire by night. He himself was there. When the Egyptians changed their minds and came out against the Israelites, God moved the cloud of glory behind His people, between them and their enemies. God used a strong east wind to open a way through the sea, and the Israelites crossed over. They watched as the Egyptian army was covered by the sea while trying to follow them. God had delivered His people!
There was much ahead for the Israelites to learn. There was discipline and chastisement. There were miraculous provisions and lessons of leadership. But a nation was born in a day, born on the basis of blood being shed. This was the nation and people of God.