June 07, 2011

Why Is John the Baptist out "Crying in the Wilderness."

If you compare the two last posts-- The one that's actually from Isaiah says that Israel has already paid double for all her sins; all is forgiven and Jerusalem is to have peace. That's written in-or-around the honeymoon of Persian rule, when the exiled Jewish elite were returning with permission to rebuild the Temple.

Things are different when that "Second Temple" period has thoroughly set in, and Herod (a foreign king of Israel) and his descendants have replaced that modest rebuilt Temple with a huge, spectacular new version. This is not a time of peace, but of oppression and restlessness, marked by the crucifixion of some 2000 Galilean Jews by a Roman punitive campaign near the time of Jesus' birth, and the upcoming destruction of Herod's Temple in the next major revolt in CE 70.

And so we are shown John the Baptist, dressed up like Elijah, out in the wilderness talking about "the Wrath to come." Everybody knew...

To quote a little from NT Wright's The New Testament and the People of God:

"If the creator had entered into covenant with this particular nation, then why were they not ruling the world as His chosen people should? If the world had been made for Israel's sake, why was she still suffering? What was the creator and covenant God now up to? And within this, a further question: What should Israel be doing in the present to hasten the time when He would act on her behalf? How should one, how could one, be a faithful Jew in the time of present distress, in the time of puzzling delay? ... These questions gave characteristic form to the articulation both of Israel's hope and of the requirements of the Covenant....[ which involved both] the divine intention to remake and restore the whole world, through Israel... [and] His intention to remake and restore Israel itself....

"Most Jews of this period, it seems, would have answered the question 'Where are we?' in language which, reduced to its simplest form, meant, We are still in exile... In all the senses which mattered, Israel's exile was still in progress. Although she had come back from Babylon, the glorious message of the prophets remained unfulfilled. Israel still remained in thrall to foreigners; worse, Israel's God had not returned to Zion... Israel clung to promises that one day the Shekinah, the glorious presence of her God, would return at last... [but] Nowhere in second-temple literature is it asserted that this has happened; therefore it still remains in the future. The exile is [therefore] not yet really over. This perception of Israel's present condition was shared by writers across the board in second-temple Judaism. We may cite the following as typical:

     Here we are, slaves to this day-- slaves in the land that you gave to
     our ancestors to enjoy its fruits and its good gifts. Its rich yield goes
     to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they
     have power also over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in
     great distress.


"This needs to be emphasized in the strongest possible terms: The most natural meaning of the phrase 'the forgiveness of sins' to a first-century Jew is not in the first instance the remission of individual sins, but the putting away of the whole nation's sins. And since the exile was the punishment for those sins, the only sure sign that the sins had been forgiven would be the clear and certain liberation from exile."


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