My hobby is photography. One of the photos I value highly is no prize-winning snapshot; I couldn’t exhibit it or sell it for publication. But I cherish it because it has special meaning for me. It was taken in the Egyptian room of the Museum of Natural History in New York. My daughter, Lyn, was far too young at three years to appreciate the art and science of ancient Egypt, but she was delighted with the color and pageantry, the paintings of birds and animals, the statues of animals and of people and of animals that look like people.
In my snapshot she is standing before a stone Sphinx. That Sphinx weighs more than a ton, and it is mounted on a pedestal higher than my daughter was tall and she is gazing into the face of this image that was fashioned thirty-five centuries before she was born.
My daughter is Jewish. Our distant ancestors were slaves in Egypt. They endured hard servitude under cruel taskmasters. They may have labored to produce the pedestal for the very image at which she stopped to gaze.
My daughter still has many years before her. But her ancestors’ taskmasters, where are they? Their proud kingdom was leveled, their own people became slaves, their wisdom was lost, their idols were thrown down and crushed, their treasures were sacked to become museum curiosities and their monuments are now tourist attractions.
But we, my daughter and now even her children, are here. Our synagogues grace the avenues of great cities. Our writers have their books in every library. Our scientists have unlocked secrets that even the Egyptians did not know and have answered questions those Egyptians couldn’t guess. Our physicians have blessed and healed multitudes. Our men and women have occupied high government office. After two thousand years of eclipse, our homeland, Israel, has been born anew and stands among the other nations.
Why Have We Survived?
The Egyptians were only the first of a long line of oppressors. The Assyrians and Babylonians in turn made us captive. The Romans showed us no mercy. The horrors of recent years have surpassed anything imagined by our ancient oppressors. But where are these empires? Their relics, too, have found a place in the world’s museums.
Why have we survived? It would be human to say that it was because we are a proud, independent people who rebelled at being slaves, too tough ever to be extinguished, too exclusive to meld with our neighbors and lose identity. But would it be true? A look at Jewish history through our own writing seems to say otherwise.
What the Record Reveals
Did we survive because of our pride, our love of freedom? The historical record says no. In the face of every difficulty during the Exodus account, our ancestors wept and wanted to return to Egypt:
Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians?’ It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Exodus 14:12)
Did we survive because we were so numerous? The Scripture says:
“The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you.” (Deuteronomy 4:27)
Perhaps we were too exclusive to merge with our neighbors and lose our identity:
“Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.” (Nehemiah 13:23, 24)
Was it because we were a strong, tough people?
The prophet Isaiah says:
“Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundnessïonly wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil.”(Isaiah 1:5, 6)
Our faithfulness did not preserve us either, for Moses himself says:
“You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Deuteronomy 32:18)
We are the Conquerors
Yet we are here. And we are the conquerors. We have survived. Our oppressors have vanished. We must come to museums to study their way of life. They are not here to look at us.
Yes, our own prophets scold us. But they also comfort us. Moses accuses us, but Moses blesses us also. The Bible gives us the answer to our survival. The Psalmist tells us:
“…indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psalm 121:4)
And he has not slept, not during the bondage in Egypt, nor during the successive oppressions of Assyria, Babylon and Rome, nor in the more recent oppressions of Russia and Germany. Through it all God was keeping us. That is why we have survived and our oppressors have perished.
God Made a Promise
We have survived because God made a promise. He made a promise to our father Abraham, of a land, a nation and a blessing.
“The Lord 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)
The land was Israel, the nation was the Jewish people, the blessing was the Messiah.
“In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.” (Isaiah 11:10)
Blessing to all the World
We have survived because God has a purpose. His purpose is to bless all the people of the world through us.
“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine upon us; Selah. May your ways be known on earth, your salvation among all nations. May the peoples praise you, O God: may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you rule the peoples justly and guide the nations of the earth. Selah.
May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you. Then the land will yield its harvest, and God, our God, will bless us. God will bless us, and all the ends of the earth will fear him.” (Psalm 67)
We have survived because God has a destiny for us. Our sufferings have had a goal. God called us once that through us he might transmit his truth to the whole world. He called us again that through us his Messiah might come to bless the whole world. He is calling us again that through us he might be glorified before the whole world.
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, hut the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”(Isaiah 60:1-3)
The three-year-old has long since had a three-year-old of her own; two in fact. Neither of my grandchildren is an expert in Egyptology. But like their mother, they are here, celebrating Passover. They are here and they are free. Free to be Jews, free to serve God, free to face oppressors in this age, knowing that God will preserve their progeny until all his world is redeemed.