Since the Diaspora, two major events of Jewish history have encouraged and perplexed the Jewish community. Great and simple minds alike have pondered the significance of the Exodus and the problem of the Exile.
The Exodus from Egypt is a theme often repeated in Jewish liturgy. Every day devout Jews reading from the siddur (Jewish prayer book) rehearse this happening. Even while putting on tefillin (phylacteries) in preparation for prayer, Jewish people recite Exodus 13, a reminder of that event when God redeemed Israel for himself. This redemption is crucial to Jewish existence. With a strong hand,” God delivered his people from Egyptian slavery. He brought them through the Red Sea, drowning their pursuers.
God directed the Israelites to remember that event throughout their generations and to commemorate it in ceremony each year at Passover. That is why the Haggadah (seder liturgy) states, “Each of us must feel as though we had personally been redeemed from slavery in Egypt, for if God had not redeemed our forefathers, we would not be here today.” Passover is more than a wonderful story. It reminds us Jews individually that we are God’s chosen people.
If the Exodus from Egypt is central to understanding the philosophy of Jewish existence, what about the Exile? The diaspora, or galut, as it is known in the Jewish community, raises many questions and offers few comforting answers. If freedom from slavery and established autonomy point to God’s choosing, does exile and loss of autonomy indicate God’s “unchoosing” of the Jewish people?
Enemies of the Jews have promoted this idea. These antagonists dispute that today’s Jews are the survivors of that ancient noble people Israel. If this were true, they claim, then somewhere in the world there would be Jewish autonomy. They gloat over 2,000 years of anti-Semitism and claim that such suffering proves that God’s favor has been removed from the Jews of today. Sadly, such luminaries of the Christian faith as Augustine and Martin Luther encouraged continued persecution of the Jews as a “merciful severity” to contribute continued proof of the truth of the Gospel and their doctrine of God’s rejection of the Jews.
To support this claim, antagonists of the Jews within the church pointed to Genesis 49:10, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come.…” Since many believe Shiloh to be a reference to the Messiah, the antagonists reasoned that the scepter’s departure from Judah as seen in the diaspora proved that the Messiah had already come. They claimed that Jewish exile proved the messiahship of Jesus as well as the “unchoosing” of the Jews and the choosing of the Church.
Jews throughout the centuries have been aware of this knee-jerk theology. In his well-known apologetic Kuzari, Jehudah Halevi raised the problem of exile and attempted to deal with it. In this fictional account of a discussion between a Jew and the King of the Khazars, the king remarked on the fact of Jewish dispersion, “So you are today a body without either head or heart?” The Jew responded, “So it is. Or rather: we are not even a body, only scattered limbs, like the dry bones Ezekiel saw. However, O King of the Khazars, these bones which have retained a trace of vital power and have once been the seat of a heart, head, spirit, soul and intellect are better than bodies formed of marble and plaster, endowed with heads, eyes, ears and all limbs in which there never dwelt the spirit of life.…” In a surprising interpretation of Scripture, Halevi’s protagonist went on to apply the suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53 to scattered Israel, seeing her sufferings as a result of the wickedness of the nations and not as a sign of God’s displeasure.
This attempt to explain the Jewish exile even led to an elaborate legend concerning the 10 lost tribes. Midrashic tradition purports that the 10 lost tribes are living beyond the mystical river Sambatyon (Gen. R. 73). The fact that these Jews do have autonomy defeats the argument based on Genesis 49:10 that God has rejected his ancient people.
There is, however, no need to resort to legend or distortion to prove God’s lasting love and choosing of the Jewish people. To claim otherwise is the real distortion, to the shame of all who might foster such notions. The Apostle Paul, a great student of the scriptures as well as a leader in the early Christian church, dealt with and rejected such an hypothesis. He wrote, “God hath not cast away his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:2).
Jewish survival has been God’s task from the beginning. Through Abraham, he brought the Jewish people into existence. Through Moses, he redeemed them from Egypt. By his supernatural power, he is keeping them from being annihilated, and at the Messiah’s return he will also regather them. Yeshua, in predicting a new exile of the Jewish people, also spoke of that regathering which will be completed at his return: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate; and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:34-35).
Many Jews today, in Israel and around the world, have been able to say those words to the Savior, acknowledging him as Messiah and Lord. Most have not. Whether they know him or not, whether they are in the land or not, they are still his.
Each year at the Passover seder Jewish people open the door to welcome the Prophet Elijah, who is to come and restore all things, bringing with him the hope of Messiah’s soon return. Remarkably during this ritual they recite, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Some do not even know why they say it. Others know that it is a prayer for God to send the Messiah. Only some, those who know Yeshua, know that they are praying for his return.