When the nation of Israel came out of Egypt and met God at Mount Sinai, there was a political transaction taking place. Israel had belonged to the pharaoh of Egypt. Now she belonged to God. God had fought the pharaoh for the right to own and care for Israel, and he had won. Just as prior to the Exodus the pharaoh had specified the contours of his relationship with Israel, so now God did the same. At the top of Mount Sinai, God and Moses hammered out the political, social, and religious covenant that would determine the character of Israel’s future existence.
One element of that political landscape included the inescapable clause: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of bondage” (Exodus 20:1). This was the declaration of sovereign authority. There would be no ruler in Israel except the God of the covenant.
Yet even this God would need intermediaries. God would require human spokespersons to translate his glory into Hebrew speech. The greatest of all the spokespersons, of course, was Moses. Moses stood above the common Israeli crowd, an almost superhuman hero, a leader without peers.
Moses stood at the helm of Israel’s wandering ship for forty years, bringing her to the lights of Canaan’s harbor. On the border of the Promised Land, however, Moses told the people that he would not be going in with them; this was where their paths parted. The news sent ripples of fear throughout the community -- Moses was the only leader they had ever known, the only prophet who spoke directly to God for them, and to them for God! How could he leave them now, exactly when they needed him most?
Moses said that God would provide them another prophet. Then Moses died and the navigational sextant was placed in Joshua’s hands. Joshua helped Israel claim the new colonial territory on behalf of the kingdom of heaven. When Joshua died, the lines of authority passed into the care of the “Elders” of the people (Joshua 24). These older, wiser men were eyewitnesses of many of the great legends that created the nation of Israel.
When they passed on, the legends grew but the faith wilted. Israel was adrift at sea, lost in a storm of international intrigue and factional dissension. A few powerful “Judges” managed to prevent the confederation from disintegrating altogether, but it was obvious that stronger measures of leadership were necessary to bring the nation back to days of self-confidence and a place of recognition among neighboring kingdoms.
The crisis of the book of Judges precipitated grassroots calls for a king. “Give us a king!” they told Samuel. “Give us a king!” they prayed to God, so long hidden. The outcome was the monarchy -- established by Saul, consolidated by David, expanded by Solomon, ripped apart by Jeroboam, and eventually whimpering into oblivion at the hands of the Assyrian empire (722 BC) and the Babylonian scourge (586 BC).
During the declining centuries of the monarchy, a strange bunch of men wrestled the spiritual leadership of the people from the hands of the political kings, often surrounded by their cultic priests. These “outside-the-system” renegades were known as the prophets. Some bartered their perspectives in the marketplaces. Some became wailing fixtures in the temple precincts. Some were used by kings as ex officio advisors, and some were hunted down as traitors to the political cause.
Yet even as the prophets became the de facto leaders of the people, urging spiritual chastity and calling for restoration of the religious and political and economic order established by the covenant, the people waited. Prophets came and went, but the great prophet never arrived. When would he come?
Living this side of Jesus, we know the rest of the story that Moses and Israel only anticipated with longing eyes. But knowing about the great prophet does not mean we truly know him or many things we still need to learn through the ongoing prophetic voice of the Spirit. As Paul reminds us in today’s New Testament reading, God still provides prophetic direction, and we are wiser when we listen with care....
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