The story of Israel is the epic of all ages. Its scope is vast; beginning in eternity, it sweeps down through time and on into eternity again. The Father apportioned his earthly estate among his spirit children with Israel in mind:
“When the most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel. For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.” (Deut. 32:8–9.)
This earthly division of the human family was, in all likelihood, preceded by and based upon a heavenly one. This would suggest that Israel was organized spiritually long before its temporal existence. Indeed, all enduring things begin and end with the Lord.
Human history, in spite of its apparent chaos, is subject to the overriding will of God. There is a grand design for mankind, and Israel is central to it. Even as Christ (Jehovah) is the Firstborn of all the Father’s children, so is Israel the firstborn among the nations. Moses was instructed to tell Pharaoh: “Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn.” (Ex. 4:22.)
And just as Israel is chief among the nations, so is Ephraim chief among the twelve tribes. In a touching description of Israel’s latter-day gathering, Jeremiah prophesied: “They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.” (Jer. 31:9.)
Christ the Lord, Israel, Ephraim—each a firstborn son in his own right!
Although Adam and the patriarchs of the prediluvian period were undoubtedly Israelites in spirit, the temporal house of Israel did not come into being until several centuries after the flood. Abraham, a descendant of Shem, is generally recognized as the father of the Hebrews. He was one of the “noble and great” sons of God who were foreordained to rule on earth in the majesty and power of the holy priesthood.
Abraham was about sixty-two years old when the Lord God appeared to him during his sojourn in Haran:
“My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee.
“And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee above measure, and make thy name great among all nations, and thou shalt be a blessing unto thy seed after thee, that in their hands they shall bear this ministry and Priesthood unto all nations;
“And I will bless them through thy name; for as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after thy name, and shall be accounted thy seed, and shall rise up and bless thee, as their father;
“And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee (that is, in thy Priesthood) and in thy seed (that is, thy Priesthood), for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed, or the seed of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal.” (Abr. 2:8–11.)
This theophany, as with that experienced by Joseph Smith, marked the beginning of a new gospel dispensation. Abraham, like young Joseph, was to lay the foundation of a great work. He was to be the patriarch of a people foreordained, chosen, to carry the gospel to all mankind. His family was to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. Following the birth of his twelve sons, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was given a new name: Israel, which means “ruling with God.” In its ultimate sense, it denotes those men and women who obtain exaltation in the celestial kingdom, where they will rule with God forever.
The Old Testament is essentially the story of one man’s family—the family of Jacob, the Semite prince who was born in Canaan, lived in Haran, and died in Egypt. It is a story filled with romance, glory, honor, and shame. It is a story of heroes and villains, of successes and failures, of wise men and fools.
In our desire to emphasize the good, the true, and the beautiful, we are prone to forget that the history of Israel has also contained the evil, the false, and the ugly. Blood and tears were shed by very real people living very real lives.
Abraham was tried with the murderous idolatry of his own father, with the barrenness of his wife, with family dissension, and finally, with a commandment that tested his very soul. Esau’s resentment of Jacob became so bitter that Isaac and Rebekah feared for their younger son’s life. Jacob, in turn, was cheated by his father-in-law, distressed by his jealous wives, and disgraced by his sons, who murdered the men of an entire village because of the seduction of their sister Dinah. This act prompted the patriarch to tell his sons: “Ye have troubled me to make me a stink among the inhabitants of the land. …” (Gen. 34:30.)
Thereafter, these same sons broke their father’s heart when they reported the death of their half-brother, whom they had sold into slavery. Nor was this all. Jacob was further dishonored by the incestuous conduct of his eldest son, Reuben.
Other tragic and shameful things occurred in connection with the rise of the house of Israel, but the above is sufficient to demonstrate the contradictory elements associated with that family’s beginnings.
Act one of the drama of Israel ended with the death of Joseph. Between that event and the coming of Moses there was a silent intermission of several centuries. When the curtain rose again, Israel was a slave people both temporally and spiritually. It was the mission of Moses to deliver them from this double bondage.
Physical emancipation was accomplished by the power of God, as manifest in the rod of Aaron and the outstretched arm of Moses. Even so, the Israelites were a faithless people. In spite of the miracles wrought in their behalf, they were quick to complain when they saw the armies of Pharaoh approaching, and upon their arrival in the wilderness of Sin about a month after the miracle of the divided waters, they murmured again.
It was then that the Lord provided them with the manna that was to sustain them throughout their forty years of desert wanderings. After further complaints at Rephidim, the camp of Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, where the Lord graciously offered to make them his chosen people, “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” (See Ex. 19:6.)
Israel readily agreed: “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.” (Ex. 19:8.) Jehovah then revealed his law to Moses, who again obtained a promise of obedience from the people. Yet hardly a month had passed before Aaron succumbed to their demands and made the Israelites a golden idol.
“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.” (Ex. 32:1.)
Note that the people attributed their deliverance to Moses, not to that God who had borne them “on eagles’ wings.” These Israelites, so long accustomed to their spiritual darkness, could not rid themselves of the slave mentality evident in their previous murmurings. When it is a bondage of the spirit, not even God can free an individual or a people if there is no will to be free.
The Israelites lacked the intelligence, the light, and truth either to become free or to remain free. They were so ignorant and naive that they ascribed their deliverance to the idol that they had fashioned with their own hands!
In his anger, the Lord threatened to destroy them, but Moses stood in the breach for his errant people and they were spared. However, the privilege of living the law of Christ and enjoying the blessings of the Melchizedek Priesthood was lost. No longer would Jehovah accompany them, nor would the house of Israel as a body enter his presence until the latter days. The law of Christ, the means to true freedom, was replaced with the law of Moses, a system of carnal commandments. Israel was not to have another opportunity to become free for fourteen hundred years.
It is assumed by most critics of the Bible that the Mosaic code simply reflected the cultural milieu of the Near East. It would be better to say that the law of Moses, as originally given by Jehovah and interpreted by his servants, was designed to lift Israel to ever-higher levels of personal and social morality and commitment to God.
Specifically, the code had three primary objectives: (1) to protect the unsophisticated generation of Israelites who had been born in the wilderness from being seduced and overwhelmed by the insidious and grossly immoral cult practices of the degenerate Canaanites, (2) to provide the Israelites with a unified body of law that would enable them to interpret and refine the typical social arrangements of their day, and (3) to rid the Israelites of their carnality and slave mentality so that they might be prepared for the true freedom the Savior was to offer them when he restored the gospel in its fullness in the meridian of time.
That the law did not fully achieve its purposes is no indictment of the code but of the people who betrayed it. Their failure provoked the warnings and lamentations of prophets from Samuel to Jesus himself. Neither the merciful overtures of the Lord nor the untiring efforts of Moses to lead his people out of spiritual bondage were of much avail. In his farewell address, Moses reminded the Israelites of all that Jehovah had done for them, but he noted: “Yet the Lord hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.” (Deut. 29:4.)
After reiterating the commandments, the faithful prophet warned his people of the two paths which lay before them: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.” (Deut. 30:19.)
The memory of Moses outlived the counsel of Moses. While some were faithful, the curse of idolatry, with all of its attendant evils, clung to Israel generation after generation. However, it remained for King Solomon to give the practice legal sanction and support, for until his time, no national leader had done so. We cannot calculate the damage Solomon did Israel in officially countenancing the breaking of the first two commandments of the decalogue. Baal worship was so endemic in the eighth century B.C. that Elijah’s call to repentance was met with stony silence.
The worship of gods of wood and stone was increasingly augmented by the more sophisticated idolatry commonly associated with modern materialism. In his “great arraignment,” the prophet Isaiah denounced the hypocrisy of ritual acts unaccompanied by true religion:
“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? Saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats.
“When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts?
“Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. …
“Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil;
“Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isa. 1:11–13, 16–17.)
A comparison of the attitudes, beliefs, and behavior of the priests and people with those of such men as Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Micah leads to but one conclusion: Israel’s greatness was centered in its prophets, not in the masses.
What men they were! Had they been honored in their day, Israel would have been prepared to receive the Prophet of all prophets when he came to earth. As it was, the promised Messiah—the giver of the law—was rejected by the leading adherents of the law because his words and deeds ran counter to their interpretation of the law. Israel, as represented by the Jews, was finally converted to monotheism: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord.” (Deut. 6:4.)
It is ironic that a nation that had flirted with polytheism for so much of its history should, in turning back to Jehovah, reject him because he declared himself to be the Son of God! Although the covenant people bowed before many a false deity after entering the promised land, yet they would not—and will not—bow before Jesus Christ, the Holy One of Israel, lest they offend the “one Lord” of their creed.
The Law of Moses was fulfilled, not by Israel, but by Jehovah himself. Christ offered his people a new law, a higher law, for the Mosaic tradition was a discipline for children, not mature men. Paul may have been thinking of his own deliverance from Judaism when he wrote: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” (1 Cor. 13:11.)
But the Jews remained children. Vestiges of their former slavish ways still clung to them. The “good news” of freedom in Christ was rejected; they settled back into their spiritual bondage.
Israel’s failure to honor the teachings and example of its fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, led to the dispersion of the ten tribes in 721 B.C. and of the Jews beginning in A.D. 70. The scattering was complete. The dispersion of the Jews was quickly followed by the long night of the great apostasy. Now Ephraim, the firstborn of the twelve tribes, is being gathered out of the nations preparatory to his labors in behalf of his younger brothers.
There is much to be done, however, before Israel will be the “peculiar people” the Lord had in mind when he employed that term so long ago. In referring to themselves as a peculiar people, the Latter-day Saints tend to do so with certain theological concepts and religious customs in mind. Such things as the belief in an anthropomorphic deity, the preexistence, work for the dead, temple marriage, and the Word of Wisdom are cited as proof that we are a peculiar people.
While there is no denying that many of these precious principles are unique, still, they are but means to an end. Israel’s past history—both in Palestine and in America—is good evidence that, of themselves, doctrines, ordinances, and religious practices in general cannot produce a peculiar people. Believing that they did was a fallacy of the Pharisees that was frequently exposed by Jesus.
What, then, is a peculiar people? The term itself is found only in the Bible. The Revised Standard Bible’s rendering, “my own possession,” reflects its true sense. A peculiar people is one whose relationship to God is out of the ordinary, who partake of his divine nature in a very special way. Jehovah said not only that Israel would be distinct from all other nations, but also that that distinction would lie in their moral and spiritual superiority. In other words, they would be a peculiar people because they were a holy people.
The apostle Peter reiterated Jehovah’s grand objective for Israel in his charge to the saints of his day: “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Pet. 2:9.)
Clearly, modern Israel becomes the Lord’s peculiar people only as it produces the fruits by which that people are to be known. But the whole is the sum of its parts. A city of Zion is the sum of the pure in heart. The practical question each Latter-day Saint must answer is not “Are we a peculiar people?” but “Am I a peculiar person?” The Inspired Revision of Matthew 5:13–14 [JST, Matt. 5:13–14] reads: “I give unto you to be the salt of the earth” and “I give unto you to be the light of the world.” (Italics added.) Jesus did not say that his disciples were salt and light; he charged them to become so.
Abraham’s covenant posterity were called to be the saviors of men. They were chosen to bear the message of salvation to all peoples.
It is a privilege to be a member of the true church, to be led by prophets of God, to be taught the principles of life and salvation, to receive the blessings of the priesthood, and to enjoy the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost. Much has been given; much will be required. The means by which modern Israel can become in very deed a peculiar people, a holy nation, has been provided. Neither the Lord nor his true disciples will fail.
When that happy day arrives, Jehovah will have his peculiar people at last. For, like Enoch’s “city of Holiness,” Israel will ascend unto the hill of the Lord and enjoy the literal presence of the Lord Jesus Christ! The saints will be his own possession. No longer will Israel be obliged to depend upon the prophets for their knowledge of the Lord. For he will judge the nations and purge his people:
“Until all shall know me, who remain,
Even from the least unto the greatest,
And shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
And shall see eye to eye,
And shall lift up their voice,
And with the voice together sing this new song,
Saying: The Lord hath brought again Zion;
The Lord hath redeemed his people, Israel,
According to the election of grace,
Which was brought to pass by the faith
And covenant of their fathers.”