The Council of My Nation – Law and Chosenness – Historical objections

4. Historical objections – the Torah scroll of Josiah
Another objection put forward by Christians in support of their rejection of the Jewish national legacy relates to the history of our people. Scripture records many instances where the Jews forsook the Law.

In the times of the Judges and in the times of the wicked kings of either the Northern or Southern Kingdoms, the nation fell into idolatry. The searing words of rebuke recorded in the scriptures describe a corrupt nation that disregarded the Law. This does not sound like a nation that was meticulously guarding minor details of the complex traditions. In scripture’s depiction of the religious revivals that followed some of these periods of disobedience, we learn how the written word was a central factor in getting the people back on track. Under the reign of Josiah, the finding of one scroll of the Law (the Five Books of Moses), triggered a wave of national repentance (2Kings 22:8 – 23:25, 2Chronicles 34:14 – 35:6). The implication seems to be that the nation had lost the written Law. If the people had forgotten the basic written directives of Moses, how could the same nation have retained a vast and complex body of unwritten teachings of Moses? In the times of Ezra and Nehemiah the people needed to read about the festival of Tabernacles and about the law prohibiting intermarriage in order to learn of their existence (Nehemiah 8:14,13:1). How could this same nation who had forgotten some of the foundational written laws, at the same time have memorized countless details of an Oral tradition?

These questions are not new. This criticism was formulated by the Muslims long ago in an attempt to discredit the scriptures themselves. The responsa of Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet (13th century Rabbi of Barcelona) records this Muslim argument – If the Jewish nation was disloyal to God, how could we trust them to preserve the scriptures? How can we know that the Torah scroll that Josiah found was truly the scroll that Moses had written?

For those who believe in the divine origin of scripture, this question is not relevant. If it was important to God to preserve His message, the fallible nature of man will not stand in His way. The Christian who believes in the inspired nature of scripture, recognizes that God maintained the accuracy of His word, through the medium of the Jewish nation. The question only remains – what is God’s word? If God had given Moses directives that were not recorded in the Five Books, and those directives were relevant to the later generations, then we can trust that God protected those directives from corruption.

Those who present this challenge to the authenticity of the Law, be they Muslim imams or Christian missionaries, are missing an important feature of the nature of scripture. Scripture’s objective in recording Israel’s past, is not to satisfy the curiosity of the history buff. The purpose of scripture is to improve our future. We are therefore enjoined to recall our shortcomings (Deuteronomy 9:7) and these are magnified and emphasized with the most forceful words. Before Moses died, he spoke to the people. He did not commend them for all the love that they had poured into the Tabernacle. He did not praise them for following God into the wilderness (Jeremiah 2:2). The Jewish people would have to wait almost 1000 years before hearing this compliment from God. Instead Moses rebuked them for every failing that occurred throughout the 40 years, and described these at length (Deuteronomy 1:26-45, 9:7-24).

The book of Joshua further illustrates this point (7:1). One individual, a man named Achan, had violated the oath that Joshua had declared to the people. The terminology that scripture uses to describe this incident seems to be way out of proportion to the crime committed. The chapter opens with the words “The Children of Israel trespassed”. The entire nation is declared guilty for the sin of one lone individual. Further on in the chapter we read “Israel sinned, they have also violated My covenant that I have commanded them, they have also stolen and denied” (Joshua 7:11). Not only is the nation being blamed for the sin of one of her members, but the crime itself is magnified in the strongest possible terms. The consequence of this one sin seems exaggerated as well. The nation was punished with a defeat in battle (Joshua 7:5), and God tells Joshua that He will no longer be with the Jewish people. All this for the crime of one individual! This gives us an insight into the standard that God demands of His people. The sin of one man is the sin of the nation, and the repercussions come on a national scale.

With this in mind we can appreciate that the intense words of rebuke that the prophets directed against the nation do not imply that every individual member of the nation was guilty of every trespass that the prophets mention. The prophets looked at the nation as a corporate whole, and the sin of some of the members is attributed to the complete national entity. The divinely inspired authors of scripture were certainly people of great moral caliber, yet they included themselves when they spoke of the nation’s sins. Exodus 16:28 has God accusing Moses together with Israel for refusing to obey His commandments. Isaiah 6:5, 42:24, and 64:8 have Isaiah including himself in confessing the sins of the nation. Jeremiah 14:7,20, Micha 7:9, Psalm 106:6, Lamentations 3:42, Daniel 9:20, Ezra 9:6, and Nehemiah 1:6 all record how the divinely inspired authors recognized the sins of the nation as their own sins.

There can be no question that there were times when a large percentage of the nation was disobedient to God. But even in the lowest times there was a recognizable element that was loyal to God. Not an element that saw themselves as separate from the nation, but an element that saw themselves as part of the nation – and the nation saw this element as a part of them. When the nation recognized that they had strayed and needed to return to God, they knew to whom to turn. God always had representatives amongst His nation, and these representatives were the medium through whom God preserved His Law. These were the people who treasured every word of God’s Law, both written and unwritten and passed them on to the future generations.

This element of Jews who maintained their loyalty to God never lost the written Torah. When the scriptures tell us that the reading of the Torah taught the people about the holiday of Tabernacles (Nehemiah 8:14), or about the prohibition against intermarriage (Nehemiah 13:1), this refers to the lower elements of the populace. The scripture itself makes the distinction between the two segments of the population – “those who know the laws of your God” and – “those who do not know them” (Ezra 7:25). These people who knew the Law, and certainly Ezra himself and the leadership around him, did not need to read a verse to discover something they never knew. Ezra himself is described as a “scribe of the law of God” (Ezra 7:12). Having copied the Torah we can safely assume that he knew what he had written.

Similarly, we can understand that the scroll that was found in the times of Josiah, was not the last surviving copy of the Five Books of Moses. It would be ludicrous to believe that the recently converted Samaritans only several miles to the North, possessed their own copies of the Law (which differ significantly from the Judean version), while Jeremiah, Hulda the prophetess, and Zephaniah never saw a copy of the book. If every last copy of the Five Books went lost until Josiah found this one scroll, then who preserved the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Isaiah, Hosea, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Micha, Ruth, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes? The fact that these books are with us today, tells us that in Josiah’s generation there must have been someone who was safeguarding them. If there were people who took the pains to preserve the writings of David and Solomon that related to the Temple appointments (2Chronicles 35:4), these same people would certainly recognize the importance of preserving Moses’ Five Books It is only sensible to assume, that God’s prophets and those loyal to God were faithfully preserving all of God’s word, both written and unwritten.

Jeremiah began prophesying in the 13th year of Josiah’s reign, five years before the scroll was found. He criticizes those who “grasp the Torah” for their lack of intimacy with God (Jeremiah 2:8). Jeremiah denounces those who boast in their superficial possession of the Torah (Jeremiah 8:8). These verses clearly imply that even the lesser elements of the population had not lost track of the Torah. They certainly did not comply with her spirit, but the letter of the Law was with them to some degree. It is clear then that when Josiah found the scroll, he was not discovering a book that no one knew about. The scroll did not cause an impact through the information it imparted. The impact of the scroll was inspirational.

We must consider which particular scroll it was that belonged in the Temple in the first place. Deuteronomy 31:9 informs us that Moses himself wrote a scroll of the Law and presented it to the priests and Levites who bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord. The ark had been moved from its rightful place (2Chronicles 35:3) – presumably some time during the reign of Menashe – who had violated the Temple precincts (2Kings 21:7, 2Chronicles 33:7). In the process, this particular Torah scroll disappeared. We can only speculate if it was some righteous priest who hid it from the ravages of the wicked kings, or if God used some other means to protect this holy scroll. What the scripture does tell us is that it had vanished. During the renovations of the Temple that took place under Josiah, this precious scroll was found. When the curses of the covenant were read from this very scroll (2Chronicles 34:24), Josiah was affected to the core of his being. The discovery of the scroll at this juncture in his career, and the words being read – as if Moses himself was commanding him, helped him see that the past ten years of repentance were as shallow as the young Jeremiah had declared them to be.

The word of our God stands forever (Isaiah 40:8). When God promises Israel that His spirit will remain in our midst (Isaiah 59:21), we can be confident that His promise will stand. All the forces that our enemies bring to bear against us will never prevail – be they external enemies or our own fallible nature. When it is time for our nation to return, we will still have the teachings of Moses to guide us on our path back to God (Deuteronomy 30:2).

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