This morning I read from the Book of Ezra:
3 When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. 2 Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. 3 Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. 4 Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. 5 After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred festivals of the Lord, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the Lord. 6 On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid.
I thought about this phrase, “despite their fear of the peoples around them.” In the Hebrew Bible, “peoples” refers to people of other nations. Here were a band of returnees celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, the time that the LORD commands “rejoicing” directly in the face of deadly opposers all around them. I could not help but think of another Feast of Tabernacles when on Simchat Torah, rejoicing and hopeful only to be slaughtered mercilessly by the peoples around them.
But another thing struck me that is less obvious. Even before the Temple is rebuilt- that which gave Israel access to the LORD, the people of Judah laid an altar and began the offering of 70 bulls (or 72) for the Feast of Tabernacles. What the reader might not know is that the Rabbi’s teach these 70 bulls are offered on behalf of the nations of the world, asking God’s blessing upon them. At the moment when they were overcome with fear because of the people who resented their presence and resisted their progress, Israel’s first act was make offerings that benefited those who hated them.
I think this is a hard idea to get across because we have so twisted the idea of “blessedness” and the idea of God’s “chosenness,” -God blessed Israel for the benefit of the world. As God chose Abraham and blessed Him to be a blessing, God’s choosing of Israel was meant for the blessing of the world. Israel was the means of bringing the Messiah who will ultimately restore God’s original blessing to the world.
Today, as the world continues its “days of rage” against Israel, for things Israel likely did not do, the horrific missile explosion on a Gaza hospiltal that seems to have come from inside Gaza, it is wise to stop and consider. We who read Genesis 12 often read the promise to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you” often think of these words in terms of Divine retribution. The reality may be at times more nuanced than that. It must be read in light of God’s word to Abraham, “and you will be a blessing.” That is at the heart of God’s calling and choosing of Israel- to be His blessing in the world. Those who are committed to false claims and unwarranted attacks on Israel are hard at work undermining the source of their own blessings. Maybe we would be better served by not beating our plowshares into swords while our people go hungry, or beating our water pipes into missiles while our people go thirsty. Maybe making offerings on behalf of those we fear as Israel did in the days of Ezra is a good example for all of us. Before building the Temple for their own benefit, the made offerings for the surrounding nations, for the good of those they feared. If we are willing to test the truth of every claim except for the idea that those who surround us hate us, it may reveal that they are in fact our enemies, not because they hated us, but because we hated them.