Fox Byte 5775 #13: Shemot (Names)
No one remembers the kings of Arnor. Why should they? After all, they existed only in the imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien. Yet if they had never existed there, the world would never have become acquainted with Aragorn, or with the Hobbits who helped him reestablish his kingdom. The great drama of Middle Earth is now etched in popular culture thanks to the cinematic artistry of Peter Jackson. It is a great credit to Jackson and his team that they drew from the deep wells of Tolkien’s works to portray the indispensable back-story of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but that story probably escaped the notice of most of the audience.
In Tolkien’s world, the noblest people among the Men of Middle Earth were the Númenóreans, a people whose kingdom in the midst of the sea was destroyed by a great flood like that which inundated the legendary Atlantis. Under the leadership of Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anárion, the survivors of Númenor established a new kingdom in the western part of Middle Earth. Elendil divided his realm, placing Anárion on the throne of the Southern Kingdom of Gondor, and retaining for himself the title of High King as he ruled over the Northern Kingdom, Arnor. When Elendil died, Isildur took his place as High King, ruling from Arnor. Over time Arnor declined and failed, but the line of Isildur continued through the Dúnedain, or Men of the West, a diminished and scattered people known more popularly as Rangers. Gondor continued on in great strength, but the line of kings descended from Anárion ceased when the last king, Eärnur, died childless. Tolkien thus created a great irony in his literary world: a king with no kingdom, and a kingdom with no king.
This is the setting for The Lord of the Rings. Those who have seen the movies know that Aragorn the Ranger eventually became king of Gondor, but few realize that his coronation was the culmination of the long-awaited rebirth of the Númenorean realm and reunification of the Northern and Southern kingdoms. Those events could never have happened if the Dúnedain had ceased to exist. According to Tolkien’s work, they remained few in number after the destruction of Arnor, but their vigilant watch ensured a measure of peace in the lands of the North. Although all but forgotten by the people of Gondor, the Dúnedain worked quietly behind the scenes to strengthen the Southern Kingdom’s stand against the growing evil of Sauron. Then, when all hope seemed lost, the heir of Elendil appeared in the greatest hour of need, bringing new life to long-dead hopes and dreams.
A major component of Tolkien’s works is identity: as long as the Dúnedain and the people of Gondor remember who they are, no enemy can defeat them. They may be overwhelmed and diminished, but a remnant will remain and will in time prosper anew. And whether Professor Tolkien realized it or not, his literary works depict something very real in the works of God: the identity, redemption, and restoration of all Israel.
The book of Exodus begins with a list of names: the sons of Jacob who came with him to live in Egypt. In fact, the Hebrew title of this book, Shemot, means “Names”. By this time the names should be familiar to us. The men who became the Patriarchs of Israel’s Twelve Tribes are Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, and Joseph. What happened to them should also be familiar. After their generation died, a new dynasty came to power in Egypt. The new pharaohs feared the Hebrews and found a way to enslave them. Yet regardless what the Egyptians did, from oppressing the people with ever greater workloads to slaughtering their male infants, the Hebrews continued to multiply and prosper. As the Scripture tells us, Moses was born during the height of this oppression, and escaped death when his mother hid him in a basket in the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter discovered him and adopted him as her own, but raised him in the full knowledge of his Hebrew identity. When he grew up, he looked for ways to relieve the oppression of his people, but his best efforts only resulted in his condemnation for the murder of an Egyptian. He fled Egypt, and for the next 40 years settled down as a shepherd in the desert of Midian. Eventually God called him out of the desert and sent him back to Egypt, where he and his brother Aaron rallied the people and took God’s message to Pharaoh to release them from bondage.
The Exodus story is full of triumph and tragedy, and above all reveals the glory of YHVH in fulfilling His promises to deliver His people and bring them into the Promised Land. The story is not yet complete, for He has promised to do this again. And it is in this continuation of the story that the real tragedy is playing out. That tragedy is the fact that most of God’s people do not know who they are. Without this certain knowledge of their identity, they are in danger of languishing in bondage and missing out on the wondrous provision their Creator has ready for them.
The root of the tragedy is in the names of Exodus. Moses listed the names of all of Jacob’s sons, but to this day only one name seems to be connected to this story. That is the name of Judah, patriarch of the tribe that became the chief tribe of the Jewish people. It is right and good that Jews have owned the Exodus story for 3,000 years, for it is indeed their story. They are the core of the nation of Israel, the people who, like Tolkien’s people of Gondor, preserved the name and memory of the great kingdom of old. Yet the people whom God delivered from Egypt were not only the Jews. In fact, no one except the tribe of Judah would have been called Jews (Yehudim) in those days. Search the book of Exodus and you will not find Jews mentioned anywhere. Instead, you will see this people referred to as “Hebrews” or “Israel”. That is because Moses is careful to include all the tribes, not just Judah. And indeed that is exactly what God did; He saved all of Israel, not just the Jews.
Why is this important to us today? Because this people whom God delivered from Egypt is our people. It matters not whether we are descended physically from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for, as John the Baptist explained, “from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:8 NASB). Identification with Israel comes from pledging allegiance to the King of Israel, Messiah Yeshua. That is the unmistakable lesson of Romans 4:13-17, 9:6-9, 11:1-36, and Ephesians 2. And that is why the Apostle Paul confidently writes this admonition to the non-Jewish believers in the Greek city of Corinth:
For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and stood up to play.” Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. (I Corinthians 10:1-11 NASB, emphasis added)
Paul tells these Greek brethren to pay attention to what happened to “our fathers”. Why would he say that if these non-Jewish believers were not somehow considered part of Israel? Why would he refer to these fathers of Israel as being baptized into Moses and drinking from the rock of Messiah (Christ) if there were not some kind of link with the people of Corinth who believed on Messiah? Why would he tell these brethren to consider the story of the Exodus as examples if they were not personally connected to that story? Why would he state that these examples are for the instruction of those upon whom the ends of the ages have come if they were not going to experience something similar to what these fathers of Israel faced?
The point is just as valid for us as it was for our Greek brethren in Corinth two thousand years ago. By proclaiming faith in and allegiance to Yeshua of Nazareth, Son of David, we are proclaiming our identity with His people of Israel. We are, therefore, Israelites. Our identity as Israelites is just as valid as the Israelite identity of our Jewish brethren. Their story is our story, their history is our history, and their future is our future. When we understand this, a new universe of meaning opens up. Abraham truly is our father. Moses is the prophet who led our ancestors out of Egypt. God delivered our people. It was our fathers whose manhood was taken away under the lash of the Egyptians. It was our mothers whose sons were ripped from their arms and cast to the crocodiles. It was our brothers whose cries were silenced by the waters of the Nile. It was our sisters who were thrust into the arms of Egyptian masters. And when deliverance came, it was our God Who worked great wonders to bring us out of slavery and make us a people worthy of His Name.
Today we are not a people, but that is changing. An awakening is happening to the scattered people of Israel as we are beginning to remember our forgotten identity. As Israelites we can rejoice that our brethren of Judah have kept our name alive all these millennia, and we yearn to connect again with them as one people under the reign of Messiah. So it shall be, even as our God proclaimed long ago:
Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob: “Jacob shall not now be ashamed, nor shall his face now turn pale; but when he sees his children, the work of My hands, in his midst, they will sanctify My name; indeed, they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.” (Isaiah 29:22-23 NASB)
This year, as we read again the story of the Exodus, do not read it merely as “the story of the Jews”. Read it as our family history.