[Editor’s note: Today’s post comes from Michaela Bunke. Michaela is a history major and religious studies minor at the U of M who focuses on intellectual and church history. She’s passionate about Europe specifically and how God has been perceived and responded to in the ideological landscapes there. Michaela is the co-founder of Round Table at the U, a student group that engages students in round table discussions on big topics.]
The following is a story about how a small Semitic family became a nation, and how that nation persevered through endless challenges because a voice from the sky promised that there would someday come a great ruler who would turn their nation into an never-ending empire.
Four thousand years ago there were about 30 million living people on the earth. Europe and the Americas were almost completely uninhabited. Asia was just starting to see the beginnings of ancient China and ancient India. The majority of the world’s population resided in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Humans had invented papyrus and discovered bronze, but the existence of coins, swords, and glass would not come for another several hundred years.
It was at this time, around the year 2000 BCE, in the city of Ur (present-day Iraq), that a particular Semitic man decided to move his family westward to Canaan, a land with rich soil and gorgeous landscapes that sat on the coast of the Mediterranean. It was well-known that whoever controlled this area, which lay at the intersection of three continents, controlled many of the trade routes from both east and west. However, for unknown reasons, the family was unsuccessful in reaching their destination and settled instead in Haran, a city slightly northeast of Canaan. But the family continued to dream of moving to this fertile land on the sea. To their east were the great empires of the Babylonians and the Persians who were ever at war with each other; to the west was the beautiful, peaceful Land that they longed for.
After the man grew old and passed away, his son, who was giving up hope on ever calling the Land his home, began to experience a phenomenon that was just as bizarre and stupefying to him as it would be to us today: out of nowhere, without explanation, a voice would come from the sky. This Voice from the Sky spoke in his language. It spoke with authority, but also with gentleness. The Voice began to tell the man that his family would indeed reach Canaan someday, but it would be his descendants that would inhabit the Land. So he trusted the Voice from the Sky and obeyed it in everything it instructed him. His family soon accepted his odd relationship with the Voice, and indeed, when his son, grandson, and great-grandson came of age, it spoke to them as well, promising the same thing.
They trusted the Voice, but they often doubted. Many times, their circumstances made the promise of the Land seem almost farcical. During the lifetime of the man’s great-grandson, a severe famine came over all of Mesopotamia. This famine caused the family to relocate to Egypt, where food was available. There, in Egypt, their offspring multiplied quickly, until the king feared that their greatness in number might threaten the stability of his empire. So around the year 1600 BCE, the Egyptian king made them his slaves, and they became very oppressed.
The Voice from the Sky, however, continued to speak to this people just as it had spoken to their ancestors. It continued to promise that they would soon be freed from the Egyptians, obtain the Land of Canaan, and establish themselves as an autonomous nation.
Sure enough, around 1400 BCE, the people managed to escape into the desert, but as they began toward Canaan, they soon found themselves lost. Yet the Voice continued to speak, guiding them and giving them new laws, rules, and traditions that solidified their identity as a people.
Eventually they arrived in their long-awaited Land and settled there for nearly a thousand years. Just as the Voice from the Sky had predicted, they multiplied greatly in number and became an autonomous Nation. However, they were dwarfed by the great empires that surrounded them. The Voice continued to promise that they would successfully defeat those who attacked them, and indeed, they were largely victorious for centuries despite their small size. In the 8th century BCE, the Roman and Greek Empires began to grow to the west, while their neighbors to the east grew as well—the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Achaemenid Empires.
In the midst of the increasing threats that surrounded the Nation, the people found comfort in the promises that the Voice gave them: someday they would be mightier than all other nations, someday they would plunder their enemies to the east, someday the empires that continually harassed them would be cut off, and the Nation could know that their children and their children’s children would live forever in the Land that was now theirs. All of these promises were wrapped up in one promise in particular that the Voice gave them: someday they would have a king who was mightier than any king Mesopotamia had ever seen. The Nation held onto these promises, but as their enemies grew, so did their doubt.
In the 6th century BCE, an unprecedented tragedy occurred: the Babylonians conquered the Nation and forced them out of their homes in Canaan. Suddenly, they had lost not only the Land, but their culture and traditions were threatened as well. They could no longer worship in their temple or perform their holy ceremonies as they had always done. But the Voice from the Sky told them to be patient; they would soon have a great ruler who would lead them back to the Land and establish their kingdom forever. This promise seemed to be coming true when, in 539 BCE, the Achaemenid Empire under Cyril the Great conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Nation to return to the Land of Canaan and operate relatively autonomously. However, many of them had dispersed throughout the ancient world since their evacuation from the Land, so there was great challenge in reuniting the Nation and reestablishing their culture.
Then another tragedy occurred—one more unprecedented than the first: the Voice ceased to speak. Suddenly, the Nation found themselves back in their own Land, occupied by one foreign empire after the next, struggling to hold onto their culture, their laws, and their sacred traditions, which were being constantly jeopardized—and the Voice provided no answer. The Nation and the Land became victims of continual occupation and exile by other nations, including that of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, and later those of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Seleucid Empire. It seemed that the promises had been only utopian fictions.
In the year 63 BCE, the Roman Empire gained control of the Land, and the Nation was given a ruler of their own people, but they were far from autonomous, their culture had been Romanized and Hellenized, and their leaders were growing increasingly political. The people of the Nation wondered if the Voice from the Sky would ever speak again.
In the midst of these dying hopes, around the year 6 BCE, in a small, unpopular town in the north of the Land, a young teenage girl reported that the Voice had spoken to her—the same Voice who had spoken to her ancestors hundreds of years before. She claimed that an angelic being purporting to be a messenger from the Voice had told the girl that she would soon bear a child who would become the long-awaited King promised to them. No one in the Nation believed her.
However, nine months later, as the girl and her husband were journeying from their hometown in the north to a small city just south of Jerusalem, she went into labor. Unable to find better accommodations, she gave birth to the boy in a stable of animals. In this stable, surrounded by cows and horses and bundled up in barn rags, it was this baby boy who would indeed become the most powerful King of the greatest kingdom the world would ever see. But his people would include many more than just those of the Nation, and his territory would include much more than just the Land.
He would not become the type of king that the Nation was expecting. Working as a carpenter and living only thirty-some-odd years, he was executed by the Roman government because of the turbulence he caused among the Nation. But those who would become his people believe that he carried the words of the Voice who had been silent for over 400 years, and they claim that he is still alive, that his kingdom is continuing to grow, and that through him, the Voice is still speaking to those who will listen.