We’ve had several reasons to reflect on history this week. I already mentioned the anniversary of the protests at Tiananmen Square and today is the 70th anniversary of the invasion at Normandy.
We’ve read through a great history of people like Abraham and Joseph, and one emphasis this week was to recognize that the history we read in Genesis is our history. We are children of Abraham because we are children of the promise by faith. So when we read of God’s promises to Israel, we stand under those promises, too.
But remember the promise God makes to Abraham. It is a promise for blessing, but God also notes that through Abraham’s family will all the families of the earth be blessed. If we are children of Abraham, we cannot merely celebrate that blessed status. We need to remember both that we receive a blessing as part of the promise, and we are to also be a blessing for all the world.
Coming back into work today I heard a story on NPR about the 25th anniversary of the events surrounding Tiananmen Square. The host was interviewing a journalist in China who was showing the famous photo from the protests to students and it seemed that more had never seen the photo than those who had. The way it was worded during the radio segment was that in China, “amnesia is a state sponsored sport.”
China has not wanted people to know parts of its past and so it has worked hard to conceal and erase history. What is amazing is that this isn’t an event from centuries ago. It isn’t a matter of destroying the records. People are alive now who were alive then. But the past is still allowed to slip away.
While we weren’t alive when the events described in the Bible took place, they are still of the utmost importance to us. God has gone to great lengths to have it recorded, preserved, and passed on through generations so that we would receive the book we have today. It is our history and it is our story. He has given us the Bible for a reason. We can’t let it slip away. We need to commit ourselves to knowing the story God has given us and make sure we remain vigilant in continuing our lives that are now, amazingly, also a part of that story.
God is not done yet for he is still active. But it helps to know where we’ve been in order to know where we’re going.
Paul begins 1 Corinthians 10 drawing out four parts of the Exodus story: the cloud, the sea, spiritual food, and spiritual drink. God’s presence was made known to his people by the cloud. The sea is what was the means of deliverance when the Egyptian army came charging after the Hebrews. The food was the manna and the drink was the miraculous water that sprang forth from the rock. These are signs of God’s provision in freeing his people from bondage and leading them to the promised land. But we are then reminded, that nevertheless God was not pleased with them.
These four parts parallel the presence we have in God’s Holy Spirit and the sacraments of the church in the New Testament, baptism and communion. In drawing these parallels Paul is framing the church as a new people of the Exodus. But his warning is also clear. Just because you are God’s people and recipients of his presence and partakers of the sacraments, don’t presume that all you do pleases God. Corinth was a church that we know of its faults from previous chapters. They are defrauding their fellow believers, using their freedom in Christ to return to sin (like returning to slavery in Egypt), and exercising their rights in a way that causes others to stumble. Paul wants them to know, and to learn this lesson from history, that like the people of the Exodus, the blessings of God did not give a blanket approval of all that was going on. If you come to church, take communion, and are baptized, that does not mean God is satisfied. God wants us to press on and, like we read in 1 Corinthians 9, we discipline ourselves pursuing a goal. Paul wants his church to learn from their forebears and not repeat the mistakes that lead to them missing out on further blessings.
As a lover of history and learning in general, I’ve never really resonated with the phrase, “ignorance is bliss.” I love to learn and think ignorance is pretty far from a blissful condition. If we don’t know our history, as the saying goes, we are destined to repeat it. Certainly there is so much to learn from those who have gone before us. We can learn from their triumphs and learn from their mistakes, as well. This applies to us personally, seeing other individuals and learning from them. But it also applies to groups and churches and even nations. For example, what can we learn from Egypt and its upheaval? What could Egypt have learned from its own history and history at large that may have been able to guide them in these last couple years? Whatever that answer may be, ignorance would have been no help.
Thankfully, God have given us a fantastic book full of our own history. It is the history of God’s people and the story of God’s work among us. In this context, is ignorance bliss? Is it better to overlook the testimony of the Bible? Are we better off not knowing Adam or the judges? Should we care about Moses or the kings? The Old Testament is too often set aside, but we are worse off if we choose to be ignorant. And I think it is a choice. Perhaps if you do not know Christ and have never been to church, you haven’t necessarily chosen to be ignorant of the Scriptures. But if you are a Christian and do not know the Bible we’ve been gifted, you have made a choice to be ignorant. It is an avoidable circumstance. Every day is a new day to pick up God’s word and read. Every day we can pray for the Spirit to enlighten our minds to understand God’s truth.
Or every day we can choose ignorance. We can choose to miss out on the lessons we can learn from those who have gone before us. We can choose to turn our backs on what God says about himself in the Bible. We can be ignorant of the fact that the God of the entire cosmos came to us in Jesus Christ and revealed all we need to know. Jesus reveals God to us in the flesh and shows us the way, shows us what life really is, and shows us truth.
The letter we are reading currently, 1 Corinthians, is a letter to a specific church in Corinth as well as to the wider church community of that day. It was written almost two thousand years ago. Life was different then. I think we can underestimate that. But that doesn’t mean this letter, and other letters like it, have no bearing on us today. I would not want you to be ignorant of their struggles and of Paul’s message. The Bible is living and active and by the Spirit it speaks to us today. We ignore it at our own peril.
How much better to heed Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 10, and accept an invitation to know God in his word. It is our very own history that we read. We are the seed of Abraham, heirs of the promise, and as we read from Genesis through Revelation, it is our story. At times it is frustrating as we see how far humanity can fall, but it is encouraging that our God remains faithful throughout. And to know of God’s faithfulness through the ages is a much more blissful condition than to remain in the dark about it. So let’s seek to be in the light, God’s light, learning from him and learning from the wisdom he shares with us.
Our Bible reading this week is from 1 Corinthians 10:1-22. Paul begins it by encouraging the reader not to be unaware of what has gone on before us. That is a double negative that could be understood as, “I want you to know…” Paul wants his readers to know their history, so he calls to mind a few events. Maybe some did know about these events, but they weren’t on their minds. He wants them to remember and be thinking of these things as he moves along in this chapter.
But perhaps we are not as familiar with Paul’s references. If so, let’s begin this week by going back and reading through those chapters that will help us to know (to not be unaware).
As you do, try to connect Paul’s references to the events found here. You could just read the few verses you may find in your cross references, but it’ll be much better to read within its context and be reminded of the larger story.
There were a number of prophecies against Assyria and their fall and in Isaiah 37 we see those prophecies fulfilled. In chapter 31 we read:
And the Assyrian shall fall by a sword, not of man;
and a sword, not of man, shall devour him…
In chapter 37, after Sennacherib, the leader of the Assyrians, mocks the God of Israel in his dealings with Hezekiah he leaves to attend to an uprising in the south by the king of Egypt.
Sennacherib has been very successful in his rule, as he notes to Hezekiah. Assyria has been used by God to bring his judgment on the land and Sennacherib says, “Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, devoting them to destruction. And shall you be delivered? Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations that my fathers destroyed…?”
Hezekiah must be in great fear, for himself, his people, and Jerusalem. But he knows that those other gods were no gods at all. He goes to the temple and prays for God’s deliverance, and does so with the purpose that the kingdoms of earth may know that Israel’s God is truly God.
As I said, the prophecy is fulfilled and Hezekiah’s prayers are answered. In going to fight off the Egyptians, Sennacherib is dealt a grew blow, loses thousands of men, and retreats back to the capital of Ninevah.
There is an interesting comparison between these two leaders. Hezekiah goes to the temple and is heard by God and is spared. Later, after backing down following the loss of so many of his men at the hand of God’s angels, Sennacherib goes to his temple. There he is not delivered, rather he finds his end as his own sons kill him in order to seize power for themselves.
Also-in reading about this passage I found two accounts of how the 185,000 of Sennacherib’s camp were put to death. One is an account of some pesky mice that came out in the night to gnaw away at the bows and the straps of Assyrian shields, leaving that army weakened. The other is not as exciting, and records disease as the tool used to bring about their destruction.
Perhaps I’m biased given that I was a history major, but I think there’s something to it. There is something about history that makes it important for us to know. So much of our Scripture is our history, the history of God’s chosen people. There is a reason that God has it in his word. I think it is valuable for us.
There may be times when genealogies are taxing on our attention. It is hard to press through the seemingly endless battles and changes of leadership. But take a step back and look at what God has done and is doing. David sings a song of thanks in 1 Chronicles 16 because of what God has done. Read his words and think how much of that is history.
If David did not know his own past and the story of God’s faithfulness, what would his songs and psalms look like? What would become of his trust in God continued provision for the people? I’m sure he was supported in his belief because he could look back into past generations and see the faithfulness God has toward his people and the long-suffering that God displays as his people turn from him.
Knowing our history also gives us perspective about our place in this world. We’re not the only ones to have struggled or question, nor are we the first to have great victories for God. We are very much like God’s people throughout time, and thankfully God is the same, too.
Our God is always faithful and always deserving of songs of praise. We ought to reflect on our individual histories and recognize God’s work in our lives. But don’t forget the way in which you fit into God’s greater history and offer him thanks and praise for his goodness that extends backward beyond our own entry into life.
Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! 1 Chronicles 16:24
Exodus changes the tone quickly from the prosperity Joseph and his family enjoyed at the end of Genesis, and it does so in the first chapter with the line in verse eight: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
This leads to the growing oppression of the people of Israel and sets the stage for what we know comes later in Exodus. Because he did not know Joseph, the king (or pharaoh), does not know the debt Joseph is owed for saving the land from famine. He does not know of the commitments made and relationships built. What this pharaoh does know is that the people of Israel are too many and too mighty.
Knowing your history is important as it helps shape our future and inform our decisions. Paul reminds the church of its history in 1 Corinthians 10, urging his readers not to be ignorant of what our ancestors went through and he does so that we may learn from their mistakes. If we don’t learn from the mistakes of others, we are bound to learn from our own. Paul reminds us that our ancestors, after the Exodus, were lead by a cloud, passed through the sea, were fed with bread from heaven, and yet they still turn from God to idols. Paul tells us that ignorance is not bliss, it is folly. 1 Corinthians 10:11-13 says:
Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the age has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.
Learning from these examples is at times the way of escape. So let us choose to learn our history and learn from it, not choosing ignorance that will lead us to repeat the sins of others.