When Jesus broke bread on His last night with the disciples, they were celebrating Passover together – the yearly feast celebrating the great liberation from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. The Israelites had done nothing to deserve this hardship; the political climate had simply changed, and the new Pharaohs did not know or trust these incomers. The Exodus commemorated their freedom from unfair oppression.
Yesterday, we left the Israelites in the desert at the foot of a mountain where God had come to meet with them in a cloud, giving the law, along with instructions about a special tent and an ark to keep the tablets. A newly founded nation with a mission for God, they entered the Promised Land, where for a while they were led by a series of judges, such as Joshua, Deborah, Samson and Samuel. As the Israelites looked around to the other nations, they demanded a king instead. Despite warnings about taxes and other burdens a king would place on them, they persisted, so Saul was made king. It wasn’t long before Saul decided to blatantly ignore God’s instructions. Samuel was sent to anoint David who waited years to become king. During the reign of David, and initially his son Solomon, the Jews thrived. A glorious temple of stone was built in which sacrifices could be made and (as an echo of the great temple of creation), heaven met with earth. This was where God dwelled, and His presence lingered with humanity.
Not long after, things went downhill. Civil war broke out and the country was split into two branches. In the Northern Kingdom, ‘Israel’, after a series of cruel and idolatrous kings, disaster strikes in BC 721. The Assyrian Empire wipes out anything that resembles a functioning kingdom and one of the two branches disappears. The few scattered people left of the 10 northern tribes in the area later called Samaria began intermarrying and customs changed. In the Southern Kingdom, ‘Judah’, things are not a great deal better. Worship of Baal and other gods comes and goes. In BC 587, Nebuchadnezzar destroys the temple in Jerusalem and the elite especially is exiled. This is clearly seen as punishment for sin and disobedience. Some of you might remember Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of God upping and leaving the temple prior to its destruction (Ezekiel 10). God no longer dwelled with His people, who have rejected Him and unplugged from God as much as they could. There is a deep sense among prophets and people alike of shame, terror, regret and repentance. They have failed to be the people God made them to be – and they have done so in plain view of the people they were meant to witness to. But God promises to restore them. There is hope.
As the Babylonian empire falls to the Persians, the exiles are allowed to return. The first temple is gone, but after a few false starts, a second temple is built around BC 516. The new temple leads to rejoicing as it is again possible for God’s presence to dwell with humans but among the returning exiles, a deep grief lingers along with a sense that the exile is not yet over. They are back, but it’s not like before. The new temple is nothing compared to the original one. It is discussed whether God’s glory has returned to the new temple or not. Is God fully back with us? In the passage from Ezekiel which we’ve read today, God promises to restore His people, yet it was plain to everyone at the time, this promise had not yet been fully realised. There’s no real peace neither without nor within. A period of around 400 years after the return from exile is not described in the Bible but includes Greek occupation, before eventually, Rome invades Judea.
The (even at that time) old prophecies by Isaiah especially begin to give rise to new thoughts about the role of God’s people in their surrounding world. Suffering is now a central part of Jewish understanding of themselves and of God. Passover, previously simply a liberation feast, takes on additional meanings including thoughts about sin and forgiveness normally reserved for Atonement Day. There is a lot of debate among rabbis about this shift, and how to understand the ‘suffering servant’ passages in Isaiah. As an Ethiopian eunuch would ask many years later when reading Isaiah 53: Is the prophet talking about himself or someone else? (Acts 8 v 34).