Stephen, Session #16 (All quotes generally ESV)

WHEN WAS GOD HAPPY WITH THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL?

It would be easy to say “never,” but that isn’t the correct answer.  If we look closely at the speech of Stephen (and remember, this description may have come directly from Jesus himself on the road to Emmaus!), Stephen describes a time of favor—a time during which God showed great pleasure in His people.

This time of favor began with Joshua, when the children of Israel entered the promised land of Canaan and destroyed every city and every people who fought against them.  God favored them, as the Ark of the Covenant preceded the army of Israel, and the people worshiped the true God in front of the Tabernacle which Moses and Aaron had, under God’s direction, created in the desert.  

We read of Stephen’s admiration for this period of favor with God in Acts 7:44-45, which says “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them.”  

You can read more about this time in the book of Joshua.  Start at chapter 6 and the fall of Jericho.  Then chapter after chapter describes Israel’s winning hand with God blessing their efforts.  He was pleased with them and gave them victories.  And all during this time, Israel worshiped God in the Tabernacle which He had designed and requested.

WHEN DID THE TIME OF FAVOR END?

What changed God’s disposition, and when did it happen?  According to Stephen, “It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him.48 However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.”

According to Stephen, God’s smile toward His people disappeared when Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem!  “God asked for a tent to live in, but YOU GUYS insisted that God must have a Temple.”  To the Jewish audience, Stephen was attacking “their holy place.”  They heard Stephen saying “You just HAD to build this stupid Temple, even though God didn’t want it.  THAT is when God gave up on you!”

This would be bad enough!  But are you getting the pieces of this puzzle now?  That is EXACTLY what the Samaritans said!  They claimed that six years after Joshua entered the Holy Land, he built a Tabernacle on Mt. Gerizim, and this is what God wanted.  Joshua 8:30-35 tells us this story (remember that the book of Joshua is NOT a part of the Samaritan Bible), but it says that “Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel”—the “wrong” mountain according to the Jews.  (Was this a deliberate attempt by Ezra to disparage the Samaritan beliefs?  Remember that this is probably true, according to some new information in the Dead Sea Scrolls!)

Joshua 24:25-26  “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord.”  This verse didn’t get changed.  Anyway you look at this, Stephen seems to be correct:  everything started going downhill when the Jerusalem Temple was built.  Many of the kings married heathen women, the Israelites worshiped false gods, and they were defeated and exiled, etc.  

It was the worship of other gods which destroyed the Covenant with Yahweh.  “I shall be your God and you shall be My people” said God to Abraham in Genesis 17:8.  In 43 verses of the Bible God says “I shall be your God….”  But it wasn’t true, was it?  The children of Israel turned their back so often on God.

Stephen must have had Jesus words echoing in his mind, Matt. 23:37, who in one short sentence described the break between God and his people:  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  (the King James Version here:  “…and you would not!”)

So systemic was their false-god disease that Stephen has the bad manners to point out that “these law-keepers” couldn’t even get from Egypt to Canaan without worshiping other gods—gods who had nothing to do with their freedom from Pharoah!

STEPHEN’S THREATS OF GOD’S ANGER

Take a moment to compare the Old Testament quotation with Stephen’s words:

Amos 5:25-27“Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, 27 and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says Yahweh, whose name is the God of hosts.”

Acts 7:42-43 But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets:  “‘Did you bring to me slain beasts and sacrifices, during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?  43 You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship;
and I will send you into exile
beyond Babylon.”

The differences in the quotation can be explained primarily because Stephen was using the Greek translation of the Hebrew.  In Amos, the two gods are Sikkuth and Kiyyun (Hebrew: סִכּוּת  and  כִּיּוּן).  These are Mesopotamian “astral” gods—”star gods” or “hosts of heaven”—which we learn from references in Ugaritic, the ancient language of what is now Iraq.  “Sikkuth” is still a guess, but “Kiyyun” has been identified as the “god Saturn.”  These were only “some” of the gods they worshiped as they came out of Egypt.  The Old Testament prophet Amos offers to Israel God’s threat that He will exile them “beyond Damascus.”  What’s beyond Damascus?  Babylon—where, indeed, they went.

But Stephen changes the prophecy to something MORE foreboding:  “Babylon was apparently not far enough.  God is going to send you ‘beyond Babylon’—something more drastic, since you didn’t learn your lesson.”  This is just geography, but the point is that Israel didn’t learn its lesson in Babylon.  In our day, God might say “Maybe I need to exile you and send you to the moon!”

Additionally, the names of these star gods are changed.  Stephen calls them Moloch and Rephan.  The Septuagint scholars saw this Hebrew phrase as the “tabernacle of Molech,” reading סֻכַּת מֹלֶך (Succoth Molech)  The worship of Rephan is unknown. However,  Molech (or Moloch), a Canaanite god, is very bad news.  This is a god which was worshiped in Jerusalem during the time of the prophets.  The primary worship  of this god included the sacrifice of children outside the walls in the area where “The Potter’s Field” was purchased with Judas Iscariot’s blood money (but that’s another story!).  The worshipers would burn their children on the altar of Molech.  This was not the Jews’ finest hour, and they knew it.

Stephen is saying that what they have done to Jesus Christ is even worse than the worship of Molech!