Sunday, September 27, 2009

A desire to stay free: Antiquities 3.1.4 vs 19

"That they ought to reason thus: that God delays to assist them, not because he has no regard to them, but because he will first try their fortitude, and the pleasure they take in their freedom." Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews. 3.5.4 vs 19
It is not often that I cite secular sources in this blog and, in this case, I am not seeking to elevate the writings of Josephus to those of scripture, yet in this passage Josephus makes some interesting observations about the Israelites departure from Egypt. When I've read the story of Israel's exodus, I have always concerned myself with how the Jews relationship with God must have changed as a result of His miraculous deliverance which He worked on their behalf. However, Josephus, as a first century Jewish historian, writes not of their relationship with God but of their new found freedom; a freedom that was physical, civil, and political. As such, Josephus sees the purpose of the trials they endured in the wilderness as a test of their desire to be free, not merely a test of their love for God. Whether or not this is the case in this instance, Josephus brings up a significant point when he refers to the "pleasure" in being free, and it has some important lessons for us who have found freedom in Christ.

While freedom is never cheep, often its price is paid by others on the behalf of those who are enslaved. In the case of the Jews, their freedom from Egypt did not cost them much personally, but it did require the death of countless sheep whose blood was to be shed and placed on the doorposts of every Jewish home. So to, our freedom in Christ was not the result of any labor, effort, or act of our own, it was purchased entirely by the offering of Jesus upon the cross; His death purchased our freedom. However, while freedom is sometimes obtained with minimal personal cost, it is rarely maintained without personal involvement, cost, and often sacrifice. Because of this, after having first become free and subsequently facing the trials and struggles to remain free, we are often faced with the temptation to surrender our freedom and return to a life of captivity. This was continually the case for the Israelites.
"The rabble who were among them had greedy desires; and also the sons of Israel wept again and said, 'Who will give us meat to eat? We remember the fish which we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic, but now our appetite is gone. There is nothing at all to look at except this manna... Oh that someone would give us meat to eat! For we were well-off in Egypt... Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?' So they said to one another, 'Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.'" (Numbers 11:4-6, 18, 14:2-4)
When faced with difficulties, many in Israel desired to return to their land of bondage; to return to Egypt. Our fight to stay free is often a battle to choose between comfort and liberty; to chose from a life of ease, though it may include bondage, and a life of trials and struggles, even though accompanied with freedom. We see this in the history of the Jews and we see it even in our own modern history. In my country, many have become willing to surrender their personal freedoms for the security and ease of a cradle-to-grave "protection" promised by the government. We also see this temptation in the christian life. Once having become free, we can easily fall pray to the temptations of the world, the promise of ease and comfort, but also the shackles of sin and unrighteousness.
"But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain. It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 4:9-11, 5:1)
It is one thing to be set free, it is another to remain free. I think Josephus was right, that sometimes our trials and tribulations are, at least in part, meant to test the firmness of our fortitude and our desire to be free. Do we really desire the freedom that is found in a life lived in Christ, or are we willing to settle for ease and comfort? Paul was clear, if we desire to go back, there will always be opportunity. "And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return." (Hebrews 11:14-16) However, if we desire a life of freedom in Christ, then there is grace to overcome the trials of life and to walk in the pathway of freedom.
"Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word." (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17)
David Robison

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  1. In my experience, some societies today have the same problem. Having been set free, they find it easier to slowly return to their more enslaved days. Russia comes immediately to mind. Some of the other former Soviet republics have similar tendencies. Likewise, one wonders what will ultimately happen in Iraq.

  2. I remember this! This is a classic. An oldie but a goodie for sure.