I am preparing a new version of my 2000 book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, and someone happened to ask if the State of Israel might be a sign of God's work in the world . Here's how I described the scene, and what it might mean, practically.
"Who Can We go to when in Trouble?"
My final question was introduced twenty-five hundred years ago by an Assyrian general with a tactical interest in comparative religions. Sennacherib, emperor of Assyria, sent troops marching on Jerusalem. The valley dark with his warriors, the general in charge approached the city gate to negotiate, or at least taunt, the ants trapped in their little monotheistic hill. Sending an ultimatum to the pious king Hezekiah, he asked a series of questions he thought his enemies might chew over for a few hours. But they still seem worth consideration 2500 years later.
The envoy began by needling the officials sent to meet him with the weakness of the Jewish position. He spoke loudly and in Hebrew, so the people manning the walls -- who would have to "eat their own excrement and drink their own urine" if the king refused to surrender -- could hear. "The emperor wants to know whom King Hezekiah is depending on in defying him," he asked. "Do you think empty words can take the place of military power? Do you think Egypt, that reed that breaks when you lean on it, is going to come to your aid now?" The envoy stopped and considered what he knew of the spiritual inclinations of the Jewish people. "Or maybe you think your God, Yahweh, whose altars Hezekiah has been destroying, is going to save you? Actually it was God who sent me here to punish you." (He had, perhaps, not been fully briefed on the iconoclastic nature of the Jewish God, but it was worth a shot to stir up internal antagonism.) He offered carrot as well as stick: "Surrender, and we'll lead you to a land not so different from this, and give you two thousand horses if you can provide the cavalry to make use of them."
Finally the official made an appeal to the skeptics in his audience by asking the $64,000 question. "Come, now. What god have you seen ever save any nation from the hands of the Assyrian army? Where now are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Didi they save Samaria from me? Among all the gods of the nations, can you name a single one who saved his land from me? Do you really think this Yahweh is going to save Israel?"
Modern man, who prides himself on being scientific, talks of spirituality as a "potluck dinner," or calls himself a "spiritual tourist." Here, by contrast, was a man who approached questions of faith in a scientific and serious manner. "Does ivory soap float?" "Which god answers prayers of a people about to be swallowed?"
The Jewish historian says Yahweh gave an answer through the prophet Isaiah. "Do you not know? Can you not understand? Long ago I planned it. But now I am going to shield this city from you."
The envoy's largely rhetorical question remains historically interesting. Where are the gods of the states he mentioned -- Hamath, Arpad, Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Where, for that matter, are the people of those states? Or even Assyria? Absorbed without a trace into larger and more vigorous ethnic identities.
The Jewish people, however, survived Sennacherib. They returned from exile in Babylon, as prophesied by Jeremiah, while greater nations were swallowed. (Herodotus does not even mention them, in his exhaustive catalogue of the ancient world.) They survived the rise and fall of Alexander the Great. Romans sacked Jeruselem and sent the Jews into exile again, where they remained for two thousand years, keeping their identity intact through shared worship of this "tribal" god who was now identified as the Creator by half of humanity. They survived Mohammed and the Caliphs, the Grand Inquisitor, the Russian patriarchs, and Adolf Hitler, whose thousand-year Reich fell in thirteen. Then the Jewish state was resurrected, as the prophets predicted 2500 years before. Jews trickled into Tel Aviv from as far afield as Harbin, northern China, and Lima, Peru. They again survived "weapons of mass destruction" and a thousand gilded promises to push them into the sea.
"What other god has ever done that?" Among the thousands of people groups that inhabit the Earth, I know of -- none.
In a broader sense (to get ahead of ourselves), Yahweh saved the poor, orphan, and widow for centuries from sacred prostitution and religious exploitation. The strict moral teachings of the Bible (but yes, also the Qur'an, Analects, many sutras) protected families from sexually-transmitted diseases and divorce. The prophets mandated a program of social justice that allowed the poor a dignified opportunity ("sweat equity") to glean fields, saving them from both hunger and the dependent status of beggars.
By contrast, consider India, land of monism and Agni, Kali, Shiva, Ram, and millions of other gods. Almost the only country on Earth where men lived longer than women. Which of India's gods saved widows from the funeral fire? Which taught outcastes to read, or freed Brahmins from the snare of self-deification? Which saved girls from temple brothels? Which shook up the caste system and rescued the poor and helpless? Did any of these millions of gods accomplish the moral revolution and social cleaning India needed? Were not such gods often in fact social constructs by which Brahmins dominated the downtrodden? Were monism and tolerance precisely the problems? Could it be that mythology and philosophy are powerless against the demonic apart from a God who made boundaries and took sides?
Such questions are beyond the pale in comparative religion, as is insulting native cuisine for a visiting statesman. But a common traveler need not be a politician. He can ask frank questions, bccause he wants to come home in one piece.