“Ask a Priest: Why Was It ‘Us vs. Them’ Before the Coming of Christ?”

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Q: I’m aware that if you are not Jewish, you are a gentile. I am also aware that Jesus came to save all people — gentiles and Jews. But I’m confused on how this came to be. Why was there an “us vs. them” before Jesus? Why couldn’t the Jewish people convert the pagans to Judaism? Why were they different nations? We are all from Adam and Eve, we all came from Noah, all made by the same God. Is it only because of Isaac and Ishmael? Either way, God still had a hand in the rise of both these nations. Why did some people have no way to God before Jesus came? Thank you. – Anna

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: An adequate attempt at a full answer to your questions could fill a book!

This reply won’t even try to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, a few ideas might be worth considering.

You ask why there are different nations.

Some of the differences between peoples are natural. Terrain and climate shape people and local economies in various ways. And people in a given area tend to develop their own customs and dialects and even languages over time.

Some of the harsher differences between peoples, such as those that lead to rivalry and war, are among the aftereffects of original sin and a sign of our fallen human nature. We can’t blame those on Isaac and Ishmael.

Now, salvation history is a history of God revealing himself more and more openly. He could have done this all at once, to all peoples. He did, of course, reveal something of himself to everyone through the beauty and unity of the created universe.

But as for more explicit revelation – the stuff of the Bible – God chose to establish a covenant with a particular people, in this case, the Israelites. He did it through Abraham, whom he led him to a new land.

Once God’s relationship was grounded and nurtured among a given people, he would then reach out to the wider world.

This approach allowed for a slower, more organic growth of faith. God generally seems to prefer to work that way.

Let’s go back to your question about the us-vs.-them mentality that seemed to mark much of the Old Testament.

To prepare the Israelites to follow him more closely, God insisted on a high degree of their separation from the pagans around them. This made sense in the ancient world, where religion and families and political life were tightly bound together.

This separation from the pagans gave the Israelites, at least in theory, breathing room to absorb and live the commandments of the Lord.

In practice, many Israelites dabbled in pagan practices, some of them quite nasty. Hence, the prophets were kept busy, railing at those who followed pagan ways (think of the Golden Calf incident at Mount Sinai or the clash between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18).

There were some gentiles, by the way, who converted to what we think of as Judaism, though it wasn’t a widespread occurrence.

Those conversions were a hint of what was to come later. In fact, prophecies such as the one found in Isaiah 66:18-20 foretold that the nations (“the gentiles”) would all come to Jerusalem to worship. The chosen people in effect would be a beacon to the world in regard to the true God.

Ultimately, God’s plan wasn’t to bring the world to Judaism, but rather to Christianity. For it was Christ who was the fullness of God’s revelation to the world.

A helpful read could be A Father Who Keeps His Promises, by Scott Hahn.

This book outlines how the God who loves the human race had reasons known only to himself for what he did. He undoubtedly chose a way that has an internal logic, based on love, which respects freedom while at the same time gradually revealing the fullness of his plan.

As to your last question: As mentioned above, people could discover something of God in the beauty of nature.

They also had consciences, however imperfectly formed. If they tried to follow their consciences, God could lead them on the path to salvation.

But even their salvation, like ours, ultimately depended on the redemption won by Jesus on the cross.

This is a quick answer, but one that I hope is helpful.


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  1. To Anna, the understanding and LIVING THE FAITH IN GOD … comes down to THE GIFT OF FAITH which God provides to those who ‘obey’ His Commandments. (at basic)

    Why are some separate from this WAY OF GOD? At basic ‘FREE WILL.’ Also a gift from God, who LOVES US and wants us to FREELY CHOOSE to follow God’s Ways… for LOVE OF GOD.

    Yes, to help us to the COMMON UNION of a DIVINE LIFE (here on earth and then eternally) GOD, Creator humbled himself and ‘came down to earth’ to teach THE WAY.

    Bringing all human nature to this UNITY OF SPIRIT OF GOD… IS A SLOW PROCESS. (starts with prayer,
    sacrificial love, and SERVING the COMMON GO(O)D. From FAITH in GOD put to ACTS OF FAITH…HIS GRACE LIFTS US UP. (known as spiritual maturity)

  2. Acts OF FAITH is not about ‘being nice’ to others. There are sales persons and store clerks who can ‘be nice.’ (which if sincere is SPIRITED)

    ACTS of FAITH is the doing AS GOD’S ONLY SON said to do: Be Baptized, Take and Eat of the blessed bread, be confirmed of the book facts with anointing with blessed oil. (Confirmation) Squeaky wheels may get ‘the grease’ in ‘the material world’ . . . the quiet and humble servant retains THE OIL (of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit) Gifts of Knowledge, Understanding, Counsel, and WISDOM OF GOD… with the gifts of piety, fortitude, and ‘fear’ aka RESPECT for God and the ways of God. With such the faithful OVERCOME ‘the world’ and its ideas that PULL US DOWN (after He on the cross RAISED US up)

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