Creative Jewish rabbis came up with an interesting storytelling genre, the Midrashim (or Midrash in the singular). These tales interpret, embroider upon, and elaborate on biblical references and are found in the Talmud and other traditions. The Midrashim are meant to teach lessons and unlock applications of the story of God’s providence. One such story deals with Nimrod after the time of the Tower of Babel, who was a contemporary of Terah, the father of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham.
Nimrod was one of the sons of Kush [or Cush]. Kush was the son of Ham, the lowest and least important of Noah’s three sons. Nimrod came from a line which was cursed by Noah: “Cursed be Canaan, a slave of slaves shall he be unto his brothers.”
By birth, Nimrod had no right to be a king or ruler. But he was a mighty strong man, and sly and tricky, and a great hunter and trapper of men and animals. His followers grew in number, and soon Nimrod became the mighty king of Babylon, and his empire extended over other great cities.
As was to be expected, Nimrod did not feel very secure on his throne. He feared that one day there would appear a descendant of Noah’s heir and successor, Shem, and would claim the throne. He was determined to have no challenger. Some of Shem’s descendants had already been forced to leave that land and build their own cities and empires. There was only one prominent member of the Semitic family left in his country. He was Terah, the son of Nahor.
As you may have guessed by now, Terah, the father of Abraham is the center of conflict in this story. But in the Midrash, Terah vows to be loyal to Nimrod after all the other descendants of Shem had left the region.
For although Nimrod had nothing to fear from Terah, he could not be sure if Terah’s sons would be as loyal to him as their father. Therefore, he was inwardly very pleased that his servant Terah had no children, and probably would never have any. But he could not be sure and Nimrod was not taking chances. He ordered his stargazers and astrologers to watch the sky for any sign of the appearance of a possible rival.
One night the star-gazers noticed a new star rising in the East. Every night it grew brighter. They informed Nimrod.
Nimrod called together his magicians and astrologers. They all agreed that it meant that a new baby was to be born who might challenge Nimrod’s power. It was decided that in order to prevent this, all new-born baby boys would have to die, starting from the king’s own palace, down to the humblest slave’s hut.
Given the similarities between this and the infancy stories of Moses and Jesus, you may be wondering, “When was this written?” Likely, this Midrash originated later than the first century AD. The rabbis who created this story were influenced by Moses’ Exodus narrative and perhaps even the Nativity story in the Gospel According to Matthew.
For three years, little Abraham remained in the cave where he did not know day from night. Then he came out of the cave and saw the bright sun in the sky, and thought that it was G-d, who had created the heaven and the earth, and him, too. But in the evening the sun went down, and the moon rose in the sky, surrounded by myriads of stars. “This must be G-d,” Abraham decided. But the moon, too, disappeared, and the sun reappeared, and Abraham decided that there must be a G-d Who rules over the sun and the moon and the stars, and the whole world. And so, from the age of three years and on, Abraham knew that there was only one G-d, and he was resolved to pray to Him and worship Him alone (“Nimrod and Abraham, The Two Rivals,” Chabad.org).
In the Exodus narrative, the infant Moses is hidden among the bulrushes along the Nile River by his sister, Miriam, and grows up in the very shelter of Pharaoh’s court (Exodus 2:1-8). The Gospel According to Matthew tells of Jesus’ flight from Herod (Matthew 2:1-23). The Gospel According to Luke tells of his later appearance in the Temple in Jerusalem, in the shadow of Herod’s palace, as a wise child debating with the rabbis at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41-49). Likewise, in the Midrash, Abraham is hidden in the wilderness in a cave for three years until he experienced a direct revelation of God as a wise young child of three.
I must stress at the outset that the Midrashim are at best apocryphal stories meant to illustrate biblical truth. The Midrashim are understood by the Jews to be neither inerrant truth, nor factual in detail. They are not meant to be authoritative. They are used as imaginative interpretations and instructive elaborations. The rabbis understood that they were weaving stories or romances. The early Christians had similar narratives, such as the Infancy Gospel of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Shepherd of Hermas and many others. At no time were these documents thought to have apostolic or prophetic authority, but were read for edification being illustrative of biblical truth, just as we would use Bible stories for young people or watch Bible-based films today for entertainment.
Of course, in the biblical story of Abraham, God calls for the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham is willing to comply, but Isaac is then rescued by an angel (Genesis 22:1-19). This too points to the Gospel revelation of the Father who gave His only begotten Son as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. The plan of God was to establish a covenantal inheritance through Abraham to the time of Christ. Isaac was a type or a foreshadowing of this promise.
It is important not to miss the point here. The truth illustrated in this particular Midrash is powerful. We see it in pagan myths as well. Eternity is written on the hearts of those who are open to divine revelation through nature. Throughout history, pagans have often understood their fallen nature and need for salvation, but never the full truth of the Gospel that was revealed at the coming of Jesus Christ (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:11; Romans 1:20).
Here in seminal form is the principle of spiritual warfare that runs like a scarlet thread throughout the Bible. It is the warfare of the seed of the serpent versus the seed of the woman in the curse that God put on the devil after the fall of man.
“And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15).
In pagan histories, we see man forever trying to be his own savior. The strong man always fails to bring salvation and instead births despotism and a worse type of bondage. Often he is overthrown by his own offspring or brothers. A young child is birthed in the shadow of a tyrant who desires world domination. The child grows up not only to usurp the evil king, but to grow in power far beyond that of the uneasy head that wears the crown.
This is the Oedipus myth in which the Greek king of Thebes received an oracle telling that his child would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother. In his fear and insecurity, the king hired a trusted servant to dispatch the child. The servant felt pity on the child and hid him in the wilderness. The child was found by a shepherd who then gave the child to another royal family. The child Oedipus came of age ignorant of his heritage and unknowingly fulfilled the prophecy precisely because of the paranoia of the father.
In the Roman culture, there is the story of Romulus and Remus who are abandoned by a king’s daughter, named Numitor.
Before their conception, Numitor’s brother Amulius had seized power, killed Numitor’s male heirs and forced Rhea Silvia to become a Vestal Virgin, sworn to chastity. Rhea Silvia conceives the twins by the god Mars. Once the twins are born, Amulius has them abandoned to die in the Tiber River. They are saved by a series of miraculous interventions: the river carries them to a place of safety, where a she-wolf finds and suckles them, and a woodpecker feeds them. A shepherd and his wife find them there, and fosters them to manhood as simple shepherds (“Romulus and Remus,” Wikipedia.com).
Upon assuming manhood, Romulus and Remus quarreled over the location of a city they hoped to found. Romulus slew Remus and founded the city of Rome on Palatine Hill. Refugees and orphans, who were mostly unmarried men, flocked to his banner. From this unlikely raw material, Romulus formed a Senate and an army and conquered the region. Eventually, this city-state dominated the world for nearly eight centuries.
In pagan history, we find the battle of the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent in the legends surrounding various world conquerors. The grandfather of the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, was named Astyages.
According to Herodotus, Astyages had a dream about the son of his daughter Mandane and her husband Cambyses, [the child Cyrus], which he took as an evil omen. Therefore, Astyages ordered his courtier Harpagus to kill the young boy, but Harpagus secretly gave it to a herdsman, who was to do the dreadful deed. Fortunately, the herdsman and his wife decided not to kill the baby, but to accept him as their own son. When the boy was ten-years-old, it became obvious that he was not a herdsman’s son. His behavior was too noble, according to Herodotus. Astyages started to suspect what had happened when he interviewed the boy and noticed that his face resembled his own. Cyrus received favorable treatment and was allowed to go to his own parents, Cambyses and Mandane. When Cyrus had come of age … he organized a federation of ten Persian tribes and revolted. The united army of Medes and Persians marched to the Median capital and seized Astyages (“Astyages,” Livius.org).
Where does this common story come from? Is it Greek, Roman or Persian? Or does it come from a common source? This is also the story of King Arthur, Snow White and numerous other myths, folklore and fairy tales. The same thematic thread is woven through the origin legends many ancient cultures and differs only in the details. But these stories tell of a deeper truth. Far from being a story that is not true, a myth is a story about truth.
In fact, the words “myth” and “mythology” come from the Greek word mythos, meaning “word,” “tale” or “true narrative,” referring not only to the means by which the story was transmitted, but also to its being rooted in truth. Mythos was also closely related to the word myo meaning “to teach,” or “to initiate into the mysteries.” These stories are mythic in the true sense of the word. They reflect the spiritual beliefs, values and cultures of the story tellers.
While I believe that most of these pagan myths are fictional, there is a kernel of truth in each one. In some cases, there are even some remarkable yet factual stories that are corroborated by ancient historians who give verifiable details. History is sometimes stranger than fiction.
We see the same themes repeated throughout the Bible. God always tells His story over and over again, each time giving fresh layers of new aspects to the underlying story, “precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:10). The Jews were shown shadows and types of Christ throughout history, yet most still did not recognize Jesus. Of course, some of the Pharisees recognized that Jesus claimed to be the divine Messiah, but they did not want to be under His authority. Jesus rebuked them for not understanding that the Scriptures testified of Him.
And the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form. But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life (John 5:37-40).
God has only one story – His story. The devil does not have any original stories. The pagan myths and legends are shadows of God’s history, which tells the truth about the nature of man and the plan of salvation.
The story of Alexander the Great is history, but it is interwoven with legends and the propaganda of the period. After his father Philip’s assassination in 336 BC, Alexander succeeded to the throne and inherited a strong kingdom and an experienced army. Later historians have argued that Alexander himself may have had a hand in the intrigue – or at least been privy to it. With his generals, he conquered the known world. The Balkans, Asia Minor and then Persia fell at his feet. He extended his empire from Egypt to India.
As a boy, Alexander sat at Aristotle’s feet, and learned that one supreme god was the prime cause of everything in the universe. Aristotle thought that there must be some eternal and imperishable substance, otherwise all substance would be perishable. He argued that this eternal actual substance must be the single prime mover. Although Aristotle’s god did not have a name, Alexander believed that this was Zeus, who ruled over a world of order and laws, over all lesser gods, realms and kingdoms. Soon Alexander began to fashion himself the son of Heracles (Hercules) who himself was the son of Zeus. Numerous legends had Alexander being proclaimed as the son of a local god, whom Alexander interpreted as simply being the regional name for Zeus.
The Jewish historian Josephus even relates a legend explaining the reason why Alexander did not destroy the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, even though the Jews were allied with the Persians. It is said that Alexander had a dream in which he saw the High Priest of Jerusalem dressed in scarlet robes and the entire city dressed in white. When the High Priest met him at the gates with the whole city following him dressed in white, the color of peace, Alexander was led to the Temple where he offered sacrifice to the God of the Jews. Alexander was shown in the Daniel scroll where the “king of Greece” was prophesied to conquer the Persians. Alexander was so impressed that he spared the city and gave the Jews the same privileges they enjoyed under the Persians. This royal favor led to the Hellenization of Judea and a period of relative peace for the Jews under Ptolemaic and later Seleucid rule.
Could this legend of Alexander encountering his person in Daniel’s prophecy about the “king of Greece” be true? We are told by various sources that Alexander received a number of similar oracles. This began when he was a youth when the Oracle of Delphi told him he would conquer the world. After he conquered Alexandria, naming the city for himself, he received a prophecy from the Oracle at Siwa saying he was the son of the Egyptian god Amun. Believing that he was truly a son of Zeus destined to conquer the world, Alexander pressed aggressively into the East and conquered the Persian Empire against seemingly impossible odds.
Much like the men of Babel who sought to raise their tower to the heavens, and the Babylonians after them, Alexander finally settled in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon and took a Persian wife named Roxanna, who bore him a child. Having no more worlds left to conquer, he then gave himself over to a life of dissipation. Accounts differ as to the cause of Alexander’s death, which came after a bout of drinking and a prolonged fever. His empire was divided up into four regions among Alexander’s generals called the Diadochi, or “successors.”
Pagan historians created propaganda to keep tyrants on the throne. Augustus Caesar also enjoyed an “Oedipus Myth” told about him that is recorded in Suetonius’ Lives of The Twelve Caesars.
According to Julius Marathus, a public portent warned the Roman people some months before Augustus’ birth that Nature was making ready to provide them with a king; and this caused the Senate such consternation that they issued a decree which forbade the rearing of any male child for a whole year. However, a group of senators whose wives were expectant prevented the decree from being filed at the Treasury and thus becoming law – for each of them hoped that the prophesied King would be his own son. (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, “Augustus” 94).
Octavian, later called by the name Julius Caesar Augustus, became the king of the world after defeating Marc Antony and having Julius Caesar’s only biological son, Caesarion, killed. But ironically the empire founded by Augustus was overshadowed by the King of kings, who was born among shepherds in Bethlehem.
The Meaning of History
The pagan looks for a strongman, a human dictatorship that brings salvation. The chiliast looks forward to an earthly kingdom with a heaven-sent warrior king sitting on an earthly throne at Jerusalem for a literal one-thousand-year reign someday in the near future, while at present politics are unredeemable because the kingdom of God is “not of this world.” The postmillennialist sees the kingdom of God as having its authority from His throne room in heaven, yet working itself out progressively in the earth as Christians advance Christ’s victorious kingdom in every area of society.
My friend and co-laborer, Jeff Ziegler, who unfortunately passed away in 2014, said in an interview we did for a video series called, God’s Law and Society, that the mandate for Godly dominion as a present task is often missed by contemporary Christians.
The retort you often hear revolves around the time period when Christ is before Pilate’s inquisition and says, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Christ was not saying that His kingdom was not manifest in the world. He was saying to Pilate, “My kingdom does not gain its authority from Rome or the Sanhedrin. My authority comes from on high.” The irony is that the pagan tyrant Pilate understood this, but Christians today do not. So the authority of Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, but nonetheless, the kingdom has invaded this realm, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 10:26). Every aspect of society is touched by the kingdom of God.… The kingdom is manifest in the world and Christ’s Lordship is manifest in the civil realm, in the family, in every aspect of society – economics, science, etc.… Christ’s kingdom is comprehensive in scope and absolute in its authority (Jeff Ziegler, God’s Law and Society).
The natural urge of every fallen human being is to assume autonomy – that we may rule ourselves without reference to God’s authority. Modern revolutionaries who are fearful of the all-powerful state rightly seek to overthrow tyranny. Ironically, in seeking to defeat the “strongman” – the rebellious tyrant who rages against the Lordship of Jesus Christ – they the opt for the autonomous rule of the individual who is no less rebellious against the rule of God.
Religious conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, have always looked for a cataclysm that will usher in the Antichrist. The faithful will be happily rescued through the rapture or will persevere until the end. Jewish chiliasts of the intertestamental period committed the error of looking for a Jewish strongman to overthrow the oppressive reign of the Romans. Christian premillennialists of our day are looking for a strongman in the form of the Antichrist to arise out of the stormy sea of world dictatorships. They view human political systems as hopelessly corrupt and predestined for God’s cataclysmic judgment. Chiliasm or premillennialism is based on a false worldview that presupposes that the present political systems are separate from the rule of God and God’s law. They cannot be reformed unless they are crushed by God himself.
Biblical prophecy, on the other hand, teaches us that the earthly expression of David’s kingdom, both the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, passed away forever in favor of a heavenly spiritual Temple made up of living stones and a kingdom that was preached to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The nations of the world began to stream into the kingdom of God at the first preaching of the Gospel. This kingdom began in the first century and is gradually working itself out as God’s people are covenantally faithful to preach the Gospel of salvation by grace through faith and to teach the nations to obey God’s law. In time, the blessings of God will overflow and enrich the human experience as each and every ethnic culture becomes part of the kingdom of God.
Skeptics and liberal critics can discount the supernatural in biblical stories – miraculous births and prophecies regarding the Son of God – but they cannot deny the “Golden Chain” of the Gospel story that runs through history. In the 20th century, the Marxists attempted to reinterpret history as a political struggle – a conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie – inevitably leading to a worker’s paradise. Thus the communists proposed their own secular eschatology.
Fallen man desires a strong man to rule and reign in the form of what the German philosopher Georg Hegel called “the State” – or – “God walking on earth.” In ancient times, this god walking on earth was a literal strong man, a savior figure who would bring order and stability to the whole world. But he always birthed a world order based on paganism and spiritual bondage that robbed individuals of their ability to express the inward spirit of man, the image of God in all of us. This imago Dei exists in both the regenerate and the unregenerate. The regenerate will seek the true Savior in the grace and peace of Jesus Christ. The unregenerate will always seek a political solution, but in the end will recoil at the broken promises of human saviors. They will eventually conspire to overthrow the government of their own founding in some manner. Thus the seeds of destruction are always sown into the foundation of every world empire.
From a pagan point of view, the cycle seems to be a dark fate predestined to repeat endlessly in human civilization. The pagan god-king of past history has today become the collectivist state. The battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent among modernists is still the same, but the despot has become the impersonal “State.”
Ironically, in atheistic collectivist societies, such as communist China or the Soviet Union, the founders, Mao and Lenin, were elevated to a god-like status. This paradox has become a common theme in dystopian art and literature. In denying the “god-kings” of ancient times – and religion in general – modern collectivist societies have instituted a state religion.
This was documented in Marx and Satan, a short book by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian dissident and underground Christian missionary to the Soviet Union. Most people do not know that Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square, Moscow bears strong similarity to a pagan altar unearthed by archaeologists in Pergamos. Wurmbrand believed that this altar is the one referred to in Jesus spoke to the church at Pergamos some peculiar words: “I know your works, and where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is” (Revelation 2:13).
Architect Schusev, who built Lenin’s tomb, took the Pergamos altar as the project prototype. This was in 1924. It’s a known fact that Schusev received all the needed information from Frederic Paulsen – an acknowledged authority in archaeology (Richard Wurmbrand, Marx and Satan).
A friend of mine from Russia showed me a card given to him when he was a student in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, when he was a member of the Pioneers.
This was a communist youth group similar to our Boy Scouts. This card says that the owner of it is a member of the Pioneers Organization of Lenin of school #35. Inside there is a poem.
“In your hearts a big power is growing. Roads, storm, and wind are waiting for you. Live so that you will not be ashamed to look into the eyes of our dear Lenin. Your name is written down in the Book of Honor. And you have the honor to have your picture taken next to the flag, the banner of the Pioneers Organization of school #35.”
There is no doubt that the atheistic communists saw the need of the people to worship a savior figure. The mummification of Mao and Lenin in their respective capital cities is reminiscent of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh god-kings. The Bible was replaced among the Chinese communists with copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, which practically elevated the words of Chairman Mao Tse-tung to the level of Scripture.
Prior to this materialistic view of history, a providential interpretation of history rooted in the Christian worldview was taught in school textbooks.
I have spoken of the meaning of history. Surely it has a meaning, what else are we living for? Whichever way we turn in the material world we find things needful for our use and we think of them as God’s forethoughts, and as designed for our welfare. If there is design in the material world, there must be some meaning to history, some ultimate end to be accomplished (Charles Coffin, Old Times in the Colonies, p. 7).
This analysis of history stands in marked contrast to the materialist and Marxist view of history that has been taught ever since the early 20th century. But there are signs that this is changing. Many westerners now believe that the socialist policies of the last 100 years have led us only to unfulfilled promises. We have failed to create a utopian world in which human rights are extended to achieve total equality. No attempt at reform using “politics as usual” seems to be working. Disillusioned pundits see the political system as a crooked game rigged by the power brokers to benefit the elites. Deep-seated resentments have led to an urge toward deconstruction – a widely held cultural belief that since the system is corrupt, it ought to be demolished. However, nature abhors a vacuum. Little thought is given to whether the system that will replace it will be any better. The Kingdom of God always advances, sometimes quietly and unnoticeably. However, it is exciting to live in a time when the Sovereign Lord moves in a visible way. For example, the Book of Hebrews was written at a time when God was about to remove one order, symbolized by the Temple at Jerusalem, and replace it with a kingdom that could not be shaken.
But now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:26-29).
This is why the prophecy of Daniel applies to our day as well. Understanding the redemptive-historical interpretation of the Bible brings an understanding of why God makes kingdoms rise and fall. His purpose is to prepare a people who will worship Him forever in reverence and awe.