When the children of Israel arrived in the promised land, Moses told them that they would one day be scattered because of persistent disobedience. But he also told them that, when they humbled themselves and repented, God would remember His covenant with their ancestors (Leviticus 26).
By the time Lehi and his family left Jerusalem, much of the scattering of Israel had already taken place. The northern kingdom of Israel, which contained ten of the tribes, had been conquered by the Assyrians, and its inhabitants had been forcibly relocated to other parts of the empire. Now, the city of Jerusalem was soon to be destroyed, and its inhabitants would be taken captive to Babylon. The Lord had warned Lehi to leave the city to avoid that fate.
Lehi compared Israel to an olive tree whose branches are removed and “scattered upon all the face of the earth.” He told his family that their departure from Jerusalem was part of that scattering (1 Nephi 10:2-14).
Later, Nephi, one of Lehi’s sons, found his brothers arguing over the meaning of their father’s words. Nephi explained to them that the descendants of Israel must be scattered among the Gentiles (non-Israelites), so that ” the Lord may show his power unto the Gentiles” (1 Nephi 15:17). He connected the scattering of Israel to a covenant God had made with Abraham: that through his descendants all of the people in the world would be blessed (1 Nephi 15:18).
Nephi later quoted a chapter from Isaiah which is directed to scattered Israel (1 Nephi 21:1). His brothers were confused by the chapter and asked him to explain it. He told them that “the house of Israel, sooner or later, will be scattered upon all the face of the earth, and also among all nations” (1 Nephi 22:3). Why? Because they have hardened their hearts against God. This sounds straightforward: they are being punished for turning away from God.
But the long-term effect of the scattering is actually positive: it accomplishes God’s purposes in blessing all of His children. Turning to the Abrahamic covenant again, Nephi said:
After our seed is scattered the Lord God will proceed to do a marvelous work among the Gentiles, which shall be of great worth unto our seed….
And it shall also be of worth unto the Gentiles; and not only unto the Gentiles but unto all the house of Israel, unto the making known of the covenants of the Father of heaven unto Abraham, saying: In thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed.
And I would, my brethren, that ye should know that all the kindreds of the earth cannot be blessed unless he shall make bare his arm in the eyes of the nations.
Wherefore, the Lord God will proceed to make bare his arm in the eyes of all the nations, in bringing about his covenants and his gospel unto those who are of the house of Israel (1 Nephi 22:10-11).
When Jesus Christ visited the American continent, He explained that because the children of Israel had been scattered throughout the earth, the entire world would be blessed when He began to gather them again:
Then shall the remnants, which shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth, be gathered in from the east and from the west, and from the south and from the north; and they shall be brought to the knowledge of the Lord their God, who hath redeemed them….
And behold, ye are the children of the prophets; and ye are of the house of Israel; and ye are of the covenant which the Father made with your fathers, saying unto Abraham: And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed (3 Nephi 20:13, 25).
Even though the children of Israel were scattered because they turned away from God, this scattering enables Him to fulfill His broader purposes. Because they have been scattered to every nation, when He begins to gather them again, that outreach will bless every nation. That’s because God will use the Gentiles to bless the house of Israel. People of all nations will participate in the gathering. They’ll have to, because the house of Israel is everywhere. Thus, God’s covenant with Abraham will be fulfilled: that through his offspring, all the people of the earth will be blessed.
So was the scattering of Israel God’s will?
- On one level, no. It was a direct result of disobedience. The children of Israel were carried into captivity and scattered among all nations because of their rebellion against God.
- But on another level, it was part of His plan. He knew what they would do, and He was able to factor their rebellion, their scattering, and their eventual repentance and gathering into His plan to bless all of His children.
God really does have a master plan, for each of us and for the world. Our sins have consequences for ourselves and for others, but they do not thwart His plan. It is stronger and more resilient than that.
Today, I will be grateful that God is in charge, that He has all power and knowledge, and that His perspective is so much larger than my own. I will strive to live wisely and to contribute to His work, and I will recognize that He is able to accomplish His purposes in spite of my shortcomings.