07/09/2010 07:51 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Recognizing God's Messengers: Why We Baha'is Commemorate the Martyrdom of the Bab

In the rural neighborhood of New Hampshire where my wife and I live, there is a Congregational church that dates back to the 1800s. What possible connection could there be between this charming New England church, with its warm and inviting spirit, and the martyrdom of the Bab in Persia 160 years ago, which we Baha'is today commemorate?

The ministry of the Bab -- the first of two Founders of the Baha'i Faith -- began in 1844 in Persia (present day Iran). ("Bab" is a title meaning "gate" or "door" in Arabic.) In that year, His first act was to unveil deeper significances to the story of Joseph, a narrative found both in the Book of Genesis and in the Qur'an. Joseph is a prophetic figure who crosses many lines, being revered by Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha'is.

Even taken as a historical event, the story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most moving stories in the world's literature -- a story of spiritual superiority and the jealousy it engendered; of treachery and forgiveness; of reconciliation and peace.

Briefly, Joseph's brothers asked their father to entrust Joseph to them, promising to take care of him. Jealous of his favor in their father's eyes, they instead threw him into a pit, and later sold him into slavery. Years later during a time of famine, they went to Egypt to buy food. During those intervening years Joseph had suffered, had eventually risen to a position of eminence, and was in charge of the stores of food. The brothers entered the presence of Joseph but did not recognize him. Joseph served them bread; they re-entered his presence and he made himself known to them. Finally, they recognized him. Happy to be reunited with his brothers, he told them not to be angry with themselves, and he embraced them and wept.

I would like to share my personal understanding of the significance of this story. "Indeed in the story of Joseph and his brothers there are messages for all who search after truth" (Qur'an 12:8). I have written more fully on this subject on one of my blogs.

I understand this story to symbolize the greatest of all events on earth: The succession of Messengers, whom Baha'is call Manifestations of God, coming to the earth throughout the ages to bring the renewed Word of God. The promise of Joseph's brothers to their father to take care of Joseph symbolizes the Great Covenant between God and humanity -- God's promise to send these spiritual guides, and humanity's promise to God to treat His Manifestations well, and to heed their guidance. And though humanity awaits their appearance eagerly, when the Manifestations of God come, humanity does not recognize them, rejects them, and persecutes them. Finally they are recognized, and they assume their rightful place of eminence.

The key point is the recognition: In the story, the brothers do not recognize Joseph's physical features, but the significance is much deeper. Humanity does not easily recognize its greatest benefactors -- not without first suffering from the lack of guidance. The same elements are found in the story of the disciples' failure to recognize Jesus Christ, in the post-resurrection narratives, such as on the Road to Emmaus in the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke.

There is a further significance, and this is specifically a Baha'i interpretation. The Bab foretold the coming of the "true Joseph," another Manifestation of God, Baha'u'llah, Who would soon succeed Him and suffer at the hands of His brother. Cast into an underground prison in Tehran known as the Black Pit, Baha'u'llah, the Founder of the Baha'i Faith, strove "to quicken the world and unite all who dwell on earth." Indeed, the Baha'i Writings view this as the mission of every divine Manifestation. Baha'u'llah wrote, "The Divine Messengers have been sent down, and their Books were revealed, for the purpose of promoting the knowledge of God, and of furthering unity and fellowship amongst men."

Persia in those days was gripped with millennial zeal -- and this brings me back to the church in our community. The pastor of this church left his pulpit in 1844 to join the Millerites, a group anticipating the return of Christ from the heavens in 1843 or 1844, based on Daniel's prophecy of 2300 days. The year 1844 coincided with the prophecies of 1260 days found in the Book of Revelation and, unknown to them, the year 1260 in the Muslim calendar. Jewish, Christian and Muslim prophecies coincided.

By 1850 the Bab's greatest followers had all been killed, and the Bab himself imprisoned. On July 9 of that year, under remarkable circumstances narrated in detail here, the Bab was put to death by firing squad.

Up to the end, the Bab spoke courageously and exhibited great tenderness. He had written, "The path to guidance is one of love and compassion, not of force and coercion." These are the traits I reflect on, on this solemn day: Courage in stating God's truth to one another, as we see it, and gentleness in giving from the fullness of our hearts to one another, even when we are misunderstood. Can we seek the deeper significance of one another's Scriptures, and see their common foundation?

Joseph embraced his brothers and wept. Must we, too, wander afield for more years of conflict before we embrace each other and weep? Or can we heed the advice of the Holy Books, and the example of Joseph, and strive, in Baha'u'llah's words, to "revive the world, to ennoble its life, and regenerate its peoples"?