A Decclaration of Faith (4): Ch.3: God and Israel

The Church "is to serve other religions for the sake of the neighbor, for the sake of                                                humanity, for the sake of God's promise to Abraham that through his seed all nations will                         be blessed." (George Lindbeck, "The Gospel Uniqueness: Election and Untranslatability,"                            The Church in a Postliberal Age [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2OO2, 226)

(1) God chose one people for the sake of all. (1)                                                                                  To the world in its rebellion and alienation (2)                                                                            God promised blessing and restoration. (3)                                                                              The Lord chose Abraham and his descendants (4)                                                                                as bearers of that promise for all peoples. (5)                                                                              They had done nothing more than others (6)                                                                          to deserve the Lord's favor, (7)                                                                                                   but God loved them and made them his own. (8)                                                                    We acknowledge God's freedom and grace. (9)                                                                            Though we are unworthy, (10)                                                                                                the Lord has made us his own in Christ. (11)                                                                                 God has chosen us as his servants for the sake of the world (12)                                                       and destined us to be his daughters and sons, (13)                                                                       giving us love and life, (14)                                                                                                      calling us to worship and honor him. (15)

Creation in shambles! Alienation, ugliness, and evil abound.  This world a mocking parody of all God intended. What would God do now? What could God do? Every fissure and fracture of all that was once good and beautiful traced a tear in God's own broken heart for all he had made. Like his Son later, the cry "O my creation, my creation!  How often I have wanted to gather you under my wings, but you would not!" must have ripped through empty regions of space. What would come next? Would God give up and in righteous judgment wipe out his creation again? Would God simply turn away and let the consequences of human rebellion submerge us in chaos and destruction? Could this hideous wrong ever be made right?

God did have a plan, rather a passion, however, to save his creation dream. And God acted on that passion.  "God chose one people for the sake of all" (l.1). From the mass of peoples on the earth, and clearly for no merit or attribute of their own, God fastened his love on the people of Israel and chose them to be his special people (Dt.7:7-8). And through this people, God purposed, to bless all other peoples of the earth Gen.12:3).

God's plan began to unfold the day he made a promise to Abram and Sarai.[1] God promised to do three things for them and through them (Gen. 12:1-3; ll.4-5):

1. get a great people                                                                                                                      2. bless that people                                                                                                                    3. bless everyone else through them

This divine choosing, or election, of Israel reveals that being chosen by God is a call to service for others as much as it is a gift of salvation for those called. Israel's story, then, becomes the story of the world's blessing and salvation. How God gets a people, blesses that people, and through that people blesses everyone else forms the storyline of the whole of Scripture. The vast, sprawling panorama of the Old and New Testaments, spanning millennia of history, embracing many cultures, written in three languages, multiple genres and literary forms, finds its unity in the unfolding of God's work to fulfill in various ways at various times and centrally and climactically in Jesus of Nazareth, this threefold promise to Abraham and Sarah.

That God's choice, or election, of Israel is based on nothing inherent in them but rather on God's love means that God will work out this promise given to Abraham and Sarah with both “freedom and grace" (l.9). Freedom, because Israel has no claim on this God to manipulate or demand of him a self-interested consistency favoring her in all situations; freedom for God to love and deal with other peoples on the same basis as he has dealt with Israel. Grace, because it is God's freely given love that does not finally depend on Israel's (nor anyone else's) performance and is thus free to continually surprise and astonish us with the reach of divine mercy. As DF puts it: "Though we are unworthy, the Lord has made us his own in Christ" (ll.10-1 1).

          As God's "own in Christ," his elect, "his daughters and sons" (l.13), we experience "love and life" (l.14) - the warm, welcoming embrace of the Father and the new existence, the new way of living, that grows out of this filial relation to God. Through worshiping and honoring God as God, the God who is determined to reclaim and restore his wayward creation, we fulfill the vocation that God has given us - to be a blessing to all the world.

(2) God delivered his people, (16)                                                                                      When Abraham's descendants were slaves in Egypt, (17)                                                                God heard their cries and prayers. (18)                                                                                 God remembered his promise (19)                                                                                                and sent Moses to free them from bondage. (20)                                                                                   We declare God's steadfast love and sovereign power. (21)                                                              The Lord can be trusted to keep promises. (22)                                                                     The Lord still acts in the affairs of individuals and nations (23)                                                                       to set oppressed and persecuted people free. (24)

God's electing love, fastened on Israel for the sake of the world, follows a course delineated by the verbs in the headings of the remaining paragraphs: "delivered' (l.16), "bound" (l.25), "blessed and judged" (l.38), and "did not forsake" (l.57).

          More verbs trace the trajectory of God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt.  Slavery in Egypt becomes the prototypical "crisis”[2]  out of[3] which God's people need deliverance. God's response to this crisis, then, becomes a template (though not a straight-jacket!) for how he responds to later crises. What do these verbs tell us?

          To "deliver" the people, God "heard" (l.18), "remembered', (l.19), and "sent" (l.20).  "Hearing" speaks of a deity present and actively involved in the everyday life of his people. This is the language of "blessing" in the Bible. "Remembering" speaks to a purposive and committed God with both the intention and power to carry out his purposes. This, in Scripture, in the language of "covenant."  "Sent" speaks to the intervention of God and his rescue of his people from danger. And this, of course, is biblical language for "salvation."

          A blessing, covenant-making, saving God like this calls for and evokes a certain kind of people.  A people: 

-schooled to speak their hearts and bring their troubles to God, so that he may "hear" and respond.

-a people who look not to themselves but to the One who has "covenanted" to be their Lord and protector.

-a people who are as ready to be "sent" as "salvation" to others as they are to be "saved" themselves.

          This "blessing," "covenanting," and "saving" God is still at work defeating oppression, establishing justice, and freeing his people in the world of our time and place (ll.23-24). And we are his people! His presence calls for us to continually become a people who live our lives oriented to his presence and purpose, ready and responsive to his action and call. Certain of God's steadfast and sovereign love (l.21), we are bold to believe and risk our lives on the basis that 
"The Lord can be trusted to keep promises” (l.22).

(3) God bound his people to himself in covenant. (25)                                               Freed slaves became the people of God (26)                                                                       when they accepted the Lord's covenant. (27)                                                                     God charged them to respond to his rescuing love (28)                                                                     by obeying his commandments. (29)                                                                                          Their life together was to express (30)                                                                                         the justice and compassion of their holy God. (31)                                                                     Since we, too, are the Lord's covenant people, (32)                                                                         we know we must be holy as the Lord is holy. (33)                                                                     We must keep God's commandments, (34)                                                                                  not in order to earn or compel the Lord's favor, (35)                                                                         but to reflect the character of God (36)                                                                                         and to be his grateful and loving people. (37)

The God who delivers is the God committed to his people by covenant. Deliverance and covenant are actions God takes to fulfill the first part of the promise to Abraham and Sarah - that through them God would gather a great people (Gen.12:1;11.26-27). The biblical view of freedom emerges with clarity at this point. The slaves in Egypt were freed, not to pursue their own agendas or interests, but to give themselves, entrust themselves to God and his purpose for their lives (freedom from/freedom for). In fact, the book of Exodus breaks into two parts reflecting just these emphases.

-In chs.1-18 God frees the people from the power of Pharaoh and

-in chs. 19-40 they are free for God - to commit themselves unreservedly to him and build a Tabernacle in which God's presence will graciously reside.

It would be fair to say that Israel does truly become free until to glory of Yahweh powerfully descends and takes up residence in the Tabernacle as the people's Lord and Master.

          God's commandments, preeminently the Ten commandments (Ex.20:1-17), are given as a gift of divine love to provided concrete examples of how Israel is to respond to God in gratitude and order its corporate life it might express "the justice and compassion of their holy God' (l.31) and, thus, become a blessing to the rest of the world (Gen. 12:3).

          The pattern of grace is important to observe here, for it marks all God's ways with us. God's deliverance (par.2) precedes and prepares for the covenant. Before the people have done or been asked to do anything for God, God acts to redeem them from a slavery they could not free themselves from on their own. The stipulations and obligations (to use the legal language of covenant) must be seen in this larger relational context. God acted outside of any legal or contractural obligation to gather the people from Egypt. It was love, and love alone, that fixed God's longing gaze on Abraham and Sarah as recipients of the great promise of Gen.12 (see also Dt.7:7). God's relationship with this people (and through them the rest of the world, let us never forget!) is thus born wholly of grace. As they did nothing to earn or merit this relationship, they can do nothing to finally annul it.[4] What the people can do is affect the quality of their relationship with God and fail to be a fit vehicle through whom God can bless the rest of the world. As ll.34-37 (speaking to us as inheritors of that same Abrahamic promise [Gal.3-4]) put it:  "We must keep God's commandments             . . . to reflect the character of God and to be his grateful and loving people . . .”

          A grateful people who love their God and are a living demonstration of who the God is and how he is disposed and acts toward us are hallmarks of the people God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God's commandments must be kept, to be sure. We owe God such loyalty as his creatures and as those who have received his blessing and deliverance. The failure to thus obey creates problems in our relationship to God that must be resolved. The good news, though, is that God in Christ has acted to decisively and once-for-all-time to resolve them though the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross (Heb.8-10). Therefore, nothing now stands between God and us save the gracious figure of Jesus Christ himself. Sin is no longer a barrier between humanity and God; Jesus is the only issue with whom we have to deal (II Cor. 5:16-19, esp. v.19!).

          God's commandments, then, are most truly kept by us when we live in gratitude for the forgiving love of God and for the holy purposes for which he created and then called us. We do not keep them well or truly if we think by our obedience to earn standing with God. No! Our standing with God is given as a free gift. We can only receive it, not earn it. Our commandment-keeping gives us a way, instead, to reflect the relationship with have with God to the watching world and thereby attract them to God's way and will for his creation. In this way, in this way, we become a fit vehicle though whom God can and will bless everyone else!

(4) God blessed and judged his people. (38)                                                                           The Lord's care sustained the people of Israel. (39)                                                                               God gave them a land where they could celebrate his goodness.(40)                                              The Lord established their kingdom (41)                                                                                       and promised a ruler from the line of David (42)                                                                              to reign in justice and peace. (43)                                                                                            When God's people worshiped the gods of the land, (44)                                                             when they put their trust in military alliances, (45)                                                                    when they failed to do justice and oppressed the poor,(46)                                                         God sent the prophets to condemn their sins (47)                                                                      and to call the people back to obedience. (48)                                                                             There were times of repentance and reform, (49)                                                                           but in the end their kingdoms fell. (50)                                                                                       We declare God's goodness and justice. (51)                                                                                 God has blessed us beyond our deserving. (52)                                                                              When we forget the Lord and worship our possessions,(53)                                                              when we fail to deal justly with the poor,(54)                                                                                     when we seek security no matter what it costs others, (55)                                                        we can expect God's judgment upon us. (56)

          Deliverance and covenant call the people God promised Abraham and Sarah into existence and orders their life together as God's people. The twofold dynamic of "blessed" and ”judged"(l.38) forms the axis of the relationship between God and the people. God's "care" (l.39), his gift of land (l.40), a kingdom ruled by a king and ordered to "justice and peace" (ll.41-43) sets both the path and purpose for this people's life.

          God gifted his people with a land for a kingdom to flourish in justice and peace.  Thus are established God, his people, and the land and the life God calls the people to live there.  They form a triangle of mutually reciprocal realities comprising the entity we call “Israel.”[5] 

                                           Israel                                 Land
                                           Social                                       Economic

            These three “angles” on life make “Israel” who God intended it to be.  Not just a geographical entity locatable on a map; nor simply an ethnic entity with its ethos and social order.  No, Israel was not truly Israel until its relationship to God saturated and shaped its social and economic life in the land.  Then Israel was that “blessed” people whom God would use to spread his blessings to the rest of the world.

          Failures in any or all of these areas spelled trouble for the people, obscured its character as “Israel” and rendered it just another nation driven and defined by its own interests and needs for security and significance.  To fall into idolatry (l.44), to trust in alliances, military and otherwise (l.45), and to oppress the poor with injustice (l.46) constitutes radical disloyalty to God and forfeiture of its call to be his people blessed to be a blessing to the world (Gen.12:1-3).

          As fickle as the people prove to be (ll.49-50), God passion and compassion for them is firm and unalterable.  God intends to use them in whatever ways possible as prototype and purveyor of his desire to have right relations prevail among all his creatures and at every level of his creation. This firm divine resolve to have such a world is reflected by the great Old Testament word "hesed" (usually translated in NRSV as "steadfast love"). God will not be moved from his plan to have his wayward creatures finally live rightly with one another in every way.

In this way God will have "peace" (or "shalom) for his world. Such “peace” makes the people God’s “Israel.”  And it constitutes the world of God’s dream.  This interdependent, mutually reciprocal, harmonious state of well-being is what God envisioned all along, indeed, from the very beginning.

God sent prophets to the people to stem their decline.  We have their witness, along with the rest of the Old Testament through which the Spirit instructs and guides God’s post-Pentecost people, his new Israel as we take up the identity and mandate of ancient Israel as our own.  Paul makes this explicit:  Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures” (Rom.15:4).  After citing various Old Testament events as precedents to the Corinthians, he concludes, “These things happened as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of the times has come” (1 Cor.10:11).

That the Old Testament can function this way means that the church is to be the same kind of people ancient Israel was called to be – his!  That same triangle of reciprocal relations are to mark our lives and service of God.  Now we are not a geopolitical entity marked on a map.  Rather it is the world itself that is now our “land” (Rom.4:13) and we are spread across the length and breadth of the globe.  Nevertheless, we are bound together in the Spirit as the one people of God and bound under the same triangular imperative as Israel of old.

And when we fail God’s “goodness and justice” (l.51), we do by falling into our own idolatries (l.53), injustices (l.54), and obsessive search for significance and security (l.55).  And we may expect prophets and even judgment, God’s “tough love,” for such failings!   

(5) God did not forsake his people. (57)                                                                                      God restored some of the people to their land (58)                                                                                          and left others scattered over the earth. (59)                                                                              In a time of exile and alien rule, (60)                                                                                           the Jews survived and multiplied. (61)                                                                                     They enriched the whole world: (62)                                                                                          they compiled the Scriptures, preserving God's Word to them; (63)                                            they sang their songs of praise and lamentation; (64)                                                                      they sought wisdom, examining God's ways in the world;(65)                                                             they searched the mysteries of rising and falling kingdoms (66)                                                      and set their hope on the kingdom of God. (67)                                                                                   We testify that God is faithful. (68)                                                                                                   Even when we are faithless, God remains faithful. (69)                                                                          The Lord still brings from oppressed and uprooted peoples (70)                                                           riches of insight and daring visions (71)                                                                                          that can judge and bless the world. (72)                                                                                      We can have confidence in God's coming kingdom (73)                                                             even in the darkest times. (74)

          God’s judgments are restorative.  He does what it takes to bring his people to their senses and, in inscrutable wisdom, to advance his divine design as well.  Some he brought home to the land; others he left scattered throughout the foreign lands.  Yet, whether in the land at home or scattered abroad, God remained faithful to his people.  In judgment or mercy, in exile or return, God acted to shape the people of Israel into a people capable of not only hearing but also heeding his word to them. 

          Without this compassionate election of Israel, and God’s unwillingness to break covenant with them when they had egregiously broken covenant with him, we would no knowledge or any capacity for knowledge of God.  God’s covenant with this one people, chosen for no reason of their own but solely for God’s love, becomes the place where his revelation of himself became, so to speak, accommodated for human reception and response.  T. F. Torrance writes that in Israel God’s self-revelation was “earthed in human existence, given shape in human understanding and speech, and mediated to the human race at large.”[6]

          God kept faith with his people, his oh-so-often-faithless people, guiding, rescuing, and preserving them in whatever place he led or found them.  Through the survival and flourishing of Israel God gave great gifts to the world.

-the compilation, preservation, exacting study, and worshipful reflection on God’s Word to them (l.63);

-their willingness to engage God from both the heights and the depths of life, neither praising God for the good only but also crying out in bitter protest and lamentation for the bad, holding the two together in a critical but faithful tension which many of us still need to learn from them (l64);

-their “micro”-search for wisdom among the patterns and regularities of God’s creation and among the various paths or ways of living in which God could be found and praised, as well as their “macro”-search for the overarching design for his creation (ll.65-66); and

-their never-ending hope in and prayer for the kingdom of God, where God’s will will be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt.6:10).

Despite the uniqueness of Israel in all these varied ways, the same God who chose this people, chose them for the sake of the ultimate blessing of the world (Gen.12:3).  His work in rescuing and gathering them from slavery and oppression is his characteristic way of acting in the world as well.  “The Lord still brings from oppressed and uprooted peoples” (l.70) gifts for us today.  God opens ways for voices long silenced and never heard to find freedom and opportunity to share their knowledge and insight, their wisdom, their hopes and visions of the way the world can be, with the rest of us.

God’s so-called “preferential option for the poor” is the only way a God who is love can be in a fallen world.  Love will always be about lifting up those who for whatever reasons have fallen or been pushed down.  Women who have lived under the burdens of patriarchy, the poor languishing in poverty, gays who have hidden or been dehumanized by heterosexual fear and anger, those oppressed by brutal political regimes, children who have been treated as though they were not yet fully human and thus not accorded the basic rights and opportunities every human being should have, these, and more, are the people God stands with in their suffering and works to lift them out of what form of silencing or slavery they experience.

Indeed, the insights and visions of these long-silenced or ignored voices often become the measure of the blessing or judgment of those who have ignored or demeaned them.  Freedom from our oppressors and censors is a vital element of freedom.  And we can see God’s hand at work in their liberation and finding their voices to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

Yet, as we saw earlier, freedom from is but the prelude to the full expression of freedom which is freedom for God – to live and love in the service of God which service is itself “perfect freedom” (Ch.1, l.46).

Thus “we can have confidence,” says DF that God will continue his work of liberating his creation from all that shackles it from the full flourishing he intends for it and bring it to that fullness of freedom in his service of loving care for each other and the creation itself  (ll.73-74).  Thanks be to God!      

[1] Later renamed Abraham and Sarah.
[2] It is often pointed out that in Chinese the character signifying "crisis" means both danger and opportunity. Biblically, "crises" (whether for Israel or in our own lives) bear similar nuances.
 [3] I say "out of" and not "from" to highlight the truth that God usually delivers "out of" (i.e. from the midst of) rather than "from" in the sense of avoiding trouble.

[4] though they strive mightily to do just this at too many points along the way of their journey and even tempt God to entertain thoughts of abandoning them and starting over with someone else (Ex.32:10).

[5] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2004), 19.
[6] Thomas F. Torrance, “Christian/Jewish Dialogue,” 140 (cited in Baxter Kruger, “On the Road to Becoming Flesh:  Israel as the Womb of the Incarnation in the Theology of T. F. Torrance,” 16 (at perechoresis.org).


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