Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Monoethnic Nature of the Mosaic Covenant

One of the “problems” with the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai (i.e., the old covenant) is its monoethnicity. We need to be clear about this: the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants were made with one nation, the nation of Israel.

The monoethnic nature of the Sinaitic covenant can be seen in the following verses in particular:
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine, but you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5–6);
“You shall be holy to me; for I, Yahweh, am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev 20:26).
The Deuteronomic covenant, being an expanded renewal of the Sinaitic covenant, was also exclusively made with Israel:
“For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as Yahweh our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?” (Deut 4:7–8);
“For you are a people holy to Yahweh your God. Yahweh your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deut 7:6);
“you are a people holy to Yahweh your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, Yahweh has chosen you to be his treasured possession” (Deut 14:2);
These are the terms of the covenant Yahweh commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb. Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them: “... You shall keep the terms of this covenant, and do them, so that you may prosper in everything you do. All of you are standing today before Yahweh your God—your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water—in order to enter into the covenant of Yahweh your God and his oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and it is not with you alone that I am making this covenant and this oath, but with those who are standing here with us today before Yahweh our God, and also with those who are not here with you today” (Deut 29:1–2, 9–15).
Understanding the ethnic particularity of the Mosaic covenant helps us to understand the need in God’s plan of salvation for a new covenant. The Mosaic covenant is “problematic” from the perspective that God’s plan involved bringing blessing to the nations as part of a covenant relationship (Gen 12:3). This is something that the Apostle Paul came to realize. Comparing the monoethnic nature of the Mosaic covenant to the Abrahamic promise in Gen 12:3 led Paul to understand that there had to be, in the purposes of God, a new covenant which would open up the door of righteousness and salvation to the Gentiles, and which would fulfill, subsume, and thereby supercede, the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants that God had made previously with Israel.

Thus Paul contrasted the Abrahamic promise with the Mosaic covenant:
The law [of Moses], introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise (Gal 3:17–18).
Paul also understood that it was through Jesus Christ, as proclaimed in the Christian gospel, that the Abrahamic promise of blessing to the nations had been realized:
Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you” (Gal 3:8);
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26–29).
Or as Paul has written in Eph 2:11–16, 19, concerning how the dividing wall of the law of Moses was “destroyed” through the death of Christ on the cross, thereby allowing Gentiles to be members of God’s covenant people:
Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision”—which is done in the body by human hands—that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law [of Moses] with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.
Being limited to one nation, the Mosaic covenant cannot by definition bring salvation to the nations. Only one covenant can: the multiethnic, new covenant in Christ Jesus.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Central Concern of the Old Testament

The central concern of the Old Testament (or the Hebrew Bible) is God’s relationship with Israel. The fact that the most frequent nouns in the Hebrew Bible are יהוה Yahweh (6,828 times), אלהים God (2,601 times), and ישראל Israel (2,514 times), attests to this.

The Pentateuch is primarily concerned with the historical background to, and the establishment of, the Sinaitic and Deuteronomic covenants, which functioned to define and regulate Yahweh’s exclusive relationship with Israel.

Following on the from the Law, the Prophets (i.e., the Former and Latter Prophets) are primarily concerned to trace the historical failure of the covenant relationship between God and Israel, and God’s response to this relational breakdown.

All in all, the Old Testament is a case study in the failure of a nation to keep covenant with God. It is a case study in what happens to human beings and human society when God’s word is ignored, a record of one nation’s reversion to darkness, chaos, and death.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Rise of the Monarchy in Israel Viewed in the Light of the Concept of Kingship in the Old Testament

The rise of the monarchy in Israel needs to be viewed in the light of the broader concept of kingship presented in the Old Testament. The primary theological point relating to the issue of monarchy in Israel is the consistent teaching of the Pentateuch and the books of Joshua and Judges that kingship is first and foremost an attribute of God. God is presented in the Pentateuch as being the King of creation. God appears in Gen 1 as the King whose word of command established the boundaries and content of created reality (compare Ps 148:5–6). Even though God’s kingship is not frequently mentioned in an explicit way in the Pentateuch or in Joshua and Judges, God’s rule over creation is the presupposition upon which the content of these books rests. What is presupposed and implicit for the most part in the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges becomes more explicit in the biblical books from 1 Samuel onwards. The royal psalms in particular link God’s work of creation and his subsequent work of providence for creation with his “honor and majesty” and “glory” (e.g., Ps 19:1; 95:3–5; 104:1–32). Such psalms make explicit the theology of kingship that is implicit in the Pentateuch and the books of Joshua and Judges. The Old Testament teaches that one of the reasons that God created the world was so that his universal kingship might be acknowledged by all his creatures (Ps 96:1–10; 99:1–3; 145:10–13; 148:1–13; 150:1–6).

Even though kingship is supremely an attribute of God, Gen 1–3 indicates that God created human beings in his royal image. The significance of being created in God’s image is linked in Gen 1:26–28 with humanity having “dominion … over all the earth” and over all the creatures of the earth. By giving humanity dominion, God established humanity as having authority as kings over creation. Humanity was given the task of filling and subduing the earth. In other words, God engaged humanity in the work of helping to bring about the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Once the whole of the earth had been brought inside the boundaries of the garden of Eden, then humanity’s work would be finished, and the kingdom of God complete. To be successful in this task, however, it was necessary for human beings not only to work after the pattern of God himself (hence, the significance of the Sabbath commandment in Exod 20:8–11) but also to submit to God by keeping his commandments. The Pentateuch makes it very clear in a number of ways that humanity’s royal authority was to be exercised under the higher authority of God himself. The fact that Adam was placed under divine command shows that Adam and his descendants were to submit themselves in obedience to God (Gen 2:16–17). The subsequent episodes of God’s judgment of Adam and Eve, the judgment of Cain, the destruction of the flood at the time of Noah, and the judgment of the builders of the tower of Babel all serve to show God’s authority over humanity and/or the whole of creation.

Even though God is the King of the entire world, it is also important from the perspective of the Old Testament to recognize that God chose to realize his kingship over the world through the nation of Israel. Thus, God is seen in the Old Testament to be the King of Israel in particular. The covenant of circumcision established the idea that God would be the God of Abraham’s descendants (Gen 17:7). Abraham’s descendants for their part had the responsibility to “keep [God’s] covenant” (Gen 17:9; 18:19). God promised Abraham that there would be “kings” among his descendants (Gen 17:6). Jacob prophesied that royal authority would be exercised by Judah on a worldwide scale (Gen 49:10). God considered Israel to be “[his] people” (e.g., Exod 3:7; 5:1; 15:16). God’s redemption of Israel out of Egypt further established God’s claim of possession over Israel (Exod 15:13, 16; 20:2). This was also symbolized through the rite of the consecration of the firstborn (Exod 13:1–2, 11–16). After the exodus, the relationship between God and Israel was formalized in a covenant ceremony at Mount Sinai (Exod 19:1–24:11). This was an exclusive relationship which demanded Israel’s faithfulness or loyalty to God. Even though “all the earth is [God’s],” the other nations were excluded from this special relationship with God (Exod 19:5–6). Israel willingly submitted to the covenant that that God offered to them at this time (Exod 19:8; 24:3,7). This covenant, also known as the old covenant (as per 2 Cor 3:14), formally established God’s kingly rule over Israel. The condition for Israel to benefit from this special relationship was covenant obedience, i.e., a commitment to serving God through keeping the law of Moses (e.g., Deut 6:1–3).

It is significant that one of the benefits of Israel keeping covenant with God was that Israel would be constituted as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6). Given that the word kingdom in the phrase a kingdom of priests parallels the word nation in the phrase holy nation, the expression a kingdom of priests and a holy nation speaks of Israel as a nation consecrated to the service of God. In other words, Israel would only be a kingdom before God to the extent that the nation submitted itself to the rule of God. What submitting to the rule of God involved for Israel was subsequently spelled out in great detail in the Mosaic law. Even though the context suggests that the kingdom in view in Exod 19:6 is Israel as a divine monarchy rather than Israel as a human monarchy, the books of Samuel and Kings in particular show that the divine and human aspects of the monarchy in Israel were intertwined in God’s plan, with the success of the institution of human monarchy within Israel dependent upon how well the institution of divine monarchy was respected. Israel submitting to the rule of God would mean the restoration of the kingdom ideal that existed in the garden of Eden but which was lost after Adam’s rebellion.

God’s intention for Israel, therefore, involved the development of human rule under the ultimate rule of God. This human rule would also be focused in a particular human being who would also be called the king of Israel. That God’s theocratic rule over Israel would incorporate a human king is indicated in Deut 17:14–20. This passage sets out the divine laws regulating human kingship within Israel. Even though Deut 17:14 is effectively a prophecy that Israel’s motivation for asking for a human king would not be proper (in that it would be motivated out of a desire to imitate the kind of government found in the surrounding nations), the fact that the law of Moses made provision for a human king indicates that human kingship was an integral part of God’s plan for Israel from the beginning. Israel would have a human king, but the one appointed as king had to be the one “whom Yahweh [their] God [would] choose” (Deut 17:15). The king was to be an Israelite, and should not acquire many horses, or wives, or excessive silver and gold (Deut 17:15–17). He was obligated to have his own copy of the Mosaic law to study in order to “keep … all the words of [God’s] law” (Deut 17:18–19). Thus, Mosaic law clearly placed the human king of Israel under the authority of God and his law. Indeed the length of the king’s dynasty is connected in Deut 17:20 with how well the king would follow “the commandment,” i.e., the law viewed as a whole. The idea of human kingship in Israel was, therefore, built into the Mosaic law. The law made provision for a human king but proscribed the authority of this king. The human king was to be subject to the authority of God, the King of kings.

Given what has been observed above, we have to conclude that there was nothing wrong with the concept of human kingship per se operating in Israel. In fact, the evidence strongly favors the conclusion that human kingship was one of the purposes that God had had in mind for humanity and Israel from the very beginning. God has given humanity the privilege of dominion over the earth. For this dominion to be legitimate, however, it must be exercised in submission to the greater authority of God, for God is King over all.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Old Testament Concept of Wisdom

The concept of wisdom in Old Testament is torah-centric. Wisdom in the Old Testament has frequently been defined as being “practical knowledge of the laws of life and the world, based on experience” (Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology [New York: Harper & Row, 1962], 1:418), or else understood in terms of the human endeavor to understand and live in harmony with the divine order that has been built into the cosmos. But when applied to wisdom as it appears in the Old Testament, these definitions are inadequate.

From the biblical perspective, wisdom is supremely the possession of God (Job 12:13; 38:36–37; Ps 104:24; Prov 3:19–20; Isa 28:29; Dan 2:20; Rev 7:12). Wisdom is basically whatever God thinks and says and does. Because God is the source of all wisdom, he is the one who grants wisdom to people, and he does this by means of his Spirit (Exod 31:3; 1 Kgs 4:29; 10:24; Prov 2:6; Eccl 2:26; Dan 2:21–23; Jas 1:5). Because God is wise, God’s word or law is a source of wisdom (Ps 19:7; 119:98, 104, 130; Jer 8:8–9). Jesus’ definition of wisdom in Matt 7:24 is consistent with, and hence a neat summary of, the Old Testament definition of human wisdom: being wise means hearing and doing the word of God. In the context of the Old Testament, this word of God, or law of wisdom, typically equates to the law of Moses, which was viewed as being the source of Israel’s wisdom before the nations (Deut 4:6, 8; see also Rom 2:17–20). According to the Old Testament, wisdom also involves an attitude of fearing Yahweh such that one is concerned to live out every aspect of one’s human existence in accordance with God’s law (Ps 119:100; Prov 28:7; 31:26). Thus, the wise person, i.e., the person with understanding, is supremely viewed in the Old Testament as being the person who obeys the law of Yahweh from the heart (Ps 119:34).

wisdom = hearing + doing torah