Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 6

For previous entries, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

Development: the calling of a people

"This chapter explores how God developed the family into his special nation among nations that worshipped other gods." They would learn that they were his “special” people, but at the same time that God was the god of all peoples and Israel was chosen for the sake of all peoples. IG, in keeping with the earlier chapters, first explores how Israel is like other nations. Israel’s stories were similar to the stories of other nations. Other peoples had lists of laws similar to those found in the Pentateuch, a famous example being Hammurabi’s laws. Again, other nations also had historical texts containing the military exploits of kings under their gods, descriptions of rituals, incantations and festivals, wisdom literature, hymns and prayers with similar concerns as those found in the psalms, and so on. This should not surprise us, for the people of Israel were humans who lived in a particular time and place, alongside the surrounding nations, who are also made up of humans living in the same time and place!

But...the Old Testament is also very different. IG argues that "although Israel was in so many ways like the nations surrounding her, Israel’s God was not like their gods". A careful reading will show that these parallel texts are often built on very different assumptions. She gives 2 examples, law and temple, and I’ll quickly go through them here. The context for the Hammurabi Code is very different, for it begins with the king listing his own achievements and ends with much aplomb – the king being the one who received these laws from the god Shamash. On the other hand, the biblical account differs in its emphasis on God’s actions in exodus and covenant and its willingness to tell all about Israel’s leaders, warts and all. The monotheism of Israel is another obvious marker of difference. Again, while the gods of all the nations had temples, we can immediately think of a few differences, including the lack of need on God’s part to live in the temple, or the lack of the image of Israel’s god in the temple. We can summarise how Israel is not meant to be like other nations in one word: holy.

IG then briefly traces the development of Israelite religion from Genesis to Numbers, showing how during the time of Abraham, there was no clear separation from the Abrahamite religion from those of other people but that there is an increasing emphasis on separation, or distinctiveness, as the descendants of Abraham begin to become a nation. Why? IG suggests two things. Firstly, it appears that other religions have changed. In Egypt, the pharaoh is without doubt much more hostile to Israel’s god than during the time of Joseph. Similarly, it appeared that Canaanite religion was becoming increasingly immoral. Secondly, Israel has changed. As already mentioned, the family had now become a nation, a people of the exodus, following a god who had rescued them. Israel was now meant to be a "kingdom of priests", teaching the law (Lev. 10:11), handling sacrifices (Lev. 1-7) and blessing the people (Numbers 6:22-27). They would bring revelation of God to the other nations and be a blessing to them. They were meant to be a “holy nation”, reflecting the very essence of God. This is the overriding concern of Exodus-Numbers. IG makes an interesting point here as well – "if Israel was to be a nation among other nations, she too needed a story, a law and a way of worship, and God met those needs". In other words, God recognises and uses (seeing as he is the Creator, after all!) the conceptual building blocks that help build our identity – a shared heritage, culture etc.

But Israel had no king, unlike their counterparts. Their laws are based on God’s character and a recognition of human beings as made in God’s image. Their worship is different. Sacrifices are made not to “feed God”, but to deal with sin and share in fellowship. Their food laws were different, with an explicit link made to holiness, and the prevention of God’s people joining in the feasts of other gods. In summary,

"On the one hand, the tabernacle, the priesthood, the sacrifices and the worship express Israel’s relationship to her God in forms appropriate to her cultural context. On the other hand, the details prevent her from joining in the worship of other gods, and forbid forms of worship that cannot be adapted for the worship of the Holy One. In all this, they reflect the one holy God, for this is Israel’s purpose among the nations."
God’s people are special, but God is not partial. Leviticus 19 twice expresses the command to “love your neighbour as yourself”, once for the fellow Israelite, and once for the alien.

IG is never afraid to show where the biblical accounts are in some instances similar to the accounts of other nations, but as she deftly shows, this should not disturb us unduly. They are also in many ways different. I think this also shows that the Christian’s relationship with culture is never monolithic: we can affirm and transform certain aspects of a particular culture, but also confront and separate where needed. Btw, I highly recommend also reading either Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture, especially chapter 4 ‘The partial kingdom’ or Bartholomew & Goheen’s The Drama of Scripture and the chapter ‘Act 3 Scene 1: A people for the king’ as a supplement to this chapter, as either of them are very good in orienting us to the storyline of the Bible in general and the big picture of the Pentateuch in particular.

Reflection questions:
In what ways are Christians in your area like non-Christians? In what ways are they different?

For further study, look up ‘aliens’, ‘foreigners’ or ‘sojourners’ in a concordance. In Exodus-Deuteronomy, where were the aliens to live within the framework of Israel’s laws, and where were they treated differently? On what conditions could they join Israel’s worship? What do the prophets teach about justice for the alien?

God’s Nation among the nations

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