Monday, April 28, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 7

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

God's nation among the nations

How will Israel live? Will they live as the covenant people they were called to be among the nations, or will they bow down to other gods and worship them? Regardless of Israel’s obedience or disobedience, God will still speak to the nations through them, but Israel’s disobedience will bring about adverse consequences.

IG hones in on the story of Israel’s land and power in this chapter. She starts by giving us the foundational premise: all land and power is God’s. She quickly covers Genesis 1-2, where human beings are given stewardship over the land under God. Genesis 3 tells us how humans were quick to desire power for themselves. They wanted to be independent of God, and God responded by expelling them from the land he had originally placed under them. The exile of Cain and the story of Babel continued this pattern. IG suggests that Babel is actually a religious enterprise, where religion is used as the means of power to keep the people in the land. In truth, it is God who gives his people the land, and the breaking of the covenant would result in removal from that land. But Israel had yet to understand this and often adopted the attitudes of the surrounding nations/religions.

We move on now to Joshua and the conquest. IG admits that she has often struggled with this book, having even wished that it was not in the Bible. But she has come to accept this as an essential part of the story of God’s mission. However, she cautions us that we will need to read Joshua carefully, and that it is key to remember that the conquest described in the book is unique. It is the only time Israel is ever asked to take land, a unique settlement of God’s people in a land he has chosen for them. What are the main themes of this book? “Joshua is not only about the establishment of a people in a land, but is also about the aweful reality of God’s holiness and judgment.”

IG reminds us that people have always needed land to live in and to cultivate. The Abrahamic covenant recognises the human need for land and God’s ownership of all land. This is not the most important thing, of course, since at the end of the Pentateuch, Israel still has no land! – but does suggest that the timing of the conquest was pretty important. The Canaanite destruction is one of the most difficult and potentially offensive passages in the Bible, and here IG suggests a few things to be kept in mind.
  1. Israel was not allowed to take the land until it was the right time for its inhabitants to be judged. This is hinted at in Genesis 15:16.
  2. The destruction was carefully limited. “Israel was only given a certain amount of land (Josh. 1:4); and within it there were other peoples to whom God had given land. (Deut. 2:9-25).
  3. Israel only destroyed those who opposed her. Some of the Canaanites acknowledged Israel’s God and were not destroyed, and it is clear that in the land itself there were “aliens”, some of whom must have been Canaanites, living among them.
  4. Many 21st century Christians see the total conquest of Joshua as bloodthirsty and barbaric. But for the time, it seems to have been remarkably civilized.
  5. God’s justice is summarized in Joshua 11:20, which contains the difficult idea of God hardening people’s hearts. IG does not presume to offer any better answers than the myriad of commentators, but this is at least clearly God’s judgment on a wicked people.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Joshua is about Israel’s and Yahweh’s holiness. Israel was to be set apart, and not to follows the trails of false worship. God’s holiness is such that anything unholy that enters his presence will be destroyed. This is true of the Israelites as well, as seen in the story of Achan (Josh. 7). “The holy God is choosing this particular land and this particular nation to demonstrate his holiness”.

IG moves on to the idea of kingship and political power. The historical books in the OT show that Israel kept trying to be like other nations. This extends to their desire to have a human king. God graciously allowed them this, but warned them that they would have to face the consequences as well. Their kings could very well treat them like the kings of other nations, that is, there was always potential for abuse. Still, God used their desire for kingship for good, as he makes a covenant with David, which ultimately points the way for the arrival of the true King, Jesus the Messiah.

IG then reflects on the question of whether Israel was wrong in wanting a king since the idea of kingship is a major theme in the OT (and of course the “kingdom of God” is a big idea in the NT) and interacts with other commentators on this. “There is a sense in which Israel had to be like the nations, because she was [precisely that], a nation[!] The problem was that, as she was warned, she often became too much like them, and fell into the wrong worship and abuse of power…” David’s reign, while not perfect, did point in the right direction, but sadly, the history of Israel’s monarchy showed what often the king took religion and power into his own hands. Israel too often followed the lead of their human leaders when they should have been holy like God.

We now turn to the exile. This is an important theme “for our study of religions…because it demonstrates that Israel’s God is not like the gods of the nations, because he is not a national or territorial god. The exile breaks the ties between god, king, people and power that support the dangerous triangle. It also has significance for God’s mission to his world, as it forces Israel to live among the nations.” Suddenly Israel had to confront some of these questions:
  • Can we live as Yahweh’s people without a temple or land of our own, or without power?
  • Yahweh is not like other gods, we’re beginning to see that. But what does this say about other gods?
  • Yahweh’s rule can be seen in the defeat of his people as well as in their victories. How, then, will we see his ultimate victory?
These various questions were answered by, among others, Jeremiah, Esther and Isaiah, but IG decides to use Daniel as her case study. At the beginning of Daniel, it appears that Yahweh has been defeated, but the rest of the book reveals that Yahweh is at work in Babylon, showing how he is lord of all. The Babylonian wise men have no insight, Belshazzar pays a high price for his disrespect of God. The people-power-land links with religion is broken. God’s people can live without a temple, or land, or power, at the very heart of a nation with a different faith!

Finally, we now move to Israel’s return to the land. Why did Yahweh do this? We can see that this shows God remains faithful to his covenant, and that he also has a plan. It is still God’s intention to bless the nations through Israel, and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah show how Israel tried to be holy, while living among people of other faiths. The new leaders now emphasised separation a lot more, having realised the problem of trying to be like other nations had gotten them into trouble into the first place. (You could say, I suppose, that they were the early forerunners of the Pharisee sect). This is seen in the building of the temple, where the locals (non-Israelites) offer of help was refused, and in the ruthless dismissal of foreign wives. This obviously cannot be a basis for forbidding interracial marriages, as demonstrated elsewhere in the OT, but appears to be because Ezra is worried about their unfaithfulness to Yahweh. IG ends the chapter with a question: is holiness purely about separation, or is there another kind of holiness that does not depend on where we live or we live with?

This is the first time I’ve read a Bible, or at least OT, overview that uses the theme of land (and its natural association with power) as the lens and it’s pretty illuminating. I’m still not familiar enough with much of the OT to be able to discuss the details of IG’s chapters, though I’m sure she’s pretty much on the mark; I’m simply sitting at her feet as a student at this point! It’s also interesting to ponder about how all of the above might help inform Christian reflection on issues pertaining to community, political power, refugees and so on, keeping in mind that Christians are exiles and strangers in this world, of course (1 Peter 1:2). I’m sure there must have been people who have thought more deeply and acted accordingly on stuff like this.

Reflection questions:
Some people say that, to live at peace with people of other faiths, we need to recognize their gods and even to pray with them. Deuteronomy tells Israel that she will live at peace only if she refuses to worship other gods. What questions does this raise in your mind?

What role has political power played in establishing religions in your area? What role has religion played in establishing political power?

Daniel was able to say to the king of the nation that had taken him into exile, “I have never done anything wrong before you.” (6:22). How does this challenge and encourage Christians who live as a minority, under the rule of people of a different faith?

What sort of holiness is it that can bring blessings to the nations? Do you have to keep separate from sinners to keep righteous? How can we witness to people of other faiths if we keep apart from them?

God, gods and other nations

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