Monday, May 19, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 8

I'm certainly taking my time with this series! For previous entries, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

God, gods and other nations

God wants to bless the nations. This seems to be the consistent refrain of this book so far. But hang on a minute, isn’t Israel’s history largely one of conflict with other nations? IG argues that we need to see this in its larger context, that this was one way to show all nations, including Israel, Yahweh and his righteousness. Furthermore, there are plenty of instances of relative peace between Israel and her neighbours. Finally, we must not forget, as shown in the last chapter, that the exile challenges the links between nations, lands, kings and gods. “This suggests that a battle with a nation is not necessarily the same thing as a battle with her religion and her god”.

IG looks at the reigns of David and Solomon, two of Israel’s most celebrated kings. We remember David for his military exploits, but he also had friendly relations with the kings of Tyre and Hamath (2 Sam. 5:11, 8:9-10), received hospitality from Nahash, one of the Ammonite kings, and also tried to show kindness to one of Nahash’s son (2 Sam. 10-:1-2, who sadly rejected it). There were also foreigners in David’s army, the most famous being Uriah the Hittite, and his overseers, eg. Hushai the Arkite, called “David’s friend” (1. Chron. 27:33). In fact, the behaviour of these two are contrasted favourably with those of the Israelites, the former in the well-known account of David and Bathsheba, and the latter with Absalom’s treachery. As for Solomon, he was not afraid to enlist foreigners in the building of the temple, and he understood God’s desire to bless the nations, reflected in a prayer “that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you as do your own people Israel” (1 Kings 8:43, 2 Chron. 6:33). Again, the most well-known fulfilment of this prayer lies in the visit of the Queen of Sheba, who hears Solomon’s wisdom and witnesses the worship of Yahweh. Sadly, Solomon did not remain faithful all his life as did David, and began to worship other gods, leading to judgment against Israel and hamstringing it from being the light to other nations.

IG now proceeds to look at wisdom literature. It isn’t easy to disentangle all the sources and influences, but it is reasonably clear that there are parallels between the wisdom literature contained in the Bible and the writings of other nations, and that Israel was not averse to using material from other nations. This should not surprise us, as 1 Kings 4 tells us that not only did God give Solomon wisdom, but Solomon used his wisdom to observe all that was going on around him (v.33). It is a good example of what theologians call “general revelation”. IG concludes that “the wisdom literature shows the Bible’s engagement with the human search for right thinking and living”. In other words, God is not indifferent to the concerns of the surrounding nations and the big questions of what it means to live rightly, of suffering and justice. Yet true wisdom understands its own limits, thus wisdom begins and ends with the fear of the Lord. Biblical wisdom is not antithetical to general wisdom, but relates it specifically to God. Nor must we be blind to the presence of folly, which often exists alongside wisdom, as the book of Proverbs notes. Ultimately, God is more interested in relationship; he is here to rescue his world. But there is room for the wisdom of the nations.

Now we turn to the subject of religion and judgment. When we look at Isaiah 1, we get an idea of the kind of religion God hates. The focus here is not the pagan religions however, but Israel’s own hypocritical worship. God hates ritual minus faithfulness. Israel herself needed to know that she would be judged, and IG turns to the book of Amos to demonstrate this. Amos 2:4-8 declares judgment of Israel and Judah in the same language used for judgment on other nations. What is different here is the reason: they have disobeyed God’s laws, followed other gods, oppressed the poor. This is because Israel has not lived up to its chosen status, but in fact behaved arrogantly. God does not play favourites, and he is not just god of Israel, thus he is able to use other nations to judge Israel. But of course, other nations do come under God’s wrath. Why? The most frequent theme seems to be their vicious treatment of Israel – eg. Isaiah 10:7, Ezekiel 25:6. Other reasons include general wickedness, spreading terror, hoarding riches, complacency and pride. The last reason is especially pertinent, showing how the nations often choose to exercise their rebellious autonomy. We can rest assured that God will not overlook wickedness. IG also examines how judgement of other nations are described: in terms of defeat of their gods, punishing both gods and kings, or as putting the gods to shame. The other gods are exposed for their weakness – God’s victory and sovereignty is clear.

In the prophets we often read of God’s grief in his judgment, and his promises of restoration for Israel. Does this apply to other nations too? Jeremiah and Ezekiel lament for Moab, Egypt and Tyre; some of which are commanded by God. God appears to lament over other nations too. Secondly, God often judges that people might come to know him, as Ezekiel often points out (eg. 25:7, 11, 14, 27; 26:6 etc). But this should be accompanied by repentance. Isaiah 19:18-25 speaks of Yahweh’s longing that true worship be established in Egypt and his willingness to bless them if they be his people.

IG now investigates some of the OT stories as cited in the NT as one way of thinking about what really matters. She notes the presence of Ruth, Rahab and Uriah in Matthew’s genealogy. All three acknowledged God and in a sense, became part of Israel, God’s people. Jesus outrages the Pharisees by telling them that the Queen of Sheba and the people of Niveneh would actually judge them. The Pharisees have the Scriptures but fail to acknowledge the Messiah nor repent, something the Queen and the Nivenites do without this privilege! Jesus also mentions the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper, and in so doing is reminding those within his hearing of God’s graciousness to Gentiles when Jews were rejecting him. Ultimately, God cares for all humans. “He made them, he is their Lord, whether they acknowledge him or not.” They have fallen, and they deserve judgment, but God wants to show his mercy. How shall we respond, then, to the gracious, living God?

I don’t really have any comments on this chapter, which builds on many of her earlier themes. Instead, I find it more fruitful just to dwell on the wide scope of God’s mission!

Exploring the New Testament – Setting the Scene: The World behind the text.

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