Michael Thompson correctly points out that the argument about blessing and righteousness and the Deuteronomic code would be helped if we kept in view the seminal statement in Genesis 12:3 that Israel would be blessed in order to be a blessing to the whole world. In other words, there are missional implications: it is not only our ‘blessing’ that is compromised by a lack of attention to the concrete communal and individual behaviours that count as ‘righteousness’; it is the ‘blessing’ of others. So what can we learn from the ‘blessed to be a blessing’ motif in scripture?
The first thing to note is that Genesis 12:3 harks back to the original creational blessing. Just as in Genesis 1:28 God blessed the man and the woman and told them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (repeated to Noah in 9:1), so Abraham is blessed and told that God will make him fruitful and multiply him and that he will fill the land that God will give to his descendants (Gen. 12:2-3, 7; 13:15-16; 15:5; 17:2-6, 8). Abraham is to be God’s new creation, a loyal microcosm in the midst of a humanity that has repudiated its creator.
The Law subsequently establishes the conditions according to which the integrity of this creational microcosm is to be sustained. This is where Deuteronomy 28 comes in. If Israel is obedient to the commandments of God, they will be secure and prosper materially as God’s new creation in the land that will be given to them. If they are disobedient, they will suffer the cursing of the microcosm and will eventually be expelled from it.
The idea that obedient Israel will be blessed in the land is widely found (eg. Ps. 133:3) – and conversely, that the wicked will be cursed: ‘The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous’ (Prov. 3:33). Moreover, Isaiah imagines the restoration of Israel following judgment and exile in terms of the renewal of the promise to Abraham and the repristination of the creational microcosm:
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. For the Lord comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:1-3)
The motif of Israel as blessed and as a blessing to the nations, however, is found subsequently (I think) only in Isaiah 19:24 (‘In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed’) and in Zechariah 8:13 (‘as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so will I save you, and you shall be a blessing’). It is significant that in both cases a people becomes a blessing to the nations only after judgment. It is also remarkable, of course, that in Isaiah Egypt and Assyria are included alongside Israel as peoples belonging to YHWH through whom others will be blessed.
In the New Testament there appear to be only two passages that clearly connect the blessing of the nations with the blessing of Israel.
1. Following the dramatic healing of the lame man outside the temple, Peter urges the ‘men of Israel’ to repent of their defiance of YHWH and believe that Jesus is the Christ through whom God will restore the nation. He reminds them that they are heirs of the promise to Abraham that in his ‘offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Acts 3:25). God raised up Jesus as a prophet – not here raised from the dead but in the sense suggested by the use of the same word in 3:221 – from among the Jews, as first among the families of the earth, in order to bless them by turning them back from their wickedness – from the self-destructive course that they were on. If Israel is to be a blessing to the nations, as God’s elect people, there has first to be a collective repentance in order to avoid the catastrophe of divine judgment. It didn’t happen.
2. Paul connects the motif with the ‘justification’ of the nations in Galatians 3:7-9. He argues that scripture foresaw that God would justify the nations on the basis of their faith or faithfulness, so that in effect the gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham: ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ In 3:10 Paul also quotes Deuteronomy 27:26, which immediately precedes chapter 28: ‘For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”’ The argument is restated in 3:13-14.
There are a number of conclusions that we may draw from this.
1. Scripture has much more to say about the blessing of Israel (or the failure of the blessing of Israel) than it does about the blessing of the nations. This is true even when we take into account other metaphors, such as that of Israel as a ‘light to the nations’ (Is. 42:5; 49:6; 60:3).
2. The realization comes with Isaiah that the potential to be a blessing to the nations will be fulfilled only after the catastrophe of divine judgment, whether in the form of the Babylonian invasion and the exile or of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Peter’s argument differs only in that he calls the Jews to repent in order to avert, or at least survive, the coming disaster of the Roman War. This again suggests that it is not a good idea to separate the promise of blessing, whether spiritual or material, from the demand for righteousness – that is, for an intrinsic corporate integrity, honesty, justice, and compassion.
3. It is probably fair to say that the full scope of the creational ‘blessing’ is not realized in the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God. To my mind the eschatological narrative – the forward-looking story of the transformation of Israel’s status in the world – that controls New Testament theology imposes necessary constraints on the argument here. But we may ask whether beyond the narrative of judgment and transformation the motif might recover the full scope of the creational blessing – just as Israel realized its potential as a creational microcosm only after the long journey through the wilderness.
4. Or to approach the issue a little differently, it is surely incumbent upon the church to discover in itself the full scope of what it means to be ‘blessed’ as a new creation people in Christ, through whom all things have been remade, in the midst of the nations. In the post-eschatological framework the argument would be that the people of God should realize in its own life the comprehensive goodness of being authentically human in order that this goodness might then be known, encountered, tasted, experienced, even reproduced by the peoples and cultures of the world.
- 1. See F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, 114; I.H. Marshall, Acts, 96.