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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Blessing in microcosm

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.

Comments

Andrew this is one of those things that screams out warnings about the nature of the Bible. There is no way to logically reconcile the promises of Genesis with faith in Jesus. None.

The initial Hebrew faith as simple and primitive: if we obey our god we will prosper on earth and defeat our enemies. That’s the promise to Abraham in a nutshell. It was written in a pre-scientific era when people believed the success and failure or individuals and nations were dependent on divine beings (see: Job).

When the Hebrews won a battle it was because they were faithful. When they lost, it must have been because god was mad at them. That’s basic – the other standards were subject to change. Sometimes “god” didn’t want prisoners, sometimes he was merciful, sometimes it was OK to take female slaves, sometimes not. The point is whatever the Hebrews did (or whomever concocted the stories) they were able to justify as god’s will.

Now there came a time when they believed themseves faithful yet were defeated in battle. Now what? Well, there was a new twist – God’s promise was still valid, just not in the here and now. One day swords were going to be beaten into plowshares and justice would roll like waterfalls. Israel would rule!

Jesus comes into this environment, preaching this message, and again, the predicted result does not occur so another change in theology is necessary. God is still faithful and the promises true, but they’re just not what we thought it would be. Now the “kingdom” is not Israel, but it’s internal and the rewards are after death (something totally uncontemplated by the Hebrews for 1,000+ years). Jesus didn’t die a failed martyr, he died for our sins as a ransom or a substitute or to show god’s favor or something.

Then christians were facing murder and persecution, so prosperity no longer was the key part of God’s plan. Persecution became the new badge of faith. How does that make sense in light of the promises in Genesis?

The bottom line is that to try and reconcile the belief systems of people with completely different world views who lived in different worlds with varying degrees of knowledge cannot be done without seriously twisting the meanings or one or all.

It also takes creativity and a nimble mind, which is why one needs an advanced degree to understand matters that should be so simple that an ancient peasant could get it.

Well, that’s one way of reading it, and much of it I would agree with, but I don’t think we are bound to follow your downward spiral.

The promise to Abraham was not simply that his descendants would prosper. It was that his descendants would be a people in credible relationship with the creator. The method by which that relationship was to be maintained, by which this people would constitute a viable alternative to ‘unrighteous’ humankind, was adherence to the Mosaic Law. And then, yes, you’re right, this could be reduced to a rather crude binary: obey and be blessed, or disobey and be cursed. But theologically it was an attempt to ensure the continuing holiness or difference of this people, and the actually experience was much more complex and nuanced than the simple binary suggests.

Even if we allow for the sort of self-justification that you suggest, I still think historically the period of the Law can be seen as a legitimate attempt to give concrete public shape to the core sense of vocation to be God’s new creation. Of course it was messy and ambiguous in all sorts of ways appropriate to the culture and era, and in the end it proved not to be a sustainable witness to a holy God because, as Paul argues in Romans, the Jews were as much enslaved to sin as everyone else.

I also don’t think that Jesus got it wrong. His prediction was that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed but that through this crisis a renewed family of Abraham would emerge, dissociated from the history of ‘sin’ by the faithfulness and obedience and self-giving that he himself embodied.

The outcome was not merely internalized, as you claim – though the modern church has often given the impression that faith is a purely privatized matter. The community of Jesus followers challenged the dominance of Greek-Roman paganism and ultimately triumphed over it by demonstrating a Christ-like readiness to suffer and to love sacrificially. This was a thoroughly – and no doubt to embarrassingly – political outcome.

My argument has been that the symbolic ‘coming’ of the Son of Man motif in the New Testament predicts in effect the eventual vindication of both Jesus and his followers in just this public and political fashion. Moreover we find in this precisely the fulfilment of Jewish hopes, expressed both in the Old Testament and non-biblical Jewish literature, that Israel’s God would reveal his holy arm before the nations, would be acknowledged by the nations, would be justified. All that Christianity added to this was the belief that this victory of YHWH over paganism was achieved through, anticipated in, vouchsafed by, the death and resurrection of Jesus – and that in the process the basis for being ‘new creation’ had been radically redefined.

So I think in the end that while scripture cannot at all be regarded as reflecting a homogeneous worldview, it is still possible to construct a coherent narrative that does justice, for example, to Paul’s argument that it will be through trust in Christ that the descendants of Abraham, the heirs of the promise, will inherit and come to bless the nations. It is never an idealistic story; it is always the story of a people struggling against sin and history to live up to the original calling. And it continues today.

Andrew, you said: “Of course it was messy and ambiguous in all sorts of ways appropriate to the culture and era, and in the end it proved not to be a sustainable witness to a holy God because, as Paul argues in Romans, the Jews were as much enslaved to sin as everyone else.”

I guess where I see things differently is that you see a plan or a lesson in events for which I see randomness or the larger sweep of history. You may see the genocide at Jericho as “messy and ambiguous” but I see a violent army looking to justify sub-human behavior. Then when that same god allows the Hebrews could take “a vagina or two” as spoils of battle (why wasn’t genocide still the preferred option?)

The same God allegedly who said “do not kill,” added “kill each and every one and their animals;” he abhorred child sacrifice yet made Jephthah a hero; he said sin would be visited on generations then said it wouldn’t; vows revenge for evil yet also to “turn the other cheek.”

The only continuity to all these stories is people looking to justify their behavior, good or ill, by citing a divine voice (just like fundamentalists do today).

You said: “All that Christianity added to this was the belief that this victory of YHWH over paganism was achieved through, anticipated in, vouchsafed by, the death and resurrection of Jesus – and that in the process the basis for being ‘new creation’ had been radically redefined.”

That’s like saying “all David Koresh (or Joseph Smith to be less inflammatory) added to the christian bible was the incidental belief that he was the Messiah.”

I guess where I see things differently is that you see a plan or a lesson in events for which I see randomness or the larger sweep of history.

Allowing for the fact that ‘history’ is always only a matter of interpretation, it seems to me that your argument about ‘the larger sweep of history’ is not so different to attempts such as mine to find meaningful narrative development in scripture. Even to claim that a series of events is ‘random’ is a matter of interpretation – and I would have thought virtually meaningless. In any case, we are dealing with the biblical narrative, which consistently interprets itself, reflecting both backwards and forwards on the significance of historical events on the premise that the community of Israel is the chosen people of the one true God. We can choose to disregard that self-interpretation, naturally, but there is nothing intrinsically implausible about the claim that history, or any particular history, is meaningful.

As for the genocide issue – well, you’re absolutely right, that’s problematic. But I would argue that a narrative theology does not require us to reconcile these contradictions or resolve these embarrassments in anything like a theoretical or absolute sense. What we are dealing with, fundamentally, is not an ethical-theological system but the historical narrative of a people always driven to live out and make sense of its relation to YHWH in the midst of other, often hostile, cultures.

A chief reason for choosing Christ in this story is that he stands for a radical overhauling of the basis on which this relationship is pursued. The community that has chosen Christ accepts that its identity can be maintained – eg. in relation to other cultures or powers – only by having recourse to a self-giving love that was publicly vindicated through the resurrection. That is a matter of faith, but it must surely set Jesus apart from people like David Koresh or Joseph Smith.

1) “We can choose to disregard that self-interpretation, naturally, but there is nothing intrinsically implausible about the claim that history, or any particular history, is meaningful.”

You lost me there.

2) It’s not just the genocide, it’s a thousand other things. Why was god offended at the eating of pork or the wearing of blended fabrics or sex during a woman’s menstrual cycle or certain hair styles at certain points in history and not others? No sane God would really care about such minutia, let alone kill people for violating those standards.

One could speculate that there was some mystical element to these rules that transcend human understanding in the course of events that we have been miraculously freed from by the sacrificial death and resurrection of a member of the godhead which cannot truly be explained in any rational way but we choose to take the leap of faith.

Or, alternately, the conclusion I’ve reached after many, many years of taking the convoluted position, is that there never was a god who cared about sideburns and fabrics and the sex life of individual ants.

In fact, the whole thing can be expained less than 10 words with no PhDs necessary to understand: 

People developed prejudices and ascribed them to god.

Now if you could explain your position in a sentence, I’d be obliged and maybe change my mind again.

3) “The community that has chosen Christ accepts that its identity can be maintained – eg. in relation to other cultures or powers – only by having recourse to a self-giving love that was publicly vindicated through the resurrection. That is a matter of faith, but it must surely set Jesus apart from people like David Koresh or Joseph Smith.”

Again, not following. Jesus,  Koresh and Smith all took existing religions and claimed to be a fulfillment of those religions. Jesus and Smith succeeded in creating new religions to the dismay of the adherents of the religions from which they grew. The followers of each claim the scripture of the prior religion as their guide. Are you saying Jesus is set apart because he was resurrected or that he died as self-sacrifice?

BTW, I hope you understand that my intentions here are friendly. I appreciate your putting thought into this discussion. As I have read over the years, I found I could not justify my beliefs, but maybe I’m missing something.

One of the impacts was 9/11. I developed a personal rule: Gods don’t kill people or ever order a human to kill another human. It’s tough to get through the bible with that rule.

I may have misunderstood your argument further back, but I was responding to what you said about randomness and the ‘larger sweep of history’. We always impose some sort of meaning on what we take to be a sequence of historical events – even ‘randomness’ is an explanation of history. The Bible offers its own interpretation of the history of a people, and although there are elements in it which we may find hard to swallow (indeed, should find hard to swallow), I don’t see anything wrong in attempting to discern in the texts an overall positive interpretive thrust – which I would characterize in terms of the people’s witness to the renewing presence of the Creator, or something along those lines. But as I say, I may not have grasped what you were trying to say.

It’s not just the genocide, it’s a thousand other things. Why was god offended at the eating of pork or the wearing of blended fabrics or sex during a woman’s menstrual cycle or certain hair styles at certain points in history and not others? No sane God would really care about such minutia, let alone kill people for violating those standards.

This seems to me simply to reflect a modern preoccupation (on the part of believers and non-believers alike) to find rational consistency in the text. All I would say is that it is not really for us to judge from our post-enlightenment perspective the particular forms that religious conviction took 3000 years ago under utterly different cultural and social conditions. It might be fair to argue that no modern sane God would care about such minutiae, but ancient Israel didn’t worship a modern God – and no-one is asking you to go back in time in order to worship an ancient God.

My position in a sentence? Roughly that it is not primarily, if at all, a coherent theological system that gives scripture its unity and validity but the long historical experience of a called people.

Are you saying Jesus is set apart because he was resurrected or that he died as self-sacrifice?

I’m not quite sure what the issue is here, but the reference was to this:

You said: “All that Christianity added to this was the belief that this victory of YHWH over paganism was achieved through, anticipated in, vouchsafed by, the death and resurrection of Jesus – and that in the process the basis for being ‘new creation’ had been radically redefined.”

That’s like saying “all David Koresh (or Joseph Smith to be less inflammatory) added to the christian bible was the incidental belief that he was the Messiah.”

No, it’s not simply that these three figures all claimed to be the messiah and it’s pretty arbitrary which one we choose. My point was that Jesus was understood to have brought about a massive historical transformation – namely the renewal of the family of Abraham and the eventual ‘defeat’ of Roman imperial paganism – not through military means but through a self-giving love (including a love for enemies) and loyalty to YHWH.

I understand my relationship to God now on that basis: I am called to be part of a community that witnesses in all respects to the goodness and justice of the Creator – a project which is sustainable only because this community has abandoned attempts to safeguard this witness through adherence to the Law and learnt instead to rely on the grace of God.

I think we can only really make sense of that vocation by telling the whole story scripture, including the unpalatable and incomprehensible parts; but that does not require us to endorse or emulate or pretend we understand the unpalatable and incomprehensible parts. It’s simply that loyalty to Jesus and the principle of self-giving for the sake of life on which he built his ‘church’ requires us to recognize that he stood for the continuity of a narrative that runs all the way back to Abraham.

I think the liberal christian perspective (again, I thought that way for decades) in a sentence would be: “The bible story doesn’t make sense, but I trust it on faith.” :)

Of course I differentiate between modern and ancient. We don’t ascribe to ancient ideas about science, politics, law, ethics and on and on.

So why do you want to hold on to ancient ideas of religion?

Ancients had no qualms about divine beings appearing on earth. They had no problem believing that men could do miraculous things or that gods controlled the weather.

But you wouldn’t seriously consider that someone walking the earth today was the one god of the universe born of a virgin. You wouldn’t seriously think that Yi Jianlang or Shaquille O’Neill were produced by the union of angels with women or that Katrina hit because of the wrath of a god.

So why would a smart modern person base so much of his life on the word of an ancient who believed all those obviously false things and more? There is no actual evidence that Israel in truth was the favored nation of a god named YHWH and that this god really, really truly wants this particular tribe to occupy a random piece of dirt in the middle east that truly isn’t all that great (why didn’t he send them to San Diego? Nobody was there at the time and it has great weather all year round, and ocean views).

Once again, thanks for the fascinating discussion. Too bad we are worlds apart and can’t have a drink together.

So why do you want to hold on to ancient ideas of religion?

Well, only because, as I said, it was part of the story that Jesus found himself in, and if we choose to identify with Jesus (for whatever reason), it has to be part of the story that we find ourselves in. It’s part of the story that Christians need to tell about themselves, but it is not the whole story, and along the way we have to reckon with significant disruptions of the narrative.

But you wouldn’t seriously consider that someone walking the earth today was the one god of the universe born of a virgin.

Perhaps not in those modern terms – that is, according to some fairly crude popular theological constructions. But there are better ways of making sense of the rather complex New Testament story of Jesus’ relation to the Father. Standard trinitarian formulations come considerably later in the narrative.

There is no actual evidence that Israel in truth was the favored nation of a god named YHWH and that this god really, really truly wants this particular tribe to occupy a random piece of dirt in the middle east that truly isn’t all that great…

That raises a whole other set of questions, not least that implied by the present tense of ‘wants’. But of course, there is no evidence that Israel was a chosen people. And to your trained modern liberal mind it doesn’t make sense. It is marvellously irrational. But still a lot of people, like myself, for better or for worse, continue to experience the unaccountable pull of the Creator who raised his Son from the dead in order that his rather wretched people might find life. Very odd.

Yes, sadly we are worlds apart in all sorts of ways. But lets at least thank God for airplanes.