The difference between “shalom” and human flourishing

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The Hebrew word shalom features prominently in “missional church” discourse. John Franke says, for example, in his Missional Theology: An Introduction: “The restoration of peace or shalom, the all-embracing blessing of the God of Israel and Jesus Christ, may be the simplest, most compelling, and most comprehensive way of articulating the content of the commission given to the church” (35).

Similarly, Michael Goheen writes in A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story: “Most of Jesus’s words and actions pertain to the healing of human life; in him, God is restoring human life to its intended shalom (78); “Peace (shalom) describes human life in creation as it was meant to be: a life of flourishing and prospering in which our relationships with God, with one another and with the non-human creation are luxuriant, thriving and wholesome” (92).

In Communitas’ guide to starting and shaping missional churches we quote Cornelius Plantinga: shalom means “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight—a rich state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights” (Dynamic Adventure, 17).

The Hebrew or biblical concept of “peace,” therefore—so the argument goes—cannot be reduced to the absence of war or social disorder. Rather, shalom signifies an ideal state of human existence and therefore can be used to define and undergird a lively humanitarian and social justice dimension to the mission of the church.

In recognition of this I recently started adding the word to my narrative missiological model, as being more or less equivalent to the concept of a new creation flourishing: 1) Israel begins as a new creation people of shalom, which has recovered the original blessing of creation in microcosm, in the land; 2) they are redeemed and become a royal priesthood mediating between God and the world; and 3) in times of existential crisis they find a marginal prophetic voice—and even being—that speaks both to Israel and to the nations.

That biblical narrative is then replicated on a larger scale in the post-biblical era: first, the new stasis of Christendom, when the “land” becomes the continent and kingdom becomes empire, one way or another, and then the existential crisis of the Western church under a dominant secular humanist culture at the dawn of the Anthropocene.

Now I’m having second thoughts.

It seems to me that the popular interpretation of shalom as “universal flourishing,” etc., needs to be corrected in two respects.

The first is that it should not be confused with New Testament expectations concerning the kingdom of God. I’ve made this point before and won’t go over it again here, except to say that “kingdom of God” and “new creation” are distinct ideas in the biblical narrative: the kingdom of God is a “political” concept; it has to do with judgment and rule; it relates to events in history and the government of nations.

Secondly, I’m not sure that it is right to identify shalom with the positive idea of human flourishing, either in Israel or beyond. I’m not going to attempt an exhaustive review of the usage of the word, but here are some instances to consider.

  • Abraham is assured that he will go to his fathers in shalom and in old age, meaning he won’t die by violence or disease prematurely, not that he will die prosperous (Gen. 15:15).
  • The word is used for personal well-being quite often, generally in a rather formulaic fashion. But it’s not clear that this means that the person is positively flourishing rather than that the person is free from distress. When Joseph greets his brothers and asks them whether their father has shalom (Gen. 43:27), he knows about the severe famine in the land of Canaan (Gen. 43:1), so presumably his concern is that his father may be in a state of insecurity and distress for lack of food. The question is whether Jacob has freedom from the deprivations and harms of the famine.
  • For the Exodus community to “got to their place in shalom” means to go without strife or conflict (Exod. 18:23).
  • In a passage that clearly affirms the new creation flourishing of Israel in the land, the promise of shalom appears to refer, nevertheless, to physical and military security: “I will give shalom in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid. And I will remove harmful beasts from the land, and the sword shall not go through your land. You shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword” (Lev 26:6–7).
  • Phineas is given “my covenant of shalom“ because his violent action meant that Israel was not destroyed; he “made atonement for the people of Israel” (Num. 25:10-13).
  • There are numerous instances where shalom clearly signifies “peace” as the absence of war and violence. For example: “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of shalom to it” (Deut. 20:10).
  • When Ahimaz brings news to David that “All is well” (ESV), or simply “Shalom,” he is coming from a battle and he brings news of victory, an end to conflict, not of human flourishing (2 Sam.18:28). Mephibosheth does not trim his beard or wash his clothes “from the day the king departed until the day he came back in shalom”—alive, not dead ( 2 Sam. 19:24).
  • Hezekiah is hopeful that there will be “shalom and security” in his days and that he will not live to see the Babylonian invasion (2 Kgs. 20:19).
  • A Davidic king will be called “Prince of shalom,” and of “the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Is. 9:6-7). But this is a peace established in the midst of war and political unrest (Is. 9:4-5, 8-21).
  • The psalmist says: “In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant shalom. The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him, but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming” (Ps. 37:10-13). Shalom is not the prosperity that the meek will enjoy in the land; it is the ending of oppression that will allow prosperity to return.
  • To pray for the shalom of Jerusalem is to pray for its physical security for the sake of the continuing existence and operation of the temple (Ps. 122:6-9). If the city does not have peace from warfare and destruction, the temple cannot function.
  • If Israel had heeded God’s commandments, their “shalom would have been like a river,” but instead they were defeated and sent into exile (Is. 48:18).
  • The good news of shalom is proclaimed to the ruined city of Jerusalem (Is. 52:7). The future prosperity and flourishing of the city is no doubt in view, but the immediate action is the return of God to Zion, the baring of his holy arm before the eyes of the nations. The good news, in other words, is the “kingdom” event (“Your God reigns”) which brings the time of warfare to an end (cf. Is. 40:2).
  • The false prophets are condemned because they say “‘Shalom, shalom,’ when there is no shalom”—when in fact God will stretch out his hand and their houses and fields and the whole land will be overthrown (Jer. 6:12-15).
  • The “covenant of shalom” which God will make with his people will bring an end to exile and re-establish them in the land (Ezek. 37:26).
  • ‘Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Shalom” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths’ (Mic. 3:5)
  • The ruler from Bethlehem, when “siege is laid against us,” will shepherd his flock; they shall live insecurity, and “he shall be their shalom”; he will defeat the invading Assyrian, etc. (Mic. 5:1-5).

That will have to do. It’s a quick and arbitrary selection (let me know what I’m missing), but I am leaning towards the conclusion that shalom is not itself the “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight” of God’s new creation. It is indeed—no doubt disappointingly—the termination or absence of conflict, between Israel and God, between Israel and the nations. It is highly desirable, but it is not an end in itself; it is a transitional concept; it is the “political” condition for flourishing.

In the prophetic narratives, of course, these various distinct concepts all neatly link together and cooperate. God acts as king in history (kingdom of God) to bring captivity, conflict, social disorder to an end and restore peace to his people (shalom), so that they may then again be blessed and flourish (new creation) and serve him in the midst of the nations (royal priesthood). I think the same separation of ideas and the same sequence of thought applies in the New Testament.