My last post dealt with some specific texts which Paul K. suggested do not fit the kingdom paradigm that I am proposing. A more general question raised in his comment has to do with the relation of the story about kingdom to the theme of creation. Paul agrees that “there is something bigger and fuller going on than individual salvation and individualistic Christianity” but thinks that it is God’s story, not Israel’s story, that should be at the heart of the interpretive framework. He takes the kingdom narrative back to Genesis 1, where Adam and Eve are “given the commission to rule the earth (under God’s rule)”.
There are three narrative levels in the Bible—this is implicit in Paul’s comment. At the top there is an overarching story about God and creation. At the bottom there are innumerable individual stories. Between the two there is a story about Israel as a people struggling in the course of history to maintain its identity and vocation in engagement, for better or for worse, with the nations.
The question is which of these narratives is the controlling one. Which fundamentally determines the meaning of words such as “kingdom” and “gospel”? Which narrative tells us who Jesus is? We agree that it’s not the bottom story about individuals. But we perhaps disagree about the relation between the middle and top narratives.
The middle narrative barely features in modern theologies unless you are some sort of dispensationalist. Or perhaps an allegorist. But it seems pretty obvious to me that this is the storyline that overwhelmingly dominates scripture, from the “election” of Abraham in the shadow of Babel, through profoundly transformative clashes with Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and the Greeks, to the climactic overthrow of Babylon the great, Rome, the idolatrous and satanic persecutor of the churches.
It is in this narrative stratum, in my view, that the argument about kingdom belongs. So I note, for example, that the Old Testament passages that are most influential in shaping the New Testament vision of the kingdom are all political texts that speak of the rule of YHWH or his king or his people over the nations (notably Pss. 2, 110; Dan.7), or the deliverance of Israel from oppression—the Aramaic version may or may not go back to the disciple of Hillel, but it at least highlights the relevance of these passages for understanding Jesus’ proclamation:
Go up on a high mountain, O prophets who proclaim good news to Zion; lift up your voice with strength, you who proclaim the good news to Jerusalem, lift up, do not fear; say to the cities of the house of Judah, “The kingdom of your God has been revealed.”
How beautiful upon the mountains of the land of Israel are the feet of the one proclaims good news, who causes to hear peace, who proclaims good, who cause to hear deliverance, who says to the congregation of Zion, “The kingdom of your God has been revealed.” (Is. 40:9; 52:7 Targum Jonathan)
I also made the point in the previous post that texts which out of context perhaps suggest broader Wisdom sentiments, such as Jesus’ exhortation to seek first the kingdom of God, always presuppose an eschatological argument about how God is judging and restoring Israel. I don’t see either Jesus or Paul taking the argument back to Genesis 1, as though the coming of the kingdom of God would be a restoration of humanity’s sovereignty over the non-human world.
Similarly, our theologies tend to locate the story of Jesus either at the top or at the bottom of the multi-storied world of scripture. On the one hand, he is the divine Word through whom all things were created, who became flesh in the middle of history to deliver humanity from its bondage to sin, and who will judge the living and dead at the end of history. On the other, he is my personal Saviour, who died for my sins, and is now my best friend.
My argument, however, is that it is the middle narrative about Israel and the nations, looking backwards and looking forwards, that mainly frames and interprets the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In this narrative he dies for the sins of Israel in order not only that God’s rebellious people might have a new future in the ancient world but also that the nations might become subject to the God of Israel. His death and resurrection will have implications for the cosmos (cf. Rom. 8:19-22), but that is not what the narrative is driving at.
If the middle narrative is given its proper biblical weight and prominence, it becomes apparent that it determines the significance of the two other levels.
1. Throughout scripture the fate of individuals is bound up with the fate of the people of God. So, for example, Zacchaeus is not just an individual who is saved by his belief in Jesus. He is a wealthy and typically dishonest Jewish tax collector who is restored to the family of Abraham by one who claimed to “fulfil” Daniel’s vision of a persecuted “son of man” figure, who comes on the clouds to receive authority over the nations (Lk. 19:1-10). That is, his salvation is part of Israel’s story and counts for nothing outside of that framework—and I don’t see why that shouldn’t give us the template for “personal salvation” today.
2. The story of Israel is the story of how the creator God has responded to humanity’s fundamental disobedience and self-determination. But then it seems to me that what happens is not that the apostles and New Testament scriptures start to reveal God’s eternal purpose for creation but quite the opposite: the creation narrative serves to interpret what is happening in the middle level narrative about Israel and the nations.
The story of Adam and Eve is as much a typology of the exile as an account of human origins. The family of Abraham will be a new creation in microcosm in the land. Restored Judah will be like Eden (Is. 51:3); it will be as though God has made new heavens and a new earth (Is. 65:17-18; 66:22). Negatively, the Prince of Tyre was like Adam in Eden but his heart has become proud (Ezek. 28:1-19). The resurrection of Jesus anticipates—and, I think, necessitates—a new heaven and a new earth, but in the narrative it constitutes the “resurrection” of punished Israel on the third day (Hos. 6:1-2). Paul’s description of Jesus as a new Adam is part of an argument about the condemnation and justification of Israel (Rom. 5:12-21) or the liberation of Israel from the power of the Law (1 Cor. 15:45, 56-57).
I can understand why from the modern post-imperial, socio-ecological perspective it would seem desirable to give greater prominence to the creational story than to a historical narrative which, as I see it, culminates in the conversion of the Roman empire. But, of course, the New Testament wasn’t written from the modern perspective. It was written from within the historical narrative of first century Israel, and it seems quite reasonable to think that from that perspective the political-religious crisis had interpretive priority over the bigger story about God and creation. In that regard, God’s story was Israel’s story—and I don’t see why we shouldn’t allow it to run through to the present day to give us the narrative basis for our own self-understanding.