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Israel and the nations: the limits of Old Testament expectation

This is a rather technical piece—some notes I made while working on something else—but the gist of the argument can be gained from the introduction and the conclusion. I have been looking at how the idea of a Gentile mission emerges in the New Testament. I made the point in “The parable of the wedding feast and the man without a wedding garment” and the ensuing discussion that Jesus does not contemplate a Gentile mission or the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of his followers before his death. He may have expected Gentiles to be included, or at least involved, at the parousia, but the mission that he inaugurated was basically a Jewish mission to Israel.

Behind Jesus, of course, is the Old Testament, and it is generally held by those who would attribute a Gentile mission to Jesus that the Psalms and the Prophets in particular foresee a day when large numbers of Gentiles will be incorporated into the covenant people. Christopher Wright, for example, has a good section in The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative in which he makes a progressive case to this effect, culminating in the contention that “there were voices and visions within the Old Testament that looked for the day when nations would be included within Israel in such a way that the very word Israel would be radically extended and redefined” (455).

I think this is overstated. I agree with Wright’s first four propositions:

  1. God is sovereign over the nations: they can be the agent of divine judgment, recipients of God’s mercy, and they are under God’s control (455-67).
  2. The nations are in different ways witnesses of Israel’s history (467-74).
  3. They are beneficiaries of Israel’s blessing (474-78).
  4. They will come to worship YHWH, not least on account of what he has done for his people (478-89).

But I do not think the evidence which he presents supports the claim that the nations will be included in Israel’s identity (489-500). Yes, in the latter days the nations will come to Zion, year after year, to worship YHWH, to seek his favour, and learn his ways, but they remain distinct nations: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples…” (Is. 2:2-3; cf. Zech. 8:22-23; 14:16-19; Ps. 86:9). Herod’s temple, with its large but separate Court of the Gentiles concretely embodies this vision.

Registered in God’s city

Princes of peoples have been gathered, a people of the God of Abraham, for to God are shields of the earth, greatly exalted. (Ps. 47:9, my translation)

Wright takes this to mean that the nations will be registered “as Israel, as part of the people of father Abraham” (490). But what the psalm asserts is that YHWH “reigns over the nations”, as evidenced by the fact that he subdued the Canaanites under his people (47:3). The gathering of the princes as a (not the) people of the God of Abraham is a way of saying that Israel’s God has authority over the powerful rulers of the nations; their power is subject to him.1 There is no “great assembly of the nations”; there is no “register of the nations”. These ideas have been smuggled in.

Psalm 87 has the thought that the nations were born in Zion or registered in Zion:

Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush—“This one was born there,” they say. And of Zion it shall be said, “This one and that one were born in her”; for the Most High himself will establish her. The LORD records as he registers the peoples, “This one was born there.” (Ps. 87:4–6)

The point is not entirely clear, but Tate suggests that it reflects ancient imperial practice: 

Thus the process recalled in vv 5–6 is analogous to that of a conquering king who declares foreign peoples to belong to his royal realm and registers them among the people of the conquering country.2

The image is, therefore, not one of the inclusion of the nations in Israel but of the future rule of Israel over the nations—a theme that I think Wright rather downplays. Or it may be a picture of YHWH’s sovereignty more generally over the nations.

Blessed with God’s salvation

Isaiah 19 is certainly a remarkable passage. Egypt will be judged by God, but then “the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them” (Is. 19:21). Likewise, the Assyrians will become a third nation of blessing in the midst of the earth, and the Lord of Hosts will say, “Blessed be my people Egypt, and the work of my hands Assyria, and my inheritance Israel” (Is. 19:25, my translation).

Wright thinks that “the prophet uses Egypt and Assyria here in this highly eschatological prophecy in a representational way; that is, they stand for a wider inclusion of other nations” (492). “The archenemies of Israel will be absorbed into the identity, titles and privileges of Israel and share in the Abrahamic blessing of the living God, YHWH” (493). But Egypt and Assyria remain independent nations with their own cultus. Their relationship to YHWH is very similar to Israel’s, even to the point of being redemptive, but the final words make it clear that Israel is set apart as YHWH’s “inheritance”. The suggestion that Egypt and Assyria here stand for all nations is negated by the phrase “in the midst of the earth” (Is. 19:24).

Accepted in God’s house

The situation envisaged in Isaiah 56:1-8 is Israel in Babylon awaiting the “salvation” of return from exile. The passage addresses the fear of the “son of the foreigner” who has “joined himself to the Lord” (cf. Esth. 9:27) that he might be separated from the people of Israel at this time. The assurance is given that such proselytes—and also eunuchs—will be included in worship and the covenant on the same terms as the Jews. It’s an important passage, not least because it contains the saying “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is. 56:7), but it is not a prediction of a great influx of Gentiles to become part of the covenant people. I like Wright’s suggestion, though, that Luke had this passage in mind “when he recorded that the first believer in Jesus from outside the native Jewish community was indeed a foreigner, a eunuch, and was reading the scroll of Isaiah, just a few column inches from this passage” (495).

Called by God’s name

Wright argues that the phrase “all the nations who are called by my name” (Amos 9:12) implies that the nations will be in a relationship to YHWH analogous to that of Israel, which is “called by the name of the Lord” (Deut. 28:10). This “great privilege, which the nations were supposed to recognise about the temple and about Israel, would actually be seen to be true of the nations themselves”. But the idiom “on whom my name is called” has the sense of “over whom I have control”, and in this context it is parallel to “they may possess the remnant of Edom”. So Stuart writes: ‘Thus in the restoration, God’s people will “possess” (ירש), ie, have control over those nations once their enemies, in fulfillment of the restoration blessing of power over enemies.’3 This seems to me a more coherent reading of the text.

Joined with God’s people

And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem. (Zech. 2:11–12)

The context here is post-exilic. Jerusalem will not need a wall because YHWH will be a “wall of fire all round”; Babylon will be defeated and plundered by its former captives (Zech. 2:1-10). Many nations will join themselves to YHWH—not to Israel. They will be regarded as his people and will belong to him; they will no longer be a threat to Jerusalem. But as with Egypt and Assyria Isaiah 19, they remain distinct from Israel as God’s covenant people, and Judah is his inheritance in the land. “I will dwell in your midst” refers not to the nations but to Israel. It is too much to claim, as Wright does, that Zion “will become a multinational community of people from many nations, all of whom will belong to YHWH, and therefore they will rightly be counted as belonging to Israel” (498).

We also have the thought that God will assimilate a remnant of the Philistines into Israel, “like a clan in Judah”, just as the Jebusites, the original inhabitants of Jerusalem, had been incorporated into David’s kingdom (Zech. 9:7). But the analogy is telling: the inclusion of a small local people group in Israel says no more about an eschatological influx of the Gentiles than the inclusion of the Jebusites.

To conclude briefly…

There is a substantive narrative in the Old Testament which speaks of the nations responding positively to, and benefiting from, what YHWH does in and through and for his people. The passages considered by Wright contemplate a significant role for the nations at the time when YHWH restores his people, but they preserve the distinction between Israel and the neighbouring peoples. The exceptions are the foreigners who have already attached themselves to the Lord in Babylon and the remnant of the Philistines. There is no vision of a universal inclusion of redeemed nations in the covenant people. There is no radical extension and redefinition of Israel in this regard. So it seems to me that the mission to the Gentiles after the resurrection arises less smoothly out of the narrative of Israel than is usually supposed.

  • 1. Craigie translates: “The princely ones of the peoples are assembled with the people of Abraham’s God”: P.C. Craigie, Psalms 1–50 (WBC, 1983), 346.
  • 2. M.E. Tate, Psalms 51–100 (WBC, 1990), 390.
  • 3. D. Stuart, Hosea—Jonah (WBC, 1987), 399.

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