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

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The biblical story, part one

My friend Wes and I are running some workshops at the Communitas International staff conference this summer, aimed at helping leaders who do not necessarily have formal theological training instil in their communities a good grasp of how scripture informs church and mission. How do we do credible, practical grassroots theologising? We think that telling the biblical story with enthusiasm, understanding and imagination is an important part of this—perhaps all there really is to it—so I have been preparing some notes on how the story unfolds. Wes will have something to say on how the story, and the “eschatology” that arises out of it, shape the practice of developing missional communities.

The first lesson to learn is that there is only one story, which runs all the way from the construction of Babel in Genesis 11 to the overthrow of Babylon the great in Revelation 18-19. But for reasons of time and space, I will divide it into two parts—the Old Testament part and the New Testament part. There is perhaps a case to be made for drawing the line 200 years earlier, when Israel came under threat from aggressive European cultures. Basically, we would make Daniel 7-12 a prologue to the New Testament. But I guess that’s over-complicating things.

So here, very roughly, is now I think the Old Testament story needs to be told if we are going to understand the New Testament properly. Let me know if you think I’ve got it wrong. You will see that I do not regard the Old Testament as a grab bag of prophecies about Jesus. Next week, all being well, I will outline how I think the New Testament story needs to be told if we are going to plot a way forward from where we are.

The stage is set for the drama of God’s people

There are two creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis. In the first, God creates the heavens and the earth, the physical environment, living creatures, and humanity, as male and female, in his own image. Humanity is given “dominion” over the living creatures, is blessed by God, and is instructed to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the earth and subdue it. In the second story, man (ʾadam) is created from the dust of the earth, and placed in the garden of Eden; woman is formed from his side as a companion and co-labourer; but they eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and are expelled from the garden to prevent them from achieving immortality.

Out in the fallen world, human society becomes corrupt, descends into violence; the world is judged to be a failure and is destroyed in the flood. Noah and his family constitute the beginning of a new creation: they are blessed by God and are instructed to be fruitful and to multiply and to fill the earth—a restatement of the creation mandate. One group of migrants, however, decides to settle in the land of Shinar, and they build a city and a tower to make a name for themselves, in order not to be “dispersed over the face of the whole earth”. The tower is given the name Babel; it is the prototype for Babylon, the beginning of empire. This sets the stage for the opening of the long drama about the people of God.

Abraham and the land

The story of the people of God begins with the word of the Lord to Abraham:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-2).

This is not a direct solution to the disobedience of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden. It is God’s response to the whole journey of humanity away from the created ideal, described in Genesis 1-11, culminating in the building of a tower that would reach to the heavens to make the claim that humanity is the author of its own greatness. The Abraham project is a response to the hubris that would seek to construct human society in defiance of the creator. Abraham is not saved. He is chosen to be the beginning of a new creation in microcosm: he is blessed by God, his descendants will be fruitful and will multiply and will fill the land that eventually will be given to them.

The creator and new creation

Israel, therefore, is a “new creation” in microcosm brought into existence by the living creator God to preserve the original blessing of the world and to mediate that blessing to others. This is, so to speak, the fundamental “good” of the biblical story. The language of new creation comes to the surface from time to time subsequently as a way of speaking about the renewal of God’s people, notably after judgment. When God restores Jerusalem after the devastation of the Babylonian invasion and the exile, he “makes her wilderness like Eden”, he creates “new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered” (Is. 51:3; 65:17). A person in Christ is “a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). But in the end, the renewal of creation is not a metaphor. The apocalyptic visionary John imagines the final making of a new heaven and a new earth, in which there will be no evil, no suffering, and no death. So the biblical narrative begins and ends with an act of creation, but there is a lot of history in between, and it is all this history that mainly concerns us.

A new creation people

Israel was to be a new creation, within the borders of the “garden” in which the creator God had settled them. As such, the expectation was that this chosen people would not act like “fallen” humanity: they would honour the Lord their God and they would walk in his ways, in trust and obedience. One of the functions of the Mosaic Law was to define what this vocation entailed, how it was to be acted out in normal social contexts, and how things were to be put right when they got broken. That would be difficult enough, but matters are complicated further by the fact that this was not a new creation in comfortable isolation from the outside world. Israel is a scaled down new creation in the midst of other nations, which adds two further dynamics to its challenging existence, one basically positive, the other more ambiguous.

A priestly-prophetic people

First, it gives Israel a priestly-prophetic role in relation to its neighbours. When the Israelites first arrive at Mount Sinai after their flight from Egypt, Moses goes up on the mountain and is told by God to say to the house of Jacob: “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5–6). Israel as a nation—men and women, young and old, rich and poor—was to serve as a holy priesthood, qualified by its obedience to the Law, mediating between the nations and the one true living God.

Political conflict

Secondly, as a people that has solemnly agreed to devote itself to the living God, Israel inevitably comes into political conflict with the nations—first with the original inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, then with its immediate neighbours, especially the Philistines, and then with the mighty empires that arose in Mesopotamia and later in Europe. This is the narrative setting for the theme of kingdom in scripture—both in the Old Testament and in the New.

When the elders of Israel come to Samuel at Ramah and demanded a king, they say: “there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:19–20). They should, of course, have trusted God to do these things, but the point to stress here is simply that the task of a king consists in maintaining the internal integrity and the external security of the nation.

The tripartite shape of Israel’s existence

So this gives us the tripartite shape of the historical existence of the people of God: i) a new creation in microcosm in the midst of Godless nations, ii) chosen to be a priesthood to serve the interests of the one true living creator God, but iii) always struggling to preserve its integrity and security under pressure from the temptations and threats that the surrounding nations posed. We may label these three aspects of Israel’s identity and purpose: i) creational or cosmic, ii) religious or sacerdotal, and iii) political—or something along those lines. The categories are not easily separated from one another in the ancient world, where religion, politics, and a sense of place in the cosmos are closely interwoven. But they should not be confused: kingdom is not new creation, except sometimes metaphorically; nor does it constitute the mission of the people of God; the priestly-prophetic task is the mission.

As it turns out, the kingdom narrative comes to dominate the experience of Israel through to the first century, which is why Jesus will begin his mission with the proclamation that the kingdom of God is at hand.

Exile and return

The basic shape of the Old Testament story from this point onwards is well known. Israel becomes a reasonably secure and prosperous kingdom under David. Things then go downhill. After Solomon the new creation in microcosm is divided between Israel in the north and Judah in the south. In 722 BC the northern kingdom is invaded by the Assyrians and the people are exiled and dispersed. In 587 BC Judah is invaded by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed, and a large section of the population is deported to Babylon, leaving only the peasant classes to scratch out a living among the ruins.

The catastrophe is interpreted by the prophets as deserved punishment for Israel’s persistent failure to walk in the ways God, but the hope is also expressed that God will not completely give up on his people and will eventually forgive and restore them to the Land. The Persian king Cyrus takes control of the neo-Babylonian empire in 539 BC and permits the exiles to return and to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. The outcome, however, is far from satisfactory.

Oppression and revolt

Old Testament history ends with Daniel’s “prophetic” account of the violent attempt made, some 250 years later, by the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to stamp out orthodox Jewish practices and convert Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city. This is an obscure episode, but it marks the beginning of a new type of conflict with the pagan nations, this time on home soil. This is not a story of exile and return but of oppression and revolt. The incident accounts for Daniel’s vision of a figure “like a son of man” coming on the clouds of heaven and is, therefore, of considerable importance for understanding the New Testament story about Jesus.

The coming intervention of God

There are two important respects in which the political narrative shapes the argument about the kingdom of God in the New Testament. First, to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God is to say publicly to Israel that its God is about to intervene decisively to put things right, to rectify a bad situation—either to deal with a breakdown in the internal integrity of the people or to uphold their external security, or both. The outstanding example of such a “gospel” comes from Isaiah. The prophet is like a messenger who runs across the mountains to proclaim “good news” to the ruined city of Jerusalem: “Your God reigns.” He is about to act as Israel’s king to restore his people, and “all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (Is. 52:7-10).

The rule of God over the nations

Secondly, the experience of humiliation and exile at the hand of Godless empires gives rise to the conviction that God will not only deliver and restore his people; he will establish his own rule over the nations in the place of the worthless gods of Babylon or Greece, and he will establish his own king in the place of their arrogant rulers. “Arise, O God, judge the earth;” the psalmist says, “for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps. 82:8). God will give the nations to his king as his “heritage”, to rule with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:7-9). He will set his king at his right hand until his enemies have been subjugated (Ps. 110:1). When the Lord acts as king to save his people, the nations will recognise that he is the true God and every knee shall bow to him and every tongue shall swear allegiance (Is. 45:22-23). Or in Daniel’s apocalyptic language, the greatest and last of the beast-empires, with its blasphemous king, will be destroyed and the nations will serve instead the “one like a son of man”.

The empire of God

Out of the experience of exile and the drawn-out conflict with powerful pagan nations there emerges a complex and variegated vision of a glorious new future for Israel, which looks something like this if you bundle it all together and tie it with a bow:

  1. God will forgive his people and make a new covenant with them, a covenant written on their hearts by the Spirit of God.
  2. Jews in exile in Babylon or scattered across the region will be brought back to the Land.
  3. Jerusalem and the temple will be rebuilt following the devastation of God’s judgment.
  4. The nations will be so impressed by this act of “salvation” that they will participate in the work of restoration: they will lend assistance to the returning Jews, they will provide materials for the restoration of the city, they will give of their wealth and produce to enrich the city.
  5. The nations will no longer serve the gods of Babylon or Greece. They will worship the living God of Israel; some will serve in his temple; they will come to Jerusalem to learn his ways, to seek arbitration for their disputes.
  6. They will look to Israel as priests of God—a disciplined society qualified to teach and prophesy and mediate the presence of God in the world.
  7. The nations will no longer be ruled by the kings of Babylon or Greece but by the Davidic king whom God will set on his eternal throne in Jerusalem. The capital city and tower of the great empire builders will, in the end, by overthrown and replaced by the capital city and temple of the living God.
  8. What Daniel adds to this narrative is the thought that the rule of God over the nations will come about through the faithful suffering of the righteous.