Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

2 Dec 2019

Mission in the Old Testament: God’s Concern for the Nations (Part 2)

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In an earlier post I began to explore the notion of a “missionary mandate” for Israel in the Old Testament. In this and the next post I look at the background for this idea, namely, God’s concern for the nations in the OT. This post reflects the perspective of the Pentateuch, and in the next post I’ll consider the perspective of the Psalter and the prophet Isaiah.

Israel and the Nations in the Pentateuch

God’s concern for the nations begins and ends the storyline of Scripture.[1] The first eleven chapters of Genesis focus on the created order, including the origins and early history of mankind. God’s call of Abram in Genesis 12 is a direct response to God’s dealings with the nations in Genesis 11, including their dispersal in the wake of the Tower of Babel. Likewise the Bible ends with God’s purpose and concern for the salvation of people from every nation, tribe, language, and ethnicity (Rev 5:9; 14:6). God’s concern for the nations thus forms an inclusio or envelope structure framing the entire story of Scripture. We see this concern in seminal texts from the OT that supply a foundation for God’s movement toward the nations in the OT and later in the NT.[2]

Genesis 1:26–28; 3:15

God’s plan for the created order is bracketed by two creations. The Scriptures begin with the creation of the universe in Genesis 1–2 and conclude with the description of the more glorious new creation in Revelation 21–22. In its commencement and consummation God’s creation serves to manifest God’s glory. God displays his glory by his intention to extend his rule over all creation through his image bearers. Stylistic and linguistic features suggest that the narrative of Genesis 1–2 focuses on two primary dimensions of the image of God: (1) the vertical dimension, emphasizing relational properties, particularly here of mankind to God (fellowship, personality, worship, morality), and thus man’s priestly role; and (2) the horizontal dimension, emphasizing the functional properties (self-consciousness, self-determination, creativity, intelligence) and thus his kingly role. Mankind is the relational and representative priest-king, who both relates to God as priest and represents God as vice-regent. Man achieves this by serving as God’s agent to establish God’s authority over the universe. In the fall, however, mankind fails in this role. Sin mars God’s good creation and interrupts the divine intention to subdue the earth. Adam’s sin disorders the harmony of all human relationships, including the relationship with God, those with other human beings, and those with the creation itself.

Yahweh punishes sin by banishing Adam and Eve from the garden. Yet God also initiates reconciliation through his redemptive work, which enables man to reclaim his role as God’s representative. Yahweh raises up mediatorial figures to carry out his purposes for mankind after each judgment, prefigured first in the promised seed of Gen 3:15. This latter verse emphasizes several important concepts concerning God’s saving intention toward all peoples. Salvation comes through God’s initiative, as God brings a gracious response to man’s sin. Salvation provides hope for all humanity rather than simply one portion of humanity. Salvation comes through a mediator who is related materially and organically to humanity and yet who suffers in his ultimate triumph. These early verses lay the groundwork for mission by revealing that God’s purpose for creation is universal and focuses especially on his relationship to humanity. In view of the fall God will accomplish this purpose by providing reconciliation through a mediatory figure.

Genesis 12:1–3

The historical context from which Abram emerges is characterized by rebellion, chaos, and division. In response Yahweh selects an individual to serve as his mediator to begin the process of restoring order, harmony, and blessing to the world. Within the context, Gen 12:1–3 has a pivotal place. It introduces the subsequent patriarchal narratives and sets them in relation to God’s dealing with humanity in Genesis 1–11. Structurally and thematically the blessing of Abraham is tied to God’s purposes for the world. The covenant thus displays both particularism and universalism.

As to structure, Yahweh’s command to leave Ur precedes a series of four cohortatives which outline Yahweh’s intentions with respect to Abram: “I will make you into a great nation”; “I will bless you”; “I will make your name great”; and “I will bless those who bless you.” The final clause of v. 3 interrupts this chain: “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” The interpretation of this final verb is the crux of the passage. Although several interpretations have been offered for the meaning, the best sense is to understand the verb as passive due to the verbal stem and the context.[3] The passive signifies that the nations will be blessed through Abraham, emphasizing his agency as God’s chosen means of blessing the world. The focus of the context is on God’s prerogative and intention to bless, not on any capacity on the part of the nations to find blessing.

As to theme, Abram is blessed in stark terms. The word bless occurs five times in this unit, once for every time the word curse has occurred thus far in the Genesis narrative. This is the first or initial expression of the Abrahamic Covenant, restated and developed in Genesis 15 and 17. Yahweh promises Abram land, seed, and blessing. The final component ties directly to his original design for humanity and to his salvific and doxological purposes for the nations. The term bless harks back to God’s blessing on humanity in Gen 1:28, where Yahweh charges mankind as his image bearers to be fruitful and to multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Such a prominent role for the Abrahamic Covenant leads Christopher Wright to conclude that “the Abrahamic covenant is the fount and origin of biblical mission in its redemptive sense.”[4]

Exodus 19:4–6

In this passage Yahweh presents Israel with a special and solemn challenge. Their obedience to the Mosaic Law places them in a privileged position. Their role is to serve not only as a nation morally distinct from the surrounding peoples. Rather, their covenant obedience carries worldwide implications and constitutes them as God’s unique servant nation. They would serve as God’s special representative to reflect his character and to mediate his presence and glory to the surrounding nations.

Exodus 19 functions as a hinge between the exodus event and the giving of the Law on Sinai. The passage initiates Moses’ presentation of the Mosaic covenant. In the larger context Yahweh promises to be the unique God to his people, while they pledge to live as his covenanted people. Within the structure of the unit, the final clause of v. 3 (“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob”) functions in tandem with the final clause of v. 6 (“These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel”) to form an inclusio. This framing device focuses attention on Yahweh’s declared intention and ideal for Israel. As Wright summarizes, this section “defines the identity and agenda God has for Israel and sets both in the context of God’s own action and intention.”[5] Verses 5–6 are a conditional sentence featuring a protasis followed by a twofold apodosis. The condition (“if you obey my voice and keep my covenant”) functions distinctively from the unilateral and irrevocable Abrahamic Covenant, which Yahweh enacts sovereignly with Abraham. Here the condition pertains not to Israel’s status as elect nation, for that is grounded in the Abrahamic Covenant. Rather, the condition relates, as McClain summarizes, to Israel’s royal and mediatorial activity in her own land with respect to Yahweh and the nations.[6] Her favored position as the mediatorial kingdom entails both an assurance and an ideal. As an assurance, Israel enjoys favored nation status as she faithfully serves the Lord and thus fulfills her role as servant nation. As an ideal, these blessings come to fruition as part of her everlasting status as God’s chosen people on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant.

Three promises or expressions within the unit encapsulate Israel’s role as Yahweh’s favored servant nation. Israel will serve as (1) a special possession among all the nations; (2) a kingdom of priests; and (3) a holy nation. Yahweh first promises that if Israel obeys she will be his “treasured possession among all peoples” (v. 5b). The term meaning “treasured possession” is usually rendered “valued property,” “personal possession,” or “treasure,” (BDB, 688; HALOT, 742). The term is attested twice in Ugaritic, where it appears parallel to “servant” and expresses the relationship within suzerainty-vassal covenants whereby the vassal is identified as the exclusive property or valued possession of the god. The term thus emphasizes that Yahweh has proprietary rights over the devoted and undivided service of his vassal. Israel thus occupies a privileged position as the particular nation whom God commissions to be his special and faithful representative toward the nations of the earth. Second, Yahweh promises that Israel will be a kingdom of priests. This latter phrase has occasioned much debate.[7] While at least four options have been suggested for the meaning of the phrase, the most likely sense is an attributive genitive phrase: “kingdom of priests” or “priestly kingdom.” This designation is the most common use and meaning of the construct-genitive. It is also most consistent with the meaning of the first Hebrew term, which everywhere denotes “kingdom” rather than “king,” and corresponds better with the parallel phrase, “holy nation.” The focus would be Israel’s status as the realm of God’s theocratic reign and her function in a mediatorial or priestly capacity with respect to the other nations. Third, Yahweh promises that Israel will function as “a holy nation.” The emphasis here is on Israel’s role as an ethical model for the nations, reflecting God’s own character. Israel is to be the paradigm of theocratic rule that radiates the glory of God and attracts the nations to proper worship.

Having surveyed the theme of God’s concern for the nations in the Pentateuch, I’ll continue next time by surveying this motif in the Psalter and in the book of Isaiah.

[1] Charles H. H. Scobie, “Israel and the Nations: An Essay in Biblical Theology,” TynBull 43 (1992): 285.

[2] I am indebted to the following studies: Michael A. Grisanti, “The Missing Mandate: Missions in the Old Testament,” in Missions in a New Millennium: Change and Challenges in World Missions, ed. W. Edward Glenny and William H. Smallman, 43–68 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2000), 44–57; Craig Ott and Stephen J. Strauss, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 6–21.

[3] This is the most common usage of the Niphal and makes the best sense in the context (Waltke and O’Connor, p. 395).

[4] Wright, “Old Testament and Christian Mission,” 39.

[5] Ibid., 40.

[6] Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, 62–63.

[7] See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Exodus,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 2:417.