Friday, 18 August 2006

Theology for beginners (4): Israel

Summary: The story of ancient Israel is a story of promise; this is the beginning of the gospel.

In order to tell the gospel, we begin not with Jesus himself but with the history of ancient Israel. The story of Israel begins with a decisive act of God: the Exodus. A Palestinian mountain god known as Yahweh liberates an oppressed tribal group from a life of forced labour in Egypt. Yahweh drives these fugitives forward into a promised future, into a new land where they can find their own home and their own identity.

From the very beginning, then, Israel exists as the people of Yahweh’s promise. Israel’s faith is, from the beginning, a faith that looks to the future on the basis of specific past events and promises. Yahweh has acted decisively for the liberation of Israel; Yahweh has made a covenant with Israel, and has opened Israel’s future with his promises. Thus Israel lives by Yahweh’s promise; she lives by expectation and hope.

When the people of ancient Israel want to understand their place in the world, they tell stories about the patriarchs who had lived before the foundation of Israel, and they narrate the ways in which these patriarchs, too, lived by God’s promise. A herdsman from Ur named Abram leaves his city and the god of his city, and sets out to migrate to a new land which a new god has promised him. Abram has not seen this land of promise, but he and the tribe that follows him live by hope and expectation. Stories like this reinforce the promise-character of Israel’s faith: right from the start – even before Israel existed! – God has been creating a future for Israel through promises. Here, then, lies the core of Israel’s hope.

Indeed, just as Israel has emerged from the life of nomadic tribes, so too there is always something distinctly nomadic about Israel’s history. Israel is never at rest for long. Her existence is always oriented towards the future; time and again she is forced to rely on Yahweh’s promises; time and again she is driven forward in expectation of a promised future. Throughout her history, Israel remains poised between the past and the future, waiting expectantly for some climactic event, some act of Yahweh which will fulfil every promise and bring Israel’s story to a close.

It is for just this reason that the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE is so shattering to Israel’s faith. In the experience of exile, it seems that Israel’s story has come to an end – not the end promised by Yahweh, but an end that contradicts Yahweh’s promise and thus contradicts faith itself. So the prophets interpret this exile as Yahweh’s judgment of his own people. And yet, even while pronouncing judgment on Israel, the prophets also speak in new ways of Yahweh’s unconditional mercy and favour: although Israel has been unfaithful to Yahweh and has not lived by his promise, still Yahweh remains unilaterally faithful to his own promises. In this way the prophets summon Israel back to faith in Yahweh, inviting her to lean forward into the future of Yahweh’s promise.

According to the Old Testament texts, many of the exiled Jews were able to return to their homeland by 538 BCE. But still there is no real fulfilment of promise, no final vindication of Israel, no real climax to Israel’s story. One of the strangest and most unsettling things about the Old Testament is exactly this anti-climactic aspect. Although Yahweh has made promises to Israel, and although Israel’s whole story has been defined by these promises, somehow Israel’s story finally leads – nowhere! At the end of her story, there is no fulfilment, no dawning of the promised future, no climax that can give meaning and structure to this story as a whole.

When we read the Old Testament, at the end of this long story we find only promise without fulfilment, suspense without a climax, hope without a future. But the drama of Israel’s history was to find its surprising final act in the first century CE.

Further reading

  • Albertz, Rainer. A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, Vol. 1 (London: SCM, 1994), pp. 23-66.
  • Berkhof, Hendrikus. Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 221-65.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973), pp. 13-31.
  • von Rad, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).
  • Rendtorff, Rolf. The Canonical Hebrew Bible (Leiden: Deo Press, 2005).
  • Zimmerli, Walther. Old Testament Theology in Outline (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1978).

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