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).

11 Comments:

twoemptyhands.blogspot.com said...

Long time reader, first time writer. Ha ha ha...

Might I add to the reading list Gerhard Lohfink, Does God Need the Church.

Also, this has been most insightful so far. Thank you.

Apolonio said...

What happened to Adam and Eve? Israel has always seen herself beginning with Adam and Eve. The Church Fathers emphasized that the Word became man because Adam sinned.

And also, St. Paul seem to be making the argument that Christ is not the new Abraham but the new Adam. Christ came to liberate Israel and the whole cosmos. And this is because Israel has never seen itself separated from creation, only separated from idolatrists. Israel saw herself as part of creation. Hence, her psalms speaks of cosmic praises to her Creator. Israel worshipped Yahweh because Yahweh was at the beginning, is the Creator of the world.

David Shedden said...

Why the new topic, and the dramatic change of emphasis compared to the original 4th post, Jesus: Resurrection? As he writes his dogmatic outline, is Myers morphing into a biblical theologian? Truly, God works in mysterious ways...

Ben Myers said...

Hi David: Yes, the outline has been evolving as I've started writing the posts and as I've thought about people's suggestions. When I wrote the original outline, a few people protested about the absence of Israel -- and I thought they were absolutely right, so I included this post.

Anyway, the section on "Jesus" now has four posts: Israel; Jesus; Crucifixion; Resurrection.

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...

Ben,

Loved this post! You might include Walter Erichrodt's two volumes on covenant.

joshua said...

Given the emphasis on promise, I was surprised you did not include Moltmann's Theology of Hope.

kim fabricius said...

Good point, Apolonio.

Interestingly, it's a point that Ray Anderson also makes in An Emergent Theology for Emerging Churches (2006). Indeed it is crucial to Anderson's take on the Christology of emerging churches - the paradigm is Antioch - and specifically Paul's Adamic/Abrahamic Christology: "not that the Christ of Pentecost was a post-Moses Jew but that he was a pre-Moses Gentile", and "not only the seed of Abraham that precedes the Jew-Gentile religious and cultural divide within humanity, but . . .[also] the 'second Adam'" (p. 54).

Also, an addition to the bibliography: surely Walter Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament (1997).

revabi said...

Ben, I just wanted you to know I am posting links, and a brief summary over at my blog http://vicarofwadley.blogspot.com/.
Again thanks for doing this.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for these comments and suggestions.

I agree, Apolonio, that the theme of creation is important -- and if I had room in this post for one more paragraph, I would have liked to have included something about this!

Still, it's important to remember that the theme of creation is not foundational to Israel's faith; instead, it's a derivative theme that emerges from Israel's exodus-experience and from her developing awareness that Yahweh is the God of all the earth, not merely one god alongside others. Or to put it another way, the stories in Genesis 1-11 are not the basis of Israel's faith, but they are important precisely because of the way they derive from the core of Israel's faith.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I've just reread this post; in particular, the heartbreaking analysis of the anti-climactic end of Old Testament history.

It's even more disturbing when you factor in the Holocaust 2 millenia later. Truly Yahweh's ways are inscrutable.

eze said...

"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 fulfill every promise and bring Israel’s story to a close."

What a wonderful portrayal of what life in relationship with Yahweh looks like: never at rest, yet forced to rely solely on Yahweh's promises--poised between the past and the future, waiting expectantly. Your description of Israel would add a fullness to any discussion of sanctification.

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