2.4 – A Light to the Nations
If, as Brueggemann has argued, the call of God to Abraham is the point in the narrative where God begins to call out an alternative community, attention must now be turned from the call to Abraham specifically to the call to Israel as a whole. For if, as is being argued, the call to discipleship involves both a shift from old ways to new and engagement within the present realities of the world according to the loving and redemptive purposes of God for that which he has created, then one cannot but look at the formation of Israel as the peculiar people of God and see those essential characteristics of biblical discipleship.
Israel, the people brought forth through the faithfulness of God’s promise to Abraham, is, as a communal entity, called into existence “because of the sovereign free action of Yahweh”; it is an act of grace and generosity to a people in bondage, slaves in Egypt without hope nor future. Having fallen prey to and been absorbed by the power of Egypt, God, in his infinite mercy and love, had lifted this people out of one situation and into a new one with the intention of demonstrating his loving and redemptive nature to the world. As Camp puts it, “God intends to bring about his purposes for human history – to provide a light to the nations – through the paltry little federation of tribal groups called Israel.” Or in the words of American pastor Rob Bell, “Israel is God’s firstborn. And through Israel, God’s intention is to show the world what God is like. God wants to redeem all of humanity through the firstborn son, Israel.” It is the renewal of a partnership with humankind as initiated at the point of creation and reiterated in the call of Abraham, and now characterized by the setting apart of a rescued people marked by the expectations and obligations of the one who rescues and calls.
For, as Brueggemann argues, “this relationship, marked by awe and gratitude for its inexplicable generosity, brings with it the expectations and requirements of the sovereign who initiates it.” Central to this are the commands to love God and to do justice. First and foremost, then, “the obligation of Israel to Yahweh is to love Yahweh.” In Deuteronomy 6:5, God speaks a word to Israel that emphasizes this intended response when he says: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This intended response is not to be seen as a burden, nor is it meant to be some sort of passive emotion, but rather an active living out of “Israel’s true character and identity, for Israel lives by and for and from Yahweh’s freedom and passion.” This entails an intended relationship that is to be characterized by the imperative command to remember “the ‘way of the Lord’, for by that remembering (Israel) in fact imitates God.” For Israel, therefore, “to love God meant to learn to love as God loved and loves.” In the same way that God had demonstrated his love by calling Israel out from a life of slavery under an oppressive political power and offering them the promise of new life, Israel was now called to embody that kind of love to the world around them. The implications of this become more clearly articulated at Mount Sinai, where God speaks a fresh word to his people and delivers a renewed call for trusting obedience and loyalty from them.
In Exodus 19, having heard the story of God’s work in delivering Israel from slavery, we read and account of a word that God spoke to Moses, as he said: “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). The designation of ‘priest’ is important, especially in light of their recent deliverance from Egypt. As Peterson explains, “Priest was a privileged and highly influential position in the culture from which they had just been rescued, a far cry from anything that could ever have imagined for themselves. And now they were all priests!” Looking to their future, John Durham explains that Israel as a kingdom of priests was to be “Israel committed to the extension throughout the world of the ministry of Yahweh’s presence”; they were to be “a kingdom run not by politicians depending upon strength and connivance but by priests depending on faith in Yahweh, a servant nation instead of a ruling nation.” And as a holy nation, “they are to be set apart, different from all other people by what they are and are becoming – a display-people, a showcase to the world of how being in covenant with Yahweh changes a people.” Central to God’s formation of Israel, therefore, is a sense that they would be a people set apart for the purpose of being an extension of the loving and redemptive purposes of God in the world. They were not to be absorbed by the dominant powers around them, but rather to live by faith in the God who called them to adhere to a word that he had spoken specifically to them.
Whereas the tendency might be to continue on in the story and read what follows as a host of rules and regulations that Israel must keep in order to be the kind of people that God has called them to be, in reality the call of God to Israel is, like that to Abraham, ‘dangerously open-ended.’ For implicit in Durham’s description of Israel as a holy nation is the notion that to be the people of God meant to be devoted to a Way – they were to engage in an ongoing process of hearing, learning and becoming the kind of people who, again, ‘show the world who this God is and what this God is like.’ This, then, is the purpose of the Ten Commandments; they are “vital truths about what it means to live in authentic human community”; they were fresh words spoken by God to his newly formed people, an invitation to restore the divine-human conversation and to teach them what it meant to embody an alternative mode of living in the world.
The speaking of these fresh words to Israel is undoubtedly to be understood within the context of Israel’s exodus from Egypt – a dominant power that had absorbed Abraham’s promised line for years. And thus, the first of these fresh words spoken to Israel is that they would have no other gods but Yahweh; it is a claim of loyalty from Israel to God alone. This first command, according to Durham, is “the essential foundation for the building of the covenant community.” God, having delivered Israel from the oppressive power of Egypt, and having led them now to Sinai, had now “opened himself up to a special relationship with Israel, but that relationship could only develop if Israel committed themselves to Yahweh alone.” For Brueggemann, this first word assumes a world “in which there were other possible objects of loyalty”; in response to it, Israel is to “bring every aspect of its life under the direct rule of Yahweh.” They are to be reminded that “the God who commands is the God who delivers”, that the God who is now demanding their loyalty is, through them, “establishing a society that practices Yahweh’s justice instead of pharaoh’s injustice, and to establish neighborly well-being instead of coercion, fear and exploitation.” It is a call, therefore, to remember their history and the grand part that God has played in it, lest they be reabsorbed into another story; and, it is a call to embody the redemptive nature of the God who rescued them through a loving concern for their neighbors.
The second word – the forbiddance of the forming and worshipping of idols – speaks to that intended embodiment. As Bell helpfully explains it, in the ancient Near East, people would form “statues and carvings and idols as physical representations of the divine beings they believed controlled their fate. A statue or carving gives shape and size and depth to the divine.” However, to go back to Exodus 19, we see that God has already called them to be a holy nation, a people through whom the world would see and know God. Therefore, “this God doesn’t need images in the form of wood or stone or marble, because this God has a people.” As God had shown his loving care for the people of Israel by rescuing them from Egypt and offering new life, they now were called to share that love to their neighbors through the embodiment of that saving love.
This, then, is the basis for the second characteristic of God’s call to Israel, the imperative to do justice, to be obedient to God through active engagement in the present realities of the world in accordance with God’s loving and redemptive purposes for it. In other words, Israel is a “theological phenomenon that has a concrete sociopolitical embodiment and is expected to live differently in a world of power.” On a fundamental level, Israel is a “community put in the world for the sake of justice.” To walk in ‘the Way’ of God is to practice justice; and in reading the Old Testament account of God’s call to Israel, “it is clear that Israel’s most characteristic and theologically intentional practice is to attend to the needs of those too weak to protect themselves (namely the widow, the orphan and the resident alien).” This practice was meant to shape how Israel lived in the world, more specifically in relation to wealth, power and social resources, which were to be understood “not in privatistic or acquisitive ways, but as common resources that are to be managed and deployed for the enhancement of the community by the enhancement of its weakest and most disadvantaged members.” This communal orientation toward the other rests at the heart of God’s call – it is “intrusive in and critical of a life of self-protection, self-sufficiency and self-indulgence.” But it is a call designed to remind them that they had been created, called out and rescued by a loving God, and, accordingly, to be witnesses to that saving love to those in need.
What was needed, then, were “people who embodied in their lives and work the vocation of Israel to ‘walk’ in the ‘way’ of the Lord.” Therefore, as Brueggemann asserts, not only did Israel have, “as part of its vocation and destiny a role in the well-being of the world”, but that which was most characteristic and most distinctive about God’s call to Israel was “the remarkable equation of love of God with love of neighbour.” It is this theme that permeates through the remaining words spoken by God at Sinai. For Brueggemann, “the premise of the entire Sinai experiment is that socioeconomic, political relationships are radically different because of this generous alternative who presides over the materiality of the world.” Hans Urs von Balthasar qualifies the Commandments in this way: they are “made to range over many aspects of human nature and human existence”, and are to act as “the means whereby it is made possible for men to be led into freedom from their bondage to the powers of this world.” These words outlined for Israel an alternative way of living in the world that not only afforded them the freedom to live solely for God, but also with the imperative that the new life given to them was to be shared in meaningful ways. Therefore:
The Torah of Moses develops what is nearly a mantra of social revolution, ‘widow, orphan, alien’, the marginated and vulnerable, now valued, noticed, protected, entitled. Outside of this stringent costly provision, there is nothing but Pharaoh, nothing but anxiety, scarcity and eventually fresh waves of bondage.
Israel was to understand that inherent in these Sinai words was a call to return to a posture of trusting and worshipping obedience before the one who speaks to and loves his people and his world. As he had loved, rescued and cared for them, so they too are to love and care for their neighbors; this is the nature of discipleship as introduced in the Old Testament.
In any discussion on the topic of discipleship, the tendency is to focus primarily on the New Testament. However, as Hauerwas points out, “Jesus’ activity as presented in the Gospels makes no sense without assuming what Israel had long known, that any story worth telling about the way things are requires an account of God’s activity as the necessary framework for that story.” From the beginning of creation, God has been speaking to and calling out humankind to adhere to the word that he has spoken and continues to speak. Even as humankind chooses to adhere to another word, “God does not end his conversation with his alienated creation.” For God would indeed continue to speak, calling Abraham and his promised descendents out of old ways of living so that they might show the world what God is like; they were to be deeply engaged in the present realities of the world, acting justly on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed as God had acted on their behalf in the past, and they were called to embody an alternative way of living lest they be absorbed anew into the social, political and cultural powers of the nations around them.
While Israel’s response to this call is less than exemplary, as seen again and again throughout the Old Testament, the nature of the call itself never dissipates, nor does the divine-human conversation end; for “as the story of humanity unfolds, the Creator maintains his relationship to his rebellious creatures by restoring the conversation time and again.” Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the person of Jesus Christ who arrives on the scene to fully and finally re-establish the divine-human conversation; through him, the call to and mission of discipleship is expressed most clearly.