God’s Gifts to Israel

July 11, 2019

The most gut-wrenching expression of Paul’s love for his own nation Israel is found in Romans 9:1-5. Israel, though gifted by God with wondrous privileges, had rejected God’s Messiah. Paul was heartbroken as he listed the gifts in an overflow of praise for God’s grace toward Israel. He names six gifts.

The first is adoption. God adopted Israel and gave them an inheritance, a double inheritance because Israel is God’s firstborn among the nations.

The second gift is the divine glory. The Shekinah glory settled on the tabernacle and the temple. God gave that redemptive presence to Israel in a unique way unlike how God related to other nations. God came to rest within Israel and walk among them.

The third gift are the covenants. God entered into a succession of covenants with Israel. Beginning with the Abrahamic promise, God then initiated a covenantal relationship with Israel through the Mosaic covenant. God mediated his grace and mercy through the priestly Levitical covenant and assured Israel of their perpetuity through the Davidic covenant. The covenants meant that God was committed to Israel and enjoyed communion with them.

The fourth gift is the Torah. God gave the Torah to Israel as a gracious gift. It was not primarily a legal code but guidance for how to become the image of God in the world as a nation. The Torah guides Israel as they walk with God in the land of promise.

The fifth gift is temple worship. The temple (or literally, the liturgical service), with all the festivals and rituals connected to it, was God’s gracious invitation to enjoy communion through songs, prayer, atoning sacrifices, and eating the sacrifices in communal meals. The temple was God’s gracious but holy presence among the people. It was the place where Israel came before the face of God as an assembly of praise.

The sixth gift are the promises. God promised Abraham a great nation, a land, and that he would bless the nations. God promised David that his descendants would sit on Israel’s throne forever. God promised restoration to an exiled Israel. God promised a new heaven and a new earth, which is yet to come.

The Messiah, who comes from Abrahamic ancestry, is the one through whom the nations will also receive these gifts. These gifts now belong to the nations, to everyone who trusts in the Messiah. Through Abraham’s Messianic seed, we may all become children of Abraham by faith in Jesus because of the Messiah’s faithfulness.

We, too, are adopted into the family of God. We, too, experience the divine glory as the Holy Spirit dwells in us. We, too, participate in the covenants as both Abraham’s children and subjects of the son of David. We, too, receive the Torah as Scripture that guides us. We, too, assemble before God to praise and serve the God of Israel as a gathered people. We, too, are heirs of the promises of God to Israel. We, through the faithfulness of the Messiah, have been grafted into the Israel’s tree, and these gifts, praise God, now belong also to all who confess Jesus is Lord.

God’s Torah: A Path to Life

July 8, 2019

Psalm 19 identifies two forms of divine speech. One is non-verbal, natural, and experienced through the natural wonder present in God’s creation. The other is verbal.

God has spoken in history and entered into covenant with Israel. That story is in the Torah. Those words are read in the assembly of God’s people. Israel had been given the “oracles of God,” and this comes, most fundamentally, in the form of Torah.

“Torah” heads the praise of this divine speech in Psalm 19. It is the controlling metaphor for the other descriptions:  decrees, precepts, and commandments. Those terms are couched in the framework of Torah, and Torah is not primarily a legal code but a story that guides Israel as it walks with God. Torah is instruction and guidance through narrative rather than primarily specific case-law or isolated commands.

Embedded within the Torah are guidelines, directions, and formative practices that transform people into the image of God. As the Psalmist declares, the Torah:

  • restores the soul as it renews life.
  • makes the simple wise as it guides the inexperienced and immature.
  • gives joy to the heart as it frees us from the anxiety and burdens of life.
  • enlightens the eyes as it illuminates what human flourishing really is.

The Torah provides a path for healthy, joyful, and wise living.

The phrase “making the simple wise” is particularly significant. This is the language of Proverbs 1:1-7. There are two paths in life–the foolish one and the wise one.  But the “simple” are often too inexperienced to discern the difference. The Hebrew term “simple” does not refer to a mental deficiency, but to a lack of life experience. The “simple” are easily deceived, driven by their desires, and act on impulse rather than careful reflection. They react rather than respond to situations. Due to a lack of experience, their discernment is impaired or underdeveloped.

The Torah serves as a wise sage to help the “simple” discern good from evil, make choices, and understand the consequences of the different paths life can take. In other words, the Torah–God’s guidance–is for their own good and for the good of the community in which they live. It is not an oppressive legal chain around the neck, but divine wisdom spoken for the sake of human health and well-being.

As a result, the wise response is submission, or, in the language of wisdom, it is to fear (awe, trust, or revere) the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and this humble submission and reverent respect for God calls us to embody the Torah’s wisdom in our own lives.

It is little wonder, then, that the Psalmist regards God’s speech as more valuable than gold or silver and sweeter than honey.  This speech is about life, authentic life. A discerning, wise life has better consequences than hoarding gold or silver, and it is much sweeter than the momentary taste of honey.

God Dwells With Israel

July 4, 2019

Mount Sinai must have been an impressive, even startling, sight. Enveloped in darkness with flashes of lightning, Israel heard the thunder and even, on one occasion, the voice of God. They felt the rumblings of God’s presence in tremors that rippled through the earth’s crust. This was God’s holy mountain. God descended upon it, and the glory of the Lord appeared as a consuming fire.

We might imagine that this would have been the end of Israel’s journey. They had arrived at the holy mountain, the place where God lives. But it would, in fact, become the beginning of Israel’s real journey, the journey through the wilderness to the promised land carrying the presence of God among them.

At Sinai, Israel waited. They waited forty days for Moses, and when Moses returned, their waiting continued. Their waiting, however, was no passive resignation. God gave Israel a task, and they prepared for the moment when God would come to dwell among them. They built a tabernacle, a portable sanctuary. Its portability was a hopeful sign because God would go with them on the journey through the wilderness. They built the tabernacle, they waited, and they prepared for they could not even imagine.

This was Israel’s Advent season. They were waiting for something and perhaps they were not even sure what it was. They prepared a sanctuary, a worship center. They prepared themselves as they listened to Moses and obeyed his every instruction. They consecrated themselves to the service of God. They did everything they were commanded. They set up the tabernacle and finished the work.

Then it happened. The Lord drew near. The glory of God, the redemptive and personal presence of the Lord, filled the tabernacle. A cloud hovered over the tent while the consuming fire of God’s presence filled the sanctuary. God now dwelt within Israel’s camp. In a sense God moved from the mountain to the tent. God moved from a permanent fixture to a portable one. The holy presence of the burning bush was now within a portable tent. God, too, was going on a journey, a journey with Israel.

Their wait was over. Advent had arrived. A new journey was beginning, but God, the consuming fire present in the cloud, would lead them and guide them. God would bring them to the promised land, and God’s presence was their assurance and their strength.

Later, Israel will know this presence in a more permanent way through the temple, upon which God’s glory would once again descend just as it had upon the tabernacle.

God filled the tabernacle, and then God filled the temple, just as God had, in the beginning, filled Eden and dwelt in the cosmic temple. This is the gift of divine presence; it is the gift of grace, mercy, and communion.  Just as God rested on the seventh day within the creation, so now God rested within Israel’s tabernacle and temple.  It is yet another move toward God’s goal for the whole of creation, which is to include all peoples within the orbit of God’s love and for God to dwell among them.

Israel as a Royal Priest Among the Nations

July 1, 2019

Between their exodus from Egyptian slavery and their entrance into the new Eden, the land of promise, Israel encountered God at Mount Sinai. At God’s holy mountain, God commissioned Israel as a royal priest among the nations.

At Sinai, God announced the good news of divine grace and entrusted Israel with a vocation. The good news is that God carried Israel on eagles’ wings from Egypt to Sinai in order to begin a new relationship with them. God entered into covenant with them so that they would become God’s own possession. God would be their God, and they would be God’s people. God blessed Israel with God’s own presence and gave them status as God’s firstborn.

This status, however, came with responsibility.  When God created humanity as the image of God, humanity was invested with the responsibility to fill the earth with divine glory and care for it. In a similar way, when God created Israel, God entered into covenant with them, and called them “my children,” and God gave them a responsibility, a mission, a vocation.

Like humanity in the beginning, this mission arises out of their role as royal priests. Just as humanity—as the image of God—is a royal priest within the creation, so Israel is a royal priest among the nations. As royalty, they represent God in the world. They embody the values and life of God in their own community as God’s ambassadors. As priests, they mediate the presence and grace of God in the world. In their priestly role, Israel receives God’s blessing in order to bless the nations, and they invite the nations to hear the word of the Lord.

God wanted Israel to showcase wisdom and understanding, to display divine glory and righteousness. The Torah was a witness to the nations, and if Israel lived by its guidance, the nations would say, as Deuteronomy 4:6 anticipated, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” If Israel followed the Torah, they would embody wisdom, and they would show the nations how to live in peace, harmony, and justice. If Israel followed the Torah, Israel would flourish, and in their flourishing they would commend God’s wisdom to the nations.

The “Great Commission of the Hebrew Bible,” found in Isaiah 49:6, underscores Israel’s missional purpose:  they are a light for the nations and appointed to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. Israel was not simply a means by which God would send the Messiah but also a witness to the holy love of God among the nations.  

As the image of God in the world, Israel served the nations as a shining city on a hill, a light in the darkness. At times, they succeeded, and at other times, they did not, just like us.

Israel as New Humanity

June 27, 2019

God led the descendants of Abraham into Egypt where they were eventually enslaved. Pharaoh oppressed them and killed Hebrew babies in order to suppress their numbers. Israel found itself living in the moral chaos of Egypt’s imperial power. But God heard their cry and sent Moses to lead Israel out of their slavery into freedom, to lead them from chaos to new life.

The Exodus, the liberation of Israel from Egypt, is the creation of Israel. From the moral and oppressive chaos of Egyptian slavery, God created a new people, a new nation. God gave humanity a new start. God gave birth to Israel, a people through whom God would display God’s glory and call the nations into communion with God’s own life.

God liberated Israel from slavery through God’s creative power. The story of the crossing of the Red Sea is filled with creation language. From the chaos of the waters, God defeated the imperial powers arrayed against Israel, baptized a new people into Moses, and brought them safely through the waters into a new land. The Exodus birthed a new people.

Israel, as the firstborn among the nations, was created to serve as the renewed image of God in the world. In this sense, they were a new humanity. God rebooted the divine intent to fill the earth with the glory of God by forming a people who would embody God’s values and live in covenant relationship with God.

Israel was God’s remnant among the nations. “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth,” God said in Amos 3:2. While the prospects for humanity looked bleak in the early chapters of Genesis, God elected Israel as a nation among the peoples of the earth to reveal God’s identity.

Designed as the renewed image of God in the world, Israel was supposed to become what God envisioned for humanity from the beginning. Just as humanity was originally placed in the Garden of Eden, so God placed Israel in a new Eden in the land God promised Abraham.

The land, flowing with milk and honey, was created out of the moral chaos of Canaan and given to Israel as the place where they could flourish in peace and safety. The rains would water the crops, and they would enjoy the fruit of the harvest. The wild animals would not harm anyone in the land, and the security of the land rested in God’s presence. The promised land was a new Eden for a new humanity, and God graciously lived with Israel and walked among them as their God and they as God’s people, just as God did in Eden. Israel no longer lived east of Eden; they lived in Eden. As a new nation in a new land, God gave them the Torah to guide them in their new life with God. Yet, instead of leaning into God’s wisdom, they chose to follow the ways of the nations, and they repeated the folly of Adam and Eve with corresponding results. They, too, were exiled from the Garden and ended up, once again, living East of Eden with the rest of us.