The Gospel of Israel, part 2 (Moses, the Torah and the Mission of Israel)

The Sinai Covenant
Generations later the descendants that God had promised to Abraham – the Israelites – were living as slaves in Egypt. In fulfilment of his covenant promises to Abraham God raised up a man named Moses who would lead them out of slavery and into their Promised Land in Canaan.

Moses led the children of Israel to Mount Sinai where Yhwh – the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – met them and gave them the covenant Law (Ex 19ff). Israel was to be Yhwh’s people, his treasured possession, and Yhwh was to be their god.
In grace and covenant faithfulness he had rescued them from Egypt, so they were to reciprocate by joyfully obeying his Law (Ex 20 noting the shift from v. 2 to v. 3). If Israel kept the covenant Law then they would be blessed in the Promised Land but if they failed to observe that Law then they would be cursed in the land and eventually cast out from it (Lev 26; Deut 28).
Important point 1: The Law of Moses was not intended as a means of earning salvation but as a grateful response to a salvation from Egypt already received. As Mike Bird (I wish I had that surname!) puts it "the Law was given to a redeemed people and not to redeem the people."
Important point 2: The blessings and the curses of the covenant were experienced within their covenant relationship with Yhwh. Israel’s sin would indeed bring dreadful punishments but could never annul that covenant relationship (see, for instance, Deut 30:1-10). So it was that over and over again God restored Israel after he had punished them. Even when the prophetic rhetoric made it sound like the end had come for the nation, the subsequent word of renewal was always God's final word.
It seems to me to be critical to appreciate the way in which the curses functioned within the covenant because in much traditional Christian theology Israel's sin in rejecting her Messiah led to God abandoning Israel and turning to the Church instead (based on a misinterpretation of Matt 21:43).

To labour the point a little: Israel’s rejection of Yhwh brings punishment but this occurs within the relationship and does not signify its termination. Israel was God’s chosen people, his treasured possession, his holy nation, his royal priesthood. No matter what Israel did her place in God’s heart was unshakable and her calling was irrevocable (Rom 11:28-29).

Israel’s Mission
Israel had always been intended by Yhwh to be the means by which he would bless the nations (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Ex 19:6; Jer 4:1-2; Isa 2:1-5). Israel was not elect simply for its own sake but for the sake of the world. God’s people were to live in obedience to God’s good laws and thereby demonstrate to the nations God’s good wisdom (Deut 4:6-8; 28:9-10). They were to be Yhwh’s witnesses to the Gentiles with the ultimate intention of drawing them to forsake their idols and worship the one true God with Israel (here I am thinking primarily of Isaiah 40-55). However, God’s people miserably failed in this mission and were often ‘enslaved’ by the very idolatry that imprisoned the nations (Isa 42:16-25; 46:8-13; 48).

How could Israel be saved from its sin so that it could fulfil its mission to the world?

Comments

Kyle said…
Thanks for this series Robin. I'm currently reading Kostenberger's and P.T. O'Brien's biblical theology of mission. It concurs with much of what you are writing here, have you read it?
Rafael said…
Robin,

Your Important point 2 is dead on and well worth expanding (as you do here). Ezekiel 16 is a striking (and vivid, not for the prudish!) example of exactly this point: Israel plays the whore and is cursed by God, but the chapter ends with a promise of restoration, and of course the whole book ends with a vision of a new Temple precisely for God's whorish people. These same dynamics, it seems to me, apply to the Church as well.

Also, regarding your point that, "Israel was not elect simply for its own sake but for the sake of the world. God’s people were to live in obedience to God’s good laws and thereby demonstrate to the nations God’s good wisdom (Deut 4:6-8; 28:9-10)," I think Luke portrays Peter as coming to this very realization in Acts 10, esp. vv. 34–35.
Teresita said…
In fulfilment of his covenant promises to Abraham God raised up a man named Moses who would lead them out of slavery and into their Promised Land in Canaan....If Israel kept the covenant Law then they would be blessed in the Promised Land but if they failed to observe that Law then they would be cursed in the land and eventually cast out from it.

So the initial rescue of the Hebrews from slavery was the free gift of God, but it was a gift that had to be maintained by observing a code of behavior. If the code was not observed, the penalty was a reversal of the promise and a return to slavery, not under Egypt but the nations which followed in their place (Assyria, Babylon, Rome, Germany).

Important point 1: The Law of Moses was not intended as a means of earning salvation but as a grateful response to a salvation from Egypt already received.

Unfortunately you equivocate on the word "salvation" by retrojecting the soteriology of Reformation Christianity back onto the original context, which was either national freedom from occupation, or personal freedom from physical enemies (as in the Psalms).

Israel’s sin would indeed bring dreadful punishments but could never annul that covenant relationship.

Large portions of Israel could refuse to hold up their end of the covenant and be destroyed. But ever the covenant continued between God and a remnant of faithful.

...in much traditional Christian theology Israel's sin in rejecting her Messiah led to God abandoning Israel and turning to the Church instead (based on a misinterpretation of Matt 21:43).

Not "instead". Christ came not to abrogate the law but to fulfill it. The Church is the anti-type, the fulfillment of Israel, the full flowering of the type of the elect which Israel represented solely prior to Calvary/Pentecost.

To labour the point a little: Israel’s rejection of Yhwh brings punishment but this occurs within the relationship and does not signify its termination.

In the Old Testament there was an attempt to create a tight one-for-one relationship between sin and death, righteousness and life. Unfortunately, this rarely panned out. The wicked often flourished, became rich and lived long, healthy, productive lives. The poor often fell sick and were cut short from the blessings of life. This flawed theodicy was applied on the national scale regarding Israel. When the nation failed in battle with the Canaanites or were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and Greeks, prophets arose to offer an explanation in terms of a failure to correctly observe the Law. Jeremiah even said the Jews were exiled to allow the land to observe the sabbaths for 70 years to make up for their collective failure to keep the sabbaths. When you get out to the Shoah of the 1930's and 40s, the Holocaust, with six million Jews slain, the people begin to wonder if Yahweh is a little bit too focused on how his sabbaths are observed.
Robin Parry said…
Kyle

I have not but both are excellent biblical scholars. Actually I did read an O'Brien book on mission some years ago (is it the one you had in mind?) - as I recall it was very good indeed.

Robin
Robin Parry said…
Rafael

Thanks.

Ezekiel 16 indeed (BTW - there is a very good article in the latest Tyndale Bulletin on Ezekiel 16 and feminist critique) and a mass of other texts. The theme seems to pop up all over the place in the prophets.

I had not noticed that point in Acts 10 before. Thx

Robin
Robin Parry said…
Teresita

Yet again your comments are very probing!
I am not quite clear how to think about all these matters. I think that your summary in your first non-bold para is fair comment. There is a lot of debate in NT studies on Second Temple Jewish view on the role of the Law and I confess that I am not up on all that. I think that I would make the distinction between Israel 'getting in' the covenant (which does not require works of the law) and 'maintaining the covenant relationship' which does. I think that your summary could fairly describe that.

But my point is that God knew that Israel would not kep his statutes but he refused to renage on his covenant-fidelity to them. The nation could not extricate itself from the covenant.

I am deliberately ambiguous about the word salvation to allow it to cover the political, communal salvation from slavery in Egypt and later Christian extensions of the word in more eschatological directions. The exodus deliverance served as a model that was mediated (in part via Isaiah 40-55's second exodus motif) into NT theology. But that's OK right?

You are correct about the fact that individual Israelites could be destroyed in a way that the nation could not. The OT is concerned with individuals but it was much more collectively conscious than we tend to be. God's fidelity to the nation was the crucial factor.

On the church-as-Israel see a later post. I think that there is truth in what you say although I think I would wish to hedge it in with all sorts of qualifications.

The issue of the theodicy that you talk of is a very tricky one. Clearly it is too simplistic and when one considers the whole OT and then also the NT one simply cannot make any simple equation from 'we are suffering' to 'we have sinned'. The Bible provides its own critiques of that. However, the theodicy in question is one very central in biblical theology so I would want to find a place for it - I cannot simply reject it. But I confess to not yet having decided exactly what place that is.

Thanks for your intelligent and informed reflections

Robin
The Pook said…
Robin - a helpful summary. I agree broadly with what you say, though some of Teresita's qualifications need consideration.

Teresita - I agree with what you say about the church being the anti-type and fulfilment. The mistake of dispensationalism is to want to go back to the OT type, or what Hebrews calls the shadow.

...the original context ...was either national freedom from occupation, or personal freedom from physical enemies (as in the Psalms).

Whilst it's true that there is not a direct correlation between the 'type' - OT salvation which is national and earthly - and NT salvation which is cosmic and eternal, the NT does clearly imply that those individuals truly saved under the Old Covenant were saved retrospectively by the blood of Christ, and that "not all Israel were Israel," even back then. Even under the Old Covenant there was a difference between the church visible and the church invisible. Or is that retrojecting the Anglican theology of the BCP?

Unfortunately you equivocate on the word "salvation" by retrojecting the soteriology of Reformation Christianity back onto the original context, which was either national freedom from occupation, or personal freedom from physical enemies (as in the Psalms)."

Dumbrell would probably agree with you on this point Teresita - that keeping the Law of Moses, whilst not the means of national salvation, was the means of covenant maintenance - that is, of remaining as God's nation.

But perhaps the way forward here is to examine what the New Testament writers "retroject" onto Old Testament soteriological categories?

"So the initial rescue of the Hebrews from slavery was the free gift of God, but it was a gift that had to be maintained by observing a code of behavior. If the code was not observed, the penalty was a reversal of the promise and a return to slavery, not under Egypt but the nations which followed in their place (Assyria, Babylon, Rome, Germany).

True, but only in the context of the earthly promises, not the spiritual relationship between God and his people that is summarised in the eternal covenant formula of "I will be your God and you will be my people." Jeremiah, Daniel and Ezekiel made plain that the future of God's people lay not in those left in the Promised Land after Nebuchadnezzar's first and second deportations (for their ruin was coming in 587BC), but with the deportees in Babylon, and their removal from the Land would be not a terminus, not just a covenant curse, but a process of discipline by which God says they will be caused "to seek me with all their heart." God used the Exile partly to teach them the difference between the Shadow and the Reality, and to introduce the concept of a New Covenant, a covenant not of Law but of the Spirit. But perhaps I'm stealing Robin's thunder and getting ahead of ourselves there?
Chris Donato said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Donato said…
This post provides much fodder for debate. But I think it's spot on to suggest that the old Mosaic code was not some kind of recapitulation of a "covenant of works"; rather, it was given after God liberated his people from Egypt.

It was in no way intended to goad his people to "merit" their salvation. It was given solely to his old covenant people and promised long life in the land. As you state, it was part and parcel of Israel's mission. A seemingly small point, but it has huge ramifications for Christian theology.
James Pate said…
Hi Robin,

I think your post is a good summary of the Old Testament (although I agree with Teresita's caution that we shouldn't project Reformation soteriology into the Hebrew Bible). It's good in that it acknowledges that God disciplines Israel for her sins, even though he never forsakes her totally.

But I wonder if that's how Paul saw the Old Testament. For him, the old covenant was a ministry of death and condemnation (II Corinthians 3), not of life and salvation.
Robin Parry said…
James

I think that when Paul sees the old covenant as a ministry of death not because he has a problem with the Torah but because of human sinfulness. The Torah is holy, righteous and good. But the sinful Israel are not able to follow it and thus incur the penalties/curses. So the good Torah combined with 'the flesh' becomes an instrument of death. The solution for Paul is the Jeremaic new covenant which is marked by the giving of the Spirit. The Spirit of the new covenant enables obedience to God (as per the per the prophetic hopes). But the difference between OC and NC is not the presence or Torah in the former and its absence in the latter. Rather it is the presence of the Spirit in the latter. That is why Paul can say that believers 'uphold the Torah' which, when combined with the Spirit becomes 'the Torah of the Spirit of Life' (and 'the Torah of Christ') which sets us free from 'the Torah of sin and death'.

So you are right about the contrast but I think that the implications for Torah are not what you suspect.
James Pate said…
Hi Robin,

I agree with much of what you said in that last comment, for Paul says in Romans 8 that the flesh weakened the law, but now it's fulfilled in us who walk after the Spirit. My impression from your post, however, was that you were saying there was salvation under the Old Covenant. My problem with that is that Paul calls the OC a ministry of condemnation, for the reasons you just gave: our flesh influences us to sin. And I'll add another one: that the system the law set up to handle that sin didn't solve the problem.

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