Andrew Barrett's Thoughts

Election and Witness: A Biblical Theology of a Complicated Term

“And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12.2-3; italics added). Within this promise from God to Abram is the initiation of God’s redemptive purpose(s) for the cosmos. Genesis 3-11 – with the exception of the account of Cain and Abel (4.16) – illustrates the consequences of the Fall (3.1-19) on humanity as a whole, with humanity reaching the climax of their hubris in Genesis 11. Such corporate emphases causes Genesis 12 to seem disruptive. Why is it that God fixates on one man and his descendants? Has he given up on all peoples (i.e., the nations)? What of God’s promise to squash the head of the serpent (3.15)? Has he abandoned that promise? To the contrary, “through Abraham [God] will bring into being a nation, Israel…to bring redemptive blessing to the whole creation. God’s promise to Abraham is God’s answer to sin…God will restore his world.”[1] Election, canonically understood, is more vocational than it is soteriological. God’s chosen people are to be a blessing.

It is easy to mistake God’s covenant with Israel as exclusively exclusive. To be sure, there is an element of exclusivity. At Sinai, God calls Israel his “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exod 19.5). God does not stop there, however. He continues “for the whole earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19.6). While holiness implies otherness, the priesthood implies service. Indeed “election,” says Bartholomew and Goheen, “is not just for privilege: it is for service.”[2] As God’s special, holy nation, Israel is to minister to the nations around them. God may have called a particular people, but “he did not lose interest in the nations.”[3] It is God’s interest in gathering the nations to himself that he elects a covenant people, and one need not skip over the Old Testament to see how that is the case.[4] In the interest of brevity, a thorough OT theology of Israel and the nations must be forgone. Instead, attention will be paid – with the help of Christopher J. H. Wright – to two key passages: Jeremiah 13.1-11, which summarizes the centripetal nature of Israel’s vocation, and Psalm 47, which scandalously includes the nations within Israel’s very identity.

While Wright makes the important case for God’s sending people to act as agents of salvation or to deliver a message (e.g., Joseph, Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah),[5] the vast majority of his work suggests that Israel’s witness to (or “blessing of”) the nations was largely centripetal; it was to have an attractive effect on the surrounding cultures.[6] Few texts illustrate this idea better than Jeremiah 13.1-11. God tells Jeremiah to buy a belt and put it around his waist (Jer 13.1-2).[7] After Jeremiah has worn the belt for some time, God speaks again, telling him to go bury it in the soil by the Euphrates (13.4-5). After several months, God tells Jeremiah to go dig it up, and to little surprise the once decorative belt has become “spoiled…good for nothing” (13.7). What is the point?

“These evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this belt, which is good for nothing. For as the belt clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me”, declares the Lord, “that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.” (Jer 13.10-11)

The imagery here is shocking. God equates his covenant with Israel to a man binding a belt around himself. That is, “God wants to wear his people!”[8] God has chosen Israel in the same way a person might choose a particular article of clothing for a special occasion. The privilege is not so much for the clothing per sé, but for the wearer. As a three-piece suit is meant to attract admiration to the man wearing it, God’s people are meant to attract admiration to himself from the nations, be it through Torah obedience, worship, or social justice – all elements of God’s covenantal guidelines for his people.

What will be the status of those that are attracted to God from among the nations? There was once a time when African Americans and white people shared buses that all the while propagated racial segregation. They may have shared the bus, but it was obvious the passengers were not “equal.” Is that to be the case for the nations? Psalm 47 gives the surprising answer:

            The nobles of the nations gather

                        as the people of the God of Abraham

            for the kings of the earth belong to God;

                        he is greatly exalted. (Ps 47.9; Wright’s translation; italics added)

 Here the “nobles of the nations” and “the people of the God of Abraham” “are simply set in apposition, the one being identified with the other.”[9] The psalmist’s use of the title “the God of Abraham” is significant, as it places the universality of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 firmly in view. The nations, assembled together to exalt God, will not be second-class citizens. They will neither be behind nor beneath Israel, but will be counted as Israel, as part and parcel of the people of father Abraham. Psalm 87 is a helpful complement to Psalm 47, as there the psalmist uses imagery of a register of nations (87.6), in which even historical enemies of Israel (Egypt [Rahab] and Babylon) are listed as having been “born” in Zion.

It is unfortunate that  “election” is so often understood as a strictly soteriological category, because to emphasize election and/or covenant without giving attention to its vocational implications is, as John Stott puts it “a dangerous half-truth.”[10] The promises of God to Abraham and his descendants are always with a view to blessing all nations. In a world where human initiative had lead to total disaster (cf. Gen 3-11), “the promise of blessing is both the divine initiative…and a reaffirmation of the primal divine intentions for man.”[11] As this brief biblical survey has demonstrated, it is exegetically irresponsible to bypass the Old Testament in order to discover how God seeks to bless the nations. The Hebrew Bible envisions a world created and ruled by YHWH, who – in the interest of all humanity – elects Israel to be his royal priesthood, attracting the nations through their worship and covenantal commitment, and welcoming them as their fellow Israelites. Of course, Israel’s election represents a only partial fulfillment of God’s promises. Those promises find their absolute “Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 1.20). It is nonetheless the case, however, that God has long willed for a people that will be a blessing to the nations. That will – while brought to completion by the work of Jesus Christ and the provision of the Holy Spirit – began with a promise made to an elderly man from Ur. A promise for which the nations are eternally grateful.


 

[1] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 54-5.

 

[2] Ibid., 65.

 

[3] John Stott, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today: Your Influence is Vital in Today’s Turbulent World, (London: Collin Publishing Group, 1984), 16.

 

[4] It is not inaccurate in the least to paint Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham. Bartholomew and Goheen title God’s election of Israel as “Redemption Initiated” for this very reason (Drama of Scripture, 47). Indeed, for Paul the great mystery of his ministry is that when God set forth his plan in Christ to unite all things in heaven and on earth in him (Eph 1.9-10) is that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3.6). The purpose of this present brief, however, is to explore the ways in which the Old Testament illustrates Israel’s role in God’s purposes prior to Christ.

 

[5] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 205-8.

 

[6] For Wright’s detailed argument of this point, see Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 454-500.

 

 

 

[7] Many translations translate אֵז֣וֹר as "loincloth," but Wright compellingly argues that the implication of v. 11 suggests the noun is better understand as an “outer sash,” or “belt” as can be seen in Isaiah 11.5 “righteousness shall be the belt (אֵז֣וֹר) of his waist (Wright, The Mission of God’s People, 137).

 

[8] Wright, The Mission of God’s People, 137.

[9] Wright, The Mission of God, 490.

 

[10] Stott, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today, 16.

 

[11] David J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, (2nd ed.; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1997), 29.

Posted by Andrew Barrett

Book Review: Flawed Families of the Bible, by David and Diana Garland

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             Several facets of American Christian culture stress the importance of the “biblical family.” The basic idea is that biblical families – families with marriages illustrative of passages like Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 5, whose children are well-disciplined, exhibiting biblical character and morality – is crucial for the flourishing of the Church. Such emphasis is important, especially in the face of secular challenges to matters of marriage, sexuality, parental discipline, and the value of unborn life. What is so surprising to careful readers of Scripture is that the “biblical family” and the actual families of the Bible are vastly different from one another. The families of Scripture are packed full of deceit, betrayal, negligence, rape, violence, jealousy, impatience, rage, and so forth. In other words, the families of the Bible are a great deal like today’s families, and in some cases worse. Drawing attention to the stories of those families is the aim of David and Diana Garland in this terrific work. “The Normal Family” they argue “…is the ‘norm’ only in our imaginations. It certainly does not capture the biblical families…rather, it illustrates the idol that we cling to, and the contrast between the imagined ideal and our own real life experiences can cause us grief.”[1] Cause grief they have, as unrealistic ideals have created atmospheres of disingenuity and shame in regard to family. By drawing attention to the stories of characters like Sarah, Hagar, Leah, Dinah, Bathsheba, and the daughters of Jephthah and King David, the Garland’s help readers to see the tragic history of sin-riddled families, and consider ways to know one another, walk with one another, and be in community with one another better.

            The first chapter is about Sarah and Hagar’s stories. The Garland’s establish the psychological frustration that comes with being an infertile family in the Ancient Near East. What’s worse, Sarah and Abram’s family has been promised offspring by the Lord, but that promise is taking a while to unfold. As a result of her impatience, Sarai presses the issue: the gives her slave Hagar over to Abram, so that he may conceive a child with her. Ironic, because Sarai – who was given over to Pharaoh without consultation to save Abram’s life – has now given Hagar over to her husband without her consultation. She is to be a sexual instrument for this impatient family, and she has no say so about it. “Sarai considered Hagar only as a means to her own ends, not as a person to be seen and valued as a child of God.”[2] Sarai is eventually consumed with hostility toward a now impregnated Hagar. Hagar is banished to the wilderness where, despite all odds, she is met by God. In shocking fashion, Hagar – a slave girl – encounters God (just like Abram) giving him the name “El-roi,” meaning “the God who sees.” Readers of this story might be frustrated when they read Hagar being instructed to return to Sarai and Abram, but the Garland’s rightly suggest that “We can cope with a lot if we know we are not alone, if we trust that God sees, and sees us in our miserable plight.”[3] God’s grace does not always remove us from hard situations, but it does give us the strength to endure and survive, trusting that the future is in God’s hands. The same goes for Sarah: she eventually conceived, not by abusing others but by God keeping his promise. “Sarah’s story” says the authors “reveals that one should never give up on God. Hagar’s story helps us see that God’s care and presence penetrate every human condition – even that of a hapless and hopeless runaway slave-girl.”[4]

            Chapter 2 tells the story of Leah, the first wife of Jacob. Her story is one of being victimized by the schemes of men and suffering the emotional consequences of being unloved by her husband. According to the Garland’s “[Leah’s] most desperate longing was to be loved.”[5] To receive such love, she participated in sexual schemes, thinking that would secure her place in Jacob’s heart. When that didn’t work, she endured playing second-fiddle to her sister Rachel, hoping that if she just bore enough children for Jacob she would then be loved by him. As we might imagine, there was bitter tension between the two sisters. Leah, though loved the least, bore the most children. Rachel, however, had trouble bearing children. Jealousy boiled up inside her toward her sister. She pleaded with God “Give me children or I shall die!” (Gen 30.1). She bore Jacob, then cried once more “May the Lord add to me another son!” (Gen 30.24). She had Benjamin, and died during childbirth. “She got her wish, and it killed her.”[6] We might imagine the effects such a vile atmosphere had on the children. Leah’s story is hard, because her situation never really improves. The challenging teaching of the story of Leah is that God truly cares for the unloved, “but that does not necessarily mean that they will be loved by the ones here on earth from whom they are so desperate to receive love.”[7] This sad story, however, works mysteriously for God’s plan. Leah’s son Levi would be the father of Israel’s priestly line. Her son Judah would father the royal line, the line which produced King David, and through his line a child named Jesus.

            Chapters 3 and 7 examine horrific accounts of violent rape in the lives of Dinah and Tamar, the daughter of David. The stories are horrible, inviting readers with “broken” families to reconsider how bad their family dynamics really are. What is so hard about these stories is that there is not a happy ending for either girls. As is the case for so many of these women, they are the victim of the schemes of men, being used to satisfy lustful longings, being silenced in the biblical accounts, and receiving no consolation from parental figures. Their assaults lead to siblings violently murdering their attackers, and in the case of Tamar, her attacker (Amnon) is murdered by his brother (Absalom), illustrating all the more the effects of sin within family dynamics. Why include these tragedies? Because “Dinah is still among us.”[8] Dinah and Tamar’s stories need to be told so that victims of sexual assault, be they female or male, know that there are biblical characters who have lived their stories; that the Bible is not silent on the horror of sexual assault; that the very preservation of these stories tells something of God’s awareness of these people. These stories need to be read so that “Families and faith communities [can be] safe places where we can share our battles in safety and compassion.”[9] Places where “we can tell our stories to one another and connect our stories to the great themes of God’s story and therein find grace and healing… in the telling of our stories… the wounded find healing and… we encourage others to know that their own voice can be heard, too.”[10]

            There are many more crucial stories that this book covers, each of which are worthy of their own reflections. Simply put, this book is a must read for pastors and church leaders. The Garland’s challenge us to read those hard stories of the Bible carefully, considering the emotions and motives implicit within them. Such attentive reading creates thoughtful leaders, who can inspire a church culture of honesty, stripping away an idolized version of the family, and speaking God’s grace into the hardship flawed families.

 

[1] Flawed Families of the Bible, 14-5.

[2] Flawed Families of the Bible, 30.

[3] Ibid., 35.

[4] Ibid., 44.

[5] Ibid., 58.

[6] Flawed Families in the Bible, 63.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Flawed Families of the Bible, 93.

[9] Ibid., 100.

[10] Ibid., 101.

Posted by Andrew Barrett

Algerian Christians Protest Building Closures

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Our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world are generally experiencing two things at the same time: (1) numerically speaking, they are trending upward (compared to the United States, who is trending down per worldchristiandatabase.org ) and (2) they are experiencing intense, violent persecution.

Christians in Algeria represent but one example of this global phenomenon. Christians make up 125,000 of the 42.08 million residents in the country (per opendoorsusa.org). The area is dominated by Islam legislatively and socially, resulting in direct and indirect persecutions against Algerian Christians. In recent news, the gathering places of Algerian Christians are being forcibly closed down by the government, citing local blasphemy laws and failure to obtain licenses as the common explanations. Christians are being forced out of their buildings with no notice, meaning they cannot take anything with them. In other words, these foreclosures have led to the confiscation of, among other things, Algerian Bibles (which strikes me as highly strategic).

Despite restrictive laws regulating non-Muslim worship, banning conversion and prohibiting blasphemy, Algerian Christianity is growing, and converts are not only becoming more open about their faith, but as of today have taken to the streets to peacefully protest, calling authorities for "freedom of worship without intimidation" (per evangelicalfocus.com).
We need to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ in Algeria (and across the world). In a society where we skip church if we don't really feel like going, these people are fighting for a place to gather despite the danger they face for doing so. We have much to learn from them. We consider ourselves "persecuted" when a political talk show host makes a snide comment about Christianity. We know very little of persecution. Pray for the Algerian believers. Pray that God grants them continued faithfulness and courage during these hard times. We need also to be encouraged by them. Pray that God would kindle that spirit of learning within us. We have grown very stale as a majority religion.

Posted by Andrew Barrett

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