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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

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