100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Yahweh: God of the Gentiles

Yahweh delivered the people of Israel out of Egypt and made a covenant with them and told them that He would be their God and they would be His people. And yet, isn’t He supposed to be the God of all? What about the poor Gentiles? Somewhat related to my last post, some might argue that God, throughout the Old Testament, was fairly exclusively “the God of Israel” and not “the God of all”. What I want to talk about today is how, even in the Old Testament, Gentiles were not excluded at all from worshipping Yahweh as their God.

Now, why was there an Israel at all? We can spend a lot of time answering that question, but as it pertains to today’s discussion, we can say a few important things about Israel - that through Israel God revealed Himself to the whole world, giving them the Law and the Priesthood, the Prophets and their theocratic government. Israel’s mission was to teach the whole world about God and to be a nation of priests for all (Exodus 19:5-6). When God said to Abraham, “in you all the families of the Earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), this didn’t just mean “ultimately through Christ”, but it was intended to begin through Israel itself. In the New Testament, Christ Himself replaces the role of the Priests, the Prophets and the King. Whoever joins themselves to the people of God necessarily make Christ their Priest, their Prophet and their King. So too, in the Old Testament, whoever would join the people of God would necessarily put themselves under the Priests and Prophets and Kings of Israel. These three offices stood in place of Christ until the advent of Christ. And so Yahweh was certainly the God of all, but just as we must come to Christ to be counted one of God’s people, back then you would have to identify yourself with Israel.

It makes sense, then, that no Gentile could ever be a Priest or a Prophet or a King in Israel. Israel itself, as a body of people, had to remain “pure” in that respect. But all throughout the Old Testament there are many examples which support this claim I’m making - that Gentiles were welcome to identify themselves with the people of God by identifying themselves with Israel. Of course, we have several well known examples of individuals. Rahab married an Israelite and finds herself in the genealogy of Christ Himself. Likewise, Ruth, who is well known for her overt identification with Israel when she told her mother in law “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16). These are two of the most well known examples because of their presence in the genealogy of Christ, but they are by no means the only examples.

Jesus Himself makes a similar case for the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Old Testament when He is speaking in the synagogue in Luke 4...

And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon [ie a Gentile], to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian [ie a Gentile].” (Luke 4:24-27)

Jesus’ point, in fact, is one echoed by Paul in a number of his epistles; that the true people of God are not ethnic Jews, but anyone who puts their faith in Him.

So I’ve said that the purpose of Israel and its Priesthood was really to be a Priesthood for all, Jew and Gentile alike. So, then, the temple was for all, Jew and Gentiles alike, to come and interact with that Priesthood. And this is precisely how Solomon saw the purpose of the temple he’d just built, when at the dedication of the temple he said:

Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name's sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name. (1 Kings 8:41-43)

Jesus also understood this to be the purpose of the temple. In an outburst of righteous anger, Jesus overturned the market place which people had set up in the temple. Specifically, this market place had been set up in a part of the temple which was dedicated to the Gentiles for them to worship in. And He explains “Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? [Isaiah 56:7] But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:17)

So from the very beginning of Scripture, God has always been the God of all nations. Now, God did demand some separation between Israel and Gentiles. He forbade intermarriage, for example. But we need to understand that this way... that once a Gentile identifies themselves with Israel, as Ruth did, then it was not really applicable any more. That Gentile was, for all intents and purposes, an Israelite! King Solomon married foreign wives who lured him into worshipping their foreign gods (1 Kings 11:1-8). Now that is precisely what God forbade! (Both the polygamy and the marriage to a woman who clearly wasn’t interested in the exclusive worship of Yahweh.)

Aside from the Priesthood, the Prophets also were not exclusive to Israel. A Prophet’s job was to deliver messages from God to specific people; almost always to kings. If you read the prophets (books like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc), just about all of them include messages for Gentile nations. That’s precisely because God is the God of all. Take Jonah, for example, where the entire book is about Jonah’s mission to deliver a message from God to the King of Nineveh. Not only does Jonah deliver the message, which in essence said “Repent of your sins”, but the King of Nineveh takes heed to the message! This is quite remarkable... the people of Nineveh didn’t live under the Mosaic Law, and yet they recognized that the God of the Jews had the right to tell them that they had sinned against Him and that they should repent. This tells us that God held people accountable to the “moral law” which is “written on our hearts”, and that the Mosaic Law was not designed to be an exhaustive specification for right and wrong. The same goes for any message of repentance from the prophets to the other nations... they weren’t under the Mosaic Law, but they all knew that they were idolaters. And that their idolatry was sin should have been evident to them as it typically involved human sacrifice, orgies, and so forth; and that their false gods were a pretense in order to practice those sins. The people of Nineveh certainly understood the authority that Yahweh had over their lives, even though they weren’t Israelites. Furthermore, Jonah himself never questions what authority Yahweh had over the Ninevites; he understood very well that Yahweh was God over all nations. None of the Old Testament authors saw it any other way.

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1-3)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Yahweh: No Mere Tribal Deity

Christianity believes that there is one God who is the Creator of all things, and who is sovereign over all things. But a religion like this was very rare in the historical period of the Old Testament. Typically each nation had their own national god which dealt exclusively with that nation. When nations would go to war against each other, they saw it as one god warring against another, and the victor would boast that their god had overcome the other nation’s god. That’s what religion was like back then. But the God of the Hebrews wasn’t like that. He was the supreme God who created all things, and who could both establish nations and tear nations down. All nations were under His sovereign rule. And yet many today will try to tell you that Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, was actually (at least at the start of Hebrew religion), just another tribal deity.

One of the Biblical “evidences” for this is a passage like Deuteronomy 32:8-9...

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage. (Deuteronomy 32:8-9)

Now, before we can discuss this verse, we need to get a handle on some Biblical terminology. The first thing to note is the term "sons of God". This is a reference to angels. Many Bibles translate this as "sons of Israel", but the most reliable manuscripts (eg the Dead Sea Scrolls) say "sons of God", or "angels". The next thing to note is that, traditionally, Bible translators use the word "LORD" in capital letters when translating the name Yahweh, which is often referred to as God's "personal name". And finally, that the name "Jacob" is synonymous with "Israel". With this in mind, we can see how some people want to read this verse. They will see the "Most High" as allocating gods (or "angels") to each of the nations, just as we discussed in the first paragraph; and that Yahweh (“LORD”) is just another one of these angels, distinct from the "Most High", and he happens to get allocated to Israel, making him just another tribal deity in the typical religious world view of the period.

Now, of course, there is an abundance of Biblical Texts which speak of Yahweh as the Creator of all, and sovereign over all, and that certainly uses "Most High" (Elyon) synonymously with "Yahweh". The first chapters of Genesis are sufficient to show this. But that's not really much help to address this issue. You see, the apparent problem here is that the Bible appears to contradict itself. And what proponents of this view would say is that Yahweh is the product of human invention and mythology; that since the time of Moses people's view of Yahweh changed... he started out as a tribal deity fitting the model of religious belief at that time, but later on Israel sort of changed the mythology behind Yahweh. Proponents typically believe in the "documentary hypothesis", which is the idea that the books of Moses (the “Torah”) is actually a compilation of texts written at various times throughout Israel's history, from some unknown point in the past right up to the Babylonian captivity. So that even if Genesis tells us that Yahweh is the Creator, that's just one person's view (not Moses' own view), and the song written in Deuteronomy 32 is some other author's view of Yahweh; presumably a very early one before Israel made Yahweh "God of all".

What this passage in Deuteronomy 32 is really telling us is that God set up all the nations, and He seems to have set an angel over each one, but that God Himself (and not some angel) is over Israel, and has a special relationship with Israel. This idea that angels have been allotted to certain nations may be Biblically supported by a passage such as we find in Daniel 10...

Then he [an angel] said to me, "Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come." (Daniel 10:12-14)

This certainly seems to refer to angels over nations, since the speaker is an angel and would not be opposed by a human prince. Later, Daniel writes:

At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. (Daniel 12:1)

Daniel certainly sees Yahweh as being the supreme God over all. A central theme in the whole book of Daniel is how God is over all nations to rise and fall as He pleases. There is no doubt in Daniel’s mind as to who is sovereign over all nations (eg Daniel 2:21). And we just saw in Daniel 10:12-14 and 12:1 that Daniel also understands there to be angels given charge over the nations, and he even cites Michael, not Yahweh, as the angel given charge over Israel. Deuteronomy tells us that Israel is “Yahweh’s portion”, and that remains true for Daniel; Michael and these other angels are servants of God; or as the book of Hebrews puts it, “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14).

In a documentary on Biblical archaeology, I once heard an archaeologist point to various stone idols of pagan gods which he’d dug up in Israel, and he said “I hate to tell you folks, but Israel was not a monotheistic culture!” And I was a little dumb-founded... like, “Who on Earth has read the Bible and doesn’t already know that!?” The Bible exposes at great length the idolatry of the people of Israel, and of the neighbouring nations. Furthermore, it goes so far as to say that many of these gods were literal, spiritual beings. For example, the Bible says “So they shall no more sacrifice their sacrifices to goat demons, after whom they whore...” and in the Psalms “They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons” (Psalms 106:37). So Deuteronomy 32 is, in a sense, telling us of a “polytheistic” reality. From a human perspective, angels and demons are gods in so far as we have worshipped them. But from God’s perspective they are no gods at all, as it reads in Deuteronomy 32 itself...

They sacrificed to demons that were no gods... (Deuteronomy 32:17)

My point is this... There are two ways we can take Deuteronomy 32:8-9. In both, God has given angels charge over the nations, and people have worshiped those angels as gods. But in one interpretation, the “Most High” is distinct from Yahweh and Yahweh is just another “tribal deity”. Alternatively, we can take it as referring to Yahweh being synonymous with the Most High God Himself, and having a special relationship with Israel. The interpretation that the rest of the Bible supports unwaveringly is the latter, where Yahweh is synonymous with the Most High, and where the existence of “tribal deities” is acknowledged alongside the absolute supremacy of Yahweh, a supremacy which is never once in doubt. Clearly I think that if you want to believe that the people of Moses’ time saw Yahweh as a tribal deity, it’s because you choose to believe that, since there is nothing Biblically which would compel you towards that view.

I would also be careful of how we take the supposed evidences from other ancient literature which uses terms like “Most High” (Elyon) or “Yahweh” in their religious writings. These arguments can sound very scholarly, but all they really tell me is that God, through Moses, used language to reveal Himself to the people. That is, He used common everyday language which people understood.

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6)