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)

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