In the first installment to this three-part series, I began to sketch the broad contours of God’s story in the Bible, focusing on Creation and Fall, then anticipating God’s ongoing response to bring healing and reconciliation to creation.
The remainder of the biblical story narrates God’s solution to the problem of a lost humanity and fractured creation. In the rest of the OT, God calls forth a new humanity (Israel) to serve as his special people and as conduits of God’s blessings to the nations. The story of Israel begins with Abram in Gen 12. God chooses to use a family to start the saga of salvation. God’s mission will advance through Abram’s descendants. He calls Abram and his wife Sarah out of the context and turmoil of Gen 3–11 to be the first family of a new humanity through whom God will bless all nations (Gen 12:3). He blesses them so that they can be a blessing to the world.
This will be a pattern throughout the Bible’s story. Rather than serving as an end in itself, an encounter with God’s graciousness is a commission to God’s mission. It will be through Abram and his descendants that God’s mission of salvation will reach its climax. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will serve as the fullest expression of God’s mission that begins with Abram.
But we are getting ahead of the story. God calls Abram and Sarah to migrate to a new promised land: Canaan. God gives Abram a new name: Abraham. God then gives Abraham and Sarah a promised son Isaac in their old age. God’s blessings flow to Isaac who has two sons, Esau and Jacob. The mission of God moves forward through Jacob’s side of the family. Jacob’s twelve sons give names to the twelve tribes who will soon become the nation of Israel. Late in life Jacob and his entire family migrate to Egypt during a time of famine.
Israel remains in Egypt initially as guests but subsequent Egyptian Pharaohs enslave God’s people and thwart God’s mission to bless the nations through Israel. This oppression sets the stage for the preeminent movement of salvation in the OT: God’s dramatic deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, the establishment of covenant with God’s people at Sinai, and the return of God’s people to the promised land. God delivers God’s people from Egypt, the dominant superpower of the time, through a decisive demonstration of God’s power and ability to save. He does this as a means of revealing his name and glory to all the earth (Exod 9:16). God shows himself to be incomparable to all other gods (Exod 15:11) and true king of earth (Exod 15:18).
At Sinai (Exod 19–Num 10:10, retold also in Deuteronomy), God reminds and recalls Israel to the mission given to Abraham: God’s people are to serve as a missional community that reflects God’s character to the nations and the world (Exod 19:4-6). At Sinai, God invites God’s people into a special relationship that the ancient world called a covenant. In this covenant, God’s people agree to live out God’s ethic to the world. This ethic may be summarized with these words: “Love God and love others.” God pledges himself to God’s people as their unique deity. God’s people will serve as the God’s hands, feet, and mouthpieces in the world in the service of God’s mission to bless the nations. The bulk of Exodus–Deuteronomy describes how God’s people are to live to embody God’s character in their worship of God and in their relationships with one another before the eyes of the nations. These books also warn God’s people about the dangers of idolatry and unfaithfulness to their fulfilling God’s mission in the world.
The remainder of the OT historical books (Joshua–Nehemiah) narrate the potential and pitfalls of living as God’s missional people in the world. God settles Israel in the land originally promised to Abraham. These books recount times of blessing in which God’s people are faithful to their covenantal commitments. High points include Joshua’s generation in settling the land, the rise of David and his kingdom, Solomon’s building of the temple in Jerusalem, the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, and the renewal of God’s people in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. But much of these books tells of the unfaithfulness of God’s people through their practices of idolatry and injustice. These practices ultimately result in the destruction of temple in Jerusalem and the exile of God’s people to Babylon. This part of Israel’s story serves as a warning to future generations of God’s people. Faithfulness matters in God’s mission to bless the nations. The challenges of idolatry and injustice remain in the modern world as forces that compete with God’s desire for faithfulness.
What is the meaning of the unfaithfulness of God’s people and how does God react to it? God’s people are unable and at times unwilling to live faithfully within God’s covenant. They continually turn away from their exclusive relationship with God by pursuing other gods and goddesses. They also practice injustice within the community and by mistreating outsiders. In response, God sends his prophets. Judges through 2 Chronicles relate some stories and words of the prophets, but the prophetic books (Isaiah–Malachi) record the vast majority of the messages of the prophets. The prophets serve primarily to call God’s people to realign with their God-given mission of reflecting God’s character to, for, and in the world. The prophets address God’s people and demand that they return immediately to God’s ways. The prophets call God’s people back to the ethos and mission described for God’s people in Genesis–Deuteronomy. But the prophets also point forward to a future work of God in which God will usher in a new age of salvation. The prophets foresee a time in which God will act decisively to advance his mission to bless the nations, redeem humanity, and heal all creation. This new age will be known as the kingdom of God. Much of the expectation centers on visions of a messiah or descendant of David who will rise up and once again serve as king of God’s people. It is fitting that the OT ends with the writings of the prophets as they function as a natural bridge to the arrival of Jesus and his gospel of the kingdom.