Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Decalogue in Old Testament Missiology

I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently engaged in some part-time theological studies with the Northern Training Institute (director Tim Chester). This is an assignment I wrote in October:
The Decalogue in Old Testament Missiology

The thesis of this paper:
God’s election of Abraham, and therefore the people of Israel, was for the sake of blessing all peoples of the world. Along with the Abrahamic covenant, God’s redemption of Israel from Egypt and the establishment of the covenant are Sinai are formative in shaping Israel’s identity as distinctive among the nations. That distinctiveness is expressed in exclusive devotion to the one true God, righteous living and cultic structures (tabernacle, priesthood, sacrificial system) that allow a holy God to dwell among a sinful people. In turn, that distinctiveness is to be a witness, revealing to the nations something of the character of the God who has bound himself to Israel. The Decalogue plays a foundational role within the Sinai covenant, establishing in a seminal way that God alone is to be worshipped, and that Israel is to live righteously. The Decalogue provides a basis for the polemic against idolatry and wickedness which continues throughout the Old Testament, both of which are perennial threats to the mission of Israel as a means of blessing to the nations. Through Israel’s distinctive witness, the nations are expected to come to know that the LORD alone is God, and the Old Testament looks forward to the time when the nations will come to obey the God who has revealed himself in Israel.

Old Testament Missiology
My starting-point is to take as a given that the whole Old Testament, indeed the whole Bible, is missiological.[1] Mission is not a sub-theme that only a few key texts address, but the theme of the whole. The Bible is a product of God’s mission in the world; it exists because God is working out in history his plan to redeem humanity and restore the cosmos. The Bible as a whole, therefore, should be read with a missional hermeneutic. That is, each part should be interpreted within the unfolding ‘meta-narrative’ of the redemptive history revealed progressively in the Scriptures.
Foundational to Old Testament missiology, and therefore crucial in shaping the hermeneutic with which we come to the Decalogue, are the promises to Abraham and the patriarchs. Following the descent into disaster traced out in Genesis 1-11, which ends with the scattering of the nations, hope re-emerges with God’s calling of Abraham. Notice the dynamic of particularity and universality in Abraham’s call. God chooses Abraham (and therefore his descendants, Israel), not any of the other nations. He is the recipient of special blessings from God; he enters into a uniquely privileged relationship with God. Yet the purpose of this particular election is universal in scope: the big picture is that through Abraham “all peoples on earth will be blessed.” Abraham (and Israel’s) election is for the purpose of mission. God’s mission is to bless all nations (the gospel in advance, according to Paul), but that universal goal has a particular historical method, namely God’s work in the specific history of an individual (Abraham) and the nation that will come from Him, culminating in the coming of the Seed through whom the blessing will be fulfilled. This dynamic of particularity and universality is important for interpreting the rest of the Old Testament.
On this basis, Old Testament missiology could perhaps be summarised as God at work in Israel for the sake of all peoples. Many times in the Old Testament that concern for the nations is explicit; at all times the promise to Abraham to bless the nations through him is the backdrop for all God’s work in the history of His people. With that perspective, we turn to the Decalogue, asking how it functions within God’s mission for all peoples. As we do so, we need to be continually asking what is God doing with the people of Israel (the particular) and how does that function within God’s worldwide mission? (the universal).
The Sinai Covenant
The Decalogue forms part of the series of significant, seminal events in the book of Exodus whose purpose is to shape the identity of Israel as the people of God. The exodus itself establishes Israel’s identity as a redeemed people, a people who only exist as an independent nation because God has graciously chosen to bring them out of slavery. Here too, God’s deliverance of Israel (the particular) serves a wider purpose (the universal) that Pharoah may know the LORD, indeed that God’s name “may be proclaimed in all the earth” (Ex 9.16 cf. 7.17; 8.19, 22-23; 9.14-16; 9.20; 9.29; 18.10-11 etc.)

On leaving Egypt, God did not take the people directly to the land of Canaan, but to the desert, the mountain of God and, most significantly, to Himself (Exodus 19.4). At Sinai, God enters into a deeper covenant relationship with Israel. In a spectacular and terrifying encounter on the mountain, God speaks ‘ten words’ to the people. More detailed instructions are given as to how the people are to live (e.g. Ex 21-23); the tabernacle is constructed, the priesthood is instituted and the sacrificial system set up.

Before coming to the Decalogue itself, it is worth making some remarks about the Sinai Covenant in general, starting with the ‘prelude’ to the covenant in Exodus 19.4-6:

You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Notice the following points. Firstly, the covenant obligations given on Mount Sinai do not create the special relationship between God and Israel; that relationship already exists by virtue of the redemption from Egypt (v.4) (and that, in turn, is founded on the promises to Abraham).

Secondly, then, the Sinai covenant that is about to be enacted sets the terms by which that relationship is to be maintained and developed. God’s election and redemption of Israel was unconditional; their continuing relationship with God in covenant is in some sense conditional. If they keep the covenant, they will remain in that special relationship: “you will be my people and I will be your God.”

Thirdly, notice the particular-universal dynamic at work here. God is in a special relationship with Israel. They will be God’s treasured possession, among all the nations. The whole earth is God’s, but, uniquely, they will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. What is to take place on Mount Sinai will shape the identity of the people of Israel in ways that will make them unique among the peoples of the world.

One might think that the unique privileging of Israel is the very opposite of God’s mission to bless all the nations. Why only Israel? However, we have already suggested that God’s special work in Israel is for the sake of the nations, and this dynamic is present here, hinted at in the key phrases of verse 6. Israel in covenant with God is to have the dual function of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[2] Israel’s national life is to be distinctive (a holy nation); they are to be different from the other nations (and, implicitly, seen to be different: ie. the holiness of Israel is to function as a witness to the nations.) And Israel is to play, in some sense, a mediatorial role between God and the other nations (a priestly kingdom).[3] Wright argues that

It is… richly significant that God confers on Israel as a whole people the role of being his priesthood in the midst of the nations. As the people of YHWH they would have the historical task of bringing the knowledge of God to the nations, and bringing the nations to the means of atonement with God. The Abrahamic task of being a blessing to the nations also put them in the role of priests in the midst of the nations… The priesthood of the people of God is thus a missional function that stands in continuity with their Abrahamic election, and it affects the nations.[4]
The function of the Sinai covenant, then, from the perspective of Old Testament missiology, is to constitute Israel as distinctive from the other nations, and therefore a witness to and instrument of blessing to the other nations. In turn, that distinctiveness has a number of intertwining threads. There is to be single-mindedness in their devotion to God: they are not to worship the gods of the other nations (e.g. Exodus 20.3-6, 22-23; 23.24,32-33). They are to be ethically distinctive and not follow the detestable practices of the other nations. (e.g. Leviticus 18.3, 24-28; 20.26)

Above all, it is the presence of God Himself with his people that will make Israel distinctive: (Exodus 33.15-16)
The Lord replied, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’

The Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?

In fact, all the elements of the Sinai covenant can be understood as the terms by which God can and will be present with His people. They are the terms under which “they will be my people and I will be their God”. The tabernacle, priesthood and sacrificial system are all instituted to ‘protect’ that relationship – they control the double danger whereby the people’s sin would contaminate the holiness of God and the holiness of God would break out against the people’s sin. Likewise both idolatry and wickedness are warned against so severely since they would gravely endanger that relationship, as, for example, the incidents of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32-33) and Baal Peor (Numbers 25) show.

The Decalogue
Within the whole Sinai Covenant, the Decalogue plays a pivotal role. That there is something especially significant about the Ten Commandments is shown by a number of textual features. Firstly, these are the words spoken by God in the dramatic encounter on the mountain (Exodus 19.4-20.21), with its thunder, lightning, fire, and smoke. Moreover, it is these words that are written (twice) by the finger of God on tablets of stone (see Exodus 24.12; 31.18; 32.15-16,19; 34.1, 28; Deut 4.13; 5.22; 10.1-5). They are referred to as “the Ten Commandments” in several of these texts, and therefore treated as a distinct ‘thing’ in itself. Finally, the Decalogue is referred to simply as ‘the covenant’ (Deut 4.13; Exodus 31.18; 32.15; 34.28), which suggests that while the Sinai covenant can be understand to include all that took place on that mountain, in another sense, it is the Decalogue that is the key covenantal document.

In the giving of the Decalogue, then, God sets out the foundational obligations that the people of Israel are to keep. It begins with a declaration that reminds us again that the identity of Israel has already been established by God’s gracious deliverance out of Egypt. There then follow ten commands, four of which are primarily concerned with love for God, and six love for neighbour. Israel’s distinctiveness is to look like this: single-minded devotion to God and right living. And the Decalogue is important in Old Testament missiology for these two reasons: the polemic against idolatry and the imperative to righteous living. Those themes are of course found in many places in the Old Testament, but the Decalogue is foundational for those themes for a number of reasons. We have already seen the foundational function of the Decalogue within the Sinai covenant. Furthermore, many of the stipulations of the Decalogue are hinted at and anticipated before Sinai, but it is at the seminal event that they are formalised and emphasised so emphatically. In that way subsequent appearances of those two themes can be seen as the exposition and application of the Decalogue to the people of Israel. Israel are continually being called back to the original Sinai covenant.

The next step in my argument is to briefly trace through the Old Testament these two themes of idolatry and ethics as they are related to mission. In other words, I will be highlighting a number of instances where the polemic against idolatry and the ethical imperative set out so seminally in the Decalogue are applied by the Old Testament itself in the context of Israel’s mission in the world. What follows is illustrative rather than exhaustive.

Ethics and Old Testament Missiology
There are a number of instances where Israel’s ethical life and the witness to the nations are connected somewhat more explicitly. Here are a few examples:

1) Israel’s body of laws is meant to display to the nations that they are a people with “wisdom and understanding”, that they are great in comparison to the other nations both because God is near them when they pray and also because of the righteousness of their laws. (Deuteronomy 4.5-8)

2) Israel’s obedience to the commands of God will establish them as God’s holy people and “all the peoples on earth” will recognise that they are “called by the name of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 28.9-10)

3) Part of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple: Obedience to the commands of God is an integral factor in God ‘s upholding the cause of Israel, which in turn is “so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God and that there is no other.” (1 Kings 8.56-61)

4) There are many texts in the prophets along the lines of “if you, Israel, return to me, I will return to you.” Jeremiah 4.1-2 is remarkable in that, if Israel returns to the Lord – which includes the putting aside of idols and swearing “in a true, just and righteous way”, then “the nations will invoke blessings by him and in him they will boast.”

Leaving aside texts where the ethics-mission link is more explicit, the call for Israel to turn away from wickedness and live rightly is a constant refrain throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophets. More often than not, the distinctiveness of Israel as God’s special people, in contrast to the other nations, is in view. But if we remember that God’s particular election of Israel serves God’s universal purposes for the nations, then we must conclude that whenever Israel is being called to turn back to God, God’s concern for His reputation among the nations is implicit as well.

Idolatry and Old Testament Missiology
The polemic against idolatry is an aspect of the ethical imperative, for it is wicked not to exclusively worship the one true God. Nevertheless, idolatry is a distinct (though inter-connected) category, and, again, the constant warnings to Israel against idolatry, with their seminal formulation in the Decalogue, are highly significant for the theme of mission in the Old Testament.

Israel are to have “no other gods” before the LORD; neither are they to make and worship any image. And that is not merely because the LORD is their God, but the God; that is, the God that Israel worships is the one true God. And the exclusivity of devotion demanded of Israel is to demonstrate both to Israel and to the nations that the LORD is God and there is no other. (Deuteronomy 4.34, 39)

This is too vast a theme to treat in any detail at this point, but by way of illustration, perhaps Isaiah provides one of the clearest examples of the intertwining of the themes of idolatry and mission. One example will suffice – Isaiah 45.22-24 – where “all the ends of the earth” are called to turn to God and be saved because “I am God, and there is no other.” This is a summons which is made in the context of a sustained polemic against idolatry and repeated declarations of the uniqueness of the LORD.

The polemic against idolatry is the consequence of the Bible’s monotheism. And, as Wright argues, “biblical monotheism is necessarily missional (because the one living God wills to be known and worshiped throughout the whole creation)” while “biblical mission is necessarily monotheistic (because we are to call all people to and to join all creation in the praise of this one living God.”[5]

The Response of the Nations
If Israel in its righteous living and exclusive devotion to God was to be distinctive from the other nations, giving witness to the character of the one true God who had chosen to work in them in this special way, what kind of response was anticipated on behalf of the nations?

At one level, the nations were expected to come to “know the LORD”, at least in the sense of recognising the unique nature of Israel’s God. Some of the texts mentioned earlier point to this. On the other hand, the Sinai covenant was probably not intended as a simple blueprint for the nations to copy: that would go against the unique relationship Israel had with God, and the unique role assigned to them (cf. Romans 3.1-2; 9.4-5) and also the limited nature of the Sinai covenant in relation to the progression of redemption history (cf. Galatians 3.15-22; Hebrews 10.1 etc.).
Nevertheless, there is hope in the Old Testament that the nations will do more than simply recognise from the outside that the LORD is God – they will be incorporated into the people of God, and in doing so will, in some sense, accept the law of God given to Israel. So Isaiah 2.3:
Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem
But because of Israel’s failure to be what God called it to be, and the provisional nature of the Sinai covenant itself, the turning of the nations to God is something that is only anticipated in the Old Testament: as in Isaiah 2, it is a future hope. And so, only once Christ – the seed through whom blessing would come – had come and done his work, would the way for the nations to be fully incorporated into the people of God – through faith and obedience (Romans 1.5; 16.26)– be made open.

Bibliography
Alexander, T.Desmond (2002) (2nd ed.) From Paradise to Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch (Carlisle: Paternoster)
Motyer, Alec (2005) The Message of Exodus (Leicester: IVP)
Wright, Christopher (2006) The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Leicester: IVP)
[1] see Wright, Christopher The Mission of God chapter 2 etc. This paper has been influenced heavily by The Mission of God (see bibliography for full reference)
[2] Assuming that Israel fulfils its covenant obligations, which the covenant crisis of Exodus 32-34 puts in grave doubt straight away
[3] This interpretation of “kingdom of priests” is disputed. Motyer The Message of Exodus argues that it refers to the unique access that Israel has into the presence of God; Wright disputes this and argues for the interpretation advocated here. In other words, I’ve copied Wright on this point. See Wright Mission of God pp329-333
[4] Wright Mission of God p.331
[5] Wright Mission of God p.136

2 comments:

bibleandmission said...

Hi Jonathan, just came across this post. If you ever feel like pursuing your studies on Chris Wright and others on missional hermeneutics you may like to check out Redcliffe's MA in Bible and Mission. www.redcliffe.org/mabibleandmission
It's part of our Centre for the Study of Bible and Mission. www.bibleandmission.wordpress.com
Hope you don't mind the message out of the blue!

Tim Davy (former IFES worker!)

Jonathan Skipper said...

Hi Tim, thanks for the comment & getting in touch, and for lodging the idea in my brain. It's certainly an area I am interested in,

blessings,
Jonathan