Saturday, May 4, 2013

An Itty Bitty Nation

Have you ever been sitting there reading the Bible and suddenly thought, "Why Israel?" Not that there's anything wrong with Israel, it's just that there are so many nations on the earth. What was it about Israel that God liked that he chose them to be "his people," the ones who would carry the news to the rest of the world about a Messiah bringing justice and compassion, come to restore us to our perfect design?

This question used to make me stumble more than it does now. I think I've come to the conclusion that everyone is equally sinful and none of us would have done any better in Israel's place. They made a lot of mistakes. I sometimes wonder why God didn't choose everyone instead of one nation, but perhaps it's because of both our inability to cooperate on a global scale* and our tendency to "divinify" large coalitions of mankind. Large forums and treaties under which nations come together to mutually work out our problems have pluses and minuses, but either way, we tend to think we can accomplish anything and get too proud of our own abilities.

And that's the first part of the answer to the question of why God chose Israel. They were small. Personal. Weak. They weren't a large coalition and they didn't have the power to overthrow nations. This meant that on the one hand they didn't go around like Babylonians brashly killing whoever they wanted; if God didn't approve the battle and fight on their side, they knew their forces were too weak and that they would lose. On the other hand, this also meant that when God did fight for them, such as when he freed them from slavery in Egypt**, every Israelite and every other nation knew that it was God, not Israel, who had done it. And God is a lot more scary. People kill according to their own laws, but God is just in his judgments.

And everyone saw plainly that God could do anything he wanted. They saw how big he was. God chose the small nation to show his largeness, his greatness, and his majesty. His might in providing justice and showing compassion on the weak was clearly seen, much more clearly than if he'd been working for a world power. And that's the thing about God: he doesn't tend to reside in places where there is lots of power. Throughout history, you'll find God where the people are weak and oppressed. Because that's the kind of God he is. He rescues those at the bottom of the food chain; he doesn't help the people at the top gobble them up. He issues justice to the unjust, but he's not about powerhouse people consuming everyone around them. America's mantra of "do it yourself" isn't really God's thing. He doesn't respect people who are all about getting to the top. He respects people who want to be compassionate and righteous and are humble enough to know they're not.

And maybe God chose Israel too because they were small. God is personal. He walks with, not merely beyond. He doesn't say, "catch me," he says, "be with me, and I will give you rest." In some ways I see God with childlike honesty asking to be observed and adored. He wants us to stop working and watch him. He wants to amaze us. But the big and self-important have no time for that. It's when we're small, humbled, and weak--in a sense when our situation forces us to pay attention--that we do so. We are just toddlers in this whole thing; God has to lead us by the hand. And that's so much easier when we're not puffed up with ideas about our own capability.

at this point you might be asking, "why anyone at all?" As in, why did God choose a nation? Why couldn't he have just shown up for all of us?

I find that for me this question comes from a desire to know what happened to all the other peoples. I mean, did any of them know God? Did they get to have a relationship with him too? Sure, their nations might have been big and powerful or evil and unjust or worshipped other gods and sacrificed their own children. But that doesn't mean there weren't individuals who wanted to be better and knew they were not, who wanted to know a loving God and walk with him. What about them?

We should first of all note that this issue, important as it is to practically any westerner, is not an issue at all for almost any other culture at any other time. Most of the world doesn't have problems with the idea that people who don't follow God or do XYZ or whatever go to a non-heaven place. Westerners have a very different (and much softer) concept of justice, and I think rather than saying our is better and has progressed to a higher stage (a really arrogant assumption, truly), we need to recognize that maybe we're in the minority for a reason.

There are flaws in every society's underlying philosophy, but of course no one in that society sees their own flaws. We were born into this kind of thinking, and we don't see the inherent problems. But I'm willing to bet, especially with younger generations getting more and more fired up about different justice issues, from earth to abolition, that our ideas about will be changing. Our strange ideas of justice have had their day in the sun and proved, however lovely they sounded, impractical. I say all this uncertainly and on others' authority because I'm a product of this culture too. But we need to bear it in mind.

First off, we have no idea about where the early Moabites were with YHWH. I don't mean as a culture, but as individuals. C.S. Lewis gives a very interesting look at the whole question*** in the last of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, where a young Captain from the opposing army comes into the kingdom of God/Aslan with the Pevensie children. He is so surprised, yet pleasantly so. He grew up believing in a good God, one who is personal and just, and while his culture did all sorts of terrible things in the name of their eagle-god, this young man continued to believe that if there was a God (who he assumed would be this eagle-god), he was not evil, but just and loving. His culture pictured Aslan as the devil, worse (if you can imagine it) than their own god, exacting and cruel and abominable. In a sense, though, this man had all the concepts right and had just reversed the names. What he thought he was fighting for was actually who he was fighting against, but he had been misled and did not know it. He meets Aslan for the first time and knows that truly, here is actually the God he has been serving this whole time.

I'm willing to take that answer, even though it comes from a nonbiblical source, because it's the best I can come up with. When I think back, I imagine, say, a young Moabite girl who, like Lewis's young captain, believed that a true God would be just and kind. She lived in fear of this kind of God, serving him and being humble and asking for his help because she saw that she, and especially her culture, didn't measure up to the perfection that such a God would definitely deserve. She probably did things that were wrong and unjust because she had been taught that that is what you do. She hoped it was acceptable to God. And when the Israelites came and brought justice to the Moabite people for all their terrible oppression and murder and rape and all else, I think I'll still meet her in the kingdom of God.

God does things on the national level, but he also does things on the personal level, and those things don't have to contradict. God is all-knowing. You think he can't tell when someone wants to know him and honor him? We all mess up. Of course, we can also claim justice and mercy as our life's banner but still go against our consciences and not desire justice; we can want justice without truly wanting it--want it but not at the price it comes at, say. There are so many nuances and niceties that I can't truly judge where the line falls every time. No wonder Jesus tells us not to. Only God can see the contents of each person's heart. I trust him to judge fairly. For my part, I can only look at my own life and ask God to help me there; I can't be concerned with how well others are doing. It is their life and those are their decisions to make. God holds each of us accountable for ourselves.

So we've gotten that seeming issue out of the way, but we still don't have an answer: why did God have to choose a specific nation? After grappling with this for several years, I have a couple answers.

First of all, I think God wanted to show us that it makes no difference whether you're "called" or not, whether you're eating from the Lord's table or living outside of his city. When the Messiah came, the Israelites had known about it for thousands of years, yet their consensus was mixed: some believed and some didn't. And among the gentiles it was the same: some chose and some didn't. Like we said, everyone has their own choices, regardless of the culture we're brought up in. God gives all of us a conscience, an awareness of the divine, and choices to make about how we honor that. It makes no difference if God announces his intentions to you ahead of time or not.

I think if God had not chosen a nation, we might have said, "God didn't give us advance warning down through the ages, so how were we to know?" Or if God had given the Torah to all peoples, we might have said, "Your advance warning made us jaded. We don't believe, and it's your fault." Or some other such excuse. This way, we are without excuse.

Also, God chose Israel in order to make his purposes known through giving the Torah. God gave the Israelites not just knowledge but written, passed down, preserved knowledge: about who he is, what he is like, and how things are going to happen. "If you do X, Y will happen," he said, sometimes even to the point of being obvious. If you drop the hammer, it will fall on your toe. (Except really--have you read some of the laws?) God gave them the laws of moral/ethical cause-and-effect to help them understand the world so that everything that happened would be explainable. And when it happened the way he said, he was proved true.

He also gave them prophecies about specific future things that would occur. Like the Messiah. There are literally hundreds of verses giving minute and explicit details about what God's Son would be like and do. Jesus fulfilled them all, too, which is why the gospels keep quoting old Scriptures. They were saying, "look! He did it just like it says!" This would also prove God true. It also proved Jesus true. (The dying and coming back to life helps, too...) He needed someone to carry that message and have those writings so that the whole world could look and see that God had done everything just as he said. That is why he chose Israel.

There's one more potential reason, too. We already talked about why God chose a small weak nation instead of a powerful one or a powerful coalition of all nations. We have this tendency to try and barter with God, forgetting how much bigger he is than anything we could ever do. God opted instead to hand-prepare servants who were humble, small, unimportant, and perfect for carrying his message of salvation. The nation of Israel was there to give birth to the church. People like Peter and Paul--faulty, arrogant, short-temptered, silly people who would run after God no matter what because they needed him. They had grown up knowing the Scriptures and could tell of how God had proved himself,  how Jesus was the Messiah, and just what that meant anyways. Israel was there to give birth to those people. God spent hundreds of years preparing the conditions to be just right, so as to birth a church that would be effective, loving, just, and 100% weak and dependent on God. Not only did Israel get tramped on a lot by other nations, these were the lowest people from within that lowest nation. Because that's the way God works: through the lowest. The last will be first.

God chose Israel in order to make things happen as they did. To show people his power and his love. History is messy and complicated, but that doesn't mean it was all purposeless. God loves us, personally, individually, and powerfully. Israel was a part of his plan to show that to us and to the world. He always planned to give everyone a part in the nation of Israel. Christianity is the "new Israel," the nation of God where everyone, ethnically Jewish or not, gets to be a citizen with full rights and privileges. That is something to get excited about.

* I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. Communities tend to function better the smaller the scale. In fact, I would argue that much of the way we've built up a global economy has caused problems rather than solved them. We may have given access to technology to everyone in the world, but we've depleted the freedoms and wealth of countless peoples and nations to do it, making that technology practically worthless to them. Who wants a smartphone when you don't even have enough food to eat? I'm not saying global economy can't be done well--I think we must find ways to make it work, because it's not going away. But we also need to find ways to bring back the insulation of small communities against "the outside." Only when we prioritize small communities will we be able to have a healthy global economy. The basic needs and rights of individuals are better served on the small scale where there are fewer externalities, generalizations, and people being overlooked. This is a huge part of why I care more about buying local food/products than buying organic/fair trade food. (I also know that those labels are completely unregulated and thus distorted. But that's a story for another time.)
** One of my greatest hopes as an abolitionist is to see this happen again: slaves around the world being rescued and walking as one out of their bondage. And I fully believe it's possible. The joy of such an exodus cry gives me strength.
*** That is, the question of where do people who haven't heard of Jesus or didn't have him represented to them as he is (that is, all they heard was that he was a false prophet etc.) go when they die.