God’s people in God’s place

The Bible tells us the story of Gods purpose for his creation and how he has stepped in to redeem.  If Systematic Theology helps us to discover specific truths about God and salvation by synthesising the teaching of Scripture into big themes such as “The Doctrine of the Trinity” and “The Doctrine of Sin”, Biblical Theology takes a different approach by helping us to follow the story line as the Bible writers tell it.

Graham Goldsworthy has suggested that Biblical Theology is about

“(a) God’s people

(b) in God’s place

(c) under God’s rule.” [1]

 In other words, the story traces three interrelated themes. There’s the story of God, who he is, what it means for him to rule and to bless, what it means for us to worship him.  There’s the story of “land” which is all about creation, fall and new creation. It’s about God’s presence.  Then there’s the story of “people” about God creating humans to worship him, enjoy him and rule over his creation. What was God’s purpose and intent when he created Adam and Eve? What was it exactly that he did?

“God created a people and entered into relationship with them.”[2]

 It’s that theme we are picking up on now.  To be truly human is to be “God’s people”. Notice that the themes remain closely interwoven.  God’s people belong to him and belong in a specific place, they are not disconnected from history or geography. 

The beginning of the story.

The theme of God’s people in God’s place starts “big picture.”  Humans were made to fill and subdue the entire earth. The story then narrows down as God teaches one man and one woman what it means to enjoy his creation and worship him by placing the first people, Adam and Eve in the Gardenof Eden. There they experience boundaries and constraints. They are not limitless.  Of course, it is there in Eden that they rebel against those limits and constraints and so fall.  The punishment for sin is death but death is expressed as exile. They are banished from the garden of Eden.

It is important to capture that point. Adam and Eve were meant to go out from Eden to fill the whole earth.  To do so under God’s blessing would have been a cause of great joy. However, when sent under curse instead of blessing, there is a sense that this banishment is from God’s manifest, loving presence. They are in exile. 

Genesis 1-6 tells the story of how humans, no longer as God’s people but as his enemies live in exile.  They are multiplying in line with the creation blessing and spreading out to fill and subdue the earth in line with the command. However, instead of spreading the blessing and glory of God, they bring further curse.  The story is one of murder and death. Humans are mortal. They are finite and fallen.  Therefore, when God looks to see what is happening, he finds that the earth is filled with evil.  Hence God brings further judgement through the flood. Humans are in effect exiled still further, through physical death from the surface of the earth itself. Noah experiences this exile too but he is kept safe through this death like exile from the land because of the Ark. 

The end of the Flood is marked with God making a new covenant with Noah, it is symbolised by the rainbow and affirmed with sacrifices.  Noah is a second Adam with a renewed mandate to fill and subdue the earth.  However, the problem of sin remains. Adam’s Son Ham brings shame resulting in a specific curse on his descendants.  Notice that the blessing of being God’s people is narrowed down to the descendants of one son, Shem whilst we also see a narrowing down and focusing of specific elements of curse onto Canaan. 

Shem and Canaan represent two lines of men. There are those who follow after God.  The sons of God if you like.  Then there are the sons of man who emphasise hostility to God. The first line is associated with Abel and Seth, then Shem. The second line is associated with Cain, Ham and Canaan.

The opening chapters of the Bible, Genesis 11 conclude with people seeking to resist God’s command to spread out, to fill and subdue the earth by building a tower at Babel. This act of defiance is also a repetition of Adam’s sin as they seek to make a name for themselves to rival God.  The Lord’s response is to confuse their efforts by disrupting their ability to communicate. The multiplication of languages means that they are forced to spread out, to multiply and to fill the earth.  However, they go without his blessing and thus from his presence. As with Cain and his descendants we should see their situation as being under the curse of death and in exile.

The opening chapters of Genesis paint the picture in the bleakest terms by showing how far away from God’s purposes and plans the human race has strayed. Yet, even at this stage, we are not left without any glimmer of hope. The seeds of that hope are being carefully sown.  God could have given up on humanity but he chose not to.  In fact, Christopher Wright suggests that he had a few options. He puts it this way:

“The early chapters of Genesis relate the tragedy of humanity’s choice of rebellion, disobedience and sin. Faced with the resulting catastrophe, God had, if I may so put it, several options. God could have destroyed the human race and abandoned his whole creation project. The text hints that God considered this possibility (Gen 6:6-7). But God did not destroy or abandon; God chose instead to redeem and restore. “[3]

Even if God chose not to abandon humanity altogether, he had other options according to Wright.  He says:

“Again, one could conceive of God redeeming people individually  -saving one soul here, another there and conveying them straight to heaven. But neither did God do that. God chose to put into operation a plan of redemption that would encompass the whole of the rest of human history and would involve, as part of that history, the choosing, creating and moulding of an entire nation.” [4]

You see, if God’s purpose was to create a people for himself and not just individual human beings, then the rescue plan would have to be bigger than that.  This is why the next step of the story takes us via Ur of the Chaldeans to a place called Haran. 

Wright comments:

“As always, we must pay attention to the order of the Old Testament story.  Genesis 11 tells the story of the Tower of Babel, bringing us to the climax of the stories about humanity after the fall. The nations were scattered and divided in order to prevent a unified rebellion against God. The effects of sin have now reached global proportions. What can God do next? It is against this background that the story of redemption begins in Genesis 12.[5]

A people of promise

As we saw earlier, God appeared to a man called Abram, he later changes his name to Abraham to emphasise that he will not just be the father of one people or nation but of many nations.  It is through Abraham and his descendants that God intends to fulfil his redemptive purpose.  Abraham was originally from Ur and whilst that was a distinct city to Babel, we are meant to pick up that this was the same kind of territory as Babel.  Abraham is called out from the cradle of civilisation but also from the place of rebellion. He is called from the place where humans had attempted to exercise self-determination about where they would settle and stay. Instead, he will go where God sends him. 

“The comparison and contrast between the curse of Babel and the promise to Abraham is very striking …From the land of Babel the curse of confusion and scattering spread to affect the whole world of the nations. But from the land to be given to Abraham, and through the nation he would become, blessing would spread to the same global extent.” [6]

In Genesis 12:1-3, we see that repetition of themes: God, land, people.  Abraham will have many descendants.  He is given a land for him and those who follow to live in and he receives God’s blessing.  Throughout Abraham’s life, in the lead up to the promise of descendants being fulfilled through the arrival of a son, Isaac, God appears to him on several occasions. He meets with him to make a covenant with him and then to reaffirm it.  A covenant is an agreement where different parties commit to keep promises to one another and seal that commitment with public symbolic gestures.  God’s covenants, first with Noah and then with Abraham and his successors are distinctive in that they are one sided. This was not a deal between equal parties. God however both makes the promises and takes on responsibility for the obligations. 

Goldsworthy argues that the covenant with Abraham is an overarching one. Future covenants are not about God starting again and making new promises but about re-establishing, re-affirming and adding more detail to that primary covenant.  According to Goldsworthy,

“This covenant relationship, then, consists in being called the people of God.  Every later expression of this relationship stems from the original covenant.” [7]

This means that the covenant with Moses and the promises to King David formed a subset of the Abrahamic Covenant. It also means that Christ’s death and resurrection, the new covenant bought with the shedding of his blood is also very much a fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that he would inherit a land and be given a people.  Christ is the fulfilment of the promise that all peoples would be blessed in and through Abraham’s descendant. 

“Every Christian is a son or daughter of Abraham.” [8]

Notice too that we are seeing a narrowing down of the focus.  If all of humanity was intended to fill and subdue the whole earth and if they were doing that negatively, against their will and without God’s blessing as scattered exiles, then Genesis takes our attention away from that big picture and asks us to narrow our gaze to focus on one man and his descendants.  Abraham’s call is not to go to the whole world in order to fill and subdue instead he is blessed, he will multiply but in order to populate one place, to fill and subdue one land.

The story of Abraham picks up on some particular tensions between God’s promises and obstacles that might challenge faith.  One obvious one is that the promise of descendants is brought into question by Abraham and Sarah’s barrenness. They must learn to exercise faith.  However, that is not the only challenge.  Other challenges include that the land is contested.  The Canaanites are in the land. Another is the question of whether or not Abraham is yet able to enjoy God’s blessing as the land is afflicted with famine and drought.

So, even in the context of God’s promises and Abraham’s faith we meet again the danger of exile.  Abraham takes his family into the danger of Egypt and later is found at the court of Abimelech, away from the promised land. His son Isaac and grandson Jacob will experience their own exiles after him.

Exile and Exodus

It is through Abraham’s great grandson being sold as a slave by his brothers that God’s people find themselves in Egypt.  Exile is seen as God’s purpose at this stage.  Whilst Joseph’s brothers intended harm, God used their evil intentions for good, to protect his people and safeguard the promise. The descendants of Jacob multiply quickly. The promise of descendants is being fulfilled although away from the land.  There is a reminder here that God’s people in God’s place or God’s presence is not limited by geographical boundaries. The place of blessing is where God chooses to be with his people and shower his goodness upon them.

However, a later Pharoah becomes concerned at the danger that these immigrants in his land present.  Once again, there is someone who is attempting to oppose God, to set himself up as a rival and to thwart God’s purpose for his people to fill the land.  The Israelites become Pharoah’s slaves and he seeks to wipe them out through having their first born sons thrown into the river Nile to die.  He in turn is thwarted by faithful women who resist him including the Israelite midwives, a woman and her daughter and eventually his own daughter the princess. 

A baby boy is born and exiled to the place of death, the River Nile. Like Noah before him, he is kept safe from and through the waters of death by being placed in an ark like basket.  He is discovered by the royal princess and so given the name “Moses” which refers to one drawn out of water.  This one who is saved through and from the waters of death will grow up to lead the people to salvation through the waters of death as they cross the Red Sea.

Before Moses could do that, he must first face Pharoah.  A series of plagues from God demonstrate that God is without rival as the gods of Egypt are defeated.  The final plague brings death to the first born sons of Egypt.  This punishment for their attack on Israel returns us to another important theme.  Israel is seen as God’s son, His firstborn son.

The people are brought to safety across the wilderness.  God is present with them, providing and protecting as well as leading them.  He gives them Laws to live by, instructions about how to live in his presence and to return back to the God of love their whole hearted love. 

Entry into the land is marked by covenant renewal and a choice. They must choose between blessing and curse, life and death.  God defeats their enemies and gives them a land that is fruitful and bountiful with ready built cities to live in and ready planted fields to harvest.  Yet, future generations quickly become forgetful and so God sends judgement.  They suffer from enemy attacks, as other tribes raid and pillage. The land is in danger of becoming curse and death to them. When they cry out to God, he sends saviour-judges to rescue them and defeat their enemies.

A King

The book of judges ends in tragedy, gruesome savagery and civil war.  God’s people forget him again. We are told that they did whatever they liked because there was no king.  The people begin to long for a king to rule them and the certainty and security of dynastic rule. They want a king for all the wrong reasons, one like the kings of the nations.  God gives them such a king in Saul.

However, God eventually chooses a king after his own heart and promises him an everlasting kingdom for his descendants. The focus of the promise is narrowing in again from nation to family.  The promised blessing will come not just from the descendants of Abraham but from a descendant and that chosen one will come from the line of David.

David himself is not the chosen one, not the saviour.  Despite his hunger for righteousness he will sin grievously as will his son Solomon. The kingdom soon descends into civil war and splits into two rival, weaker kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the South.  Some of David’s descendants such as Hezekiah, Uzziah and Josiah fair better than others and seek to follow Yahweh but none are the promised heir.  God’s people still wait for their Messiah, their forever king.

[1] Graeme Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom”, 54.

[2] Christopher J H Wright, Old Testament ethics for the people of God (Nottingham. IVP, 2004),  48.

[3] Wright, Old Testament ethics for the people of God, 48.

[4] Wright, Old Testament ethics for the people of God, 48 -49.

[5] Wright, Old Testament ethics for the people of God,49.

[6] Wright, Old Testament ethics for the people of God,49.

[7] Graeme Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom”, 53.

[8] Graeme Goldsworthy, “Gospel and Kingdom”, 53.

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