Salvation in the Old Testament? How Non-Family Became Family.
I’ve been using Wednesdays to discuss why I believe friendships have played a critical role in the history of the faith. Most recently, this brought up a question: Why would a God who didn’t want man “to be alone” decide to divide humans from each other at The Tower of Babel? (If you’re just starting today, you can read the whole series in order here.)
Today, we zoom in on Abraham. While there’s a lot of territory to cover over the next few weeks, look for this progression: what begins with Abraham as a discussion about “family” eventually grows to connect people who are not genetically related.
Abraham and Adam and Eve as Founding Parents
Typically, when people delve into Abraham’s life, they talk about:
- his role as a “patriarch” or Founding Father of the Jewish faith
- how God promised Abraham several things, usually summarized by the words “land,” “descendants,” and “blessing.”
Before we get any further into the Abraham stories, then, we would be remiss not to notice how these bullet points echo God’s intentions for Adam and Eve. Again, there is a “founding” figure–a parent of many. And again, there is land to be shared, there is talk of multiplying/descendants, and there is a desire to see humankind flourish.
This alone makes for great starting ground: When God talks about his hopes for humans, it always involves families and living in connection to one another.
Family as Carriers of Blessing
Not only does God vocalize an ongoing desire to see families–tribes of related people–flourish, perhaps just as importantly, he continues to identify families/tribes as carriers of blessing.
Like in Genesis, the descendants of Abraham will bless the world. They too, like Adam and Eve, will be image bearers of sorts. They too are sacraments of God for each other. Or, as Jacob (Abraham’s grandson) later puts it, We are God’s people and God is our God.
When they were with God, they belonged.
An Ever Expanding Family: From Israel Outward.
But depending on how you track God’s promises to Abraham across the rest of Scripture, the Abraham story might be key to a lot more.
No matter what your theology is, the group known as “God’s people” certainly absorbed people beyond Abraham. The covenant promises God made to Abraham (Genesis 12:3) are later extended to a new generation: to Abraham’s son, Isaac (Genesis 21:12;26:3–4) and to Abraham’s grandson, Jacob (Genesis 28:14–15).
But it wasn’t only Abraham’s genetic descendants that had the ability to relate to God.
Salvation in the Old Testament?
While the Bible doesn’t spell out to what degree non-Israelites might have been incorporated into God’s people (i.e. were they “saved?”), it’s clear God is concerned with those outside of Abraham’s family. And that non-Israelites were sometimes granted belonging and identity among God’s people.
In Genesis 20, for example, Abraham and Sarah tell king Abimelech that Sarah is his sister leading the king to take Sarah as his wife. Clearly, God could have opted to condemn or punish Abimelech. Instead, though, for whatever reason, God chose to speak with a non-Israelite in a dream. In response, Abimelech called God “Lord,” did what was right, and perhaps spared his nation by deferring to God.
Melchizedek is presented as the king of a non-Israelite city called Salem. He is also–and here’s where the theories come in–called a high priest of God. In Hebrews, Psalm 110:4 is referenced, which calls Jesus a high priest in the order of Melchizedek.
The Bible doesn’t say how Melchizedek heard about God. Some evangelicals have taken Melchizedek to be an early manifestation of Christ or the Holy Spirit, but all we really know for sure is he was the first known example of a Gentile priest who believed in God. And that the writers of Psalms and Hebrews saw similarities between Melchizedek and Jesus. Whether those writers were noting similarities in Melchizedek and Jesus’ focus (in taking God to Gentiles) or in their actual identities (that Melchizedek and Jesus were the same being), isn’t fully explained.
Jethro is described, in Exodus 2:16, as a priest from Midian. While we don’t know how God regarded Jethro, we do know he probably became acquainted with God’s desires through his son-in-law (Moses). And we do know that Jethro praised the God of Israel after hearing what he’d done for his people (Exodus 2:18).
Exodus 9 and Joshua 4 both recount how God performed miraculous acts in Egypt in order to proclaim his name in all the earth. And Joshua 2 tells us these powerful moves did cause non-Israelites to revere God. (This sounds a little like Matthew 5:16 where the New Testament suggests people will see good works and glorify God, does it not?)
The Hebrew Law
The law God gave to Moses contained several provisions that looked out for strangers–non-Israelites present among the tribe of Israel. Deuteronomy 10:18 specifically says God “loves the foreigner residing among you.” And this love–like the image-bearing charge to Adam and Eve and Abraham–seemed to be the attitude God expected of Israel too. God said that like him, Israel was to treat “the foreigner residing among you” like those who were native-born (Deuteronomy 10 and Leviticus 19).
Here, in this early declaration to love-your-neighbor-as-yourself, non-family are to be treated as family.
Laws went onto provide for foreign neighbors in need (Leviticus 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:19-22). They also spoke against mistreating or exploiting non-Israelites (Exodus 23:9, Deuteronomy 24:14-15, 17-18, 27:19) and insisted foreigners be treated equally under the law (Numbers 15:15-16, Leviticus 24:22).
Jeremiah 12:16 even powerfully suggests that if non-Israelites believed, God would count them among his people.
16 And if they learn well the ways of my people and swear by my name, saying, ‘As surely as the Lord lives’—even as they once taught my people to swear by Baal—then they will be established among my people.
These people who were not genetically-related could even participate in family rituals like Passover (Exodus 12:48-49).
Also, note, even these laws, it seems, were designed in part for the benefit of the non-Israelite. (Deuteronomy 4:6)
6 Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”
Similar to his role in Egypt, the Psalms also hint that God was working to reveal himself to all nations (Psalm 9:11, 67, 96:3,10, 98:2, 105:1). Curiously, they even refer to God as the God of all nations more than once (Psalm 47:8-9, 99:2).
Along these same lines, Psalm 47 and 117 invite other nations to worship God. And Psalm 86 predicts that one day, all nations will worship God.
If the Psalmist knew that one day all believing nations would be absorbed into God’s family, so seemingly did Isaiah. He too spoke of God’s aim to include the Gentiles (42:6, 56:7, 66:19).
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)
Then there’s Jonah. In the childhood version of the story, dominated by a whalish-fish, it’s not always pointed out that the people living in Nineveh were NOT wayward Israelites. They were foreigners (Jonah 3:1). This makes it all the more noteworthy that God sent them someone bearing his message and that, later, when they repented, God spared them. For this reason, Jonah is sometimes described as the first missionary to the Gentiles.
Rahab was not only a non-Israelite resident of Jericho. She was a prostitute. Before Jericho’s walls fell down in the children’s telling, when Joshua and the spies visited the city, Rahab chose to protect them.
Rahab’s words in Joshua 2 seem to suggest that she believed in God:
8 Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof 9 and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea[a] for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed.[b] 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
Because of her belief and actions, the spies entered into a relationship with Rahab, promising to protect her in the future. King David is later noted as a descendant of Rahab. As is Jesus.
Ruth was married to an Israelite (Naomi’s son), but her husband died. She stayed with her mother-in-law after being widowed and was incorporated into the people of Israel through marriage. She too is later noted in the gospel genealogies as an ancestor of Jesus.
David was an Israelite by birth, but he was a descendant of both of the aforementioned women–Rahab and Ruth. Here, then, the beloved king of God’s chosen people (and of course that means, eventually his descendant–the Messiah) are born to the family line of at least two non-Israelites: a prostitute and a widow. (Ruth is thought to have been the great-grandmother of David.)
A Blessing to All Nations
God told Abraham that his family would bring blessing to all the families of the earth. That blessing, as you piece it together across time, is that they could eventually belong to the people of God.
Under God, non-family–neighbors, foreigners, dare I say friends?–could be family.
D.F.C. II October 17, 2014 (2:37 pm)
I read the subject on family ok nheritance of blessings and gene pool?) Etc.
GENESIS: there is more revelations in GENESIS than the standard story when directed word by word and phrase by phrase.
? What is your point of view on the Bible aside a historical documents? Are you a believer in the spiritual aspects of the account mentioned on your take of events?y. Have you been noticing how deep GENESIS is? :) thank you…