My placement supervisor referred to it as ‘The Big Story of the Bible’, this unfolding narrative of God’s great plan from creation to the day when God makes everything new. When we tell that story, a large chunk of the story can sometimes seem almost ‘unnecessary’ to us: The story of Israel. Sometimes, apart from finding a wealth of great Sunday school stories in the Old Testament, we aren’t quite sure what to make of it. To make matters more complicated, the books of the Bible aren’t ordered chronologically, so picturing a timeline and how events unfurled requires a bit of work. Today, we’ll make try to get that overview.
You will remember that we left Adam and Eve around the time when the dark consequences of their disobedience dawned on them. Evicted from the garden it wasn’t long before the world’s first murder took place as Cain killed his brother Abel. Within a few generations, things had become so bad that God decided to completely remodel creation in a giant flood. Man’s pride and desire for autonomy led to some attempts at ‘self-worship’ at the tower of Babel, so God confused their languages. Later on, God calls Abraham and gives him the promise. A couple of generations later, a set of twin brothers, Esau and Jacob, are born. The younger cheats the older out of his birth right with the help of his mother and a bowl of lentil soup. In the next generation, a father’s favouritism leads a group of jealous brothers to sell their brother into slavery in Egypt, while claiming he has been killed by wild animals. Not a lot of ‘shalom’ here. After many trials, Joseph, ready for his place in history, becomes an Egyptian official whose gift of administration saves many people from death during a famine. After a remarkable scene of reunion and forgiveness, the whole family comes to live in Egypt. Not long after, however, the political climate changes and the Israelites become slaves. Moses is born and placed in a basket in the river Nile as his mother can’t bring herself to follow the command that all male infants must be killed. He is raised as an Egyptian prince and many years later, after an anything-but-great start to his relationship with his own people, he leads them out of Egypt in the Exodus and receives the Law on stone tablets. As some say, it was the first ever download from ‘the cloud’.
In all these instances, what is really going on underneath the surface is that God is deepening His covenant with humankind, and later specifically with the people of Israel. The promise to Adam and Eve at creation that they are free to multiply and steward creation and later, that the snake’s head will be crushed. The promise to Noah and all of creation symbolised by the rainbow that never again will there be such a flood. The promises to Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the sky, possess lands and become great nations are all given by God as gifts, as grace bestowed on His servant, Abraham. And then, in God’s covenant with Moses and the Israelite people at Mount Sinai, God vows to take Israel as His treasured possession if they will keep His commandments. The Israelites accept the offer, and God speaks the words that make them a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. God also gives them a sign, with a deep meaning: The Sabbath is a reminder of God’s deep shalom-peace and His world order. (Ex 31 v 12-17).
Today’s reading could look like God simply giving the Israelites a privileged status. Sadly at times, it has been the cause of unhealthy pride, not healthy humility. It’s a huge privilege to be God’s chosen people, but it comes with enormous responsibility and happens due to God’s grace, not human achievement. Unplug God, and pooff! By divine decree, God made a nation of those who were not a nation. God didn’t look around for the largest nation, not even for the smallest one. He looked around and saw a man, Abraham, whose wife couldn’t have children and decided that those two together would do nicely as the starting point for God’s own people. Plugged into God, all things are possible. A few centuries later, a group of people become a holy nation; it comes into being as God gives it its purpose: To stand out from the crowd in order to lead people into an encounter with God, fulfilling their role as a kingdom of priests whose function is to facilitate those divine encounters and be an example. With God, nothing truly exists until it begins working and fulfils its role in God’s order. Will this new nation succeed in doing that? Will we?