Seven good things that couldn’t save Israel

Here’s an extended thought on the narrative structure of the Bible.

the Bible

When most people nowadays hear the word “Israel”, they’ll probably think of the modern nation-state in the middle east, that controversial place that for some reason America is good friends with, and that occupies Palestinian land (or something like that). That might open a range of interesting conversations, but in this context, we can brush them aside, for what I mean by ‘Israel’ is the people of God in the Old Testament – I’m using it fairly loosely to mean “people before Jesus”, and most of what I say I think applies more broadly still to “people without Jesus”. It will actually turn out that the title of this post is pretty much completely misleading, as at least one of the “things” I’ll list isn’t actually particularly good, but I’ll let you work out which one. Let’s begin.

There are a number of activities or traits found in the Old Testament that contrary to what the reader may expect, do not result in salvation, that do not create purity or mend individual or national relationship with God. They’re mostly (though actually not all) good things, they just don’t save. If they had gotten these things right, it would’ve been of some benefit, but the people of the Old Testament commonly got them wrong, and even when they got them more or less right, it turns out that they weren’t really the kind of things that guarantee or even contribute to salvation.

Each of these stories of failure leads up to the story of God’s success in Jesus, the Messiah (the one anointed by God), and I think helps to make sense of the idea of ‘progressive revelation’ – that God progressively revealed truth, culminating in Jesus, with allowance for many relative failures by people along the way. God’s methods were accommodated to the fallibility of His people, but the message of God’s grace and truth is a bright thread throughout the ugly story of human wrongdoing.

Adam, the first man who walked with God, was given work to do. He had the role (shared in some way with his wife Eve), arguably, of being something like a priest-king in a garden set aside from the rest of the world. Adam succeeded in naming the animals, but through disobedience and lack of vigilance failed in his broader task of stewardship. As a result, he was removed from the garden, removed from eternal life, and separated from relationship with God.
Israel worked as slaves in Egypt. Israel’s priests followed a demanding schedule. God’s people often worked, but salvation comes from God alone, through God’s gracious action imposed into the nexus of human relationships.

The failure of works-righteousness.

The idea of finding God in the wilderness is quite common, and it intrigues me, so I thought I’d make an attempt at interacting with it here. Wilderness is a common motif in the Bible too, but as is often the case with that book that has been so influential in world history, I don’t think it says what you might think it says. (For an example of what many people think it says, see this otherwise quite good TED talk on introverts. [here]) 
Wilderness is associated in the Bible with lack of order, with punishment (e.g. the ‘scape goat’ and Israel’s 40yr wanderings), and with temptation (Jesus). While God does speak to Moses from the burning bush and guides Israel by cloud and by fire, perhaps it is an important part of the narrative that these actions are unexpected. In other words, while God chooses to find people in the wilderness, they would be irreconcilably lost there without Him. Perhaps there is also a positive aspect to ‘wilderness’ in the Biblical story though (e.g. John the Baptist) – I’ll have to think more about this…

Note that this item doesn’t really fit in with the theme of this post, as Israel didn’t try to pursue God in the wilderness, so the biblical narrative probably doesn’t on any plausible interpretation set this up as a ‘false hope’ in the way that it may for at least some of the others. If anything, people in the OT may’ve committed the alternative error of seeking hope and salvation in cities (e.g. Babel, and perhaps the other great cities of Ninevah and Babylon) rather than in God. Given the conditions of the time period, it’s hardly surprising that they might seek the relative ease of city life; again, not a bad thing, but not the proper end point.

The failure of wandering in the desert, or asceticism, to find God

I’d also like to think more about this one, so for now I just quote Hosea 6:6 “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

The universal failure to serve God adequately.

One of the lessons about ‘holy war’ that could be drawn from the Old Testament is that it doesn’t work very well. Often in the narrative we see that people choose material gain over purity and fail to leave that which they have been commanded to destroy to God; and even when they decisively win in battle, it is seldom long before new enemies appear or old ones re-form.
In a broken world, war against an aggressor (e.g., perhaps, the Amalekites) or a culture condoning child sacrifice (e.g., perhaps, the Canaanites) could occasionally be just.* But it is never the easy answer that it may appear, and ultimately a better answer is required. If you’re willing to read the Biblical narrative sympathetically, I think you will find that there is a compelling answer presented.

*And, I realise I quite likely just lost you there. But, it may be worth noting that there is a difference between “war is not permissible” and “war has never been permissible”, and I think the difference is morally relevant. As it turns out, I’m inclined to think that after Jesus, wars of aggression are no longer an option for God’s people, as the goal of religious purity, which drove the Old Testament events at issue, cannot be achieved through the death of others; the death of Christ has ended that.
The failure of violence.

Solomon was a great king, and exceedingly wise. But, false gods – gods that were not gods at all – led him astray. The ‘Teacher’ in Ecclesiastes, perhaps Solomon himself, bemoans the inadequacy of wisdom to satisfy. If the sage and the fool share the same fate, is there any ultimate point in preferring one lifestyle over the other?

The failure of education.

(or, for that matter, husbands, but that doesn’t start with W.)
Solomon found out that having heaps of wives didn’t guarantee happiness, and led in fact to his downfall. Similarly David, and others throughout the Old Testament experienced the consequences of mis-ordered relationships. Marriage is good, and part of God’s intention for humanity as found in Eden, but it is ultimately little more than a symbol of things which are better and more important.

Daring to comment in public on something relating to women in the Bible may result in an outpouring of wrath or outrage from various readers, and I understand why. So, for now I just quote Tim Keller, discussing polygamy in the book of Genesis. “The lesson is simple: Be patient with the text. Consider the possibility that it might not be teaching what you think it’s teaching.”

The failure of sex
and as a bonus, the failure of pluralism.
I might be mocked for this, so let’s be clear – sex and pluralism are not necessarily bad, by any means (pluralism in a sense like ‘multiculturalism’, in any case), but neither is a route to salvation; neither is appropriate as the ultimate goal of human life or society.

According to the story of Noah, God judged human civilisation through water; but the reprieve from sin was temporary. The water of the red sea drowned the Egyptian army, and perhaps served to prefigure Christian baptism. Water is associated with ritual purity, particularly of the priests, in the Old Testament Law. But water was ultimately just a symbol of cleanliness, rather than the real thing.

The failure of ritualism.

And, so, finally, in the face of this seven-fold insufficiency, what shall we say? While the Bible teaches that each of these seven things has its benefits when situated in the context of a community created and shaped by grace, they are not enough – much as in the case of the 10 Commandments, which make more sense when read in their narrative context as a response to God’s saving actions.The true story of Jesus does something to reorient how we might perceive each of these seven things.

He alone worked well enough to please God,
He alone overcame the temptation in the wilderness and bore the punishment found outside the city walls,
He alone presented an adequate sacrifice,
He alone conquered the real enemies of sin and death,
through Him – as the agent of God in creation and redemption – alone comes knowledge of God,
He alone models proper relationship,
He alone washes people clean.


Where did this stuff come from? Hopefully at least partly from the Bible, but also particularly influenced by thoughts from Tim Keller (on polygamy and primogeniture), Eleanore Stump (on war), Peter J Williams (on the ethics of the Old Testament) and GK Beale (on Adam, Israel, and Christ). 


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