Judaism, Christianity and the People of God

Jake Cook on Knowledge, Faith and the Abrahamic Religionsby Jacob Cook

After two posts relating Christianity and Islam, let’s consider a theme in biblical Judaism. In a space that will be all-too-brief (and too long at the same time), I want to explore what it means to be the “people of God.” Over 4,000 years after Abraham’s journey of faith, Christians in 21st-century America have many of their own ideas about peoplehood. Yet a fresh lesson from the Good Book may be prove helpful.

From our place in history, we can see a number of distinct possibilities for what makes a people. The United States’ founding “We the People” draws on 17th-century social contract theories for how and why people choose to work together for the common good. At the same time, we know that peoplehood is often framed in terms of racial and/or ethnic heritage. And global religious communities present a third angle for understanding peoplehood—specifically, what it means to be God’s people. That we can tell these “peoplehoods” apart does not mean we always distinguish between them.

With such distinctions in mind, how should we think about the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the ancient Hebrews; the ancient Israelites; and religious Jews? Which people did God choose and for what purpose? Are these all one and the same? Honestly, the Bible paints several pictures, and we might struggle to detect clear-cut boundaries. To demonstrate this point and to highlight some lessons for modern Christians, I want to sprint through some history in and around the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament).

Abraham’s Kith and Kin

Called to leave the land of his fathers, “Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:5). So, from the beginning, Abram (later Abraham) led a group of people; he was not a solitary wayfarer.

By a combination of blessing and trickery, “things went well for Abraham. . . . He acquired flocks, cattle, male donkeys, men servants, women servants, female donkeys, and camels” (Gen. 12:16). Abraham acquires more of the same by the same combination in Genesis 20. But for a man of God like Abraham—whatever his gambit—the acquisition of “servants” could mean nothing other than adding more people to his “household” (a network of valued kith, if not kin). Elsewhere in this saga, Abraham blurs some lines by conceiving a child, Ishmael, with Sarah’s Egyptian handmaiden, which may not be entirely beside the point.

Taking favor on Abraham, God promises him many children who will be God’s people and who will inherit the land of Canaan and the favor of God. This promise would have meant a great deal to an aged Abraham who did not yet have children. But he would not have heard God excluding any of his extended household from his own blessing or belonging to his God. What’s good for Abraham is good for his whole house.

Beyond this point, God even explicitly names how other peoples will be blessed. “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). “You will be the ancestor of many nations” (Gen. 17:4). God even promises to directly bless the line of Ishmael (Gen. 17:20), through whom Muslims trace their faith-ancestry. (The concept of “Abrahamic faiths” as a kind of kinship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam comes from this story.) So, the people centers on faithful Abraham, but its boundaries are fuzzy and its blessings exceed the boundaries anyway.

People of the Exodus

On a contemporary note, the last century has shown us how much inhumanity can result when myths of racial purity take on power within a people. An important case in point is the massive inhumanity directed at Jews during the WWII-era Holocaust, which Jews call by the Hebrew word “Shoah” (meaning: catastrophe). As I reflect on how to ensure something like that never happens again, I find myself highly suspicious of any claim that God calls a people to himself and treasures them above all others strictly on the basis of a (relatively) pure bloodline.

My misgivings seem vindicated when I consider the details of the Exodus story. Remember, the descendants of Jacob found favor in Egypt after Joseph played the role of advisor to the Pharaoh. But eventually a pharaoh took charge who didn’t remember Joseph or his role in Egypt’s prosperity. Fearing the aliens would overtake society and rise against him, the pharaoh forced non-Egyptians to do hard labor and instructed midwives to kill male Hebrew children at birth.

To make a long story short, as the children of Abraham embarked on their exodus, “a diverse crowd also went up with them” (Ex. 12:38). It should come as no surprise that God’s instructions for how to celebrate the first Passover included provisions for outsiders and aliens who—when circumcised—should be regarded as insiders (Ex. 12:48-49).

This inclusiveness is later enshrined in the law: “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourselves because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:34). Here, the law extends the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” that appears a few verses earlier (Lev. 19:18). You might recognize that one from somewhere (hint: Mt. 22). So, the people centers on the delivered, but that makes its boundaries fuzzy.

Blessing the Nations

When the (motley) people arrived at Mt. Sinai, God said to them, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). Upon their rebirth as a “people,” God calls the children of Abraham to bless anew all the families of the earth. Yet again, the people’s blessings exceed its boundaries. But how this should play out is not clear in Abraham’s story or in the kingdom of Israel.

As a Christian looking back at the history and evolution of Judaism-the-religion, I find that we inherit some of the most beautiful theology from the experience of exile. Some Jewish interpreters have characterized this period as God not only rebuking the people’s excesses, but also pushing his beloved to fulfill their longtime vocation. For the prophet Jeremiah, this meant recovering a grittier vision of God’s mission in the world: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).

Admittedly, this vision seems at odds with much of the history that went before it. Think of the people’s conquests in Joshua or the character of Israel as an ancient kingdom making war with others (thanks to kings Saul and David and the like). But these stories take on new meaning when you read them from the perspective of the exile, when the people were processing why they lost their kingdom. The short, prophetic answer: you failed to keep the covenant. But maybe these stories reveal how God’s people struggle to fulfill their covenant when they think that being the people of God means “God is on our side no matter what.” If this is the mindset, it’s hard to imagine how the people can fulfill their vocation as priests among the nations.

The Blessing Returns

As God’s people heeded Jeremiah’s call to seek the common good, they were also “born again” in their faith. Living fully in their “now,” many Jews became Jews all the more (rather than Israelites). They learned to sing songs of their God in a land that was not (and need not be) their own. During this time, Sabbath observance and Halakha practice became increasingly significant, and the Hebrew Scriptures attained their final form. Exilic Jews not only survived in Babylon; in one sense, you might say they thrived.

Sure, many longed for the days when a king like David would reunite the scattered people in a country of their own. But the greater vision centered on the restoration of God’s kingship: all nations would stream to the holy mountain on the Day of the Lord (Isa. 2:2). The hope of God’s people is not an exclusive blessing for one nation, but the peace of God’s reign extending to all nations. And their calling is to participate in that vision, even in a land of sojourn.

We might conclude that Christians who number among “God’s people” walk with God with faith like Abraham. And they are called by God to serve the world in all aspects of their lives. Naturally, this means that not every aspect of any given Christian’s identity is also part of what it means to be “God’s people.”

When we’re honest, we know our social identities form us—nation, political party, race, class, and so on. But the life of our church, as part of God’s peoplehood, is always counter-forming us. The story of the church guards us (and our neighbors, aliens among us, even our enemies) from the possibility that our other “peoplehoods” will overextend themselves, narrowing and sharpening the boundary around the people of God.

And the People of God?

The people of God do not reside in any one nation-state; they are distributed. The people of God do not come from a single racial and/or ethnic background; it’s diverse. Being a part of God’s people is not about us at all; it’s a call to serve.

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