13 May 2008

defining god's people

John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel's Gospel Volume 1 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003).

Although I have had Goldingay's theology on the shelf since its publication, I do owe Tilling (and also McKnight) a bit of gratitude for inspiring me to finally dust it off and dive in.  It hasn't been because of a lack of desire but rather that I've been preoccupied with other things that a volume this size was just beyond my reach.  Now that I've pushed away the excuses, I must admit that this work is quite incredible.  There is so much within it that I will not attempt a review, but will work through some of the material at random.

In his chapter which primarily covers the material found in Joshua and the conquest (Chapter 7: God Gave), Goldingay makes some interesting observations regarding the people of Israel and the Canaanites.  The narrative does indeed seem to demonstrate that the Canaanites were not destroyed or dispossessed simply because they were Canaanites, but because they were not Israel.  This is an important distinction as it removes the theology of God choosing favorites among the humans - blessing some and damning others - and instead pushes the idea of Israel being defined as those God has chosen to bless the world.

The way in which Goldingay identifies this distinction is to consider the many cases in which native people of the land (e.g., Rahab and the Gibeonites, who may or may not have started a touring R&B group by the same name) have the opportunity to participate in the community of Israel: "Their story also shows how the native peoples who come to recognize Yhwh may indeed join Yhwh's people, despite Moses' strict injunctions" (511).  The notion of Israel being a nation which secluded itself from others, primarily by ridding the land of those who were not Israel (ḥērem) is thus more appropriately understood as a theological purity of the covenant community: "The ḥērem was always a theological principle rather than a practice.  It constituted an assertion that Israel must not allow itself to be led astray by the traditional religion of the land" (500).

So it appears as though the initial idea set forth for Israel did not intend to be as much of a closed system as it later became.  It further appears, at least from Goldingay's reading of the narrative, that the nation of Israel was not intended to be defined on the basis of ethnicity alone.  "In principle Canaanites must be eliminated, but Canaanites who behave like Israelites may take their place within the people of God . . . For people of unquestionable pedigree, too, real membership of Israel involves choice, the decision to serve Yhwh rather than the gods of Canaan" (511, emphasis mine).

As one of the earliest biblical texts defining Israel by comparison to the world, it would appear that the definition of the people of God is based upon commitment to his statutes.  Perhaps, then, Jesus' radical redefinition of the kingdom is partly a return to the original ideal.  I agree with N. T. Wright (and others) that part of Jesus' radical redefinition was that he was drawing the lines of the kingdom around commitment to himself, but if that is part of his restarting Israel, then this portion is actually a return to the earliest definition of Israel.  That is, Jesus standing as yhwh over the twelve disciples/tribes demonstrates the same distinction between the people of God and the world.  My point being that Jesus' definition of God's people need not be interpreted as being quite as novel as first thought.

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