The final comments I wanted to make in this little series about the History Channel’s miniseries “The Bible” have to do with its portrayal of the people of Israel.
It’s not surprising this would be an area of difficulty for the series, since the story of Israel (the bulk of the Old Testament) is something most Christians don’t really know what to do with.
“The Bible” rightly paid close attention to the character of Abraham, who is the father of the nation of Israel. The line goes through Abraham’s son Isaac, and it is Isaac’s son Jacob whose family becomes “the twelve tribes of Israel.”
In the Biblical account of Abraham, beginning at the end of Genesis 11, Abraham is a person with a special place in God’s plan. After the human race had fallen apart through the reckless advance of sin (shown to us through such stories as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the wickedness of the flood generation, and the exceeding pride and disregard for God shown at the building of the Tower of Babel), God made a promise to Abraham. This was a promise that would hang over the rest of the Bible story. The promise was to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation and to bless all the nations through his family. In other words, sin had brought the whole world into disarray. God decided to bring healing and restoration to the whole world through the family of one man. God’s choice of Abraham and his family (their “election” in Biblical terms) was not something intended for their own sake, but “for the life of the world” (to quote Jesus from John’s gospel).
But what does it mean to be the people called into a special relationship by God for the sake of the whole world? What does it mean to be the people at the focal point of the world’s problem of sin?
The Biblical story shows it to mean a lot of pain, a lot of suffering. It means you can’t escape from your call. You can’t just “undo” this relationship into which God has called you. But being sinful yourself, it means that failure and faithlessness characterizes your life most of the time. It’s a blessing, but it’s also a struggle. Israel was standing in for the whole world. But Israel was in need of help herself. So one day one particular Israelite would stand in for Israel, and thus stand in for the whole world. This one particular Israelite was Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.
Just as Jesus came to be recognized as a representative and a substitute for us before God, so Israel (his ancestral family) had been something of a representative and a substitute for the world along the road that led to Jesus. The late theologian Colin Gunton said that “Israel, we might say, provides the logic of christology (our understanding of who Jesus is)” (The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, p. 80). If we don’t understand the significance of Israel, we will miss a lot of what happened in Jesus. We won’t know what to do with the Old Testament, or how it relates with the New. We will assume that the Old Testament tells the story of one God (a harsh taskmaster) and one people (the people of Israel), while the New Testament tells the story of another God (the gentle Jesus) and another people (the church). And as Christians, we’ll throw away our Old Testaments and misunderstand the New.
“The Bible” as shown in this miniseries doesn’t help us here. Where is the struggle of Abraham to believe and obey God? Throughout Abraham’s story, almost chapter for chapter we alternate between Abraham’s faithfulness and his faltering obedience. Where is Jacob wrestling with God, not only in that famous scene from his life, but generally? Where are the complaining people in the wilderness after coming out of Egypt? And in all this, where is the merciful God whose love was so fierce that it was in his chastening of them that he showed the good purpose he had for them? The story of Israel, in the Old Testament, is at least in part the story of a people who so often suffer the discipline of God because his love for them is so great that he refuses to let them just wander away from his good plans for them, and for the rest of the world. As Thomas Torrance says, “Israel suffered inevitably from God, for God would not let his people go, even when they rebelled against him and kicked at his way of righteousness, truth and mercy…(God) used the suffering and judgement of Israel to reveal the terrible nature of sin as contradiction to God’s love and grace…” (Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, p. 47).
Instead what we get in “The Bible” is war scenes. Battles and triumphs. Great leaders. Strong human beings. It’s often hard to see from this movie what the Bible insists upon: that in all of Israel’s moments of triumph it was God’s love and hand that led them, never their own strength. And it’s also hard to see that the trouble and sin of the whole world was somehow laid upon Israel’s shoulders in a way that, certainly, Israel couldn’t finally bear. But that trouble and sin was laid upon Israel’s shoulders in a way that one Israelite finally would bear.
If we read the Old Testament rightly, we will see in its pages the same fierce grace and love reaching out to rebellious humanity that finally in the New Testament reached out to us in the fiercest love of all: Jesus’ own death on the cross. We will see that the God who made the world in the beginning, and who involved himself in this world’s affairs through his relationship with Israel, is the same one who redeemed us in Jesus. We will know that his character is consistent, and that we can trust and love him. But with the wrong lenses, we will remain confused.
In closing this little series of posts, I can say that I’m thankful for one thing about “The Bible” series: it’s got people talking. And even if a lot of that talking is for the sake of correction, it can’t be all bad, and who knows how God might use those conversations?