A non-Jewish friend recently asked if there is anything in the Bible for non-Jews. Having made a paradigm shift in reading the Bible and recognizing the centrality of Israel, it is actually possible to feel a sense of loss. Years of reading the Bible carelessly and applying texts with no concern for their intended audience can make re-reading the Bible confusing.
In this excerpt from my book, The World to Come, I address some parts of the question, “How does a non-Jew locate himself or herself in the Biblical conversation?”
The wheat farmer in China and the mountain villager in Khazakstan, the goat herder in Jordan and the bushman in Botswana, the commodities trader in Chicago and the cab driver in London—God sees each one and loves. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” the Psalmist asks God (Psa. 8). “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor,” he continues. The text actually says “a little lower than God,” but translators often choose the less controversial possibility “heavenly beings.”
There is something different in the Creation account about the stars and the humans, the mountains and the babies, the ocean and a woman. The stars were spoken into being, as were the ocean and the mountains. But a man or woman or child began with a divine sculpture, formed from the clay. Mount Everest may be inspiring, but it is not made in God’s image and likeness, neither is the Grand Canyon.
In his book, Sex God, Rob Bell describes a safari trip he made with his family. They witnessed a pride of lions and saw a male mating with a female. It was a rough affair, lacking tenderness—a business transaction in an animalistic way. The lioness did not say to the lion, “Wait, before we do this, do you love me? Will you care for me and our cubs?” The lion did not paw her hair tenderly and say, “You are the one I was made for.” Even a majestic animal like a lion lacks the spiritual nature and intellectual depth that makes man a marvel. Lions are made far below God, not merely a little.
The grandeur of all humankind is a teaching of the Bible. God’s love has never been limited to one group within humanity. Rather, through one group, Israel, God’s love enters the world in a tangible way: through prophets and apostles and ultimately through Messiah.
Many of God’s great declarations of love in the Bible are directed specifically to Israel and not to all humankind. He says to Israel, “I love you with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3) He speaks tenderly to his wayward wife Israel and says:
How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender. (Hos. 11)
Passages like these gave rise to a problem of interpretation. When Jews brought the Bible to non-Jews confusion started very early. When a non-Jew reads his or her Bible it is with certainty that the everlasting love of God is for him or her too. So how do we interpret and teach these passages?
The common approach is to ignore the original intent. The love letter to Israel is appropriated by non-Israel. A pastor preaches Jeremiah 31:3 as God’s love for all. A youth pastor puts a poster of Jeremiah 29:11 on the wall. It’s a bit like stealing a line from someone else’s love letter and addressing it to yourself or to someone else.
But what are non-Jews to do? The Bible should not be a book just for Jews, should it? God made us all just a little lower than himself, right?
Indeed, and there is a way to be true to the Bible and see God’s everlasting love for all nations, tribes, and tongues. Yes, God loves Israel in an intimate way, but he has always planned to bring the nations in. It has always been there, and like two different children of the same father, we are both loved, Israel and the nations.
Abraham, Joseph, and Moses
A man had two sons, one older and one younger. He said to the first, “I am going to help you prosper and succeed in my business, but I am not doing this only for you. I am going to bless your younger brother through you. You must not forget why you are prospering.”
So God said to Abraham, “I will make your name great.” He also said, “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” The principle is that the one who blesses Abraham’s children will be blessed and the one who curses will be cursed. This is a principle of relationship, the younger brother’s prospering tied to the older brother, with the same father.
God demonstrates the principle several times in the stories of Abraham and his sons. A foreign king unknowingly takes Sarah to be in his harem and God threatens him. Isaac grows mightier than the local king because God is blessing him. The king sends Isaac away fearing a war, but later the king makes a covenant with Isaac. He says, “We saw very clearly that Adonai has been with you.”
The story of Abraham’s children and the nations is especially demonstrated in the life of Joseph. Joseph is sold into the nations, but rises to prominence because of God’s covenant blessing. Soon the nations face a famine, but they come to Joseph, the seed of Abraham, to be rescued. Blessing comes to the nations through Israel. This is God’s pattern.
In any given generation, the pattern does not necessarily work. The older brother, Israel, forgets why he is prospering. The younger brother grows mighty and persecutes the younger brother. All sorts of things go wrong. But the pattern will come out in the end. It is God’s foolproof plan. The younger brother will be blessed through the older.
At the end of the Torah, Moses sang a prophetic song. It is a somewhat difficult poem and many modern readers have little patience with poetry. Yet, if you take the time, Deuteronomy 32 is comprehensible. And in it, God said through Moses, “I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.”
It is the same principle Paul declares in Romans 11:11. In the time of the older brother’s folly, God will use the younger brother to win him back. The nations need Israel and Israel needs the nations. From the beginning, God has had a place for the nations in mind. From the Chinese wheat farmer to the Botswanian bushman, God loves with everlasting love.