Note: The article below is my response to Lauren Winner’s presentation at The Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future.
Now, here is my response to Lauren Winner’s presentation:
I would like to thank Lauren for her stimulating presentation, “The Call and Recovering Our Hebrew Roots.” If the church is to make a difference in the world today, the church has to pay attention to what biblical Israel has to teach us.
But in learning from Israel, the church faces a problem. Lauren reminds us that many Christians have abandoned the Old Testament. She said: “Christians, sadly, too often are default Marcionites, acting as though the Bible begins with the Gospel of Matthew.”
Godfrey E. Phillips, in his book The Old Testament in the World Church (London: Lutterworth Press, 1942), describes how the Old Testament was studied in China. He tells the story of a Chinese pastor who made a statement that reflects the same attitude that exists among the present generation of Christians. That pastor said: “Intending missionaries or evangelists waste their time if they spend a lot of it studying the Old Testament . . . The Old Testament teaching given in theological colleges in China is, in the experience of most students, devoid of interest or value for their after work. Reading the Old Testament is like eating a large crab; it turns out to be mostly shell, with very little meat in it . . . We don’t need to start with Moses and Elijah. It is enough to teach our students about God as Jesus taught or revealed him” (p. 23).
The Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future is a challenge to Evangelical Christians to restore the priority of the divinely inspired biblical story of God’s acts in history. And God’s acts in history include the call of Abraham and the liberation of Israel from Egypt.
The Call is also a summons to Evangelicals to take seriously the visible character of the Church. It is a call for the church to be committed to its mission in the world in fidelity to God’s mission.
In her presentation, Lauren emphasized three practices that Jews and Christians have in common: Sabbath keeping, bereavement, and the sense of community. Since time is limited, I will restrict my remarks to the practice of Sabbath keeping and the idea of community as part of our identity as God’s people.
First, let me say that the concept of the Sabbath was unique to Israel. In the past, it was usual for scholars to trace the concept of the Sabbath to Babylonian religious practices. In the Babylonian calendar there were certain days in which the kings and the priests had to stop performing their official duties.
However, it is doubtful that these special days in Babylon and the Israelite Sabbath were identical. One reason for rejecting a Babylonian origin for the Israelite Sabbath is that these special days in the Babylonian calendar were associated with the phases of the moon, while the Israelite Sabbath was celebrated every seven days.
In addition, in the Babylonian calendar these special days were called “evil days,” while the Israelite Sabbath were festive days, days dedicated to the worship of God.
Second, the Sabbath became a special day in the life of Israel because it was celebrated as a sign of the covenantal relationship that existed between God and his people. In her presentation, Lauren spoke about the importance of identity. She said: “Identity is constituted through our practice, not through what we happen to believe at a particular moment.”
The Sabbath became the foundational element in the religious life of Israel. The Sabbath identified Israel as the special people of God. On the Sabbath, God’s people worshiped God and recognized his work in creation and redemption. Thus, Sabbath keeping emphasized Israel’s special relationship with God.
The Sabbath also became the basis for the social concern expressed in Israelite laws. For instance, on the Sabbath both people and animals should rest: “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12).
The observance of the Sabbath was also designed to be a blessing to the person who kept it. The exilic prophet said that God promised blessings to those who kept the Sabbath. God said: “If you watch your step on the Sabbath and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, if you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy, God’s holy day as a celebration, if you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’ making money, running here and there— then you’ll be free to enjoy God!” (Isaiah 58:13-14).
The keeping of the Sabbath in Israel set Israel apart from the other nations. The uniqueness of Israel is established at the time God established his special relationship with the community of faith:
“Now, if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).
That uniqueness was sealed with the establishment of the covenant and the giving of the Ten Commandments. So important was the keeping of the Sabbath that God established it as one of the commandments:
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8).
Lauren underscored that “Sabbath-keeping is counter-cultural, and must be undertaken by a community.”
As for the idea of community, we must remember that God called Israel to become an alternative community in the world and gave this alternative community a mission in the world: to be his special people, and mediate God’s Word to all nations. As the people of God, Israel was to become an alternative community to the dominant culture of its day. However, for Israel to be able to fulfill God’s mission in the world, Israel had to live in relationship with God.
The church stands on the shoulders of biblical Israel. The church looks at the world from the perspective God gave to the Hebrew people. That, I believe, is the aim of The Call. The Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future challenges the church to recommit itself to “God’s mission in the world.”
Lauren spoke of the Church’s need to recover Judaism’s recognition of community and practice as their identity as God’s people. In order for the church to speak with a prophetic voice to people in the 21st century, the church must become a “counter-cultural community” in the world. The church must be “in the world” without “being of the world.” The church must become what Walter Brueggemann has called “the alternative community of Moses, and the community of the Suffering Servant”: a community empowered by prophetic imagination, a community that refuses to accept the culture of death so prevalent in our society today.
This is precisely the challenge God gave to Israel. In Leviticus 18:1-4, the LORD said to Moses: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.’”
This is the challenge Evangelicals face today. The Call challenges Evangelicals “not to do as they do in the land of Canaan,” the land of Canaan being our North American context. So, let me paraphrase: if the church is to have “an Ancient Evangelical Future,” the church must not do as they do in the land of Canaan and must not follow their practices. To the contrary, as The Call states, the church must “stand prophetically against the culture’s captivity to racism, consumerism, political correctness, civil religion, sexism, ethical relativism, violence, and the culture of death.”
If the church is to have “an Ancient Evangelical Future,” the church must separate itself from the official religion of optimism that is so prevalent today, a religion which proclaims that God’s only work is to maintain our standard of living in order to ensure that his temple will be a Crystal Cathedral.
If Evangelicals are to recover our Hebrew roots, we have to recapitulate “the alternative community of Moses” and “dismantle the politics of oppression and exploitation” by establishing “a politics of justice and compassion.”
If Evangelicals are to recover our Hebrew roots, we have to look at the first Hebrew, our father Abraham, for inspiration. God’s call to Israel to be his people in the world was based on God’s call to Abraham. Abraham was called by God to be a blessing to the nations. When God appeared to Abraham, the Lord said:
“I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
If the church is to be a blessing to the world, we must pay heed to God’s word to Abraham: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
In order for people on earth to be blessed though Abraham, Abraham had to be a blessing to people. God told Abraham: “and you will be a blessing.”
It is unfortunate that the English translations have missed the true meaning of the verb in Hebrew. In Hebrew, the verb is not future: “and you will be a blessing.” Rather, in Hebrew the verb is imperative: “and you, be a blessing.”
If the church is called to have an Ancient Evangelical Future, then the church must go back to that ancient call, God’s call to his people to become a blessing in the world. That is our destiny, that is our mission; we do not have any other choice. The church must be a blessing to people everywhere; this is what makes the church an alternative and unique community in the world, in the same way the Sabbath made Israel a unique people in the Ancient Near East.
I believe the church has a future. The Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future is a summons for the church to rise again as the people of God and take up a mighty task. The Call summons Evangelicals to the service of something greater than ourselves. God is calling us to be that alternative community and to serve his purpose in the world.
The church’s destiny is to be a blessing to all humanity and that destiny is before us today.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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