One of the basic concepts in Israelite religion was the people’s trust in God. The word faith does not appear often in the translations of the Old Testament in our English Bibles. For instance, the word “faith” appears only eighteen times in the Old Testament of the New Revised Standard Version. However, faith or trust in God was an important element in Israelite religion. The Psalmist said: “I kept my faith, even when I said, ‘I am greatly afflicted’” (Psalm 116:10).
An important component of faith in God is singleness of heart. Faith can be defined as reliance upon the word, power, or love of another person. In the Bible, the people of Israel encountered the living God and experienced his presence, his love, his faithfulness, and his mighty acts through revelation. The revelation of God to his people unfolds through God’s intervention in the history of Israel. But it also came as the people saw God in creation: “The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all peoples see his glory” (Psalm 97:6).
Faith and trust in God also came as the people read their historical traditions, spoke about God’s mighty acts, remembered God’s faithfulness in keeping his promises, and told of fulfilled prophesies. Thus, the passing down of the ancient tradition, both written and oral, and the reliving of their encounters with God provided meaning to the lives of the people of Israel.
When a person relived Israel’s encounter with God, that person experienced a personal encounter with God himself, thus strengthening that person’s faith and trust in God. The main idea behind the word faith is confidence in God for who he is and for what he has done. Faith is not a feeling of self trust or self reliance. Faith is trust in God’s promises and God’s character.
Faith, properly understood, describes a person’s apprehension of the divine or the transcendent. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). The fear of the transcendent is an indispensable element without which true religious experience cannot develop. The distinctiveness of Biblical faith resides in the fact that Yahweh is willing to start the relationship with human beings and this fact alone is worthy of a person’s trust.
Trust in Yahweh is best understood not as a course of action to be pursued, but as an attitude of mind to be cultivated. The people of Israel learned to trust in God because of what they had seen and heard. They had a will to believe.
In the Bible, God is the primary initiator of the actions that produce faith and people must respond to what God has done. In fact, for faith to exist, an individual must respond in movement. Faith is an event, movement, happening. Faith comes to an individual in his or her existential situation, informing and transforming them.
Faith in God, as in any vital relationship, is a matter of constant challenge and response, approach and withdrawal, relinquishing and possessing. Faith can be seen as a gift that releases an individual from the bondage of self to the freedom one finds in a personal relationship with God.
The idea of faith impacting the future of an individual can also be seen in the Bible. Yahweh’s revelation of himself to Israel is often concerned with the future, since divine revelation is often accompanied by Yahweh’s promises to Israel. Biblical faith is often belief in Yahweh’s fidelity to fulfill his promises. Faith sees the future with confidence. The people of Israel placed their future in God’s hands because they knew that God had a plan and a purpose for them: “For I know what I have planned for you, says the LORD. I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Faith believes that God’s plan for the future means that God’s purpose will be accomplished in history. To trust that God has the final say on the future involves an intellectual understanding of the revealed truth. Faith is not an ignorant, blind obedience, but rather it carries intellectual obedience. Faith recognizes the sovereignty of God and channels the giving of oneself to Yahweh to be controlled and remade by that which commands trust and devotion.
Faith carried the Israelites throughout their history. The faith of Israel was the unique gift offered to the people by Yahweh’s faithfulness. No other nation in the Ancient Near East depended on faith for their existence as much as the people of Israel did.
“The righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary