I am grateful for the religion classes I had in college. I wasn’t a religion major, but I took all the classes to be one, including the thesis class. I took them because I was hungry for the truth that was contained in the ancient scriptures. That hunger began as a hunger for truth, and I searched for it in history, literature, art, philosophy and wherever I could find it, including religion.
I searched for whatever truth I could find in the various religions of the world, but the religion classes at Cornell College where I did my undergraduate work were largely the Judeo-Christian scriptures. There I got a solid academic foundation in the Old Testament and New Testament, with an emphasis on the Pentateuch (Books of Moses), writings and the Prophets, because one of the two religion professors was Jewish.
I appreciate the sense of the sweep of biblical history that this education gave me. I wasn’t taught in the context of a particular Christian denomination, but from a Jewish perspective. So, I appreciate what James Michael Smith is doing in his ministry, the DiscipleDojo, who presents an authentic Ancient Near East perspective of Deuteronomy in the podcast that is embedded below. I encourage you to listen to the whole thing (and listen to the other installments if your interest is piqued).
To get an accurate and nuanced understanding of God’s interaction in history with His covenant people that became the backdrop and springboard for His plan of universal redemption, it helps to understand the Ancient Near East that formed the historical context for this interaction. The Abrahamic people were very much people of the Ancient Near East. God’s interaction connects with them where they were in the cultural understandings that informed them.
It’s amazing to me to think about how this very intimate and familiar interaction in an Ancient Near East culture (Bronze Age people as skeptics like to point out) has become a timeless, ongoing and ever relevant message for us through the Scripture that was inspired and written down in the process. How could such a Bronze Age perspective carry forward such a universal and timeless message?
Detractors are simply ignorant of any nuanced and accurate understanding when they criticize the Old Testament. They, literally, are ignorant on the subject. But, I digress.
The video explains how most of the Chapters of Deuteronomy parallel the treaty format that nations followed in the Ancient Near East, except that this “treaty” was between the Abrahamic people and their God, rather than two rival nations and their gods. The treaty or covenant format of the Ancient Near East is the structure of God’s covenant with His chosen people. It’s what they would be familiar with, albeit in a completely unprecedented new way – between a people and their God.
In other nations, there was separation between the people and their gods. With Israel, their God entered into covenant with them to dwell among them, the holy with the common. While the covenant structure is similar to the nations around them, the covenant terms and the covenant relationship is uniquely different – God dwelling among and with His people in covenant relationship.
And this covenant relationship was to point toward an even more transcendent way God intended to dwell among His people in a worldwide covenant relationship (kingdom) without political, ethnic or national borders. “Israel is the preview of coming attractions,” says Michael. “Israel was not intended to be the final stage of global redemption.”
“All the way back to Genesis 15, God always had bigger plans for Israel than Israel.” In Genesis, God promises Abram (to become known as Abraham) an heir, though he is old, and a land God would give his descendants (though it would be 400 years before they possessed it), and God made a covenant with Abram that was a precursor to the covenant with the descendants of Abraham.
God would later promise that nations would descend from Abraham (Genesis 17). When that first descendant, Isaac, was finally born – and Abraham was firmly wedded to the idea of a covenant relationship with God and in faith – God reveals that “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” through Abraham. (Genesis 22:18). God’s plan was firmly in place with the end goal being to bless all the nations of the earth.
It wasn’t about Abraham. It wasn’t about Israel. It was about all the nations of the earth from the start. God used Abraham and His descendants to work his plan to redeem and bless all the nations. “The whole thrust of the Old Testament as it pertains to Israel themselves… was always intended to point beyond Israel.” They were the soil from which the Messiah was to spring, leading to the redemption of the world.
Israel would transgress every element of the covenant God made with them, and they, themselves, would need redemption. Though they were meant to be the platform from which the redemption of the world would come, they, themselves, would undermine that very platform and need redemption – no differently than the rest of the world.
Until Jesus was born, it was a mystery how redemption could come to the world through Israel, all the more so as Israel violated every element of the very covenant God made with them such that they needed the same redemption that was to come through them.
But, we shouldn’t judge Israel. We aren’t any better. That’s part of the message. We all need redemption. We have all fallen short. There are no exceptions.
The good news is that God is willing to live among us and desires to live with us. He always has! In fact, he doesn’t just want to live among us; He wants us to live in us; and He desires to redeem all of us – that none would perish. (John 3:16)
This is what God has been planning and accomplishing from the very beginning.