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Genesis - A Missionary Manifesto?

07/01/14+ Share

I've begun writing a commentary on Genesis for a new series: Polis Bible Commentary. This series pairs a Bible scholar with an urban mission specialist to offer an engaging missional commentary on each book of the Bible. I am please to be writing with Kyuboem Lee. 

To keep you all in the loop with this project, I've decided to post excerpts from my writing for this project. These are pre-editing excerpts, so they may not even make it into the final project, but I think you will find them engaging and informative.

This first excerpt may or may not end up in the introduction section. In it I explore whether it is even proper to consider Genesis a missionary document:

Is Genesis a missionary Manifesto?

It is tempting to say that Genesis, indeed most of the Old Testament, is not a missionary document. After all, most of its authors thought they were simply preserving their family history. They thought they were special by virtue of being chosen as God’s holy people, and they may never have thought they would become missionaries to the Gentiles. It is common for scholars to undercut the missionary impulse of Genesis by observing that its key missionary passage, “You will be a blessing to all nations” (Gen 12:1-3), is more properly translated as “all nations will bless themselves by you.” Thus the Israelites did not view themselves as “go ye therefore” type missionaries but as people with their own localized agenda. It is only by their own initiative that Gentiles would find a way to capitalize on Israel’s prosperity. This is supported by other Old Testament passages that envision the nations streaming to Israel, learning God’s ways, and then returning home (Isa 2:3; Mic 4:1-2).

This line of interpretation presupposes a narrow view of God’s missionary people. It assumes that mission work is inherently centrifugal in nature—that is, that proper missionary movement always emanates from the center until it reaches the outermost regions. Genesis and the Old Testament in general, however, exhibit a centripetal movement that prevents objects from drifting away by keeping them close to the center. God’s people are at their best when they strive to keep separate from the nations and at their worst when they mingle with them. This being the case, it appears as if the Old Testament cannot truly be a missionary document.

Though this interpretation has some merit, if one presupposes that the Bible presents a coherent story with movement and direction, then it becomes clear that God’s mission has both centripetal and centrifugal moments. As with parenting, there is a time for keeping children safe at home and a time for sending them out into the world. Also in parenting, there are times early on when children do not fully grasp the future freedom and mobility that awaits them. Such is the case with Israel. Scripture preserves the partial realization of God’s people during different phases of their formation for mission.

Taken as a whole, the Bible culminates in the church carrying forth God’s mission all throughout the world. But God’s people did not and could not have started out that way. They started small—with one man, Abram, and his wife, Sarai. From this modest beginning they had to:

* First, become a numerous people with a distinct identity.

* Second, become a numerous people with a distinct identity that reflects God’s intentions for all creation.

* Third, become a numerous people with a distinct identity that reflects God’s intentions for all creation and is scattered throughout the world and therefore positioned to bless the world.

* Fourth, become a numerous people with a distinct identity that reflects God’s intentions for all creation and is scattered throughout the world and therefore positioned to bless the world by the power of God’s Spirit, having been redeemed, reconciled, and restored by God’s son, Jesus.

It is customary to identify only the final phase with God’s mission. Yet this phase is not possible without the previous three. They are all integral to God’s mission and one does not quite fully grasp phase four without understanding God’s long and patient work in phases one through three.

In light of this wider biblical trajectory, we can begin to grasp what a missional reading of Genesis might entail. It may not contain the whole mission, but Genesis represents the backstory to the mission and its initial beginnings. In particular, Genesis 1-11 discusses why God needed to form a people with a distinct identity that reflects God’s intention for all creation, and Genesis 12-50 discusses how God began to form that people.

Since God’s mission in this world requires the active participation of a people, the formation, backstory, and self-understanding of that people is critical to God’s mission. This is especially so because the identity of God’s people is tied to their mission and not incidental to it. For example, if the mission of an organization is to put flyers in every mailbox within a mile radius of a given business from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, then the diet, sexual practices, and recreational habits of its workers over the weekend may not matter much to the fulfillment of their mission. As long as they show up each weekday and carry out the assignment with excellence, their employers will likely be pleased. This changes when the mission itself requires its missionaries to be a specific kind of people, which is certainly the case within the Bible story. As John Howard Yoder says in various places, “the first task of Israel is to be Israel” and “the first task of the church is to be the church.” To understand the truth of this maxim and its relevance to a missional reading of Genesis, we need to understand why it is important to the biblical story that the identity of God’s people reflects God’s intentions for all creation.

The easy answer to that question is that, according to Genesis 1-11, God’s original intentions for creation were severely compromised by sin. But that is not enough. We must add that God’s primary strategy in Scripture for overcoming the disastrous consequences of sin is to use a people as a witness, role model, and demonstration plot of how rightly ordered creation functions. God is not simply using a people to tell others what God wants from them; God is using a people to show others what God wants from them. And Scripture makes quite clear that God has little use for telling that is divorced from showing.

Most believers are familiar with New Testament statements to this effect. Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount by reminding his followers that they are called to be bright light and savory salt and that failure to be so renders them useless for God’s purposes (Matt 5). Jesus did not pioneer this image. Hundreds of years earlier, when the Israelites were undergoing the identity crisis imposed upon them by the exile, the prophet of Isaiah 49 instructs God’s people that they will not have the kind of power required to right the ship of world history. They will be powerless to punish the ruthless Babylonians and to restore those Israelites that Babylon had devastated.

That poses no problems, however, because God had already announced that the Persian ruler, Cyrus, would accomplish this task (Isa 44:24-28; 45:1-7, 13). Indeed any powerful world leader can be used by God to keep in check other world rulers who abuse their power. Likewise, any wealthy royal benefactor can finance the Israelites’ return from exile and reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple and city walls. Leaving these important tasks in God and Persia’s hands, the prophet has to remind the Israelites of their higher calling, saying, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Persian cannot do that; only a numerous people with a distinct identity that reflects God’s intentions for all creation can do that.

Still this vision of Isaiah has deeper roots. When Jesus stood on a mountain and called his followers to be savory salt and bright light he was echoing Moses’ famous mountain speech in Deuteronomy 4:

"See, just as the LORD my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!' For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?" (vv. 5-8)

God did not call Israel to obey Torah simply to stay on God’s good side, earn their salvation, or realize their inadequacies and need for a savior. Rather, God called Abraham’s descendants to live out Torah so the nations might catch a glimpse of God’s good intentions for creation and might be drawn to God through their witness and example.

This may be why, immediately after delivering them from Egypt, the first thing God has Moses tell the Israelites is that they are "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exod 19:6). Though the whole earth belongs to God, this people is set apart in a manner analogous to priests. This image can mean many things, but since it is given to the Israelites who would soon receive blueprints for their own priesthood, it should at least mean that they will function for the nations like their own priests functioned for them.

Though Israel’s priests did many things, it is somewhat unfortunate that they are mostly remembered for their role in the sacrificial cult. Yet the Aaronic priests who served this function constituted but a small sampling of the wider group of Levites who served God’s people in unique priestly ways. Other Levites hosted cities of refuge to protect innocent slayers, exemplified what it means to live as guests in the land of others and, perhaps most importantly, became Torah experts who could instruct Israel’s tribes as to the common life to which God has called them all as a witness to the nations (Deut 17:18; 31:9; 33:8-10).

The first task of God’s people is to conform their life to God’s intentions because that is how they accomplish their role in God’s mission. Since their specific identity is central, the book that lays the foundation it—Torah as a whole and Genesis more specifically—is of vital missional importance. This is no more so whether Genesis was written by Moses in the 14th-13th centuries or by a priestly or non-priestly editor, compiler, or preservationist in the 6th century.

A missional approach to Genesis, or any other book for that matter, does not mean using or not using a particular hermeneutical method. Rather, it means interpreting Genesis as part of God’s wider mission that spans the entirety of Scripture. It presumes that God’s mission is central to the biblical canon and it uses whatever interpretive techniques shed light on that mission. It need not read God’s mission into every passage regardless of whether it is already there, for it operates with the conviction that each passage on its own terms is already part of the wider missionary fabric of Scripture.

http://www.walkandword.com/blog/?id=377

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