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Israel Discovers Unconditional Love

One of the problems we have in understanding the Old Testament is that its various books are not in chronological sequence. Rather, they reflect story sequence, that is, beginning with stories of creation, then the patriarchs, and then Israel in the land. This means that some of the most primitive understandings of God are found in texts that appear quite late in our reading, if we start at the beginning. As we saw in our previous Scripture Article, Yahweh was seen as just “the God of Israel” who would protect them in the same way that the gods of the neighbouring nations would protect their own people. He was a warrior god, who acted like a storm god at times.

Israel clearly believed that Yahweh was only one of many gods before the Babylonian Exile in 587 BC. Crisis and suffering brings deep questioning. Some blamed Yahweh for the apparent destruction of Israel as a nation (cf. Ps 44:9–19). ‘Has God abandoned us?’ was one of the big questions (Ps 77:9).

Although Israel’s understanding of Yahweh had always flowed from its experience of him acting in their history, its view of him was also tempered by the cultures of the region. Before the Exile, Deuteronomic theology, reflected in the books of Deuteronomy through to 2 Kings, portrayed Israel’s relationship with Yahweh using overlord/vassal language — ‘you obey me and pay me tribute, and I will protect you against your enemies; if you disobey, you will be destroyed.’ At the time, Assyria was Israel’s overlord (followed by Babylon), and the Book of Deuteronomy was written in the form of an Assyrian vassal treaty, complete with curses that would apply if Israel should disobey.

This Deuteronomic theology, which dominates so much of the Old Testament, is that it described a conditional covenant. Yahweh would only provide and protect, if Israel obeys.

For those exiled in Babylon, an extraordinary thing happened. Cyrus, the Persian, defeated the Babylonians, and marched into Babylon in 539, acclaimed by the people as Saviour. For the Israelites, this bore the mark of the hand of God. Yahweh had delivered them as surely as he had at the Exodus. What shattered their perception of Yahweh was that it was through a non-Israelite that they were rescued. It was through a non-Israelite that Israel would be restored and the Temple rebuilt. The anonymous writer we call Deutero-Isaiah (who wrote Isa 40–55) called Cyrus “shepherd” and “anointed one” (= ‘Messiah’) (Isa 44:28–45:1).

If Yahweh rescued Israel through a non-Israelite conqueror, Israel concluded, Yahweh was not just Lord of Israel, but of other nations. He directed other nations as part of his plan of salvation. Moreover, Israel came to the conclusion that Yahweh did not do this because he was superior to the other gods; rather, there were no other gods. Taking this even further, Deutero-Isaiah concluded that Yahweh had been the creator of the heavens (the supposed realm of the gods) and of earth and humanity.

Chapters 40–55 of Isaiah uses this new language of God. He is spoken of as “creator” in many places (cf. 40:12, 21–22); 44:24 tells us that he “made all things.” Isa 44:6 says that “besides me there are no other gods.”

But this revelation meant that Israel now had to re-define itself. They asked: Who are we, then, among the nations? In what sense has Israel been chosen by Yahweh? Deutero-Isaiah’s answer was that Israel was to be “a light to the nations” (42:6; 49:8) “so that my salvation may reach the remotest parts of the earth” (49:6). There was now a reason for Israel’s defeat and exile — it has suffered so that the world may come to know Yahweh. This is reflected in the four ‘servant songs’ (42:1–9; 49:1–7; 50:4–11; 52:13–53:12). Israel’s punishment had become a vocation.

On return from Exile, Israel needed to re-define itself in its texts. With the work of the Deuteronomic writers in the late 7th century, Israel’s story had begun just before the entry into the land (in the Book of Deuteronomy) as they had previously tried to explain how Israel had gone wrong (by following other gods and mixing with other peoples right from the start).

But now Israel had to take the beginning of its story back to creation, not to answer the question, ‘Why did Israel go wrong?’ but ‘Why did humanity go wrong?’ At the same time, the new texts were designed to proclaim the newly-understood role of Israel as a light among the nations. The Patriarchs, hardly mentioned in texts before the Exile, now became important. The Books of Genesis–Numbers were now compiled (probably in the 5th century BC, using some older material).

What sort of relationship with God do we find in the later writings contained in the Book of Genesis? Genesis 1–12 is really a post-exilic reflection on Israel’s experience of being rescued by Yahweh, despite being unfaithful to him. The story tells of humanity’s propensity to sin, and of a God who creates order out of chaos, and who rescues a remnant. This people is promised many descendants and land. It would have spoken powerfully to a ravaged Israel at a time when it was now a Persian vassal and consisted of a very small area of land around Jerusalem.

Most importantly, as a result of Yahweh rescuing Israel from Babylon despite its unfaithfulness, this new text reflects Israel’s realisation that Yahweh’s love was unconditional. In Gen 8:21–9:17, Yahweh, after the devasting catastrophe of the flood, promises that he will not destroy humanity. Unlike the conditional covenants with Israel found in the Deuteronomic writings, this covenant is with all creation, and it is completely unconditional. Again, in Gen 15 and Gen 17, the covenant with Abraham is unconditional (circumcision is merely a sign of this covenant). The promises to Jacob in Gen 28 are also unconditional.

In Isa 54:7 Deutero-Isaiah explained the experience of the Exile by saying that Yahweh had abandoned Israel “for a brief moment,” but he went on to speak of the unconditional nature of God’s love for Israel in 54:9–10:

For the mountains may depart and the hills may be removed
But my steadfast love shall not depart from from you
And my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
Says Yahweh.

In the next article we shall see how Israel saw its relationship with Yahweh after the Exile, reflected in the writings of the Books of Exodus and Genesis. Israel would continue to grow in its understanding of God and of itself.