I ended the last segment with a question about Moses and the Law. How can we understand the relationship between God’s one-sided covenant with Abram with zero conditions and the two-sided covenant 430 years later with 613 requirements?
Have you ever noticed the idea of unconditional love can be hard to swallow? It makes some people nervous and uncomfortable rather than reassured. Becky once told me of a study she’d read about children’s behavior on a school playground. In group one, the play area didn’t have a fence around it. And in the second group, a standard chainlink fence surrounded the entire perimeter. With the first group, the study showed that when there was no fence (no conditions), the children would huddle and play near the center of the playground. In the second group, the study showed that when a fence was present (conditions), the children tended to go out to the boundary. Mmm.
The introduction of Law (conditions) generates a response. A sign that reads, “Don’t walk on the grass,” generates a desire to walk on the Grass. St. Paul observed that when the Law came in, sin increased. It appears the Law causes a sinful reaction. Was this intentional? Do you think God knew how his covenant people and, by extension, all people would respond to conditions?
I read the following anecdote in the book, “He Loves Me” by Wayne Jacobson. One weekend, Wayne was teaching about the Grace of God at a well-attended men’s retreat. One of the men in attendance was Tom. He was an older man who looked to be in his 70s and was an elder in his Church. The opening night was a disappointment. Wayne later said that, as he spoke, it felt as if the words immediately fell to the floor with a thud, a speaker’s worst fear; he wasn’t connecting with his audience. The following day before the next session began, Wayne leaned forward from the podium to tell the audience his feelings. As he looked into their faces for an answer, the entire room turned their gaze onto Tom, sitting at the end of the front row with his arms and legs crossed and his head tilted to the side. Not exactly what you’d call warm, inviting body language. Recognizing that Tom must have some influence on the audience, Wayne looked at him and asked what the problem was. Tom sat up straight and said, “Well, sonny, it sounds like you’re saying these young guys coming up today won’t have to jump through the same hoops I forced myself through my whole life.
That attitude reflects how a lot of people feel. They want to make sure other people pay their dues and that no one gets away with anything. The work ethic we value so much in the West crept into the Church. The problem is a lot of Western values run directly against the grain of the Kingdom of God. Many of us prefer the feeling that we’ve got some skin in the game… sweat equity, an ownership stake. We’re trained to desire to own our homes and companies, or at least to have an attitude of ownership with our jobs.
It’s the same way with our faith… it’s OUR faith; we’re vested. This is one reason I pointed out that the legal and contractual matrix in the first article has gotten so much traction.
Part of our struggle in understanding why Israel still matters is because we’re looking at them through lenses we’ve inherited after nearly 2,000 years of a Church history that developed concurrently with the spread of Western Civilization. A civilization steeped in legal and judicial biases.
Over time, one of the consequences has been that our understanding of Israel’s ongoing role in salvation history has gotten distorted. It’s easy to be “judgy” and critical of Israel, anyone really.
Within Christian theology, the dominant view is that the Church has become primary… the post-resurrection continuation of Israel. Israel fumbled the ball, but the Christian Church recovered it and continued to march downfield toward the end zone. The Church has taken Israel’s place. Although these short articles do not address the error of “Replacement Theology,” the root of “contract thinking” is the same.
When we look at Israel that way, we’re looking through what I call “contract lenses.” These glasses are tough to break free from because they’re so ingrained into the fabric of our families, communities, and culture. The sturdy Western work ethic that encourages us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps leads us into a trap.
Contractual thinking, “Quid pro quo,” is pure exchange. It’s simple uncomplicated compensation. As effective as this is in our economic model, it’s the wrong ground to stand on to understand God and Israel.
As I pointed out in part 1, God’s covenant with Abraham, and by extension Israel, is God’s covenant. It belongs to Him because He initiated it and because it was one-sided. That means all the promises made were for the benefit of Abraham and his descendants; Abraham made no reciprocal promises. So the continuation of that covenant today does not depend upon Israel. It depends entirely upon God.
It’s impossible to overstate this point: The Covenant God made with Abraham was not subject to what Israel did or didn’t do. Their performance, sin, or disobedience could not cancel or invalidate it.
Now, having said all of that, it certainly is true that some conditions were introduced with the covenant made at Sinai. There is absolutely no way around that. But before I go any further, let me tell you exactly what those conditions have to do with. They have to do with things that block Israel’s ability to enjoy the benefits of belonging to God. The conditions didn’t change who Israel belonged to or the logic behind their belonging. In fact, the conditions are actually proof of belonging.
So, how can you have requirements within an unconditional covenant? Let me give you an analogy.
Picture Russian nesting dolls, the ones where the tiny dolls fit inside the bigger ones. Maybe picture 2 boxes, a big box and a smaller box that fits inside it.
Imagine a label on the larger box that reads “THE CONTENTS OF THIS BOX BELONG TO ME” in bold capital letters. This box is assembled from the many scriptures expressing this sentiment, not only about Israel but also about the nations and the entire cosmos. In grammar, statements like those are called “indicatives” because they are statements of fact indicating what’s what and who’s who.
Scriptures like that are all about belonging and identity and form the starting point for all of us. Can anyone of anything be lost unless they belong?
Next, picture the smaller box with a label that reads “live this way” in lowercase letters. This box is assembled from all the scary “do this or else” statements that make people nervous. These are called “imperatives” in grammar because they emphasize or highlight actions with good and bad consequences. The Bible has plenty to say about this too.
Let’s zoom out to see what this looks like in the big picture.
The “Indicatives” of identity and belonging are prior, always before, or precede the “Imperatives” involving behavior. The indicative statements come first… they’re weightier and more important. They actually provide the context or framework for understanding the imperative statements having to do with conditions.
So, how can you have conditions within an unconditional covenant? All of the imperative statements, the do’s and don’ts and “or else’s,”… fit inside the larger idea of “You belong to me.” The starting point is belonging, followed by all the behaviors that flow from and result from the knowledge of our belonging. Do you see it?
That’s how you can have conditions, literally, within an unconditional covenant. I alluded to this in part 1 when explaining that the Hebrew word “Torah” was a sweeping panoramic description of God’s covenant commitment and faithfulness to his people. It included the ways He graciously provided for Israel to respond to Him, each other and the nations.
To sum up, the conditions are the moral obligations that flow from within the unconditional covenant. They are the ways of responding to God and each other that God has graciously provided. Notice he didn’t leave anything up to them… all of it has been thoughtfully provided.
With all of that as context, let’s examine the Exodus event through this lens. 430 years after God made his one-sided, unconditional covenant with Abraham, Issac & Jacob, all of their descendants are enslaved in Egypt. The next thing you know, they’re all sitting in the desert, terrified, with their heads spinning. Why? Because God graciously sent Moses to deliver them from their captivity and the unrelenting prison of slavery.
Shortly after that, in Exodus 20:2, just before we get to the so-called Ten Commandments, the Holy Spirit reminds the reader of who’s who and what’s what… of God’s prior commitment to Israel that resulted in their rescue from slavery.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
So when Moses comes down from Sinai with the tablets, the story has the following narrative structure, “I love you, and you belong to me, so I have redeemed and delivered you. Therefore, I will now provide, explain, and describe for you ways of living so you can be faithful to me and to each other…”.
In Evangelical terms, Sinai wasn’t about an angry God giving the Ten Commandments in some distant, angry, and disapproving way. No. After being set free from hundreds of years of slavery, Israel needed more than just deliverance; they needed inner healing…a complete transformation to get Egypt off of them and out of them.
In the language of the New Testament, they needed to be “transformed by the renewing of their minds” (Romans 12:2).
Let me give it to you in slow motion.
God delivers His people from bondage, then sits them down and says, “Listen to me… Hear O Israel… I rescued you because you belong to me, I’m your God, and you’re my people”.
Let’s pause and appreciate this for what it is… that right there is a straight shot of pure, undiluted grace. No water, no ice, no chaser.
Continuing, He says, “… And because you belong to me, I’m going to explain the ways of living and behaving that will lead to life, health and blessing and the ways of living and behaving that will lead to pain, suffering and death… I want you to choose life”.
He concludes by saying, “… Regardless of what you choose, both outcomes will let the other nations know what I am like. But, Hear O Israel… neither way of behaving makes you mine. What makes you mine is that I chose you and pledged my own self to you, that’s what makes you mine”.
The $10 word for this is “election,” and we’ll get to that later.
The point here is this: Israel’s inability to be obedient and consistently enjoy the benefits of belonging to God will NEVER change the fact that they belong to God.
It’s the same with you and me.
Judgment or negative consequences are not the same things as abandonment or rejection. By initiating the covenant with Abraham, God did not suspend the laws of nature. Gravity and cause and effect, etc., still work.
Like your life and mine, sin and disobedience have repeatedly disrupted Israel’s ability to enjoy the covenant benefits. One of those benefits was their ability to possess and remain in the land.
Does this dynamic sound familiar to you? Have you been getting a vague sense of déjà-vu?
Israel is an object lesson… Israel is us.