A Patrimony for the Outsider

A prophetic vision expands citizenship within God’s people

Bible text: Ezekiel 47:21-23

Sometimes reading a Biblical passage is like listening to Joseph Haydn’s Surprise Symphony (Symphony 94). In the second movement of that composition, Haydn plays repeated variations on a soft melodic theme. With each repetition, one relaxes more and more, almost to the point of becoming drowsy.

Then after the fourth repetition, a harsh chord, played by horn and drums, crashes into the score. This is the surprise of the symphony’s title. It jolts the listener awake. We ask: What just happened?

I had an experience like that recently when I was reading the book of Ezekiel. My focus was chapters 40-48. I couldn’t remember when I had last read this part of the book, if ever. So I chose to plow through it.

In these chapters the prophet gives a vision of the restored temple, the restored city of Jerusalem, and the restored land of Israel after Israel’s long exile has ended. One can read it as a utopian vision. It stirs our imagination, but we tell ourselves it could never be realized.

That, however, is not the attitude of the text. It may be unrealistic under current conditions. Yet the vision offers an alternative to the present. It could become real if the right spiritual forces were to converge together to make it real.

An Engineer’s Description of Jerusalem and Its Temple

The description of the temple is very detailed. The description actually reads much like an engineer’s report. It gives exact measurements for every architectural detail of the holy structure: the doors, the gateways, the walls, the courtyards as well as the inner sanctuary itself.

A description of the restored city, again with some precise measurements, follows. Everything is ordered and symmetrical. Towards the end comes a description of the renewed land of Israel. The vision sees the land divided equally among the twelve tribes of Israel. Each tribe gets an allotment of land running from east to west across the land of Canaan. Topography is ignored.

As one reads through these chapters, the engineering-like descriptions start to feel tedious. One measurement fades into another. Our minds begin to drift off. Mine certainly did.

A Jolt to Our Expectations

And then at the end of chapter 47 I read something that acted just like the surprise chord in Haydn’s symphony. I was reading through the instructions for how the renewed land is to be allocated among the 12 tribes of Israel. I thought I was reading a highly egalitarian, yet nationalistic vision, for it seemed that the land would be reserved solely for Israelites.

Then in verses 21-23 we encounter injunctions that foreigners living among the Israelites (some translations call them resident aliens) are also to be allotted patrimonies in this distribution of the land. “They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance, says the Lord God” (47:22b-23 NRSV).

My drifting mind sat bolt upright. Had I read the text correctly? This was not what I expected to find in an extended passage that seemed so nationalistic in spirit.

Outsiders to the religious-ethnic people of Israel are being given patrimonies in the land of promise. Maybe we should think of these resident aliens as proselytes to Judaism. But the text does not say so explicitly. And certainly the dominant population in this vision is the ethnic Israelites. The land of Canaan is after all the land that God promised to them.

And yet…and yet…here is God instructing the Israelites to give foreigners a patrimony within their own patrimonies. The vision is breath-taking and so unexpected…and a tad jarring.

How a Buried Passage Speaks to Today

As I read this passage, I was taken back in consciousness to other passages in the Old Testament that hint that in the future foreigners (Gentiles) will be given some kind of membership within the people of God. I cite Psalm 87, Isaiah 19:24-25, and Isaiah 56:6-7. Those passages too jar us if we read the prophetic visions of the restored Israel to come as being strictly nationalistic visions.*

There seems to be a momentum in the Hebrew Scriptures pointing to a future when the people of God will embrace more than Israelites born to that status. When the Christian Church opened its doors to Gentiles as equal members with Jews, it seems to have been activating this future vision into its own present time.

I said earlier that this future vision comes across as totally unrealistic, and yet it stands as a challenge to think of an alternative to the present. I think it can still perform that function for both Jews and Christians today.

For Christians I would turn the challenge in a 180-degree reorientation. Christians have long come to think of the people of God as consisting only of Christian believers. They are now the true Israel, the argument goes. (Theologians call this the doctrine of supersessionism.)

But maybe we need to think more humbly of ourselves, realizing that we are, as the apostle Paul argues in Romans 11:17-24, the wild olive shoots that have been grafted onto the native tree. We ourselves are not the tree. Israel is. And the grace of God active in Christ is to open grafting into this tree to all of humanity.

I wonder if this passage does not also offer a challenge to present Israelis in their conflict with the Palestinians. If Ezekiel’s vision grants a patrimony to foreigners in the land of promise, cannot Palestinians also be granted a patrimony in the land of Israel/Palestine? Ezekiel’s vision seems to point to the ideal of one land shared by both.

Now I recognize that such an alternative requires a change of attitude on the part of both Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians must change their attitudes just as much as Israelis. Such a transformation seems unrealistic at the present moment. Yet Ezekiel’s visions does not let me be comfortable with present realities.

Says Joseph Blenkinsopp, one commentator on Ezekiel, “It is of the essence of Judaism and, following it, Christianity, to aspire toward and strive for the perfect commonwealth, God’s kingdom of love and justice, and therefore to reject the kind of realism that simply accepts the status quo as given.”**

That’s how a buried passage in a little read part of the Bible can speak volumes to us today.


* I have discussed Isaiah 19 in my previous posting, “A Breath-taking Hint of Universalism in Isaiah.”

** Joseph Blenkinsopp, Interpretation: Ezekiel, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990. Page 237.

God’s Temptation

Bible text: Exodus 32:7-14

This morning I was reading the story of Israel’s creation of the golden calf at Mount Sinai. Moses has been on Mount Sinai 40 days in dialogue with God. Israel gets impatient with his absence. They want action now, and so they ask Aaron to create them a god. He creates a golden calf.

This creates an interesting turn in God’s dialogue with Moses. Hot with anger, God tells Moses to leave the mountain immediately. God says he is about to destroy the people of Israel for their apostasy. Instead he will create a new people from Moses’ line of descent.

What caught my attention is how God introduces this conversation. He says to Moses: “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely….” [I added the italics.] Suddenly the people of Israel are not God’s people. They are Moses’ people. And Moses is the one who brought them up out of Egypt. God lays no claim to them.

Moses, however, will not allow God to wipe his hands of the connection. He retorts: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” [Again, I’ve added the italics.]

Moses does not allow God to cavalierly displace the connection between God and Israel. It is not Moses who brought Israel out of Egypt. It is God. And the Israelites are certainly Moses’ people because he belongs to them. But in terms of covenant ownership, they are God’s people because God called and created them.

Moses then reminds God of the stake he has in Israel’s fate. If God destroys Israel, it will reflect very badly on God’s reputation. The Egyptians will laugh in derision.

Furthermore, God has made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If he destroys the Israelites, God will show himself an unstable god like all the fickle, unstable gods of the other ancient Near Eastern polytheisms. God will show himself to be a God in whom no one would be advised to place any ultimate trust and loyalty.

The text says Moses wins the argument. God changes his mind.

I find this a fascinating dialogue for two reasons. One is the effrontery exhibited by Moses. Moses is neither bribed by God’s promise to make a great nation out of Moses. Nor is he meekly cowed by God’s presumption to pass the buck of responsibility onto Moses. Moses does not accept the role of scapegoat.

Instead Moses stands up to God. He presumes to argue with God. And Moses wins.

The other fascinating feature is the argument Moses makes. If God is going to be God, then God must be true to himself. God may need to be flexible in dealing with humanity. The story of the Bible gives many examples of this flexibility.

But God cannot be untrue to himself and remain God. God cannot betray his eternal purposes and character and remain a God in whom humanity is called to place ultimate trust. In times when God is thwarted and frustrated with the erring ways of humanity, he may be tempted to act in ways that are less than God. But if he does, he will cease to be God. He will become the Devil.

God faces a temptation. He has been betrayed, and he is tempted to respond in kind. But Moses reminds God that if he gives in to the temptation in the heat of passionate emotion, he will cease to be God.

So God must work with recalcitrant humanity is a way that God remains true to God’s own self. How he does that is the story of rest of the Bible. 

A Breathtaking Hint of Universalism in Isaiah

Text: Isaiah 19:24-25

Sometimes I stumble upon a passage in the Bible that stops me in my tracks. It may do so because of its exquisite beauty. Sometimes because it says something I don’t expect the Bible to say. And sometimes because of its breathtaking vision.

One such passage is Isaiah 19:24-25. In it the prophet looks into the future. Whether that future is the Eschaton, or just some far future time, is not clear. But what he sees in that future is an astonishing act of God in reconciling bitter enemies.

The passage reads like this:

In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” (Revised Standard Version)

What takes my breath away is the language the prophet uses. Egypt is called God’s people. Assyria is the work of God’s hands. And Israel is God’s heritage.

 In all three cases the prophet is using language that applies to the concept of God’s chosen people. Throughout the Old Testament, those words—God’s people, the work of God’s hands, God’s heritage—are applied exclusively to Israel. They are titles that grow out of God’s special covenant with Israel.

Yet here Israel’s special covenant terms are be applied as well to Egypt and Assyria, Israel’s traditional enemies. All three peoples are called a blessing in the midst of the earth. The circle of God’s people has expanded to include Egypt, Assyria, and Israel as equals.

Christians often argue that it is Christianity that turns the nationalistic religion of ancient Israel into a universal faith that embraces all humanity, Gentiles as well as Jews. That often makes us Christians feel superior. But we need to be more humble. There are hints in the Old Testament itself that God’s vision has been universalist all along. And this passage in Isaiah 19 is one such hint.  God’s purpose in calling Israel is to liberate the whole earth, not just a select few.

I have never heard any preacher preach on this passage. Why has it been largely ignored?

I also can’t help reading this passage without thinking of the bitter conflict between Israeli and Palestinian over the land of Israel/Palestine. Does not this passage suggest that God intends the land to belong equally to both? In that future day that Isaiah foresees, both Israeli and Arab will belong to God’s people. And so both share the gift of the land.

That will mean both Arab and Israeli will have to give up their exclusive claim to the land. Neither side is ready to do that in the current political climate. Yet Isaiah points to the radical transformation of national spirit in both peoples that could make peace a reality.