for all the nations

In an assignment on Zoroastrianism, one of my students took a pretty hard line approach, claiming that God only has dealings with Israel. I asked in my grading comments about all the passages in the Bible that suggest otherwise. Which led to the student sending me this email:

Hello Professor,

I am wondering if you could direct me to the passage(s) in the Bible where Yahweh had dealings with other peoples. Thanks!

I thought my response might be of more general interest:

Dear [student],

This is a really good question, thanks for giving me the chance to elaborate.

One example would be the prophets, who are frequently given words from Yahweh to share either with or about nations other than Israel. Sometimes these relate specifically to their dealings with Israel, but not always. Jonah’s mission to Nineveh is one prominent example, but the prophets are filled with this sort of thing (e.g., Isaiah 13-21, 33-34, 45-47, Jeremiah 46-51, Daniel 7-12)

There are other specific examples. Jesus mentioned a couple of notable ones in Luke 4.25-27: “But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

There is a central concept here that often gets lost. Both Isaiah (ch.56) and Jesus (Mark 1, quoting Isaiah) make clear that the Temple was supposed to be “a house of prayer for all nations,” that central to Israel’s covenant with Yahweh was their role in His mission to all peoples. Israel’s exclusive claim to Yahweh misunderstood both God’s nature as the One who loves in freedom and their own role in the divine mission to the world. Sadly, this is too often the same problem with us.


the Father loves his children: a way to read the Bible

Jesus calls God “Father,” and teaches us to do the same (see: the Lord’s prayer). This means that the basic defining relationship between us and God is that of a Father and his children. Which is the same relationship God had with the children of Israel. This means that what was relationally true of the people in the OT is also true of us. How God interacts with them is how God interacts with us. How God feels about them is how God feel about us.

It is also true that we often respond just as they did. We read the NT and wonder how the disciples could be so thick-headed, how the Pharisees could be so blinded by their religion. We read the OT and we wonder how the Israelities could so easily run back to idolatry, how even someone like David could turn and do something so evil as to steal a man’s wife and then have him murdered. But we are just like all of them. We are the thick-headed disciples. We are the blinded-by-religion Pharisees. We are the faithless Israelites worshipping a golden cow, with the memory of the parted sea still fresh in our minds. We are David, whose lust can overwhelm us, even if we are a man after God’s own heart.

The Bible is full of human weakness and failings. The more we can identify with that and see it in ourselves, the more we will have an accurate picture of ourselves and our sinfulness. The Bible is also full of the love, mercy, and grace of a Father God who knows all this and loves His children anyway. If we can learn to see ourselves in all those relationships between God and humans in the Bible, we will get, not only a more accurate picture of ourselves, but a more accurate picture of oursevles as God sees us, as a Father who loves His children.