Living as the people of God: Theological dimension to the ethical understanding of the Old Testament
It is erroneous to jump into the text with our own thoughts and prejudices and force the text to speak by quoting several proof- texts. Our intention should be then to enter into their world and trying to understand their experiences in their own contexts and thereby drawing insights to apply to our context. Now, ethics is such an agenda that we need to investigate, analyze and bring out the implied meaning in and through the Old Testament times. So, our task is to understand how Israel perceived and experienced their relationship with God and how that relationship in turn reflected in their ethical and practical ideals as an individual and as an community as a whole. To understand the ethical outlook of Israel we need to understand the three dimensions on which it stands. These three dimensions are theological, sociological and economical. The question that we need to answer in this article is what it means to live as the people of God. In order to narrow down the topic, I would like to talk about the “theological dimension to the ethical understanding of the Old Testament.”
The context of ‘ethical understanding’ of Old Testament:
The context is that of creation, fall, election, redemption and consecration. Many scholars debate with the sequence of these themes especially that of election and redemption. They say that election has taken place after Exodus. I would like to go along with my professor Dr. Eliya Mohol who argues that God has redeemed those whom he has elected or with those whom he already has relationship. It is in this context God revealed his identity through his words and acts in human history. Therefore it is God’s story in which he redeemed his creation through his gracious act of salvation. It is in this world view the people Israel perceived and understood the ethical obligation of God’s salvafic act.
Our task is then to analyze the ‘ethical understanding’ of the people of God through theological dimension. Theological dimension consists- Who is God (God’s identity), What God does (God’s acts)? What God says (God’s word)? And God’s holiness and presence.
1. God’s identity:
Ethics are very much related to God’s identity, character, will and action. Therefore Old Testament ethics are theological. Identity means recognition of an individual on the basis of a relationship. It is “I-thou” relationship in which “I” perceives himself in the light of “Thou” vice versa. When it comes to “God-human” relationship, man perceives who he really ought to be in the light of his relationship with God. It is from this unique relationship Israel draws their meaning for existence. The word “God” is a generic term and we have to distinguish between “God” and “the Lord of the Bible.” The Hebrew word for “Yahweh” is “יהוה” which is translated as “Lord” in the Bible. Interestingly this word is derived from the verb which indicates an action. In other words, it is the act of Yahweh proved who truly was God.
The identity and the character of God are very much important to the ethical teaching of the Old Testament. God of the Bible is not just any god that was mentioned in the Bible. He is known by what he does that qualifies the notion of “being God.” The recurring phrase “Israel went after other gods” was considered not just a religious breach but also unethical. This is because idolatry has sociological, economical and religious degrading effect on the people of Israel. Therefore we can say that the ethical understanding of the Old Testament depends upon the identity of God, the Holy one of Israel.
What do we imply from this? Are, we, as Christians, as the citizens of the new Kingdom, reflecting God’s identity in and through our lives? We boast about our belief about the Triune God then how are we reflecting our belief in our words, actions and relationships. Are we just complacent? Let us grapple with this thought as we are to project his image on us to the people around. So that when they see us they should see our Lord and God.
2. God’s act:
God is the author of life. God of Israel is known by his acts. He acts first and calls us to respond. This is the fundamental ethical teaching of the Old Testament. It is God who came down in search of a man. Our God is a “missionary God.” It is this aspect that separates the faith of the Israel from its contemporaries. It is God’s act of grace that redeemed man from his predicament. So, ethics becomes a matter of response and gratitude within the framework of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. So therefore ethics is not something that is to be followed blindly. This is an inherent resultant response of gratitude to God’s act of grace.
Exodus presents a paradigm for establishing the people of God. It is very interesting to see that God did not give the law when he met Moses in the burning bush but after he delivered them from the hands of Egyptians, he gave them the law. People of Israel didn’t have to follow the rules in order to be delivered. It is rather pure act of grace. Israel’s redemption is not the end in itself. It should be accompanied with service. Serving God is an ethical obligation. Therefore, law is a matter of response and a means to be in the fellowship of God’s community. The Israelites were to maintain the law in order to maintain their relationship with Yahweh. The point here is that law itself begins with what God did in their past calling the people of Israel to the obedience unto the law in order maintain their relationship with Yahweh and also their identity as the people of God.
What do we imply from this? In order to be called as “Christians” are we responding rightly to the Grace that redeemed us from our sins on the Cross? Or are we simply taking grace for granted. Remember the Old Testament Law has provided a paradigm how to conduct ourselves in all aspects of life so also Christ’s act of grace on the Cross should penetrate into all aspects of our lives. We need to allow Christ to transform us from inside out. This will imprint on us His image so that people may see Christ in us so that Christ is magnified through our lives. So, therefore let’s be conscious of what God is doing in our lives and grab every opportunity to lift him up by being ethically upright.
Our ethical response in not only to who God is and what he did in our history but also to what he said. God involves in our human history not just by his deeds but also by his words. This deed-word aspect is clearly stated in Deut. 4: 32- 34:
Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created man on the earth; ask from one end of heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by miraculous signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? Deut. 4: 32-34
This text speaks about the unique experience that the people of Israel had. They not only led by God out of Egypt but they heard His voice which has never heard of among their contemporaries. God’s word is creative, instructive and transformative. It is instructive in the sense it guides man in right paths. This is the reason the Law which was given to Moses is a guide of conduct to the entire community. It is to this Law which was spoken by God, the people of Israel were asked to serve. It is transformative in the sense that this Law that was spoken penetrates into all the aspects of life of a man- from his raising out from his bed, to his public and private matters. If the people of Israel maintain their allegiance to this “Spoken-Law” by God, they would be able to maintain their unique identity as the people of God. The experience of being guided by God through his spoken word makes Israel unique among the nations. God’s very word is a guidance of life for them (Ps. 147: 19-20)
The revelatory aspect of God’s word in the form of Law is a “gospel” to us. We all know the word “Gospel” means “glad tidings.” Therefore, Law is a matter of joy as it leads our paths to life. Law declares or reveals the mind of God and the one who obeys and follows the “revealed” law will gain wisdom and life and also close fellowship with God (Ps. 19: 7). This revealed law not only imparts knowledge of God but also wisdom to conduct oneself with its warning and reward (Ps. 19: 11). In words of David it is “a lamp to my feet and light for my path” (Ps. 119: 105). David is using a strong ethical metaphor. In other words even our ethical response is guided by God’s word. Therefore we have nothing to boast about. Whatever we do, we do within the framework of God’s revealed word.
What do we imply form this? We need to be conscious of God’s word in our hearts. If we are in tune with God’s word, we would be able to maintain our identity in his kingdom. We also should know that His word is not “legalistic” but it is spoken out of love for us. Therefore our ethical response to God should be in love and humility.
4. Holiness of God:
We see God repeatedly emphasizing on his holiness in order to call the people of Israel to be holy, “And be holy for I Am holy.” (Lev 11: 44). Many a times we tend to think ‘holiness’ as one of the attributes of God which is a wrong conclusion. Holiness is in the very nature of God as John E. Hartley points out to this as “quintessential nature of Yahweh as God.” Yahweh revealed himself to the people of Israel as a holy God. The holiness of God is relational which demands the people of Israel to be holy in order to continue their relationship with Yahweh. So, being holy is just not a ritual exercise but it is a day-to-day exercise. This holiness has to be demonstrated by Israel’s obedience. This is the overall message of the book of Leviticus. Therefore one has to be ritually, morally and ethically clean in order to maintain the relationship with Yahweh. In case of failure there is providence for sanctification through the sacrifice.
The other aspect is the “presence of Yahweh.” The laws whether civil, criminal or ritual were given in the presence of God. The presence of God is very central for Israelites. Koch as was quoted by Hartley says that this presence is a blend of happiness and fear that is the result of being in the presence of Yahweh. The presence of Yahweh is manifested in the beaming glory that is devouring. This glory demands Israel community to be holy. The law codes help Israelites to maintain purity and holiness in the presence of Yahweh.
What do we imply from this? How are we reflecting God’s holiness in and through our lives? Are we really conscious of his presence amidst of us? God’s holiness and presence demands purity. Unless we are purified we cannot stand in his presence. In other words it is impossible for us to be one among the people of God unless we are purified. So, in order to live as the people of God we need to maintain our ethical obligation to God thereby reflecting his glory and channelling his presence to the people around us.
Living as the people of God by reflecting God’s identity, by remembering his salvific act of grace and by spoken word of law gives us a meaning and purpose for our lives. Living as the people of God is not an end in itself. We are also called to be a “witnessing people” by living as the people of God. The ethical dimension of the Old Testament gives Israel a missional thrust. This missional thrust is not going out or sending out but it is witnessing God’s identity, God’s acts, God’s word and his holiness and presence in and through their lives as the people of God. This makes them very unique among the nations. In other words the people of God are channels of blessings to the nations.
In the light of our understanding of Old Testament ethics, how can we apply them in our context today? In this attempt we cannot bypass the ultimate revelation of God revealed unto us on the Cross of Calvary. Cross has internalized our ethical obligation to God. It is no more something written with an ink and a paper but it is written on our very hearts. Therefore, our ethical obligation is an inherent response to God’s gracious act on the Cross. Christ is our ultimate model. It is an imperative for us to imitate him. However, it is very sweet and good to hear all this but how far we are able to fill the gap between our beliefs and practices? Are we ethical while we write our assignments? Are we ethical in our relationships? Are we ethical in subjecting ourselves for accountability? I would like to challenge you with these questions. Let us live like the people of the new covenant. Thus says the Lord, “I will put my Law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other “know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord;…” Jer. 31: 33-34. AMEN.
How many of you believe that you have been called by God? Each one of us were called to accomplish His great commission in different capacities and in different ways. You may be a high school student or a college student, but you have a unique role to play. As a matter of fact we all are partners in God’s great commission. Before going further I just want to ask few questions which deals with I (you), Me (yourself) and God.
1. Who am I? My identity
2. What am I supposed to do? My Vision/ purpose
3. How am I supposed to do? My Mission
4. What is my destiny? The ultimate goal of my life.
The questions that I just raised are not philosophical questions as they seem to be but they are theological questions. Some of you may not agree with me. Had I been here some 10 years before, I would have not agreed because I never had this concept of the “existence of God.” The sad part is we never pause for a moment to think about our lives, and its purpose and our destiny. We all are trapped in this rat race of commercialism. God-talk is too good for us to talk. For some its boring and for others it’s just not there in their thoughts. I tell you my friends, my identity, my purpose, my mission and my destiny- everything springs out from my faith in God. Apart from Him, there is nothing that is there. Let us discuss these theological questions and learn from the answers from each other.
1. Who Am I? My Identity.
When people ask my name I would respond with my name tagged with my surname. It is, if and only if someone asks. If you ask yourself how will you respond? Ask yourself who are you? Will you respond by saying your name along with your surname? My identity and your identity is not in our names nor it is in our surnames, or in my Caste, color or my nationality. Our identity depends upon the Image in whom we were created. Image of God is our identity. That means I belong to God first and in that belongingness I draw my identity. In other words the image of God on me is relational. It is only in ‘I-Thou’ relationship I can comprehend my complete identity not as what I am called by the people but as the Child of God.
The other aspect of my identity is that I am a human being. God just did not create Yeshwanth B. V. He created man and woman in his image. He created humankind (Gen. 1: 27). God never had distinctions in his mind when he created humankind. However, we marred that image by discriminating others identity. We developed a Pseudo-identity saying that we are better than others- our language is better than others, our people, our culture and our land are better than others. Just imagine if God had this same kind of attitude he would have not come down to save us. If God doesn’t have any distinctions, then how dare we discriminate others there by marring the image of God?
The other aspect is “Loving God.” In Matt. 22: 37-40. The first commandment is “loving God with all you got” and then loving your neighbor. You can love your neighbor if and only if you love God. You love God if and only if you realize in whose image you are made. When you find your identity in God then only you will be able to acknowledge God’s image on others irrespective of who they are and what they are but as a Child of God as you are. This attitude will give a complete meaning to the question who am I?
2. What Am I supposed to do? My purpose/ Vision
Once you were established in relationship with God, the other task is to know his will in your life i.e., His purpose in your life. This is a difficult task. It has been a difficult task for me. When people ask what you want to become you would respond by saying I would like to become an engineer, doctor, a Govt. official so on and so forth. My question is what you want achieve by becoming one of those? You want to become rich, earn lot of money, then what? Get married and have a married life and then what? Live long enough to see your grandchildren and then what? You see life has no significant meaning if it is not touching other lives around you. You become someone not for your sake but for the betterment of the society. If you are a student work hard and try to work and aim for the betterment of the society. How do you know what you’re supposed to do? It is by your conversations with God.
Converse with God daily. He will let you know. I will give you two examples of greatest conversations that changed the lives of Israelites. The first one is God’s conversation with Moses. In Exodus 3, as God conversed with Moses, he got to know what he was supposed to do. He led the people of Israel from the bondage to liberty. The other one was God’s conversation with Samuel. In 1 Sam. 3, God conversed with Samuel and Samuel judged the people of Israel and led them from spiritual apostasy to spiritual upliftment. Not only that, he has been an instrumental figure in the establishment of Israel as a Kingdom.
Your conversations with God will depend on how intimate you are with God. It depends on how sensitive you are to the voice of God who speaks through his Holy Scriptures. However, in this pursuit you may lose many things which are dear to you. My dear friends, every little thing that you lose is only a glimpse of greater things to come when you set your eyes on the Cross. Dream big, aim high and strive to achieve it. Your success should become a transforming power in the people’s lives.
3. How am I supposed to do? My Mission
I know my identity as a Child of God and also I got to know what am I supposed to do? The question that is ahead of us is how am I supposed to do? When you are intimate with God and sensitive to his voice, it gives rise to wisdom in you. Proverbs 1: 7 says that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Fear of the Lord doesn’t mean that you don’t have to tremble before God nor to be scared of Him. It (Fear of the Lord) deals with ethical and moral aspect in how you do things. Whatever you do, you have to show high standards of morality and ethics. May be it is just a slip test back at school, a board examinations, at your office and in your relationships with your colleagues and especially with the opposite sex- you have to witness God’s presence wherever you are by setting up high standards of ethics and morals. This is possible if and only if you fear God.
There is a difference between knowledge and Wisdom. My knowledge about a knife tells me to use this either for destructive purpose or for the productive purpose. It is only through the wisdom of God, I will use it for the productive purposes. Therefore, the fear of God gives rise to wisdom which is the foundation of my morality and ethics. This attitude should reflect when you are alone behind closed doors, when your writing your examinations, when you are applying for different jobs, when your watching movies, using internet, in sports- in all the possible areas we were called to fear God in order to have wisdom to do things in a right way to accomplish God’s vision to which I am called to fulfill.
4. What is my destiny? My ultimate goal of my life.
(I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection) Phil. 3: 9
My realization of my identity as the Child of God, and the realization God’s purpose for my life and the wisdom to accomplish will make me “Christ-like” more and more everyday. My ultimate goal then is to become like Christ by displaying His simplicity, His integrity and His humility there by becoming a “transforming agent” in the society. In this world which was darkened with sin, we were called to be the “light and salt of the world” as we hear Our Lord’s words in Matt. 5: 13-14. If you ask me what my ultimate goal for my life is, I would join St. Paul by saying, “for to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” Phil. 1: 21.
My life should not just be confined to the betterment of the self but the power of Christ should flow through us into others. My life will have significance and meaning if it builds somebody’s life. We can achieve this only when we start imitating Chirst in every way. We called to fulfill our destiny in imitating Christ as Paul as urged in 1 Cor. 11: 1.
A word of caution to all of us here:
Bible says in Eccl. 11: 9:
Rejoice, Young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.”
Enjoy what you are doing, be happy and explore your life but enjoy your life in legitimate ways. Be accountable to God and to someone with whom you can share. Be sensitive to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit when he is convicting you.
I just want to conclude by drawing your attention this particular man. He was born without limbs which is a rare disorder, rejected admission in the Law school, ridiculed by his fellow students, contemplated suicide…but through all this he discovered his identity in God as a man made in the image of God, and found purpose for his life and he is now inspiring millions by proclaiming God’s faithfulness in his life. The man is none other than Nick Vujicic.
My dear friends, here is a man who without limbs dedicated his life with all he has and inspiring and touching millions with his life. He has a story to tell. What about you? Do you have a story to tell this world?
My exhortation or encouragement for you is that strive for excellence in your life. Project a strong witness of God’s faithfulness and love wherever you are placed. Lead at least one soul to Christ in your life time. Always remember who you are, your vision, your purpose and your ultimate goal. Difficulties and obstacles may come in but hold onto your faith in Christ. I just want to close with this quotation by James Dobson who said, “What matters is our faith when God doesn’t make sense.”
May the Lord God of Hosts, may reveal himself to you, inspire you and use you as a mighty instrument.