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One Nation Under YHWH

January 27, 2010

When in the course of human events…

We the people of the United States…

These words are instantly recognizable, especially but not only, to Americans. They are the beginning to the preamble of two founding documents of this nation, of course, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Now consider how the following words are different:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…

Let me offer the suggestion to take these words as the beginning of another preamble, the beginning of the founding document of the ancient nation of Israel. It is as theocentric–“in the beginning God…” as the U.S. founding documents are anthropocentric..”human events,” “we the people.” Rightly so, because the nation of Israel (I am not referring to the modern nation state of that name) is unique in history as being directly constituted by God. All others are, as the Declaration puts it “Governments…instituted among Men”

Genesis 1:1 is, of course, itself the beginning, of Genesis, of the Bible itself, but also of the Torah, the Law, those five books we also call the Penteteuch. The Torah is THE Law for Israel, as we say the supreme law of the land, its constitution. It constitutes the nation by virtue of the covenant established by God at Sinai. I am thus proposing the Sitz im Leben for Genesis and the rest of the Penteteuch as the Exodus event, which transformed an ethnic group into a political group, the nation of Israel. It may be that much of the material of Genesis is older, as many commentators suggest. It hardly seems likely that these accounts were never narrated previously or even written down. Yet they hold an integral place in the Penteteuch as we have it, and in the book of Genesis. As I will attempt to show, there is nothing extraneous or haphazard about their placement.

The form of an ancient convenant, specifially the Ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaty has been the subject of some interest since its discovery. It has a typical structure, and scholars, such as Meredith Kline, have demonstrated how units such as Deuteronomy, and also the Decalogue, follow this structure. I wish to propose that the entire Torah fits this pattern well. To recall the elements:

1. The preamble identifies the suzerain (and vassal) in terms calculated to inspire awe and fear.

2. The historical prologue reviews the past relationship between the parties, with particular emphasis upon the magnanimity of the suzerain toward the vassal;

3. The treaty stipulations comprise the suzerain’s detailed demands regarding the vassal’s behavior in light of this treaty; one of those demands always is the undivided and exclusive fidelity of the vassal to this suzerain (to take no other lord besides this suzerain);

4. The deposition states where the written record of the treaty is to be deposited for safekeeping (often the temple of one of the divine witnesses) and how frequently it is to be renewed via public recitation (usually annually);

5. The list of divine witnesses to this covenant and in whose name the oath is sworn; this list always includes the patron deities of both parties; and

6. The blessings and curses that will come upon the vassal who keeps or breaks the treaty; the list of curses typically is quite a bit longer and more detailed than the list of blessings.

(from WikiAnswers)

This is an idealized presentation of these elements. They are not always all present, as I understand it, nor always in that order. The structure of the Penteteuch is complex, but all these elements are present. Deuteronomy, for example, itself shows this covenant structure, quite clearly. And there is what we might call constitutional development apparent even in the post-Exodus, pre-Conquest era. What I am most concerned with in this post is elements 1 and 2, but we can see elements 4-6 present in the bulk of the Penteteuch.

Working backward, blessings and curses (element 6) occur in Deut 27-28. This is just the most concentrated sampling of these. Blesses and curses attached to various acts occur throughout, and is a major theme in the law (as others have recently shown).

The “divine witnesses” of element 5 are heaven and earth called as witnesses in Deut. 4:26, 30:19, 31:28 and 32:1.

Element 4 regards the safekeeping of the document and its periodic public reading. Deut. 31:26 says “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.” Deut. 17:18-20 calls for a constant transcription and daily reading of the Law by the King. According to Deut 31:9-13 it was to be read aloud to the people every seven years.

Element 3, the stipulations making demands on behavior comprise the mass of the legal corpus in Exodus through Deuteronomy.

Element 2 is the historical prologue detailing the past relationship between the parties and the reasons the vassal has for being grateful. In the Penteteuch this occurs in distinct parts. Exodus 1-19 recounts the recent history, the rise of Moses and the Exodus. The Exodus will come to be one if not the main reason for the nation to be grateful to God, as summarized in the preamble to the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Ex. 20:2) Thus in the Exodus experience and the giving of the Law, the ethnic group, a collection of tribes becomes a nation.

How that ethnic group in turn grew from a single man, Abraham is the subject of Genesis 12-50. These chapters recall who they are as a people, what their heritage and destiny are, and how it was that they came to be in Egypt in the first place. It tells of the earlier covenant with Abraham and traces the blessings of that covenant through the generations, making it clear that they are carrying the promise to Abraham to be a blessing in turn to all the nations of the earth. What is not explicitly told them is exactly what this blessing would entail, that they are functioning as God’s means to bring about the incarnation, to bring into the earth, His Messiah, the seed of Abraham.

So Abraham is the beginning point of a large structure in the text that leads to another point, to THE Point, Jesus Christ. To understand how this Abraham to Christ line–in a word, Israel, functions, the text sets it within the larger picture of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. It is widely recognized that Genesis 1-11 have a significantly different scope than the remaining chapters of the book. This is because what for Israel will be “family history” begins with chapter 12, though with some foreshadowing in chapter 11.

Israel exists as an instrument by which God will effect His redemption on the earth. Redemption for what, of course is explained in chapter 3. Before God goes about forming a nation for Himself, He causes unified humanity to be divided into nations. This is the main fuction of chapters 6-11. God inaugurates a divide-and-conquer strategy, and it is within this division structure that His own holy nation is nestled as the remnant of humanity, within which is the remnant of the remnant, until ultimately the Israel par excellence arrives, Christ.

The problem of human sin is compounded by the baffling account of the “sons of God” and their progeny, the mighty men of renown. Bizarre as it seems, the issue seems to be introduction of an extra-human element into the stream of mankind, which catalyzes the depravity which had already abundantly expressed itself in early human history. The first step in recovering humanity is to eliminate this extraneous corruption, and so all but one family perishes in the flood.

Nothing survives–of airbreathing life at any rate–externally, but the incident with Noah and Ham reveals that nevertheless, something has survived. A remaining line of depravity receives a curse, foreshadowing the Israelites commission to eradicate the Canaanites. Now from this single family the race again expands, until the division into languages, and more significantly, nations occurs in chapter 10-11.

Thus the beginning of redemption consists of the two judgments, the flood and Babel. Prior to these is the very beginning of the historical prologue that we have been tracing in reverse. The most significant fact about the “past relationships of the parties” is that the creature Man has acted with perfidy, and utterly failed in fulfilling its purpose and duty. The account frequently called the second creation story is in fact the introduction of the second party, Man. The very first and basic reason for gratitude, creation is recounted from an anthropocentric viewpoint. The first man, and later his wife, are placed in no less position than the vassal king and queen under the reign of the Great King.

Ingratitude, distrust and jealousy make inroads into the relationship, through the corrupting suggestion of the enemy. Transgression of the one explicit prohibition results in irreversible damage, spiritual death, disconnection and rapid degeneration of this ultimate creation of God. Murder, fratricide even, does not delay in appearing, and though a remnant of humanity struggles to remember from whence it is fallen, masses of mankind devolved into barbarism and savagery.

If Genesis 2-Exodus 19 can be understood as the historical prologue, then Genesis 1 fills the role of the covenant preamble. In this way, the “first” creation account has as its primary function, not to recount the beginning of time and space–though it does that, nor to recount how God brings creation into existence–since it tells very little about this. What it does, and does very effectively, is introduce the Great King in terms calculated to inspire awe and fear.

If this is the overriding concern with Genesis 1 it behooves us to read it in this manner with a response not only of awe and holy fear but of gratitude, since this is the appropriate response of creatures to the glory revealed in creation. No doubt many truths can be gleaned from this self-introduction, but seven themes occur to me within the chapter, each of which is abundantly expanded within the remainder of the Bible.

1. That God is Creator, and thus Owner, and due honor and glory and obedience.
2. That He is the Great King, who speaks and is obeyed, and man’s proper place is in His Kingdom.
3. That He is Judge, who alone pronounces good and evil, since good is the emanation and reflection of His own nature.
4. That He is Father, who made man in His own image and likeness, and as Father provider of all needs.
5. That He first created light, an enduring symbol of His holiness.
6. That He divides, separating His holiness from unholiness, and separating for Himself a people for His name.
7. That He is Lord of time itself. He created it and our times are in His hands. He has marked the rhythm of life with a signature, the number of His name as it were, a prevailing seven which resounds throughout history like a refrain reminding us all whose story it is.

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