3. The kingdom promised: Abraham
Throughout the post-Edenic period of Gen 4-11 we are given clear indications that God has not given up on his creation and that his grace continues. However, as we meet Abram, his plan for the redemption of humanity, and ultimately creation itself is made clear. In three short verses, a new nation is promised, and a rescue is declared—not only for the nation that will come from this father, but for all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3).
Abram’s exemplary faithful obedience leads him to move his family and begin a new life in the land God has appointed for him. During this period we again are reminded of the extent to which sin has enveloped the earth. Sodom and Gomorrah become names synonymous with violence and sin (Gen 18:20) and the judgement of God is vast and overwhelming (Gen 19:29).
During this time even the great Abraham proves himself unfaithful (Gen 20:1-5) and God’s grace prevents further judgement (Gen 20:6-7).
The family line of Abraham is not exempt from the personal violence that has become part of life in the fallen creation. Jacob is forced to flee from Esau under the threat of murder (Gen 27:41), and Joseph suffers violently under the hand of his brothers (Gen 37:25-28). However, in these events we see a new theme emerging, that of God using evil to achieve his purpose. As Joseph once again greets his brothers in a grain-rich Egypt he declares:
And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life… And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here but God. (Gen 45:5-8)
The theme of violence against people looms large in the time of Moses, firstly with him as a target with his life beginning under the threat of widespread gender-specific infanticide (Exod 1:16) and then as a perpetrator (Exod 2:12).
Having experienced the great saving event of the Exodus, Moses and the people of Israel are given the law to obey as their proper response to their salvation. The extent to which violence against persons has become a fixed part of the culture can be seen in the 6th commandment “You shall not murder”. (Exod 20:13). The subsequent sections of legal material contain many instructions and regulations about the punishments and penalties associated with personal violence (e.g. Exod 21:12-25), which again indicates not only that personal security was a significant issue in that time, but that personal and judicial response was to be one of the ways in which Israel was to be distinct from the surrounding nations.
Examples of personal security are scattered throughout the desert narrative. In one interesting example, Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb plead with the people that they be faithful and enter the land under the gracious hand of God. The people refuse and in their refusal take up stones to kill them (Num 14:10). Here, another variation on the theme enters the discussion—violence associated with doing or speaking the truth—what we might call persecution.
In his speeches to the new generation of Israel assembled in the plains of Moab, Moses reiterates the law and reminds people of the way of life that is expected of them as God’s people. Amongst the legal material we find instructions for cities of refuge where ‘accidental killers’ can shelter (Deut 19:1-10), instructions for dealing with ‘deliberate killers’ who try and shelter in these cities (Deut 19:11-13), and methods for dealing with unsolved murders (Deut 21:1-9).
Two themes emerge from this material. First, as we have already seen, violence against persons, whether deliberate or accidental, is expected to be part of life in the land. The Israelites should not be surprised when a dispute ends in personal violence. Again, it is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’.
Second, even though such violence is expected, it is not accepted nor condoned. A recurrent phrase is “you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst” (Deut 19:13, 21:9). For God’s people to be behaving in such a way is contrary to his character and to the expectations of obedience of him.
The other major category that emerges in Deuteronomy and we see developed throughout the conquest and subsequent settlement of the land is that of violence against persons/personal suffering as part of, or as a consequence of, God’s judgement. In Deuteronomy 28 disobedience of the law of God will result in God sending enemies to defeat Israel along with the suffering, humiliation and social unrest which that brings (Deut 28:25-26, 52-57).
In Judges we see this consequence of general suffering occurring following the departure of the people from the way of the Lord (Judg 2:16-22), with specific examples of personal violence and suffering throughout the book. This situation continues until the time of the monarchy.
During this period the pessimism associated with the post-fall creation continues, and is even reinforced with the legal material dealing with personal violence. However there is a glimmer of hope poking through the murky fog of pessimism. God’s covenant promises for a redeemed nation and ultimately a redeemed humanity have been clearly stated, and regularly re-stated. Personal security is certainly going to be an issue for God’s people in this period, but there is certainly hope for a better future.