This short article introduces a new study series—The People of God. It represents an expanded version of a series I had planned some time back (even posting an initial article), focusing on the central premise of the early Christian religious identity—that believers are to be understood as the people of God, comprised of Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) alike. While this is no longer such and important aspect of Christian thought today, it was essential for the earliest Christian communities, and for the authors of the New Testament. And, indeed, it remains subject much worthy of renewed consideration and study by believers in this modern age. As the “people of God” concept has its roots in the earliest layers of Old Testament tradition and Israelite history, it will be necessary to devote a number of articles to a careful examination of this background, exploring the key passages and traditions in some detail. The Old Testament portion of this series will proceed as follows, in three main parts:
- The idea of Israel as the people of God
- The Covenant
- Israel and the Nations in the Prophetic tradition
Before embarking on the first part, it may be helpful to begin with a brief study of the expression “people of God”, as it occurs in the Old Testament Scriptures.
“People of God”
In the Old Testament Scriptures, the precise phrase “people of God” (formally <yh!ýa$–h*— <u^, ±am [h¹]°§lœhîm) is actually quite rare (Judg 20:2; 2 Sam 14:13), with the similar expression “people of YHWH” (hw`hy+ <u^, ±am YHWH) a bit more common (Num 16:41; Deut 27:9; Judg 5:11, 13; 1 Sam 2:24; 2 Sam 1:12; 6:21; 2 Kings 9:6; Ezek 36:20; Zeph 2:10). However, Israel is referred to as God’s people many times, including numerous instances where the revelatory/prophetic voice of God refers to Israel as “my people”. These occur frequently in the context of the Exodus—Ex 3:7ff; 5:1; 7:4; 8:22-23; 9:17 (“let my people go”, 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20-21; 9:1, 13; 10:3-4); the status of Israel as God’s people is summarized in Ex 33:16. The emphasis of Israel as God’s people is often that of holiness, related to the idea of covenant obligation; this is particularly noteworthy in Deuteronomy—Deut 7:6f; 14:2; 28:9; 29:13, etc—and throughout the Deuteronomic history (e.g., 1 Sam 2:29; 9:16-17; 2 Sam 3:18; 5:2; 7:7-11; 1 Ki 6:13; 8:16; 16:20). For the theme of holiness, see especially Lev 11:45; 19:2; 26:12.
The address of “my people” occurs regularly as a complaint or admonishment in the Psalms and Prophets (Ps 50:7; 78:1; 81:8-13; Isa 1:3; 3:12; 5:13; 10:24; 26:20; Jer 2:11ff; 4:22; 6:26; 7:23; 8:7ff; 18:15; Amos 7:8ff; Mic 6:3ff. In Hosea, there is particular emphasis upon the identity of Israel as God’s people, as the message fluctuates between one of condemnation and a promise of future restoration (Hos 1:9-10; 2:1, 23; 4:6, 8, 12; 6:11; 11:17). Indeed “my people” proves to be an important keynote, in Isaiah and the later (exilic/post-exilic) Prophets, when the theme of deliverance and restoration becomes more prominent; cf. for example in Isa 32:18; 40:1ff; 51:4ff; 52:4-12; 65:19ff; Jer 24:4-7; 30-31; 32:38ff; Ezek 11:19-20; 37:11-14; 39:7 (cf. also 38:16; 44:23).