Jews & Gentiles and the People of God

This is the first of several articles which will be posted periodically. The subject is so large, and the sensitivity surrounding it so great, that it must be approached with care (and some caution). I will be posting these articles to run parallel with another, related, exegetical study series on “The Law and the New Testament” (see the introduction). This initial article on “Jews & Gentiles and the People of God” follows several daily notes in which I examined the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2:1-13. I set forth as a fundamental theme of Acts 1-2 the Restoration of Israel (see the note for Pentecost Tuesday with a concluding follow-up note). Consider, especially, the parallel thematic structure of the narrative:

    • The disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel—the Twelve (reconstituted, Acts 1:15-26) and the wider group of around 120 (12 x 10) disciples—are united, coming together in one place (Acts 2:1)
      • where they experience the manifestation (power and presence) of the Spirit of God (parallel to the Sinai theophany)—esp. the tongues of fire, Acts 2:2-4
    • Jews from the surrounding nations, representing the dispersed twelve tribes of Israel, also come together in one place (Acts 2:5-6), eventually speaking together with a united voice (vv. 7-11)
      • where they too experience the manifestation of the Spirit (the “voice”, v. 6), as at Sinai, with the word (of God) heard being spoken in other tongues (i.e. their own languages), Acts 2:6-7ff

Note also a second parallel involving the nations (ta\ e&qnh):

    • Jews from the surrounding nations (where they had been dispersed) come together in Jerusalem
      • In the hearing of the separate languages of the nations they encounter and respond to the word of God (spoken by the disciples)—in so doing, they join with the 12/120 apostles/disciples to form a new, restored Israel
      • The disciples (who spoke the languages of the nations), are, in turn, dispersed out in to the surrounding nations (see esp. Acts 8:1-4; 11:19), where they proclaim the word of God (to Jews and Gentiles)
    • Jews and Gentiles in all the surrounding nations come together—as Israel and in Jerusalem (at the spiritual level)

To what extent can this second parallel be demonstrated as part of the original thought and purpose of the author of Acts (or his underlying tradition[s])? There are several passages where the mission to the Gentiles is clearly understood as fundamental to the “restoration of Israel”. Perhaps the most prominent is in the speech of James in Acts 15:13-21—there James cites Amos 9:11-12 in a most original and distinctive manner, tying the “rebuilt tent/booth of David” to the Gentile mission. I have discussed this passage in some detail in an earlier post.

Before proceeding to an introductory analysis of the basic idea of the “people of God”, it may be useful to survey some of the key eschatological references in the Old Testament prophets (and subsequent Jewish literature) where the role (and fate) of Gentiles in the end times is described. To begin with, let me reiterate two important aspects of the “restoration of Israel”, which I pointed out at the end of an earlier daily note (on the Pentecost narrative):

    1. The return of Israelites (Jews) from exile among the nations—this return is to the Promised Land, and, in particular, to Judah and Jerusalem.
    2. The Nations (Gentiles) come to Judah and Jerusalem, bringing tribute and/or worshiping the true God there.

The first aspect is an important and popular theme especially in the later Prophets (from the exilic/post-exilic periods), and, in particular, so-called deutero- and trito-Isaiah (Isa 40-55, 56-66, generally regarded by critical scholars as stemming from this late period, though the matter remains much in dispute). Here is a sampling of some key Isaian passages: Isa 43:5ff; 44:21-28; 48:12-21; 49:5ff; 51:11; 52:2, 7-12; 54:2-8; 55:12-13; 56:1-8; and throughout chapters 60-66, esp. 66:18-24. The imagery and sentiment of these passages largely concurs with that found in exilic/post-exilic prophets such as Ezekiel (esp. chapters 34, 37 and 47-48) and Zechariah 9-14, though in those books the military side of the restoration (i.e. the defeat/conquest of the nations, cf. below) is already becoming more prominent. The motif of restoration/return appears frequently, of course, in subsequent Jewish writings—e.g., Tobit 14:5; 2 Maccabees 2:7; Jubilees, 1:15-17ff; Testament of Benjamin 9:2, etc (selection courtesy of Sanders, pp. 79-82, see below).

With regard to the second aspect, E. P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism, Fortress Press [1985], p. 214) provides a convenient summary of select passages related to the role and fate of the Gentiles, which I present here in modified form (with expanded references):

“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).

I will explore similar language and imagery in the New Testament and contemporary Judaism in the next article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.