Did ancient Israel do mission?

I’m working on an Old Testament essay at the moment. On the wisdom literature. And I’m wondering if the wisdom literature – particularly Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs functioned as pro-Yahweh propaganda for the surrounding nations. Other nations had comparable wisdom literature (and indeed Israelite wisdom literature borrows directly from some of these surrounding documents providing a bit of a theological corrective – namely that knowledge starts with the fear of the Lord). Solomon’s dispensation of wisdom to the nations (in 1 Kings) seems to be the most fitting pre-Christ fulfilment of the Genesis 12 promise that Abraham’s descendants would be a blessing to the nations.

Part of my thinking is that Ecclesiastes and Proverbs are either written by Solomon, or presented as being written by Solomon, which I think makes a pretty compelling claim for reading them alongside the accounts of Solomon’s reign – where nations gather to experience his wisdom (somewhat vicariously – at the very least rulers of the other nations come to see Solomon).

Trouble is, I can’t find anybody (in the academic world) who agrees with me yet. And unfortunately, the question is “evaluate the proposal that Ecclesiastes and Job are protest literature” – some scholars think they’re basically a corrective of Proverbs – particularly the idea that material blessings flow from our actions (it’s called the acts-consequences nexus). So I have to show that I think the three are theologically united and serve this missional purpose. If I still think this is the case tomorrow.

What do you reckon the place of mission was in Israel? There were provisions to look after “sojourners” there are Psalms about the nations coming before God… that was also part of the messianic framework that developed in Israel prior to Christ. But, other than Jonah, there doesn’t seem to be too much direct preaching to gentile nations in Old Testament times (Obadiah’s prophecies about Edom might be an exception).

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

10 thoughts on “Did ancient Israel do mission?”

  1. Here’s one I prepared earlier:

    Israel was to be a kingdom of priests, and it is often said that the primary movement of salvation under the old covenant is centripetal (moving toward the centre) — that is, the nations were supposed to be drawn in, to find their salvation in Israel (see, for example, Micah 4:2). This is true, though we must not overstate the case. For God‘s word did go out from Jerusalem prior to Jesus‘s coming. In the post- exilic period, the emergence of synagogues appears to have been accompanied by a spread of God‘s word. Certainly by the time of the New Testament, Jewish witness had been strewn throughout the known world. (See Acts 2:9. Further, we might imagine at least some historical roots for Jesus‘s rhetorical flourish regarding the scribes and Pharisees who “travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte” (Matthew 23:15).)

    Nevertheless, it would appear that the gospel of Jesus Christ is of essence centrifugal (moving out from the centre) — that is, it is stitched into the very DNA of God‘s new covenant people to go, to head outwards from Jerusalem. So while the theme of God‘s ‘gathering’ a people to himself remains key in the New Testament (Hebrews 12:22–24; 2 Thess 2:1), there is an urgency to the propagation and dissemination of the gospel which was not present in the Old Testament. It is Jesus himself — particularly in his resurrection — who serves as the fulcrum which tips the focus of salvation from ‘drawing in’ to ‘spreading out’. (See related issues of how the Day of YHWH comes in Jesus, and how we live in that Day today.)

  2. the beauty of Old Testament studies is that you don’t need much (any) evidence to present a case.

    I reckon this line argument could float.

    (Though, I’m not sure how non-Solomonic authorship would fit with what you’re saying. Are you suggesting that the anonymous writers were wanting to be like Solomon, taking their Yahwistic wisdom to the nations.)

  3. Hey Stuart,

    Yeah, I’ve read a couple of articles that define any “evangelistic” activity in the OT as centripetal – but I’m wondering if the search for “true wisdom”TM might have been a gravitating point for the nations. I’m trying to think what other factors would cause people from other nations to be drawn to Israel’s God – I don’t know that the law would have been an attraction for the gentiles – perhaps the conviction that Yahweh, as creator, was worthy of worship would have done it for some – but I suspect that the wisdom of Israel was a positive and attractive element of Israelite culture.

  4. Dan,

    Non-Solomonic authorship would only float if I could suggest that by fictively presenting Solomon as the author the real authors were trying to link the content of the book with Solomon’s international reputation (and perhaps by extension, Israel’s national reputation) as the go to guy to for wisdom.

    I am happy to push for Solomonic authorship of the books – with a bit of redaction here and there (ie Proverbs has a hat tip to the people collecting Solomon’s wisdom under Hezekiah), but I think by presenting Solomon as the author we’re being asked to understand the books in line with what we know of Solomon’s reign – ie that he was a wise king who used his wisdom (a gift from God) to bless the nations. And the key in the books themselves is the notion that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (it’s in all the wisdom literature except Song of Solomon).

  5. See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.

    Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’

    For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deut 4:5–8)

    Sorry for not interacting with the key question. I’m supposed to be doing some editing, and am naughtily procrastinating. But yes, I think Wisdom is largely the everyday application of the Law, and the theme of Jesus as sage is underdone in our circles.

    I’ve written a little more on this, and you can get a flavour here: http://matthiasmedia.com.au/briefing/longing/5273/

    A taster for that link:
    The wisdom on view here is aligned with righteousness (Prov 1:3, 9:9, 10:31, 23:24; cf. Ps 37:30, Eccl 7:16, 9:1)—that is, living rightly in the world. Perhaps this is clearest in Proverbs 9 where Ladies Wisdom and Folly call people to righteous life (v. 9) and to death (v. 18) respectively. We find a similar thought in the New Testament where wisdom, like love, might be seen as a summary of ‘doing good’ (Matt 11:19, Eph 5:15, Col 4:5, Jas 3:13-18). Jesus himself is, of course, the ultimate wise man and the very wisdom of God (Matt 12:42, Luke 2:52, 1 Cor 1:24, 30, Col 2:3). Time and again, we marvel at his control of his surroundings and his skill in making judgements (e.g. Matt 13:54, 22:22).

  6. Hey Nathan, not sure where you’ve landed on this today. Since both Solomon and Ecclesiastes claim Solomonic authorship it’s sensibe to look at them in the light of each other, irrespective of what you think about the actual author, so Ecclesiastes could serve as a kind of balance to Proverbs. I’ve heard it said that the proverbs should be seen as general statments of guidance, not as detailed laws or promises, and Ecclesiastes places that sort of advice in the borader context of the brevity of life and the finiteness of human understanding. Job is another kind of literature, which doesn’t claim Solomonic authorship, but also focuses on our lack of understanding as you see by the time you get to the end. It’s a kind of poetic drama, a bit like Shakespeare’s plays but more static, so you get its message from the overall interaction and dialogue between the characters rather than what any single one of them says, where Proverbs and Ecclesiastes you can assume the words you read are the author’s views on the subject.

    On mission, my sense is very much that Israel was seen to be a people God chose for himself amongst all the peoples. His name would be glorified through them following His way, rather than through any particular mission activity, and bringing in outsiders was seen as a danger rather than a blessing. Their call was to keep separate rather than to reach out, although stories like Ruth or the healing of Naaman do suggest that we shouldn’t see that as completely black and white. Solomon’s wisdom is a good example of this – the surrounding nations are impressed by his wisdom and this reflects well on his God, but that’s a by-product – its main value is to provide good government for Israel.

    There doesn’t seem to me to be any compelling reason to see the wisdom books as anything outside this – they are used as advice to Israelites on how to live their life, although much of their content is general enough to be more widely applicable.

  7. Jon,

    I’m still pursuing this line of enquiry – with some fruit, I think. I’m trying to be careful not to read modern theological and academic norms back into the culture – but I think a case can be made for these books to be considered as Israel’s contribution to a global conversation about wisdom. They borrow pretty heavily from contemporaraneous wisdom documents.

    …so Eccle­si­astes could serve as a kind of bal­ance to Proverbs. I’ve heard it said that the proverbs should be seen as gen­eral stat­ments of guid­ance, not as detailed laws or promises…

    Some scholars suggest that rather than bringing balance the books of Ecclesiastes and Job (the dating actually seems a bit up in the air for Job) are written as correctives for theological problems in Proverbs. Dealing with the idea that living a wise life doesn’t always bear tangible fruit.

    I don’t know how your view of mission in the OT meshes with Genesis 12 (Israel being a blessing to the nations) – I suspect given that the wisdom books push “the fear of the Lord as the beginning of knowledge” and blessing is linked to living with God as Lord (eg Deuteronomy 30) – the nations being blessed is linked with some sort of witness from Israel towards the nations. I think this looks like living a wise, and Godly life, and I think the wisdom books might make a pragmatic apology for a life lived YHWH’s way.

  8. As I say, the blessing of the nations seems passive, not actively missional. But that doesn’t contradict the wisdom literature being part of a broader conversation accross the ancient Middle East. A lot of the stuff in the Pentateuch and some of the prophets stresses separation, but there are other threads as well that suggest a lot more engagement and relationship with the surrounding nations. Like most things, there is probably no one single OT view. The Ecclesiastes and Job as a correction to Proverbs thing sounds a lot like speculation to me – what’s the evidence cited for it? Also if that’s the message of Job it’s undermined at the end when he gets all his riches back – it’s like God is saying “it’s OK, I was just kidding”.

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