(2) Salvation in the Old Testament

Ted Grimsrud—London, September 2009

From Cain’s murder of Abel at the beginning of Genesis to visions of bloodletting in Revelation, the Bible see violence as undermining human wholeness.  Salvation and violence have much to do with one another.  Salvation frees people from threats of violence.  At the same time, quite often violence seems to be a tool effecting salvation—holy wars, judgment versus wrongdoers, violence that cleanses the earth of evildoers, the violent sacrifice of innocent life.

The Bible links salvation with God—in a paradoxical way.  God intervenes to provide what we need for wholeness.  But do we also need to be saved from God?  Are we condemned to suffer God’s wrath unless God’s disposition toward us might be changed?  Does God require sacrificial violence for this disposition to change, operating according to the logic of retribution?

Does the portrayal of salvation in the Bible provide us a model of the need to respond to violence with violence—a retributive model?  Or, does salvation in the Bible provide a model of how violence must be dealt with in a way that ends the violence—a restorative model?

Clearly the Bible gives mixed signals.  However, I believe that the overall (though not unanimous) testimony of the biblical writings points against retribution. This is what I will try to illustrate with my comments today.

The Bible presents salvation on three levels: as liberation from powers of brokenness, as restoration of harmony with God, and as restoration of harmonious human relationships.  The Old Testament places priority on salvation in the first sense.  The other two follow from and depend upon the first. Because God acts to deliver, people are then freed to respond to God and restore harmony in their relationships with God and to live at harmony with one another.

The biblical story of salvation channeled through a particular people begins with Genesis 12.  In response to the brokenness of creation, God seeks patiently to heal.  Genesis 12:1-3 tells of the beginning of God’s strategy for healing, summarized in these words to Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God’s strategy to bring about peace leads to the creation of a community.  Through these people, God will make peace for all earth’s families.

Abraham’s descendants end up in Egypt. Exodus 2:23-25 tells us: “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out.  Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

God chooses Moses to lead the resistance to Pharaoh. After a series of plagues, Pharaoh relents and lets the Hebrews go, then changes his mind.  As the Egyptian army readies to pounce on the Hebrews, God rescues them, Pharaoh faces defeat and the Hebrew people are set free.

Old Testament writers often evoke the memory of God’s exodus deliverance.  God loved you and delivered you.  Let God’s love for you move you to love others.  Remember how God treated you when you were being oppressed, and see that you do not oppress others.

As the Hebrews traveled through the wilderness, God gave them the Law.  The Law provides social structure for the delivered slaves to sustain the effects of that deliverance. As Norman Gottwald writes, “Yahweh not only sets these former ‘nobodies’ on a new foundation that gives them identity and self-worth, but grants them alternative social and economic forms of life so they need not lapse back into tributary domination or unbridled self-seeking.”

Numerous times throughout the Old Testament, writers recall the basic outline of this primal story of salvation.  The God of this story is a God of unmerited love.  One recounting of God’s work comes in Hosea 11. Hosea first recites the basic historical realities of ancient Israel’s existence. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my child.” God freed the Hebrews from Egypt.  They did not have to prove themselves before God would love them.  God took the first step out of pure mercy.  However, God did ask that these former slaves follow Torah—ordering their communal life justly, treating each other with the care and respect God had shown them.  By following Torah they would show their commitment to the one true God.

The story tells us, though, that Israel was not able to remain committed to God’s ways.  “The more I called them,” God says in Hosea, “the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals [to other gods], and offering incense to idols” (Hosea 11:2).

The chapter makes the point, though, that God’s healing love remains decisive.  Exodus may be followed by brokenness, but God still works to heal. God asks the people of the covenant this basic question: Can I simply write you off?  No, God does not intend retribution here.  “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  I will not execute my fierce anger; I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”  God says, what will determine my actions is my compassion, my love for you.

Why does God do this?  Because “I am your God and no mortal.”  God does this because of God’s character.  God does this because God is a compassionate God, desiring healing, not retribution. Hosea 11 portrays the basic salvation story in terms of God’s love that liberated the Hebrews, patience in remaining committed to the people’s salvation even as they pursue self-destructive idolatrous paths, and “warm and tender” compassion that ultimately provides the people with a future.

The core of the story may be seen in key saving moments such as the calling of Abraham and Sarah, the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery, and the proclamation of mercy to the Hebrew exiles.  God gives salvation in each of these key moments to unworthy recipients.  Abraham and Sarah have no particular virtues; they are simply “wanderers.”  The Hebrews in Egypt were demoralized slaves who showed no evidence of worshiping the God of their ancestors.  And, the exiles of Isaiah 40–55 had lost all their pillars of identity due to their unfaithfulness to Torah. The explicitness of the unworthiness of those being saved by God makes clear that they had done nothing to earn God’s favor.  The logic of retribution tells us that God must act to destroy the unworthy.  God cannot save unless somehow God restores the “balance of the scales of justice” through punitive acts.  The actual story tells us something quite different.

God the savior acts in these moments purely out of God’s own good will.  In each case God supplies most of the action.  The saving acts came unilaterally from God, due to God’s free choice simply to intervene.  The recipients did nothing to “purchase” God’s favor, nothing to obligate a legalistic God to act.  God required no human acts to balance the scales of justice.  When God wants simply to intervene and bring healing to the world, God freely does so.  God is not constrained by a holiness that needs to have its demands for an evenly balanced “justice” satisfied before offering transforming mercy.

The basic dynamic of gift and response provides the necessary context for understanding two important Old Testament institutions—Torah (the Law) and sacrifices.  Human obligation to keep Torah and to keep sacrifices follows from the gift of salvation.  Human beings are not required to follow Torah or offer sacrifices in order to gain God’s favor.  Rather, human beings keep Torah and offer sacrifices because they have already received God’s favor.

God gave the Law to provide social structure for the delivered slaves so that the effects of that deliverance could be sustained.  The Law provides a framework for on-going faithful living.  In addition, God gave the Promised Land so these people could establish an on-going society that would live out the fruit of the exodus liberation.  The on-going faithful living required a place.

God gave these gifts so the people would spread God’s shalom to all the families of the earth.  The context for the Law included two crucial affirmations:  God saves by grace, in mercy, with acts of deliverance.  The Law comes after—not as a means of earning salvation but as an additional work of God’s grace, a resource for ordering peaceable living in the community of God’s people. God intends to create universal shalom, to bless the families of the earth (God’s healing strategy). The Hebrews are called to mediate God’s presence to the “whole earth.”

Following the Law does not lead to salvation.  Salvation leads to following the Law.  The first act is God’s—a merciful act of totally gratuitous liberation.  In God’s free and sovereign love, God may simply act to liberate.  Then, as a further act of mercy, God gives the Law as directives for how a liberated people ought to act. The Law is not a legalistic blueprint that, when violated, triggers God’s wrath and renders God unable (due to God’s holiness) to act directly with pure mercy.  Rather, the Law is, pure and simple, the loving gift of a merciful God for the sake of the life of God’s people.

Sacrifices are present from the very beginning and then throughout the Old Testament story—starting with Cain and Abel’s famous encounter in Genesis 4.  However, we find very little overt reflection on what sacrifice meant and what it hoped to accomplish. Most likely, the Hebrews borrowed their practice of sacrifice from surrounding cultures.  However, the meaning of sacrifice among the Hebrews must be seen as ultimately following from their view of their own peculiar God and of the nature of their covenant with God.

Sacrifices are not theologically central to Old Testament salvation, though they are commonly practiced.  In numerous instances forgiveness and, even more, deliverance, do not depend upon sacrifices.  The basic dynamic, on Yahweh’s side, is the decision to save simply because that is the kind of god Yahweh is.  The basic dynamic, on the human side, is repentance and trust.  The sacrifices then follow, as the means to concretize the reception of the gift.

The rationale for sacrifices emerges in the context of Torah’s expectations.  Sacrifices are the third step—they emerge as part of the Hebrews joyful response to the healing, transforming initiative of Yahweh.  The call to offer sacrifices is something that comes from God for the sake of fostering the wellbeing of the Hebrews in their common life.  Sacrifices do not establish the relationship with God.  God gives sacrifices as means to sustain the already-created life lived in joyful response to Yahweh’s purely gracious work of deliverance and sustenance.

Contrary to the logic of retribution, we find mercy at the very core of Old Testament sacrifice theology.  Sacrifices do not appease an angry and punitive God; rather they are gifts from a consistently loving God for sustaining the relationship established already, purely by God’s initiating healing, delivering love.

We see a basic message in the primal story of salvation in the Old Testament, and in the role of Torah and sacrifices in relation to salvation.  Salvation comes from God’s mercy.  Time and time, throughout the story, God initiates deliverance/liberation/ salvation prior to Torah faithfulness and sacrificial offerings.

For salvation to enter the Hebrews’ world, nothing is needed that would change God’s disposition.  The Hebrews are not called to find ways to appease God’s anger, satisfy the demands of God’s balance-the-scales justice, or find ways to avoid impurities that violate God’s absolute holiness.  The called-for actions, rather, include the Hebrews responding to God’s merciful acts by acting mercifully themselves.  They are to seek to follow Torah regulations that provide guidance for such merciful actions and to seek to form Israel into a merciful society.  As well, the Hebrews are asked concretely to express their gratitude and commitment to Yahweh by ritualistic offerings of their produce (grain and animal).

Neither the Law nor the sacrifices were meant to be means to salvation but rather responses to the saving works of God.  The Law and sacrifices were meant to foster justice in the community.  Once they were established, though, the danger inevitably arose that either or both would be separated from their grounding in God’s merciful liberating works. As the intent of the Law faded, the community tended to focus on external expressions, easily enforced and susceptible to becoming tools of people in power.

As the original intent of sacrifices was lost, many Israelites tended to treat sacrifices as means of salvation, ritual acts separated from practical justice in the community.  Especially, as they centralized religious structures, people in power used sacrifice as a tool to enhance their standing.  Presenting sacrifice as a necessary means to salvation, enabled people who controlled access to sacrificial rituals in the Temple to exercise enormous power in the community.

Voices of accountability arose to challenge such distortions, prophetic voices.  In their challenges, the prophets reiterate the meaning of salvation.  Salvation is God’s liberating gift. Following Torah and offering sacrifices are responses to God’s gift, not means to try to gain it.

I will focus on the first wave of “writing prophets”—Amos, Hosea, and Micah. In making their critiques, even at times using extraordinarily harsh language and imagery, the prophets nonetheless did not propose that Yahweh had changed from loving to wrathful; rather, a society founded on Torah-justice will become deathly ill when Torah-justice is disregarded.  To draw on Amos’ imagery, we may say that where there is justice there is life; the community will be strong and healthy.  Injustice, on the other hand, in inherently unhealthy.

All three prophets saw the key for health to be Yahweh’s liberating love. They speak because they believe God desires the community’s healing.  All three books conclude with hopeful visions of such healing.  The people are confronted in hope that they will return to trust in their liberating God.

According to these prophets, the people had changed their original social structure. By the eighth century, a transformation had occurred leading to increased social stratification—a few wealthy, many poverty-stricken.  The prophets zeroed in on this stratification as evidence of a fundamentally unjust social order.  The presence of widespread injustice among the Hebrews contradicted the dynamics of liberation that characterized Yahweh’s original intervention.

All these prophets identified violence as a key manifestation of disharmony. Hosea, of the three prophets, speaks of the curse of violence the most forcefully and extensively.  Violence only leads to violence.  Hosea states: “You have plowed wickedness….Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors, the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed” (Hosea 10:13-14).

As does the problem of injustice, so also the problem of violence brings into clear focus Yahweh’s intended priorities in calling the Hebrews.  According to Abraham Heschel, “the prophets were the first [people] in history to regard a nation’s reliance upon forces as evil.” Yahweh’s priorities, according to these prophets, included, at their core, justice and peace.

Just as the prophets hold the political leaders responsible for leading the Hebrews into the paths of violence when the leaders were called to foster peace, so Hosea presents the priests as responsible for leading the Hebrews into the paths of idolatry (5:1).  Instead of seeing harvesting the fruits of their field as a time for remembering Yahweh’s work on their behalf and offering sacrifices of thanksgiving that would reinforce the people’s commitment to lives lived according to Torah, the people, according to Hosea, are making the offerings to Baal (9:1-9).

All three prophets forcefully express their rejection of the possibility that the Hebrews’ rituals effectively connect them with Yahweh. However, they do not reject religious or cultic practices per se; they reject religious practices separated from their original intention.   “For them, worship and ritual were means; justice and righteousness were ends.”

The prescribed religious rituals, in, say, Leviticus, meant to reinforce justice for all in the covenant community.  The rituals meant to be linked inextricably with Yahweh’s liberating love, especially oriented toward widows, orphans, and resident aliens.  With this link broken, the rituals become worse than simply ineffective.  They become themselves occasions for sin and alienation from God.  They reinforce the illusion that the covenant community can tolerate injustice, violence, and idolatry and still connect with Yahweh through ritual.

As Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel writes: “Amos and the prophets who followed him not only stressed the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship, far from being absolute, is contingent upon moral living, and that when immorality prevails, worship is detestable.”

For the prophets, the proper role of sacrifice is as a response to God’s initiative, not as a means to turn God back toward the people. God remains the source of wholeness; God still loves the people in the same way as God had in the time of Moses.  Hence, the restoration of harmony is not complicated nor is it something God withholds.

Behind the prophetic call to “repent” lies the presumption of God’s availability.  The alienation follows from what happens on the human side.  God simply wants a turning back from problematic beliefs and practices, and then offers mercy. Should the people truly seek God, their lives would bear the fruit: justice and mercy.  According to Amos, when the people seek God their common life will be transformed in practical ways.  In order to live, the people must “seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.  Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:14-15).

Salvation, in the context of the disharmony the prophets spoke so strongly against, led to the healing of relationships within the community.  Gift and obligation are inextricably united.  Because Yahweh liberated the Hebrews they have the obligation to share life together in ways that insure the wellbeing of all.

Salvation comes as a gift from God.  Salvation obligates its recipients to live together justly and kindly.  Salvation, in the context of disharmony, requires repentance, a turning from injustice and idolatry.  The prophets assumed this salvation could be present.  Heschel writes: “God’s love and kindness indicate a road.  It is a road not limited to a particular area in space nor to exceptional miraculous happenings.  It is everywhere, at all times.”

Because of Yahweh’s trustworthiness with the Hebrews, going back to the liberation from Egypt, the people have every reason to trust Yahweh in the present and for the future.  Such trust is central to their experience of salvation.  What does the Lord require?  Justice, mercy, “and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).  That is, bow before your God in trust and humility. God desires steadfast love, not sacrifice.

God’s frustration with the people stems not because of their inherent impurity violating God’s holiness, but because the people failed to remain true to God’s provision for holistic life.  These prophets portray the law as a gift, meant for sustenance of the covenant community.  Far from being legalistic and impersonal, they saw Torah as relational, stemming from God’s loving concern for the people.  The prophets understand themselves not as radical innovators but as “conservatives,” calling the people back to the covenant commitments their ancestors made.

These prophets express harsh criticism of sacrificial practices—though, not, it would appear, because of sacrifices being inherently wrong.  Rather, the prophets presuppose the original hope that sacrifices remind the people to be grateful to God, to share with others, and to be committed to Yahweh alone as God.  In the context of injustice and oppression and worship of other gods, the purpose of sacrifices had been turned on its head when the Hebrews combine a self-satisfied attitude about worship with insensitivity toward social injustice.

The prophets portray the disharmony they expose as violated relationships.  The people violate their relationship with Yahweh with idolatry and injustice.  The sin is not about broken rules per se, but about breaking relationships and thereby causing harm.  The use of rituals came to be separated from the relationships.  Making sacrifice impersonal (and hence, empty) ritual became part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The prophets show us a God angry not because the legalistic scales of justice have been unbalanced.  Rather, God’s anger stems from violation of the interpersonal dynamics of just relationships through oppression and violence.  “God’s concern is the prerequisite and source of [God’s] anger.  It is because [God] cares for [humans] that [God’s] anger may be kindled against [humans].”  God’s anger and God’s mercy are not in conflict but are directly related, both stemming from God’s will to heal the world.

Because the problem lies with violating relationships and harm doing, these prophets present the solution in terms of seeking to restore the relationships.  And this restoration is uncomplicated.  The God of the prophets remains the loving liberator of the Exodus.  The restoration of the Hebrews’ relationship with God essentially depends only upon their remembering who God is.  This remembrance entails a simple turn—from false trust and back to trust in God.  With renewed trust, justice and mercy in social relationships inevitably returns.

The key assumption lying behind the prophets understanding of the hope for restoration of harmony with God is that God does not require sacrifices to change God’s disposition toward God’s people.  God remains, as always, favorably disposed—so long as human beings simply recognize that and trust.  God remains, as always, ready and willing to heal the sin-caused brokenness.  “Sin is not a cul-de-sac, nor is guilt a final trap.  Sin may be washed away by repentance and return, and beyond guilt is the dawn of forgiveness.  The door is never locked, the threat of doom is not the last word.”

The prophetic stance, then, as reflected in these three prophets, contrasts sharply with the logic of retribution.  As Abraham Heschel writes, “the ultimate power is not an inscrutable, blind, and hostile power, to which [humans] must submit in resignation, but a God of justice and mercy to whom [humans are] called upon to return.”

For the prophets, salvation results from God’s loving initiative.  God delivers, forebears, restores.  This initiative is a constant.  Nothing is needed to change God.  The only needed changes are on the human side.  Return to Yahweh.  Trust in Yahweh, not in other gods, not the works of your hands.  Sacrifices are not needed to balance the scales of justice.  At most, they simply serve to remind the people of God’s generosity and to foster rededication to Yahweh.

The prophets see reality as personal and concrete.  They know nothing of a detached inner life of God, of a cosmic scale of justice, or of impersonal, abstract laws that transcend mundane life.  Yahweh feels, responds, love, and grieves.

The entire context for theological reflection concerning salvation must be seen in terms of the covenant relationships God has established with God’s people.  Justice is not about God’s internal processes and impersonal holiness.  Rather, justice fosters health in the community of people seeking to live together in a way that glorifies God.

The prophets do not portray an angry, wrathful God.  Rather, they show us a loving, healing God who out of committed love feels anger at the people’s self-destructive behavior.  God expresses this anger, but it ultimately serves the love by fostering a return.

3 thoughts on “(2) Salvation in the Old Testament

  1. Tammy Wiese

    Dear Professor Grimsrud,
    I stumble across your work after reading Michael Gorman’s new book, “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant- a not-so-new model of atonement.” I am intrigued by your ideas. Gorman calls them radical…I guess discounting the blood of Christ as salvific is radical in the eyes of many. I was wondering if through God’s oath at the covenant ceremony with Abram when God assumed responsibility for the covenantal relationship, a relationship God-initiated, established, and maintains is fulfilled by the Incarnation. Not as the ‘blessing’ and not as the ‘curse’ but as the oath… the Word of God the visible covenantal relationship. Perhaps during the Mosiac covenant, after the display of treason by the worship of the golden calf, God through Abram broke the Mosiac covenant, restated his promised to stay faithful to the covenant and appropriated the sacrificial services to be a re-enactment of the covenantal cutting service to remained his people that God freely forgives. the cutting of animals, the fire as God, and the ‘blood’ which represents life (lev 16:11)( not death) represent the oath God made. Then Jesus becomes Incarnate as the word of God, the oath, and his life, not his death heals/saves us.

    1. Ted Grimsrud Post author

      Thanks for the note, Tammy. I certainly agree that it is Jesus’s life, not his death, that is salvific. I like the idea of this being in continuity with God’s faithfulness to the covenant in the story of the Hebrew people through the exodus and beyond. I don’t think I fully understand your use of “oath” here, though.



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