Ted Grimsrud

02. Salvation in the Old Testament

PART ONE: The Biblical Salvation Story

I intend this book to be a Christian reflection on understanding salvation as a gift—and how this understanding might help us break free from the violence that is fostered by acceptance of the logic of retribution.  I focus on biblical theology for two main reasons.

First, the Bible powerfully shapes Christian beliefs and practices.  Christians confess a commitment to listen to the Bible.  All Christian theology and ethics remain accountable to the Bible.  A second reason, using Dutch jurist Herman Bianchi’s imagery, is a sense that our society needs something analogous to homeopathic treatment of our violence problem.[1] Since a significant historical source for our society’s current retributive mindset has been Christian theology, then perhaps we need a theological antidote.

As seems clear, in the present as well, much of the social impetus for retributive responses to offenders (be they convicted criminals, straying children, or alleged “terrorists,” is fueled by religiously-oriented arguments.[2]

A reconsideration of biblical materials, thus, provides the potential to think of alternatives to the logic of retribution from within the same framework that has reinforced that logic.  Such refection also directly challenges present-day theologically grounded justifications of retribution.

The shear breadth of biblical materials makes it impossible to subsume every part in equal measure into one synthetic “biblical perspective.”  We need to be self-conscious with the ways we find the approximate coherence necessary to make the Bible usable.  In what follows I will privilege the life and teaching of Jesus as providing our basic criteria for interpreting the rest of the Bible.

Some of these criteria include the following:

(1) The God of the Bible is most clearly revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus.  Hence, biblical materials consistent with this revelation—those that portray God as merciful, as seeking to bring healing to human beings, as welcoming vulnerable people, as critical of human power politics—should be seen as providing the core of biblical revelation.  And those materials in tension with such a portrayal will be seen as less central.

(2) The Bible presents a single basic story, beginning with the calling of Abraham and Sarah, proceeding through the history of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants in the ancient Near East, and culminating with the ministry of Jesus and the emergence of the community of Jesus-followers.  This single story provides the orienting point for all biblical materials—and establishes that biblical revelation is first of all narrative.[3]

(3) God’s primary representatives throughout the story act from outside the power structures of Israel and the nations.  Abraham and Sarah were “wanderers,” Moses a fugitive from Egypt.  Most prophets spoke as independent voices, Jesus as an itinerant rabbi.  Hence, authoritative biblical speech is grounded in content, not the official status of the speaker.

Seeing the Bible as a collection of faith-stories first told to inspire adherence to God’s reign among human beings, we will read the Bible as a story.  Our concern will be with the basic plotline of the material when read as a whole.  Reading the Bible theologically and ethically differs from reading it historically (the way critical scholars and evangelical-fundamentalist apologetes tend to read it).  In focusing on the story, we will not spend time on discussions of authorship and specifics of historical context, but focus more on the narrative itself.

Hence, in what follows, our concern will center on how the Bible itself presents salvation.  We tend toward looking at the big picture and the development of the over-arching story, more than isolating specific parts.  However, we are not looking to harmonize all the differences or impose a rigid uniformity on the materials.

Due to the limitations of space, we will not spend the energy we could (with great profit) on reflecting on the tensions within the story.  Our concern here is with identifying the main storyline and reflecting on how we see salvation portrayed there.

For this approach to be valid, we must assume that casting the net ever wider over the diversity outside the main story line would still ultimately reinforce that story line.  I hope to work more on that task in the future, and I will be delighted if what I write here stimulates others to test my arguments more broadly in the Bible.

For now, I self-consciously present an argument meant to suggest more than prove.  I offer what follows as a contribution to a much-needed, on-going process of discernment and ethical reflection among people of good will—an attempt to appropriate the biblical story in a way that will foster life and wholeness.


Salvation in the Old Testament: Healing, Law, and Sacrifice

We may see the Bible as a collection of writings on the theme of how human beings may live on earth in relationship with God, the creator of heaven and earth.  When this relationship is strong, human life is whole—healthy, balanced, creative, expansive, vital, peaceful.  Salvation has to do with how this wholeness might happen.

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 the portrayal of salvation in the Bible provide a model of how violence must be dealt with in a way that ends the violence—a restorative model, an understanding of God as ordering the cosmos in terms of mercy and a desire to heal the wrong-doer and community when there is a violation?

Clearly the Bible gives mixed signals on these questions.  We see this ambiguity in the extreme diversity throughout Christian history among biblical interpreters concerning these questions.  However, I believe that the crises of our present world, the extent of violence and brokenness, do not allow us to throw up our hands in relativistic despair in face of the diversity within the Bible and the diversity among Christian interpreters.  I will read the Bible in a way that does draw conclusions.  I will argue that the overall (though not unanimous) testimony of the biblical writings—Old and New Testaments together—points against retribution.

I read the Old Testament as a Christian, through the lens of Jesus.  Reading the Old Testament in this way simply means allowing Jesus’ values to guide how we sort through the various witnesses.  We still read the Old Testament on its own terms.  However, we make choices among this diversity to place the highest priority on themes that reflect Jesus’ priorities.

In this chapter and in chapters three and four, I show the coherence among (1) the “primal story line of the Old Testament,”[4] (2) the presentation of the law and sacrifice, (3) the message of key prophets, and (4) the teaching of Jesus concerning biblical salvation.

In a nutshell, all of these sources, in general terms, portray salvation as a pure act of God’s mercy.  All of these sources assume a God who does not first need to be persuaded by human acts in order to make whatever provisions are necessary for salvation to occur.  All of these sources present salvation as being free from the logic of retribution.

What is Salvation?

Salvation has to do with wholeness.  To gain salvation leads to harmony with God, other human beings, and with the rest of creation.   We need salvation when we live with disharmony, when we experience brokenness instead of wholeness.

The Old Testament begins with a portrayal of creation at peace.  However, after the beginning, the Bible presupposes disharmony and brokenness—and focuses on the struggle for salvation.  Salvation results in healed brokenness, restored health and wholeness.  The Bible presents salvation on three levels: (1) salvation as liberation from powers of brokenness, (2) salvation as restoration of harmony with God, and (3) salvation as restoration of harmonious human relationships.  The Old Testament story places priority on salvation in the first sense (liberation).  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 Healing God

“The primal story line of the Old Testament is a sequence of events through which Yahweh intervenes in the life of Israel in order to effect rescue, deliverance, and emancipation.  These actions are nameable, concrete, and decisively transformative, and are termed ‘salvation’ or ‘deliverance’ (see Isa 52:7,10; Pss 27:1; 78:22).”[5]

In presenting salvation the way it does, via concrete events communicated in stories, the Old Testament locates this salvation in history and not in a cosmic, transcendent context.  Salvation, in the Old Testament, is not about some transaction in the heart of God or some sort of weighing of the cosmic scale of justice.  Rather, salvation has to do with flesh and blood actions.

This is how I would summarize the primal story line of the Old Testament—with its basic concern for portraying God as savior within Israel’s story.[6] I will name seven main aspects of this story line, following the order in which the story is told:[7]

(1) Creation.  What is, is good, created good by a loving God committed to a genuine relationship of freedom with humankind.  This God, we see in Genesis 1, loves the entire created order—an important prelude to the soon-to-come focus on one particular people.[8]

(2) Disruption. Adam and Eve break the harmony when they reject the limitations that God placed on them. We then see a spiral of violence—their son Cain murders his brother Abel, the Flood of Noah, the building of the Tower of Babel.  Yet, God remains committed to human beings.  We see this commitment in the rainbow God gives after the Flood.

(3) God’s healing strategy. This strategy begins with the calling of Abraham and Sarah to found a community of faith.  God promises this community that it will bless all the families of the earth.  “The movement into particularity (the beginning of Israel’s story) is to be read within the frame of God’s universal purposes (the beginning and well-being of all things.”[9]

(4) Exodus.  God’s healing strategy continues Abraham’s descendents liberation from slavery in Egypt.  The exodus frees the people to enter the promised land, that God gives them so they may establish their community.  In leaving Egypt, they reject the values of Egypt.

(5) Nationhood. The exodus leads to the establishment of a nation-state in the promised land.  On the journey to the land, the people are given the Law for shaping their common life in line with the will of this liberating God.  Under Joshua’s leadership, the people enter the land.

The Hebrews’ nation-state departs from God’s will.  The elders decide they need a king. David becomes Israel’s greatest king, in many ways living faithfully—“after God’s own heart.”  However, David sins grievously when he commits adultery with Bathsheba and has Bathsheba’s husband killed.  David’s son, Solomon, decisively moves human kingship in the direction of authoritarianism.  Israel’s movement away from the vision of Moses continues under the kings who succeed Solomon, as the society becomes more and more like Pharaoh’s Egypt.

(6) Prophetic witness. God remains involved with the Hebrews, especially through the prophets.  The prophets keep alive Torah’s central thrust, the ideals of peace, justice, compassion for the weak and needy, and accountability to God.  These “radical conservatives” attempted to hold Israel to the main tenants of Torah.  The prophets challenge corrupt kings (e.g., Elijah), critique injustice (e.g., Amos), and speak of God’s on-going love (e.g., Hosea).

(7) Exile. The Babylonian empire conquers the Hebrew nation-state, destroying the temple and king’s palace.  Israel’s leadership class is sent into exile.  Prophets say God judges due to the nation disobeying God’s will.  However, even in the context of judgment and exile, God still speaks words of hope to people of faith (see especially Isaiah 40–55).  These words point forward to new expressions of God’s healing strategy.  In the end, God does not abandon God’s people but continues to use them as channels for whole-making love.

The Primal Salvation Story

In this primal salvation story, the key saving act of God is the exodus.  However, the exodus presupposes God’s initial call of Abraham and Sarah that establishes them as a people meant to bless all of the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3).

The biblical story of salvation channeled through a particular people basically 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.  God’s strategy is summarized in the words to Abraham in verse three: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  Through what happens with you and your descendents, salvation will spread to all corners of the earth.

God fosters healing by calling a people, establishing a community to know God.  God’s strategy to bring about peace leads to another act of creation, the creation of a community.  Through people of faith living together, face-to-face, people of faith learning to love and give and take, particular groups of people God will make peace for all the families of the earth.[10]

How might this be?  Micah 4:1-3 gives an answer: “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills.  Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’  For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Micah envisions people from all nations coming to the house of Jacob (Israel) to learn the ways of peace—because they have seen such peace expressed in the lives of the people of Israel.  The importance of this vision may be seen in its being repeated almost exactly in Isaiah 2:2-4.

Genesis traces the fate of Abraham’s direct descendants.  The last part of the book tells how his great-grandson Joseph ended up in Egypt, sold into slavery.  In time, though, Joseph gains his freedom and rises to leadership in Egypt as the right-hand man of the king (Pharaoh).  Joseph’s father, Jacob, his brothers, and their families eventually follow Joseph to Egypt.  At first they are in Pharaoh’s favor.  However, after many years, Egypt comes under the rule of a new king, “who did not know Joseph” (Ex 1:8).  This Pharaoh returns the Hebrews to slavery.

Exodus 2:23-25 tells of their situation.  “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 looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”  God remembered the promise given Abraham.

The next several chapters tell how God liberates the children of Israel from slavery.  Moses’ part of the story begins with his personal exile from Egypt, his childhood home.  Moses then returns and becomes a leader of the Hebrew people, who are slaves in Egypt under the iron hand of Pharaoh.  Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go; Pharaoh refuses.  God performs several wonders designed to get Pharaoh to change his mind.  God turns water into blood, then frogs, gnats, flies, disease, boils, thunder and hail, locusts—and finally dense darkness.  Pharaoh at first refuses to reconsider, then says the people can go but not the livestock.  Moses says this is not good enough, thereby enraging Pharaoh, who says he will not reconsider any more.

So, the final plague occurs.  Every first-born child and every first-born animal in Egypt is put to death—except those of the Hebrews, because the death angel “passed over” them.  Pharaoh finally relents and lets the Hebrews go.  Then he changes his mind and chases them.  As the Egyptian army readies to pounce on the Hebrews, whose backs are to the Red Sea, the sea opens up and the Hebrews pass through.  When the Egyptians follow, the Sea crashes down on them.  Finally, Pharaoh faces defeat and the Hebrew people are set free.  Exodus 15 celebrates that final victory: “The Lord has triumphed gloriously” (15:1).

The Exodus was a crucial part of God’s healing strategy and an important memory for biblical faith.  Old Testament writers often evoke, or report the evoking of, the memory of God’s deliverance.  God loved you, God delivered you, God brought you salvation—praise God.  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.

The God of the Exodus is not the God of people in power.  This God, unlike other gods, is not a projection from the king who reinforces the king’s power.  The God of the Exodus is a God of slaves who gives life to the lifeless.  This God hears the cries of those being treated like non-persons, tools to increase the king’s wealth.

The Hebrews did not defeat Pharaoh by their own strength.  God’s miracles (the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea) brought about liberation.  The center of power in this new society lay not with generals and warriors, but with the peoples’ God.[11] Thus, the things that God values most—mercy, compassion, caring for the powerless and outcast, just distribution of resources—matter most in the society, not the increase of wealth and power for the already wealthy and powerful.  The people with the most power are the weaponless prophets, those who best discern the will of the liberating God.[12]

We see in the Old Testament “salvation story” two distinct themes.  First is the call of Abraham and Sarah, God’s promise of salvation: a gift of newness in the context of barrenness. God plans to use the community of faith to bring newness to all the families of the earth.  This call is the first step in a long process of God’s persevering love bringing salvation.  Second, in the exodus God intervenes to bring salvation to God’s people.  God is a God who liberates the oppressed.  God’s salvation does not come through human power politics.  God’s salvation leads to a rejection of the values of empires such as ancient Egypt.

The “salvation story” tells us (1) that God, in love, commits to a long healing process with humankind and (2) that God’s healing work involves at its core a counter-cultural sensibility that exalts the oppressed and vulnerable and defies power politics.

As the Hebrews traveled through the wilderness on their way to the promised land, God spoke to them through Moses, giving them the Law—God’s directives for faithful living.  The Law provides social structure for the delivered slaves to sustain the effects of that deliverance.  The Law provides a framework for on-going faithful living according to God’s shalom.  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.”[13]

In addition, God gave the promised land so these people could settle down and establish a society that would live out the fruit of the exodus liberation.  The on-going faithful living required a place.[14]

Numerous times throughout the Old Testament, writers recall the basic outline of this primal story of salvation.  As a rule, the God of this story is a God of unmerited love, a God who simply chooses to deliver God’s people.  A typical recounting of God’s work comes in Hosea 11, set fairly late in the eighth century BCE.  At the beginning of this chapter, Hosea recites the basic historical realities of ancient Israel’s existence.  He starts with the assumption that Israel is God’s child.  The parent-child dynamic—the tender love of a mother and infant, the father teaching the child to play games, the parents providing food and shelter, affection and discipline, education and exhortation—captures at least something of how God and Israel were connected.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my child” (Hosea 11:1).  We see throughout that the Old Testament sees exodus as central to Israel’s identity and Israel’s understanding of God.  God freed the poor enslaved Hebrews from Egypt.  The Hebrews did not have to prove themselves before God would love them.  God took the first step out of pure mercy—“out of Egypt I called my child.”  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, ultimately that God’s healing love remains decisive.  Exodus may be followed by brokenness, but God still works to heal.  God asks, “How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, O Israel?” (11:8).  Ephraim is one of Israel’s tribes.  God asks the people of the covenant this basic question, Can I simply write you off?

“How can I make you like Admah?  How can I treat you like Zeboiim?” (11:8).  These were two cities, according to Genesis 19, destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah.  Can I simply wipe you out in judgment?  If we were dealing with a God whose primary characteristic was adherence to the logic of retribution, the answer would be yes.

However, 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 will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”  God says, in effect, no, I will not simply act in anger and vengeance.  I will not treat you like Sodom and Gomorrah.  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” (11:9).  God does this because of God’s character.  God does this because ultimately God is a compassionate God.  God desires healing, not retribution.  God desires salvation, not punishment.

Hosea 11, then, portrays the basic primal salvation story in terms of God’s love that liberated the Hebrews, God’s patience in remaining committed to the people’s salvation even as they pursue self-destructive idolatrous paths, and God’s “warm and tender” compassion that ultimately provides the people with a future.  This future, though, included some severe trauma.

With the book of Jeremiah, several generations after Hosea, we read that the Hebrew nation-state’s severe trauma arrived—as well as why.  The Babylonians invaded, destroying the center of Israel’s religious life, the temple, and the center of their political life, the king’s palace.  Many people were killed and many others were shipped away to Babylon to live in exile.

Jeremiah’s theology emphasizes God’s involvement in these terrible events, refusing to see the Hebrews’ defeat as God’s defeat.  In fact, God instigated the Hebrews’ defeat due to their unfaithfulness.  Their God is vindicated in their own failure.[15] God’s intentions toward the Hebrews still remain redemptive: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke….This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

A generation later, in the despair of exile, with two of the main pillars of Hebrew identity (temple and palace) in rubble, God gave the people a gift of hope through the words recorded in Isaiah, beginning in chapter 40: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”

Isaiah 43 contains powerful words from God.  You have been suffering, you exiles, “but now thus says the Lord, he who created you…do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (43:1).  “But now” things have changed.  Through the brokenness comes hope for wholeness and healing; through the confusion comes clarity as to God’s love.

Isaiah 51:1-3 challenges,  “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.  Look to Abraham, your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.  For the Lord will comfort Zion; God will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her.”

Look to God as your creator who made you and blessed you as good and gave you responsibilities to share God’s care and love with the world.  Look to the way God has cared for those who have gone before and look to the tradition of God’s people of which you are part.  Look to the promises of God to bring healing, joy, and gladness.  Clarity about our identity as God’s people feeds hope, feeds a sense that the future is meaningful and will be fruitful.

Israel experienced a shattering loss of its physical world.  The Temple, the king’s palace, the great city of Jerusalem all lay in ruins.  The people suffered in exile.  Yet, in this context of deep trauma—the loss of their world, actually—the prophet once again proclaimed God’s love.  When God says to the people, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (43:4), God does not speak to faithful people.  God speaks to the people who have been judged and traumatized because of their faithfulness, because of their failure, because of their immorality.  It is to the unworthy people that God says, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

Isaiah 54:9-10 sums up this message of hope: “This is like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you.  For the mountains may depart and the hill be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”

The core of the Old Testament’s primal story may be seen as three key saving moments: the calling of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12), the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery (Exodus 1–15), and the proclamation of mercy to the Hebrew exiles (Isaiah 40–55).  We may draw a few conclusions from the primal story concerning salvation and the logic of retribution.

(1) 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 them unless somehow God restores the “balance of the scales of justice” through punitive acts.  The actual story tells us something quite different.

(2) 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.  “God’s deliverance is not compelled or made necessary; it is unrelated to any special merit on Israel’s part (cf. especially Deut 7:8).  The Exodus experience is an initiative of God’s grace, a divine action freely taken for the sake of establishing relationship and community.”[16]

These three salvation moments show that 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.

(3) At its core, according to the primal story, salvation has to do with a loving, passionate God desiring a personal connection with humanity.  God’s work to sustain these relationships emerges from this personal, passionate, and loving disposition.  God’s desire for relationships with God’s people fuels the saving acts of God.  God’s intervention is personal, born out of compassion and love, leading to liberating acts that effect and sustain human/divine relationality.

This portrayal utterly contradicts the logic of retribution, which posits an impersonal, legalistic, detached dynamic at the heart of the salvation dynamic.  The saving God of the Old Testament does not follow the dictates of abstract justice and static holiness, but is personal, following the dynamics of concrete, personal, and creative loving justice and healing holiness.

(4) According to one account of the primal story, Hosea 11, God’s holiness fuels mercy, not retribution.  Hosea recites God’s saving acts, then critiques the Hebrews for turning from God.  But God, in agony over the broken relationship, asserts that because of holiness, God will not come in punitive wrath but rather will act with warm and tender compassion.

From Hosea’s perspective, God’s holiness does not force God to destroy sinners.  Rather, God’s holiness is precisely the attribute that pushes God to intervene, to become involved with sinful humanity in order to bring healing.  The sin problem, then, does not lead to divine action to punish and destroy but to divine action to heal and restore.

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.

At least, according to the story, this is how Torah and sacrifices were meant to operate.  In chapter three, we will look at the prophetic response to the failure of these institutions to operate as they were meant to.  And, in that response we will see the primal story’s portrayal of salvation reiterated.  But first, we must look at Law and sacrifice as they were meant to be.

The Role of the Law

Following the Exodus, as the Hebrews traveled through the wilderness on their way to the promised land, God spoke to them through Moses, giving them the Law (Torah).  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:  (1) 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.[17] (2) God intends to create universal shalom, to bless the families of the earth (God’s healing strategy).  Exodus 19:6: “The whole earth is mine….You shall be for me a priestly kingdom.”  The Hebrews are called to mediate God’s presence to the “whole earth.”[18]

As a whole, Torah (when understood in context) is far from the rigid, fearful, legalistic, burdensome set of rules as presented in many Christian stereotypical portrayals.[19] In many ways, Torah is radical and creative.[20] The books of the Law (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) present the words of the Law coming to the Hebrews through a prophet, not a king.  The Law is not the tool of an all-powerful, dominating king buttressed by state-generated violence.  Rather, the Law reflects the free and creative will of the slave-liberating, Pharaoh-defying God of the Hebrews.  “Moses was not a warrior and led no army.  He as sent forth only as a messenger…who must fear God rather than the military might of Pharaoh.”[21]

As well, the Law supports, reinforces, and sustains the social radicalism of the leader who brings it to the people.[22] The content of the Law and the challenge to the Egyptian status quo both find expression in Moses.  The exodus and the giving of the Law cohere in their purpose.  At the heart of Torah, symbolizing this overturning of Empire values but also with major practical ramifications, lies God’s special concern for vulnerable people.[23]

The Law makes special provision to protect the wellbeing of widows, of orphans, of other vulnerable ones among the Hebrews, and of resident aliens among the Hebrews.  And the law anchors this call for the Hebrews to be concerned for vulnerable ones in their midst directly in God’s concern for the Hebrews in their vulnerability while enslaved in Egypt.  “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Lev 19:34).

The Law not only argued on behalf of vulnerable people presently among the Hebrews, it also sought to prevent the creation of new groups of vulnerable people.  “The reason the commands are sought and insistent is that they are Yahweh’s (and therefore Israel’s) strategy to fend off a return to pre-Exodus conditions of exploitation and brutality within the community.”[24]

The Law established a decentralized social structure supporting economic viability for each household.  The inheritance law meant to keep families on the land over the generations by preventing dispossession from the land and the resultant maldistribution of power and wealth.  At its heart, Torah was not about picky, legalistic rules that must not be violated out of fear of harsh punishment.  Rather, Torah sought healthy communal relationships for all in the community.  Torah had a constructive, relational, and life-fostering concern.[25]

Power, according to the Law, did not rest primarily in the hand of a few political leaders.  Social life was not centered around a king.  At one point, the Law does allow for a human king (though this is a very brief reference, Deut 14:14-20).  But even then, kingship for Israel is redefined over against the Empire way.  Deuteronomy tells us the king must not gather weapons of war or wealth.  The king must remain submissive to the Law, “neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside form the commandment” (Deut 17:20).

According to Torah, doing justice is the responsibility of every one.  Justice is not a monopoly of the state, hired enforcers “doing justice” by wielding the punitive sword.  Justice was for everyone, its enactment decentralized and meant to heal the community, not “protect the honor” of the state or some abstract ideal of holiness and balanced pain paid for pain.

The laws directly address each Hebrew: “You shall….”, “You shall not….”  The personal nature of the laws reflects the basic dynamic of God’s involvement with the Hebrews.[26] Because God, the Law-Giver, is personal, seeking to create healthy communities, then the Law is also at its heart personal.  The purpose of justice is to serve the relationships of the community.  The goal when there is brokenness is the restoration of relationships.

This is all the case because ultimately, the Law stems from the liberating will of God.  The Hebrews’ motives for following the Law are love for this liberating God.  The first word, when the Law was presented by Moses, is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2).

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.[27] 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.

We saw in chapter one how theologians using the logic of retribution understand the Law as a standard that marks the purity expected of all people; its violation leads to God’s punitive response.  But this is not biblical Law.  Biblical Law offers a vision God’s will for life in the here and now.  The problem with violations of the Law is not harm to God’s purity but harm to others in the community.  Violations lead to responses that intend to bring healing to victim, offender, and community.  “Observance of the Mosaic Torah is the opposite of an obstacle to a loving and intimate relationship with God.  It is the vehicle and the sign of just that relationship.”[28]

Most fundamentally, perhaps, biblical law is rooted in God’s love.  It is an expression of God’s mercy meant to empower people of faith to live joyful, healthy lives in community with others doing likewise.  Law, for the logic of retribution, in contrast, is rooted in God’s “holiness.”[29] It is an expression of God’s strict justice meant to communicate to human beings the appropriateness of God’s punitive wrath as a response to human failure to follow the Law.

The Role of Sacrifices

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.[30]

It seems likely that 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 (Yahweh) and from their understanding of the nature of their covenant with Yahweh.[31]

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.

According to the story, the first step in God’s saving work is deliverance.  The calling of Abraham and Sarah and God’s acts to free their descendents from slavery follow from God’s free will to bring healing, first to the Hebrews and ultimately to all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3).  The second step, following deliverance from Egypt, came when God provided the gift of Torah to provide direction for the ordering of common life as God’s people.  Following the Law does not effect salvation; rather, because of the gift of salvation, faithful Hebrews joyfully shape their lives according to Torah as people in a covenant relationship with the liberating God.

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.[32] 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.[33] 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.[34] The context for sacrifice in the Old Testament story is relational—not impersonal and legalistic.

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.[35]

The first seven chapters of Leviticus report the Hebrews’ approach to sacrifice.  These chapters follow shortly the act of rebellion of Exodus 32, where the people defied Yahweh’s commands against worshiping idols.  Persuaded by Moses’ intercession, Yahweh determined to stay in relationship with the Hebrews.  The Levitical legislation concerning sacrificial practices may best be understood as Yahweh’s attempt to prevent a recurrence of the golden calf apostasy.

The sacrifices, as presented in Leviticus 1–7, were of two general types.  The first type may be characterized as offerings that express commitment, loyalty, and gratitude.  With these offerings, grateful community members returned to God part of the fruits of their labor.  In so doing, worshipers expressed thanksgiving and cemented their commitment to Yahweh and to the covenant they had made with Yahweh.[36]

These routine offerings concretize the basic dynamic of gift and response that typify faith.  The saving initiative lay with Yahweh, who brings deliverance, provides guidance, and sustains life.  Salvation is pure gift—but Yahweh expects a response.  Yahweh brought healing so the people might live lives of justice and shalom in order to bless all the families of the earth.

The offerings of thanksgiving and commitment, then, were part of the merciful dynamic of God’s deliverance and sustenance of a people of peace.  In God’s wisdom, these rituals keep before the people’s eyes the nature of their God and the intended nature of their community.  A God of healing love and a community of genuine shalom.

The second type of offering presents a more ambiguous picture.  These are the “sin offerings,” expressions of repentance, regret for wrongdoing, and resolve to return to a viable relationship with Yahweh.  The sin offerings most routinely served as means for people who inadvertently violated Torah or people who for reasons outside of their control (e.g., women menstruating) had entered an unclean state to express their commitment to Yahweh.  These sacrifices, too, were given by the merciful God of Israel’s covenant.  They provide concrete expressions that kept before the people’s eyes the importance of their relationship with God—a relationship created and sustained by God’s merciful initiative.[37]

For advertent violation of Torah, sin offerings were also provided, but only after the offender had made restitution with the community.[38] The acts of restitution constituted concrete expressions of repentance that restored relationships; the sacrifices then served as expressions of recommitment to the covenant.  That is, the sacrifices were not the means to re-establish the relationship but after-the-fact concretizations of the reality of the re-established relationships.

The sin offerings served to foster wholeness in the covenant community.  Impurity and evil, even when inadvertent, were highly contagious, potentially damaging the shared life[39]—as had happened with the golden calf incident.  So the sin offerings served to stop the contagion early on by bringing to overt expression the people’s commitment to God and covenant.

The Old Testament does not explain fully the place of blood in the sin offerings.  The most explicit description, Leviticus 17:11, would seem to be saying that the key is the blood’s symbolizing of life (not death).  The “power” in the blood, then, is not at all related to death or punishment, but that blood is a reminder of the power of life (and of the Giver of life) to overcome sin and evil.[40]

As the Old Testament story proceeds, the role of sacrifices evolves.  The emergence of kingship and the centralized Temple correspond with a social evolution away from the relative egalitarianism of the Torah provisions for the Hebrews’ common life.[41] Sacrifices continued apace at the core of the Hebrews’ social and religious life, but the health of the covenant community nonetheless deteriorated.

As a consequence of the social problems that emerged in the kingship era, prophets emerged and raised voices of confrontation.  Their perspective, apparent overtly in the “writing prophets” of the eighth century, tends toward hostility regarding sacrifices.  These prophets did not necessarily totally reject the sacrificial cult out of hand so much as critiqued its abuse.[42] The prophetic critique illumines the intended meaning of sacrifice in the covenant community (at least in the prophets’ views).

Sacrifices, clearly, were not intended to be autonomous and intrinsically efficacious expressions of commitment to Yahweh.  Valid sacrifices took place in a broader context, as supplements to a much more holistic understanding of the faith of the covenant community.

Sacrifices were intended to cultivate justice in the covenant community—wherein all members of the community are given access to the means of life and health.  Sacrifice in an unjust community is worse than worthless.  Amos asserts that to offer sacrifices while oppression reigns is sinful. The means of dealing with sin had become itself an occasion for sin.

Sacrifices were intended to express commitment to Yahweh as the one (and only) true God.  The Levitical legislation sought to prevent a repeat of the golden calf incident, but according to Hosea, the Hebrews did return to idol worship.  The context for the expression of grateful commitment to Yahweh was turned on its head when sacrifices took place amidst social injustice and Baal worship.

Sacrifices were intended to be expressions of gratitude to the Hebrews’ liberating God in the context of faithfulness to Torah.  By the eighth century, such faithfulness had been forgotten and the sacrifices had become autonomous (and empty) religious acts—wrenched from their faithfulness-to-Torah context.

The underlying dynamic for sacrifices in their intended expression was God’s love and the call for the Hebrews to love God and one another.  This love was missing, according to the prophets.  Lack of love for Yahweh was seen in Baal-worship.  Lack of love for one another was seen in rampant injustice.  Prophets such as Amos, Hosea, and Micah asserted that sacrifices can be part of the problem.  This happens when the people offer sacrifices outside of the context of fostering justice, commitment  to Yahweh as the one God, gratitude for Yahweh’s liberating work, and love for Yahweh and all in the community.[43]

Valid sacrifices follow from and help concretize God’s work that restores the individual and community to life and health in relationship to God and to one another.  “If any idea captures the essence of the sacrificial ritual, it is God’s saving action, which restores the individual and community to life and health in relationship to God and to one another.”[44]

Salvation and Retribution

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).

The portrayal of salvation, then, in the Old Testament story does not support the logic of retribution.  Salvation is not linked with punishment, appeasement, and purification as means to achieve reconciliation with God.  Rather, salvation is linked with unilateral merciful acts by God and the joyful response to those acts with expressions of commitment to God.  The most important expressions of commitment are lives lived in harmony with God’s will as expressed in Torah (a will totally coherent with continued health for all the people in the community).  A secondary expression of commitment is found in the sacrifice rituals—that in time become corrupted as they are separated from Torah faithfulness.

The primal story begins with God’s direct liberating mercy that finds fruit in the exodus, giving of the Law, and establishment in the promised land.  It continues on, of course, to show that the relationships between God and the Hebrews deteriorate.  So in the next chapter we will turn to the challenges offered to the Hebrews from several prophets.  When there is disharmony within the covenant community, how is that understood and how is it dealt with?


[1] Herman Bianchi, Justice as Sanctuary: Toward a New System of Crime Control (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), 2.

[2] See Antonin Scalia, “God’s Justice and Ours” First Things 123 (May 2002), 17-21.

[3] See Gabriel Josipovici, The Book of God: A Response to the Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988) and Herbert N. Schneidau, Sacred Discontent: The Bible and the Western Tradition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976).

[4]This is Walter Brueggemann’s phrase.  See The Bible Makes Sense (Winona, MN: St. Mary’s Press, 1977), 45-50.  Brueggemann defines “the primal narrative” as “that most simple, elemental, and non-negotiable story line which lies at the heart of biblical faith,” 45-46.

[5]Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 184.

[6] I am essentially following Brueggemann’s outline in The Bible Makes Sense.

[7] This section draws on Ted Grimsrud, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Themes second edition (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2009).

[8] Bruce Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 71.

[9] Birch, Let Justice Roll, 107.

[10] We must acknowledge, as well, the inherent dangers in the calling of a particular community.  Too easily—as we see in the biblical accounts and in the years since then—the sense of calling to be God’s people becomes distorted.  When this sense of calling is separated from the mandate to “bless all the families of the earth,” the called community may become self-centered and more easily violent toward those outside the community (and even toward those within the community who do not adequately conform to the community’s norms).  This issue will arise numerous times in the pages to come.

[11] See Millard C. Lind’s treatment of the Exodus as the paradigmatic Old Testament “Holy War” wherein the key point lay not with inter-human violence but with God’s intervention against militarism in Yahweh is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in the Old Testament (Scorttdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980).

[12] Millard C. Lind, “The Concept of Political Power in Ancient Israel,” in Monotheism, Power, Justice: Collected Old Testament essays (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990), 135-152.

[13] Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible in Its Social World and Ours (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993), 353.

[14] See Walter Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, second edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), especially pages 43-65.

[15] Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Can: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 44.

[16] Birch, Let Justice, 116.

[17] Bruce  C. Birch, Walter Brueggemann, Terence E. Fretheim, and David L. Peterson, A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 151.

[18] Birch, et al, Theological, 139.

[19] For a sharp critique of Christian misunderstandings of Judaism, see John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), especially chapter 1, “It Did Not Have to Be.”

[20] Paul Hanson, The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 45-52.

[21] Lind, Monotheism, 124.

[22] Gottwald, Hebrew, 353.

[23] Birch, Let Justice Roll, 162.

[24] Walter Brueggeman, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 184.

[25] I am indebted to Millard Lind’s work on the Law in what follows.  See especially his programmatic essay, “Law in the Old Testament,” in Millard C. Lind, Monotheism, Power, and Justice: Collected Old Testament Essays (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990), 61-81.

[26] Lind, “Law,” 66.

[27] Birch, Let Justice Roll, 154.

[28] Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1985), 45.

[29] That is, “holiness” defined as God’s abhorrence of sin and impurity.  As seen in Hosea 11 and Leviticus 19, “holiness” may be defined in terms of God’s transformative compassion and care for vulnerable people.

[30] Robert J. Daly, The Origins of the Christian Doctrine of Sacrifice (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 16.

[31] Walter Brueggemann, “Sacrifice,” in Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 182.

[32] J.W. Rogerson, “Sacrifice in the Old Testament: Problems of Method and Approach” in M.F.C. Bourdillon and Meyer Fortes, eds., Sacrifice (New York: Academic Press, 1980), 57-58.

[33] Birch, et al, Theological Introduction, 159.

[34] Birch, et al, Theological Introduction, 135.

[35] Birch, et al, Theological Introduction, 159-160.

[36] Birch, et al, Theological Introduction, 160.

[37] Frances M. Young, Sacrifice and the Death of Christ (London: SPCK, 1975), 28.

[38] Brueggemann, Theology, 667; Rogerson, “Sacrifice,” 53.

[39] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16 (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 256.

[40] Robert J. Daly, Christian Sacrifice: The Judaeo-Christian Background Before Origen (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1978), 119-120; Rogerson, “Sacrifice,” 53.

[41] Patrick Miller, The Religion of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 87-88.

[42] Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, 482.

[43] Levenson, Sinai, 54-55.

[44] Birch, et al, Theological Introduction, 160.

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