NT Wright, Abraham, evil, and 'light for the nations'
I want to pick up on a couple of issues that Paul Hartigan raised in his ‘NT Wright is seriously wrong’ post. They do not appear as yet to have been covered at any length in the discussion, which has focused on the question of whether the Bible offers us a good God / bad God scenario, though the thread has got rather long and I could easily have missed something.
The first has to do with the ‘light for the nations’ imagery and its relation to the generous and all-embracing promises made to Abraham, Moses and David. Paul wrote:
I’m not sure that even on the face of it there is such a discrepancy between these two ways of stating God’s purpose for Israel. It was suggested in the original discussion that Abraham was blessed to be a blessing to the nations of the earth; and I would have thought you could argue that it is precisely in being a prosperous people in obedience to YHWH that Israel serves as a light to the nations. Viewed in this way, Isaiah merely brings out the ‘among the nations’ potential of the original calling to be a people for God’s own possession: faithful Israel is visible to the world as a sign of the righteousness and justice of God.
However, it’s important to note that the ‘light for the nations’ motif belongs in the context of Isaiah’s vision of Israel restored following judgment, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the scattering of the people. So Isaiah is not saying that God always intended Israel to be a ‘light for the nations’ (though he may have thought that) but that when God restores Israel, the people will be a light for the nations. Even then we may need to recognize some limits to the use of the image. On the one hand, it is almost at times the act or event of restoration or salvation that constitutes the light: the nations will see the righteousness of God demonstrated in the act of delivering Israel from the effects of judgment, from the exile, in the rebuilding of Jerusalem (cf. Ps. 98:1-3). On the other, the image has a lot to do with the regathering of the scattered and exiled Jews from amongst the nations of the earth. The nations respond to the light of God’s act of saving his people by bringing tribute and praise to Zion, by bringing the exiles back to Jerusalem (49:22; 60:3-4), by rebuilding the walls of Zion, and so on.
This is not about Israel having merely spiritual leadership in the world. The point of the image is that God will act sovereignly to restore his people and to become king over them again, and that this event will have an impact on the nations.
The second issue concerns the way in which the calling of Abraham constitutes God’s response to the fall. Paul wrote:
I must say, I have never been entirely comfortable with Wright’s argument that Abraham was God’s solution for the problem of evil, and this may have something to do with a problem of anachronism. I would prefer to say that the calling of Abraham to be the father of a great nation comes in Genesis as a response specifically to the problem of the nations represented by the Babel story, and more generally to humanity’s failure to fulfil the terms of the original blessing of Genesis 1:28 - to be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth. The calling of Abraham is clearly a renewal of that creational blessing following not simply the disobedience of Adam but also the corruption of humanity before the flood and the self-aggrandizement expressed at Babel.
So Abraham is a response to the corruption of humanity not at a personal level but at a national and social level: Abraham is to become a blessed community, a creational microcosm, a world-within-a-world, demonstrating both righteousness and prosperity amidst the nations of the earth. The ‘evil’ that Paul speaks about, whatever its provenance, is a more specific phenomenon - and again here we shift from the normative situation represented by the promises to Abraham, Moses and David to the critical situation that arises when Israel comes under national judgment. The apocalyptic face of evil appears when Israel is oppressed or persecuted by its enemies - because when God judges his people for its wickedness, there is always the problem of the suffering of the righteous. So the little horn on the head of the fourth beast in Daniel 7 is an arrogant, blasphemous figure deeply hostile to YHWH who makes war against the saints of the Most High.
What happens when we get to the New Testament is that Israel is again oppressed by evil in this form - a satanic force manifested personally in demon possession and at a political supremely level by Rome but also, as I believe Peter pointed out, by elements within Jewish society. This oppressive evil had to be overcome in order for the promise to Abraham to be recovered. This conflict or overcoming lies at the heart of New Testament eschatology - it is pretty much the theme of Revelation, for example. My argument in The Coming of the Son of Man is that the whole parousia drama essentially tells the story of the church’s victory over the evil that oppressed Israel and prevented it from fulfilling the creational blessing given to Abraham.
So my basic point is that there are two distinct narratives at work here, one having to do with the renewal of creation through a called people, the other having to do with the restoration of that people following judgment. We have tended to make the second narrative (the deliverance or salvation of Israel from evil) primary, even exclusive, and as a result the creational vocation has been neglected. My argument would be that the salvation narrative is critical but that it constitutes essentially an episode within the embracing story about how God calls a people, in response to the corruption of human society, for his own possession to be an authentic humanity in the world.