The question, from Sitha, is, “Why did Israel seem so separate if God intended to bless all people?”
Update January 9, 2021…. I’ve recently listened to the Bible Project podcast series called The Family of God. They cover this issue in a more helpful way, I think, than my treatment below. I recommend this podcast series as a better and deeper treatment of this question. Frankly, all of the Bible Project podcast series are excellent. I mean really excellent! I’ve listened to them all, many more than once. [That’s the update; but if you want to read my old thoughts, they remain below.]
There are several ways to approach this question. One is to consider how the separation of the Israelites was as God intended versus their being separate out of their own sense of nationalism or pride. Both factors seem to be a part of the picture. From the law of Moses, we can see that aspects of the law were intended to keep Israel separated from the surrounding people. That is, God was unhappy with the actions and attitudes of humans and intended for the Israelites to be different. The lack of care for the poor and unfortunate, the violation of hospitality, the sexual licentiousness, idolatry, and violence of many cultures were evils. God intended Israel to be separate in these matters.
We can read from the prophet Ezekiel how God viewed the Canaanite people and how the Israelites became just like them in Ezekiel 16:49-51. It would be fair to say, from the perspective of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament, that the Israelites lost much of the separation that God wanted and instead adopted a prideful nationalistic sense of separation from Gentiles that was far from God’s heart.
There are many passages in the five books of Moses that indicate God’s intention to bless all people through the descendants of Abraham. If we are to take these books at face value, they present themselves as coming from the time of the Exodus. Genesis makes a lot of sense when interpreted in light of Israel coming out of Egypt into a new land where God will live in their midst. Much of Genesis can be makes sense in this light. For purposes of this question, though, allow me to consider just a few passages from Genesis.
What is coming to be seen by many as a key passage for understanding the mission of Israel is Genesis 9:18-27. This passage related a “fall” after Noah and his family are saved from the flood. Noah’s son Ham disrespectfully sees Noah naked. Shem and Japheth cover Noah. Then Canaan, the youngest son of Ham, is cursed. (Note the interesting structural and detail parallels with Genesis 2 and 3!)
I always wondered why, if Ham was the disrespectful one, that Canaan, his youngest son, was cursed instead of Ham. I don’t think I really know the answer to that question, but perhaps the text isn’t really trying to answer that question so much as to position the Canaanites as cursed. God is about to dispossess the Canaanites of their land, for cause! Some speculate that since Ham was Noah’s youngest son, that as Ham’s youngest son Canaan received the curse. It certainly doesn’t fit with our sense of justice if the curse on Canaan is seen as cause rather than part of a story describing a people cursed because of their sin. I have to fall back on the genre of ancient mythology, where past events are often symbolically related to explain a reality in the present.
In any case, Canaan, the son of Ham, is cursed. God is said to be the God of Shem, from whom the Israelites of Moses’ time are descended. And then there is this interesting little nugget: “may Japheth live in the tents of Shem”. What’s that about? The explanation that I have landed on is that Canaan is a type for those who have rejected God and are pursuing their own autonomy. Shem is a type of those who have accepted that they are God’s people with a mission to bless the nations. They are to lead others into a right relationship to God. And Japheth is a type of those non-Abrahamic people whom the people of God are restoring.
Consider that may scholars believe that a great many of the multitude leaving Egypt with the Israelites were not Abraham’s descendants, but rather others who took advantage of the opportunity to leave Egypt. Thus, “May Japheth live in the tents of Shem” could be seen as an instruction for how the Semitic descendants of Jacob, Abraham, and Shem should take in those who came out of Egypt with them – blessing the peoples of all nations.
In support of this interpretation we could think of Rahab of Jericho and Ruth of the Moabites – even the Gibeonites. The Gibeonites deceptively made a treaty with Joshua, but became a part of Israel! Perhaps this parallels the story of many who come to God’s people for personal advantage and then find a home through God’s grace as they come into truth.
So, a second perspective is to consider just how separated the Israelites were. Perhaps there was more accommodation made for the “sons of Japheth” than we often imagine. Certainly Israel is considered in the biblical text as being God’s people. But they are never God’s only people. In Jeremiah 2:3, Israel is portrayed as set apart for God’s own use, “the firstfruits of his harvest.” Many places in scripture Israel is called the “firstborn son” of God, beginning in Exodus. (Consider Exodus 4:22, for example.) The very term firstborn implies that other children will follow!
Yet we must regard carefully that God intended to give birth to a people who were different, and separate, in order to embody his ways and his redemptive purpose culminating in Jesus. In some ways, the Israelite separation is a necessary distinction through which God communicates. He has another way to live. He has a purpose and direction in history. The world is going somewhere! These are communicated through the people and culture and religion of Israel until, at just the right time, Jesus comes – God incarnate – as the Christ. He comes not only as Messiah, but as the perfect sacrifice for sin, the scapegoat, the great new high priest, the king in the line of David… all concepts developed through time as God formed Israel and the Israelite culture, story, and religion.
By New Testament times, the Jewish people of Israel have been scattered across much of the world. We read in Acts how the early church was to respect Jewish sensibilities “For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:21) So it seems that the Jews – Israel – was not as separate in the diaspora as we might suppose. There had been other people incorporated – Japheth sheltering in Shem’s tent. And there were many God-fearing Gentiles just waiting, primed for the good news of Jesus through contact with the Jews. Jews who accepted Jesus, along with many of these God-fearing Gentiles, formed the core of the early Church!
Consider the Jewish context of the Christian scriptures. The narratives of Jesus in the gospels take a structural form that parallels the Jewish Exodus story, and through which the identity of Jesus as Yahweh incarnate is communicated. All of the original apostles who formed the early church and from whom we received the books in the New Testament were Jewish followers of Jesus. Then there is Jesus, our Lord, the consummate Jew. The blessings that have come to those of us who are Gentiles have come to us through Israel.
Finally, I’ve not even mentioned the reconstitution of Israel as the church – the wild olive branches grafted onto the root of Israel! Just how separate are we, in God’s eyes?