Book Review: Mission in the Old Testament

Walter Kaiser is an Old Testament scholar who has a distinguished career in research and writing in the concentration of Old Testament Theology. As a well-published author and sought-after scholar of the Old Testament, his insight into the subject of mission in the Old Testament comes from decades of labor over the text. Kaiser served as a professor of Old Testament and then as President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary from 1997-2006. Since his time at this post, he has continued to regularly lecture as President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Old Testament and Ethics at Gordon-Conwell.

In his book, Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations, Kaiser takes a calculated look at the significance of Israel’s position as a witness to the nations about the character of God. The thesis of his work is that God’s plan from the beginning was that His people would have a missional purpose- to be a light to the nations. Moreover, God has instituted his plan into the covenant relationship with his people in such a way that it is thoroughly evidenced in the Old Testament. This work clearly comes from a place of dissatisfaction with the notion that mission is an exclusively New Testament teaching, therefore it provides substantial evidence to the contrary. Through the paradigm of blessing and promise, Kaiser identifies an early onset of God’s plan for His people to be missional- an identity carried forward and consistent throughout the rest of redemptive history.

Speaking about God’s plan for mission, Kaiser writes “Mission cannot be an afterthought for the Old Testament: it is the heart and core of the plan of God.” (36). What he sets out to do in Mission in the Old Testament is provide a backdrop of the presence of mission throughout the Old Testament through every era and institution of Covenant. In fact, at the center of Kaiser’s assertion is that the same intent for God’s people to be missional has been present from the beginning. The promise-plan paradigm previously mentioned is something found early on soon after the Fall of man and on though the Covenant made with Abraham. Kaiser identifies three crises before and leading up to Abraham that serve as foundations of a God’s design for his people as a light to the nations. First beginning with the Fall of man, on through the Flood and the finally at Tower of Babel, Kaiser demonstrates the chaotic millennia of people rejecting the invitation and blessing of God. Where there was the opportunity for blessing in the invitation of God, mankind rejected it to make a name for itself. Yet, with Abraham, God would give to him a “name”. That God would give Abram a name and subsequently enter into a covenant him was a demonstration of His grace and unmerited favor shown on a sinful man. There is absolutely no doubt when reading this passage that this is to the joy of Abraham that God in his kindness would enter into Covenant with him, not for what he had earned but according to God’s mercy. In Genesis 12, God unmistakably gives a promise that Abraham and his descendants would be personally blessed. Yet although Abraham and his descendants were certainly the object of God’s favor and abundant grace, the Scriptures seem to identify a certain reflexive nature about the blessing they would receive.

Kaiser points out that an undergirding aspect of the promise to Abraham can identified in Genesis 12:3, which he translates to be a “purpose clause” (10). God is declaring to Abraham his Covenantal promise, but verse 3 seems to turn the focus outward: God says “[I will bless you]… so that all the peoples on earth might be blessed through you”. As Kaiser notes, the blessing on Abraham is given in order that he might be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. Therefore, there is woven into the promise of blessing for Abraham an intentional design that their blessedness would be a means to an end- that end being that all the nations might be blessed through them. This demonstrates that the heart of God has always been for the nations; his showing favor to one man was not because of his disdain for the nations, but in order that they might come to know Him through his chosen people. Indeed, all people of all tribes could come to partake in the blessing of God should they turn to Him in faith. It is for this reason that Kaiser identifies of that their “election was not a call to privilege but choosing for service to God.” (14). Thus, the blessing of God on one single man was wrapped up in a greater purpose of God’s plan that all the nations might be blessed. Thus, there are missiological implications for the covenant people of God in that God’s blessing carries with it a call to be a witness among the nations.

God’s covenant and promise with Abraham becomes the blueprint for God’s dealings with Israel throughout the Old Testament. God set apart his people in order that they would be a light to the nations and there are two primary ways in which this is seen in the Old Testament: first, in his provision for his people and second, in the witness of his people. Throughout the exile and into the deliverance of Israel in the Promised Land, there is a clear pattern of God revealing himself to the nations by way of his dealing with His people. Kaiser demonstrates several instances of God’s provision, but two major examples are Moses’ dealings with Pharaoh and Joshua leading Israel across the Red Sea. The repeated theme across these and all the other examples is that God explicitly indicates his dealings with Israel are such that the nations might know Him. An important note Kaiser makes is that “the word know connotes more than a mere intellectual or cognitive awareness of who God is” and that the ultimate aim would be that the nations “might themselves come to a personal, experiential knowledge and appreciation for who Yahweh is” (13). Based on these texts, it seems that God’s intention for Israel would not merely be that they themselves would be a blessing to the nations, but that through his dealing with them the nations might know who He is. As Joshua leads Israel through the Red Sea, God miraculously dries up an impossibly large body of water in an instant so that Israel would have safe passage into Canaan. While there was certainly an element of personal blessing for Israel as they experienced the favor and provision of God, Joshua explains to his people that through their experience the nations would come to fear God (20). Kaiser observes this repeated often through the Old Testament as God makes an appeal to the nations through his dealings with Israel. This is a strong argument because of the overwhelming Biblical evidence with scores of instances where God explicitly states his intentions of making himself known. Whether through miraculous parting of the sea or bringing the plagues over Egypt, the nations would come to revere and know God.

However, the nations would also grow in their knowledge of God through the witness and life of Israel as a nation. Though certainly an implication of the majority of the arguments in the book, Kaiser does little to address explicitly the witness of Israel through display of their moral excellence. However, he does mention the servant role for Israel as a “light to the Gentiles” (58) is connected to God’s plan for the “priesthood of all believers” (15). As a kingdom of priests, Israel was called to walk in holiness according to the Law. Therefore, the nations would come to know God through the life and moral witness of Israel. Although this idea certainly is an important element to Israel’s role as a light to the nations, the argument is not demonstrated so explicitly in this book. Perhaps it would have bolstered the case for the personal responsibility of Israel in their call to holiness and how this impacted the nations. As God establishes his Covenant people of Israel and continually reveals himself through them by His work, there is a certain “on the ground” perspective of Israel’s obligation to the nations through their daily living. Kaiser does make an important link, however, to this idea in demonstrating the importance of the Mosaic legislation regarding how Israel was to relate to the sojourner and foreigner. He states, “it is not outlandish to think that the Lord was simultaneously extending the offer of salvation to others in addition to Israel” (16). Therefore, this promise of blessing to Israel quite literally carried with it a command to be a blessing to the nations- that blessing climatically inviting all to share in the blessings of God.

Kaiser’s examination of God’s design and plan for blessing certainly seems to carry with it substantial Biblical evidence. Moreover, it seems to demonstrate a consistency in the character of God that alternative interpretations lack; for God to offer new life in Christ to anyone who would believe in faith regardless of who they are, demonstrates a concern for those outside his covenant people. There would be a strange inconsistency with the character of God to conclude his heart only a few generations prior was fixed only on Israel. Rather, in embracing the idea that God’s heart has always been for the nations, there is a remarkable consistency with the purpose and design for God’s people to be a light. Moreover, there should be some consistency with Israel’s proclaiming the praises of God before the nations in the Psalms (32) and Paul’s mission to the Gentiles in the New Testament.

As Kaiser argues in the text, Israel’s verbal witness to the Gentiles “had always been at the heart of all that God had wanted to do and that he had called Israel and all believers to do” (81). It is fitting that the Gospel would be proclaimed to the Gentiles if, in fact, God’s purpose had been to reach them through his Church. Although there is a distinction between Israel and the New Testament Church, Kaiser would argue that there is only one people of God (16). Therefore, there is no real distinction between Israel’s call to the nations and that of the New Testament believers call to make disciples of all nations. As Israel labored in their day to invite people to share in the Covenant promise that a redeemer would come, the Church likewise pleads with the world to enter into the same hope and into a universal Kingdom inaugurated at the resurrection of Christ. There is a remarkable consistency in the practical missiological implications for God’s people that Kaiser demonstrates through examples of individual Gentiles that came to know Yahweh such as Melchizedek (38), who was even considered a priest of God! In short, the Gentiles “had to be brought to the light” (31) and Israel’s participation in the mission of God made this blessing a priority.

In summary, this book provides an incredibly thorough and helpful overlay for interpreting the Scriptures in a way that demonstrates God’s central plan to bless the nations through His people. Moreover, the missiological implications of God’s commands for and dealings with Israel are fundamentally applicable for the Church today. Kaiser provides insight into the remarkable consistency between the call of Israel reflexively bless the nations and the call of God’s Church to make disciples of Christ. The promise-plan of God is an unchanging impetus for all of redemptive history and the calling for God’s people to participate in His plan for the nations to come to know Him.

You can pick up a copy of Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations here

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