God’s Plan: Introduction

We last met John H. Walton in the Creation 2.0 series. He’s the expert on Ancient Near East cultures who argues so powerfully that Genesis 1 is written in terms of the construction of a temple for God — that is, that the Creation is God’s temple.

I bought The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, and I was so impressed I looked to see what else he’s written. And so, now I’ve read two more of his books, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, which we’ll be discussing in due course, Lord willing, and Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan.

Walton is an expert in the cultures that surrounded Old Testament Israel, and this knowledge provides him with insights into the Old Testament text that few others have.

But beyond being a historian, Walton does some excellent theology, tying his historical insights into the scriptural narrative with great effect.

He does not write for a popular audience. But neither is the writing too dense for most people to follow. Just be prepared for a reading level quite a bit higher than The Purpose-Driven Life. (And that’s no slam against Rick Warren’s excellent book. It’s just that the books are written in very different styles.)

In Covenant, Walton asks one of those really big questions. He wants to discover the unifying theme of all of scripture. That’s all.

Well, any Christian is going to argue that the unifying theme is Jesus — of course. But if we’re not careful, we’ll read the New Testament and the prophets backwards into the Torah.

Walton points out, for example, that “redemption” in the earlier books of the Bible is all about God freeing Israel from Egyptian slavery. God didn’t promise Israel an eternity in heaven. He promised them the Promised Land and protection from their enemies.

When God is called “Savior” in the early Biblical texts, God is being praised for protection from Israel’s earthly enemies, not from hell.

(Exo 6:6 ESV) 6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.

(Psa 17:7 ESV)  7 Wondrously show your steadfast love, O Savior of those who seek refuge from their adversaries at your right hand.

(Psa 106:21-22 ESV)  21 They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt,  22 wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

As a result, many scholars prefer to speak in terms of “covenant” — that is, that God has intervened in the world so that he could enter into covenant relationship with his people. That is certainly true.

And certainly God made covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and the church. There’s no denying that God is pictured in the Bible as a covenant-making God. Indeed, the making of covenants seems very nearly central to the biblical narrative.

But why? What’s the point of making these covenants? Does God just enjoy treaty making? Where are all these covenants taking us? What’s the point, not only of covenants, but the related doctrines of election, calling, and being chosen, not to mention the requirement that God’s people be faithful to the covenant?

The old, largely rejected theory of “dispensations” argues that God wrote a body of law, bound it in a covenant, and then later repealed that law in order to impose a new, different, better body of law.

Thus, the Torah is repealed and suitable for study solely by historians. The only covenant that matters in this theology is God’s covenant made through Jesus (some would even say Paul, relegating Jesus to the Old Testament!).

Then why did God make the earlier covenants? If they weren’t sufficient to save (but for the sacrifice of Jesus), why all these intermediate steps that God knew would have to end?

Walton has this theory —

God has a plan in history that he is sovereignly executing. The goal of that plan is for him to be in relationship with the people whom he has created. It would be difficult for people to enter into a relationship with a God whom they do not know. If his nature were concealed, obscured, or distorted, an honest relationship would be impossible. In order to clear the way for this relationship, then, God has undertaken as a primary objective a program of self-revelation. He wants people to know him. The mechanism that drives this program is the covenant, and the instrument is Israel. The purpose of the covenant is to reveal God.

(Kindle Locations 230-234) (emphasis added).

That is, God’s over-arching purpose is self-revelation. It’s not the creation of a legal system that forces his people to do right. It’s not making up rules to test God’s people. Rather, it’s all about helping humans know God — helping the mortal and flawed and limited and earthbound know the immortal and the perfect and the unlimited and the transcendent.

Why? Well, because we can’t truly be in a loving relationship with someone we neither know nor understand. Not that God is fully knowable or fully understandable. He’s not. But neither does he hide himself from us. Rather, unlike the distant god of the Deists, God purposefully intervenes in human affairs because he wants us to find him.

Why is this important? Well, because our Christianity and our theology depend very heavily on how we perceive our God. If we see God as the Great Legislator in the Sky, then we see our relationship with God as being all about obeying his laws. If we see God as the Great Tester of Faith, then we see obedience, worship, and even our love for God as an effort to provide God the right answers, to pass the test.

And as a result, our relationship will be strained and feigned. We’ll claim to love God, of course, but when our love is compelled by threat of hellfire with the risk that the slightest mistake will damn us, well, that hardly creates the most healthy relationship.

It is exactly this kind of thinking that Jesus confronts repeatedly in John. Jesus wants us to see God in a very different way.

Rather (and I’m not following Walton’s book as much as thinking through his themes), the true God of the Universe is revealed by such passages as —

(Luk 14:16-24 ESV)  16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many.  17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’  18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’  19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’  20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’  21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’  22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’  23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled24 For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.'”

The Master of the House gets angry when his invitation is rejected, because his fondest desire is that his banquet be well attended — that his house may be filled.

God isn’t looking for ways to trap us so that we’re damned. Rather, he’s going far out of his way to make sure we receive his invitation.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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14 Responses to God’s Plan: Introduction

  1. John says:

    Jay, I am guessing that you have probably read some of his work, but I would like to recommend to all Christians out there the books by Abraham Joshua Heshel. I had heard of him as a teenage, but have only been reading his work the last five or six years.

    The fact that he is Jewish and that he worked for Civil Rights with Dr. King may frighten some conservatives away, but while all his book are superb, two of them are gems, sheer poety; these are GOD IN SEARCH OF MAN and MAN IS NOT ALONE.

    What I have found in these books is how much in awe and how close Heschel was to God, which will be a surprize to many Christians since the sterotype of religious Jews is “Law, Law, Law”. Granted, a love of the Law was there, but his experience of God puts many conservative Christian deists to shame; I am speaking of those who believe that God started the clock, left one law, took it away, left another, then took his seat back on his throne to observe who keeps it and who does not.

    My challenge to my Christian brothers and sisters is to read these two books. I believe that you will come away with an awe for God, a phrase Heschel uses much, and a sense of the majesty of God that will not leave you wondering “Have I done all things correctly”, but with a wonder for creation, our own being and for our relationship with God.

  2. Skip says:

    This is a little bit of a sidestep but if you want to see unifying elements to the O.T., one must know and understand the many Christophonies (appearances of Christ) in the O.T.

  3. gt says:

    Uh, why would the fact that he worked with Dr King and is Jewish frighten conservatives away? Are you insinuating that if you are politically conservative and/or theologically conservative that means you are a bigot and an anti-semite? Why do I even ask?

    I found that statement to be incredibly insulting.

  4. Mark says:

    Many backwards-thinking, closed-minded people are opposed to anything not written by their own group. Some don’t even want to hear what anyone else has to say. Perhaps it is why so many groups and events are struggling to attract anyone new.

  5. John says:

    I KNOW of which I speak . I have relatives, some preachers, and old family friends in the CoC who STILL hold hostile views toward the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King, and would scoff at even the idea of reading a book by a Jewish theologian. And these have many acqaintances who share their views.

    These people, and as I said, some are preachers, hold the view that the master/slave passages in the Bible infer that slavery, itself, does not have to be an evil, just as long as they are “Christian” masters and are “kind”, and that African Americans were better off as slaves. And guess what! These people are white conservatives. Surprise, surprise.

    Prejudice is still an ugly power within conservative Christianity.

  6. Alabama John says:

    Slavery has existed for thousands of years and does today in many countries. I thin k of the slave Onesimus and what Paul wrote to him.
    Today slavery is disguised in many forms, the apprenticeships of the coal mines with young 7-8 year old boys working everyday for small wages and putting their lives in danger at the owners will. Do it or starve.
    Even our people today that serve and do not dare cross those giving out the welfare and other constricting ties to their freedom. Ever heard spoken ‘I am on checks” instead of a job? That is slavery but in disguise as those getting the checks dare not disobey their master for fear of devastating punishment
    Blacks are not the only ones ever put in slavery, although they enslaved each other to each other, one tribe to another, it has and is a practice alive and well in many countries today.
    Doesn’t make it right though, but there is an example in the Bible of how both should treat each other that most seem to miss.

  7. Charles McLean says:

    God’s ongoing self-revelation is not meager nor hard to find. In fact, throughout every aspect of creation and especially in humanity, God reveals himself at every turn. To miss this is to spend all day at Sea World and never catch on to the idea that there are animals who live in the water. My growing astonishment is not at his revelation of himself, but of how often we look straight at it and don’t see him. I suspect that we, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, have a strong working vocabulary about him, but are not actually looking for him in person, having established for ourselves a religion which operates quite nicely on information about God but requires his presence not at all in order to continue in perpetuity.

  8. gt says:

    I dont live under a rock John. But to paint with a broad brush those that consider themselves conservatives in such a light reveals your own elitist attitude that permeates so many “progressives” thinking. You might be surprised how many of your enlightened friends hold many of these same views in the deep recessesses of their elitist minds. But if it feeds your feeling of moral superiority then knock yourself out. Gotta run, theres a big cross burning tonight down at the trailer park.

  9. David Purcell says:

    Awesome Charles,

    Actually I did spend a day at Sea World and felt I got swindled, kind of like reading
    books about how great a job Israel did back in the day. Really cutting edge stuff.
    Forget about the killed prophets, homage to idols and the cross, the whips they used
    to torture our Lord. Forget it ever happened because the Torah is yet Alive!

    King worshippers reviving Lincoln’s ghost is really helpful also. You needn’t remind
    us of how loathsome we whiteys are. We have the righteous media doing that job,
    thank you very much.

    Oh by the way, we also know you love God so much more than we ever could. Hard
    as we try it seems beyond us. John is right, coc conservatives are awful bigots, lazy
    too. They cannot compete with liberals who work night and day to rid our country
    of old fashioned ideals like humility and respect for blood bought freedom. They
    will, God willing, turn the US into a third world nation where there is no tolerance
    for the intolerant.

  10. Price says:

    I agree Charles… From the days of Adam and Eve, God interacted directly with man.. The whole Bible is about that interaction.. Then suddenly, he disappears as if He’s had enough of this covenant relationship of which Jay writes… Not so. One of my favorite verses is Gen 5:24 Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. ESV Can you imagine having that kind of relationship with God? That he just said, come on up ! Was that the first rapture…LOL

  11. Charles McLean says:

    David, I tried to make a connection between my post and yours, but couldn’t. Was I supposed to?

  12. Nancy says:

    Charles wrote “I suspect that we, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, have a strong working vocabulary about him, but are not actually looking for him in person, having established for ourselves a religion which operates quite nicely on information about God but requires his presence not at all in order to continue in perpetuity.”

    We have a bingo. I find that most people don’t really want to dig into the scriptures in order to know God better. They just want to stay in the shallow end of the pool and fellowship with their buddies on their own terms.

  13. Charles McLean says:

    Nancy, I don’t think that this is done intentionally, for the most part. And while the study of scripture is one way of experiencing the revelation of who God is, I don’t think a rejection of in-depth scholarship is really the problem, either. Adding ten thousand PhD’s in Bible to our rolls would not, IMO, change what I am observing. We have been taught to “follow the Bible”, that is, to use the scripture to find out about Jesus, to know about God, and to shape our behaviors based on the information we gather. But this is an altogether human and entirely natural process. Take the word “God” out of the sentence above and replace it with the word “meteorlogy” or “psychology” and the process does not change.

    When our connection with Jesus is really cultural, or philosophical, or historical, we do not really touch Him, any more than we really know a man after reading a brief biographical sketch of his life. The real connection with Jesus is one of the spirit, not just of the intellect. Our fellowship with Jesus and our dependence on him are much deeper than getting our behaviors in proper order, and deeper than having more understanding about him than the fellow next to us.

    Those religious groups I spoke of are generally trying to do what they believe are “good things”. But because the connection is no deeper than a set of behavioral principles and directives, they can continue to do good things without the necessity of any real leading of the Holy Spirit, without any desperation for the presence of Jesus himself. I suspect that many will enter the hereafter “as one escaping through the flames”, not because of some list of abject sins which they refused to surrender, but because the things they did FOR God were really never OF God. Not so much because they refused to do the things the Holy Spirit was doing, but because no one ever taught them to ask Him what He was doing.

  14. Nancy says:

    Charles, I think you’re right and I’m not suggesting a purely intellectual study of the scriptures. My experience has been that as you begin to study the scriptures and as you come to understand the character of God, you want to experience Him on a deeper level through prayer, fellowship with other believers, etc. Just like physical health requires exercise and eating right, spiritual health requires, uh well, exercise and eating right.

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