From Nomads to a Nation

The Babel fiasco in Genesis, which we looked at in the previous instalment of this mini-series, is quickly followed in the timeline of salvation by the account of Abraham (Ge 12.1ff). This looks very much like a ray of light into what otherwise looks like a very dark landscape in a very dark world. Especially so because God explicitly tells him he would give his descendants the land of Canaan (Ge 12.7). But there is something of a twist in the tale, in that Abram (as he was then called) already had an apparently secure and comfortable home in Ur of the Chaldeans. Why, then, does an act of trusting obedience to God in leaving this home mean that he and his immediate family will spend the rest of their earthly lives as nomads on the earth?

In order to answer that question we need to skip way ahead in the Bible’s storyline to the book of Hebrews which references Abraham and his acceptance of the nomadic life to which God called him, saying, ‘they [Abraham and his family] were longing for a better country – a heavenly one’ (He 11.16). We’ll look at the Hebrews angle in more detail in the fifth episode in this series, but for now we simply note that Abraham did not begrudge his calling from God.

Indeed, the gift of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants would not physically happen until some 500 years after Abraham’s death. And during that time, not only would the patriarchs continue in the nomadic existence of their forefather, but their descendants would spend many centuries as an enslaved people in a foreign land in Egypt. And, even after their departure from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, an entire generation would spend 40 years as wilderness wanderers before the Land of Promise would become the land of their actual possession.

So we have this vast sweep of Old Testament history in which God’s covenant people – the very people to whom God promised salvation – continued to experience their own brand of ‘restless wandering on the face of the earth’. Their heart instinct for a place of permanence was still eluding them.

This monumental detail, which can so easily be overlooked as we try to assimilate God’s unfolding purpose in redemption, says a great deal about where the focus of redemption lies. Although the human heart longs for ‘deliverance’ in some form of heaven on earth, it cannot be in ‘earth as we know it’ that it can be so. Even the life of faith will be a life filled with restlessness as long as we are in this world.

We see that significantly when Israel, the recently constituted nation as opposed to massive extended family, enters Canaan. The overwhelming sense of awe and anticipation that travelled with them across the Jordan into what was about to become their land (Josh 3.1-17), very quickly dissipates in the chapters and indeed books of the Bible that follow. The residue of the Joshua narrative is one of battle and conflict to secure the borders of Israel and, despite what feels like an all-too-brief moment of peace and stability in the land, it immediately gives way to Judges and the anarchy and chaos that threatens to tear apart the fragile State of Israel.

The little book of Ruth gives a glimpse in microcosm of another displaced Israelite family that comes back to the homeland after years of self-inflicted exile to an uncertain future in Israel – but punctuated by a reaffirmation of God’s saving promise to his people.

In Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, even with the establishment of the monarchy in Israel – which had the potential under God of securing the homeland – it was only the golden age of the Davidic reign that showed any kind of promise. The kings that ‘did evil in the sight of the LORD’ outnumbered the faithful ones and the United Kingdom of Israel all too quickly became the divided states.

The final punctuation mark in this saga of the People of God is exile. It would be permanent exile in the case of the Northern Kingdom and a 70-year exile for Judah. But in both cases it was an expression of the ultimate sanction after years of covenant infidelity (Dt 28.58,63). And, even though a small, but faithful remnant returns under Ezra and Nehemiah, their spiritual fortunes are at best volatile and post-Malachi descend into a 400-year spiritual black hole between the Testaments.

What was Israel meant to make of this and what are we to make of it all? A mere surface reading of this theme as it is woven through Old Testament revelation might suggest that the thought of a home that would replace the lost home of Eden was a wonderful notion in the promise of redemption, but one which turned into an abject failure.

A non-superficial reading of the text – especially one that leads us into the New Testament – shows this is anything but the case. Indeed, God in his wise and loving purpose was impressing deeply on his believing people that this world in its present fallen state can never provide the home that we need and for which we were uniquely formed as human beings.

That same Old Testament reality is repeated in the New Testament, as we shall see in the next article; but is also one that we need to grasp. It is all-too-easy for God’s believing people through the ages to subliminally embrace a hope of heaven-on-earth which can simply never be in God’s economy of grace. He has planned something ‘better by far’ for all who trust him!

Mark Johnston

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