Ch 4: The Quest For God’s Country

All of the story up until this point has been a dramatic prologue, explaining the origin of all beauty and brokenness. The crisis has been introduced into the narrative and a foreshadowing of the solution hinted at. But it is not until Genesis 12 that the real storyline of the Bible commences, as God begins a “pilot project” that will eventually culminate in the crushing of the serpent, the restoration of the human project, and the renovation of the entire cosmos.

Russell Moore, in his book Onward, traces the story like this:

“Long before God began to restore the kingdom, he began a pilot project—at first from one man, then a nation of those who were to be a “light to the nations”—a model of God’s rule. He kept them from absorption into the nations with a distinctive code of law, one that reminded them that their redemption was yet future, down the line from Abraham. He anointed for them a line of kings, from the house of David, who were to rule in righteousness and justice, and these kingdoms would stand or fall by the obedience of the king to the word of God. These kingdoms fell. Every one of these kings, no matter how anointed, succumbed ultimately to death, proving that each of them was at least one sin short of a Messiah. And, ultimately, the kingdom itself collapsed—into division, into captivity, into exile. By the time of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth, the once great house of David was a puppet of uncircumcised Romans. But there was always the promise. The seed of Abraham would inherit the cosmos. The son of David would build God’s house, and rule from the throne as a human being. The people of God would be raised from the dead, and anointed with the Spirit. God would dwell with his people, and heaven and earth would be one.”

The entire Bible could be summed up with this one sentence: God’s People, in God’s Country, need God’s King to rule over them. Biblical scholar Graeme Goldsworthy summarizes the storyline, “The story of the Old Testament is… nothing less than the promise of the kingdom of God. Abraham’s descendants are to be God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule.” It’s not enough to just be God’s people; we must have access to God’s Country, the place where he dwells, the place of fellowship with him where blessing and joy is restored. And it’s not even enough to be God’s people in God’s country; we must have God’s King, God’s chosen human ruler, reigning with human dominion restored. We need God’s kingdom to be rebuilt, and for his King—and with him, humanity—to be restored.

That story of kingdom rebuilt and humanity restored follows three distinct Acts through the Old Testament. The curtain of Act I opens on a man named Abraham and a promise from God to give him a home and a family. This promise of a restored Country—Eden rebuilt and God’s presence restored—carries the story through the rest of the Pentateuch, down the line of Abraham’s descendants, into slavery in Egypt, and then through the Exodus and the eventual inheritance of the Promised Land.

Act I of the Old Testament is the halting and haunting story of God regathering a shattered people and shepherding them into a restored place of communion with him. Halting, because these sinful, stubborn people— really no different from the pagan nations around them— are so unwilling to lean into God’s promises, so resistant to trust and obedience (just like us). And haunting, because everywhere we see the dying glimmers of Eden scattered throughout the narrative, like billowing embers exploding upward and then drifting to the ground after a fire is stamped out.

Act II opens with the book of Judges, with God’s people in God’s Country, and yet all is not well in paradise, for the kingdom of God is still kingless. It isn’t enough to simply be in the promised land. It isn’t even enough for God to be king—of course, he never stopped ruling over all of creation. God’s kingdom is wherever God’s presence resides and God’s king reigns. For God’s kingdom to be reestablished, therefore, there must be a man on the throne. Without God’s King to sit on the throne—a human king—life can never work the way it was designed. A human must wield the lost dominion of Adam, or there can be no peace. “There was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes” is the banner flying over the carnage and spiraling chaos of the book of Judges. And yet, emerging out of the anarchy of kinglessness, the thread of hope endures, as the unlikeliest of kings emerges from the unlikeliest of families, a shepherd boy after God’s own heart. God promises David and his descendants an everlasting dynasty. He is to be the human inheritor of the universe’s throne. David’s son Solomon comes closest to reaching the promise; under his reign, the Golden Age of Israel recreates Eden, with God’s presence resides in the temple, God’s chosen King reigns, and blessing flows from his throne out to the world.

And yet the transition to Act III finds David, Solomon, and each one of their descendants failing, unable and unwilling to be the human king who crushes the serpent’s head. The once-glorious kingdom of David collapses into division, bloodshed, idolatry, and, ultimately, exile. God’s people find themselves banished from God’s presence and stripped of dominion yet again, as if the Fall is repeating itself. And yet, throughout Act III, amidst the dissolution of the kingdom, the rising prophetic tide points relentlessly forward: the promise has not failed, the serpent has not won, and God has not forgotten his people. David’s dynasty will rule the universe, and God’s remade people will reign with him. Satan will be crushed, sin will be defeated, and God’s people will live in God’s Country with God’s King, forever.

THE PROMISE OF A PLACE

The rest of the narrative from Genesis through Joshua is all about this quest to reestablish God’s Country, a place where God’s presence will reside. But here in Genesis 12, all of that is still a long way off, and is yet unclear. All we have is an unremarkable pagan named Abraham and an unsolicited promise from God. And yet this is the moment that the thread of promise begins being woven into a tapestry of redemption. Because it turns out that this unremarkable pagan does in fact have one notable characteristic: he is descended from the genealogy of grace, with his ancestry traced back through Shem, Noah, Seth, and ultimately the woman from whom the promised offspring would come. All this time as we’ve watched humanity self-destructing, it turns out that God was not absent from the narrative after all; the whole story has been building to this moment, ushered along by the Author of history. The whole time it looked like the Serpent was winning—and he sure was notching up a lot of victories—God has been patiently planting the seeds of the snake’s ultimate destruction, shepherding generation after generation of the chosen lineage until the moment for his unsolicited promise to Abraham arrives.

Read the promise in Genesis 12 in light of the storyline up until this point, and you’ll hear the echoes of Eden in the words of God’s promise:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3) 

The key word in Genesis 12 is “bless/blessing,” repeated a remarkable five times in these three sentences. The promise to Abraham was all about blessing, the same blessing that was originally humanity’s in Genesis 1. The contours of this blessing are crucial to see: a new nation, a new land, and the eventual extension of the blessing until it encompassed the whole earth. This is a promise to reestablish God’s Country—a place of fellowship with him, where his presence will dwell among his people once again. Do you hear the echoes of Eden’s cultural mandate—God’s Kingdom, full of life and fruitfulness and dominion and joy, expanding until it filled the world? Vaughan Roberts, in his book God’s Big Picture, draws the connection between Genesis 1 and Genesis 12 and the restoration of what had been broken by the fall: “The covenant with Abraham is a promise of the kingdom of God: God’s people (Abraham’s descendants) in God’s place (the promised land) under God’s rule and therefore enjoying his blessing. It is a promise to reverse the effects of the fall.” Surprisingly, God is going to reverse the fall by working in history through one man and his family, until blessing is restored to the entire world.

The original cultural mandate, the marching orders of humanity, was first uttered in Genesis 1:28 as a blessing: “And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.’” After the curse in Genesis 3, though, blessing virtually disappears from the narrative, surfacing briefly in Genesis 9 when God bestows a benediction on the relaunch of the human project with Noah, who then promptly squanders it. The blessing of human authority—beginning in the garden and extending to the ends of the earth—was the burning heart of mankind. But even though that burning heart was extinguished at the fall, God carefully tended the embers of the promise down the line until Abraham, where he once again kindled it into flame. God’s plan, dreamed up before the design of the universe and unveiled at this moment in history, was to use this one family to restore the blessing and dominion of humanity to the ends of the earth, until all creation came back under the reign of mankind once more. Through Abraham’s family, the aborted blessing of Eden would flow outward again. Beginning with this one man and his family, God would begin reconstructing the human project until “all the families of the earth” were included again. God’s country would be restored in this new nation descended from Abraham.

Alongside this expanding blessing was the other component of the promise: a Promised Land, a renewed place of fellowship with God. In Genesis 12, the location is not yet specified; all that God tells Abraham is to “go to the land I will show you.” But it is clear that, wherever God is sending Abraham, this will be divine reconstruction of paradise. There has been no place of divine blessing on planet Earth since Genesis 3, but in this land that Abraham is traveling to, his family will become “a great nation,” and experience the presence and blessing of God once more. Not since Eden had humanity had access to the Creator; now, through this promise, there would be a place of divine blessing again, a Country for God’s people to call home. Genesis 12, then, is nothing less than the promise of paradise restored.

Let’s stop and linger for a moment on the phrase “all the families of the earth” and how it relates to this home that is promised to Abraham. This phrase is the fullest extent of the Abrahamic covenant—not just the people of Israel, not just the land of Canaan, but “all the families of the earth” folded into the remade Eden. In God’s promise to Abraham, we see the truest definition of the promised land: God’s country is not defined as a bounded geographic area, but rather as anywhere that God’s restored presence and blessing flows. God’s country is anywhere that Abraham’s blessing is—which, we are told, will one day be “all the families of the earth.” That means paradise is going to be bigger the second time around; Eden is getting an upgrade. Every corner of the globe gets to participate in this promise. Every ugly, sad, broken thing is made new. This is the promise to reverse Joni Mitchell’s song; every parking lot is going to be paved over by the new creation and turned back into paradise. This is the promise that kids from Calcutta will trade in slums for streets of gold, tribespeople in the Amazon will come to know the one true Creator, neo-Nazis will throw down their racism and bow to the offspring of Abraham. A place of fellowship with God is going to be rebuilt from the rubble of mankind’s ruin; once again the blessing of God will flow to humanity.

ALREADY, NOT YET

A few chapters later, though, in Genesis 15, the promise is reiterated and Abraham is told the specific scope of the Promised Land. Surprisingly, it’s less than you might have thought at first: “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (15:18). Reading the story from Eden to Abraham, you may think that inheriting a plot of ground in Palestine is a rather poor replacement for the garden of paradise and universal human dominion. The blessing in Eden encompassed the entire cosmos; even the promise in Genesis 12 seemed infinitely broader than the promise restated here in chapter 15. In chapter 12, the scope of the promise extended to “all the families of the earth.” And now the promise has somehow shrunk down to a slice of the Middle East.

So what are we to make of the seemingly diminished extent of the promise in chapter 15? We are supposed to see that Promised Land was a placeholder, a foreshadowing of final fulfillment, not the end goal itself. In the biblical story, Israel living in the land of Canaan was never the end goal; a redeemed humanity spreading blessing to the ends of the earth is. That’s why the New Testament writers pick up not the narrow promise of Genesis 15, but the broader proclamation of chapter 12, even calling it “the gospel preached beforehand to Abraham” (Galatians 3:8). In Romans 4, Paul draws Genesis 12 to its logical, staggering conclusion: “the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world.” God’s promise to Abraham was never abut just a home for his family in Canaan. Global restoration of God’s presence and humanity’s Edenic blessing has always been the end goal. And for the rest of the Old Testament, God will prove relentlessly faithful to his promise, working with faithless Israel to doggedly pursue the goal of a fully restored world.

The ebb and flow of the promise from chapter 12 to 15 reveals a crucial pattern: we see that the original promise, universal in its extent, is going to be worked out in stages. First the Promised Land, then all the families of the earth. First the pilot project, then the worldwide roll-out. We are more familiar with the already/not-yet tensions in the New Testament, but we see the same pattern back here in the Old Testament, too. Just like Jesus’ kingdom comes in stages, so, too, does the initial promise to Abraham (spoiler alert: the reason they both come in stages is because they are the same thing).

There’s a valuable lesson for us today, caught just like Abraham between the promise and the fulfillment. As much as we would like to either rewind back to Eden or jump forward to New Jerusalem, we’re stuck doing it God’s way, which is slowly, and in stages. God, in his wisdom, thinks that the aching tug of war between the kingdom already arrived and the kingdom not yet come is the best way to grow the fruit of hope in his people and put his sovereign control on full display. And so the winding, circuitous history of humanity rolls on, and even though it so often seems out of control, the Author of history is relentlessly, deliberately bending its arc towards blessing. The promise to Abraham, seen in all its stages through the storyline of the bible, hasn’t reached its final fulfillment yet. That’s why Hebrews points to Abraham as an example for us as we wait for God’s kingdom to come in its fullness:

By faith Abraham went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God… These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland… They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Hebrews 11:9-10, 13-16)

Abraham looked past the placeholder to the final fulfillment, and held out hope for the blessing of Eden remaking the whole world, for God’s country to be restored beyond the boundaries of Canaan and encompass the entire globe. The bad news is that we’re still waiting on the consummation of that promise. The good news is that we’ve still got something to look forward to, and the best is yet to come.

THE EXODUS BACK TO EDEN

The story continues and the promise marches on, from Abraham to the miraculous son of promise, Isaac. From Isaac the promise moves to his younger son Jacob, bypassing the preferred birth order, making an end run around any semblance of common sense in order to call a dirty rotten scoundrel to glory. Jacob’s dozen sons take after their scheming father, for the most part, and “accidently” sell their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt. The story of Genesis closes as God turns the brothers’ wickedness inside out by using that act of treachery to save the traitors. Abraham’s family, heirs of the universe, settle down in Egypt, as foreigners in a foreign land. And for a season, the promise seems to stall.

Yet as the book of Genesis closes and Exodus opens, for a moment things look good. In fact, the cultural mandate is alive and burning in the hearts of God’s people and, as much as could be expected in a fallen world, they are thriving and carrying out God’s agenda. Exodus 1:7 tells how the people of Israel are fulfilling their calling as image-bearers:

But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

Fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth… it sounds like Eden is being rebuilt.

Except it isn’t. They don’t know it yet, but God’s people are actually farther than ever away from paradise restored. Within three verses, they go from royalty to rags. Now they are slaves, trapped under a brutal dictator hell-bent on stripping them of their dignity, rolling back their dominion, and squashing God’s promise into the dust. Sound familiar? The opening pages of Exodus echo back to the opening pages of Genesis: glory, life, and fruitfulness, collapsing in on itself into death, slavery, misery, and weeping. Eden remains unattainable; this is what it looks like when Satan runs the world.

But, just like back in the garden when God broke into the anarchy of the fall with a promise of a serpent-stomping Savior, he shows up again here. At the darkest moment in the story, a note of hope is sounded: “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25).

God raises up the unlikeliest of saviors—a stuttering former member of the Egyptian royal family who was fished out of the river as a baby and is now on the run as a murderer. God tells Moses that he is about to make good on his promise to Abraham in Genesis 15, to bring Abraham’s family into the placeholder Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:17). The whole rest of the Pentateuch narrative—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—is going to be about God delivering his people into that land of blessing, back into fellowship with himself.

God shatters the power of Pharaoh with a series of devastating curses, commanding the whole natural world to rise up in revolt against the oppressor. It’s ironic, given that the chaos of creation is a direct result of man’s lost dominion, to see that chaos wielded against an evil king—but then again, God loves to smack down our presumption with divine irony.

The children of Israel are delivered from slavery, but not immediately delivered to the Promised Land. Just like we’ve seen before, redemption continues to come in stages. This time, the reason for the delay is an incredibly important pause in the narrative in the second half of the book of Exodus. The entire purpose of the biblical narrative from Abraham to Joshua is about restoring God’s Country—a place for his presence to dwell. The Promised Land itself, as we have seen, is just a placeholder for the final fulfillment of God’s Country. But before we get to the placeholder Promised Land, we first need the placeholder for the placeholder: the tabernacle.

PORTABLE PARADISE

As a modern reader working through the book of Exodus, you’d probably find the first half of the book thrilling, and the second half mind-numbingly boring and disorienting. That’s because the march to the Promised Land halts at Mount Sinai, where an entire year is spent constructing the tabernacle, a tent where the presence of God would dwell in the midst of the people.  Chapter after chapter is spent elaborating seemingly insignificant details of the construction project, leading many readers to wonder what in the world is going on and where all the fun stories about burning bushes and plagues have gone. And if you manage to get through Exodus, you’re immediately confronted with Leviticus, which has just as many esoteric details and is no easier to plow through.

But there’s an important lesson here for understanding stories (not just the Bible, but any literature). Whenever the pace of the story slows down and begins filling in with details, it’s not a detour, it’s the climax. It’s not a pause, it’s the whole point of the story. This is why action movies switch to slow-motion at the moment of greatest tension. It’s why in Star Wars, half of the movie covers months’ worth of character and plot development, and the second half slows down to focus on one final battle. It’s why, in each gospel account, the last days of Jesus’ life account for nearly half of the narrative. Stories slow down to show us what’s important. And the second half of Exodus is no different. The narrative breaks from the march to the Promised Land and lingers on the construction of the tabernacle because the whole point of Act I of the Old Testament is that God’s promised Country is the place where God’s presence dwells. A return to Eden entails a return to the Creator. Paradise is wherever God is.

The lesson that God’s people need to learn before they enter the Promised Land is that the Promised Land is not so much a Place as it is a Presence. Wherever the presence of God is, that is where paradise is. If they enter Canaan without the Creator it will be hell on earth, but the wilderness can be like heaven as long as God is with them. And so before they take possession of the Promised Land—which is itself just a placeholder for the Genesis 12 promise of fully restored Eden—God gives them a placeholder for the placeholder: a portable paradise, if you will.

That’s what all the details in the slow-motion narrative are designed to help us see. In this tent, echoes of Eden are everywhere. Gold and gems were plentiful in the original garden; they gild everything in the tabernacle as well. Pictures of fruit trees, flowers, and angels adorn the walls and curtains, calling to mind the abundance of Eden. An eternally burning flame symbolizes God’s perpetual presence; daily bread pictures his constant provision; golden cherubim overshadowing the ark of the covenant are a reminder of the angelic guardians of the tree of life. In Exodus 28, the high priest is given special garments to wear inside the tabernacle, woven with gemstones engraved with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, so that he would symbolically carry the people of God back into the presence of God every time he entered the tent. The people of God in the presence of God, surrounded by all the symbols of the paradise of God; every element of tabernacle points us back to Eden.

But they do more than point backwards. As a placeholder, the elements of the tabernacle also point forward, past the abundance of the Promised Land, to the final fulfillment of paradise restored. The New Testament book of Hebrews looks to the tabernacle and sees “a copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Hebrews 8:5). The gold and glory and abundance of the tabernacle are the outlines of the new Eden, dim shadows refracted back through history from the substance of the true sanctuary. It’s a preview of coming attractions, a teaser of the main event which the apostle John saw splitting the skies and making everything new at the end of the story in Revelation:

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel… And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. (Revelation 21:2, 18, 23, 22:1-2) 

Here, at last, is the Paradise that God’s People have been looking forward to ever since Abraham—really, ever since Eden. The Paradise that was pictured in the placeholders of the tabernacle and Promised Land is here in all its fullness, built with gold and jewels and glory and abundance and brightness that outshines anything this world has ever seen. The jewels adorning the walls of New Jerusalem are the same jewels that the high priest carried into the holy place; now we see the fulfillment of that symbol, as the people of God are reunited with the presence of God forever, never to depart again. This scene is the consummation to which the whole story, and the whole creation, has been leaning towards eagerly. With the construction of the tabernacle, we get a sneak peek, a brief glimpse, of how good the ending of this story will be some day.

GOD’S PEOPLE IN GOD’S COUNTRY

After a long pause for tabernacle construction, the narrative journey resumes in the book of Numbers. Cycles of disobedience turn what could have been a short journey into a forty year slog in the desert, but the theme of divine presence and blessing continues. The longest story in the book of Numbers, the strange tale of Balaam in chapters 22-24, is worth noting. Most remember this story for the episode of the talking donkey, but the story of Balaam is actually a summary of the lesson learned up until this point: God’s blessing on Abraham is irrevocable, and God’s blessing flows wherever God’s presence is. Balaam is a pagan sorcerer hired to curse the people of Israel, and yet he finds himself unable to do so. Despite repeated attempts to speak destruction over the people, his curses are turned backwards into blessing. He explains his inability in chapter 32: “How can I curse whom God has not cursed?… The LORD their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them.” The presence of God, the promise of God’s coming king, and the relentless blessing of God are Act I of the Old Testament in a sentence.

After the Pentateuch concludes, the people of God finally, after a long and winding road, find themselves on the brink of taking possession of the Promised Land in the book of Joshua. God’s promise to Abraham—at least the placeholder part of it—is finally coming true. The book of Joshua concludes Act I of the Old Testament with this stunning summary: “Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:45).

The people drive out the wicked inhabitants of Canaan, take possession of the Promised Land, settle into their inheritance, and begin living out the cultural mandate in their new home. God’s people are in God’s Country, fruitful and multiplying and filling the land and subduing it. Everything seems poised for peace and glory. Except for one thing… God’s people might be back in God’s Country, but they don’t yet have God’s King in charge. The usurping snake is still on the throne and tightly wound around the hearts of the people. And as we’ve seen, until a human king arises to crush the serpent’s head and take the reins of the universe, there can be no happy ending. God’s people are in God’s Country, and everything is about to go wrong.

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