This is the third in a series entitled What Does the Kingdom Look Like. Today we will focus on the dream that God gave to the children of Israel and their journey towards God’s new world.
God’s plan for restoration and wholeness required a people who could become channels of shalom inspired by the same vision for wholeness that God was. So Yahweh chose Abraham and Sara out of the ancient land of Sumer and started to unfold to them this wonderful plan for restoration. God established a new covenant with them, a covenant that was very different from anything the world had experienced before – It was a covenant of shalom. God told them “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you”. (Gen 17:1,2). And once Abraham and Sarah have been inspired by this covenant they can no longer feel comfortable in the land of Sumer where the self interest and greed of life devoid of God reigns. As the author of Hebrews reminds us Abraham and Sarah spent the rest of their lives “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).
The call to be part of God’s shalom mission
This call to be part of God’s shalom mission to the world was an incredibly revolutionary invitation. Thomas Cahill in his book The Gift of the Jews tells us that Sumerians like most ancient people lived a fatalistic existence lashed on the blind wheel of birth and death. They were pawns of the gods without any sense of purpose for human existence
Yahweh however offered Abraham and Sara a way of life beyond these meaningless cycles of birth and death. God offered them a future with the hope of wholeness, not just for themselves and their offspring but for all humankind and even for creation.
Abraham and Sara took this call to be a part of God’s mission very seriously. They packed up their huge extended family and set out for the land and the future God had promised them. (Gen 12:1-5)
Travelling ahead several hundred years we find ourselves in the land of Egypt where the descendents of Abraham and Sara have now become slaves cruelly oppressed by the Egyptians. However, God’s shalom representatives on earth could not be slaves whose lives were exploited by others. There is no way they could represent the God of wholeness and justice while they themselves were suffering injustice and oppression. So God heard their cry, recognized their suffering (Ex 3:7-9) and “remembered the covenant” made with Abraham (Ex 6:4,5).
So begins the great exodus story in which Yahweh sends Moses to lead the children of Israel out of oppression and suffering into the same land of wholeness and abundance promised to Abraham and Sara – the land of shalom relationships. It is a land flowing with milk and honey in which Yahweh promised that everyone from the least to the greatest would be provided for. “If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commandments, I will send you rain in its season and the ground will yield its crops and the trees of the field their fruit….you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land. I will grant shalom in the land and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. (Lev 26:3-6)
As the Israelites moved into the land of Canaan, God made very clear that their lives were to be governed by this new shalom covenant. First Yahweh spelt out in great detail the distribution of the land in a way that would be just and equitable for each person. (Deut 7: 7-15). Every tribe and every family was to be provided with sufficient land and capital to sustain their livelihood (Num 33: 53, 54), and God made it clear that no one would be allowed to enjoy the shalom of God until every other family had been able to find their own place in which to settle in this new homeland. Those tribes who took possession of their territory early in the conquest of Canaan were supposed to continue fighting until every other tribe and family had taken possession of the land God promised them. God’s promised land is a place in which every person, every family and every tribe has their own place and lives in harmony and co-operation with all others
In this new homeland, the Israelites were called to create a pilot project of shalom living in which they and their society would model different values from the people around them, not only religiously, but relationally, economically and politically too. At the centre of this new society, this band of former slaves were set apart dramatically from their neighbors in the way in which they worshipped Yahweh. They were also set apart by their responsible, caring relationships to one another but the transformation in their lives was not meant to end there. The Architect of this new shalom community intended that those transformed relationships would alter every dimensions of their lives.
The covenant of shalom
The Law given on Mount Sinai, called “the book of the covenant” (Ex 24:7) spells out in great detail the conditions of this shalom covenant. In the Ten Commandments Yahweh instituted a new relationship for this chosen people which began with a new religious framework based on personal relationship to God. However it went further than setting standards for their religious observances. God’s purpose for Israel was that its community would model just relationships and good stewardship and so show the surrounding nations God’s love and care for all people. (Deut 28:1-14).
The Decalogue recorded in Deuteronomy and Leviticus was grounded in a political system of justice and mutual care for all and raised a high new ethical standard for the Israelites’ relationships to each other as well as to “the alien” – those outside the Israelite community. It also required an economic stewardship that took into account the needs of the whole community. God developed a complex economic strategy whereby each member of the Israelite community was to manage their own resources in such a way that not only they, but also their fellow Israelites would be provided for and prosper. The covenant made very clear the responsibility human beings have for each other in ensuring everyone has access to the sustenance that makes life in society possible. By following these demanding commandments Yahweh intended to create a new community to showcase the shalom future of God for all peoples.
There is particular emphasis in this shalom covenant on provision for the poor as they are the most vulnerable in the society and God’s desire was that they too would be provided for and drawn into a place where their needs would be met and they could become productive members of the community. Doug Meeks states that “The egalitarian impetus of God’s economy is against all forms of domination by which the powerful “grinds the faces of the poor”… It does not mean a conformist or a leveled society.” But it does mean the Israelites were to become a part of a new shalom household where the poor were compassionately cared for.
As theologian Walter Pilgrim reminds us, “The motive of Yahweh’s defense of the needy is made unmistakably clear: Yahweh himself rescued his people when they were strangers and slaves in Egypt; hence his redeemed people should act in like manner toward the helpless in their midst. (Exod. 22:21; 23:9). As further evidence of Yahweh’s compassionate care for the poor and afflicted, he promises to hear them in their affliction and to act (Exod. 22:23, 27).”
The responsibility of those in the community with resources was to provide for the poor in such a way that they would not lose their place within the society (Lev 25:35). The Sabbath and Jubilee principles placed particular emphasis on how this new shalom community cared for its poorest members.
For example abundant loans were supposed to be available for poor people. Slaves were to be released after six years of service and given the financial means for becoming economically viable again. Excerpting from Deuteronomy 15:1-15 we read: “At the end of seven years you must cancel debts… Every creditor shall cancel the loan he has made to his fellow Israelite…Do not be hardhearted of tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs…Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart…If a fellow Hebrew, a man or woman is sold to you and he serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free. And when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your own flock, our threshing floor and winepress. Give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you.”
As well as that, provision was to be made for the widow, orphan and immigrant. Jubilee was instituted so that poverty would not become a crippling generational reality as it was in other cultures. Every 50 years debts were to be forgiven and slaves set free so that the marginalized within Israel could be given a fresh start. “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan.” (Lev 25:10)
While their neighbors all had a political system in which a king and a privileged elite ruled in a society organized along feudal lines, the children of Israel were to be ruled by their God. Political power was decentralized and resided in a wide network of elders within the community. “In the Canaanite city-states, all land was owned by the king and there were feudal arrangements with those who lived and worked on it. In Israel the land was divided up as widely as possible into multiple ownership by extended families. It could not simply be bought and sold commercially, but had to be retained within the kinship groups. Furthermore, many of the Old Testament laws and institutions of land use indicate an overriding concern to preserve this comparative equality of families on the land and to protect the poorer, the weaker and the economically threatened, and not to uphold the status and wealth of a small land-owning nobility”
Initially (at least according to many historians) Israel followed this amazing new model. Archeological evidence suggests that in early Israel, as a result of these laws, there were few social distinctions. They developed a fairly egalitarian society in which houses were roughly all the same size without the huge disparity found in other nations between rich and poor, ruler and peasant. The method of settling the land according to need rather than status preserved this basic equality.
Shalom – symbol of freedom
Of course the values of this new shalom community were not meant to be adhered to out of a feeling of coercion or as a legalistic adherence to the rules and regulations of an authoritarian God. It was a vision that called them toward a future in which human kind would once more live out of a sense that God’s laws were written on their hearts and that God had freed them from a need for material extravagance, vaunting ambition and ravaging greed. The children of Israel were meant to live in this new shalom community out of the sense of freedom of a transforming relationship to a loving and personal God whom the Israelites knew had redeemed them out of slavery, fed them while they were hungry in the wilderness and provided them with a land of promise, security and abundance.
No wonder shalom was more than just a word of greeting or a sense of personal peace to the Hebrews. It carried with it a promise of hope for the future and. It is no wonder the children of Israel used shalom as a daily greeting. It reminded them of their covenant relationship with God and embodied their sense of hope for the future, the promise of a day coming when all of creation would be restored to the wholeness and security God intended for it. A Jewish friend once told me that originally this greeting meant “May you live in anticipation of the day when God makes all things whole again”.
What an awe inspiring way to greet your friends each day. “May you live in anticipation of the day when God makes all things whole again.” How exhilarating it would be if we had a Christian welcome that carried with it the same sense of excitement and anticipation about the future toward which God was leading us. Imagine how it would change our way of looking at life and the shalom purposes God has for us. May we learn to live in anticipation of the day when God makes all things whole.