I’ve been in the Old Testament a lot this past week, and one passage that came up that I’d not considered much in the sense of… well, in any sense, really… is Deuteronomy 32, particularly verses 7-9.
Remember the days of old,
consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you;
your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.
Deuteronomy 32:7-9 (NRSV)
The whole chapter is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to Israel and their mutual covenant. What is also interesting is what this implies about the other nations.
This passage talks about when Elyon “divided humankind.” He split them up into separate nations. This is probably a reference to the story of the Tower of Babel.
What is interesting is that God gives the nations over to other gods, but he keeps Israel for Himself. This is a theological summary, since Israel did not exist as a nation at Babel, nor are they listed in the tables of nations in Genesis 10 and 11. But their ancestors were there, and out of Mesopotamia, God calls Abraham for Himself. The other nations will serve other gods, but Abraham and his descendants will belong to Yahweh forever, even as they grow into numberless descendants.
But the nations are not just cut off from God and left to their own devices. God growing His people in Abraham is the plan for eventually blessing all the nations of the world.
Deuteronomy’s concern, of course, is with the ongoing faithfulness and prosperity of Israel, and this passage serves mostly as a reminder of how special Israel is to God. Out of all the other nations, Israel was God’s portion – His inheritance that He kept for Himself in the days when the other nations were turned over to other gods to go their own way. This is meant to be both a comfort to Israel about her future as well as a reminder to special faithfulness to her God.
But this special portion has the long term trajectory of, eventually, blessing the nations. And this trajectory is really long term.
The first five books of the Old Testament can sometimes really skew our notion of time. There’s the story of Adam, then Adam’s sons, then Noah is pretty quick after that, then Babel, then Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, then Moses, you get the idea. Because these stories occur one after the other, in our heads, we sort of place them one after the other – as though each of these things is only a few decades apart. We forget that huge passages of time happened between the pivotal events the Old Testament tells us about.
And this section is no different. How long will it take for one family to grow into so many descendants that they cannot be numbered and, by doing so, bless all the nations? This is something that simply cannot happen within a few generations. For centuries, your average Israelite would be born, live their lives, and die knowing that they were simply part of the long, mundane flow of history that was their current iteration of moving the plan forward.
Some of them lived in particularly interesting times, but many did not. They would know of the promises of the past and how it brought them to where they were. They would know where they were going as a people and their hopes for the future, but their own lives of quiet faithfulness were them passing the baton along – making a glacial movement forward of God’s plan.
And what was that plan? The reclamation of the nations – the day when Israel’s God would be confessed as the God and Lord of all the nations – the day when God’s people would be everywhere, and we would not worship on this hill or that hill, but God would be worshiped in all places by all peoples.
There are points in history where this goal hit milestones. In fact, as far as the New Testament is concerned, “the nations” are more or less the Roman Empire, and that Empire comes under the dominion of Christ in a pretty concrete way.
But we also know something the New Testament authors did not, and that is that “the nations” are bigger than the Roman Empire and outlying tribes. And God’s people went about the task of bringing the news of the Creator God into those places as well. There is still much to be done in that project. And who knows? Maybe we’ll discover other life in the universe and find that “the nations” are larger than we could have possibly imagined, just like Paul trying to imagine the Mauri or the Inuits or the Sioux.
Although the horizons may broaden with time, and although the concrete forms of the people of God may shift with circumstances, the mechanism continues to the same: the people of God remain a faithful witness that calls their neighbors into the family and service of this God, and in this way, all the nations are blessed.
Perhaps we are near the end of this project, or perhaps we are just a blip on an unbelievably huge timeline that takes the entire universe into its scope. Those things belong to God.
In the meantime, we are called to faithful service of the God who made the heavens and the earth, and through this faithfulness, others will be called by His name.