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How the Promise Plays Out in Scripture

I’ve been working on self-guided lessons for my church designed to walk people through some of the seminal moments in Scripture to help others acquire a stronger understanding of the big story of the Bible. I started the process of writing some lessons on the promise of God to Abraham and His descendants, then realized I didn’t really have much of a grasp on how that played itself out from Genesis 12 through Malachi.

God’s promise to Abraham, which is the promise God is still fulfilling through us, is as follows:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and youth 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 curse you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

With this promise in mind, I skimmed through the Bible from Genesis 12-Malachi, looking for reiterations of this promise, examples of this theme, and how this promise plays out in Scripture. I skipped Job because it predates the promise. I skipped Psalms because I suspected it had more variations on God revealing Himself to nations and Israel being a blessing than I wanted  to write down. One assumption I brought to the text is that revealing God to other nations is in itself a blessing to those nations. I’m sure I missed many examples of the playing out of the promise in Scripture, but here are some things I saw along the way.

Outsiders to Israel recognize YHWH and his power because of His blessing of Israel. Abimelech recognizes God’s blessing of Abraham and his son Isaac, becoming afraid of both, asking for treaties and asking them to leave the area because God’s blessing has made them a potential threat. Jethro sees Israel has been freed from Egypt and declares YHWH is greater than all gods and sacrifices to Him. Deuteronomy mentions that Israel is blessed beyond all nations and that other nations will see this blessing by God. The Queen of Sheba sees the kingdom of Israel God blessed Solomon with and blesses YHWH the Lord of Israel.

Sometimes God’s people put on display God’s power over creation in a way that outsiders see God. The Egyptian magicians, when they see what God does through Moses say that it must be the finger of God. Elijah blesses a widow with food that doesn’t run out and the saving of her son and the widow discovers YHWH is God. Naaman the Syrian is healed of leprosy and states that YHWH is God.

One way other nations recognize the power of Israel’s God is through YHWH’s destruction of Israel for their disobedience. I only found one reference to this in Jeremiah 22.8-9. I suspect there are more I didn’t see in my skim-through, but one is enough.

After Israel’s destruction, Isaiah makes the point multiple times that other nations will recognize YHWH as Lord when He restores Israel. They will see God’s holiness by bringing back the kingdom of His people. Both the destruction and the restoration are a part of God’s covenant keeping. His covenant faithfulness put on display will be His vindication to the outsiders of Israel. Moses’ makes two appeals to God to keep His promise to Israel in order that other nations might see God’s covenant keeping.

In Exodus 19 Israel is consecrated as a kingdom of priests. I don’t recall seeing this language used to describe Israel after this point. Thinking through it, a priest is a person who does the work of God to bring others to God. Israel had separate priests to bring them to God. Presumably, for Israel to function as a kingdom of priests they would be bringing people to God who were not priests – other nations. The way Israel was to do this includes, at least: worshipping YHWH alone, following their law which was distinct from other laws and so reflecting YHWH, inviting foreigners to participate in their worship of their God, proclaiming God’s freedom, and by putting God’s blessing on display.

There are a lot of stories in Scripture about Israel and people of Israel blessing other nations and people from other nations. I already mentioned a few of these above. Joseph blesses Potiphar of Egypt and the Pharoah with a dream interpretation. Joseph then goes on to bless many nations surrounding Egypt by storing up food and keeping them from starvation during a time of famine. Daniel interprets a dream to Nebuchadnezzar, saves the wise men in doing so, and the result is Nebuchadnezzar’s blessing of YHWH.

One part of the original promise is that those who bless Israel will themselves be blessed. We see this in the story of the widow and Elijah, the widow blesses Elijah with a meal and the widow is blessed with food and the life of her son. Ruth blesses her mother in  law with her presence and so is blessed with husband, child, and becoming a full member of the people of God. Rahab blesses Israel by keeping its spies secret and is blessed with being saved from death and integration into Israelite nation. Ebed-Malech the Ethiopian saves the prophet Jeremiah and is himself saved from the coming destruction of Jerusalem.

The ESV phrasing of the promise is interesting, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” I don’t know Hebrew, so I don’t know whether it should be translated “in” or “through” or something else. Regardless, one way the descendants of Abraham bless the families of the earth is by integrating them into their community. Stories of people who became a part of Israel pop up all over the Old Testament (Ruth, Uriah, Moses’ wife). Many of the commands to read the Law together and share in the Passover supper include a clause about foreigners in Israel participating in the reading of the Law and the meal. In doing so, these foreigners are integrated into the community and become a part of the nation God is blessing. People from all families of the earth become an Israelite and so are blessed by being “in” Israel.

The prophets contain one of the strongest discussions of how all the families of the earth will be blessed through Israel. This is the message of the future kingdom of Israel. These men speak about how: all flesh will know God, all nations will see salvation, ends of earth will bow before God, the proclamation of God’s freedom to the ends of the earth, all flesh will know God as savior, righteousness and praise sprouting among nations, etc. Truly the greatest way Israel could bless other nations is by bringing them salvation into a worshipful relationship with the one true God. As we know, this blessing to all nations is fulfilled in and is being fulfilled in Jesus.

If you’re interested in glancing at my list, that can be found here.

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