Ashley R. from the United States asks about why God limited His revelation of Himself to Abraham and his descendants in Old Testament (OT) times:
First of all, I would like to say that your articles are easy to understand and are extremely helpful. This is a question that I’ve always had on my mind but no one has ever answered (at least to my knowledge). Since God created all human beings, why did he choose a specific group to be their God? Why didn’t he reveal himself to all of creation as opposed to just Abraham and his descendants? I know that through Jesus, both Jew and Gentile are allowed to walk in fellowship with God, but what about the people in the Old Testament times who weren’t Jews? Is it because they followed other Gods and wouldn’t have obeyed the one true God even if it was revealed to them? Or is it another reason? I know this may sound like a dumb question, but it’s always been something that’s bothered me a little. Thank you for everything you all do and God Bless.
Thank you for your encouraging words. Your question isn’t a dumb question; it’s a very thoughtful one! Indeed, I think it requires us to explore redemptive history a bit to understand why people were in that boat, and why it wasn’t unfair of God to place them there.
God revealed himself to everyone
First, God did reveal Himself to everyone (Romans 1:19–20):
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
The problem is not that God failed to reveal Himself to everyone; the problem is that we all failed to respond appropriately to what God revealed:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21)
As such, God’s revelation to Abraham and his descendants was not needed to make people accountable for rejecting God. Rather, God’s revelation to Abraham and his offspring was needed to deal with the problem of human sin.
Moreover, God killed an animal to cover Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21), Cain and Abel already knew of the need for sacrifice (Genesis 4:3–4), and sacrifice for sin was everywhere in the ancient world. All of this means the ancients had a basic understanding of their need to deal with their sin before God. This knowledge was provided by God himself (Is God obscure and arbitrary in what He wants from us?).
Furthermore, Genesis 1–11 chronicles the repeated failures of humanity as a whole (Eve’s offspring, the serpent, and his offspring—Part 1). Indeed, the last major event recorded in Genesis 1–11, the Babel incident, shows that when fallen humanity works together it ends up insulting God rather than glorifying Him. And Noah was still alive when the Babel incident happened.1 Moreover, they all spoke the same language (Genesis 11:1). Why do these points matter? They show that Noah’s Flood and the reasons for it (God’s judgment on human sin) were well within living memory of the people who rebelled against God at Babel. In other words, this was humanity knowing about God, and yet rebelling against God, exactly as Genesis 11:3–4 portrays. The most practical way for God in this situation to get us to spread out as He intended in Genesis 1:28 (cf. Genesis 9:7, 11:9), and the simplest way to end collective apostasy, was to divide us.
Of course, dividing us came with its own problems. The biggest problem was the breakdown of communication between people that would make knowledge of God harder to maintain (though general revelation was still enough to make people accountable for rejecting God). Moreover, division and misunderstanding create enmity between people. Nonetheless, Genesis 11:6 shows that God knew the collective apostasy that would result from fallen humanity remaining united was worse than splitting us apart.
Abraham and Israel: God’s solution to sin and division
Into this situation God speaks to Abraham (Eve’s offspring, the serpent, and his offspring—Part 2). He makes promises, grows a nation, redeems His people from Egyptian oppression (a clear type of sin’s greater oppression over all of us), and personally becomes their king. Why? First, Genesis 12:3: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Second, Exodus 19:5–6:
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
And note the missionary purpose behind this, as in Deuteronomy 4:6–8:
Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
Israel was a demonstration project to the world divided by Babel of God’s faithfulness, grace, and justice, as well as the human response. Israel was called to be a beacon of light to a divided world. God saved them, became their personal king, gave them a good land. God was faithful to the promises he made to Abraham. He also promised them peace and blessing … if they would obey Him. And when they did repent, God gave them rest. He even gave them peace in times when as a nation they sort of followed Him. God was more gracious than He even agreed to be!
But Israel always ended up rejecting Him, just like everyone else. Israel was still a successful demonstration project of God’s justice, but the people themselves showed how we fail to respond appropriately. Israel showed that, in the end, humanity at large inevitably repays God’s good with evil. Thus, the Law became an indictment of all of us:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19–20)
Of course, Jesus is God’s ultimate answer to this whole mess (Eve’s offspring, the serpent, and his offspring—Part 3). Ephesians 2 captures this very well: verses 1–10 focus on how through Jesus God graciously reconciles us to Himself, and verses 11–22 focus on how Jesus heals the breach between people. God forgives our sin and gives us His Spirit to transform us from the inside, where the problem really lies. God’s overtures of grace and justice in the OT could not solve the problem; only sending the Son and the Spirit themselves could.
What about those outside of Israel?
But what does that mean for your question: ‘what about those outside Israel in the Old Testament?’ Well, aside from still being culpable because of general revelation, we can see that they were in fact heirs of a particular historical situation. They were cut off from greater access to knowledge about God because of repeated cycles of human sin. Moreover, at Babel humanity as a whole had historically proven themselves incapable of honouring God when they worked together. We had proven ourselves incapable of handling revelation as a unified race.
Moreover, the sort of revelation God was providing through Israel required time to manifest. Israel needed time to obey or disobey. God needed time to respond (not because God needs time, but because relating to humans takes time). Putting all this together to demonstrate a clear pattern of relationship between God and Israel also takes time. To truly appreciate the solution to our sin problem God would offer in Jesus, repeated cycles of human sin in response to God’s special provision show the depth of our problem more effectively than pretty much anything else. An inevitable byproduct of this in a post-Babel world was people with little or no access to special revelation in OT times.
But it’s not like God placed people outside of Israel in the OT randomly. God providentially orders when and where people live (Acts 17:26). No doubt God has good reasons for having placed those people in those situations (even though God hasn’t told us what those reasons are). And since God orders people’s circumstances non-randomly, we can’t presume that e.g. if 10% of people in OT Israel responded positively to God’s revelation, that a similar proportion of those who never heard it would’ve likewise responded positively. After all, assuming it’s even meaningful to talk in these sorts of ways, could not God have ordered history such that those who didn’t get access to more revelation were among those who wouldn’t have accepted it anyway?
God knows how to order history
God knew what He was doing in orchestrating the specific history of redemption that we see in the Bible. He provided general revelation so that people in every historical situation had enough access to knowledge about God to make us all accountable. However, He made us beings for whom history matters. He wants us to have the habit of knowing Him and serving Him. That requires the ability to form habits, which take time to learn and acclimate to. The ability to form habits requires a system that behaves regularly, so we can make regular choices and not be continually surprised by their effects. And if this is so for individual humans, how much more so for human society!
But creating a ‘historical’ system has consequences. We are conditioned by our history. We each fall into a different place in history. And that creates an unimaginably complex logistical problem: how can this all be ordered for God’s good, with perfect attention to all the details, when it’s all infected by sin almost from the start? (See Why would a loving God allow death and suffering? on why God would bother with sin at all.) That’s something only God could figure out.
We need to contextualize the ‘OT outsider’ in the broader context of the history of redemption to have some idea of why they were in the place they were. They were not completely cut off from God; but their access to special knowledge about God was hampered because of repeated cycles of human sin. Nonetheless, they were still sinners worthy of judgment, and their placement in that situation was not random.
When I am asked why God chose/isolated Israel and revealed Himself to them in a special, direct way, while at the same time using radical means to separate them from nearby nations and even eradicate idolatrous nations within the borders of their promised land – I often use the following example:
Leukemia is a deadly disease which is spread throughout the whole body via infected bone marrow. In general, the treatment used to save the patient from death is to extract and isolate immature stem-cells from the affected patient. These extracted stem-cells are nourished and given special treatment so they can develop to become healthy restoration cells for the bone marrow. After the stem cells are extracted and isolated, the rest of the body is bombarded with chemotherapy and radiation treatment to destroy the cancer affected bone-marrow, bringing the patient to the verge of death. The isolated bone marrow is then re-infused into the body to give the system a healthy restart.
Although this example falls short in certain details, in general it illustrates why God chose/isolated the children of Israel and dealt so radically with the surrounding nations. God isolated Israel in order to reveal Himself to them in a direct way, to isolate them from idolatry and to introduce through them the Savior - His sinless Son. After this purpose was fulfilled (Gal. 4:4,5) the time for isolation was completed and God then instructed the first disciples from the children Israel to now go into all the world to all nations, so the world may be saved.
God didn't isolate Israel because of personal favoritism, but as a means that the whole body of mankind could be saved/get a healthy restart. That was the promise to Abraham: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3)
Bill P., United States, 5 August 2017
If I may. I go back to Eden and man's sin. Adam sins against God, Their sin revealed their nakedness and they tried to hide their nakedness through their own efforts by sowing fig leaves to cover themselves, relying on their own efforts. The Lord showed them what was required to cover sin and performed the first ever sacrifice by the shedding of innocent blood, HE had ordained this even before creation. They had sons, Cain and Abel, and even though one was an older brother they were probably more identical than twins born today. No doubt Adam teaching both what God required in sacrifice in order to still have fellowship w/HIM. Both having free will to choose, and both born w/a sinful nature because of The Fall and as a result of The Fall the heart is evil. Abel believing God, offered the perfect sacrifice, while Cain tried to fellowship w/God relying on his own works rather than what The Lord ordained, and Cain's sacrifice was not accepted. Cain was bitter towards God and envious of his brother Abel, and we know he killed his brother. The sacrifice in The Garden a foreshadowing of Jesus on the Cross. As time passed Abraham chosen by God to start a nation, a nation that was little among nations because The Lord was going to make them great by HIS GLORY, and Power also blessing the nations through Abraham, Abraham being righteous in God's eyes because he believed God, just as Abel and Noah. Today since man's fall most men and nations w/hearts motivated by evil go the way of Cain, but Thanks be to God by His Grace many are going the way of Abel and believing God instead of man's traditions and man's ways. Didn't intend to preach a sermon, but I am in AWE of The Lord and what He has done so we can have fellowship w/HIM again and forever.
Gerrie M., South Africa, 5 August 2017
God’s manifest election of Israel as His special people did not come because they were more numerous and able to exert more influence in the known world in and of themselves. We learn from Deuteronomy 7:6-8 that they were described as the fewest of all the peoples.
For the answer we need only go back to the promise to Abraham, that all clans (or families) of the earth would be blessed through him and his descendants; his bloodline. To do so, it was necessary that the world should know God, and for this purpose the nation was chosen as a kingdom of priests, a kingdom of mediators between man and God. In their culture a priest was regarded as a mediator between them and God. Now they were chosen to fulfil the same role as a people (or nation) among the Gentile nations (Deut 28:9-10 & 1 Kgs 8:29, 43 & 60).
Vern R., United States, 5 August 2017
Excellent, excellent article. Thank you CMI.
Rick J., United States, 5 August 2017
This is a good article, but there is a more simple answer re: God "choosing Israel". God promised the solution to man's sin and the destruction of Satan would come through the "seed of woman" (Gen. 3:15). There was nothing special about Abraham--he was selected as the one from whom ultimately the Messiah would come. The story of Israel is the story of the preparation for the Messiah.
Shaun Doyle responds
True. The question arises, though: what about those outside Israel in OT times? This is what the article largely addresses.
Wesley B., United States, 5 August 2017
Not even a near answer - In the OT God chose to reveal Himself to Israel alone.
Ps 147:19-20 He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for His judgments, they have not known them.
Rom 9:14-16 What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion." So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy.
Rom 9:18 Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens.
But we dare not question God's sovereignty nor His purposes in make such determinations for God says to those who question Him.
Rom 9:19-21 You will say to me then, "Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?" But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, "Why have you made me like this?" Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?
We are not to question God but only reply, You are just and true in all Your ways.
Shaun Doyle responds
The Scriptures you quote are consistent with the answer I gave. Indeed, I said that we're not in a position to question God on these matters (which is consistent with the quotes from Romans 9). Moreover, the premise of the article assumes that God covenanted only with Israel in OT times (though the OT also gives us instances where God addresses the nations through His prophets). And I think it's clear that I didn't pretend my answer was exhaustive. I said: "That’s something only God could figure out."
The only problem I can see someone having with my response from the Scriptures you cite is that someone might read Psalm 147:19-20 as contradicting the missionary purpose of God's covenant with Israel in Deuteronomy 4:6-8. However, this would involve confusion on the meaning of the word "know" as used in Psalm 147. Obviously, the nations at that time did not know God and His judgments in the same way as Israel did. However, Psalm 147:19-20 should be read in a similar fashion to Matthew 7:23. In that verse, Jesus says He will say to false professors "I never knew you". That clearly doesn't mean that Jesus was ignorant of their existence, or that they were complete strangers to Him. Rather, it means that they have no covenantal part in Him. Likewise, the nations at the time the Psalmist wrote Psalm 147 had no covenantal experience with God and His ways. To "know" God (or to "be known" by God) in these instances is not merely to know of Him, but to be covenantally connected to Him.
This answer was given to help someone struggling with doubt. Answering these sorts of questions does not show that I'm questioning God. Rather, it's an exercise in helping someone come to grips with the fact that they can trust God on these matters despite not having an exhaustive response. It also shows that the Bible presents us with a coherent picture of God's history that can help us discern some (not all) of the reasons why He has ordered things the way He has.
After all, refusing to question God's sovereignty doesn't mean that we must refrain from offering suggestions for why God has ordered history the way He has. For instance, though Paul clearly acknowledges that chiding God on such matters is out of the question in Romans 9 (and is incoherent, for those who accept the OT, as Paul's Jewish objectors in Romans 9 did), he reasons his way from there to a positive explanation for some of God's providential decisions in Romans 11:32: "For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all." Paul is not against the use of (biblically constrained) reason in addressing questions of why God orders history; he is only against the misuse of reason to chide God and undermine His word.
Erin C., United States, 5 August 2017
It seems that the ancient Chinese knew of a God, ShangDi, that paralleled the Hebrew description of YHWH, and had a sacrificial system of bulls and sheep. The bull sacrifice for the sins of the nation, and the sheep sacrifice for personal sins. This would be post-flood, post-babel, but pre-Moses. This would constitute more than general revelation. God has been active in revealing Himself in ways and at times that are lost knowledge today. Nevertheless, the time would come for God to choose a man through whom the Messiah would come, and that man was Abram (Abraham), and then through a specific line of descendants, beginning with Isaac, then Jacob.
Lester V., United States, 5 August 2017
I would like to suggest one additional point to be considered where the choice of the Jews is concerned. In order for the Messiah to qualify as man's substitute, and pay the penalty for our sin, He had to be a human - a descendant of Adam (as has been noted in numerous articles), so He had to have a "family tree" (as documented in Luke and Matthew). That means God had to choose SOMEBODY to be Messiah's ancestor. Abraham qualified, because he obeyed God (as noted in this article), while other major people groups didn't. A second qualification the Messiah had to meet was that He had to be sinless. That meant that He had to be totally righteous according to God's law. That disqualified every people group except the Jews. They were the only ones who obeyed the FIRST commandment - not to worship anyone except the Creator God, although they didn't obey it consistently. There were always some Jews who sought God, even when the nation as a whole didn't, and they kept the "string" going. There are other commandments that God gave that Messiah would have to obey, including honoring and obeying your parents, for example. That would have ruled out the most orientals as ancestors for the Messiah, because they worship their ancestors, and for the Messiah to obey His parents would have caused Him to disobey the command to worship only God. The Jews were chosen to provide a spiritually "pure" blood-line for the Messiah to come from. The Jews didn't make the choice; God did. It should also be noted that the choice has proved painful for the Jews, since they are HVT's (High Value Targets) for Satanic attack in his war against God, and he has persecuted no other group as severely as he has the Jews.
Shaun Doyle responds
I don't know that any of those considerations were relevant. First, Abraham didn't just happen to qualify; God knew and planned that he would. Moreover, God could've easily preserved a faithful remnant in another lineage. Furthermore, there are no insurmountable temptations for a Messiah who couldn't have sinned (see Could Jesus sin?).
Indeed, it seems more likely to me God would use a context where the temptations the Messiah would face would be as hard as possible to overcome. Why? It proves just how morally powerful the Messiah truly is, especially since He wouldn't have pushed the 'God' button to overcome the temptations. And interestingly, we get a picture of Israel from the OT that, not only were they sinful, but they were often unusually sinful (Jeremiah 2:11, 2 Chronicles 33:9). Indeed, I suggested in the article that revelation was crucial to us understanding just how glorious and gracious Christ and our salvation in Him truly is.
Jared C., United States, 7 August 2017
Great article! But with a topic such as this, one could write multiple essays and not still not cover every detail to this question.
If I may add my thoughts, in this limited space, in response to Ashley's question of "Why... Abraham?" ---- My answer would be... "Because Jesus!" The purpose of the Old Testament was to preserve God's glory. It pointed to and prepare for the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it's ultimate fulfillment. Jesus was, from the beginning, to be born of Abraham's lineage, so it's not unreasonable to see God's glory being preserved within the culture into which Jesus would arrive.
As for, "What about the people in the Old Testament times who weren’t Jews?" Although what we have preserved in the OT comes from the Jewish people, God's blessing and salvation were not exclusive to Israel. Job and Melchizedek are two OT people who served God despite sharing no (known) lineage with Abraham. The OT is also full of foreign people and kings turning to and being blessed by the God of Israel... including Rahab, Ruth, Nebuchadnezzar, the city of Nineveh, etc... So it's not due to a lack of obedience in other people, but again to its purpose in Jesus.
Stephen C., United States, 7 August 2017
We can see from Melchizedek that there are examples of people outside of Abraham's line worshipping God. We can't say for certain that there were other non-Abrahamic priests or prophets after Abraham was chosen, but neither can we rule it out completely.
If there were, however, we must still conclude that if God's Word makes no notice of them, it's not something we NEED to know. It would certainly be interesting from a historic perspective, but their existence or non-existence has no impact on our theology.
Neal P., United States, 7 August 2017
I greatly appreciate your use of Scripture in your answers to peoples' questions! The WORD! As I read your article, I was looking for Gerri M's Scripture: Deut 7:6-8! I agree that this is the answer in its most rudimentary form: Why did God choose Israel? “The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples." This truth was applied to an indigenous people group in the jungles of Brazil. I became good friends with a Bible translator. In the course of our friendship, I felt comfortable to ask him how and why God would call him to translate the New Testament for a dying group of "only" fifty people? He took me to that Scripture in Deuteronomy! He saw the Momedeau (sp?) as the least of the tribes of the jungles of Brazil. And felt honored that God would choose him to give them God's Word in their own language. AND, in the process, his wife, a nurse, was able to help them in hygiene. It is now a thriving group that is growing in number and growing in the saving knowledge of God and experiencing that salvation! To God be all glory!
May we all take note that our work for the Lord, even among the least of the least, in His eyes, is vital.
On a further note: Gideon and Saul saw themselves, though from different tribes, as the least of their tribe. Their unfolding story suggests that that was a false humility, which in turn showed them to be very prideful men. Do we see the Children of Israel falling into periods of prideful rebellion against God? Hummm! Something to think about, personally and corporately, whatever our group might be!