A week ago today, Paul, an elder at Impact Church of Christ–a diverse inner-city church in Houston that I started attending a few months ago–walked up to me after church and said, “You have things to say. I want you to teach class for the next four weeks.” Cornered by the lack of choice and flattered by the upfront consideration, I unhesitatingly conceded.
But also, being me, I decided to supplement my lessons with blog posts. I have always felt like I am better at writing than I am at speaking, and I had been wanting to cover this topic anyway, so it just seemed to make sense to me.
As I told the class (most of whom are close to my age–in college and/or in their twenties) this morning, today’s lesson was going to be taking a drastically brief view of the Old Testament. Not just a bird’s-eye view, but rather more like an astronaut’s-eye view. I will be acknowledging, but glossing over, some important elements of the more well-known events and ideas of the Old Testament in order to make space for some of the lesser-known events and ideas. In other words, lack of coverage does not necessarily equate to lack of relevance. But at the same time, I hope to be writing this in such a way that anyone can read and understand this regardless of their knowledge of the Bible.
So now, without any further ado: Part I of my Four Part series on the Kingdom of God, “The Rift from Eden,” or the Kingdom of God as seen in the Old Testament.
* * *
Let us start at the beginning, though we shan’t stay there long.
Plenty can be said about Eden, and plenty is understood about Eden, even if most of it is misunderstood. But I don’t want to change your view of it–whether it’s a painting or a parody, a truth or a myth, or something in between–I just want you to see it for what it is to all of us right now: a far-off utopia-like paradise. An idea. A bliss that, at the moment, is too ridiculous to think about realistically.
In Eden, we see the closest our world has ever gotten to Perfection. Vulnerability. Authenticity. Life in its truest fulfillment.
My Old Testament professor at ACU described four core relationships that take place in Eden:
- Individual with God
- Individual with self
- Individual with others
- Individual with earth
Even before then, “the heavens and the earth” are created by some sort of plural Being… One who’s described as an individual but whose self-referential pronouns are words like “us” and “our” (Genesis 1:26).
In Eden, for the most part, all is “right” with the world. But then things plummet into something unimaginable: reality. These core relationships that had been so essential to a quality life in Eden have all taken a turn for the worse, and history now has a plot.
Fast forward a few centuries, and at least one party has decided not to give up on mending these relationships. In Genesis 12 and 15, God uses Abra[ha]m to start a nation that was meant to help bring the world back to God. This nation, which would soon be known as Israel, comes to encounter national secession together, slavery together, homelessness together, failed theocratic monarchy together, and exile together.
All the while, we see attempts to mend the four core relationships.
Laws are established in Israel’s toddler years to help hold the nation accountable. In Leviticus 19, we see a glimpse of laws that aim work into all four relationships:
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy… Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the Lord your God.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and alien: I am the Lord your God.
You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another… I am the Lord….
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Additionally, a bit later on in chapter 25, God establishes a law–a law–created for cancelling all debts and loosing the burdens created by human shortcomings.
Throughout the Old Testament, we see God time and again reaching out to the people of Israel.
As for Israel, though, at their high points, we can say that, at least, they tried? Maybe? As for the particulars such as where and when, I’ll let you know when I find something.
But at their low points, and even their regular points, the rift between Israel and Eden cannot be more thick. Where God is in relentless pursuit of their hearts, Israel is turning to the idols of ego and self-service. As Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam displays so poignantly, one party is reaching, ever reaching for a deeper connection, while the other gives up even right on the brink of Authentic, Vulnerable, Perfection.
You my have noticed that nothing I have yet discussed actually uses the term “The Kingdom of God.” If we’re being honest, there is a sense of anachronism here, as the kingdom of God isn’t really brought up until the ministry of Jesus (spoiler alert for next week). But as I will argue throughout these four posts, hindsight helps us see that which was made so explicit all those millennia ago.
God desires Eden. God desires a relationship with us that puts Adam and Eve to shame. God desires that we strive for a world in which everyone is treated as though they were truly made in the image of God.
But as the Old Testament shows us time and time again, humanity is utterly broken. Humanity constantly fails at seeing the humanity in others, at seeing the beauty of the earth, at rejoicing in the glory of God. Israel is defined in these books by their idolatry and, even more explicit, their adultery against God (read: Hosea). While Israel has always seen the love that God has shown them, they failed to show it back. They failed to love God and love their neighbors. And so evil prevailed because they did not allow love to break through.
Thus is the tragedy of the story of Israel, of the story of humanity. We were loved by the One who created us, yet we refused to love anywhere past our own selves. As it was with Israel, so it is with us.
And yet, even in the midst of Israel’s darkest hour, a sign of hope breaks through. The Day of the Lord, in which peace and justice reign, is about to cause a rift even deeper than the one between God and humanity: one that separates us from all of our flaws. The prophet Isaiah writes,
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
[the father of King David],
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…
[On that day,]
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them…
They will not hurt or destroy,
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.”
Despite all the ways in which Israel failed, all the times in which Israel turned away, God did not stop pursuing them.
The catch, however, is that it is not up to God alone to bring justice in the world. Yes, it is, ultimately, God who brings peace and justice to earth. But we are God’s instruments. We are the conduits. We are God’s tools. It is through our work that we can be brought closer to God, closer to each other, closer to ourselves, and closer to Eden.
My friends, may we allow Eden to be our goal. May we see the love God has for us, and may this love push us to love, as well.
Thank you for reading. Until next week.