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Martyr’s Manual: The Brilliant, Tragic, and Inspiring Message of Hebrews

Martyr’s Manual: The Brilliant, Tragic, and Inspiring Message of Hebrews

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Martyr’s Manual: The Brilliant, Tragic, and Inspiring Message of Hebrews

610 pages
10 heures
May 28, 2019


"Faith" gets its most powerful definition from the New Testament book of Hebrews. Yet this anonymous treatise tantalizes with both its lack of contemporary precision about faith's definition and its shrouded original context. There are, however, sufficient clues in Hebrew's text to guide astute investigators toward a strange and yet familiar world of religious challenge in which the deeply significant rituals of ancient Israel, the attractive moral character of first-century Jews in Rome, a crowd of disaffected righteous Romans, and a purported Palestinian messiah converge to produce one of the world's most thoughtful, courageous, and brilliant calls to martyrdom. In this careful pilgrimage along the author's meticulous development of a holy challenge to remain faithful to Jesus (precisely because there are no meaningful alternatives), Brouwer helps us find an inspiring and ever-relevant call to faith--we become the persons we are through the daily choices we make about Jesus and others.
May 28, 2019

À propos de l'auteur

Wayne Brouwer is Associate Professor of Religion at Hope College and Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology at Western Theological Seminary, both in Holland, Michigan. He is the author of Covenant Documents: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (2015) and numerous other books and articles.

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Martyr’s Manual - Wayne Brouwer


The Brilliant, Tragic, and Inspiring Message of Hebrews

Wayne Brouwer


The Brilliant, Tragic, and Inspiring Message of Hebrews

Copyright © 2019 Wayne Brouwer. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical publications or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher. Write: Permissions, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 199 W. 8th Ave., Suite 3, Eugene, OR 97401.

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paperback isbn: 978-1-5326-8198-1

hardcover isbn: 978-1-5326-8199-8

ebook isbn: 978-1-5326-8200-1

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June 11, 2019

Table of Contents

Title Page



Chapter 1: A New Voice

Chapter 2: Better Than Angels

Chapter 3: This Is Important

Chapter 4: Getting into Our Skin

Chapter 5: Better Than Moses

Chapter 6: Back to School

Chapter 7: Sabbath Rest

Chapter 8: New Age Cosmology

Chapter 9: Coach’s Challenge

Chapter 10: Where the Story Begins

Chapter 11: Melchizedek

Chapter 12: Splitting the Day of the Lord

Chapter 13: Atonement Day Revisited

Chapter 14: A Tale of Two Covenants

Chapter 15: Let’s Keep Going

Chapter 16: The Grace of Reproof

Chapter 17: In Good Company

Chapter 18: Mountain Standard Time

Chapter 19: Becoming Our Best Selves

Chapter 20: Who Are These People?



To Ross Hoekstra, Brandon Huston, Steve Mann, Mark Rich, Marcy Rudins, Karen Vande Bunte, Adam Van Der Stoep, and Steve Zeoli, who shared this journey of investigation and camaraderie with me.


(from martur)

A Greek word that for centuries simply meant witness.

A Greek word that changed meaning because of Jesus’ people.

A Greek word that came to mean one who is persecuted, probably to the death, because of her or his steadfast witness about Jesus.



Write this in your Bibles . . .

I couldn’t believe it. Sacrilege. Desecration. Write in our Holy Bibles?

And I respected the man. I didn’t like him, but I respected him. He was my sixth-grade teacher, the first man I had endured at the head of the classroom. A stern man, a disciplinarian. We were used to nice teachers, women teachers who looked and sounded like our moms. Sure, they put us in our places at times, but they were kind. Mr. Lobbes was imposing: chiseled features, black suits every day, thin black ties. He was one of the first Men in Black I knew, long before I ever went to my first movie.

Find Hebrews 11 in your Bibles.

We shuffled and paged, looking to the ones who actually knew where to find things in their Bibles. We pretended familiarity with the sacred tomes, their fake-leather, dimpled covers and red-edged tissue leaves. Eventually we all were there, open Bibles on our school desks.

Heroes of Faith

Now, take your pens and write ‘Heroes of Faith’ at the top of the page.

I hesitated. Would God really want me to do this? Would my minister approve? More important, what would my parents say?

But he was our teacher. Our stern, Christian school teacher. Our first male, authoritarian teacher.

So I wrote the words. Heroes of Faith. My 12-year-old scrawl is still there.

In the old King James language, with the voice of a prophet, he began to read:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

For by it the elders obtained a good report.

Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.

By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh.

By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.

But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.

By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.

By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise:

For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.

Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.

And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.

But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,

Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:

Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.

By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.

By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents, because they saw he was a proper child; and they were not afraid of the king’s commandment.

By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter;

Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season;

Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward.

By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.

Through faith he kept the passover, and the sprinkling of blood, lest he that destroyed the firstborn should touch them.

By faith they passed through the Red sea as by dry land: which the Egyptians assaying to do were drowned.

By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about seven days.

By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.

And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:

Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions.

Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.

Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:

And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:

They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;

(Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:

God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.

We were mesmerized. In an age before fantasy superheroes had taken to the big screen, here were snippets of stories that boiled our blood and intrigued our imaginations. Here were reminders of men and women of courage who lived for much and died for more. I was into this. I had to read Hebrews.

From Disappointment to Intrigue to Terrifying Exhilaration

So I did. But it was tough sledding. There were some nice turns of phrase at the beginning and a few intriguing asides, yet they were dominated mostly by incomprehensible quotes and syllogistic theology. The end didn’t seem to justify the means. The book of Hebrews became mostly a foreigner to me, an alien living within my Bible but not part of my canon within the canon. Luke I loved, Paul I pilfered, John I juiced, Peter I plied, but Hebrews I hesitated.

The slumbering lasted for decades. A few lines from Hebrews 11 could stir my faith, yet the book as a whole remained off-putting. Until the summer of 2004, that is, when an editor of a scholarly journal sent Kenneth Schenck’s Understanding the Book of Hebrews: The Story Behind the Sermon¹ for me to review. Duty transitioned to desire as I read Schenck’s words, and then re-opened Hebrews. The old passions were ignited, this time for the whole book, the complete story, the entire journey. Schenck helped me understand the context, the drama, the crisis behind this seemingly tame tome, and I was hooked. When I wrote my own introduction to the Bible,² the chapter on Hebrews burned both the keyboard and the pages. Recently, a student told me she altered her career trajectory during the single hour I spoke about Hebrews in class. I’ll never forget it, she said. It changed my life.

I hope this book gets to you too. Hebrews, I mean.

Wayne Brouwer

1. Schenck, Understanding the Book.

2. Brouwer, Covenant Documents.


Hebrews is a different kind of writing. They are all unique, of course, every one of the sixty-six books of the Bible, like children in a family. But among the limited genres of New Testament literature, Hebrews stands out. It is not a letter, like that of Paul or John or Peter, since it has no salutations, no personal references until the very end, and the author does not introduce her/himself. It is not a Gospel, for though the person of Jesus pops up on every page, his life and teachings are nowhere to be found. It is not a history book, even though it specializes in history lessons, reviewing events both recent and remote. At times, it almost feels like an apocalypse, but only until Revelation puts that theory to rest.

Many call it a sermon. Some declare it to be a treatise. Others simply announce it as a teaching.

While it slides between the cracks of our literary categories, there is still very much that we can say about Hebrews and the world into which it draws us:

• It assumes that:

◆ its hearers are deeply and profoundly and practicing Jews.

◆ the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) matter deeply and have foundational authority.

◆ God is moving history along from creation to Abraham, to Moses and the Sinai covenant, to Israel, to the prophets, to Jesus, to now. And the story is not finished. A climactic, culminating, cataclysmic conclusion is just two pages ahead on the calendar.

◆ pain and persecution are ramping up rapidly, and targeted on these readers.

• It quotes:

◆ Scripture (the Old Testament) forty times, nearly always from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), and often with unique variations. Not only that, but it alludes to other Scripture passages another fifty times or so.

◆ Psalms, most of all among the Old Testament writings.

• It constantly interweaves:

◆ exposition (explaining the meaning of Scripture passages): 1:1–14; 2:5–8; 3:2–6; 3:14–19; 4:2–10; 5:1–10; 6:13–15; 7:1–22; 8:3–9:10; 9:16–22; 10:1–18; 11.

◆ exhortation (applying meanings and values to life situations): 2:1–4; 3:1; 3:7–13; 4:1; 4:11–16; 5:11–6:12; 6:16–20; 7:23–8:2; 9:11–15; 9:23–28; 10:19–39; 12–13.

• It remembers:

◆ events from a few years back in the experiences of this particular community.

◆ the history of Israel.

◆ the big names among the leaders of God’s people.

◆ the nuances of context that shape specific Scripture references.

• It motivates through:

◆ teaching.

◆ argument.

◆ embarrassment.

◆ intimidation.

◆ inspiration.

◆ encouragement.

◆ analogy.

Most of all, Hebrews is a finely-tuned rhetorical piece that never gets boring. It shifts gears constantly to slow down considerations, focus temporarily on key figures, ratchet up engagement challenges, accelerate illustrations, stop in wonder at big image visions, and beat out in tempo lists of ethical behaviors. In a word, it is brilliant.

But the brilliance of Hebrews sidetracks those who become enamored by it, for Hebrews was written in a crisis that does not allow for meandering strolls by literary critics. It is not Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with the pacing of a musical moment paused by each scene artistically presented in expansive isolation down the corridors of a museum gallery. Hebrews is urgent. Hebrews is demanding. Hebrews requires response, without dalliance. And there is no margin: do or die. Listen or lose. Get with it or get lost. As we make our way through Hebrews, each chapter of this book has four sections:

• The Text—The New Revised Standard Version of each successive unit from the book of Hebrews, provided without internal chapter or verse references so that the text will read somewhat in the manner it was first intended. Old Testament quotations will be identified in footnotes.

• The Backstory—A more theological investigation of the terms and ideas within that section of the text.

• Where Have We Come So Far?—A running summary of the message of Hebrews through this point in our study.

• The Message—A broader reflection on the key themes as they continue to impact us today.

The reason for this structure is rooted within Hebrews itself. The entire text of the treatise is an interweaving of exposition (The Backstory) and exhortation (The Message). So we will follow the author’s lead, and engage his message in the manner he himself intended.¹

The purpose of studying Hebrews in this way is to keep the text central, while always remembering the flow of the writer’s intentions and message, and then to reflect on the text both deeply (to ensure that we are not reading our own wishes into it) and broadly (to assist us in making contemporary connections). Sometimes in our Bible studies we only discuss the last of these and forget that if we do not keep the others in mind, we will only find what we are looking for and not necessarily what God, through this author, wished for us to know or be challenged by.



I refer to the author of Hebrews in masculine pronouns, based on the masculine self-reference of the writer in Hebrews




What more shall I say?

Chapter 1

A New Voice

The Text: Hebrews 1:1–4

God Has Spoken by His Son

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high, having become much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.²

The Backstory: God Speaks

A young girl was furiously jamming crayons to her paper, energetically making line and swirls. She grabbed for new colors with only brief seconds of reflection, and filled the sheet with hues and shades.

What are you drawing? asked her mom.

I’m making a picture of God, she said proudly.

But nobody knows what God looks like, her mom replied gently.

They will when I’m done, came the emphatic reply.

Mysterious God

We don’t know what God looks like. We don’t know how the spiritual essence of God exists, moves, or flows around us. We are less than microbes over against what we understand to be God’s immense greatness.

The difference between God and us is so profound that it sometimes makes us question whether there actually is a God: maybe a divine figure of some kind is only a wish or a hope or a projection of our own insecurities. Someone has imagined us like a colony of mice living in the bottom of a huge, old upright piano. The place is dry and strong and safe, and we huddle together for warmth after our forays for food and nest linings.

Now and again we are startled and soothed by music that flows through our world. Sometimes it hammers us with staccato rhythms. Sometimes it causes our hearts to race with majestic passion. Sometimes it lulls us into romance and rest. But whatever the music is, we do not cause it, even though it is part of our world.

Sometimes a brave young mouse among us sneaks and crawls and climbs the dusty passageways that extend over our world. Now and again reports come back to us of complex mechanical systems that shape our home—wires and hammers and gears and levers. When the music comes, these things whirl to life and jump around with a frenzy that makes the melodies to which we have grown accustomed. While we would like to know how these things happen, we cannot find answers. We believe these are part of the mystery that shelters us. We think, in fact, that the music is somehow the voice of the Creator calling out to us. More than that, we cannot say.

One time a fearless explorer among us traced a path further than any previous mouse had gone. We were sure we would never see him again. So when he did return, we gathered around him while he caught his breath and told us of his journey of discovery.

He had actually seen the Creator, he said with wild excitement. The Creator was really nothing more than a big mouse, banging on a part of our world where smooth white rocks formed a pavement. Somehow the music and the strokes of the Creator went together.

Many thought that the mystery had been solved by this brave young scientist. Perhaps there really was no creator. Perhaps we were just smaller versions of another branch of our species too big to fit into our snug corner. Perhaps the music was not a conundrum any longer, but merely the mechanical rattling of familiar things.

Mysterious Selves

And so, we continue on here, in our little world, listening to the music that comes and goes. Some of us still think it is the voice of our Creator, singing to us of love, of warning, or of passion. Others among us hear only the pounding of hammers and the vibration of strings, and tell us with dispassionate scientific certainty that there is no Creator. We and other beings not that different from us, they say, are masters of our own fate, propagating ourselves in a world we need to make and remake.

How will we know? Is there a truth larger than our experiences? If there is a Creator, will such a being actually be able to connect with us?

The story has its limits, of course. But it does remind us of the problem of our finiteness in a world that seeks and worships the infinity of a great Creator God. While our quests for God have rarely fully satisfied us, and certainly have not produced complete agreement about a common religious knowledge among our human race, the Bible keeps pulling us with a great spiritual attraction.

If the connection between us and God cannot be fully linked from our side of the equation, what might God do to enter our arena? How might God speak or make music so that we can hear the divine voice?

Different Ears

A husband and wife went to a marriage counselor because they were always tied up in arguments. The first session went badly because the two of them were constantly throwing accusations against one another, so the therapist said that at the beginning of their next appointment he would first see the wife for fifteen minutes, and then the husband, and then they would spend the rest of the time together reflecting on the dynamics of their relationship.

After the wife expressed her disappointment in her husband, she said to the counselor, It’s all his fault. Moved by her passionate descriptions of their marriage, the therapist nodded in agreement. You’re probably right, he said.

Of course, the husband had a different version of life in their home. By the time his fifteen minutes ended he had reached fever pitch as well. It’s all her fault, he cried. And again, the love doctor was swayed: You’re probably right.

Gathering both into his office for their final reflections, the counselor began by saying, I’ve come to the conclusion that each of you is right about the other.

Startled and amazed, the husband sputtered back, But that can’t be. We can’t both be right.

To which the therapist thoughtfully nodded and said, You know, you’re right.

We Hear with Our Hearts

We live in a pluralized world where all opinions seem valid, and the only perspective about which we are intolerant is intolerance itself. So, when we compare our views of reality, few of us dare to back all the way into the ultimate questions of origins and worldviews.

Yet it is impossible to read the Bible without admitting that it has a definite opinion about these things. Atheism is not an option from the biblical point of view, nor are several other ideas about values and gods in our world.

There are really only several major worldviews behind all of the smaller philosophies we hold to within the human race. It is important to reflect on these up front, as we think about the Bible and its message.

Scientific Naturalism

First, there are Naturalistic Closed System perspectives. For these, our world is self-contained, with no external source of information available to us, no God or gods, and no revelation other than that which we discover from the nuanced clues imbedded in the matter and energy that swirl around us.

Human life, from this viewpoint, is at best accidental. We have no more meaning than any other object or substance on our planet. Were chemicals to have been combined in other ways and acted upon by differing forces or energies there might not be any human race whatsoever, or there may well have developed a species or several which differed wildly from what we have become familiar with as we look in the mirror.

Living Universe

A second major grouping of worldviews, which we might call Intelligent Closed System perspectives, starts at the same reference point—a closed system environment where what we see is what we get. There is no godlike spirit hovering outside and above and beyond the universe accessible to us. But unlike the undirected randomness found in the previous worldview collection, this perspective believes that life itself, probably combined with time, forms the intelligence that drives the system.

So it is, from this collective worldview family, that life and time are understood together to be the intelligence which shapes the universal system. These are the creative edge that shape existence in a closed system. From this perspective, human life is meaningful insofar as it plays out its role and obeys its designed purposes—aligning with activities that sustain life and refraining from any nonsense that would pretend to circumvent time. We have no eternally transcendent purpose or existence, but while we are here we need to fit with our environment and promote life in all forms rather than destroy it.

Creator and Creatures in Conversation

We recognize these worldview perspectives around us. They are in competition with one other worldview collection, the one often simply known as religious, and might be labeled as Creator/creature open system. This third worldview group believes that there is a Creator God who exists outside and before the system of reality in which we are housed, and that this God shaped the system so that it has inherent meaning and purpose. Existence is planned and intended by God. Human life is honored as a unique facet of created reality, formed to occupy a place of primary influence in the world as we know it, and reflecting attributes of the character of the Creator. Moreover, human life has been compromised in some way, and this accounts for the tragic and senseless elements of our daily walk. Furthermore, the Creator did not and does not abandon this world system to chance or fate, but invests in the renewal and redemption of all things: human life and also the other dimensions of reality. Within this worldview the Bible is one dimension of the divine-human redemptive link, ensuring that whoever God is will not be forgotten among us, and that whatever God is doing will not be lost in the hectic shuffle of human social shifts.

We must acknowledge these worldviews as we enter a study of the Bible. We cannot prove one worldview over against another. Nor can we force someone to shift from the paradigm of one perspective to that of another. But we cannot talk with meaning about the Bible without at some points admitting our philosophic stance. One may not say that Jesus is Savior or Redeemer and at the same time announce that the Bible is merely the product of human reflections about the problem of evil. In this case, not everybody can be right.

If There Is a God, What Is God Saying?

When I was a radio announcer during my college days our station began a late-night contemporary Christian music program, one of the first in the nation. We talked about the format for a while and discussed the content. And, of course, we debated what to call the show.

An early suggestion was The Solid Rock Hour. Though the double entendre in that title was marvelous (rock for the style of some of the music, and solid rock as a picture of Jesus Christ), the name itself didn’t ring with any contemporary feel. Our final choice was ILLUMINATION, and both the name and the program became a major hit.

Illumination speaks of darkness and shadows while at the same time pointing to the growing clarity produced by light and insight. There is a lot of spirituality contained in thoughts of illumination.

It certainly expresses well the God-talk of the Bible: darkness and chaos lurk until God speaks light and life; the psalmist wanders through the valley of the shadow of death with the testimony The Lord is my Light and my salvation on his lips; Jesus appears as the Light of God entering a dark world; and when he hangs on the cross, darkness steals the light away and the shades of Hades appear to take over for a time—yet, on Easter morning, resurrection comes with the dawn. For these reasons and more, John says that God is Light, and Paul tells us to live as Children of the Light.

The Dawn of Understanding

C. S. Lewis captured the tension of light and darkness in spiritual combat in his space trilogy about Venus. The planet Mars, in his tale, is populated by an ancient race of God’s creatures who never gave in to the lure of evil, and remain holy and just. Earth, as we know, has fallen under the domain of the dark shadows, and the great Creator has posted warning signs around it in space. It is off limits to other races, quarantined until the end of time.

Venus, though, is a freshly birthed planet with a more recent Paradise story of creaturely development. A newly formed pair similar to Earth’s Adam and Eve dance about in innocent delight.

The evil power in the universe will not allow a divine masterpiece to go long unmarred, however, and he sends a vicious Earth scientist named Weston to introduce sin on Venus by corrupting its Lord and Lady. In a countermove, the great Creator sends an ambassador of his own to Venus. The universe holds its breath as the future of this bright world hangs in the balance.

In these novels Lewis pictured the tension in every human heart. Like Adam and Eve at Earth’s creation, and like the Lord and Lady of Venus, we are surrounded by dark powers, yet long for the light of redemption and love. Most of our lives we struggle to see more clearly.

Still, life gets lost for us, often, in the shadows. But grace breaks through, now and again, in moments of insight and illumination, and those are the moments we have to hang on to. That is why John 3:16 has become one of the most widely known verses of the Bible. It summarizes the scriptural message as that of God looking for us in love.

Like a mother who brings a child into this world, God is protective of the lives birthed on planet Earth. When sin stains and decadence destroys, God’s first thought is to rescue and redeem and recover the children God so dearly loves.

Prophetic Anticipations

This is a theme repeated throughout the Bible. If God is saying anything through its pages, at least this much is clear: it is the whisper of divine love. The writer of Hebrews knows this, and points to the words of the prophets as a reminder.

Israel’s prophets often appear, at first glance, to be strange creatures. A number of them harangue with incessant tirades (e.g., Amos), making us uncomfortable to spend too much time with such grumpy old men. Some are constant political gadflies (e.g., Jeremiah), always taking positions opposite of those in power. Others veer off into strange visions that are worlds removed from our everyday life (e.g., Zechariah), chafing readers with their oddness. There are even a few who have very compromised personal lives (e.g., Hosea), leading us to suspect more than a little psychologizing in their soap opera-ish theology.

Still, there is an inherent consistency of message and focus among all of these diverse religious ruminations and rantings. First of all, the prophetic sermons are invariably rooted in the web of relationships created by the Sinai covenant. Israel belongs to Yahweh, and her lifestyle must be shaped by the stipulations of that suzerain-vassal treaty. Obedience to Yahweh triggers the blessings of the Sinai covenant, while disobedience is the first reason for Israel’s experiences of its curses: drought, war, famine, enemy occupation, destruction of cities and fields, deportation, etc. For this reason, the prophetic writings are laced with moral diatribes that carry a strong emphasis on social ethics.

This is not to say that Israel was held to a different behavioral standard than would otherwise be expected among the nations of the earth. Rather, through Israel’s lifestyle there was supposed to flow a witness toward its neighbors, revealing the unique splendor of her God. By looking at the people of Yahweh, living in Canaan, other tribes and nations were to gain a sense of the true character of life when it was experienced in harmony with the forgotten Creator of all. As such, the public actions of Israel were crucial to its covenant existence. Both Isaiah and Micah succinctly summarized it in this way:

In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths. The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord (Isaiah





; nearly identical is Micah






Political Policy

Second, the function and message of prophecy were very political. Since Yahweh alone was Israel’s sovereign, for the nation to come under the domination of other political powers was always seen as a divine scourge which resulted from the application of the covenant curses due to Israel’s disobedience. How Israel handled its international relations showed plainly whether she trusted Yahweh, or if she had otherwise become enamored with power and politics rooted in lesser gods. Constantly, the prophets asked whether Israel was Yahweh’s witnessing people, or if she was merely another nation with no particular mission or divine purpose. Israel’s self-understanding was thus always very religious and, at the same time, invariably political.

It is in this light that the typical prophetic litany against the nations surrounding Israel must be read. These other social and political entities were assessed for public moral behavior by Yahweh alongside Israel because Yahweh was the Creator of all, and continued to be Lord of the nations. All countries are chided for their own internal social sins, as well as for their inappropriate aggressions toward one another, including—and especially for—their treatment of Israel. While they may be used by Yahweh as a temporary tool of chastisement, punishing Israel according to the covenant curses, they might never presume

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