After humanity fell into sin and had their mission frustrated, God resumed his mission by calling Abram and promising to bless all the nations of the earth through him. As the book of Genesis closes and the book of Exodus opens up, we see God beginning to fulfill this promise and organizing his mission through Abram’s descendents, the nation of Israel, who have relocated to Egypt because of famine.
The Call of Israel and the Creation Mission
When Israel was in Egypt, they experienced an initial fulfillment of the creation mission. As Exod 1:6-7 says,
“Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land (lit. ‘the earth’) was filled with them.”
Here we have a description of Gen 1:28 (“Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth…”) being fulfilled among God’s covenant people.
This initial fulfillment of the creation mission is what then led to the Egyptian slavery of Israel. The new king of Egypt says: “Come, let us deal shrewdly with them lest they multiply and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country” (Exod 1:10). The Egyptians want to stifle God’s people in their fulfillment of the creation mission.
However, the more Egypt oppressed Israel, the more they multiplied. As v. 12 says, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” The Egyptian oppression ends up having the opposite effect–rather than curtailing Israel’s growth, their oppression serves to catalyze it.
When Israel cried out in their oppression, God responded by remembering his mission. Exod 2:23-24 says,
“During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.”
God’s covenant with the patriarchs was to give them the land of Canaan and multiply their offspring like the stars in the sky (Gen 15), and through them to bless all the nations (Gen 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). As we’ve seen, this covenantal promise is a reassertion of the creation mission.
Therefore, Israel was freed from slavery in order to accomplish God’s mission. After God sends Moses to liberate Israel from slavery in Egypt, he brings them to Mt. Sinai. The narrative at Sinai begins with this address by God:
“You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, , 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”
In being a “kingdom of priests,” Israel was to serve as a mediating body between God and the nations. The reason for their priestly service is what is underlined above: all the earth belongs to God, and therefore he has called Israel to represent him to the nations. The way that Israel was to do this is what I’ve italicized: they were to obey him. We saw the critical role that obedience played in the call of Abram, and here this role is reiterated for Israel–by obeying God as King, Israel would model to the nations what it means to live under his lordship.
And again, as we noted last time, Israel’s obedience was not a matter of legalism or works righteousness but was to be an expression of their faith. The torah that God gave Israel at Sinai did not require perfection–in fact, it assumed failure (cf. Leviticus). What it required was a humble and repentant disposition that sought God’s forgiveness when failure came.
The Torah and Mission
Often times people mistakenly think of the commands of the Pentateuch as some sort of moralistic list of do’s and don’ts. However, when properly understood in the storyline of God’s mission, we see that the torah is really a playbook for mission.
First, Israel’s obedience to the torah would lead to fulfillment of the creation mission. This is expressed most clearly in Lev 26:3, 9:
“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands… I will look on you with favor and make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will keep my covenant with you.”
Here we see an explicit allusion to the creation mandate of Gen 1:28 that is a direct result of the people expressing their faith by obeying God’s commands.
Second, Israel’s obedience to the torah would serve as a witness to the nations. In Deut 4:5-8 Moses says,
“See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. , who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?”
This was a primary way that Israel could serve as a kingdom of priests–show forth to the nations the greatness and wisdom of God by obeying his kingly word.
Third, if Israel failed to obey, they would be destroyed and therefore not fulfill the mission. This is expressed in a variety of places, including Deut 8:19-20.
The Conquest of Canaan and the Creation Mission
In addition to Israel’s call reflecting several aspects of the creation mission, various connections also exist between their commission to conquer Canaan and the creation mission.
First, parallels between Eden and Canaan connect the conquest to the creation mission. Both Eden and Canaan are said to be places of “rest.” God gave Adam rest in the Garden (“The LORD God took the man and caused him to rest (Heb. nuach) in the Garden of Eden” [Gen 2:15]), and God will give Israel rest in Canaan (“[Y]ou have not yet reached the resting place (Heb. menuchah) and the inheritance the LORD your God is giving you” [Deut 12:9]). In various places Canaan is also compared to the Garden of Eden. For example, Isa 51:3 says,
“The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD” (cf. Ezek 36:35; Joel 2:3).
Second, the charge for Adam to ‘subdue’ parallels Israel’s charge to ‘conquer.’ In the creation mission, Adam was to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue (Heb. kabash) it” (Gen 1:28). The only other way the verb kabash is used in the Pentateuch is to describe Israel’s conquest of Canaan. When speaking to the tribes who received their land allotments east of the Jordan, Moses commanded that they must cross the Jordan with the rest of Israel and help in conquering Canaan. He said, “When the land is subdued (Heb. kabash) before the LORD, you may return and be free from your obligation to the LORD and to Israel” (cf. 32:29; Josh 18:1). This explicitly connects the conquest with creation-missional activity.
In short, just as Eden was the staging ground for Adam to engage in mission, so was Canaan the staging ground for Israel to do so. Both were to be subdued as part of the process of God’s people being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth.
If Israel would obey God’s word, he would give them victory in battle (e.g., Deut 28:1-2, 7), which applied especially to the conquest of Canaan. In Josh 1:6-9, the Israelite army is thrice told to “be strong and courageous” (vv. 6, 7, 9). However, the middle section (vv. 7-8) has extensive instructions on the importance of holding fast to the torah when engaging the enemy. In short, Israel’s success in “subduing” the land was contingent not upon their military tactical capability but on their faith in God as expressed through their adherence to his word.
God’s people rightly engage in mission, representing him to the scattered nations of the world, not by their own ability or ingenuity, but by holding fast to his word and expressing their faith by their repentant obedience. However, as we’ll see next time, Israel failed to live with this repentant disposition and therefore did not succeed in the mission God gave to them.