Tuesday, August 17, 2010

John 3 (part 2): Racism, Salvation, and the Hebrew Bible

Nicodemus couldn't picture Jews needing to be reborn because of a pervasive prejudice in the culture of the time against gentiles. Rather than being the source of this prejudice, the Hebrew Bible is full of stories where God's salvation can't be contained by the racism of his own people.

One such story is the story of Jonah.

From beginning to end, the story of Jonah is a critique of prejudice, Jonah's prejudice. Jonah couldn't stand the thought of Nineveh, the capital city of the brutal, pagan, Assyrian empire being forgiven by God. It would be like an American missionary going to Berlin during WWII. Would we have preached forgiveness or judgment to Berlin? Jonah's prejudice against these gentiles is so strong that he runs in the opposite direction. Ironically, even his disobedience causes pagan sailors to call on God. Once in Nineveh, he gets mad that judgment doesn't fall on the city because of their repentance. God's question to Jonah is God's question to every racist, "do you have any right to be angry?"

My favorite story though is the double feature of Rehab and Achan. Rehab, a pagan and a prostitute, believes and helps the spies of Israel. When the city walls fall, her house alone was spared. Meanwhile, a soldier of Israelnamed Achan, coveted and stole gold from Jericho that should have gone to God's temple. None of Israel's battles could be won until they singled this man out and put him to death. These two stories are purposefully put back to back to make a point. Rehab became a piece of Israel within Jericho and Achan became a piece of Jericho within Israel. God did not respect national boundaries in matters of loyalty and faith, nor does he do so today.

Similarly, Caleb the spy, Uriah the Hittite, and Ruth the Moabite are all gentiles full of faith and favored by God.

So, why did Jews of Jesus day believe gentiles were damned if it's not from scripture? The reason is severe persecution. The Jews were almost extinguished a little more than a century before Jesus, which was predicted by Daniel. Under the Seleucid empire (immediately before Rome) all visible signs of Judaism were outlawed.The Torah was burned, circumcision banned, the temple desecrated. In survival and retaliation the Jews became fixated on the things which made them distinct: kosher, Sabbath, circumcision. They developed a hatred for all things secular and Hellenistic. It was a culture war that used swords instead of words.

Christians must rise above the insinuations of the culture wars of our time. If not, the casualty will be the gospel itself.

Tune in tomorrow to find out what the best translation of John 3:16 is.

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