If Reza Aslan is right and the highest aspirations of the Jewish people of the first century were fully
fulfilled in xenophobia, then how were the conditions of this psalm ever
to be met? "All the earth" is to worship the Lord; there is nothing
plainer in the scripture. This is no innovation of Paul's. "No corner of
the world is to be discordant, no race of heathen to be dumb. All the
earth Jehovah made, and all the earth must sing to him." (Charles
Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Psalm 96, Kindle location 51097)
In the Belly of the Fish
The Old Testament book of Jonah tells the story of a Hebrew prophet
sent by God to preach repentance to the Ninevites, a pagan, Gentile
people. Against all expectation, they repented, and God relented of His
intention to destroy them for their sins. It is certain that Jesus found
inspiration in this book, and a pattern for His own ministry:
“But He answered and said to them, 'An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.
The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.'”
(Matthew 12:29-41, Mark 16:4, Luke 11:29-30).
Most modern readers understand God's wondrous act in Jonah's case
to be keeping him alive under very difficult and discouraging
circumstances. A fish's belly is not an environment in which to find
the free oxygen human beings need to breathe to survive. It's at
least possible, however, that Jesus and His contemporaries
understood the undoubted miracle differently: that Jonah did drown,
but was revived. Notice the language in Jonah's prayer: “I cried out to the Lord because of my affliction,
and He answered me. 'Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and You heard my voice.”
(Jonah 2:2). As pointed out by this modern author, 'Sheol' is
the realm of the dead: "First, when Jonah says that he cried out to
God from 'the belly of Sheol' and the 'the Pit,' these are standard
Old Testament terms for the realm of the dead (Psalm 139:7-8; Job
17:13-16; 33:22-30)." (Brant Pitre, The Case for Jesus, p. 187).
Resurrection was a popular theme in the first century, at least with some
audiences, such as the Pharisees. However the Old Testament
evidence for it, while not lacking altogether, is somewhat sparse,
leading to creative exegesis. Abraham was called as a witness in
favor of resurrection, because, “By faith Abraham, when he was
tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises
offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, 'In Isaac
your seed shall be called,' concluding that God was able to raise him up,
even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense.”
(Hebrews 11:17-19). In such an atmosphere, it's conceivable some
interpreters took Jonah's experience, of being dragged down to the
bottom of the sea by a marine animal, not as a similitude to death
and resurrection, but as an instance.
Another thing Jonah did is preach to the Gentiles, with complete
success. It's noteworthy that Jesus also, after His own death and
resurrection, experienced similar success with the same crowd. If indeed it
were true, as the 'Jesus' Seminar alumni are always telling us, "All
of Jesus's teaching was directed to his contemporaries living in a
first-century Jewish world. He had no other audience in mind."
(Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, p. 167), then it is
strange that He Himself chose to present a missionary to the
Gentiles as His pattern and exemplar. With the whole cast of characters of
the Hebrew Bible to choose from, why single out Jonah? Why not offer
Moses as His fore-runner and guiding light, which is how Matthew's
gospel presents Him? Why did the son of David not offer up David? Or
His own name-sake, Joshua? He chose to present His contemporaries
with the sign of Jonah, the preacher to the Ninevites. One might
fairly conclude from God's expressed concern for the Ninevites in
that book, a similar divine concern for the even more numerous
inhabitants of Rome. Maybe Jesus said what He meant and meant what He said.
When He cleansed the temple, He quoted Isaiah 56:7, “And He said
to them, 'It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of
prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’” (Matthew 21:13,
Luke 19:46). The Lord was concerned that the temple at Jerusalem should
be a house of prayer for all nations, Gentile as well as Jew,
and He believed that the present management was impeding that
development: “Then He taught, saying to
them, 'Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of
prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”
(Mark 11:17). Jesus the Messiah was by no means unaware that the
Gentiles were His.
Some verses of the law seem to rule out members of certain ethnic groups from following the Lord
and joining with the people of Israel, like:
"An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever:
because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee."
Because of the unrelenting hostility of certain groups, and their insistence
upon paganism, even entrapping Israel into pagan practices, they were
barred entry. Perhaps this is a case of 'you fooled us once, you won't
fool us again;' some people seem open to monotheism, at first, but only
as an opening gambit. This would seem a case of 'doomed from the womb,'
as they say. Is this the final word?
It would seem not, because Ruth entered into the congregation of
Israel, even into the family tree of King David and King Jesus. When
the motivation for joining is not a desire for civil privileges but
sincere devotion to Jehovah, that trumps even membership in an
"Ruth was a foreigner, and in particular,
a Moabitess, although the law of Moses prohibited such marriages
and excluded Moabites from the assembly. (The text is: “Moabites shall
not enter the assembly of the Lord to the third and fourth generation, and
for ever”.) How did she enter the assembly, if not because the immaculate
sanctity of her character put her above the law? If the law is laid down
for the irreligious and for sinners, then certainly Ruth is an important
example for us. She was outside the law’s prescription, but did in fact both
enter the assembly and become an Israelitess, and deserved to be counted
among the ancestors of the Lord’s family, chosen on the strength of a kinship
of mind, not of body." (Ambrose, Commentary on Luke, Book 3, Section 30,
excerpted in Eusebius of Caesarea, Gospel Problems and
Solutions, p. 279).
That's got to be the final word, if even an explicitly cursed
lineage can lead to a king of Israel.
It is perfectly clear from scripture that the Gentiles belong to the
Messiah, they are His possession. But what then? Once He's taken
possession of His inheritance, is it His will to transform them into
Jews? Some people in the early church thought just so. But it's not the
obvious conclusion, nor the inevitable one: "The world is to exist six
thousand years; the first two thousand years are to be void; the next
two thousand years are the period of the Torah, and the following two
thousand years are the period of the Messiah." (Babylonian Talmud,
Tractate Abodah Zarah, 9a). Notice the "period of the Torah" does not
overlap the "period of the Messiah." The Lord is the new
law-giver for His people.
There are other views of course: "Our Rabbis learnt: No
proselytes will be accepted in the days of the Messiah. In the same
manner no proselytes were accepted in the days of David nor in the
days of Solomon." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yebamoth, 24b). Some
of these other views are simply not scriptural! However even the pious
Philo Judaeus hoped that the law of Moses would stand forever:
"But the enactments of this lawgiver [Moses] are firm,
not shaken by commotions, not liable to alteration, but stamped as
it were with the seal of nature herself, and they remain firm and
lasting from the day on which they were first promulgated to the
present one, and there may well be a hope that they will remain to
all future time, as being immortal, as long as the sun and the moon,
and the whole heaven and the whole world shall endure." (Philo
Judaeus, On the Life of Moses, Book II, Chapter III).
The question of the status of Moses' law in the Messianic age is a disputed one.
Paul was not alone in looking for a change, to reflect,
"Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:
but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people."
While it's true that some voices of antiquity, or as far back in
antiquity as the Rabbis go, sound a similar note to today's
'counter-missionaries' in expressing not only hostility toward Gentiles
as such but insistence on the permanency of Moses' law, in fact there are other voices that take views similar to Paul
respecting a new law for the Messiah's reign, "Besides, the most zealous
defenders of the Law admitted that the Gentiles were to receive laws in
Messianic times. The smallest and most extreme section held that, the
laws, as Israel observed them, would be imposed on the Gentiles (Chull.
92a); others that only thirty commandments, the original Noachic
ordinances supposed to be enumerated in Lev. xix., would become
obligatory, while some held, that only three ordinances would be binding
on the new converts. . . In a very curious passage (Yalkut ii. 296, p.
46a), in which the final restitution of the sinners of Israel and of the
righteous of the Gentiles who are all in Gehinnom, is taught in very
figurative language, we are told of a new Law which God will give by the
Messiah in the age to come — thanksgiving for which calls forth
that universal Amen, not only on earth but in Gehinnom, which leads to
the deliverance of those who are in the latter. . .The Midrash on Song
ii. 13, applying the passage in conjunction with Jer. xxxi. 31,
expressly states that the Messiah would give Israel a new law, and the
Targum, on Is. xii. 3, although perhaps not quite so clearly, also
speaks of a new instruction. . . .But the Talmud goes even further, and
laws down the two principles, that in the age to come the whole
ceremonial Law and all the feasts were to cease." (Alfred Edersheim, The
Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Appendix XIV, Kindle location 28556).
Jesus is the "light to the Gentiles" (Isaiah 49:6). There are
various senses in which someone might be called upon to illumine
others; we are all exhorted, by the song, to brighten the corner
where we are. In what sense is the Messiah called a 'light'?: