Why did God choose just Israel?
Ashley R. from the United States asks about why God limited His revelation of Himself to Abraham and his descendants in Old Testament (OT) times:
First of all, I would like to say that your articles are easy to understand and are extremely helpful. This is a question that I’ve always had on my mind but no one has ever answered (at least to my knowledge). Since God created all human beings, why did he choose a specific group to be their God? Why didn’t he reveal himself to all of creation as opposed to just Abraham and his descendants? I know that through Jesus, both Jew and Gentile are allowed to walk in fellowship with God, but what about the people in the Old Testament times who weren’t Jews? Is it because they followed other Gods and wouldn’t have obeyed the one true God even if it was revealed to them? Or is it another reason? I know this may sound like a dumb question, but it’s always been something that’s bothered me a little. Thank you for everything you all do and God Bless.
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:
Thank you for your encouraging words. Your question isn’t a dumb question; it’s a very thoughtful one! Indeed, I think it requires us to explore redemptive history a bit to understand why people were in that boat, and why it wasn’t unfair of God to place them there.
God revealed himself to everyone
First, God did reveal Himself to everyone (Romans 1:19–20):
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
The problem is not that God failed to reveal Himself to everyone; the problem is that we all failed to respond appropriately to what God revealed:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:21)
As such, God’s revelation to Abraham and his descendants was not needed to make people accountable for rejecting God. Rather, God’s revelation to Abraham and his offspring was needed to deal with the problem of human sin.
Why was humanity divided?
God had always planned to use humanity to spread His glory (Was the Garden of Eden a ‘sanctuary’ from a hostile outside world?). The Fall derailed that project because it made us unfit for fellowship with God, and thus unfit for spreading His glory.
Moreover, God killed an animal to cover Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21), Cain and Abel already knew of the need for sacrifice (Genesis 4:3–4), and sacrifice for sin was everywhere in the ancient world. All of this means the ancients had a basic understanding of their need to deal with their sin before God. This knowledge was provided by God himself (Is God obscure and arbitrary in what He wants from us?).
Furthermore, Genesis 1–11 chronicles the repeated failures of humanity as a whole (Eve’s offspring, the serpent, and his offspring—Part 1). Indeed, the last major event recorded in Genesis 1–11, the Babel incident, shows that when fallen humanity works together it ends up insulting God rather than glorifying Him. And Noah was still alive when the Babel incident happened.1 Moreover, they all spoke the same language (Genesis 11:1). Why do these points matter? They show that Noah’s Flood and the reasons for it (God’s judgment on human sin) were well within living memory of the people who rebelled against God at Babel. In other words, this was humanity knowing about God, and yet rebelling against God, exactly as Genesis 11:3–4 portrays. The most practical way for God in this situation to get us to spread out as He intended in Genesis 1:28 (cf. Genesis 9:7, 11:9), and the simplest way to end collective apostasy, was to divide us.
Of course, dividing us came with its own problems. The biggest problem was the breakdown of communication between people that would make knowledge of God harder to maintain (though general revelation was still enough to make people accountable for rejecting God). Moreover, division and misunderstanding create enmity between people. Nonetheless, Genesis 11:6 shows that God knew the collective apostasy that would result from fallen humanity remaining united was worse than splitting us apart.
Abraham and Israel: God’s solution to sin and division
Into this situation God speaks to Abraham (Eve’s offspring, the serpent, and his offspring—Part 2). He makes promises, grows a nation, redeems His people from Egyptian oppression (a clear type of sin’s greater oppression over all of us), and personally becomes their king. Why? First, Genesis 12:3: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Second, Exodus 19:5–6:
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, 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.
And note the missionary purpose behind this, as in Deuteronomy 4:6–8:
Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?
Israel was a demonstration project to the world divided by Babel of God’s faithfulness, grace, and justice, as well as the human response. Israel was called to be a beacon of light to a divided world. God saved them, became their personal king, gave them a good land. God was faithful to the promises he made to Abraham. He also promised them peace and blessing … if they would obey Him. And when they did repent, God gave them rest. He even gave them peace in times when as a nation they sort of followed Him. God was more gracious than He even agreed to be!
But Israel always ended up rejecting Him, just like everyone else. Israel was still a successful demonstration project of God’s justice, but the people themselves showed how we fail to respond appropriately. Israel showed that, in the end, humanity at large inevitably repays God’s good with evil. Thus, the Law became an indictment of all of us:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19–20)
Of course, Jesus is God’s ultimate answer to this whole mess (Eve’s offspring, the serpent, and his offspring—Part 3). Ephesians 2 captures this very well: verses 1–10 focus on how through Jesus God graciously reconciles us to Himself, and verses 11–22 focus on how Jesus heals the breach between people. God forgives our sin and gives us His Spirit to transform us from the inside, where the problem really lies. God’s overtures of grace and justice in the OT could not solve the problem; only sending the Son and the Spirit themselves could.
What about those outside of Israel?
But what does that mean for your question: ‘what about those outside Israel in the Old Testament?’ Well, aside from still being culpable because of general revelation, we can see that they were in fact heirs of a particular historical situation. They were cut off from greater access to knowledge about God because of repeated cycles of human sin. Moreover, at Babel humanity as a whole had historically proven themselves incapable of honouring God when they worked together. We had proven ourselves incapable of handling revelation as a unified race.
Moreover, the sort of revelation God was providing through Israel required time to manifest. Israel needed time to obey or disobey. God needed time to respond (not because God needs time, but because relating to humans takes time). Putting all this together to demonstrate a clear pattern of relationship between God and Israel also takes time. To truly appreciate the solution to our sin problem God would offer in Jesus, repeated cycles of human sin in response to God’s special provision show the depth of our problem more effectively than pretty much anything else. An inevitable byproduct of this in a post-Babel world was people with little or no access to special revelation in OT times.
But it’s not like God placed people outside of Israel in the OT randomly. God providentially orders when and where people live (Acts 17:26). No doubt God has good reasons for having placed those people in those situations (even though God hasn’t told us what those reasons are). And since God orders people’s circumstances non-randomly, we can’t presume that e.g. if 10% of people in OT Israel responded positively to God’s revelation, that a similar proportion of those who never heard it would’ve likewise responded positively. After all, assuming it’s even meaningful to talk in these sorts of ways, could not God have ordered history such that those who didn’t get access to more revelation were among those who wouldn’t have accepted it anyway?
God knows how to order history
God knew what He was doing in orchestrating the specific history of redemption that we see in the Bible. He provided general revelation so that people in every historical situation had enough access to knowledge about God to make us all accountable. However, He made us beings for whom history matters. He wants us to have the habit of knowing Him and serving Him. That requires the ability to form habits, which take time to learn and acclimate to. The ability to form habits requires a system that behaves regularly, so we can make regular choices and not be continually surprised by their effects. And if this is so for individual humans, how much more so for human society!
But creating a ‘historical’ system has consequences. We are conditioned by our history. We each fall into a different place in history. And that creates an unimaginably complex logistical problem: how can this all be ordered for God’s good, with perfect attention to all the details, when it’s all infected by sin almost from the start? (See Why would a loving God allow death and suffering? on why God would bother with sin at all.) That’s something only God could figure out.
We need to contextualize the ‘OT outsider’ in the broader context of the history of redemption to have some idea of why they were in the place they were. They were not completely cut off from God; but their access to special knowledge about God was hampered because of repeated cycles of human sin. Nonetheless, they were still sinners worthy of judgment, and their placement in that situation was not random.