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Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Two Kindreds

“All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.”

The Psalms declare that God made the nations.

By “nations”, the Psalmist means the natural ethnic divisions of our world; the families, clans and specific language groups that exist almost from pole to pole. The Hebrew term for these divisions is gowy; the word goyim is thought to be related.

David’s not speaking here of states or republics or empires or flags or unions — those grand expressions of the will of exceptional and powerful men, held together by law and force of arms, that spread across whole continents only to disappear into the history books when an even greater will or a bigger army rises up against them.

No, he’s talking about something smaller, more fundamental, more instinctual and longer-lasting.

‘Making’ a Nation

Which brings up an interesting question: How exactly does one “make” a nation? In one sense, a nation sort of makes itself, doesn’t it?

The nations are first mentioned in Genesis 10, right after the Flood:
“The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. The sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. From these the coastland peoples [gowy] spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations [gowy].”
Six times in the chapter the same word is used to describe the three great divisions of humanity and the subdivisions within them, according to family and language. Shem’s children went one way, Ham’s children went another and Japheth’s went yet another. That initially sounds kind of like the nations made themselves, the children, grandchildren and great-great grandchildren of Noah gravitating toward dwelling with the people with whom they were most familiar and comfortable.

The most natural of natural occurrences, really.

Forces at Work

But there were more powerful forces than normal, healthy affinity for the society of kindred at work in those days. Unnatural forces. If it had been up to Noah’s descendants, there might not be nations as we know them at all today.

Genesis 11 tells us that “the whole earth had one language and the same words”. And their great plan was not to fill the earth and subdue it, but rather to “make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” Well, we know how that turned out, don’t we? God confused their language and dispersed them over the entire planet, as he had always intended.

He made the nations.

Then in Genesis 12, God gets involved in a more direct and personal way. He singles out a descendent of Shem named Abram, saying to him, “I will make of you a great nation.”

God being God, we know he’s going to make good on his word. It’s going to involve both protection and direction. Notice that the “great” nation here is not the nation Abram made himself when by an act of will he chose to father Ishmael, but rather the heir that God provided him miraculously and impossibly. It was through Isaac that God’s “great nation” was to be reckoned and measured and would eventually make its impact on the planet.

A Multitude of Nations

In Israel, a nation was “made” like no other nation in history. But God made the rest of them too. A few chapters later he tells Abram:
“I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”
And then he changes Abram’s name, which means “exalted father”, to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude”. Sunnite Arabs, Edomites, Sheba, Dedan, Midian and numerous other ethnic groups descended from Abraham are listed in scripture or found in various places in our world today, their names coming up repeatedly throughout Old Testament history.

But whether actively or passively, we can reasonably make the case that the Lord God “made” all nations, in the sense that he allows certain people groups to prosper and to become populous and occasionally powerful, no guaranteed thing at times throughout human history. The nations existed and continue to exist only at God’s pleasure. Ask the Amalekites, if you can find one.

As Moses put it:
“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples [gowy] according to the number of the sons of God.”
And that seems to be the state of play in the world today.

Post-Nationalism

True Christianity is post-national. Or rather, Christians are a spiritual nation comprised of people from every ethnicity. After his rejection by the “builders”, the Jewish religious leadership, Jesus told them:
“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people [ethnos, meaning “nation”] producing its fruits.”
The kingdom of God belongs not to one of the families of the earth, but to a super-nation, a different sort of “kindred” entirely bound together by something greater than mere blood ties. An ethnos that is not ethnic. What a concept. As Peter put it in the household of Cornelius:
“Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
And later, in his first epistle, he makes this reality even more explicit:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation [ethnos], a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
The nation that is not a nation is the new gold standard.

Nations and Nations

But do note that this new reality declared by the Lord and explained by the apostles does not do away with the ordinary sort of nation and the standard geopolitical landscape. It was never intended to. Not yet, anyway. Three chapters after revealing that the kingdom of God was post-national, the Lord would school his disciples on the subject of their world’s future:
“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.”
The Lord’s teaching is that earthly, national divisions will continue to be the norm until the time of his return in judgment of the earth:
“Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Pre-millennial or post, I think we can agree this event is yet to come. Even the most confused student of Bible prophecy would surely notice the Son of Man coming in his glory.

So today, we have two different “orders” in the world.

Two Different Orders

Over the course of history, the unsaved world is recurrently (and often passionately) nationalistic, as it should be. The alternative is Babel. Earthly nationalism is God’s prescription for dealing with the spirit in man that says “let US (meaning humanity) make a name for ourselves”, and in that it has been quite effective (though naturally it falls well short of God’s ultimate purposes in Christ). Conflicting agendas and loyalties will tend to do that. It’s hard to maintain belief in an overarching “us”, when that “us” is comprised of thousands of smaller “us-es”.

The regenerate world is post-national, also as it should be.

But both situations are equally ordained by God.

Implications and Applications

Thus there is no contradiction today in being a nationalistic Christian, so long as our enthusiasm for our earthly “people” does not allow itself to become set in opposition to our enthusiasm for our kindred in Christ. In fact, I suspect the idealization of a multi-ethnic unity produced exclusively by human effort may not be entirely a product of overflowing altruism or Christian charity. It may actually be more a product of a failure to value our own particular extended earthly family.

Love of Christ and his church should not lead us to love our kindred less, but more. Paul, sent to the Gentiles, said this about his own nation:
“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
“I could wish,” says the apostle. But he doesn’t. His are intense feelings, and they’re not wrong or unchristian.

The trick, perhaps, is not to let “I could” become either “I do” or “I couldn’t”.

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