Eternal Hope – Part 4

Eternal Hope – Part 4

Eternal Hope
Part 4


In the last issue we looked at Israel as a missionary people. Through the centuries the church has debated the question of whether God did or did not assign to Israel the task of making His name known among the nations. God speaking through His prophet says, “I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and have taken hold of thy hand, and kept thee, and set thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the nations; to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison-house.”[1] The Jews address the question of a missionary mandate as follows: “As in Jer. 1:5, the messenger has been ‘created’ and ‘appointed’ to bring God’s word to the ‘nations.’ In the present case [Isa. 42:2-5] God also calls upon His servant to serve as a ‘covenant’ people and a ‘light of nations.’ These expressions are difficult. Rashi understood the addressee in Isa 42:5 to be the prophet himself, who was called to restore the nations to God’s covenant; these nations are the tribes of Israel. On the other hand, it is possible to interpret the messenger as an individual whose task is to reestablish Israel so that they may serve as a beacon of light for all people (Ibn Ezra). If, however, the messenger is Israel, then the phrase would mean that God has established the entire people for a universal mission (Kimhi).”[2] Thus, we see that the Jews themselves are divided on this subject.[3]

It seems to me that bringing God’s word to the nations implies an eternal hope for the individual, for apart from the hope of heaven, what attract the nations to follow Yahweh? More likely, because God did not give the Old Testament individual the promise of eternal life, the Hebrews never saw bringing the message of Yahweh to other nations as something they should do. Although we cannot be dogmatic on how passages such as Isaiah 42:2-5 should be interpreted, we do know that in the Old Testament God did not give an individual the promise of eternal life, and we find no indication that Israel saw the necessity of encouraging other nations to follow Yahweh. For those who argue that Israel had a missionary obligation to the nations, Naomi certainly didn’t sense it: “And she said, Behold, thy sister in law is gone back unto her people, and unto her gods: return thou after thy sister in law.”[4] Naomi encouraged both Orpah and Ruth to return to their gods. To the present time the Jews have never been a missionary people.[5]

In the last issue we also noted that the various words associated with regeneration, the sine quo non of eternal life, such as “contrite, repent, confess,” apply to the nation of Israel but never to the individual, in Genesis through Deuteronomy. This, in turn, attests to the absence of an individual eternal hope in these opening chapters of the Bible. Christianity is a missionary religion simply because the individual’s eternal destiny hangs in the balance, and because we have been commanded to evangelize. If Old Testament Israel had an eternal hope, their failure to evangelize would constitute a cold indifference to the fate of others, contrary to God’s command to love their neighbor. Israel has never been a missionary religion, even to the present time.

In the Pentateuch, you find no reference to the eternal. If I counted correctly, this material uses “Sheol” seven times.[6] Sheol is “the most frequently used term in biblical Hebrew for the abode of the spirits of the dead. The region was imagined to be situated deep beneath the earth and to be enclosed with gates. There is no concept of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ in the Hebrew Bible. The underworld received all men – good and bad, great and small – and all are equal there. It was a place of unrelieved darkness and gloom and of complete silence. None who entered it could return. The etymology of the word ‘Sheol’ is uncertain, and the term in unknown in other ancient Semitic languages.”[7] Note Deuteronomy 31:16: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, you are about to sleep with your fathers; then this people will rise and play the harlot after the strange gods of the land, where they go to be among them, and they will forsake me and break my covenant which I have made with them.’” The word for “sleep” is: 1) to lie down; 2) to lie down (in death); 3) to rest, relax. In the Septuagint (LXX) it is the same word used in John 11:11 referencing Lazarus being “asleep.”

The concept of humbling oneself before God occurs for the first time in 2 Samuel 22:28: “Thou dost deliver a humble people, but thy eyes are upon the haughty to bring them down.” Again in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Prior to that time, Deut. 8:2,16 tells us that God humbled His people in the wilderness. The word “humility” appears the first time in Proverbs 15:33.

We find the word “contrite” for the first time in Psalm 34:18: “The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” The word contrition does not appear in the Bible.

The word “repent” first appears in Exodus 13:17: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, “Lest the people repent when they see war, and return to Egypt.” In this instance, God does not want His people “repenting” in their commitment to Him. It is not until I Kings 8:47 that the people “repent” before God.[8] Other uses prior to this refer to God “repenting.”

“Confession” is a bit different: The word “confess” appears when sacrifice is made to God, but such confession cannot atone for willful sin as seen in Numbers 15:30-31. Words such as “confessed, confession, confessing” do not appear until much later.

Moses, in Deut. 3:23-26, repents of his sin in hitting the Rock instead of speaking to it, but to no avail. He is barred from entering Canaan and God says to Him, “Speak no more unto me of the matter.” Moses’ heart of repentance may have enhanced his relationship with God, but it in no way altered the consequence for the act.

Speaking of the nation rather than the individual, God says in Lev. 26:40-42 and Deut. 4:29-31 that when His people repent God will bring them back to Himself, but in contrast to the prophets, it terminates the punishment rather than preventing its onset. Moses intercedes on behalf of Israel in passages such as Ex. 32:11-14, but not once is he expected to bring Israel to repentance so that they might merit divine forgiveness, and nothing prior to the fact ensures they will be forgiven – save God’s unconditional covenant with the nation. It is to that covenant that Moses appeals! Abraham intercedes on behalf of Lot and his family in Genesis 18:23-33, with God agreeing, but without the cities being spared. Again, Abraham turns to God asking for God to repent; he does not go to Lot or Sodom seeking their repentance.

In Numbers 14 the nation repents that it responded in unbelief when the spies returned with an evil report, but to no avail; they wandered in the wilderness forty years.

In Deut 30:1-10 Moses prophecies Israel’s return to the Promised Land after God scatters them. In a promise similar to the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31, he says in Deuteronomy 30:6: “And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.” This, like Jeremiah 31, applies to the nation rather than to the individual.

I can think of no place in the OT where a person was warned of eternal consequences for temporal behavior. The sacrificial system covered sins, meaning that the “offender” did not have to face temporal consequences. Capital offenses listed in Leviticus rested outside the atoning of sacrifice, and the author does not discuss what happens to the person when he dies. Sheol was/is the abode of the dead, and as already noted, evidence suggests that both the good and evil dwell there.

Reflections on Joshua, Judges, and Ruth

God comments on Israel passing into the promised land: “When all the kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites that were by the sea, heard that the LORD had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their heart melted, and there was no longer any spirit in them, because of the people of Israel. At that time the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Make flint knives and circumcise the people of Israel again the second time.’ So Joshua made flint knives, and circumcised the people of Israel at Gibeathhaaraloth. And this is the reason why Joshua circumcised them: all the males of the people who came out of Egypt, all the men of war, had died on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt. Though all the people who came out had been circumcised, yet all the people that were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been circumcised. For the people of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, till all the nation, the men of war that came forth out of Egypt, perished, because they did not hearken to the voice of the LORD; to them the LORD swore that he would not let them see the land which the LORD had sworn to their fathers to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So it was their children, whom he raised up in their stead, that Joshua circumcised; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised on the way. When the circumcising of all the nation was done, they remained in their places in the camp till they were healed. And the LORD said to Joshua, ‘This day I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.’ And so the name of that place is called Gilgal to this day. While the people of Israel were encamped in Gilgal they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at evening in the plains of Jericho. And on the morrow after the Passover, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. And the manna ceased on the morrow, when they ate of the produce of the land; and the people of Israel had manna no more, but ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year.” [9]

When Israel passed over Jordan on dry ground (a repeat of the parting of the Red Sea), several things transpired: 1) – The surrounding nations trembled at Israel’s presence. Rahab said, “For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt.”[10] The nations knew of the parting of the Red Sea, and now saw the parting of Jordan. 2) – The men of Israel were circumcised. God had commanded that the male children be circumcised: “And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”[11] Israel neglected this clear command, and God did not rebuke them. You cannot predict the response of God when you neglect or break His commands. We are best served living in obedience to His will. 3) – It took the army several days to heal from their circumcision, during which time they were vulnerable to attack from the enemy. The walk of faith requires His followers to step outside their comfort level. (Interestingly, they would not have had to demonstrate their vulnerability if they had obeyed God and circumcised their children when commanded.) 4) – “This day I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” Moses said: “lest the land from which thou didst bring us say, ‘Because the LORD was not able to bring them into the land which he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to slay them in the wilderness.’”[12] This reproach involved the thoughts and sayings of the Egyptians that God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt to destroy them in the wilderness. When Israel circumcised the males, God declared the restoration of the covenant that He would give Israel the land of Canaan for their inheritance. 5) – Israel arrived in Canaan the first day of their new year, and celebrated the Passover. Deliverance from Egypt was now completed. 6) – At that time the manna ceased; Israel began eating of the fruit of the Promised Land. 7) – Joshua meets the Commander of God’s army, thus assuring that victory is certain.


Nothing in the first eight books of the Bible indicates that people looked to God for salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. God’s inviolable commitment to Israel meant that, upon repentance, the nation would be forgiven its sins and restored to God. But nothing in the material indicates that the people saw in this a picture of how God relates to the individual. God made an unconditional commitment to Abraham (God never charged Abraham with a wrong), and possibly to Isaac and Jacob, but to no other individual in these books – not even to Moses. (In Exodus 32:11-14, Moses pleads for the nation, but not for any particular individual.) But this individual commitment involved their progeny, not the eternal destiny of the individual.

From the New Testament we learn that certain people in the Old Testament had a belief in an afterlife. Speaking of the Patriarchs, the author of Hebrews says, “For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”[13] Although the OT does not promise individual salvation, those who attained it did so by believing God when He promised temporal blessing, such as deliverance from enemies (e.g. as seen in the Pascal Lamb). We have no evidence to suggest that this faith extended to looking to God for the forgiveness of their sins.

Rejoicing in His grace,


[1] Isaiah 42:6-7, JPS
[2] Fishbane, Michael, Haftarot, The JPS Bible Commentary, The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2002, page 6.
[3] Micah 4:1-5, speaking of the time when God fulfills His promises to Israel, seems to support the idea that Israel will not be a missionary nation, concluding in v. 5: “Though all the peoples walk each in the names of its gods, we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.”
[4] Ruth 1:15
[5] In Matthew 25:15 Jesus makes reference to the Scribes and Pharisees seeking proselytes, and Acts makes reference to them as well. But by this time an eternal hope was firmly established in the Jewish religion, a hope that seems to have waned when the church became Gentile and anti-Semitic.
[6] If I am not mistaken, the first appearance of Sheol is Genesis 37:35.
[7] Ibid, Sarna, Nahum, Genesis, p. 262
[8] Possible exceptions may be found in passages such as Deuteronomy 4:26-31.
[9] Joshua 5:1-12
[10] Joshua 2:10
[11] Leviticus 12:3
[12] Deuteronomy 9:28
[13] Hebrews 11:14-16, KJV