The Role of the Nation
The role of the nation in relation to the Law is complex and multifaceted. It is the role of the nation to preserve the Law and her spirit for future generations. It is the role of the nation to recognize the judges, the people who embody the spirit of the Law. The nation with her leaders must apply the Law to daily life. By living the Law the nation renders the Law a living entity. As significant as all of these responsibilities are, the nation still plays a more foundational role. All of these imperatives are subsumed and included in the most basic responsibility of the nation.
The most important role the nation performs in relation to the Law is the preservation of her own identity. After God, the most important entity of scripture is the entity called the nation of Israel. This entity spans the generations and its continuous existence is as essential as the fundamental laws of nature (Jeremiah 31:35, 33:25). When scripture speaks of eternal reward it speaks of those “of your nation that are found written in the book” (Daniel 12:1), or those “written for life in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 4:3). Conversely when the scriptures threaten eternal punishment it speaks of being “cut off from the midst of the nation” (Numbers 15:30), or “in the council of My nation they shall not be present, and in the writ of the house of Israel they shall not be written” (Ezekiel 13:9). [In the book of Ezra it becomes apparent that the leaders of the nation possess the prerogative of determining that a given individual be separated from the body of the nation (Ezra 9:8).] In the mind of the Divine Author of scripture, and in the mind of scripture’s intended audience, the worst punishment for the Jew is the threat of being cut off from his nation.
Eternal Israel is God’s firstborn son (Exodus 4:22, Jeremiah 31:8). Of all creation God only desired the patriarchs (Deuteronomy 10:14,15), and the love He bears towards their children is eternal (Jeremiah 31:2). God’s residence on earth was with Israel (1Kings 8:13), is with Israel (Ezekiel 11:16) and will forever be with Israel (Ezekiel 37:28). The entire focus of scripture is God’s relationship with His covenant nation and the promise for the Messianic future is centered on Israel. The nation of Israel is God’s sanctuary (Leviticus 20:3), and is compared to the apple of God’s eye (Zechariah 2:12). God declares Israel to be His witnesses (Isaiah 43:10, 44:8) and He entrusted them with preservation of His Law (Psalm 78:5). Each of these points standing alone testifies to the pivotal role Israel plays in God’s plan. Yet all of these points together still do not do justice in describing the centrality of Israel to the scriptural narrative.
We must realize that the activities of talking or writing are meaningless when they stand alone. The act of putting forth words only takes on meaning when there is a party on the receiving end to comprehend and absorb the words. The processes of speaking or writing are only complete when the listener or reader understands the message. A wise speaker or writer will focus on the end-result of his efforts – he will look to the comprehension of the recipient of his message. He will take into account the mind-set of his intended audience and their thought process and the effect these will have on the processing of his message, and his message will be crafted accordingly.
In the case of scripture we have the verdict of history. Many societies possessed the scriptures and the messages they comprehended were very different. Some societies who possessed the Jewish scriptures read them as a directive to despise the Jewish nation. Others read them as a directive to love the Jewish nation. Some communities see the deification of a human as the most important teaching of the scripture while others recognize that this act is prohibited in the plainest terms. Some see the scripture as an imperative to obey the Law of Moses, while others understand the scriptures as teaching that the Law of Moses is no longer relevant.
Each of these societies is reading scripture from within a different social context. The fact that some people consider the Christian scriptures to be just as authoritative as the Jewish scriptures will radically impact the way they read the Jewish scriptures. Any given society has its own definition of concepts such as God, holiness, covenant, and atonement, and these different definitions will necessarily shape that society’s understanding of scripture. Every community will undoubtedly read scripture on its own terms.
Once one realizes how radically the mind-set of the reader affects the understanding of the book, one can recognize why the most important question one can ask concerning the scriptures is – “who is the Divine author’s intended audience?” This may be a difficult question to ask, but it is not a difficult question to answer. Scripture is most explicit in telling us precisely who God’s intended audience is. Deuteronomy 33:4 tells us that the Torah is an inheritance for the congregation of Jacob. Psalm 147:19,20 teaches us that the scriptures are presented to Israel, to the exclusion of any other national entity. In Deuteronomy 30:1,2 Moses addresses the entity of Eternal Israel in the singular “you”. He speaks to the last generations with the same “you” that he addresses the people standing before him in the Plains of Moab. Identifying the entity of Eternal Israel is of supreme significance in the study of scripture, because it is to this entity, and to this entity alone that God is addressing His words.
We still have not fully presented the inseparability of Israel and scripture. Israel is not only the target audience of scripture – the end of scripture as it were. Israel is also the beginning of scripture. It would be wrong to read scripture as a book with a purpose of its own that happens to be calibrated for a particular target audience. The original purpose of scripture is Israel. Aside from the countless passages which read as a personal conversation between God and His son, even the Law itself is presented as a factor of God’s personal relationship with Israel (Leviticus 26:46). The Law is described as the terms of the covenant between God and Israel (Exodus 34:27). Israel’s observance of the Law is her declaration that God is her personal God. The fact that the Law is presented to Israel is God’s declaration that Israel is His personal nation (Deuteronomy 26:17,18). The relationship that God shares with His covenant nation precedes scripture, and scripture can only be read in the context of that relationship. The correlation of Israel and scripture is integral to the very essence of scripture. If not for Israel, scripture would not be here.
Scripture is a personal letter from God to Eternal Israel. One cannot read a personal letter addressed to someone else and apply it to himself. Neither can one claim an inheritance if their name is not mentioned in the will. Anyone aside from the intended recipient that reads the scriptures must first recognize that they are listening in to a deeply personal conversation before they can hope to understand scripture. Reading scripture without acknowledging the backdrop of Eternal Israel is an exercise in futility. An individual Jew reading scripture can only hear the intended message if he reads it as part of the eternal nation. He must read it together with the Jews that are alive today, and he must read it together with the Jews who walked before him. This does not mean that one must abandon his own individual understanding of scripture. After all, the nation is but a conglomeration of all of her individuals. But the individual’s understanding is only meaningful when there is a clear recognition that this is part of the national endeavor to understand God’s word.
So what is Eternal Israel? Who is Eternal Israel and how does she maintain her identity throughout the realms of time and space? Eternal Israel is the fusion of all of God’s nation – from the Exodus until the end of time. The consciousness of standing before God as one with all the Jews who stood fast in their loyalty to God since Sinai. The national consciousness which feels the impact of the exodus as it reverberates through the hearts of the Jews who walked before. The striving to observe God’s Law together with those who strove before us and will strive after us. The unified effort to understand God’s Law and to make it part of our very beings. Recognizing our duty as an eternal community before God and the endeavor to discharge that duty. To the degree that the individual Jew participates in the national consciousness, to that same degree has the Jew transcended his own individuality to become part of Eternal Israel.
When one reads God’s declaration “This nation I have formed for Myself” (Isaiah 43:21), one must recognize that “this nation” is an entity that includes living Jews of every generation. “The children of Israel shall guard the Sabbath” (Exodus 31:16) refers to an observance that continues to sanctify people that live in your own neighborhood. “The council of My nation” (Ezekiel 13:9) is a council that abides from the times of Moses until this very day. “You are My witnesses” (Isaiah 43:10,11) is God’s declaration, not only to Jews who lived long ago, but to Jews who are alive today. Those who read these words and understand them as a reference to a “new” Israel (i.e. the Christian Church) cannot hope to begin to comprehend scripture. The people who pay lip-service to the concept of the eternal chosen-ness of Israel, but eviscerate the concept of all meaning (i.e. – by believing that the Christian Church is the only witness that can be trusted) are not much nearer to the message of scripture. These can be compared to one who attempts to read a wedding invitation while denying the existence of the bride. Those who reject Israel’s unique standing as God’s firstborn son should not expect to appreciate the words of Israel’s Father.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal