[This is the second in a series of six posts that will summarize the argument of my recent book, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness (Cascade Books, 2013).]
I read the Old Testament as a Christian, through the lens of Jesus. Reading the Old Testament in this way simply means allowing Jesus’s values to guide how I sort through the various witnesses. What follows are some ideas about how the Old Testament presents salvation in ways that point ahead to the life and teaching of Jesus.
Salvation as wholeness
Salvation has to do with wholeness. To gain salvation leads to harmony with God, other human beings, and with the rest of creation. We need salvation when we live with disharmony, when we experience brokenness instead of wholeness. The Bible presents salvation on three levels: (1) salvation as liberation from the Powers of brokenness, (2) salvation as restoration of harmony with God, and (3) salvation as restoration of harmonious human relationships. The Old Testament story places priority on salvation in the first sense (liberation). The other two follow from and depend upon the first. Because God acts to deliver, people are then freed to respond to God and restore harmony in their relationships with God and to live at harmony with one another.
In presenting salvation the way it does, via concrete events communicated in stories, the Old Testament locates this salvation in history and not in a cosmic, transcendent context. Salvation in the Old Testament is not about some transaction in the heart of God or some sort of weighing of the cosmic scale of justice. Rather, salvation has to do with flesh and blood actions.
We see in the Old Testament salvation story two distinct themes. First, God calls Abraham and Sarah and promises salvation: a gift of newness in the context of barrenness. God plans to use the community of faith to bring newness to all the families of the earth. This call begins a long process where God’s persevering love bring salvation. Second, God intervenes in the exodus to bring salvation to God’s people. God is a God who liberates the oppressed. God’s salvation does not come through human power politics. God’s salvation leads to a rejection of the values of empires such as ancient Egypt.
Behind God’s gifts and God’s demands lay God’s mercy. Salvation comes from God’s infinite store of mercy that leads to God’s persevering and patient love finding expression in Israel’s history. Salvation arises as God’s initiative and God’s unilateral intervention to heal. The salvation story tells us: (1) God, in love, commits to a long healing process with humankind and (2) God’s healing work involves at its core a counter-cultural sensibility that exalts the oppressed and vulnerable and defies power politics.
Key saving moments
The heart of the Old Testament’s salvation story may be seen as three key saving moments: the calling of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 12), the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery (Exod 1–15), and the proclamation of mercy to the Hebrew exiles (Isa 40–55). The following conclusions concerning salvation and the logic of retribution follow from the primal story:
- God gives salvation in each of these key moments to unworthy recipients. The explictness of the unworthiness of those being saved by God makes clear that they had done nothing to earn God’s favor. The logic of retribution tells us that God must act to destroy the unworthy, that God cannot save them unless somehow God restores the “balance of the scales of justice” through punitive acts. The actual story tells us something quite different.
- God the savior acts in these moments purely out of God’s own good will. When God wants simply to intervene and bring healing to the world, God freely does so. God is not constrained by a holiness that needs to have its demands for an evenly balanced “justice” satisfied before offering transforming mercy.
- At its core, according to the main story, salvation has to do with a loving, passionate God desiring a personal connection with humanity. God’s work to sustain these relationships emerges from this personal, passionate, and loving disposition. This portrayal contradicts the logic of retribution that posits an impersonal, legalistic, detached dynamic at the heart of salvation.
- According to a typical account of the salvation story, Hosea 11, God’s holiness fuels mercy, not retribution. God’s holiness does not force God to destroy sinners. Rather, God’s holiness is precisely the pushes God to intervene, to become involved with sinful humanity in order to bring healing.
Torah and sacrifices
The basic dynamic of gift and response provides the necessary context for understanding two important Old Testament institutions—Torah (the law) and sacrifices. Human obligation to keep Torah and to keep sacrifices follows from the gift of salvation. Human beings are not required to follow Torah or offer sacrifices in order to gain God’s faith. Rather, human beings keep Torah and offer sacrifices because they have already received God’s favor.
To follow the law does not lead people to salvation. Salvation leads people to follow the law. The first act is God’s—a merciful act of gratuitous liberation. In God’s free and sovereign love, God may simply act to liberate. Then, as a further act of mercy, God gives the law as directives for how a liberated people ought to act. The law is not a legalistic blueprint that, when violated, triggers God’s wrath and renders God unable (due to God’s holiness) to act directly with pure mercy. Rather, the law is, simply, the loving gift of a merciful God for the sake of the life of God’s people.
Sacrifices are not theologically central to Old Testament salvation, though they are commonly practiced. In numerous instances forgiveness and, even more, deliverance, do not depend upon sacrifices. The basic dynamic, on Yahweh’s side, is the decision to save simply because that is the kind of God Yahweh is. The basic dynamic, on the human side, is repentance and trust. The sacrifices then follow, as the means to concretize the reception of the gift.
For salvation to enter the Hebrews’ world, nothing is needed that would change God’s disposition. The Hebrews are not called to find ways to appease God’s anger, to satisfy the demands of God’s balance-the-scales justice, or to find ways to avoid impurities that violate God’s absolute holiness. The called-for actions, rather, include the Hebrews responding to God’s merciful acts by acting merciful themselves.
Salvation in the prophets
As the intent of the law faded in time in Israel, the story tells of the community’s tendency to focus on external expressions, easily enforced and susceptible to becoming tools of people in power. These tendencies led to legalism and, eventually, in the prophets’ views, to removing the law from its living heart: liberation from slavery and concern for the well-being of vulnerable people.
As the community lost the original intent of sacrifices, many Israelites treated sacrifices as means of salvation, ritual acts separated from practical justice in the community. Especially, as they centralized religious structures, people in power used sacrifice as a tool to enhance their standing. Presenting sacrifice as a necessary means to salvation enabled people who controlled access to sacrifice rituals in the temple to exercise enormous power in the community.
Voices of accountability arose to challenge such distortions, the voices of the prophets. The prophets emerged as the voice of loyalty to Torah following the establishment of kingship. They challenged Israel’s practices that contradicted the covenant relation. In challenging the distortions of law and sacrifice, the prophets reiterated the meaning of salvation. They re-emphasize that salvation is God’s liberating gift, and that following Torah and offering sacrifices are responses to God’s gift, not means to try to gain it.
The prophets called for repentance. Behind their call to repent (or, “return”) lay the presumption of God’s availability. The alienation follows from what happens on the human side. God simply wants a turning back from problematic beliefs and practices and then offers mercy. God does not require sacrifices to change God’s disposition toward God’s people. God remains, as always, favorably disposed—so long as human beings simply recognize that and trust—and ready and willing to heal the sin-caused brokenness.