Why I Am A Christian (#6): Israel’s Self-Confession of Insufficiency in the Old Testament

Pharaoh Rameses III holding the hair of his enemies, and the god Amun. Relief from Medinet Habu temple, Luxor. Courtesy of Alyssa Bivins / Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Relief_of_Ramses_III.jpg (image reduced in size from original).
Pharaoh Rameses III holding the hair of his enemies, and the god Amun. Relief from Medinet Habu temple, Luxor. Courtesy of Alyssa Bivins / Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Relief_of_Ramses_III.jpg (image reduced in size from original).

[Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11]

The Christian faith is not infrequently derided as irrational, delusional, fairyland. Though such arguments are sometimes made in an intellectually vigorous manner, I would argue that at least as often such arguments are made facilely, and without any proper understanding of what Christianity claims or teaches.

In spite of such attacks on the Christian faith (intellectually vigorous or otherwise), I remain a believing Christian, convinced of the truth of God’s revealed word, the Bible. In this series of eleven posts, I outline some of the reasons why I still find the Christian faith compelling and convincing.

Contents

Reason #6: Israel’s Self-Confession of Insufficiency in the Old Testament

“Let us consider a quite different (but likewise compelling) reason for believing in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures — and therefore in Christianity — namely, Israel’s self-confession of inadequacy, or insufficiency.”

In our previous two posts in this series we examined one compelling reason to believe that the Bible is divinely inspired, namely, the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy in the New Testament. We examined two impressive examples of this fulfilment — Genesis 22 and Psalm 22.

Today we will consider a quite different (but likewise compelling) reason for believing in the divine inspiration of the Scriptures — and therefore in Christianity — namely, Israel’s self-confession of inadequacy, or insufficiency.

But firstly, and by way of contrast, let’s see some extra-biblical ancient examples of how nations regarded themselves and presented themselves to the world.

Counter-example #1. Pharaoh Rameses III (1186—1155 BC)

“This is how ancient kings liked to portray themselves: they wished to be remembered as mighty victors, often putting a great deal of money and effort into ensuring that was how they would be remembered.”

One of the most well-known of all ancient Egyptian Pharaohs was Rameses III, not least for his self-depictions in stone of his victories at land and sea at the Medinet Habu temple in Luxor.

The photograph above shows a scene from this temple. It depicts the pharaoh strident, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt. He is holding his enemies by the hair, about to swipe them to pieces like a set of skittles. Meanwhile the god Amun looks on approvingly.

This is how ancient kings liked to portray themselves: they wished to be remembered as mighty victors — and often, as here, putting a great deal of money and effort into ensuring that was how they would be remembered.

Counter-example #2. Assyrian king Sennacherib (705—681 BC)

Sennacherib was the Assyrian king who captured all the fortified cities of the kingdom of Judah during the reign of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:13), and then shook his fist at King Hezekiah himself in Jerusalem, before beating a hasty retreat (2 Kings 19:5-7).

“When one reads the biblical account of King Sennacherib, one is not left with the impression of a humble ruler.”

When one reads the biblical account of King Sennacherib, one is not left with the impression of a humble ruler. In his encounter with King Hezekiah at Jerusalem he brags and boasts of his achievements (e.g., 2 Kings 18:33-35), and even as he retreats he continues shaking his fist and boasting of his conquests (2 Kings 19:10-13).

Archaeological finds have confirmed the biblical portrayal of Sennacherib’s character.

One of the most famous relics of Sennacherib’s reign to survive is the so-called ‘Hexagonal Prism of Sennacherib’ (so called for obvious reasons), pictured below. It is an hexagonal cylinder containing 487 lines of cuneiform text, written around 691 BC to commemorate the military achievements of Sennacherib.

Sennacherib’s hexagonal prism, shown in the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Daderot
Sennacherib’s hexagonal prism, shown in the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Daderot

“Sennacherib, the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, the wise shepherd, favourite of the great gods, guardian of right, lover of justice, …”

From the Hexagonal Prism of Sennacherib (c. 691 B.C.)

Listen to what Sennacherib says about himself on this cylinder:

Sennacherib, the great king, the mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, king of the four quarters, the wise shepherd, favourite of the great gods, guardian of right, lover of justice, who lends support, who comes to the aid of the destitute, who performs pious acts, perfect hero, mighty man, first among all princes, the powerful one who consumes the insubmissive, who strikes the wicked with the thunderbolt; the god Assur, the great mountain, an unrivalled kinship has entrusted to me, and above all those who dwell in palaces, has made powerful my weapons; from the upper sea of the setting sun to the lower sea of the rising sun, he has brought the black-headed people in submission at my feet; and mighty kings feared my warfare, leaving their homes and flying alone, like the sidinnu, the bird of the cave, to some inaccessible place…[1]

And then, describing his ‘third campaign’:

In my third campaign, I went against the Hittite-land. Lul?, king of Sidon, the terrifying splendour of my sovereignty overcame him, and far off into the midst of the sea he fled. There he died. Great Sidon, Little Sidon, B?t-Zitti, Zaribtu, Mahalliba, Ushu, Akzib, Akko, his strong, walled cities, where there were fodder and drink, for his garrisons, the terrors of the weapon of Assur, my lord, overpowered them and they bowed in submission at my feet. I seated Tuba’lu on the royal throne over them, and tribute, gifts for my majesty, I imposed upon him for all time, without ceasing.[2], [3]

And he goes on and on and on…

Israel’s confession of insufficiency

“The self-aggrandizing proclamations of Rameses III and of Sennacherib stand in stark contrast to Israel’s self-portrayal in the Old Testament.”

I mention these two ancient examples of kings honouring themselves to give a flavour of what kingship and nationhood was like in the ancient world; how it was expected that kings would present themselves and their achievements.

Now when we come to the text of the Old Testament, these self-aggrandizing proclamations stand in stark contrast to what we read there.

Here are just a few examples of how Israel, in the Old Testament, confesses their own insufficiency and littleness.

1. The Exodus

“When we think about the Exodus from Egypt, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that this is Israel’s confession of having been of having been slaves to a nation mightier than themselves.”

“And when you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service [i.e., the Passover meal]. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed their heads and worshipped.
Exodus 12:25-27[4]

When we think about Israel’s Exodus from Egypt — probably still the central historical event in the Jewish consciousness — we shouldn’t overlook a number of facts about it:

  • The Exodus story is recorded by the people of Israel themselves. The book of Exodus is, after all, not some other people’s book about Israel; it is Israel’s book about themselves.
  • It is their confession of having been of having been slaves to a nation mightier than themselves.
  • It is their confession of total reliance on God to deliver them.

2. Israel’s self-confession of insufficiency in Deuteronomy

“Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.”

Deuteronomy 9:6-7

The book of Deuteronomy is a remarkable piece of writing. Coming at the end of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and subsequent forty-year wanderings in the wilderness, it largely comprises Moses’ final warnings to the people of Israel before he goes the way of all flesh, and they enter the Promised Land.

Even whilst Deuteronomy is extolling Israel as a ‘great nation’ because they have the Lord near to them in a way that no other nation has its gods near to it (Deut. 4:6-8), it declaims Israel as (in and of themselves) a small and insignificant nation:

“It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD[5] set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
Deuteronomy 7:7-8[6]

Recalling incidents recorded in the books Exodus and Numbers, Moses even reminds them that they are a stiff-necked and rebellious people:

“Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people. Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD. Even at Horeb you provoked the LORD to wrath, and the LORD was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you.”
Deuteronomy 9:6-8[7]

Again, it is important to remember that the book of Deuteronomy is a book written by Israel to itself. Like the Exodus story, it therefore stands in remarkable contrast to the self-aggrandizing propaganda of a Rameses III and a Sennacherib.

3. Israel’s self-confession of insufficiency at the end of the Old Testament

“If one reads the historical parts of the Old Testament end-to-end, reaching the end of Nehemiah one is left with a great sense of Israel’s national failure.”

The lengthy historical narrative part of the Old Testament comes to a close, chronologically speaking, with the book of Nehemiah, written probably between 445 and 420 B.C.[8]

(This is not to say that Nehemiah is the last book in our Old Testaments, or even that it was necessarily the last one of the Old Testament books to be written: simply that it is where the Old Testament’s narrative story comes to a close.)

And if one reads the historical parts of the Old Testament end-to-end, reaching the end of Nehemiah one is left with a great sense of Israel’s national failure.

To give a (very) brief synopsis of what has happened in Israel’s history prior to this:—

  • Israel was a monarchy from 1020 B.C. onwards.[9]
  • From 922 B.C.,[10] the nation Israel divided into a Northern Kingdom (Israel) and a Southern Kingdom (Judah).
  • In 721 B.C.,[11] the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire and ceased to be a nation.
  • In 587 B.C.,[12] the Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire, was carried away into exile in Babylon, and ceased to be a nation. The temple in Jerusalem, built by King Solomon, was destroyed.
  • After a seventy-year exile, the Jews were allowed by the Persian king Cyrus to return to the land of Israel and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (537 B.C.[13]).
  • Completion of the rebuilding of the temple, 515 B.C.[14]
  • End of the book of Nehemiah, 432 B.C.[15]

“In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but only the language of each people. And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them swear in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women?’”

Nehemiah 13:23-26

And yet, if one reads the closing chapters of the book of Nehemiah (chapters 9—13), it makes for very sad reading. All the national and communal problems — what the Bible calls ‘sin’ — that made Israel fail as a nation and go into exile in 721 (Northern Kingdom) and 587 B.C. (Southern Kingdom), are oh-so-obviously still present; the hearts of the people of Israel are still just as bad as they were before these exiles:

In those days also I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. And half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but only the language of each people. And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them swear in the name of God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?”[16]
Nehemiah 13:23-27[17]

Thus the entire Old Testament narrative ends with a sense of incompleteness: of being finished, without being fulfilled.

Perhaps in a profound way this is Israel’s great expression of insufficiency in the Old Testament.

Conclusion

In short, one of the truly remarkable characteristics of the Old Testament, as a body of text, is its sheer admission of failure on the part of the nation of Israel. That this — as Israel’s literary self-presentation — should be so diametrically opposite to the self-aggrandizing self-presentations we saw earlier, is another reason to see in the Old Testament the spark of divine inspiration.

Appendix: How does all this fit in with the New Testament?

Before we close, it is worth reflecting on how Israel’s self-confession of insufficiency in the Old Testament fits in with the tenor of the New Testament.

In fact, it paves the way for a thoroughly New Testament understanding of salvation.

“Israel’s self-confession of insufficiency paves the way for a thoroughly New Testament understanding of salvation. Thus in the Gospels Jesus does not come to save those who are (in their eyes) already righteous, but to save those who know they are failures.”

Firstly, it is precisely because of Israel’s insufficiency and failure in the Old Testament, that it is natural that in the Gospels Jesus comes to save those who are failures. He does not come to save those who are (in their eyes) already righteous, but to save those who (like Israel) know they are failures.

And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that [Jesus] was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Mark 2:16-17[18]

But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Matthew 9:12-13[19]

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Ephesians 2:8-9

Israel’s insufficiency in the Old Testament also paves the way for the apostle Paul’s understanding of salvation. For him, it could not be more obvious from the Old Testament writings that salvation is something given by God, not earned by us:

… so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 2:7-10[20]

People often see a great discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New. But here is an example of great continuity: Israel’s manifest inability to save themselves in the Old Testament, prepares us for the coming of Jesus “not to call the righteous, but sinners,” and for Paul’s understanding of salvation as being entirely by God’s grace “not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

*        *        *

In the next instalment in this series, we will consider a further example of continuity between the Old Testament and the New: that is, the resurrection (of Christ, of the dead generally) proclaimed in the Old Testament.

[Contents] [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11]

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] https://www.bible-history.com/empires/prism.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Intriguingly, the prism also contains a striking (if reluctant) admission of Sennacherib’s non-defeat of King Hezekiah. Rather than listing the utter submission of ‘Hezekiah the Judahite’ to him, as with other defeated kings, he writes that, having captured ‘forty-six of his strong, walled cities,’ he then besieged Jerusalem and had Hezekiah shut up there ‘like a caged bird.’ He stops short of saying that he succeeded in capturing Jerusalem. This shows remarkable agreement with the biblical accounts, e.g., 2 Kings 18:13—19:37.

[4] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+12%3A25-27&version=ESVUK

[5] Note, the point of the capitalization of the word ‘LORD’ in this and subsequent Old Testament passages, is as a traditional device in English Bibles to distinguish between two different Hebrew words for ‘Lord.’

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+7%3A7-8&version=ESVUK

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+9%3A6-8&version=ESVUK

[8] https://www.gotquestions.org/Book-of-Nehemiah.html

[9] This is according to the chronologies of W.F. Albright and of E.R. Thiele, as given in The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version ; Containing the Old and New Testaments with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, Anglicized ed (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), sec. Chronological Tables of Rulers (New Testament section, p.262).

[10] According to the chronology of W.F. Albright, ibid., p.263. The alternative chronology of E.R. Thiele gives this date as 931 B.C.

[11] Ibid. (722/3 B.C. according to Thiele.)

[12] Ibid. (586 B.C. according to Thiele.)

[13] https://biblehub.com/timeline/old.htm

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] It behoves us to point out here that Nehemiah’s prohibition on marrying foreign women is not to do with racism or with racial purity. The women of Ashdod, Ammon and Moab were worshippers of false gods — gods whom the Lord had explicitly and repeatedly warned Israel not to follow or worship. The intermarriage of Israel with women from these nations would inevitably lead to their worshipping their gods. That is the reason for Nehemiah’s prohibition: it is about religious purity, and devotion to the Lord, and not about racial purity.

[17] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Nehemiah+13%3A23-27&version=ESVUK

[18] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+2%3A16-17&version=ESVUK

[19] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+9%3A12-13&version=ESVUK

[20] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+2%3A7-10&version=ESVUK

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