People, Land, Nation, Name, Blessing. These were the five main building blocks of God’s covenant with Abraham. A covenant was a type of formal agreement between two parties in the Ancient Near East (ANE), usually between a powerful king and a conquered or subservient nation. This covenant, established way back in Genesis, revolved around God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants forever. But Abraham was a person, not a people. That’s why this covenant was so unique. God promised to build Abraham into a people – with a special purpose. How long would that take? Over 550 years, as it turns out.
Our story picks up in the book of Joshua with Israel as a people – but no land, no nation, and not much of a name. Having escaped Egypt, the Israelites had no place of their own, but God had promised them the land of Canaan, whose inhabitants had become so wicked in God’s eyes that He had resolved to remove and scatter them. It started out well enough, with the miraculous defeat of Jericho. The holy name of their great God (YHWH) brought the walls down! But things soon turned sour. Disobedience, greed, unfaithfulness and corruption brought defeat and suffering. Yet long-term obedience to God seemed to elude them. They settled in the land, but only in parts. They followed YWHW’s commands, but only periodically.
We often forget the broader historical context: ‘the collapse of the Bronze Age’. The great civilizations had fallen, the Ancient Near East (ANE) was in tumult and upheaval. Historians refer to this as ‘a time of mass migration, disruption, and destruction – a dark age of history.’
Ancient histories were invariably expressed in terms of great kings, triumphant battles, conquest, and accomplishments. But the biblical history of Israel has often been called ‘a minority report’. Israel had no king and told its history in terms of its relationship with YHWH and obedience to another covenant, ‘the Mosaic Law’, which often portrayed it in a very bad light indeed!
Time after time they failed and fell short. They intermarried, served other gods, and fell into a never-ending cycle of sin, punishment, desperation, repentance, deliverance (when God raised up ‘Judges’ to save them)… then further sin. Theirs was not a triumphant history, but an honest record of failure: the ‘minority report’. The sad conclusion: ‘Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit’ (Judg 21:25).