Ordinary Country, Extraordinary People

In my post on this blogsite about the book of Joshua, I have a section called, “It’s the Land, Stupid,” and I note that in this book “the importance of the land is manifest, and big chunks of the book are detailed, survey-like description of boundaries.” I continue with this paragraph:

This reflects an important point about the Old Testament:  the centrality of place.  When you think about it, the whole narrative arc concerns the Jewish homeland.  That’s where God tells the first Jew, Abraham, to go.  That’s where the other two patriarchs, Isaac and Jacob, live and die.  When their children leave to live in Egypt, their descendants eventually become slaves, and so they struggle to return to the homeland, and finally do so.  The boundaries are set by divine will (see, e.g., [Joshua] 13:1-6).   And there they live for about a thousand years until they are exiled to Babylon, and there they return thereafter.  When, in the New Testament five hundred years later, the faith becomes available to those with no ancestral roots in the homeland and converts without those roots are aggressively sought, this is a very big deal.  That universalism would come to characterize Christianity, but the focus on the Jewish homeland has never lost its importance for most Jews, down to this very day.

I’ll add, too, that the land itself seems to me to be nothing special. It’s strategically located, and the climate is okay, but it’s small and rather barren and not especially rich in natural resources, right?

Likewise, when you think about it, the record of ancient Israel as a state was mediocre at best. It had a brief good run around 1500 B.C. with Joshua’s conquest, and around 1000 B.C. with David and Solomon, but that was that. It was never a world leader, and there was nothing remarkable about its political structure. Nor was it any great shakes in the sciences or the fine arts either — literature and law and, of course, theology being the exceptions — nor in agriculture, nor in engineering, nor in anything else.

And yet, and yet. As a people, and as individuals, the Jews always have been and remain extraordinary in their achievement and resilience. If God has chosen you, the world doesn’t have to.

And there may be something providential here. Suppose Israel had become a world power with great wealth. There would have been a great temptation then to spread faith by the sword, and that is not the idea, is it? And, indeed, if the Sanhedrin had had the power the Romans did, how could the good news brought by one particular Jew have been spread at all?