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Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Least of the Nations

I've started reading through 1 Chronicles intensively for the first time, and some of you are already beginning to yawn, because you know what 1 Chronicles starts with: genealogies.  Lots and lots of genealogies.  Lots of lists of names that you can't pronounce that don't seem to be of any value.  But I'm going through it with a fine-toothed comb anyway.  These lists were very important to the Jews after the exile at the very least so that individuals could establish their authentic Jewishness and in some cases Levitical or priestly office (for why this was so important, see here).  As I immerse myself in 1 Chronicles I can't help but start to look at the world from the perspective of a postexilic Jew, which sheds light on a great deal of the Bible and sometimes provides spiritual insights in surprising ways.

For example, the very beginning of 1 Chronicles gives the lineage of Adam to Noah's sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth and then gives an overview of the nations descended from them in parallel with Genesis 10.  This sketches the entire ethnographic world that the Israelites knew in very broad strokes.  Some of the nations listed here we know very well (e.g., Mizraim/Mitsráyim = Egypt).  Others we have only a vague idea of and still others we don't know anything about at all.  But you can't pore over this list, painstakingly cross-checking every name with other biblical references and examining commentators' speculations, without getting the picture of a world that to the Israelites was really, really big with really, really huge nations that were already taking up all available space.  As the genealogy narrows telescopically down the line of Shem to Abraham and then from all the nations descended from Abraham to Israel itself, you get a sense of the tininess of God's chosen people in their crowded world.  For example, Egypt/Mizraim had a ten-generation head start on Israel to multiply and populate territory.

This is the backdrop of Moses' admonishing reminder to Israel that
you are a people holy to the LORD your God.  He has chosen you to be his people, prized above all others on the face of the earth.  It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the LORD favored and chose you—for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples.  Rather it is because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the promise that he solemnly vowed to your ancestors that the LORD brought you out with great power, redeeming you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt [Deut. 7:6-8].
God loves using the small, the weak, the few, and the undeserving to accomplish his work and reveal his glory.  The Bible gives example after example of it.  And in church history we see examples of it too, (e.g., the Moravian Church).  Ironically, the power that God exerts through the small frequently makes the small big, and then as we view it we become seduced by bigness.  (Solomon might be a telling example of this.)  But even then, out of the drifting, seemingly successful big thing, God will again bring new life out of the small thing within it.  This cycle should remind big churches, ministries, and movements of God to be humble and small ones to be hopeful.  The small should also be cautious not to envy the big but to seek the God who is faithful to his promises.

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