Why It Matters That Israel is a Failure

I apologize for not doing more serious posting this week. There was the music, which always gets me sidetracked (in a good way), and then the anxiety of our situation (jobless, mostly homeless) rears its ugly head. Jennifer needed asthma medicine, and the free clinic we got it from in Cincinnati is now far away (we’re in Baltimore for the month). The Walmart pharmacy is dealing with it, and we got a GlaxoSmithKline coupon for a free month of Advair.

(And we have a long-term solution for her asthma meds.)

And now … our stuff. We stowed it with someone in Chicago who was selling their house but not expecting to sell it quickly. But it sold. So, I have to be back in Chicago on Tuesday and figure out exactly what to do with our worldly goods (which are not much at this point) and then get back here. Which, of course, is exhausting the money we have. And no more is coming in.

I hate living like this. I don’t know what to do to make it different — finding work these days has become about knowing people, and I don’t really know anyone anymore (though our stay here is helping with that). Once upon a time, I could send a CV in and get a call back from an interested editor within 48 hours. But folks are inundated with resumes anymore. And whatever standout qualities I have — book, essay in Christianity Today, upcoming TV appearance (yes, really) — don’t seem to make anyone’s cut.

We go on, because we trust in God. There has always been manna (מָ֑ן) in this wilderness of ours. But honestly, I’ve reached Israel’s point of grumbling about the manna. And the water. And the lack of interesting things to eat. And can we get to where we’re going already, this “land flowing with milk and honey”? (אֶ֣רֶץ זָבַ֤ת חָלָב֙ וּדְבַ֔שׁ) I get a grumbling Israel. Even an ungrateful Israel.

And we’ve had such kindness in the last couple of years that I get quail coming out my nose too.

But I’m ready for this to end.

There’s something interesting about that phrase, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” It’s almost never used to describe the actual land of Israel, the land of promise, when Israel resides there. It’s a promise, this “flowing with milk and honey,” it describes a place Israel is going. Or, in the prophetic books, the land Israel is being (or has been) expelled from. (In Number 16, the followers of Korah describe Egypt with that phrase when they challenge Moses’ rule, also challenging the promises of God when they do.)

This land of milk and honey exists only as a promise. Or in memory. Or the imagination. It’s never real. David is not king of a land that flows with milk and honey. The Judges did not rule over a land that flows with milk and honey. The Assyrians have not swept through, nor have the Babylonians besieged, a land that flows with milk and honey.

It’s a promise.

I love the story of Israel. I didn’t always. As a Muslim convert to Christianity, the Hebrew Bible was (in my understanding), merely triumphalist twaddle, a property deed, for the State of Israel. (I am not a supporter of the State of Israel, and I never have been. God’s people, yes, but the current state is not God’s promise. Scripture is not a title deed to a chunk of land. Jesus fulfills all of the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and the prophets. This is orthodox belief if you read Paul and take him seriously.) I came to appreciate the story only after my first failed pastoral internship, when I dug into the Deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings), and finished my first deep reading of the Torah. (I learned to love Numbers!) This story resonated with me in some very dark hours (in some ways not all that different from where we are now), because it’s a story of failure.

Israel has failed. God called Abraham, made him promises — descendants, blessing to the world, and patrimony — and then reiterated and expanded on those promises over time. The promises are that Israel will be blessed if it follows the teaching God gives it. God also promises curses, and there are lots more of those than blessings, if Israel fails (or, in the case of Deuteronomy, when Israel fails).

Good promises war, defeat, conquest, and exile. And a great deal more.

Israel fails. This says something about who we are as church. We are failures — as individual Christians and as a church. We cannot keep the law. Israel couldn’t. We may have Jesus, and that does change the nature of the relationship we as the assembled people of God have with our Lord (I plan on writing more about this later), but I don’t think it changes the fact that we have failed. Will fail.

Are failures.

It matters because when we speak of church, too frequently, we speak of our righteousness and faithfulness as the people of God. We speak as if that is what truly matters. We still think in terms of the if-then of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. We have to get it right, or God will punish us. And we think we can get it right. Israel couldn’t, but we can.

Again, God speaks to Israel through Moses:

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Deuteronomy 30:1-3 ESV)

Not if these things come upon you. When. Because the faithfulness that matters is God’s. That is the only faithfulness that has ever mattered. And it mattered long before God became human in our midst as Jesus the Anointed One (מְשִׁיח / χριστός), proclaimed forgiveness, stared our evil desires in the face, died at our hands, and rose from the dead.

I get the mourning for Christendom, even the denatured version that flourished in America for so long. It meant something akin to order (even if it wasn’t very good order for some, or very kind to some, and the virtue it promoted was little different than bourgeois respectability) for a great many people, and it made possible arrangements of caring and compassion and laws that might value and respect human beings. (At least some of them, some of the time.)

But like Israel, we have failed. Our faithfulness may succeed in times and places, but in the end, we will inevitably fail. And the judgement of God will come. We can no more avert that judgment than Jehoiakim could defeat or even keep the Babylonians at bay. Because the sins he was paying for — the faithlessness Judah was bearing — began long before, at the height of Israel’s power, with Solomon and his tolerance of foreign gods, and his costly state and army that prompted a rebellion that proclaimed:

“What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David!” (1 Kings 12:16 ESV)

We have failed. I have failed.

The faithfulness of God is not in the miraculous triumph over the enemy at hand, but over death. Resurrection is the sign of God’s faithfulness. That is the true meaning of Christ’s presence with, and marriage to, the church. We belong to one who was dead — who we betrayed and killed with our words, our laws, our institutions, and our bare hands — who is no longer dead. He has risen, and in rising he has conquered death. We are no longer dead. And we will never be dead. That’s God’s faithfulness.

It never fails. Resurrection, not restoration, is our hope.

Getting this back to the personal, I don’t know what happens next. I do know that Jennifer and I will not die in the wilderness. I don’t know how we won’t die, but I know we won’t. I have no idea what our portion of David looks like right now, but I know we have it. I still hate living like this. I am paralyzed by the anxiety sometimes. I don’t know how much longer our vehicle will last (it runs hot and the transmission is beginning to act up in ways that scare me). We may end up having to pitch a tent wherever we break down, and call that home.

I do trust God. Because God is faithful. God forgives. God redeems. God raises from the dead.

2 thoughts on “Why It Matters That Israel is a Failure

  1. Tolkien once said that he “was Roman Catholic, and, therefore prepared for the “long defeat” over history with “some glimpses of the final victory”. That’s a pretty profound statement and certainly not progressive. Sometimes its hard to believe that what is right may not triumph, and we are still called to walk by faith anyway.

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