At the coaxing from a friend (think firm twist of arm here), what with my growing interest in seeing the significance of leaving the Bible as a single story finding its conclusion in the Christ, I am making my way through N.T. Wright’s “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.”
As one would expect, the author spends his earlier pages attempting to convince the reader we have an issue with the way we read the gospel accounts. His point is to show that for most of us, the New Testament could have opened its content immediately following Genesis three, and nothing of our biblical understanding would be swayed one way or the other. His point, here paraphrased, “Each of the four gospel authors pen their accounts as the apex, climax, and conclusion to the entire Old Testament story.”
Picking only one to share here (this book addresses all four), Matthew opens his gospel account with what should get him thrown out of any book writers club today, a genealogy. What’s worse, he closes Jesus’s family tree with a strange revelation of there being three fourteen generational periods combing through Israel’s history, with no explanation why. For the original readers of his story, Matthew had no need to. Me, on the other hand, well, not so much.
According to the author (Wright), it is here (the very first verses of the gospel accounts) that we are left clueless without the old story. Even though the Jews have now spent centuries back in Israel after their exile to Babylon, they have never been able to return to the state of their existence that their fathers enjoyed under David and Solomon. In reality, after returning from Babylon, they have always been under the rule of other nations.
“The great promises of Isaiah and Ezekiel hadn’t yet come true.”
Ezra and Nehemiah cried out, “Here we are, slaves to this day — slaves in the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts (Neh. 9:36).” The “fourteen generation clause” is a jubilant proclamation, “Daniel’s Messiah is here!”
When Daniel presented his supplication (Dan. 9), leaning heavily on Jeremiah’s 70 year prophecy, to the Lord, an answer comes to him, “Not seventy years… but seventy weeks of years, or seventy times seven years; 490 years.” Daniel was told that “490 years were decreed for his people and the holy city: to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place.” To this, NT Wright observes,
“That sounds like a devastatingly depressing answer, and in a way it is. That’s a long time to wait. But the idea of “seventy times seven” has a particular ring to it, more obvious to an ancient Jew than to us today. Every seven days, they had a Sabbath. Every seven years, they had a sabbatical year. And every seven-times-seven years, they had — or at least they were supposed to have had, according to Leviticus — a jubilee. This was when slaves were freed, when land sold off by the family was restored to its original owner, when things got put back as they should be. The jubilee is a fascinating social innovation within the legislation of ancient Israel, a sign that relentless buying and selling of land, goods, and even people won’t be the last word.
But seventy times seven? That sounds like a jubilee of jubilees! So, through four hundred and ninety years — nearly half a millennium — indeed a long time, the point is this: when the time finally arrives, it will be the greatest ‘redemption’ of all. This will be the time of real, utter, and everlasting freedom. That is the hope that sustained the Israelites in the long years of the centuries before the time of Jesus.”
It is the author’s understanding that Matthew “makes this clear beyond cavil, to anyone thinking Jewishly,” that the moment had come with Jesus. “Instead of years, he does it with generations, the generations of Israel’s entire history from Abraham to the present. All the generations to that point were fourteen times three, that is, six sevens — with Jesus we get the seventh seven. He is the jubilee in person. He is the one who will rescue Israel from its long-continued nightmare.”
“He,” says the angel to Joseph, “is the one who will save his people from their sins (1:21).”
Wright here discusses the term “exile” and exactly what it encompassed for Israel, and how “save his people from their sins (their payment for their sin was their exile)” for them, was heard to mean — to be finally and permanently released from exile; to be truly free from the rule of others (if the Son makes you free; you will be free indeed).
So what is the big deal of returning to reading the Bible through the eyes and ears of those who originally received it? What is the point of telling the story of Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel?
The author of this book insists it is of foundational importance, for as he says, “Understand this point, and you will understand almost everything.”
“In Israel’s scriptures, the reason Israel’s story matters is that the creator of the world has chosen and called Israel to be the people through whom he will redeem the world.”
“What God does for Israel is what God is doing in relation to the whole world. That is what it meant to be Israel, to be the people who, for better and worse, carried the destiny of the world on their shoulders. Grasp that, and you have a pathway into the heart of the New Testament.”