Israel and the Nations: A Mission Theology of the Old Testament – Book Review

Israel and the Nations: A Mission Theology of the Old Testament
Author:  James Chukwuma Okoye
Publisher:  Orbis Books, 2006
ISBN:  1 570 75654 6

Book Review by Tim Davy,  Reviews Editor for Encounters.

Things are hotting up in the areas of mission and the Old Testament.  At Redcliffe we are laying the foundations for an ongoing research project looking at the relationship between these two fields.  We hope in some way to contribute to the growing conversation between biblical scholars and the theorists and practitioners of mission.  Regular readers of Encounters will recall my review of Chris Wright’s Truth with a Mission (April edition), which is a prelude to his much more substantial treatment of mission in the OT due out this Autumn.  Interestingly, Wright used some of his material in his plenary address at this year’s Tyndale triennial conference, which itself was on the theme of ‘Transforming the World’.

All this would be more than enough to make 2006 a year to remember for the understanding of OT and mission.  So imagine my further delight when Orbis sent me a copy of Israel and the Nations: A Mission Theology of the Old Testament.

James Okoye is associate professor of biblical studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.  The book, he says, was born out of his realisation while preparing to teach on the Bible and mission that there were very few textbooks available for the OT section of the course.  Following a useful, albeit brief, review of the relevant literature Okoye sets out the ‘four faces’ of mission in the OT. These become the organising principle of Israel and the Nations as he takes us on a journey through different key texts.

The four faces are as follows:

1. Universality (of salvation and judgement): “the consciousness that all people can be righteous or evil before Yahweh” (p.11).  So, Yahweh is not just a regional deity, but the God of the whole world.  Chapters 3-5 explore this theme, focusing on the texts of Genesis 1, Psalm 8 and Genesis 12.

2. Community-in-mission: “the awareness that Israel’s very existence is bound up with the knowledge and glory of Yahweh among the peoples and that Israel’s election serves the glory of God” (p.11).  So, Israel acts as a model for the onlooking world of a people living according to the ways of Yahweh.  Israel is to be “a revelation of God to the nations” (p.11).  In this regard, chapters 6-8 look at Exodus 19, Amos and Jonah.  Chapter 9, ‘The Primacy of the Righteousness of God’, forms a bridge to the next section.

3. Centripetal mission: where “the nations stream on pilgrimage to Zion, there to be instructed in God’s torah and in God’s ways” (p.12).  Texts that are dealt with in chapters 10 and 11 include Psalm 96 and Isaiah 2.

4. Centrifugal mission: where “active effort is made to reach outsiders and through conversion include them in the covenant as ‘proselytes'” (p.12).  A number of texts are explored under this heading in chapters 12-14 including Isaiah 19; 56; 65; 66; Zechariah 14.  A whole chapter in this section is dedicated to Isaiah 40-55 and mission, including an analysis of the ‘servant songs’.

Okoye contends that Israel’s ‘mission consciousness’ developed over time, starting off with an inward focus (pre-exile) through to a more universal view (apocalyptic), via the shattering experience of the exile.  This idea of development is key to Israel and the Nations.  Each text is treated systematically using a variety of tools: literary context, historical analysis, reception in the rest of the OT/NT, and comparison with similar texts. Okoye’s approach is heavily dependent on redaction criticism.  He suggests that it is possible to detect different editorial hands at work in the texts and, so, to trace the development of certain ideas. Thus, he is able to say that certain ideas are ‘late’ even though they purport to occur early in Israel’s history.  Despite these critical assertions Okoye is still able to conclude that when Paul quotes Isaiah 49:6 (‘a light to the nations’) as a defence of gospel proclamation he “was rooting the Christian mission fully in Old Testament traditions” (cf. Acts 13:46-47).

I very much enjoyed reading Israel and the Nations.  It is refreshing to see discussions on mission starting at Genesis 1 as opposed to Genesis 12, crucial though the Abrahamic promise is.  The treatment of Exodus 19 and Amos is particularly interesting and the discussion on Jonah displays an insightful awareness of the literary features of the book and their repercussions for mission.  The material on Isaiah raised a number of important questions but, for me, it suffered from a lack of space to deal with the outstanding issues.

At 158 pages, Israel and the Nations is long enough to get into some worthwhile discussions, but too short to deal adequately with all the material mentioned, let alone other texts that could have been included.  The conclusion unexpectedly introduces a fair amount of new material mentioning Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther and Ruth, as well as the Hellenistic and Roman periods.  Virtually nothing is said of these up to this point.  Perhaps this is a little unfair; Okoye’s main concern is to trace the shift in OT faith to a more inclusive, outward looking missionary consciousness.  However, I would have liked to know more about such books as Deuteronomy which combines the sublime charge on Israel to love the alien, with the disturbing command to wipe out the Canaanites.  How does this affect the OT’s understanding of mission?  I suspect that a lot more could have been said about the Psalms as well.

An OT perspective on mission is essential for understanding mission both in the NT and today.  I would certainly recommend Israel and the Nations; it is well written, provocative and imaginatively thought through.  It will be an interesting read alongside Christ Wright’s forthcoming and more substantial volume (particularly as I suspect their methodological approaches will be different).  However, if you only want to read one book on the subject I would wait for the latter.

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