Of them the world was not worthy: Israel’s heroes with and without Christ

Israel’s better savior

Christians tend to evaluate the Israelite saviors of old as wholly inadequate in comparison to the sinless and eternally-sufficient savior of the new covenant—Jesus Christ. It is only God’s beloved Son, unstained by a sinful nature, who is able to deliver his people from sin and its consequences. Since all other human beings are corrupted by Adam’s act of disobedience, none of Israel’s noble ancestors could rescue the nation from wrath, affliction, futility, and death: Abraham was a liar, Jacob a trickster, Moses a murderer, Samson a troublemaker, David a thief, and Solomon an idolater. Lacking a perfectly righteous king and redeemer then, the Jewish people were ensnared by sin from Jacob to John, unable to obtain peace with God and fulfill their Abrahamic telos. Yet God in his mercy sent his Son, born of a virgin, fully God and fully man, to die as an atonement for human evil.

When the Hebrew Bible is read in this fashion the biographical tales of Israel’s greatest leaders are made to serve the divine savior myth that has come to define the Christian religion. Stories of apparent misdeed and failure, even among the Israelite heroes, prove that God’s unilateral intervention in Christ was necessary to address sin and the dysfunction it spawns. Like Abel’s spilled blood, the universal human sinfulness evidenced in the Old Testament cries out for a better savior: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).1

Original Sin [of nations] in Paul

The main scriptural basis for this hermeneutical approach is, of course, the Apostle Paul. It is Paul who identifies Christ’s super-abounding grace as the remedy for Adam’s super-abounding curse.

Paul’s consignment of humanity to the power of sin, however, should be read in the context of his mission to bring “all nations” (i.e. all ethnic groups) into the obedience of faith now at the conclusion of the present evil age.2 While Paul believed that the Jewish people and the various Greek peoples were each captured by sin, their nations and civilizations being manifestations of this corruption, there were still some Jews and a few Greeks who obeyed God with a whole heart. It was these nations, not these individuals, that needed to exchange rebellion and idolatry for righteousness and monotheism before it was too late.

Indeed, the very Biblical texts that Paul appeals to in Romans 3 in order to ascribe sin to “all” are haunted therein by the presence of the upright—those Israelites who face persecution from “sinners” on account of their unflinching piety (cf. Psalm 5:11-2, 14:5, 53:4, Isaiah 59:7). The apocryphal Ezra corroborates this idea of exception: “What nation has kept your commandments as well as Israel? You may indeed find individuals who have kept your commandments, but nations you will not find” (2 Esdras 3:35-36). Idolatry had poisoned the Greek peoples and lawlessness had leavened the nation of the Jews; yet some Greeks still honored the true God (cf. Romans 2:14, Acts 10:2) and some Jews still kept his commandments “without fault” (cf. Luke 1:6, 15:7).

The problem with a few good men

Paul’s supposed doctrine of universal personal sin must also overcome those figures in the Bible who receive wholly positive moral appraisals. Noah was “righteous and blameless” in his generation (Genesis 6:9); Caleb “followed [God] fully” (Joshua 14:24); some Israelite tribes “obeyed everything” Moses and Joshua commanded them in the wilderness (Joshua 22:2); David kept all the commands of God all the days of his life except in the case of Uriah (1 Kings 15:5, cf. Ezekiel 28:15); Kings Hezekiah and Josiah did not deviate from the Law of the Lord, neither to the right nor to the left (2 Kings 18:5-6, 23:25); Job was “blameless and upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:1).

There is little doubt that the Biblical authors would have spoken similarly concerning Abel, Enoch, Joseph, Phinehas, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and many other prophets, warriors, and wise-men. The Israelite conscience, so it seems, simply had no conception of Original Sin; the Hebrew mind saw no problem with a few good men. Yes, Adam’s disobedience had doomed humanity to pain and toil, but not to total depravity.

Second Temple literature—the New Testament included—continues along this trajectory, even with those characters widely considered to be morally-ambiguous. Those crafty Hebrews who improved Israel’s lot (e.g. Samson) are elevated and glorified in exceptional ways without compunction (cf. 1 Maccabees 2:50-64, 4 Maccabees 18:6-19).

  • The Chronicler omits the sins of David and Solomon that had made them tragic but compelling figures in the Deuteronomistic History. The prophetic hope for a future messianic (i.e. Davidic) age exploits this gilded memory their nearly 100-year reign: “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:25).
  • In the Wisdom of Solomon Lady Wisdom “delivered Adam from his transgression and gave him the strength to rule all things” (10:1-2). Wisdom rescued Lot, “a righteous man, when the ungodly were perishing” (10:6, cf. 2 Peter 2:7-8). Moses was a “blameless man” and a “holy prophet” who “withstood [God’s] anger and put an end to the disaster.. conquering the wrath not by strength of body, not by force of arms, but by his word he subdued the avenger” (18:21-22).
  • In the Book of Sirach Noah “was found perfect and righteous; in the time of wrath he kept humanity alive” (44:17-18). Abraham “kept the Law of the Most High God” (44:20). The hearts of the Judges “did not fall to idolatry and did not turn away from the Lord” (46:11). King Josiah “kept his heart fixed on the Lord; in lawless times he made godliness prevail” (49:3). Except for David, Hezekiah, and Josiah, all the kings of Judah committed sins (49:4).
  • Philo confirms that Moses was “the greatest and most perfect man that ever lived… [and] a most beautiful and Godlike work, to be a model for all those who were inclined to imitate him. Happy are they who… take on [his] perfect appearance of virtue” (Life of Moses 1:1, 158-159).
  • According to the Book of Jubilees Abraham was “perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well-pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life” (23:10). Jacob’s wife Leah was “perfect and upright in all her ways and honored Jacob, and all the days that she lived with him he did not hear from her mouth a harsh word, for she was gentle and peaceable and upright and honorable” (36:24).

The early Christians also participated in this idealization of the fathers. Hebrews 11, for instance, offers an encomium similar to those presented in Sirach and Wisdom. Noah “condemned the world” by his faith, acting as a proto-Son of Man (11:7). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were paragons of loyalty to God (11:8-21). Moses bore “the reproach of Christ” by turning down a life of glory in Egypt, thus becoming like Christ both in his suffering and in his faithfulness (11:26). Rahab the prostitute escaped destruction because she was not found among the “disobedient” of her people (11:31). Some of the Judges—Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah—are also given unqualified approval based on their actions (11:32-40). Through this faith in good things to come they achieved awesome political reversals on behalf of Israel: “They conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight… Of them the world was not worthy (11:32-38).

None of these texts dwell upon—or even mention—the sins of Israel’s greatest heroes. Despite the Christian preoccupation with moral futility, the memories of these figures hardly serve to demonstrate the need for the expiation of universal personal sin. Instead, their feats of bravery, cunning, and obedience in the interests of Israel’s mythic future demonstrate the moral fortitude and capability of the righteous ancestors.

Within the context presented by Hebrews 11, therefore, Christ comes not to rectify their sin and failure but to surpass their faith through a death-defying feat in these final days before the eschatological age. Christ achieves this greater fidelity not because he is more moral than those who also conquered before him—as if he alone were free from an abiding and intractable sinful nature—but rather because he faces and triumphs over a greater trial, choosing to die in disrepute instead of assuming a life of honor and power as was owed to him as Israel’s king (12:1-13). Long ago, Moses had taken up the call to trade Egyptian prestige for danger and dishonor. This Moses had even entered the heart of the sea, despising the risk of being swallowed up along with his people. Yet it was only Christ, not Moses, who received and experienced the call to crucifixion, the call to suffer a most shameful death—publicly executed as a sinner. Such was the mighty deed performed at the end of the ages, the final key with which the kingdom would finally be unlocked.

Besmirching the righteous

The Christian tendency to disparage the heroes of Israel’s past as sinners and failures owes its power to the assumption that the Biblical narrative serves the needs of the divine savior myth and the psychological benefits it reliably bestows. In this way the memories of Jacob, Moses, David, etc. are preserved for the sake of Christian doctrine, to prove that Christ alone provides true redemption from hostile spiritual realities: sin, condemnation, and death. Christ alone, so it goes, is the morally-perfect savior whose death atones for morally-imperfect souls.

This, I think, is a misguided starting point. In the eschatologically-potent situation that the earliest Christians found themselves, God’s forgiveness of Israel and the nations had political, not just spiritual, consequences. God’s rehabilitated people, made holy by blood and fire, were about to inherit the empire, governance of the world. Christ’s sacrifice had brought about not just the end of pagan imperial dominance over the saints (cf. Daniel 7), but also Israel’s long-awaited Golden Age, the fulfilment of the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

It is with reference to this end—the theo-political liberation and exaltation of Israel out from under pagan control—that the author of Hebrews heaps praises upon the glorious dead (cf. Hebrews 12:18-29). The worthies of Israel’s troubled but sometimes-magnificent past were not “sinners” in the Hebrew sense of the word; they were not flagrant law-breakers and despisers of God. They were, rather, repentant, friends of God, those with whom God was pleased to speak and negotiate. Indeed, some of them had no sin at all. These men succeeded in the primary task given them, often at great cost. By their righteous deeds they advanced God’s kingdom in Israel despite the usual defiance of the people, paving the way for the Messiah’s final act of obedient faith.

1—Sometimes this line of reasoning is coupled with a critique of Israel’s nationalistic and political hopes. While most Jews were looking for a warrior-king to rule upon a throne in Jerusalem, Christ came to solve humanity’s true predicament, sin, and in so doing establish a spiritual (not a political) community, the Church.

2—The apocalytpic outlook typically views current conditions as the worst they have ever been (cf. Mark 13:19). All the forces of evil rage fiercest against the Lord and his anointed just prior to their demise at the end of the age. The doctrine of Original Sin may well represent the universalizing and systematizing of this pessimistic fatalism beyond the End Times context.

One thought on “Of them the world was not worthy: Israel’s heroes with and without Christ

  1. In the Christian view, we are all sinners because Adam was. Suppose now that Jesus believed himself to be Adam and had to redeem himself. Look at the following:
    – Adam is the Son of God (Luke 3:38).
    – Jesus is the firstborn of God (Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15, 18; Hebrews 1:6; 12:23; Revelation 1:5).
    – Before Abraham was, I am (John 8:58).

    If so, you might ask why did Jesus believe he was Adam?


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