The Interpretation of History

The review of N.T. Wright that I wrote just recently sparked some reflections in my mind on the nature of history. What is the overall shape of history? For Wright, Israel plays a very large role. The question is whether that role is too large. Of course, we live in a post-Holocaust age wherein no one desires to be on the wrong end of “anti-Semitism.” Nevertheless, that should not significantly impact our reading of Scripture, considering that both the writing of it and the majority of its interpretation came before the Holocaust.

N.T. Wright’s construction of history runs something like this: after the Fall, God appointed Abraham (and through him Israel) to fix what Adam broke. However, Israel became part of the problem, because, instead of becoming the second Adam, they revealed that they were in the first Adam, and therefore subject to the Fall. Therefore God, if He was going to put the world to rights, needed to fix Israel as well, and through Israel, the world, so that the promises made to Abraham concerning being a blessing to the nations could be fulfilled. This God did through the faithful Israel: Jesus Christ. Having begun that fulfillment, God will bring it to completion in the new heavens and the new earth, which is not some Platonic divorced-from-this-world result, but rather a transformation of this world, putting it to rights.

Now, there is much that I can agree with in this narrative of history. In fact, I can agree with most of it. However, I would deny that God appointed Abraham himself or Israel itself as the solution of the problem. Instead, Abraham and Israel functioned as the carrier of the Messiah, who was always intended from the beginning (dated from Genesis 3:15, humanly speaking; from eternity, from God’s perspective) to be the solution to the problem of Adam and Eve’s Fall. This does not result in a demotion of Abraham and Israel. To see why this is the case, we must examine Genesis 3:15, which I regard as the fundamental statement of the meaning of history, when it is properly interpreted in the light of the rest of Scripture.

Genesis 3:15 promised a battle between two seeds. There would be enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. This enmity must be interpreted in the light of the switch in covenantal allegiance that Adam and Eve had effected in their Fall: instead of being covenantally in agreement with God, they became covenantally allied with the serpent. God’s promise of enmity between the two seeds is a gracious statement of the breaking of that new covenantal allegiance, and reverting that allegiance back to Himself.

The enmity between the two seeds immediately began manifesting itself in the incident of Cain and Abel (it is not terrifically difficult to discern who is the seed of whom, surely!). The two seeds (or two cities, as Augustine would say) continued their battle in the incidents of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Israel and Egypt, Israel and the Canaanites, Elijah and the prophets of Baal, and scores of other stories in the Old Testament. Sometimes the seed of the serpent was outside the people of God. Sometimes it was inside the people of God. The climax of that enmity is, of course, Jesus and Satan, the ultimate seeds of the woman and of the serpent. From Genesis to Revelation, this conflict explains everything that happens in world history, with the seed of the woman ultimately victorious. To me, this makes better sense of world history than Wright’s version, which seems to imply that God’s purposes almost failed when Israel became part of the problem. God’s purposes never came even close to failing, since the whole plan was established before the creation even came into being.

For Israel, not only are they the carriers of the seed, but they are also themselves of the seed of the woman. This is their significance in the Old Testament, and one could hardly think of a higher significance or honor for a people to have than that. The only thing I want to stress here is that God never intended for Israel itself or Abraham himself to be the solution, except insofar as Abraham and Israel looked ahead to Abraham’s greater Son and the True Israel.