I is for Israel
In the Divine Alphabet, I is for Israel.
The late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson put Israel into his identification of God. Here’s the opening sentence of the heart of Jenson’s systematic theology: “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.” God’s identity cannot be separated from his choice of Israel, and his action is rescuing Israel from her enslavement under Pharaoh.
It’s like a marriage; it’s like the Song of Songs. “My beloved is mine and I am his” could be words sung in response by Israel to her God. Just as there’s no thinking of a husband apart from his wife, so there’s no thinking of God apart from Israel. God has created all the peoples of the earth, but this people, Israel, he has chosen to be his own.
Why? We can get a sense of it from the purpose of Israel amongst the peoples of the earth. God calls Abraham and multiplies his descendants for the sake of all of humanity: “through you, all the nations of the world will be blessed” (Gen. 12). But we must also admit it does not make sense. Why Abraham? Why Israel? There is no answer other than that God chose him, chose them. The prophets will tell Israel as much later on, reminding Israel that she wasn’t better or wiser or smarter or more refined than anyone else. God just fell in love with her.
The heart of it is this: “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
Although there is no necessity for anything God does, and in particular there is no necessity for God to create or to choose a people or indeed even to care about human beings, the fact is that God has voluntarily and without any necessity tied himself up with people. There is no way to understand God, the real God, the God who really exists—no way to understand him apart from Israel. God will not be an abstraction. God is not a universal principle; he is not even something great like Truth or Love or Beauty. God, as Jenson says, is the one who raised Israel from Egypt, who rescued his beloved from her oppression, who stuck with her and shaped her and gave her the Law and spoke to her prophets; who did these things and who keeps on doing them.
“Israel” was, first, a name given to Abraham’s grandson Jacob. In the midst of a lonely night, poised on the edge of danger, Jacob was met by an angel and had to wrestle with him. The angel was strong, but so was Jacob. Jacob also was shrewd, so he asked the angel’s name. However, the angel—who was really God—did not reveal his own name (only centuries later would he reveal his name, and that was to Moses). Instead, the wrestling angel gave Jacob a new name: Israel.
Israel: do you see the “el” at the end of it? That means “God.” Is-ra-el means “He who wrestled (or wrestles) with God.” Jacob’s name reveals who he was wrestling with.
It also reveals God’s character. God is one with whom we wrestle.
Remember in “Fiddler on the Roof,” how Tevye talks to God? At one point, having recounted all the bad things that have happened to the Jews, he asks God: Couldn’t you choose someone else for awhile? Do you always have to choose us?
“Israel” indeed points to this second thing about God. Not only is he identified with the people he chose; but also, the relationship he has with people is not a simple one. It involves wrestling.
It might be good to ponder how you have had to wrestle with God.
Out & About (virtually speaking). I preached on Ascension Day, May 21, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral; the sermon starts at about 12 minutes in and goes for about 8 minutes: https://www.facebook.com/StMatthewsCathedralDallas/videos/1280864825458018/ ... You’ll be able to see I really like the Ascension.