Today I finished reading Weisheit in Israel (Wisdom in Israel) by the renowned Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad (1901-1971), a German Lutheran. The book is about Jewish wisdom literature. I shall not summarize it, but for an interesting thought in the chapter on the ‘determination of times’.
Von Rad says that Israel always believed that our lives were in the hands of the Lord. His ordering activity determines our destiny. This does not exclude the freedom of the will; God’s foresight and shaping of ends is not as deterministic as that. He merely arranges things so that they end up according to his will: for instance, with Joseph as vice-regent in Egypt. When necessary, He intervenes, by sending plagues to Egypt, lengthening the day, calling Isaiah, or something of that sort. When apposite, He changes his mind, e.g. after Jonah’s mission to Nineveh.
The apocalyptic vision in late Judaism represents a significant shift. For the apocalyptic authors, everything is already set in stone – or worse, in the ‘tablets of heaven’. This means that those who have had a vision of God have received knowledge of history, rather than God’s will for the moment. According to the (apocryphal) Book of Jubilees, God has shown Moses the events that had been and that were to come; it is this history that Moses recorded, from the creation to the day of the new creation. Jacob, too, would have read the entire history of his descendants on a tablet shown to him by an angel. In other apocalyptic literature, Henoch is said to have gained knowledge of the future through looking in the heavenly books.
As Von Rad says: ‘The image of the divine determination … has forced the old image of history as a place of tension between occurring promises and unfolding fulfillments into the background.’
This drastically changes the view of history. There are no ‘innergeschichtliche Heilsgründungen’ (foundations of salvation within history). Certainly salvation takes place within history, but it is, in a sense, salvation from history – from what St. Paul calls the ‘aeon’, the spirit of the time, the prince of the world. Salvation occurs ‘at the margins of history’ from a world that has been permeated by evil. It is not prepared in time; it intrudes upon it.
Von Rad again: ‘The end breaks abruptly into an ever-increasingly darkening world of history, and the benefits of salvation, which had long been pre-existently available in the heavenly world – ‘until the times are at an end’ – (Son of Man, the new Jerusalem), come into appearance.’ The recipient of salvation is not Israel, but a holy remnant, or a congregation of individuals.
The story of God’s blessings in history (like the election of Abraham ‘to be a blessing’, the gift of the Law to Moses, the establishment of David), is replaced by knowledge of the periods or ages of history, in which God’s sovereignty can be seen. (Despite the appearance of the present age, there really is a plan!) But the events of the past do not provide any legitimacy to present affairs; the anticipated future is the measure of things.
In the Apocalypse of Ezra, Ezra complains that God has not given Israel a way to attain to salvation, despite his great plans. The promise of eternity has become useless in view of the evil works that Israel has done. Ezra’s angelic interlocutor confirms that little good has come to Israel in history, but there is a possibility for Israelites to attain to life and salvation in the age to come. Abraham was elected to understand the mysteries of this age.