Israel Was Formed as a Separated People
Israel was formed as a different kind of nation. The story of the formation of Israel begins in Genesis 12 immediately after the story of the formation of the earthly nations at Babel, where the people wanted to “make a name for themselves.”(Read more on Babel here) Contrasted against the rebellion of these nations, Israel’s history is introduced to us with God’s promise to Abram.
Now the LORD said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country,
And from your relatives
And from your father’s house,
To the land which I will show you;
And I will make you a great nation,
And I will bless you,
And make your name great;
And so you shall be a blessing;
And I will bless those who bless you,
And the one who curses you I will curse.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” – Gen 12.1-3
Rather than Abram making his own name great, God was going to make a great name for Abram. But this promise hinged on Abram’s faith in God’s command to separate himself from the land of the Chaldeans.
This command to “go forth” from the Gentiles which begins here in Genesis 12, is a theme which continues throughout Israel’s formation. The cities in closest proximity to Abram were destroyed for their wickedness (Gen. 19). Abraham and his nephew Lot were separated from one another. Hagar and Ishmael were then driven out, thus separating the Israelites from the Ishmaelites (Gen. 21). When it came time to find a bride for Isaac, Abraham would only allow Isaac to have a wife from among his relatives, thus keeping his family separate from the nations (Gen. 24). Jacob and Esau became detached from one another as Jacob stole the birthright, thus separating the Israelites from the Edomites (Gen. 27-28, 36). Like Isaac, Jacob took a wife from among his relatives, thus remaining separate (Gen. 29). Jacob was then estranged from Laban, thus further separating the Israelites (Gen. 31). Israel was then further separated as they departed to Egypt, where they remained as slaves for 400 years. Israel was then separated from Egypt as the final generation to have lived in Egypt died during the 40 years in the wilderness.
A key observation can be made here. In these early chapters, Israel’s separation was more than simply a “moral” separation. It was more than just living by different values than the world. At this point in the story, Israel’s separation was primarily a separation of familial, political, and religious association. They were separated on the basis of the authority under which they lived. By the time God became Israel’s lawgiver, they had been fully separated from every earthly king, with no affiliation with any earthly lawgivers or any other gods. The LORD was their one and only God. Israel was a “holy” or “set apart people,” whom He had chosen “for His own possession out of all the peoples” (Deut. 7.6).
Israel belonged to God and to God alone.
Israel Was to Remain Detached
Before Israel was given the Promised Land, they were warned to drive out all the inhabitants from the land, and were forbidden from making any sort of covenant with them.
I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you will drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them or with their gods. They shall not live in your land because they will make you sin against Me; for if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you. – Ex. 23.31-33
Be sure to observe what I am commanding you this day: behold, I am going to drive out the Amorite before you, and the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite. Watch yourself that you make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land into which you are going, or it will become a snare in your midst. – Ex. 34.11-12
Again, as Moses repeated the law to Israel just before entering the Promised Land, we read the same warning.
And when the LORD your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. – Deut. 7.2-3
Numerous other examples could be shown, but this is sufficient to show that Israel was forbidden from having any alliance, covenant, marriage, or any other kind of affiliation with these nations. The other nations, with their false gods, were to be completely cut off from the land, lest the competing authorities of other “gods” should become a snare to them.
The opponents of Christianity will sometimes point to God’s commandments to destroy these Gentile nations to blasphemously accuse God of commanding genocide. It is therefore important to make some side notes. In so doing, we can draw another important conclusion about why Israel was to remain separate.
1) The separation of Israel from the nations had nothing to do with race, and it had everything to do with their wicked rebellion against God.
Do not say in your heart when the LORD your God has driven them out before you, ‘Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is dispossessing them before you. It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. – Deut. 9.4-5
2) God spared those Gentiles who repented:
It should also be noted that God had promised Abraham that he would have spared the city of Sodom if as few as ten righteous people could be found in the city (Gen. 18.32).
We also have the example of Rahab, a Canaanite woman, who forsook the commandment given to her by her king, forsook her earthly nation, and through the fear of the LORD, accepted His rule and cast her allegiance with the people of God.
As the Old Testament continues, we read of numerous other Gentiles who aligned themselves with God’s people under God’s rule, and were blessed in so doing (Ruth the Moabite, Doeg the Edomite [1 Sam. 21.7], Uriah the Hittite [ 2 Sam. 23.37], Araunah the Jebusite [2 Sam. 24.18], Zelek the Ammonite [2 Sam. 23.37], and Ithma the Moabite [1 Chron. 21.46]). These examples show that while He required Israel to destroy these wicked nations while they lived according to their own authority and rebelled against God’s authority, God would also show mercy to those who would forsake their earthly nations and align themselves under God’s rule.
Israel’s detachment from these nations only extended as far as the individuals of those nations had detached themselves from God’s rule. But as long as the Gentiles continued living under their own rule, Israel was forbidden from having any affiliation or alliance with them, lest they too turn from God’s authority to man’s self-appointed authorities (Ex. 23.31-33; 34. 11-12).
But what does all of this mean for Christians?
When we come to the New Testament, Paul wrote that in Christ, barriers of separation are broken down between people, regardless of their nationality.
There is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free man, but Christ is all, and in all. – Col. 3.11
But the theme of separation from the world continues. Although numerous scriptures could be examined (such as 1 John 2:15, Rom. 12:2, Eph. 5:11, Jas. 1:27, 4:4, and others), consider for a moment the words Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness with lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said,
“I will dwell in them and walk among them;
And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord.
“And I will be a father to you,
And you shall be sons and daughters to Me.”
Says the Lord Almighty.
2 Cor. 6.13-18
Quoting from the Law, Paul applies the same separation principle to the church. As in Colossians 3.11, once we are in Christ, all separation is broken down. But once we are in harmony with Christ, we can no longer be in harmony with Belial.
Once we are part of God’s new temple, we must be completely and totally separated from the false authorities of this world. We cannot be bound to Christ while also being bound to unbelievers. We cannot maintain our allegiance to Christ and His Kingdom, while maintaining alliances with the world and its kingdoms. Not only will we be unable to serve two masters, but we are also divinely forbidden from attempting to do so. Once in Christ, our separation from the world must be complete.
So what can we do?
Prior to writing 2 Corinthians, Paul had undergone many afflictions, including beatings, imprisonments, hunger and poverty. Doubtless, the Corinthians were fearing the threat of these same persecutions. If there was ever a time when an alliance with the world would come in handy, this was certainly it!
Just prior to warning the church not to be bound to unbelievers, Paul, quoting from Isaiah, reminded the Corinthians:
“At the acceptable time I listened to you,
And on the day of salvation I helped you.”
Behold, now is “the acceptable time,” behold, now is “the day of salvation!” – 2 Cor. 6.2
The promised day when God would defend his people had come! “By the power of God” and “by the weapons of righteousness”, he had been “punished, yet not put to death” he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” and he was “poor, yet making many rich.” (cf. 2 Cor. 6.7-10) In other words, Paul recognized that the power and protection of God was sufficient for his success, and he wanted the Corinthians to realize the same thing.
When the nations rage against the kingdom of the LORD, remember how God wants for his nation to relate to other earthly nations. Yoking together with unbelievers by partnering up and making alliances with the world is both unholy and unnecessary. Rather we should trust in the power of God, which is far greater.
Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. – 2 Cor. 7.1