Back to issue

Walter Kaiser Jr., President Emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, wrote Mission in the Old Testament to challenge the idea that mission is a New Testament development and that Israel was involved in mission only centripetally, that is, attracting people to Yahweh by living out their unique relationship with him. From the first chapter, Kaiser claims that centrifugal mission was always God’s plan, and he announces that “the first Great Commission mandate of the Bible” (p. xix) can be found in Gen 12:1–3, where God promised to bless Abraham and bless all peoples through him. God’s promise of blessing, which also appears in the creation accounts of Gen 1–11, is one of the key themes that make up his promise-plan to the world.

Chapter 2 outlines God’s plan during the patriarchal and Mosaic eras. God’s promises of blessing through Abraham and his seed—both the plural “succession of representatives” and Christ who is “both part of that succession and the final consummation” of it (p. 12)—reveal God’s missionary intent. Similarly, God’s self-revelation at the time of the exodus ensured that the Egyptians would “know” him and that his name would “be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exod 9:14, 16). The “mixed multitude” (Exod 12:38) that joined the exodus indicates that many Egyptians came to know Yahweh as he overthrew their gods. By establishing his covenant with Israel and setting them apart as his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation (Exod 19: 4–6), God intended that they actively represent him to the nations.

Chapters 3 and 4 introduce God’s work in and through the Davidic king, with its “saving implications for all men and women everywhere” (p. 24), and outline three psalms that issue a universal call to know and worship Yahweh. Kaiser observes that the promise to David in 2 Sam 7 shows remarkable verbal correspondence with the Abrahamic covenant, including its promise of a “seed” whose kingdom would last forever. Brief expositions of Pss 67, 96, and 117 highlight God’s design to bless the nations and, in Kaiser’s view, his requirement that his people proclaim salvation—what he sees as the Old Testament equivalent of “bring good news”—to the nations (p. 32).

Chapter 5 introduces a series of Gentiles—Melchizedek, Jethro, Balaam, Rahab, and Ruth—who came to know Yahweh as God, and devotes considerably more space to “the missiological implications of the healing of Naaman” (pp. 40–49). The prophets, as messengers of Yahweh to the nations, are examined in chapters 6 and 7. Kaiser believes Isaiah uses “Servant of the Lord” collectively and corporately to refer to the Messiah and the people of Israel (pp. 56–57) and requires the nation to act missionally, bringing justice to the nations, and being a light for the Gentiles. Chapter 7 chiefly discusses the missionary vision of the book of Jonah and briefly touches the work of Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah.

The final chapter shows how Old Testament thoughts on mission influenced New Testament practice. Paul’s liberal quotations from the Old Testament when teaching and writing demonstrate his conviction that preaching the gospel to the Gentiles “had always been at the heart of all that God had wanted to do and that he had called Israel and all believers to do” (p. 81).

Kaiser’s book requires some comments and critique. When the first edition appeared in 2000, I had hoped it would add to the sparse literature on the Old Testament and mission. I came away then with mixed reactions that remain after reading the second edition. While clearly showing that God was concerned with non-Jewish humanity from the beginning, the book provides scant evidence that Israel was active in centrifugal mission. No one, for instance, was actually sent to reach any of the Gentiles mentioned in chapter 5, and serious questions can be raised about Balaam’s relationship with Yahweh. And while more psalms could have been mined to show that the nations should (and will) worship Yahweh, they don’t actually entreat anyone to go.

The lack of proof that mission in the Old Testament is centrifugal highlights the need to develop the centripetal side of the story—Israel’s role as an ethical model for the nations. (See Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God [Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006], for the arguments, particularly page 331, where he acknowledges that mission in the Old Testament “includes both centrifugal and centripetal dynamics.”) Though Kaiser’s is an introductory book, more about prophets’ sermons to and lawsuits against the nations would have been helpful. And while the second edition has been marginally expanded in a few points, it remains light in its review of scholarly literature. (David Bosch, Chris Wright, and others who hold contrary positions remain unmentioned.)

Kaiser has apparently bypassed depth to address those who are encountering the Old Testament and mission for the first time and need to know that God’s promise to bless the world and bring salvation through his “seed” stretches back to Abraham and before. This is a worthy task, for God is truly a missionary God and the whole of Scripture—while not always explicitly sending people out—is a missional book that should be read in the light of this promise.

Mission in the Old Testament could be used as a supplementary text in mission and Old Testament courses. Local churches and individual Christians beginning to search for their role in the missio Dei will find it a good introduction and springboard for further study. Teachers and group leaders will appreciate the study questions for guiding discussions.

Walter L. McConnell III
OMF International

comments powered by Disqus