Ancient Israel as God’s Archetypal Family

The story of Israel is then an archetypal story. All families of the earth share similar stories about their emergence as a people, the land or space that they inhabit, and the challenges and obstacles that they have overcome. Embedded in these stories is the cultural grounding, purpose, and calling that gives meaning to each particular family. The challenge is to find the point of intersection between the story of the family as expressed in its mythological framework and the intentions and purposes of God in the world. The story of ancient Israel offers one powerful example of the way in which the mythological framework and the work of God in the world connect.

Israel’s story was never intended to be a story for other families of the earth to embrace. When other peoples have embraced it, the result has been the usurpation of Israel’s story and the aggrandizement of another family. The United States possesses a powerful mythology taken from the stories of ancient Israel. Early Puritan settlers in New England believed themselves to be “marked and chosen by the finger of God.” They viewed themselves as the New Israel with a mandate or divine errand to carry the gospel to the world. The twin mythologies of chosen people and the national errand eventually became justifications for the institutionalization of White and male privilege and for the creation of an empire that forced people into its own image rather than nurturing the kind of diversity that God intended. The history of the United States is a history of one people after another forcibly insisting on their right to be included among the Chosen People of the nation—first Jews, then Catholics, then women, then Black Americans…on and on the story goes. Chosen people do not willingly expand the boundaries of their own chosenness.

The usurpation of the story of the Jewish people to fashion a mythology for the American colonies and later for the United States was a brilliant strategy for a people who possessed no real claim to the land or a common tribal story that could give meaning and purpose to their claims or to their existence as a people. Seizing upon the Jewish story, they laid claim to the North American continent and embraced the grand story of the conquest of Canaan to give legitimacy to their own aspirations. Devoid of a story, they seized upon the Jewish story and thus claimed divine blessing for themselves and their descendants.

One of the great missiological errors of Euro-tribal churches during the age of mission advance over the last two to three hundred years has been to assume that the story of Israel was the story that every human family needed to embrace over and beyond its own particular story. Embedded deeply in this assumption was the conviction that the story of Israel was the story of the Western or White church that had usurped Israel’s place. To become a follower of Christ was to embrace the notion of White superiority or chosenness and to minimize one’s own cultural story by substituting the Western or White story in its place.

Some of the most successful efforts to communicate the Christian faith beyond the West, however, have been efforts that connected not so much to the story of Israel as to the emergence mythologies and cosmologies of particular family and cultural groups. For example, in early 2019, I visited the Mae La refugee camp in central Thailand, located on the Thai-Myanmar border. The camp has been the home of as many as 50,000 refugees from Myanmar since 1984 when it was established. Ninety percent of its population are Karen people, a tribal group in southern Burma who have generally refused to accept the authority of the Myanmar government and who are seeking self-rule. The Myanmar military responded with ethnic persecution, burning Karen villages repeatedly and engaging in the brutal destruction of homes and property. At first, Karen villagers fled their villages and attempted to wait out the persecution, but the need to provide education for their children and to sustain themselves eventually led many of them to flee into refugee camps in Thailand.

The Karen people are primarily Buddhists or animists, but about thirty percent of them are also Christian and Baptist. The evangelization of the tribe began in the late 1820s when US missionaries George and Sarah Boardman and Adoniram Judson settled in southern Burma near Moulmain and Savoy. Their evangelistic efforts proved quite effective, primarily because the first Karen convert, a man named Ko Thah-byu, recognized a connection between Karen tribal stories and the Christian faith, especially the story of the creation in Genesis. Here is the story of humanity recounted in the oral tradition of the Karen people:

Y’wa formed the world originally,
He appointed food and drink.
He appointed the “fruit of trial.”
He gave detailed orders.
Mu-kaw-lee deceived two persons.
He caused them to eat the fruit of the tree of trial.
They obeyed not; they believed not Y’wa.
When they ate the fruit of trial,
They became subject to sickness, aging, and death.

Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1984).

The Karen people believed that the Karen language and many of their tribal stories had been lost when a younger brother, a White man, stole a golden book from the tribe. Karen legends said that, one day, the White brother would return with the lost book. Ko Thah-byu converted to the Christian faith because of his belief that either Boardman or Judson was that White younger brother and that the golden book was the Bible that would explain how the people could return to Y’wa and restore the tribe to its Creator. Because of Ko Thah-byu’s realization and his work with Judson and Boardman in translating the Bible into the Karen language and evangelizing the tribe, thousands of Karen people embraced the Christian faith.

During my interviews with Karen teachers at the Kawthoolei-Karen Baptist Bible School and College, the power of this connection between the Karen people and the Christian faith was evident. Several recounted the harrowing stories of the destruction of their villages, their efforts to survive in the aftermath of that destruction, and their own commitment to pursuing graduate-level study in theology in Nagaland in India, an education that required a difficult two- to four-week journey back and forth across Burma. The Bible School now serves the purpose of educating Karen ministers for Karen congregations.

In 2006, some nine countries of the world agreed to take Karen refugees from Mae La and other camps in an effort to provide them with stable lives and a means by which to make a living for themselves and their families. Christians among the Karen viewed this resettlement as God’s way of enabling them to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus in Matthew 28:16-20. Since leaving Mae La and other camps, they have joined congregations in places like the United States with the firm conviction that their calling is to share the gospel with the world. In the process, they have reinvigorated US congregations by insisting on worshiping together with their host churches.

I share the story of the Karen here because it is a story with so many parallels to the story of the call of Abram. The Karen people are convinced that God will bless them and make of them a great nation in much the same way that God intended to bless ancient Israel. They also understand themselves to be one of the families of the earth dispersed by God at the point of the building of the Tower of Babel. Through Abram, they have “blessed themselves” by embracing their own tribal stories, discovering points of connection between their stories and the biblical stories, and seizing upon the opportunity to share the gospel beyond their own place and people. They too have experienced a period of forced exile or wandering in the wilderness. They too seek their own restoration to the land that they believe God provided for them in Burma. Their story is the same archetypal story as that of ancient Israel.

The story of the Karen people provides an example of one way in which a single family of the earth “blessed themselves” by Abram. In Israel they found legitimacy for their own emergence story, but it is significant that they did not replace their own story with the story of Israel. Instead, they embraced God because of the affinity between their own stories and the biblical story. In Abraham and Israel, they found a similar story of God’s promises to another family of the earth, God’s provision for that family over the course of its history, and the devastating results that occurred when that family broke covenant with God. Israel’s story legitimates their own story but does not replace their story. Now they are blessing other families of the earth in a significant way because of their own global resettlement.

The history of Christian mission might be quite different if other families of the earth had discovered similar connections between their own stories and the biblical story and had received nurture and encouragement toward the integration of the two stories. While this certainly did happen on occasion, the traditional approach in Western or White missiology has been to make the story of Israel the substitute story for the cosmological stories of the various families of the earth. Israel becomes the source of blessing rather than the example of blessing. Its stories become the only legitimate stories of the creation of the universe, the emergence of humanity, the origins of evil, and the general cosmology that makes sense of the world. In this sense, it remains a foreign story and in the process fails to offer space for the stories of the other families of the earth to receive validation.

The only means by which all human families can be afforded a legitimate place of blessing within the Judeo-Christian tradition is for their stories to remain their stories, their worldviews and cultures to remain their worldviews and cultures, and their perspectives on God and ultimate reality to find some means of expression within the full human story. This process would enable all families of the earth to bless each other by virtue of their own unique perspectives on the divine.

This post originally appeared in Moving the Equator: The Families of the Earth and the Mission of the Church by Robert N. Nash, Jr.

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