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The Role of Conflict in the Salvation History of the Old Testament

Part 6 of 7 from ‘A Short Theology of Conflict’ by Olof H. de Vries and translated by Pieter Lalleman

In the preceding parts we dwelt at length on conflicts in church history. Someone will say, ‘But that is church history, which is full of apostasy and conflict!’ However, we will not get rid of conflicts that easily. Conflicts do not only play a role in the period after the New Testament. The Bible itself is full of conflicts. To make matters worse, conflicts in Scripture are not always regrettable incidents that could have been avoided with a little more faith and love. In both the Old and New Testaments, many conflicts are not accidents but rather a structure of salvation history. God’s salvation can be realised through a conflict within the community of faith. In a most curious and shocking way, the conflict is then included in the course of salvation through history. This can be illustrated with the help of two conflicts in the Old Testament.

The conflict between Joseph and his brothers

There were great tensions in the family of the patriarch Jacob. One would expect faithful unanimity among the bearers of the promise of election. God had chosen Abraham and his seed among all the peoples of the earth: ‘I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and with you shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Gen 12:2-3). But the fourth generation of the chosen people gets into conflict over that election. Joseph gets up in the circle of the elect and presents himself as the chosen one par excellence. As Father Jacob’s favourite son, he walks around in the robe of a crown prince and pokes his brothers’ eyes out. In dreams, he becomes aware of his unique place in the family and flaunts it. Joseph’s brothers do not tolerate his pretence. When the opportunity arises, they remove him from their midst and sell him to slave traders. 

Who was to blame in this conflict? Joseph no doubt behaved irritatingly with his royal clothes and the stories of his dreams. But those clothes were his due. And his dreams were no deception. In God’s work of salvation with Israel, Joseph is the elect among the elect. Later, he will save the chosen people from famine and give them a future. It is no coincidence that the Christian Church saw Joseph as a foreshadowing of Jesus. Were the brothers to blame in this conflict? Their actions cannot be justified. But what do you do when you have a brother like Joseph?! I think we can go a long way toward sympathising with his brothers when we read of them: ‘And they hated him.‘ (Gen 37:4, 8) In this conflict, the question of blame is out of place. The matter cannot be settled by pointing an accusing finger at one of the parties. There is something inevitable about this conflict, something necessary. 

In the community of chosen people, election is bound to lead to conflict because people can’t handle God’s election. Israel was not chosen by God to be an instrument among the nations because of its own qualities. This election was grace and rested entirely in God’s good pleasure. This election was (and is) a gift. Nothing is more difficult than living off gifts. Grace excites our ability to perform. We want to be able to attribute our place in God’s Kingdom to our own qualities and efforts. When grace gets serious, feelings of rivalry are evoked in a community. In the face of God, we are left empty-handed. But we really do have something to show each other! When Joseph rises up in the circle of the elect as the chosen one par excellence, the ground of grace becomes too hot under the feet of Joseph’s brothers. The gift-character of the election is too close.

It is the irony of the conflict between Joseph and his brothers that these brothers will ultimately owe their lives to Joseph, of all people. And that their attempt to get rid of him becomes the very way by which God saves them. Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt, will rise to the rank of viceroy there, and in that position he will save his brothers from famine. The irony of this story shines forth sharply in a comparison of Genesis 37:23 (‘As soon as Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped off Joseph’s garment, the garb he wore‘) and Genesis 45:22 (‘And Joseph gave them all a set of costly garments‘). The brothers who had stripped Joseph of his precious clothes before throwing him into the pit are themselves later clothed by this Joseph! The blame game is out of place in this conflict. The community of the elect must go through this conflict in order to become a truly chosen people. In this conflict, the community is exposed by its own resistance to the mercy character of the election. Across its own resistance, it must learn to allow itself to be granted the election. Thus the conflict between Joseph and his brothers becomes the way by which God realises his election of Israel. The conflict is recorded in the history of salvation. This conflict has nothing to do with guilt or sin. Guilt and sin are forgiven. Through reconciliation, God removes guilt and sin from the world. God does not remove the conflict between Joseph and his brothers from the world. He makes it a part of the way of salvation. It is precisely through this conflict that He brings His people a little further. Partly because of this conflict, God sanctifies Israel as his chosen people. 

The conflict between Moses and the people 

Without much exaggeration, we can describe Israel’s journey through the desert to the Promised Land as a forty-year conflict between Moses and the people. Again and again we read that Israel ‘murmured‘ against Moses (Ex 16:2, 7) and ‘quarrelled’ with him (Ex 17:2, 7). In the background of this conflict is the fact that Israel is redeemed from Egypt but not saved. Once out of Egypt, the people lament the freedom of the wilderness: ‘Oh, that by the hand of the Lord we had died in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread in abundance‘ (Ex 16:3). Later, when the twelve spies return from their exploration in Canaan and report on the wealth of the land and the strength of its inhabitants, the same complaint is heard: ‘Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt? And they said to one another, Let us appoint a head and return to Egypt.’ (Num 14:3, 4)

Conflict as a way of sanctification

The conflict between Joseph and his brothers is about the fact that the chosen people are not elected. The conflict between Moses and the people is about the fact that the redeemed people are not saved. In both cases, the community involved had to go through the conflict, for there is no other way to get through being unelected and unredeemed. As Baptist Union of the Netherlands, we recently had two thrilling sessions of the General Assembly. The tension had everything to do with a conflict within our faith community. After the last meeting, a newspaper wrote: ‘End of disturbances among Baptists’. Only a journalist can write that. The daily press lives by the day. The Church lives by the centuries of God’s faithfulness and patience with his people. We don’t have to believe that suddenly everything is all right again to keep believing in the Church. Conflicts in churches expose the spiritual immaturity, provisionality and incompleteness of all parties involved. Sometimes a faith community must not desire a quick resolution to a conflict. Sometimes you have to have the courage to go through the conflict together. There are conflicts in which we are confronted in a sobering and ultimately healing way with everything that is still unfinished about us as born-again people and New Testament church. We should not keep such experiences away from ourselves and each other! In this way, the passage through the conflict becomes part of the way of sanctification.

Olof de Vries (1941-2014) was a lecturer at the Baptist Seminary from 1981-2009 and a special professor of ‘History and Doctrines of Baptistism’ at Utrecht University from 1991-2009. He had his own characteristic way of teaching and theologizing and inspired and trained countless pastors and congregants through his lectures, sermons and articles. His consistent view of church and theology from the perspective of history is typical: how people follow their faith in time and culture. The relationship between tradition and innovation was his lasting interest, based on the conviction that tradition always contains the possibility of innovation.

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