God’s Heart for the Nations
Buried deep within the account of Israel’s first Passover and deliverance from Egyptian slavery and the tyrannical Pharaoh is this brief comment about whom exactly God brought up out of Egypt:
The Israelites traveled from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand able-bodied men on foot, besides their families. A mixed crowd also went up with them, along with a huge number of livestock, both flocks and herds. (Exod 12:37–38, CSB, emphasis added)
God had delivered the Israelites, to be sure, but it wasn’t just Israelites who joined the caravan heading for the wilderness. A “mixed crowd,” that is, people who couldn’t trace their ancestry back to the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, also declared their allegiance to Yahweh and fled their homes in Egypt. This passage doesn’t get much play, which makes sense given that it’s a few short words embedded in the (second) greatest redemption story ever told, a story that is focused throughout on the descendants of Abraham. But it’s key for understanding God’s heart for all people, not just those Abraham’s biological descendants.
God would make brothers out of enemies, uniting Jew and gentile into one family in Christ.
I’ve heard often enough that God was concerned with Israel in the Old Testament and only opened up his table to gentiles (non-Jews) in the New Testament. There’s some truth to that, of course, because God chose Israel to have a special relationship with him. What’s more, we don’t really any missionary zeal in ancient Israel—especially not in its most successful prophet-evangelist, Jonah, who would rather die than see the Ninevites welcomed into God’s family. The New Testament, on the other hand, moves swiftly from God’s call to the Jews to his call for the gentiles, revealing what God called the great mystery of the gospel: that God would make brothers out of enemies, uniting Jew and gentile into one family in Christ.
That said, we know from early on in Genesis that part of Abraham’s call was to bless the nations, and God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, not just Israel. Later in the Pentateuch, and throughout the Old Testament prophets, we read that one of Israel’s primary functions was to serve as a light to the nations, beckoning them to come and worship Yahweh, the one true God. In Joshua we learn of Rahab, who forsook her people to be joined to Israel by faith in Yahweh (and Achan, who did the opposite), and David’s ancestor was a Moabite woman who demonstrated covenant faithfulness (hesed) during a time in Israel when “everyone did whatever seemed right to him” (Judg 21:25).
I love the Old Testament because I’ve messed up so much in my life.
In Romans 9–11 Paul works out God’s election of Israel and what that means for the church at Rome. At the beginning of this section he states that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (9:6, CSB). Paul goes on to explain, with support from Exodus and the Prophets, that God (basically) does whatever he wants, which includes hardening the hearts of some gentiles (like Pharaoh) and drawing other gentiles (and Jews) to him. Paul’s larger point is that being in right relationship with God comes through faith and is not something humans could ever earn.
Which brings us back to this mixed crowd in Exodus 12. God rescued the Israelites, yes. God called them out of Egypt and made them a nation to himself, yes. But even way back then, at the very inception of national Israel, who would receive Torah and experience God’s presence through the tabernacle and temple, who would receive God’s word through the prophets and experience his faithful discipline and deliverance again and again, way back then God included among his people “a mixed crowd.”
I love the Old Testament because I’ve messed up so much in my life. I’m no Joshua or Caleb (himself a gentile!). I’m no Moses (except maybe when he buried that Egyptian in the sand). I’m certainly no Paul or Beloved Disciple. I’m more like the dude who cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, CSB). So my heart is full when I read that way back in Egypt God was welcoming people like me to go up out of Egypt with the Israelites.