Personal identity is community-based.
Most introductions demonstrate this truth: “I am mother of . . . spouse of . . . sibling of . . . member of (PETA, AA, Democrat or Republican party, GLAAD, religious institution, sport team affiliation, etc.).” Since the Fall, every person is born with a need to belong to a community and will find that need met somewhere. No greater community exists (except the church) than that group who has the Living God as its originator and sustainer—Israel.
The Ten Commandments given by God to Israel begin with God’s self-disclosure to Israel, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). Israel, Abraham’s promised descendants, belong to God. Their identity is wrapped up in their relationship to Him.
Without God’s revelation of Himself to the patriarchs, to Moses, and to the nation of Israel, all of humanity would be bereft of the knowledge of God and lost to the community that transcends language, culture, geography or generations. God reveals Himself to Israel as the One True God and their Redeemer. There is only One God and He is the God of Israel.
All religions exists around systems of belief; many include carved images or designer gods, follow prescribed rituals, and establish memorial events on their annual calendar. All religions are communal-based—their followers are bound together by shared beliefs.
The Ten Commandments contain one weekly event, the Sabbath, that links the God of Israel to the revelation of Himself as the Creator God—the One who created the world and its inhabitants in six days. Therefore, Israel’s celebration of the Sabbath is an act of submission and identity. Honoring the seventh day of rest says, “To belong to God as His people is to have enough.” The Sabbath is unique to Israel. Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna states that Israel’s celebration of the Sabbath “is completely disconnected from the movement of celestial bodies” and that this disconnect “directs attention to the quintessential idea of Israelite monotheism that God is entirely outside of and sovereign over nature.” Thus, when God sends the plagues upon Egypt it is to dismantle not only their economy but also their religious beliefs as well as to distinguish Israel from all other nations as His own people.
Throughout God’s communication with Moses He refers to Israel as “My people”. This designation separates Israel from all other peoples. They are exclusively His, and it is through them that the nations come to know the One True God, thus fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).
God gives laws to confront the relational brokenness of life outside of Eden—brokenness in community (God with man and men with one another). Israel must not be an unrestrained people. These laws cannot redeem Israel from sin, but like fences, they are engineered to provide boundaries in their interaction with one another—to create a community where God is esteemed as holy and His people live peaceably with Him and with one another.
A number of truths emerge that bind together Abraham’s descendants and form their identity as a people group:
- They are to be people of respect—respect for the One True God and for one other. The Ten Commandments encapsulate the numerous regulations given to Israel divided into two categories: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
- They are to be people of gratitude. God commands Israel to place three events on their annual calendar: the Feast of Unleavened Bread (celebrating their deliverance from Egypt); the Feast of Harvest (giving to the Lord the first fruits of their harvest); the Feast of Ingathering (acknowledging God’s blessing and His provision).
- They are to be people of memory and education. The weekly and annual celebrations provide theological-teaching tools. The Sabbath supplies the weekly reminder of God as Creator. The seven annual celebrations recall God as Redeemer and Provider. The seventh year of land rest and debt release acknowledges God as Sustainer, Sovereign Lord and Forgiver. These celebrations and the communal reading of the Law ensure that both the literate and non-literate receive theological education.
- They are to be people of self-restraint and justice. God gives laws to guide behavior and specifies punishment for serious offenders. The administration of justice ensures a safe society in which individuals and families thrive.
- They are to be people of influence. God calls Israel, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). Priests intercede for others and holy people testify in word and deed of the Holy One of Israel. As Abraham’s descendants, they must ever live mindful of their influence on those around them.
- They are to be people of compassion. The LORD gave laws to guide Israel in their interaction with various socio-economic groups, the enslaved, the unborn, the handicapped, and foreigners.
- Finally, they are to be people of the altar. Central to Israel’s identity as a people is the altar where God meets with them—where He accepts the shedding of the blood of the innocent animal on behalf of the guilty, where their sins are covered annually in expectation of the final atonement of the coming Seed. They are people of redemption.
This theme, “I will be your God, and you shall be My people,” runs throughout the story of the Bible. Who God is for Israel is who He is for Christ-followers today. They bear His imprint. Their identity is bound up in His. Therefore, their influence in a broken world is undeniable and desirable. They are community.