A surprising birthright

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28, NIV)

According to Paul’s distinctions, I am a Gentile — goyim, not of the Jewish nation — and the same is probably true of most of you reading this. Christians around the world are heir to the mission of Paul and others to the Gentiles, and it’s easy to take this for granted. Why shouldn’t the gospel come to us, indeed, to all people? But as we’ve seen in Paul’s letters to the churches of Philippi and Galatia, this was neither assumed nor welcomed by many of the earliest believers, who were Jews.

Moreover, it’s easy for non-Jewish believers like myself to read the gospels and letters in an ethnocentric way, making Jews the stubborn obstructionists who kept getting in God’s way. But we have to remember that they thought and acted as they did, at least in part, because of a deeply rooted sense of history, an identity grounded in stories passed down from one generation to the next. It was hard for early Jewish believers to wrap their minds around the idea that God might make one nation out of many, Jews and Gentiles together, worshiping a Jewish Messiah.

Having said that, however, there is a sense in which they should have seen it coming. From the very beginning, God’s chosen people were blessed to be a blessing to others (Gen 12:3; Gal 3:8). And the Psalms and the prophets alike envisioned a future in which all nations (though not necessarily every individual in every nation) would be embraced by God.

. . .

Psalm 87 is a stunning example of this. Many of the psalms show a deep reverence for Mount Zion, Jerusalem, and the temple as the center of Jewish worship and the dwelling place of God. Psalm 87 begins in the same vein, using language that suggests that Zion was chosen by God in the same way the people themselves were chosen:

He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
The LORD loves the gates of Zion
    more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.
(Ps 87:1-2, NIV)

There are multiple direct and indirect references to Zion throughout the short psalm, including in the final verse:

As they make music they will sing,
    “All my fountains are in you.”
(vs. 7)

You may have heard the praise song “All My Fountains Are in You.” The lyrics draw on the Old Testament imagery of water as a divine blessing in a “dry and desert land”; the song encourages us to think of God as the source of life and blessedness. Here in Psalm 87, however, the final “you” refers first to Zion, and only secondarily to God, by implication.

But for our purposes, the important question is: who are “they”? Who’s making music? Who’s singing?

The answer is found in middle of the psalm. Here are the verses we skipped:

Glorious things are said of you,
    city of God:
“I will record Rahab and Babylon
    among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
    and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’”
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
    “This one and that one were born in her,
    and the Most High himself will establish her.”
The LORD will write in the register of the peoples:
    “This one was born in Zion.”
(vss. 3-6)

It’s as if God is calling the roll of all those born in the holy city and signing their birth certificates. And who makes the roll call?

“Rahab” is a symbolic name for Egypt (e.g., Isa 30:7). Thus, the roll call begins — shockingly — with Egypt and Babylon. For an Israelite, there could scarcely be a more counterintuitive way to begin the list. Egypt, of course, enslaved the Israelites for hundreds of years. Their miraculous escape from captivity in the Exodus was a defining moment in their history. Later, Babylon was the site of the people’s exile for decades. Their utter hatred for Babylon is enshrined in texts like Psalm 137.

Then Philistia, Tyre, Cush: these all represent surrounding peoples and nations with whom God’s chosen had been in conflict. When I think of the Philistines, I think of David versus Goliath; but the Philistines were often at war with the Israelites. In Ezekiel 26, wealthy Tyre comes under the condemnation of God; Jesus’ reference to Tyre and Sidon in Matthew 11 suggests that they had become proverbial examples of rebellion against God. In Ezekiel 30, Cush (today, roughly northern Sudan) is prophesied to suffer the same doom as Egypt.

This one, this one, that one, God says: Philistia, Tyre, Cush. Born in Zion? Not physically, of course. But spiritually, symbolically? These outsiders?

This is much more than hospitality to strangers. It’s beyond what we might call allowing these people to be “naturalized citizens.” Jews would surely have heard this psalm declaring their enemies to have a God-given birthright.

. . .

Jews versus Gentiles. Slave versus free. Male versus female. These were some of the major social distinctions of Paul’s day. For our own day, we could add to the list: distinctions based on ethnicity, on a history of conflict or oppression, on relative positions in a hierarchy of power. Psalm 87 envisions a future in which all such distinctions are overcome, in which enemies become like family.

To Paul, that future had already arrived: You are all one in Christ Jesus.

Our job is to not live in the past. Who is the “them” to our “us”?

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