Q. How is the term “nations” used in the Old Testament? What is God’s judgment of the nations?
A. Ancient Israel defined a nation as a kinship group—such as a large, extended family. This definition was developed out of the ancient Israelites’ visceral experience, for they were born into and grew old surrounded by their extended family, in villages and on land where their ancestors had lived and worked, and where their descendants would do the same. The nation was simply the extension of what they knew at the village level.
Hence, the Hebrew term for “nation” (pronounced something like “ahm”) is linguistically related to the preposition meaning “with,” and a verb form meaning “to be associated with,” “to belong to.” The Israelites understood themselves to have originated from a common set of ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Gen 11-35). The Edomites originated with Esau (Gen 36), and the many Arab peoples they encountered descended from Ishmael (Gen 17:20; Gen 25:12-16). The Hebrew term for Ammonites is literally “descendants of Ammon.”
The notion of kinship describes the bonds of loyalty and the relationships that bound Israel’s disparate parts into a whole, but it would be a mistake to infer any sense of superiority into the concept. Indeed, Israel understood itself to have been chosen by Yahweh to carry out his will, despite its inherent inferiority relative to the other nations (Num 13:28-29; Deut 4:37-38; Isa 60:22).
At the point when Abraham is chosen, Yahweh states that he will bless all the nations through Israel (Gen 12:1-3). Over time, Israel worked out how this would happen in a variety of ways. Both men and women could be brought into the family circle through adoption or marriage (see the example of Eliezer in Gen 15:1-3). Resident aliens had their place and were given certain protections and status within the greater society (Lev 19:33; Deut 10:17-18; Ezek 47:23).
On the national level, the royal ideology of the Davidic dynasty in Judah held to an ideal that other nations would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to receive instruction from Yahweh, and ultimately receive his blessing/promise of prosperity as well (Isa 2:1-4). Though in practice Israel did not often (if ever?) have enough power to implement this doctrine and move it beyond the realm of ideology and into reality. This doctrine viewed the other nations as subservient vassals to Israel, and as such the other nations would have perceived this policy of the Davidic dynasty more as taxation and exploitation.
Finally, ancient Israel’s literature is filled with “oracles against the nations.” These oracles reflect an Israel-centric foreign policy, based on national interests, policies, and historical circumstances at the time the texts were delivered. These oracles remain very individual in nature and motivation. Texts of judgment—at times xenophobic in tone—must be understood first in their ancient contexts, and utmost discretion must be used when applying such oracles to the modern international setting.