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The People of God Influencing Cultures in the Old Testament

My Friend Debbie - People of Faith - Joseph, David, Esther     Joseph, Daniel, and Esther are examples of God’s people who served in high positions in the business and political world, and influenced kings and nations. Even as they were at one level entrenched in culture, they lived counter-culturally in their values. They remained humble, their lifestyles exemplified their core beliefs, they depended on divine wisdom and guidance, and they practiced a holistic approach to faith (did not separate spiritual life from daily evolvement in society). Thus, they impacted their pagan host cultures and led them to acknowledge the true God.


     God called Joseph to live in a foreign land and strange culture. Nonetheless, he triumphed through faith in his God, maintained excellence in his conduct and character (Ps. 105:16-20), and became a credible witness to the only true God. Joseph maintained God honoring, counter-cultural values in the midst of sexual seduction (Gen. 39:9), unjust imprisonment (v. 20), and pagan rejection (43:32). These formidable circumstances prepared him for the role God sent him to accomplish in Egypt (Ps. 105:17). Joseph became second in command to Pharaoh (Gen. 41:40-43). In his civil duties, he administered justly, although he himself suffered injustice (Ps. 105:17b).

     Allen Ross describes Joseph’s administration during the famine as marked by divine wisdom, “He accomplished this deliverance through a wisdom given to him from above to discern the times and know the future.”[1] Joseph ruled according to Scripture: “By me kings reign, and rulers decree justice” (Prov. 8:15). He not only preserved the lives of many nations (Gen. 41:57), but also brought the understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob out of parochial confinement. James Hoffmeier points out that he introduced Egypt and the surrounding nations to the provision and wisdom of Yahweh, who “was not restricted to the shrines the patriarchs erected in Canaan. He was a universal God who acted beyond the borders of the Promised Land.”[2] By the end of the famine, the Egyptian empire knew that Yahweh is sovereign over His creation and establishes the matters of man (Gen. 41:32, 39). Even in severe scarcity, God provided a representative of His people to assure ample supply, wise storage, and just distribution of food. Scripture says, “The Lord blessed the house of the Egyptian because of Joseph” (39:5), and it seems that was true for the entire land (43:23).

     Joseph’s dedication to God governed his attitudes and actions (Gen. 39:9). In the entire book of Genesis, only he is described as filled with the Spirit of God (41:38). Surprisingly, that recognition came from the pagan Pharaoh and his officials. John Sailhamer notes that in the preceding narratives, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob repeatedly fell short of God’s expectations. In contrast, the Joseph account presents him as “a striking example of one who always responds in total trust and obedience to the will of God.” That narrative gives expression to the “human part to be played in the fulfillment of God’s plan. When God’s people respond as Joseph responded, then their way and God’s blessing will prosper.”[3] The missio Dei enlists transformed people to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16), and a “blessing to the nations” (Gen. 12:1-3).

     Sailhamer links the theological emphasis in the Joseph narrative to that of the “new covenant theology” of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, where the themes of divine sovereignty and human responsibility are woven together (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-32). God’s Spirit gives man a new heart and in turn, man responds with obedience and faith.[4] The Spirit of God transformed Joseph, enabling him to live his life as a faithful witness to God amidst a pagan culture. According to Sailhamer, Joseph’s mission of being sent to save many lives (Gen. 50:20) resulted in an initial fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (12:3).[5]

     During his sojourn in Egypt, Joseph brought God’s blessing in the form of material provision for both Israelites and pagans (Gen. 41:56-57; 50:20), thus assuring the preservation of the messianic line, and the physical well-being of many nations. Of equal blessing is the fact that he brought the consciousness of God to a polytheistic society that worshipped the created order—animals, Nile crocodiles, cattle, sacred Ibis, and forth—instead of the Creator. Joseph exposed Egypt and the surrounding nations to monotheistic divinity that superseded any other power known to them.

     The missional work of God and His people link historically in the fullness of time, resulting in the ultimate worship of God by all nations of the world. For that reason, any witness to the triune God, as insignificant as it may appear, holds prophetic value for the missio Dei. The contemporary Church can find encouragement in Joseph’s example. In the midst of severe scarcity, God blessed pagan Egypt and the surrounding nations through a representative of His people, not for Joseph’s sake, but for His own name’s sake.


     The story of Daniel shows that even in exile God’s involvement and supreme sovereignty over all nations remains strong; no one can limit the missio Dei. Gleason Archer points to one of the theological emphases of the book of Daniel, “the long range purview of God’s program of redemption.”[6] When believers end up living among heathen nations, whether by choice or by force, their witness raises the awareness of God. In the role of chief of the wise man Daniel exercised prophecy, and in the role of governor of the province of Babylon, he influenced the empire. He did not occupy the technical office of a prophet, yet he is recognized as a prophet in the New Testament (Matt. 24:15). He used his prophetic gifting in a secular vocation, where he ruled by godly principles and with the assurance that the presence of God was with him in every circumstance. C. F. Keil points to the significance of speaking prophetically to pagan cultures, “The Lord raised up prophets, who not only preached His law and His justice among the covenant people … and made more widely known the counsel of His grace, but also bore witness by word and deed, in the presence of the heathen rulers of the world, of the omnipotence and glory of God, the Lord of heaven and earth.”[7]

     Together with his three Hebrew companions, Daniel influenced the surrounding culture (Dan. 1:6). They displayed impeccable character and wisdom (v. 17; 6:3-5), lived in utter dependence on God (2:18; 3:17; 6:11), maintained non-contingent allegiance to God (3:18), practiced the counter-cultural values of the people of God (1:8; 3:12; 6:10, 13) to the point of personal sacrifice (3:19-20; 6:16), and spoke prophetically to unbelievers (4:27; 5:23-24). Daniel possessed wisdom and understanding ten times greater than that of the Babylonian wise men (1:19-20), yet he pointed to God as the supreme authority and wisdom (2:27-30). He refused to appropriate any of God’s glory for himself but at all times kept the focus on God (v. 28), thus assuring that the kings would realize that ultimate control and wisdom lies with God and not man. Archer notes that all four Hebrew young men prayed not only for Jerusalem, but for Babylon as well, just as God commanded before the exile: “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:6-7).[8]

     Daniel and his three friends bore witness to the omnipotence and glory of God in the presence of great rulers. They had an extraordinary impact on two kings, Nebuchadnezzar and Darius (Dan. 4:37; 6:26-27). King Nebuchadnezzar publically acknowledged the personal impact that the sovereign God had on him (Dan. 4:2, 17), and forbade his people to speak against God (3:29), but he did not go to the extent of encouraging them to worship God. On the other hand, the Persian king Darius commanded his people to show reverence to the living God. He wrote, “I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.

     For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders
in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions (Dan. 6:26-27)

     Joyce Baldwin says, the faithful witness and suffering of the Jewish exiles brought tremendous value to God’s historical mission: “God disclosed his future purpose to the Babylonian king (2:45b) as well as to Daniel in the visions, so demonstrating his concern for all humanity, his control over the whole of human history, and his purpose to set up the enduring kingdom of the God of heaven (2:44; 7:27).”[9]

     Contemporary believers can find Daniel’s example inspiring, as they realize that one does not have to occupy the technical office of a prophet to speak prophetically to cultures. In addition, Daniel and his companions demonstrate that professional careers provide opportunities to present the God of the Bible. Huckleberry finds an indirect correlation between Israel’s social and cultural interaction while exiled in Babylon and how the American Church should conduct itself with its loss of social prominence. He notes that Daniel and the three Hebrew young men served with excellence inside the culture but lived counter-culturally: “In a culture of many voices, they were only one voice and conducted themselves in submissive service. Their opportunity came when God started stirring Nebuchadnezzar in which Daniel was able to interpret the king’s dreams.”[10] In the postmodern culture of many voices proclaiming relative “truths,” the American Church needs to seek divine opportunities to speak into the culture at its point of crises, just as Daniel had Nebuchadnezzar’s ear when his dreams troubled him to the point of losing sleep (Dan. 2:1-3).


     The book of Esther neither alludes to nor directly refers to God. Nonetheless, it stresses God’s supremacy over human affairs and the personal responsibility the people of God bear for the fulfillment of God’s plan. Esther and the Jews lived in a pagan society. She was an insignificant orphan among Jewish exiles, an unlikely candidate for a queen of the mighty Persian Empire. Yet she became king Xerxes’ choice among the beautiful young virgins of his 127 provinces that stretched from India to the upper Nile region (Esther 1:1; 2:2). G. Keys points to Mordecai’s belief that she had been placed in her present position as part of that plan to save the Jews (4:13-14). The Jews acquired the reputation of a counter-cultural people, people who did not compromise their godly values; for that, Haman sought to kill them (3:8-9). Esther could intervene and save their lives. Keys asserts, “Thus within the context of God’s plan, Esther must choose what to do. She has the responsibility to carry out God’s will. If she does not do so, she is culpable and will be punished (v. 14). It is her responsibility to find God’s plan for her life and to act accordingly.”[11] God placed favor on Esther’s life, not for her personal blessing, but for the blessing of the entire nation of Israel. It was up to Esther to partner with God in His choice of provision for Israel.

     J. Urquhart points to the characteristics that made Esther God’s missional choice: “The narrative displays her as a woman of clear judgment, of magnificent self-control, and capable of the noblest self-sacrifice.”[12] Esther exemplifies the principle that God strategically places people in all strata of society as missional instruments for accomplishing His will (Esther 4:14). Following Esther’s example, believers should trust God’s providence and safekeeping as they engage in the missio Dei. Sometimes God calls His people to witness to Him in difficult circumstances and sufferings; yet in the end, He achieves His purposes in the earth (8:15-17).

     Because of the providential events triggered through Esther’s courageous actions, Haman, the enemy of the Jews, was punished (Esther 7:10), the welfare of the Jews was protected (9:22), there was great joy in Susa and the surrounding provinces (8:15b-16a), an annual special celebration and provision for the poor were instituted (9:22), King Xerxes issued a tribute in honor of the people of God (10:1), and many professed to be Jews (8:17b NRSV, NJPS). Thus Esther’s witness to God altered the state of existence for both the people of God and the heathen. Through Esther, God preserved His people and reached out to the pagan Persian culture.


[1] Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 683.

[2] James K. Hoffmeier, “Joseph,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 5 vols., ed. Willem VanGemeren, 805-8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 4:808.

[3] John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, vol. 2 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein, 3-235 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 235.

[4] Ibid., 235.

[5] Ibid., 234.

[6] Gleason L. Archer Jr., “Daniel,” in Daniel and the Minor Prophets, vol. 7 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, 3-157 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 9.

[7] C. F. Keil, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of the Prophet Daniel (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1884), 12-13.

[8] Archer, “Daniel,” 8-9.

[9] Joyce G. Baldwin, “Daniel: Theology of,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, 5 vols, ed. Willem A. Van Gemeren, 499-506 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 4.502.

[10] Huckleberry, 24.

[11] G. Keys, “Esther,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 199.

[12] J. Urquart, “Esther,” vol. 2 of The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, rev. ed., 4 vols., ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 156-9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 2:156.

Copyright © 2008-2015 Svetlana Papazov, D.Min.

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