By Raj Irudaya, SJ
(The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story, Frank Antony Spina, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005)
Are the revelation and salvation of God confined only to the people of Israel or do they transcend geographical boundaries, time, races, languages and nations? Do the so-called outsiders have a role to play? If they do, how has God included them in the history of salvation? Frank Antony Spina has made a serious attempt in his book to address these questions that have been haunting us.
Because God chooses to intervene concretely in human history through the people of Israel, the biblical story is usually seen as a story of exclusion. The people of Israel are looked upon as insiders in the history of salvation and others as outsiders. But, in today’s world of inclusivity and multi-culturality, exclusion is seen as discordant, discriminatory and divisive. This is why Frank Antony Spina’s attempt to study exclusion and inclusion in the biblical story is a bold and relevant venture.
The Israelites, as chosen people, are not to be regarded as absolutely exclusive in the divine project of salvation. It is in and through them that God’s mission of salvation reaches out to all nations and peoples. God’s election of Israel, termed traditionally as exclusive, has actually an inclusive purpose.
With the help of his biblical research and scholarship, Spina, in this book, has highlighted the role and participation of the outsiders, whose edifying faith shows they are included in God’s plan of salvation. In order to challenge the conventional interpretation, he has studied the biblical characters of Esau, Tamar, Rahab, Naaman, Jonah, Ruth and the woman at the well and shows clearly how these outsiders, by their faith, get themselves included in God’s plan of salvation.
I wish to present in a nutshell F.A. Spina’s enlightening presentation of these biblical characters to highlight the inclusiveness of the biblical story.
Esau who becomes the Face of God
Esau is conventionally presented in unfavourable terms. He sells his familial birth right to Jacob, his younger brother, for bread and lentil stew (Gen 25:27-34). He is deprived of his ancestral blessing by the cunning tactics of Rebekah with the complicity of Jacob (Gen 27). Esau, the insider as the elder son of Isaac and Rebekah becomes the outsider, because of the loss of his birth right and ancestral blessing. This does not mean that Jacob is blessed and Esau is cursed. Spina shows how Esau is also blessed as he is given a country – Edom (Gen 36:1,8,19).
More importantly, the author presents Esau as the face of God. The inimical relationship between Esau and Jacob is resolved by the reconciliatory reunion of both the brothers (Gen 33). Instead of venting a vengeful rage against Jacob who had cunningly usurped Esau’s birth right and ancestral blessing, Esau accepts him graciously as his own brother. By his magnanimous, forgiving and accepting behaviour, Esau is declared as the face of God by Jacob himself: “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God since you have received me with such favour” (33:10). Spina underscores how Esau, the outsider, has become the medium and message of the magnanimity, forgiveness and acceptance of God and thus the face of God.
Tamar who preserves Judah’s future
The story of Tamar’s affair with Judah (Gen 38) looks scandalous given today’s moral values. But Spina asserts that the story of Tamar, a Canaanite woman, and so an outsider, cannot be ignored as her name figures in the genealogy of Jesus as part of the generations of the ancestors who would precede the birth of Jesus, the Messiah and Saviour. In spite of the accepted custom of levirate marriage, Tamar was refused children through Selah, the third son of Judah. Spina says that if she had had children through Selah, it would jeopardize the progeny of Judah, through whose line of lineage, the Messiah would come. Tamar’s resolve to have a relationship with Judah for the sake of continuing his posterity goes beyond social convention. By doing so she risked her own life. But she plays her role in preserving Judah’s future and even Israel’s future. Spina says that God used Tamar to ensure the future of God’s people. Thus Tamar, an outsider, becomes an insider in the history of salvation.
Rahab who recalls Yahweh’s mighty deeds
Rahab, a Canaanite woman looked upon as a prostitute, plays a crucial role in saving the spies sent by Joshua to survey the promised land (Josh 2). Spina draws our attention to the faith of Rahab, who recalls Yahweh’s mighty ways of saving the people of Israel (2:8-12). By this she has transformed herself into an Israelite insider capable of making an exemplary Israelite statement of faith. As a favour to her effort to save the spies, she requests to spare her and her family from the destruction the Israelites would bring upon her land. She and her family were not only saved. Rahab eventually becomes part of Israel, as Rahab is included as an insider in the genealogy of Jesus.
If we enter respectfully into the faith experiences of others, we will be able to demolish the dividing wall between insiders and outsiders.
Amazing Faith of Naaman, an outsider
Naaman, a high-ranking Aramaean military officer and an outsider, is presented as proclaiming his singular belief in the Israelite God Yahweh after he is miraculously cured from dreadful leprosy (2 Kgs 5). Spina invites us to see how Naaman moves from his annoyance with Prophet Elisha when he commands him to bathe in the river Jordan to his open declaration of faith in the God of Israel (5:15,17). Spina also shows that religiously Naaman has become an Israelite as he has decided to worship Yahweh in his own country, though he remains socially a Syrian. The faith of Naaman, the outsider, is astounding.
God for All
Spina draws our attention also to Jonah, the prophet and an insider who tends to become an outsider by disobeying the command of God to go to Nineveh. It is not mere ethnicity as an Israelite that makes one an insider; but it is one’s faith and commitment to God, which makes one belong really to the people of God. At the preaching of Jonah, it is not merely one individual but the whole of the city of Nineveh repents and turns to the ways of the Lord. By this symbolic mission to Ninevites as outsiders, Spina asserts that God wants insiders and outsiders to be part of the same divinely constituted community.
Ruth who enters the genealogy of Jesus
Ruth, a Moabite woman and an outsider, is graced to become an insider in the community of the people of God and also is privileged to enter the genealogy of Jesus. The unfailing and astonishing love and commitment of Ruth, a non-Israelite, to Naomi, her Israelite mother-in-law fetch her God’s favour. God makes her become not only the wife of Boaz, an Israelite, but brings her into the genealogy of Jesus. Spina remarks that the outsiders promote Israel’s future and thus become part of God’s agenda of salvation.
This book invites us to revisit and reread the Bible and discover the unrecognized riches of the faith of the outsiders.
The Samaritan Woman’s gradual growth in faith
Spina demonstrates how the faith of the outsiders is highly commended by Jesus by highlighting some examples (Roman Centurion: Matt 8:5-13; Canaanite woman: Matt 15:21-28; Grateful Samaritan Lk 17:11-19). He dwells upon the episode of the woman at the well (John 4:1-42) who is a Samaritan, marginalized and ostracized at all levels by the Jews, the insiders. The ground-breaking dialogue of Jesus with the Samaritan woman and her gradual growth in faith enable her to become the privileged medium of receiving divine revelations like living water as gift of God, right worship, Jesus as Prophet, Messiah and Saviour. Spina points to the faith movement of the Samaritan woman from the outsider to the insider, as she brings her whole village to recognize Jesus as Saviour of the world.
The book invites us to… I enjoyed reading Spina’s book which is intuitive and enlightening in bringing to limelight the long-neglected theme of the faith of the outsider in the context of today’s inclusivity and multiculturality. Through his in-depth study he has emphasized that the mission of the God of Biblical history is inclusive in order to build a wider divine community of all peoples and nations. This book invites us to revisit and reread the Bible and discover the unrecognized riches of the faith of the outsiders. It calls us also to acknowledge and learn from the faith experience of outsiders who participate in their own unique ways in the salvation history. If we enter respectfully into the faith experiences of others, we will be able to demolish the dividing wall between insiders and outsiders and build the world community of God as Fratelli Tutti, to use the words of Pope Francis. It will help us see all humans as our brothers and sisters.
Raj Irudaya, SJ (CEN) is the Superior and Professor of Scripture at Arul Kadal, Jesuit Regional Theology Centre, Chennai. He is the Secretary of Indian Theological Association. Formerly he was the Assistancy Delegate for Formation.