The Old Testament. The English word "nations" is used in the New International Version to translate several Hebrew terms. Most often it refers to goyim, a word thought to derive from gowy [y/G], which means "body" of a person and thus by extension, the corporate body of a people.
The writers of the Hebrew Bible applied the term "nations" to various peoples, but at times the term is used quite specifically. In Genesis 10 Israel is included among the list of more than seventy nations. Seven nations larger and stronger than Israel appear in three passages ( Deut 7:1 ; Joshua 3:10 ; 24:11 ): the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites.
The Noahic laws found in Genesis 9:1-17 were understood as the minimum requirements binding on all people, Hebrew and non-Hebrew alike. The exhortation to "be fruitful and multiply" (vv. 1, 7), the allowance to eat any meat, although without the lifeblood in it (vv. 3-5), and the declaration that "whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (v. 6) were applicable to all people in all times. But it is clear that the Old Testament writers generally viewed the nations as failing to fulfill even these broad parameters. Approximately half of the references to the nations in the Old Testament refer to them in a negative fashion. The nations are described as "vomit" ( Lev 18:28 ), a "drop in a bucket" and "dust on the scales" ( Isa 40:15 ), and the source of slaves ( Lev 25:44 ). Negative references are often made to the nations in comparison to Israel.
The actions of the nations are depicted as evil, but the almost formulaic comparison between the wicked nations and the chosen people of Israel takes an ironic turn in 2 Chronicles 33:9. There the evil perpetrated by the people of Jerusalem, having been led astray by Manassah, was more grievous than that of the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites. The evil ways of the nations are depicted as a source of temptation to the true faith of Israel. God used the attraction of evil to test the faith of his chosen people ( Deut 12:30 ; 29:18 ).
The nations are found in synonymous poetic parallelism with wickedness ( Psalm 9:17 ) and enemy ( Isa 64:2 ), a further indication of the low esteem in which the biblical writers held their neighbors. Still, the nations were often used by God. In Judges 2:21-23 the Lord, angry with Israel, allows the nations that had not been driven out by Joshua to remain to test Israel, to see "whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their forefathers did."
For the prophets, the failure of Israel and Judah to stand against the opposing nations served as a sign of God's judgment against his people rather than the superiority of the nations themselves. God's use of the nations in the Old Testament underscores the fact that, for the biblical writers, both the nations and Israel were under the sovereignty of God.
The Old Testament is usually negative and seldom positive toward other ethnic groups, but the nations can stand as neutral observers of God's glory ( 1 Chron 16 ; Psalm 45:17 ; Mal 1:11 ), of God's wrath ( Isa 12:4 ), and of the Suffering Servant ( Isa 52:15 ). Still, several texts hold out for the ultimate conversion of all peoples (see Jer 16:19 ).
The intertestamental period, as indicated by the books of the Apocrypha, exhibits a continued distinction between the Jews and the "nations." Maccabees reflects the deepest point of this division. The defilement of the temple by Antiochus IV and the Jewish response dramatizes the struggle between Judaism and the forces of Hellenization.
The New Testament. The New Testament Greek ethnos [e[qno"] is rendered "nation(s)" (36 times), "pagan(s)" (8 times), "Gentiles" (84 times), and "heathen" (one time) in the New International Version. The Greek term tends to represent a positive image nearly half of the time; one-quarter of the occurrences are negative and the other quarter present a neutral impression. Ethnos [e[qno"] is translated as "nations" when it takes on a more negative aspect. Forty-one percent of the occurrences of ethnos [e[qno"] as "nations" are negative; only 28 percent are positive; 31 percent are neutral. When referring to the nations, ethnos [e [qno"] continues the negative attitude embodied in its use in the Old Testament.
Other related terms are hellen and akrobustia [ajkrobustiva] (uncircumcised), both of which the New International Version translates as "Gentile." Hellen literally means Hellenes or Greeks and is so translated twenty-two times. The New International Version translates telesphoreo [telesforevw] and ethnikos [e[qno"] as "pagan." Hellen can refer to non-Jews in both the cultural and religious sense (see Rom 1:14 ; and 1 Cor 1:22 ). All these terms reflect the distinction between Jew and non-Jew in first-century Palestine.
Jesus understood this distinction. Early in his ministry he directed his efforts toward his fellow Jews. Still, even after referring to non-Jews with the image of "dogs" ( Mark 7:27 ), Jesus drove the demon from the Greek woman's daughter. The final words of his ministry, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20, indicate how his ministry had expanded to "make disciples of all nations."
The work of the apostle Paul reflects the conflict between Jew and non-Jew in early Christian communities. ac 15:29 delimits the minimum legal requirements to be applied to Gentile Christians: to abstain from (1) food sacrificed to idols, (2) (consuming) blood, (3) the meat of strangled animals, and (4) sexual immorality. It has been suggested that these rules are simply an expression of the Noahic laws found in Genesis 9. The requirements for Jewish and non-Jewish Christians were problematic for the early church. Among these the incident between Paul and Peter concerning the necessity of circumcision for the non-Jewish Christian (Gal. 2) highlights this problem. But in the final analysis, there is "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" ( Gal 3:28-29 ).
Theologically, the Bible reflects a symbiotic relationship between God's people and others. Other peoples posed both threat and promise. The nations always outnumbered the people called of God. The lifestyle of the nations, often involving illicit ritual sex, threatened God's people by appealing to their inherently base nature. The promise of the nations was that they might be redeemed for the purposes of their Creator. The intent of the Lord from the beginning was that all the nations would be blessed. Thus the call of Abraham looked toward the time when all peoples would become the children of Abraham by faith. For the nations as for the ethnic descendants of Abraham, the person and ministry of Jesus were indeed good news, providing the means of reconciliation to God and with one another. Thus the church was destined to move out of Palestine and into all the world to further that end.
Keith N. Schoville
Bibliography. D. L. Christensen, ABD, pp. 1037-49; K. R. Joines, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 666-67; H. C. Kee, Understanding the New Testament; D. A. Smith, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, p. 325; F. Stagg, Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 324-25.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Nations, the'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".