Solving the Mystery: Patterns in the Old Testament
James M. Hamilton, Jr.
Our aim here is to see the connections between key promises in the Old Testament that prompted prophets to recognize patterns. If a promise is a gold coin, then the presence of these promises in the Bible means that the biblical authors saw them as coming from God and relating to God’s plan. This makes the promises like gold coins minted at the same place.
The earliest prophetic impress comes in the word of judgment God spoke to the snake in Genesis 3:15. The man and woman had every right to expect that they would die that day they ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). But as God cursed the snake, Adam and his wife heard that there would be ongoing enmity between the snake and the woman, and between his seed and hers. Moreover, while the seed of the woman would be bruised on the heel, the serpent would receive a much more serious bruise on the head (Gen. 3:15). The ongoing enmity and the reference to the woman’s seed both indicate that Adam and his wife would not die immediately but continue to live, though they had experienced spiritual death (Gen. 3:7–8). When Adam named his wife Eve, because she would be the mother of all the living (Gen. 3:20), he responded in faith to the word of judgment God spoke over the snake. Apparently faith came at the hearing of the word of the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15; cf. Rom. 10:17). They believed they would not immediately experience physical death: they would live in conflict with the serpent, and their offspring would bruise his head.
Eve’s responses to the birth of Cain (Gen. 4:1) and Seth (4:25) indicate that she was looking for her seed who would accomplish this victory over the tempter. The line of descent from the woman is carefully traced in Genesis 5, and in Genesis 5:29 Lamech expresses a hope that his son Noah will be the one to bring relief from the curse stated in Genesis 3:17–19. When we read Genesis 5:29 in light of Genesis 3:14–19, it seems that those who are calling on the name of the Lord (Gen. 4:26) are looking for the seed of the woman whose bruising of the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15) will reverse the curse on the land (Gen. 5:29; cf. 3:17–19).
Another genealogy in Genesis 11 continues to trace the descent of the seed of the woman. Then God’s promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3, like a pile of gold coins on the path, answer the curses of Genesis 3:14–19 point for point:
- Answering the enmity God put between the seed of the woman and the serpent and his seed (Gen. 3:15), God promises to bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse him (Gen. 12:3).
- Answering the difficulty God put in childbearing and marital relations (3:16), God promises to make Abraham into a great nation (12:2) and to bless all the families of the earth in him (12:3).
- Answering the curse on the land (3:17–19), God’s promise that Abraham will be a great nation also implies territory (12:2), and a few verses later (12:7) God promises to give the land to Abraham and his seed.
With these coins in hand, we can set them side by side and see that in addition to being promises of God, they set a story in motion. The promises apparently caused Moses to recognize a pattern.
Moses appears to have heard that there would be enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. So he noticed—and for that reason recorded—the way the seed of the serpent persecuted the seed of the woman: Cain killed Abel; Ham mocked Noah, as Ishmael did Isaac; Esau wanted to kill Jacob. This pattern of persecution probably prompted Moses to notice the way Joseph’s brothers responded to him, prodding Moses to give extended treatment to the suffering and exaltation of Joseph. His brothers wanted to kill him, but sold him into slavery instead. In Egypt, Joseph was exalted, blessed the whole world by providing food in the famine (cf. Gen. 12:3), and then forgave his brothers, preserving their lives from the curse on the land.
The blessing of Abraham had been passed to Isaac, then to Jacob, and Jacob appears to have bestowed it on the sons of Joseph (Gen. 48:15–16). God told Abraham that kings would come from him and Sarah (Gen. 17:6, 16), and we might expect the king to come from the line that receives the blessing. Surprisingly, however, when Jacob blessed his sons, he spoke of Judah in royal terms (Gen. 49:8–12). This prompts the explanation in 1 Chronicles 5:2 that though the birthright and blessing went to Joseph, the “chief” came from Judah.
In Numbers Moses gathers several gold coins and puts them side by side for us. As Balaam failed to curse Israel and blessed them instead, Moses presents him saying something in Numbers 24:9 that combines statements from the blessing of Judah in Genesis 49:9 with statements from the blessing of Abraham in Genesis 12:3. This means that Moses thought God was going to fulfill the promises to Abraham through the promised royal figure from Judah. Just a few verses later, in Numbers 24:17, head-crushing imagery from Genesis 3:15 is combined with language and imagery from the blessing of Judah in Genesis 49:8–12. Numbers 24:19 then speaks of the “dominion” this one from Jacob would exercise, showing that he would exercise the dominion God gave to Adam in Genesis 1:28. God would fulfill the promises to Abraham through the King from Judah, who is the seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent and his seed, and in this way God would accomplish the purposes he began to pursue at creation.
A king from the line of Judah arose in Israel. On the way to becoming king, this young man, untested in battle, went out to meet the mighty Goliath, whose head he crushed with a stone then removed with a sword. Like the seed of the woman who preceded him, David was then persecuted by the seed of the serpent (Saul), who chased him through the wilderness of Israel.
We are not the first to attempt to read these promises in light of the patterns. The biblical authors of the Psalms and the Prophets have blazed this trail for us.
The Psalmists and Prophets Interpreted These Coins
God made astonishing promises to David (2 Samuel 7). The prophets and psalmists interpret the promises to David and the patterns that preceded him to point forward to what God will accomplish when he brings these things to pass.
Psalm 72 seems to be David’s prayer for Solomon (cf. the superscription and Ps. 72:20). David prays that the enemies of his son, the seed of promise (2 Samuel 7), will lick the dust like their father the Devil (Ps. 72:9; cf. Gen. 3:14). He prays that the oppressors will be crushed (Ps. 72:4; cf. Gen. 3:15). He prays that the seed of David will have a great name like what God promised to Abraham and that, as God promised to Abraham, the nations will be blessed in him (Ps. 72:17; cf. Gen. 12:1–3). All this culminates in David’s prayer that God will accomplish what he set out to do at creation and fill the earth with his glory (Ps. 72:19; cf. Num. 14:21).
One example of prophetic interpretation of these passages, and there are many, is Isaiah 11. Isaiah clearly has the promises to David from 2 Samuel 7 in view when he speaks of the “shoot from the stump of Jesse” (Isa. 11:1). The Spirit of Yahweh will rest on him in fullness (11:2), and he will bring justice and peace (11:3–5). These events are likened later in the chapter to the exodus from Egypt (11:16), and they pertain to the regathering of Israel after the exile from the land (11:11). These realities make what Isaiah says in verse 8 all the more remarkable:
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
When the King from Jesse arises to accomplish the new exodus and return from exile, it will be not merely a return from the exile from the land of Israel but also a return from the exile from Eden. When this King from David’s line reigns, the enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent introduced in Genesis 3:15 will be no more. That’s what Isaiah is getting at when he speaks of babies playing with snakes and fearing no ill. Evil will be abolished. No more curse. And when God keeps the promise of Genesis 3:15 through the promises made to David in 2 Samuel 7, as in Psalm 72:19, so in Isaiah 11:9,
the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
Most of what I have said about promises to this point has to do with redemption. Similarly, most of what I have said about patterns to this point has to do with the persecution and suffering of those who cling to the promises, those through whom the promises will be fulfilled. The mystery is in the interweaving of these two lines of development.
Dark Sayings and Riddles
So the promises are piling up to the conclusion that God is going to defeat evil and reopen the way to Eden when the seed of the woman arises to receive the blessing of Abraham, and this seed of the woman will come from the tribe of Judah and descend from David. How is this complicated, enigmatic, or difficult?
The mystery develops around two main questions: First, what is this business about the conqueror suffering? And second, how exactly are the Gentiles going to be blessed? The picture we seem to get from the Old Testament is one of the nation of Israel conquering all other nations, subjugating them to Yahweh and his good law by means of military might. The anointed One from David’s line will rule them with an iron scepter (Ps. 2:8–9). They will come streaming to Zion to learn Yahweh’s law (Isa. 2:1–4; cf. Deut. 4:6–8).
What’s mysterious about this? For one thing, the program breaks down on Israel’s disobedience. The nations can’t see the glory of Yahweh’s law because Israel has profaned Yahweh in their sight (cf. Ezek. 20:9). Rather than subject the nations to Israel, Yahweh subjects Israel to the nations and the nations drive Israel out of the land. Then when Israel does return to the land, their disobedience is seen as they intermarry with unrepentant idolaters from the nations (e.g., Ezra 9:11, 14). How are the nations going to be blessed in Abraham and in his seed (Gen. 22:17–18)?
The other aspect of the mystery is connected to this one. As noted above, the patterns were recognized in light of the prophecies. These patterns that were recognized had to do with the death of Abel and the persecution of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and others. It seems that David reflected on this pattern of suffering in the Psalms, especially those psalms that deal with “the righteous sufferer,” such as Psalms 22 and 69 (there are many others).
Isaiah lived after David, and it appears that David’s reflection on these things influenced the way that Isaiah developed prophecy and pattern in his depiction of the suffering servant. The “shoot from the stump of Jesse” of Isaiah 11:1 seems to be the “young plant… a root out of dry ground” of Isaiah 53:2. What is remarkable here, and elsewhere in Isaiah, is the way the One who will reign in the restoration is also said to be stricken, smitten, and afflicted (53:4), bearing griefs and carrying sorrows (53:4), wounded for transgression, crushed for iniquity, and chastised for the healing of his people (53:5). The righteous One made many to be accounted righteous by bearing their iniquities (53:11). Before Jesus came to fulfill these prophecies, the Old Testament prophets puzzled over the mysteries (1 Pet. 1:10–11). The way the disciples of Jesus reacted to his announcement that he was going to Jerusalem to be crucified shows that they did not have this aspect of the mystery figured out.
The lines of promise and pattern point to conquest and suffering. Building on Isaiah, the angel Gabriel informs Daniel that the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing (Dan. 9:26). Similarly, Zechariah speaks of Israel looking on the Lord, “him whom they have pierced,” and mourning over him “as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zech. 12:10). Zechariah goes on to speak of the Lord calling for the sword to be awakened against his shepherd, the man who stands next to him—the shepherd will be struck and the sheep scattered (13:7). As Isaiah said, “It was the will of the LORD to crush him” (Isa. 53:10).
Promise, Pattern, Mystery
Perhaps summarizing the mysteries and highlighting the enigmas they represent will help us to contemplate them.
First, it’s clear that a Redeemer has been promised. This Redeemer will defeat the Evil One and those aligned with him, and that defeat will roll back the curses and result in a new experience of Edenic life. The land will be fertile; people won’t need weapons because they won’t need to defend themselves or want to attack others; the King will reign in justice, establishing peace; and Yahweh’s glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.
Second, there is, however, the problem of the disobedience of the people of Israel in particular, and the sin of humanity in general. This problem results in man’s exile from Eden, then Israel’s exile from the land. If God is going to be true and just, these sins must be punished. Will exile from the land really pay God’s people back double for all their sins, as Isaiah 40:1 indicates? Is there a way for God to punish sin and show mercy?
Third, what about this theme of the persecution and suffering of the seed of the woman? Abel died at Cain’s hand. Joseph was lifted out of the pit and given to Gentiles. Moses was almost stoned by Israel. David was opposed first by Saul, then by Absalom. And then when God made promises to David, he mentioned something about discipline with the stripes of men (2 Sam. 7:14; the Hebrew term for “stripes” is used in Isa. 53:4,8).
Fourth, in addition to the strong statements about how the Messiah will reign, along the lines of what we find in Psalms 2 and 110, we also have this mysterious talk about a suffering servant in Isaiah 53, a Messiah who will be cut off in Daniel 9:26, the Lord himself being pierced in Zechariah 12:10, and the sword awakened against the man who stands next to him in Zechariah 13:7, which speaks of a stricken shepherd and scattered sheep.
Fifth, what about the Gentiles? God said all the families of the earth would be blessed in the seed of Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 22:17–18), Isaiah says foreigners will be priests and Levites (Isa. 66:21), but at the end of the Old Testament Ezra and Nehemiah are making sure that Israelites don’t intermarry with non-Israelites. How is God going to bless the Gentiles in Abraham’s seed?
When we come to the end of the Old Testament, we have no answer to the question of how all these things will be resolved. How will the theme of the conquering Messiah be fulfilled in light of the pattern of suffering and the prophecies that the Messiah will even die? What about this new exodus and the promised return from exile?
Will It All Fall Apart?
Has the story spun out of control? Or is there a way for the indications gleaned from these gold coins to be brought together into satisfying resolution?
The resolution is brought about by means of the greatest plot twist in the history of the universe: the conquest of the Messiah that looked like defeat. Satan seemed to have conquered. He seemed to have bruised a lot more than the heel of the seed of the woman.
The way the disciples reacted to Jesus announcing that he would go to Jerusalem and die shows how unexpected God’s secret stratagem was. Peter rebuked Jesus and told him it would never happen. It did.
Jesus fulfilled the pattern of the suffering seed of the woman. When he died on the cross he fulfilled the predictions that the Messiah would be cut off, the servant would suffer, the sword would awake against the man standing next to the Lord; indeed, those who saw him die looked on the Lord whom they had pierced. The sins of Israel were doubly paid (Isa. 40:2) because the death of Jesus provides complete forgiveness (Heb. 10:1–18). He died as the suffering servant (Isaiah 53). God called Israel his firstborn son (Ex. 4:23), and Jesus represented Israel as God’s Son. The death of Jesus satisfies the wrath of God, finishing the curse against covenant-breaking Israel.
At the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah were discussing with Jesus the “exodus he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31, AT). Jesus died as the Lamb of God in a new exodus that typologically fulfilled the exodus from Egypt. Jesus fulfilled the promises from the Old Testament that God would redeem his people in a way that would eclipse the exodus from Egypt (e.g., Jer. 16:14–15; 23:7–8).
The death of Jesus set the new exodus in motion, and the followers of Jesus are described in the New Testament as “exiles” (1 Pet. 1:1) who are being built into a new temple (1 Pet. 2:4–5) as they make their way toward the Land of Promise (1 Pet. 2:11), the new heavens and new earth, where righteousness dwells (2 Pet. 3:13). When the authors of the New Testament speak this way, they are using the sequence of events that took place at the exodus from Egypt as an interpretive template to describe the significance of the salvation God has accomplished in Jesus.
And what about Gentiles? Well, Paul took the gospel first to the Jew, then the Greek (Rom. 1:16). When the Jews rejected the gospel, Paul went to the Gentiles (e.g., Acts 13:46). Paul teaches that when the full number of Gentiles have come in, Jesus will return and save his people (Rom. 11:25–27). All the families of the earth will be blessed in the seed of Abraham, Jesus the Messiah (Gal. 3:14–16).
Paul teaches in Ephesians that this was God’s hidden plan for the Gentiles: the mystery has been unfolded to Paul and the other apostles and prophets (Eph. 3:4–6). Though it was hidden for ages and generations, believers now know the whole story (Col. 1:26). Knowing Christ means understanding God’s great mystery (Col. 2:2–3). Moses prophesied it and displayed it in patterns, which were repeated in the histories and proclaimed in the prophets. Jesus fulfilled it all, and Paul explains that the mystery of God’s will was this plan set forth in Christ for the fullness of time, so that all things (Jews and Gentiles), in heaven and on earth, would be united in Christ (Eph. 1:9–10). Gentile Christians enjoy all the blessings given to Israel in the Old Testament (Eph. 1:3–14).
When the gospel has been preached to all nations (Matt. 24:14), when the two witnesses have completed their testimony (Rev. 11:7), when all the martyrs have been faithful unto death (Rev. 6:11), when the full number of the Gentiles have come in (Rom. 11:25), Jesus will come. Living Jews will see him and believe, have their sins forgiven, and be brought into the new covenant: “and in this way all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26–27). The trump shall resound, the Lord shall descend, the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever (Rev. 11:15).