Disciple the nations? Yes, but God is more specific! The Abrahamic blessing that forms the foundation for the mission mandate central to the entire Bible makes it very clear that the blessings of salvation need to go to all the clans, to all the peoples of the earth.
To whom was the Abrahamic promise directed? (Gen. 12:1-3) First and obviously, to his lineal descendants. But its ultimate fulfillment is directed to “all the families of the earth.” (v.3) “All” is inclusive, but who are the “families”? The term mispahot in Genesis 12:3 has been variously rendered by Hebrew translators. The Septuagint translates it phulai (tribes, nations, peoples. Traditionally, standard English Bibles have read “families.” Other recent translators have rendered it “tribes” (Jerusalem Bible) and “peoples” (Today’s English Version, and the New International Version). Some exegetes have suggested reading it “communities.” How are we to understand the precise meaning of this significant term in the “bottom line” of the Abrahamic promise?
The missionary heart of God is nowhere more clearly revealed than in this great commission passage of the Old Testament and its essential reiteration in Matthew 28:19, 20. The two commissions are essentially one and the same. The promise (epangelion) to Abram is the gospel (euangelion) to the world. The Sender is the same, the command is the same, the mission is the same. The promise is Christ; the gospel is Christ. The Lord says go for the sake of the world. Even the promise of his abiding presence is the same. Compare Gen. 28:14,15 with Matt. 28:20. The similarities are striking between God’s promise to Jacob and the Lord’s promise to the disciples of his abiding presence till the end. It’s as if the Lord in the Matthew passage is quoting directly from Gen. 28:15. In both cases the commission is echoed again and again in Scripture. In both cases the shadow of the cross falls across the lives of those who obey, falls in decisive separation from familial and national loyalties which often trammel and bind the witness. Abram was called out from hearth and home; the disciples later were told to “hate” father and mother for the sake of Christ. But nonetheless, both were promised a larger family as they obeyed: for Abram-descendants as the dust of the earth (Gen. 13:16); for the disciples-parents and houses and lands (Mark 10:29,30). In both cases, too, the commission’s object was the whole earth.
Yet it is characteristic of the Lord that He does not give the promise as a mere generality. The precise word of blessing is for “all the mispahot (Hebrew)” of the earth. Who are they? Can we define a social unit which sharpens for us the object of the promise? Does that definition reveal more clearly the path and the destiny of the blessing of world mission?
A careful contextual examination of the term in the Old Testament (300 usages) shows the following:
(1) Mispaha(sing.) is most commonly used to describe a subdivision of a tribe or larger people-group. This is clearly indicated in the tribal enumerations of Numbers 26 and the land divisions of Joshua 13 and 15.
(2) The most precise definition comes from Joshua 7:14 and I Samuel 10:20, 21. Here it is a social group smaller than a tribe but larger than a household. When Achan sinned, the Israelites were reviewed first by tribe, then by mispaha, then by household. This precise usage may be assumed to
underlie even the broader references to a whole tribe or people. (For example, mispaha clearly refers to the whole tribe of Dan in Judges 13:2. However, on closer comparison, we discover that in the detailed tribal enumeration of Numbers 26, Dan was composed of a single mispaha, in contrast to the other tribes. Consequently, for Dan the tribe and the mispaha are probably synonymous.) In these instances we would translate “clan.”
(3) It is used loosely on a few occasions to refer to a whole tribe or a whole people. Clear examples of this usage are Amos 3:1, 2 and Jer. 8:3.
(4) Other uses are metaphorical or by analogy with these basic meanings, and are not important for understanding the promise of Genesis 12:3. Reiterations of the Promise
Hebrew lexicographers support the general features of this analysis. Gesenius gives the primary English meaning as “clan.” Koehler and Kittel give both “family” and “clan. All recognize the fact of a reference to a tribal or people subdivision.
Another route for determining the meaning of mispahot in Genesis 12:3, is to compare reiterations of the promise. In this case, we discover that three passages (of five total) read goyim (nations, peoples) instead of mispahot. The Hebrew goyim is roughly equivalent to the Greek ethne of Matthew 28:19. This interchange between mispahot and goyim in five passages containing the same promise provides good support for the TEV/NIV rendering “all the peoples” in Genesis 12:3, and the TEV translation of ethne as “peoples” in Matthew 28:19. It also underscores the parallelism of Genesis 12:3 and Matthew 28:19 as two statements of the same great commission, one in the Old Testament and the other in the New. It points away from the almost exclusive use of “nation” in English translations of Matthew 28:19 which risks misleading the modern reader who is accustomed to identifying it with contemporary concepts of the nation-state or country. Numerical Description of the Clan
What, we may ask, would a Hebrew mispaha actually look like? Following the enumeration of Numbers 26, we find that there were approximately sixty mispahot in Israel at that time. This produces an average size per clan of 10,000 men aged twenty years and older. By extrapolation, the actual size of a clan including women and children would then average at least to 40,000 people at the time of the conquest. Outside the extended family, it would function as the arena for identity, social and political connection, religious life, marriage, etc. Contemporary Discussions
Contemporary discussions of “all the nations, peoples” center largely around the meanings of goyim (Hebrew) and ethne (Greek). In Old Testament scholarship, Speiser has analyzed the meanings of goy (sing., “nation”) and ‘am (sing., “people”), and concluded that goy is nearer the modern concept of nation (because a territorial base is needed), and that ‘am is nearer the concept of people-group. He is undoubtedly correct. However, all of this must be understood in the context of ancient civilization in which modern nationalism was entirely unknown, and in which a nation with a territorial base was actually a functioning people-group (i.e., linked by blood and culture as well as politics). Thus Speiser concludes by affirming that Israel was both ‘am and goy. The interchange of mispahot and goyim in the Genesis reiterations of the promise further substantiates the “people-focus” of the blessing, since the “clan” carries strong overtones of consanguinity. New Testament Scholarship
In New Testament scholarship, one debate concerns the religious meaning of ethne, and a second discussion concerns its sociological meaning.
The first debate poses the question, does ethne refer to all nations including the Jews, or does it refer to the Gentiles only? The evidence is not onesided. Ethne is frequently used to denote the surrounding Gentile nations (excluding the Jews) in both Old and New Testament. But it is not always so used; sometimes it clearly includes both Jews and Gentiles. On either interpretation, however, the effect of the commission is to underscore the universality of the gospel in both Old and New Testaments. Neither interpretation is affected by our consideration of Genesis 12:3.
The second debate, a sociological inquiry, is more closely related to our examination of mispaha/ goy in the Old Testament promise (covenant). It poses the question, does ethne in Matthew 28:19 imply an evangelistic approach to peoples as peoples, or does it refer simply to all people in general? The question focuses especially on the issue of whether or not to target cultural units in evangelism. Walter Liefeld and David Hesselgrave have cautioned against reading an entire missiological methodology into ethne. Hesselgrave summarizes the discussion by pointing out that his reading of the classic Great Commission allows for a particular methodology (e.g., approaching peoples as peoples, rather than as individuals), but does not require it. To substantiate this caution, Liefeld and Hesselgrave argue that Greek words other than ethne would have been used in the Great Commission if the intent had been to focus on “ethnic groups.”
For this discussion, the Old Testament commission is illuminating. We have observed there the parallel use of mispahalphule (with stronger ethnic overtones) and goyim/ethne(with perhaps stronger “national” overtones). Mispaha is clearly a specific “people-word,” denoting as it does a clan, used interchangeably with goy. The point is not so much that Genesis 12:3 and Matthew 28:19 require a certain methodology by the use of this language, but rather that they assume a social reality which structures the mode of communication and blessing for all people to all peoples.
Since the ancient notion of national identity is related to consanguinity and common culture, we find the mispahot (clans) and the goyim (peoples, nations) of the Genesis commission to be particular, yet inclusive, references to humanity in all its subdivisions. We find this underscored in the meanings and usages of the words. In general, the goyim are larger subdivisions and the mispahot are smaller. A free, but not misleading, sociological translation might be “cultures” (goyim, mispahot) and “subcultures” (mispahot).
Thus the overarching impact of the promise to bless “all the clans/ nations” of the earth can be stated: Through you (God’s people) the peoples of the earth will be blessed, even to the individual subcultures. The promise of blessing is for each of those subdivisions of humanity in which people find their identity.
Richard Showalter is president of Eastern Mennonite Missions, located in Salunga, Penn. EMM is an agency that focuses on partnership in mission to today’s frontiers. He and his wife Jewel served as Christian witnesses to Muslims peoples of the former Ottoman Empire.
From the International Journal of Frontier Missions (http://www.ijfm.org/), Jan 01, 1996, Volume 13:1, pp. 11-14.