From much of the historical-critical treatment of the Bible you get the impression that the universal nature of mission only arose in the later prophets.
Christopher Wright in The Mission of God disagrees with this. He does not think the universality of Abraham’s call to be a blessing to all peoples was written back into the patriarchal age from a later perspective. He surveys most of the types of writing, historical and literary, in the Bible and concludes,
“The sheer breadth of the texts surveyed shows that this was not just an afterthought or even just an evolving historical consciousness. It is a mistake, in my view, to speak of the universal dimension of the Old Testament as a late-developing awareness that emerged out of centuries of more narrow minded nationalism. On the contrary, it is found in texts of different historical eras and various canonical genres” (p. 251).
So not only is narrow nationalism something the New Testament stands against, it is something the Hebrew Bible itself debunks.
Yet there is a counterpoint to this. The Bible, both Old and New Testament, often refers to the particular election of Israel, the chosen people. For instance, from Exodus 19:5-6:
And now, if you will diligently listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is mine, and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (NET Bible).
This seems like divine favoritism. Wright acknowledges that building a bridge between universality and particularity challenges any theologian. But he makes these points. First, the election of Israel stands in the context of God’s universality. Abraham is chosen. But he is chosen for the sake of all nations. Second, God chooses Israel without regard to any special feature of that people. It is not because they constitute a super race. Third,God founds his election of Israel on his own inexplicable love. Wright thinks it would be OK to mimic John’s gospel by saying that God so loved the world that he chose Abraham. Fourth, “the election of Israel is instrumental, not an end in itself.” His goal in choosing Israel was to extend salvation beyond Israel. Fifth, the election of Israel reflects God’s involvement in concrete history. If God plans to save the world in a historical way, then his involvement in the history of a particular nation makes sense. Sixth, election is not predestination as understood by some. It is not a way to determine who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Election is about the mission of God to reveal himself to all. It is about his goal of extending salvation throughout the whole world (pp. 263-264).
I am glad I read this part of Wright’s book. It holds up a needed perspective. In regards to his thesis, though, I would point out that there are important books of the Bible with no discernible universality: Hosea, for example.
There are dangers in the idea of a chosen people. Karl Popper found an analogy between the notion of a chosen people and Karl Marx’s idea of a chosen class. He criticized the historicism that both ideas could lead to. Historicism is the idea that history is destined to come out a certain way politically. This notion is alive and well today. People still claim that certain positions are on the “wrong side of history.” That assumes that history is going in a set way.
However, practically, I don’t know that Israel has ever wanted hegemony over the whole world. Even Zionists seem to just want a limited piece of land—smaller than the county where I was born. Marxism and Christianity, however, aim at the whole world. The universality of Christian mission could be dangerous if we tried to reestablish Christendom and rule the world. It is not a trivial temptation. The only thing, I think, that will save Christianity from historicism is a firmly non-political stance. The kingdom is not of this world.
Anyway, the interplay between universality and particularity in scripture is certainly a rich field for reflection.