This week's question comes from Ron in Sydney, Australia. He asks about how the Israelites thought about God's grace, particularly in relation to the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament).
Before we get too far it would be a good idea to define "saving grace." In most Christian circles "saving grace" is laden with tradition. To be "saved" traditionally means to be released from the sins we are guilty of, and so have an expectation of heavenly life. However, particularly in the past few decades, the understanding of saved and salvation has taken on a more timely meaning. For some, salvation has been expanded to include freedom from oppression in its many forms. This is exactly the understanding the ancient Israelites would have embraced.
Before and during the days of Jesus, the orthodox Jewish teachings included the notion there was no afterlife whatsoever (cf., Acts 23.8). Thus the words "saving grace" wouldn't have reflected eternal life in heaven, or any form of afterlife. This being so, any understanding of God's grace whatsoever must have been strictly worldly focused.
In many translations the Hebrew word for grace, chen, is also translated favor, graciousness, and mercy. Indeed chen is found over 60 times in the Old Testament, so there was clearly an Israelite understanding of the concept of grace. So, how did the Israelites view God's saving grace in the Torah?
There are many events the biblical writers point to when speaking of God's grace. Indeed, according to the author of the book of Job, every single goodness in life is from God (Job 2.10). In the New Testament the writer of Hebrews (who was certainly an Israelite) refers to God's graciousness in the Old Testament in both the saving of Noah in the ark as well as the birth of Isaac to elderly Abraham and Sarah.
Another Israelite theme of God's grace was the giving of the law. Though Christians today often belittle and deride the whole issue of "the law" (the many purity and ethical commandments of the Torah), it is clear that most Israelites felt the law was a gift of grace to the nation. Indeed, Psalm 119, the longest chapter and song in the Bible, is dedicated to praising God for giving the Israelites the commandments of the law. The Israelites saw God's grace there because the commandments allowed the common, everyday rituals of life (like daily work, eating, washing, and so on) to become holy and thus bring them into a right-relationship with God.
But by far and away the single event most referred to as an act of God's grace is the exodus (the freeing of the enslaved Hebrews from the Egyptians). This event is indeed the key to understanding God's saving grace in the Old Testament. Many psalms make reference to God's graciousness in the exodus (Psalms 66, 68, 77, 78, et al) and the prophets make mention of the event as well. God's grace in this event was demonstrated repeatedly and often. God made a way for the Israelite's to escape their oppression; God protected them from the Egyptian army when Pharaoh changed his mind about their release; God provided both food and water for them in the wilderness; and God brought them to a promised land where they could settle as a nation. In all of this, God's saving was grace recognized because God effected a release from bondage.
By Jesus' day the doctrine of the afterlife had become firmly rooted in the Israelite community and the metaphor of the exodus became a metaphor for life. Humanity endures life by the grace of God who cares for our needs now, but who has prepared a promised land in the life to come. Because of this "new" teaching, the traditional notion of God's saving grace became rooted in the afterlife and the worldly aspect of grace faded nearly into oblivion.
The Israelites viewed God's saving grace in their day-to-day lives. Every good gift was a gift of grace from God. This ancient tradition of God's saving grace in the here and now has finally made a comeback. Perhaps this time we may come to understand that God's grace is available to us both now and then.