Christians and Israel (2) – Modern Israel is not Biblical Israel

This series is adapted from a sermon I preached on August 3, 2014, “What should we think about Israel?” See here for part one, “Describing the Crisis,” below for part three, “God’s Kingdom is for All Peoples.” Follow the links throughout for sources and more information.

As Christians, how should we think about Israel? That’s the question I’m considering in this series. I’m not attempting to solve the Palestinian crisis or give a sure-fire plan for Mideast peace. Rather, I want to walk through a few thoughts that should shape the way we as Christians think about Israel and Palestine.

Last post I introduced the problem with a quick sketch of the origins and history of modern Israel and the Palestinian crisis. In the next two posts I’ll make two claims. First, the modern nation state of Israel is not the heir of God’s promises to ancient Israel. And second, as followers of Jesus seeking first God’s kingdom and God’s justice we are called to seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians equally.

Let’s start with the first claim: the modern nation state of Israel is not the heir of God’s promises to ancient Israel.

I know it’s tempting to think it is. It is true that there are some strong promises made to Israel in the Old Testament, promises which are reiterated in one way or another in the New Testament (see especially Rom 9:4-5 and 11:28-29). And it is true that modern Israel was founded to be a home for the Jewish people, a safe haven from anti-Semitic oppression—quite an amazing story, to be sure, after Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jews.

But the modern nation state of Israel is not the heir of God’s promises to ancient Israel—and here are a couple of reasons why.

First, it is simply wrong to equate modern Israel with ancient Israel—they are two different things entirely. Ancient Israel was a theocratic monarchy in covenant with YHWH, a covenant centered on the Torah, the Law of Moses. Modern Israel, while making special provision for Jewish citizenship and drawing on Jewish ideals and values, claims (or at least aims) to be a secular liberal democracy. It makes no official claim to be in a divine covenant and does not have the Torah as the basis of its laws.

Just as many people equate “Palestinian” with “Muslim,” so many people equate “Israeli” with “Jewish.” Both equations are false. As for the “Palestinian = Muslim” equation, there is in fact a small but significant Palestinian Christian community. And as for the “Israeli = Jewish” equation, the ethnic and religious demographics of Israel are much more complex than this. Around 20% of Israelis are Arab, most of those practicing Muslims, and over 40% of Jewish Israelis identify themselves as “secular Jews”—Jews by ethnicity only, not by religion.

It was ancient Israel, a theocratic, tribalistic society that became a monarchy, that God brought into covenant with himself through Moses. I’m glad that the modern nation of Israel strives to be a liberal democracy, but that in itself means it is not the equivalent of ancient Israel.

But even if modern Israel could be equated with ancient Israel, it still would not be the heir of God’s promises to ancient Israel—because the biblical writings themselves suggest otherwise. Let me sketch out some of this biblical theology with a special focus on the Apostle Paul’s angle on things, since he’s got the most to say on the question among New Testament authors.

800px-Schnorr_von_Carolsfeld_Bibel_in_Bildern_1860_024The promises to ancient Israel go back to Abraham. According to Genesis 12, repeated and expanded in Genesis 15 and 17, God makes a two-part promise to Abraham: first, God promises to bless Abraham with many descendants, and with provision and protection and land—yes, land—for him and his descendants; and second, God promises to bless all the peoples of the earth through Abraham and his descendants.

Both parts of this promise are crucial, and they point to an important biblical pattern: God blesses the few in order to bring blessing to the many. God can even bless just one person—Abraham, David, Jesus—in order to bring blessing to all people. God never blesses people simply so they can hoard it to themselves, so they can have privileged status with God or before others. God blesses people so that through them God can bless others.

This idea is repeated in the next big covenant God makes, the covenant with Israel given through Moses. This is the covenant that created ancient Israel as a nation. In this covenant God repeats the same promises to Abraham—God will bless Israel with people, protection, provision, and land—yes, still land—and they are in turn to be a blessing to the nations around them. This is the idea behind God calling them “a holy nation and a royal priesthood” as he covenants with them (Exod 19:3-6): they are separated out from the nations and specially blessed by God, in order to be like priests for the nations, mediating God’s blessing to the world.

But this covenant through Moses had one important difference from the covenant with Abraham: it was conditional. With Abraham God just gave a straight up promise: God says, “I will do these things,” period. With Israel God put a condition on the promises: if Israel obeys God’s law, then God will do these things (go back and read Exod 19:5). Abraham’s promise was unconditional, Israel’s was conditional on their obedience.

And, according to ancient Israel’s own prophets, Israel broke the covenant (e.g. Jer 11:1-13; cf. Deut 31:16-21). They disobeyed God’s law, they committed idolatry and injustice and more. And so, as the biblical story goes, they were sent into exile, to Assyria and Babylon and beyond.

God, though, remained faithful to Israel even through their unfaithfulness—and promised a new covenant (e.g. Jer 31:31-34Ezek 16:59-63). This new covenant would be like the covenant through Moses in that it would fulfill the promises to Abraham. But this new covenant would not be like the covenant through Moses in one important respect: it would not be conditional on Israel’s obedience but it would be based solely on God’s love and faithfulness.

Rembrandt Christ ResurrectedMany of the New Testament writings pick up on this new covenant motif, and they all insist that Jesus is the one who brings in this new covenant. To use Paul’s language, Jesus is the descendant (the “seed,” Gal 3:16) of Abraham who fulfills the promises God gave to Abraham, blessing for Abraham’s descendants and blessing for all the peoples of the earth. But here’s the kicker: it turns out the descendants of Abraham include the peoples of the earth, the Gentiles.

For Paul, this is the way that God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled: through Jesus the Jewish Messiah both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) can be children of Abraham and heirs of the promises to Abraham. Take a look at a few excerpts from Paul:

  • Romans 9:6-8: “Not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.”
  • Galatians 3:28-29: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
  • Ephesians 2:11-15: “You [Gentiles] were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ…He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.”

Through Jesus God’s promises to Abraham are fulfilled: the blessing given to the few is extended to all. Through Jesus God is making a new humanity that does not divide between “us” and “them,” a new humanity that together receives the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.

And this includes the promise of “land.” It is a curious thing that, while the New Testament refers to Abraham and the Abrahamic promises many times, the specific promise of “land” is never explicitly mentioned. Scholars have long scratched their heads at this, but in light of Paul’s broader perspective this seems to be the most likely reason: the land promise is like the rest of the promise to Abraham—it has been fulfilled in Christ, and is seen in the blessing given to the nations. In other words, the land the children of Abraham receive, all those who believe whether Jew or Gentile, is not just a strip of land on the Mediterranean Sea, but the whole earth.

To put this yet another way, the fulfillment of the land promise to Abraham through Christ is really a return to God’s original purpose for humanity: all of us, created in God’s image, extending God’s kingdom of love and faithfulness throughout the whole earth (Gen 1:26-28).

Which brings us directly to my second claim, and my next post.

See here for part three, “God’s Kingdom is for All Peoples.” Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.