Christians and Israel (3) – God’s Kingdom is for All Peoples

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,” and here for part two, “Modern Israel is not Biblical Israel.” Follow the links throughout for sources and more information.

In the last post I claimed that modern Israel is not the heir to the biblical promises to ancient Israel. That claim is controversial among some Christians, to be sure, but I trust that my claim in this post will not be. At least, it shouldn’t be controversial, but all too often it seems that Christians act as if they don’t really believe it.

Here’s my second claim: 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.

Jesus teaches us that we are to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” (Matt 6:33). This is a call to allegiance: Jesus is saying that our allegiance to God’s kingdom and God’s way of justice stands over and above our allegiance to any earthly kingdom or any worldly way of justice.

And God’s kingdom transcends borders, it transcends our geographical and political boundaries, it embraces our ethnic and cultural differences. God’s kingdom includes all peoples equally: every tribe, every nation, even all creation. To believe otherwise is, to be frank, not just un-Mennonite, it’s un-Christian—it is even anti-Christ, in opposition to Jesus and the global and cosmic scope of his reconciling work (e.g. Col 1:13-23; Rev 7:9-17).

So when Jesus calls us to “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice,” he is calling us to give our allegiance to the reign of God that transcends national borders and includes all peoples, and to seek justice for all within God’s shalom.

This means that we are called to seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians, both Jews and Muslims.

This means that we are called to denounce violence wherever it is found, whether in Hamas rockets killing a 4-year old Israeli boy playing in the living room of his kibbutz home or in Israeli missiles killing Palestinian children playing soccer on the beach.

This means that we are called to put a spotlight on injustice and oppression, those situations where there is an imbalance of power leading to an abuse of power—as there certainly is in Israel taking over land in the West Bank for Israeli settlements, or in Israel’s disproportionate response to Hamas rockets from Gaza (and no, the “human shields” argument doesn’t hold water).

1054px-Israel-Palestine_peaceThis means that we are called always to strive for the things that make for peace. There are many average Israelis and average Palestinians who do not want war, who want to share the land and live in peace. There are many Palestinians who do not support Hamas and its violent ways. There are many Israelis who oppose Israel’s offensive in Gaza, or even Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. There must be a better way forward, and as citizens of God’s kingdom we must encourage the search for that way, to be peacemakers, true children of God (Matt 5:9).

Christians here in North America don’t help the situation when we blindly support Israel in all her policies. Given the horrible history of anti-Semitism, there is good reason for supporting an Israeli state that makes special provision for citizenship of ethnic Jews. But there is no good biblical or historical basis for seeing modern Israel as the rightful heir to the land. And, in any case, our ultimate allegiance is not to any nation state on earth, but to God’s kingdom and God’s justice—and thus we must seek the good of all peoples, including both Israelis and Palestinians equally.

I invite you to conclude this series the way we at Morden Mennonite Church concluded the original sermon on which the series is based: by praying the Lord’s Prayer, reflecting on it as a prayer for all people.

Our Father in heaven, in whose image all people have been created, hallowed be your name. May Your kingdom come, your will be done, your kingdom without borders, your will for justice and peace, on earth as it is in heaven…

Amen. Come, O Lord.

For some other Anabaptist perspectives and initiatives related to Israel and Palestine, check out these websites: Mennonite Palestine Israel NetworkChristian Peacemaker Teams – Peace and Justice Support Network. Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.


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.

Christians and Israel (1) – Describing the Crisis

This series is adapted from a sermon I preached on August 3, 2014, “What should we think about Israel?” See below for part two, “Modern Israel is not Biblical Israel.” Follow the links throughout for sources and more information.

It’s interesting watching my Facebook feed whenever Israel is in the news, which seems to be nearly always. I have Christian friends on Facebook who are decidedly pro-Israel—they cheer every move Israel makes and applaud Canada when it “stands with Israel,” and they boo western media and Canadian politicians that dare to criticize Israel. For them, Israel can do no wrong: Israel is a modern miracle, the fulfillment of biblical promises, God’s holy nation with a divine right to the land they’re in.

589px-Israeli_and_Palestinian_FlagsBut then I have Christian friends on Facebook who just don’t follow the same script. They speak of “Israel-Palestine,” or sometimes just “Palestine,” but not “Israel.” They advocate for Palestinian refugees and speak out against Israeli settlement on Palestinian lands. They highlight the Palestinian casualties in Gaza and downplay Israeli losses. They cringe when Canada stands uncritically with Israel. For them, Israel is just another nation.

As Christians, how should we think about Israel?

There are no simplistic answers to this question. It’s complicated—and contentious. What I offer here is my own perspective as an expert in biblical theology and an admitted non-expert in Middle East politics. As I note at the beginning of each post, I encourage you to click through the links to dig into things in more detail—and to think through all this for yourself. Let’s start with some history.

The Palestinian crisis—like many of the conflicts in our world today—has its roots in a global event that started one hundred years ago this summer: the First World War. The so-called “War to End All War” was in fact the war that spawned a century of wars (and counting).

Before World War I much of the Middle East was part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from Turkey. The war saw the end of that centuries-old empire, and the result for the Middle East was extreme instability. All the victorious nations came together to create the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations, and the United Kingdom was given charge of the land of Palestine. Included in this charge was this mandate: to establish “a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Meanwhile, over in Europe, Germany was left demoralized after the war. Strong voices spoke out from the rubble with brash promises of Germany’s rise to prominence once again. The strongest of these voices? Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party—the Nazis. By 1933, a mere 15 years after the First World War, Hitler was in power and Nazi policies were made law and implemented with frightening speed.

KZ Auschwitz, Ankunft ungarischer JudenThis, of course, led directly to World War II. Once the smoke had cleared after this next global war, the world was horrified at what Hitler had done: eleven million “undesirables” killed in Hitler’s Holocaust, including over six million Jews. This led to a sudden increase in sympathy for the Jewish people and their plight, which in turn added fuel to a Zionism that had been growing for decades.

It was this precise mix of ingredients—the instability of the Middle East in the twilight of the British Empire, the horror of the Holocaust under Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and Zionist dreams of an independent Jewish state—that led to the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

The land of Palestine, however, was to be shared. Up until World War II there were a few Jewish settlements in Palestine—at the beginning of the war less than 30% of the total population living on about 5% of the land. It was mostly inhabited, though rather sparsely, by native Palestinians: Arabs who had lived for centuries under the Ottoman Empire, mostly Muslim though some were Christian. Under the plan proposed after the war, Jews who had been without a state of their own for centuries were given roughly half of the land of Palestine, and hundreds of thousands began to stream there from around the world. The other half was for the native Palestinians, but involved the displacement of some from their home regions.

Israel-Palestine Map

Though maps such as this are not without problems in bias (scale, labeling, etc.), they do give a good rough portrait of land ownership changes in Palestine over the past 100 years.

Newly-formed Israel agreed to the land partition but the surrounding Arab nations did not, and immediately war broke out. Between 1948 and 1967, Israel took as spoils of war another roughly 25% of the land of Palestine, displacing hundreds of thousands of native Palestinians, their descendants still refugees today (such forced displacement happened both ways, by the way, as hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Arab nations to Israel). And since 1967, Israel has unilaterally settled thousands of Israelis within that one-quarter of the land that is still Palestinian. Today, most Palestinians in the land live in the tiny sliver along the Mediterranean coast that is Gaza, or in the West Bank on the eastern side of Israel.

To put it mildly, the land is disputed. And solutions are thin on the ground.

Once again, as Christians, what are we to make of this? How should we think about Israel? More on that in the next post.

See here for part two, “Modern Israel is not Biblical Israel.” Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.