Reframing the Holy Land and the People of God
originally published at ABTS Lebanon
There is no more deeply entrenched issue facing the world than the question of Israel and Palestine. It never fades from the media spotlight and the recent clashes in Gaza serve to remind us that it is not going away. It is a multi-dimensional issue including history and politics. In this short blog piece, I want to look only at the Biblical dimension of the issue and that only in a cursory fashion. I hope it will be enough to raise significant questions.
This Biblical dimension is critical for Evangelical Christians simply because “Evangelicalism” is now understood to hold a particular position popularly labeled “Christian Zionism”—the belief that it is the duty of Christians to recognize and support the state of Israel as the modern-day fulfillment of Biblical promises.
Christian Zionism draws from a Biblical hermeneutic—a way of reading the Bible. At the risk of over-simplification, that hermeneutic consists of these principles: 1) Israel is defined as the ethnic-biological descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 2) The scriptural promises of land boundaries must be literally fulfilled. 3) The re-establishment of the state of Israel fulfills Biblical prophecy in preparation for Christ’s second coming.
While I appreciate Christian Zionism’s attempt to take the Bible seriously, I believe the outworking of the position is misinformed. I hope to suggest another Biblical hermeneutic—a way of reading the Bible which may be called “fulfillment” or “inclusive and expansive Israel.” This hermeneutic also takes the Bible seriously, incorporating very clear Biblical principles that Christian Zionism overlooks or understands differently.
First, the purpose of God’s choice of Abraham and his seed (his biological descendant) was to bring his blessing to all the nations of the earth. The classic statement is Genesis 12:3 “in you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” That spread of blessing to many nations started immediately, even before Isaac’s birth as Ishmael is given the covenant sign of circumcision. Joseph’s wisdom saves Egypt and the surrounding nations from destruction in the famine. Even the Exodus serves to make the God of Israel known to the Egyptians. The occupation of the land under Joshua, often seen as a Biblical justification for contemporary Israel’s expansive policies, reveals a God who punishes evil. (Gen 15:16; Deut 9:4-5). The gift of land was not because Israel was deserving, but due to God’s lovingkindness so that all the nations would see his grace to Israel and worship him. The Queen of Sheba’s blessing of the God of Israel is one of many examples of how this purpose was fulfilled (1 Kings 10:6-9).
Second, ethnicity, or biological descent, was never the sole factor in determining Israel’s identity. The blessing of God comes through Abraham’s “seed”—his physical descendant. We will discuss who fulfills that promise below. However, affiliation to the nation of Israel was not based on ethnicity alone, for Abraham’s descendants were to be as numerous as the stars of the heavens or the sand on the seashore (Gen 15:5; 22:17; 26:4). These are impossible promises if only one ethnicity is envisioned. The clearest statement of this expansiveness is in Genesis 17 when Abram’s name is changed to Abraham because he will be the father of a multitude of nations. Even in the Old Testament, non-Jewish people become Israelites (e.g. Israel’s circumcised slaves, Rahab, Ruth). Additionally, some ethnic Jews lost the privileges of land due to their unfaithfulness (See Numbers 16 and 25). The Psalms and prophecies of the Old Testament anticipate the inclusion of many peoples in the people of Israel (Ps 2:8; 22:27; 67:7; Isa 49:6). This anticipation explodes in prophetic fulfillment in the New Testament as people of every tribe and tongue enter the fold of Abraham’s family.
Third, the Old Testament must be read in light of the New Testament. The Old Testament story works toward a fulfillment and that fulfillment is Christ. He is the seed of Abraham and the fulfillment of the Old Testament longings of Israel. He is the true Son of God called “out of Egypt” (See Ex 4:22, Mt 2:15). He declares himself to be the one about whom Moses wrote (Jn 5:39, 46; Lk 24:44). He also tells the Jewish leaders of his day (ethnic Jews) that they are not the sons of Abraham (John 8:39-44)—a stunning shift indicating that relationship to Abraham is not based merely on bloodline.
What Jesus introduces, the apostles develop and expand. Christ is the seed of Abraham and all those who are “in Christ” are Abraham’s seed as well (Rom 2:28-29; 4:12; Eph 3:6; Gal 3:29). Moses had defined Israel as “a holy nation, a royal priesthood that you should forth the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Peter, with apostolic authority, applies that definition to the people of Christ including both Jews and Gentiles (I Pet 2:9; Ex 19:6).
Fourth, just as the scriptures expand the identity of Israel through Christ to all nations, they also expand the promises of the land to include the entire earth. The land theme of the Bible does not begin with Genesis 12, but Genesis 1. God’s purpose from the outset was for the earth to be a temple where his image-bearers would lovingly care for the creation, reflecting pure and holy worship to him. The initial command to Abraham was to go to a land God would show him (Gen 12:1). Later, Abraham is to “arise and walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you” (Gen 13:17). Then God promises the land extending from the river of Egypt to the River Euphrates” (Gen 15:18). Abraham’s descendants will spread to be like the dust of the earth and extend from east to west (literally the place of the sun’s rising to its setting) and north to south (Gen 28:13-14). From the early chapters of Genesis, God’s promise of land was designed to expand as a reclamation of the earth for the purposes he expressed in creation which were lost in the Fall.
In keeping with this theme of expansion, Jesus states that the meek will inherit the earth. It is a reframing of Psalm 37:11 giving the land inheritance to those who follow Jesus in meekness and humility. Paul also states that the promise to Abraham was that he would be heir of the world (Rom 4:13). For Paul, Israel’s borders extended to the entire earth. The final scene of Revelation depicts the fulfillment as the heavenly city descends to a renewed earth (Rev 21-22).
Fifth, Christians esteem and honor the Jewish people as the original recipients of God’s promise and the source of blessing to all nations. As the apostle states, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh is Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.” (Rom 9:4-5)
Some will caricature this hermeneutic as “replacement theology”—a tragic misunderstanding of Scripture that contributed to anti-Semitism and the horror of Nazism. Israel is not “replaced” but expanded and enriched by the inclusion of the nations in Christ. Israel’s fulfillment or its inclusivity is centered in the person of Christ. The Bible states that many thousands of Jews entered the faith in the early days of the church (Acts 21:20). Many are professing Christ in our day as well. So we as Gentile Christians enjoy an adopted status in the family of God with our Messianic brothers and sisters as our older siblings. We also look up to the Jewish people with respect, anticipating the day when many more will re-enter the family of God (Romans 11:17-24).
So how does this change our view of the Israel-Palestine issue? It frees us to look at the issues through the broader Biblical categories of justice and God’s love for all humanity. Christians must love the Jewish people and honor them as the race through whom Christ came. Christians must love Palestinians as well as they, like us other Gentiles, are a race for whom Christ suffered and died. Paul’s majestic summary of the expansive people of God sets the right tone:
Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated 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. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility… So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone. (Eph 2:12-20)
Christian Zionism resurrects the hostility that Christ came to destroy. Please consider a more Biblical basis for loving the Jewish people and the Palestinian people.
1 For a more thorough treatment, see New Testament scholar Gary M. Burge, Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic) 2010.
2 This article is too brief to deal with the theological system known as “dispensationalism” which has many different expressions. In speaking of Christian Zionism, I am not equating it with dispensationalism although there may be areas of overlap. I understand Christian Zionism to be a popular reading of the Bible spanning many denominations and churches.
3 For a through treatment of the “all nations” theme of the Old Testament, see Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God (Downers Grove, IL, IVP Academic) 2006.
4 See Munther Isaac, From Land to Lands; From Eden to the Renewed Earth: A Christ-Centred Biblical Theology of the Promised Land (Carlisle, Langham Monographs) 2015.