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Does ‘Israel’ have a divine right to the land? part 1

Map_Land_of_IsraelMartin Saunders (of Youthscape) wrote an excellent article highlighting four issues which often prevent evangelicals from understanding what has been happening in the Israel/Gaza conflict. First, he comments ‘It’s not as simple as good guys vs bad guys’, something which I have also been trying to point out, though social media is not helping with this. Second is ‘The fear of accidental antisemitism’, something we need to take really seriously, as the rise of antisemitism across Europe highlights. 

But Martin’s third point is that ‘We’re not clear what the Bible says’ about Israel and the land.

For many Christians (often termed Christian Zionists), the Bible clearly states that God has a special plan for Israel which includes a lasting covenant with the physical ‘land’. For others, that covenant was fulfilled by the cross (Matthew 5:17)…Whatever we believe, we can’t claim to hold a ‘biblical’ position if we haven’t read scripture. There are no short-cuts; you can argue anything with a proof text. Only by reading the Bible as a whole, and by understanding the grand narrative of Scripture, can we truly understand God’s relationship with the land and the people of Israel.

In the light of this, I offer some reflections on the status of ‘the land’ in Scripture. Two things need to be considered at the outset. The first is that it is not possible to identify ‘Israel’ in the Bible with ‘Israel’ the modern nation-state. Despite what the vast majority of commentators say, Israel is not a ‘Jewish’ state, even though it privileges immigration access to Jews in the global diaspora. Modern Israel is in fact constitutionally a Western-style liberal democracy, whereas biblical Israel was for most of its history a monarchical theocracy.

Secondly, both in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for ‘land’ and ‘earth’ (i.e. meaning the whole world) are the same: eretz (Hebrew); and ge (Greek). So, for example, in the first creation narrative the dry ground is called ‘eretz‘ (Gen 1.10), yet the term specifically used for the territory promised to God’s people is eretz IsraelWe need to look out for the way that the biblical writers can, at times, transform their meaning and vision on the basis of this linguistic ambiguity.


Perhaps the most striking thing about the ‘land’ within the OT narrative of Israel is that, contrary to one dimensional claims about promise and inheritance, it actually has multiple significance, and its theological meaning always eclipses its geographical significance.

The first dimension is the land as a sign of the unmerited generosity and gift of the sovereign God. This is found in the promise to Abraham in Gen 12.1–3:

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Already we can see the tension between the local and the global: the giving of the land to Abraham (how else can he become ‘a nation’?) will have global consequences of blessing—whether all peoples will be blessed or will ‘bless themselves by you’ (the Hebrew is ambiguous).

This theme of unmerited grace appears in a number of different forms in the narrative. It is shown in the choosing of this (small and insignificant) people in Deut 7.7:

The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples.

and in the repeated phrase ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ (e.g. in Moses encounter at the burning bush, Ex 3.8). The significance of ‘milk and honey’ probably has to do with the fertility of the land, perhaps that the blessing comes from unexpected sources, but also that these things occur naturally. Unlike growing and harvesting crops, these things simply come to you, as Samson on one occasion found (Judges 14.8). This is paralleled in the Deuteronomic tradition with the inheritance of ‘cities you did not build, cisterns you did not dig, and groves you did not plant’ (Deut 6.11, Joshua 24.13).

Note that, in all this, the most important thing is the truth that it points to about God (not about the people)—one who is an abundant generous giver to those who do not in any way merit this generosity. This truth in relation to the land (of Israel) is one that is writ large on the land (of the whole of creation), and is prominent in the creation narratives. The abundance of the creation is a reflection of the generosity of the creator.

640px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_035This link is important in the second theme underlying the idea of ‘the land’: God’s project of the restoration of humanity, and the role of Israel in this project. The Abraham story follows hard on the heels of the account of ‘the fall’, which is found not just in Gen 3, but in Gen 3–11; the turning from God in the garden which is known as ‘sin’ unfolds itself as a power which brings death and despair and disrupts relations in families and nations and destroys the fruitfulness and abundance of the earth.

The juxtaposition of this chaotic picture with the story of Abraham carries a strong implicit message: with Abraham God is beginning the task of restoration of humanity, hence the global significance of the story of this individual. It is a link that Paul makes in Romans 1–4; these chapters start with humanity’s idolatry which leads to unfruitfulness of the body, and they end with Abraham’s obedience leading to surprising fruitfulness of his body. This new people, in this new land, are to be a ‘light to the nations’, (Is 42.6, Is 49.6) a destiny which is fulfilled in Jesus followers (Matt 5.14) because it is fulfilled in Jesus himself (John 8.12).

This has a key related strand, which is particular emphasised in the ‘Priestly’ tradition in Leviticus. If the people given this land are part of the restoration of humanity from sin to holiness, then the occupation of the land must be inextricably linked with moral restoration. In fact, the expulsion from the land of the resident Canaanites is given a specific moral dimension: because of their unholy practices, the land has ‘vomited them out’ (Lev 18.25), and the life of the holy people of God is defined in contradistinction to those who lived there previously.

These three ideas—of divine grace and generosity, of the restoration of humanity, and of moral distinctiveness—are constantly brought together in the prophetic tradition. The promise of return following exile is a mark, not of the ‘specialness’ of the people, but of the faithfulness of God. No political power, and not even the past disobedience of the people, can thwart God’s plans or undo his faithfulness. And because of this, God’s grace in restoration is destined to overflow ethnic boundaries—a particular theme of the second and third parts of Isaiah. And in light of this, the return to the land must involve a rediscovery of obedience to God’s law—a particular theme of Ezra and Nehemiah.


All this means that ‘the land’ has a particular theological meaning. It is, on the one hand, the place of receiving God’s blessings, but on the other, the arena of obedience to God’s commands. In fact, the land itself has almost greater theological significance in these regards than the ethnic identity of God’s people. The ‘resident alien’ who is not an ethnic member of God’s people, but does reside within the geographical space of ‘the land’, is to both enjoy the privileges and blessings of God’s people, but also must take on the responsibilities of observance (see, for example, Lev 19.34). This idea will be key when we look at the way the New Testament interprets this ideas in the next blog post.


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10 Responses to Does ‘Israel’ have a divine right to the land? part 1

  1. Mark Hewerdine August 11, 2014 at 12:10 pm #

    Thanks for this part, Ian. Very clear and helpful. I’m wondering if you can say a little in a future post about Ishmael: God’s promises to Hagar, how people have variously interpeted or used Hagar and Ishmael in arguments about the land, rights to it and arguments about semitic ancestry.

    • Ian Paul August 13, 2014 at 5:03 pm #

      Thanks Mark. I am not sure I have thought about it that much, to be honest! There’s a problem if people say that the Arab-Israeli conflict is somehow a ‘fulfilment’ of the Hagar/Ishmael story.

      But more than that, it seems to me that the pattern of the fulfilment of OT promises in the person of Jesus means that this conflict, along with all others, can be transformed. I like the title of a book from a couple of years ago about witness to Muslims called ‘Ishmael my brother’ which captures this nicely.

  2. Mark Hewerdine August 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    I’m not sure how that ‘sure’ snuck in there. Sorry!

  3. Etienne August 12, 2014 at 11:02 am #

    What you’re talking about is just fancy-schmancy apologetics for theocracy.

    Israel no more has the right to insist that all those who live in Israel must observe Jewish religious laws than Britain has the right to insist that we all attend Anglican services. To do so would be tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

    I believe the state of Israel has a right to exist. I believe it has the right to defend its borders and the lives of its citizens. I do not believe it has the right to impose a specific set of religious laws on everyone who lives within its borders.

    Israel is a pile of dirt like any other. The land you walk on in Israel is not Jewish land. It’s just land. There are no special laws encoded into the dust. It’s just dust. The trouble starts when the neurotic and obsessive thought patterns of the religiously obsessed start to spill out of their heads and infect the physical objects around them with “special meaning”. That’s when religion becomes dangerous, when you start to say “this piece of dirt belongs to God so everyone who sets foot on it must worship God in the manner prescribed by me”.

    • Ian Paul August 13, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

      ‘What you’re talking about is just fancy-schmancy apologetics for theocracy.’ Well, I might be talking about it, but if you read both posts you can see that I am not defending it. See the final comment on the second post.

      Israel does *not* insist all people observe Jewish laws. In that sense, it is not in fact a ‘Jewish’ state. And I don’t think I can remember a time when the C of E insisted that *all* people attend Anglican services…

      No ‘pile of dirt’ is just a pile of dirt. To be human is to attach importance to places–whether they represent special moments in our lives or significant relationships or events. The place where I am born, where I am a citizen, has a special meaning for me. So I think you are missing something rather important here.

      • Etienne September 3, 2014 at 8:39 pm #

        In Israel all matters that affect personal status, including marriage, are under the jurisdiction of the religious authorities. An Israeli citizen born of Jewish parents who wants to marry must abide by the Orthodox halakha, which effectively means he can’t marry someone of a different faith or, if he’s an atheist, he can’t marry at all. It doesn’t matter whether he believes in these religious rules or not: he’s obliged to follow them. His only other option is to leave the country and marry abroad. The state will recognize his foreign marriage. But he cannot marry in Israel.

        And you’re telling me that Israel is not governed by religious law?

        I support Israel’s right to exist. I do not support its right to shove its religion down the throats of people who do not share it. As an atheist, I couldn’t marry in Israel. Secular Jews cannot marry in Israel unless they lie and go along with what they believe to be a charade. And all because of Jewish laws. That’s theocracy in action.

        And yes, places have special meaning for me too. But that doesn’t make them mine by divine right. My parents’ home, where I was born, of course meant a lot to me. But when they died it was sold and now it belongs to someone else. So should I rock up one day and tell the new owners I’m moving in, by divine right, just because it means something to me?

        In this instance, Israel is where it is, so it seems to me it has a right to exist and Israelis have a right to get on with their lives. I don’t believe they have any sort of divine right to the particular bit of dirt they live on, but history has placed them there and possession is nine tenths of the law. But possession should never be a licence to impose the rules of their religion on those who do not share their beliefs.

  4. Ian Chisnall April 30, 2016 at 11:13 am #

    Your writing is very helpful and provides a useful way of pulling together biblical texts and teachings. As we reflect on such teachings and attempt to make sense of the modern state of Israel, we also need to understand the modern history of zionism and Palestine, something which many Christians who argue for the Jews to have their homeland seem to overlook all to easily. The chaos which Ken Livingstone has created by referring to the 1920’s risks us losing sight of the pre 1947 thinking that certainly I was unaware of until this week. We need help referencing both the 20th Century and the Biblical teachings.

  5. Doreen Murgatroyd June 19, 2016 at 9:45 pm #

    This was just posted as a facebook message. It may interest Etienne to know that our son could not marry in El Salvador to an El Salvadoran lady because he was from a country which El Sal considered unfriendly. Odd isn’t it, that no-one bashes el Salvador.

    But how they love to bash israel!

    The couple in question had to marry in Las Vagas! Their marriage was then deemed legal in El Salvador.

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