A few years ago, Martin 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—and these problems come up each time the conflict hits the news. 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; this last week anti-Semitism has been reported as rising five-fold.
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 simply 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 Israel. We 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.
This 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 is key as we now turn to look at the way the New Testament interprets these ideas.
There are significant indications that the gospels are located in the context of some sort of expectation of restoration of the land with the coming of messiah (though it is now broadly agreed that there were a variety of expectations in the first century, and a variety of ideas about who the messiah was, what he would do, or whether in fact one was needed). We can see this in Zechariah’s prophetic poem now known as the Benedictus (from the first word in the Latin Vulgate):
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. (Luke 1.68–75)
In context, the main ‘enemy’ is of course Rome, and it is oppression by Rome that is preventing Israel from ‘serving him without fear in holiness.’ So implicit in this expectation is the hope of restoration of the sovereignty of Israel as a nation, inhabiting the promised land. To make this even clearer, Zechariah goes on to allude to Is 40’s proclamation of the one who will ‘go before the Lord to prepare his way’, which is also used in Mark’s introduction in Mark 1.2–3. These verses (from Isaiah and Micah) are all about the people returning from exile and being restored to the land in fulfilment of God’s promise of faithfulness. This is one part of a complex of expectations, which Tom Wright characterises under the headings return from exile, restoration of Temple, renewed covenant, giving of Spirit, keeping of Law, no king but God, and God’s anointed agent (Heb messiach Greek christos) (N T Wright The New Testament and the People of God chapter 10 ‘The Hope of Israel’).
But from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, these expectations are starting to be transformed. Even the most sceptical commentator agrees that the proclamation of the nearness of ‘the kingdom of God’ was a core part of the teaching of the historical Jesus. This phrase, which hardly occurs at all in the OT, shifts the focus from the land in which the people occupy to the reign or authority under which they live. The separation between the free occupation of the land and obedience to God, still held together in the Benedictus, is most decisively broken in Jesus’ answer to the question about taxes:
“Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Matt 22.19–20)
The shock of this is not to do with the separation of the ‘political’ from the ‘religious’ as such, but the overturning of the expectation that the restoration of the land is tied in with the coming of God’s kingdom. Living freely in the land is not the prerequisite to forgiveness of sins and living in holiness.
Consequently, the New Testament strikingly shows no interest in the further question of the land itself, and instead focus on the other elements in Wright’s list. This is shown clearly in the responses of gospel writers to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. Mark’s gospel, probably written in the 60s before the temple was destroyed, shows most interest in the immediate events and Jesus’ predictions about them (Mark 13). Matthew’s similar account in Matthew 24, most likely written after 70, includes similar details to Mark, but then goes on to focus on Jesus’ words about the parousia, Jesus’ second coming to complete the work begun in the first. John’s gospel goes even further, and does something quite distinct. With the temple gone, and the tension between the now exiled Jews and Jesus’ Jewish-and-gentile followers mounting, John makes clear that Jesus is the temple for those who follow him.
The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
They replied, “It has taken forty–six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken. (John 2.18–22)
This is not so much about Jesus replacing the temple, but Jesus being the fulfilment of the purpose of the temple—and with it the land. (Note that this is not an idea made up by John and read back into the story about Jesus; reference is made to it in the trial of Jesus in Mark 14.58. This is good example of one of many ‘undesigned’ historical connections between the gospels.) This again is why John’s gospel is so ‘Jewish’, in focussing on Jewish habits of eating, washing, and attending the pilgrim festivals, all the major festivals occurring in John’s narrative. They all find their fulfilment and true meaning in Jesus.
We see in Acts 2.46 that the first generation of believers continued to visit the temple, though of course now with new understanding. While the temple was standing, then Jewish followers of Jesus would continue to worship there. But once the temple was gone, there was no need to long for its restoration, since its meaning was embodied in the person of Jesus. If the land was the arena for knowing the blessing of God and taking on the responsibilities of obedience, that role was now fulfilled in Jesus. So, as with the temple, there is now no need to long for physical return from exile and occupying the territory of the land—all this was now available to those not ‘in Israel’ but ‘in Christ’. I think this is why the phrase is so important in Paul. Where, in the OT, both Jew and gentile ‘resident alien’ enjoy God’s reign when they are ‘in Israel’, now for Paul the (theological) space where this happens for both Jew and gentile is ‘in Christ.’
That is why Peter, writing to an audience containing at least some gentiles, can address the whole group as the ‘diaspora’, the term previously used of Jews scattered and awaiting (at least in principle) a return from exile to the land (1 Peter 1.1). The scattered followers of Jesus are awaiting not their return from physical exile but the return of Jesus to restore all things. Even more explicitly, in the book of Revelation, John sees the fulfilment of the gathering of God’s people from all the nations (Deut 30.3, Jeremiah 32.37, Ezekiel 11.17, 20.34, 36.24) in this uncountable, Jewish-gentile people redeemed by the blood of the lamb (Rev 7.9, also in Rev 5.9, 11.9, 13.7 and 14.6). This is just the way Matthew has understood Jesus’ teaching in Matt 24.31.
Note that reading the NT in this way is not ‘supersessionism‘, where ‘The Church’ replaces ‘The Jews’ as the people of God; this only happens where the Jesus movement is detached from its Jewish historical context and expression. Instead it is a redefinition of what it means to be the people of God beyond ethnic boundaries, just as happened in the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and as Paul starts to do in his argument in Romans 2.28–29.
So the New Testament holds out no expectation that ethnic Jews will return to the territory of the land of Israel as part of the fulfilment of the promises of God. All those promises are fulfilled in Jesus, who now becomes the place of God’s blessing and his people’s obedience.
(It is perhaps worth noting that those who argue that the modern state of Israel is the fulfilment of prophecy have to appeal to OT texts alone, and ignore what the NT does with such texts—as well as ignoring the fact that a return to the physical land was actually fulfilled in the return from exile.)
This leaves the one ‘bogie’ text of Romans 11.26: ‘All Israel will be saved’. There is a massive literature on this, some following the view expressed by Tom Wright that ‘all Israel’ refers to all those who are part of God’s new Israel i.e. all those now redeemed through Jesus, and others believing that ‘all Israel’ here refers to ethnic Jewish people, indicating that there will be an ‘end times’ turning of Jews to faith in Jesus. For now, I note some key points in the discussion:
1. There is no reference whatsoever to the idea of Jews returning to the land of Israel. So to fit these two ideas together is an artifice.
2. Verse 26 does not say ‘And then all Israel will be saved’ but ‘and in this way all Israel will be saved.’ So Paul is talking about the hardening of the Jews and the incoming of the gentiles as the means by which God’s purposes of salvation are accomplished, not as something that happens prior to this. I think this strongly supports Wright’s reading.
3. Paul then cites texts from Isaiah and Jeremiah, which he clearly sees fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus: the deliverer from Zion who establishes a (new) covenant and takes away sins.
4. It has been objected that Paul only ever uses ‘Israel’ to mean those who are ethnically Jewish. But Gal 6.16 is a counter-example to this, and Paul certainly uses the language of ‘Jew’ in literal and metaphorical ways earlier in Romans.
A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God (Romans 2.28–29, TNIV).
Within his argument at this point, Paul is primarily highlighting that having the outward, ethnic and ritual signs of being a Jew doesn’t actually make you one, since being part of the (chosen) people of God is about inward transformation, and always has been. But a consequence of this is that an ethnic gentile can actually be a ‘Jew’ in this sense, and so ‘Israel’ no longer (because of Jesus) simply refers to an ethnic grouping. Paul sees this logic, by immediately answering it in the next verse. If all who follow Jesus are ‘Israel’, and gentiles have been grafted in to be part of the olive tree, the idea of ‘Israel’ returning to the land makes no sense.
5. It seems very odd to me to think that Paul would describe an ‘end-times’ turning of the last generation of Jews to faith in Jesus with the term ‘all Israel.’ This leaves all the (not believing in Jesus) Jews of all the intermediate generations excluded from this, so at the most it could mean ‘all those Jews alive when Jesus returns’. This hardly makes sense of the phrase.
6. We also need to note that, for Paul and others in the New Testament, the ‘end times’ were already upon them, as signified by the resurrection of Jesus, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the ingathering of the Gentiles.
No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people… (Acts 2.16–17)
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the end of the ages has come (1 Cor 10.11)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor 5.17)
For more on the eschatological perspective of the New Testament, see my Grove booklet Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World.
Because of all this, I do not believe that, remarkable though it is, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1947 is a ‘fulfilment’ of ‘end times’ ‘prophecies.’ Neither do I believe that Israel has a divine right to the land which trumps all other rights. I do want to defend the right of Israel to exist, and to be a particular homeland for Jews around the world, and to use reasonable force to defend itself—like any other nations. But I do this on grounds other than ‘divine right’ or ‘prophecy.’
In the current conflict between Israel and Gaza, we need to appeal to other grounds to support whatever view we have on the matter.
(Published previously in 2014 and 2017 in different formats.)