Donald Trump made the headlines last week by announcing that he was ordering the US Embassy in Israel to relocate from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Anything involving an announcement by Trump is bound to be incoherent, and the situation in the near east is immensely complex, so you can guarantee that there was going to be a heap of confusion about this. There is absolutely no doubt that the decision has inflamed opinion and, in the short term at least, made violence more likely and pushed further into the distance any possibility of the beginnings of a real peace process. There are several things we need to be aware of as part of the context for this announcement.
The first is that the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which proposed dividing the area of Palestine into two states, excluded Jerusalem and its districts (including Bethlehem) which it set aside as a corpus separatum to be administered internationally. Whilst Palestinian Arabs rejected the partition, Jews in the region accepted it—including the loss of Jerusalem.
Ben-Gurion noted that the loss of Jerusalem as part of sovereign Israel was the “price we have to pay” for a state in the rest of the land.
This reflected a relative historic indifference to Jerusalem amongst Zionists of the nineteenth century.
Theodor Herzl himself envisioned the capital of his Jewish state being on Mount Carmel, in the north. In his 1989 book “Jerusalem: City of Mirrors,” Amos Elon describes how Herzl, and also cultural-Zionist theorist Ahad Ha’am and a young David Ben-Gurion, among others, were all discomfited by the city and Jews’ connection to it; Elon also quotes historian of Zionism Anita Shapira, who, characterized the feelings of the Zionist pioneers toward the city as no better than “reactionary.”
Secondly, the rejection of the Partition Plan by the Arab nations, leading to the war against the fledgling State of Israel, allowed Israel to ignore the plan for Jerusalem, and it declared West Jerusalem its capital at the end of hostilities in 1948. Jordan proclaimed East Jerusalem a capital of sorts when it annexed the West Bank (also in defiance of the UN plan) though it remained undeveloped. Since then, Israel has treated Jerusalem as its capital and has located all the usual official functions there, including the building housing its parliament, the Knesset. Diplomats from other countries come to Jerusalem to meet Israeli officials, and it is (I think) unique in UN relations for other countries not to recognise the named capital of a democratic sovereign state. The reason for withholding recognition is to hold out hope for the possibility of a two-state solution along the lines of the original Partition Plan, including the international administration of Jerusalem—even though building development means that is, in practice, completely impossible.
Thirdly, the US Congress actually voted to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, but successive US Presidents have refused to implement it (seeing it as an unconstitutional interference in US foreign policy determined by the executive)—until now. At the time, it wasn’t even clear that Israel welcomed the passing of this act, since it could see the destabilising effect of such a move.
So why has Donald Trump decided to make the change? In theory, it fulfils an election pledge he made during the campaign—though keeping his word has hardly featured high on his agenda thus far. But it is difficult for others to realise how big an issue this is—not so much amongst ‘evangelical’ Christians but amongst the wider population who have been influenced by a particular kind of teaching. As Timothy Weber points out:
While only 36 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible is God’s Word and should be taken literally, 59 percent say they believe that events predicted in the Book of Revelation will come to pass. Almost one out of four Americans believes that 9/11 was predicted in the Bible, and nearly one in five believes that he or she will live long enough to see the end of the world. Even more significant for this study, over one-third of those Americans who support Israel report that they do so because they believe the Bible teaches that the Jews must possess their own country in the Holy Land before Jesus can return.
This belief arises from reading OT prophecies ‘literally’ whilst ignoring how the NT actually interprets them. A good example of this is Psalm 2, a celebration of the enthronement of the Davidic king which then came to be read as a messianic psalm pointing forwards to God’s expected anointed ruler. A Zionist (and also ‘Messianic Jewish‘) reading connects this psalm with Trump’s decision:
4. God predicted (or foreknew) thousands of years ago that Jerusalem, a city no bigger than a large shopping mall, would be the most controversial city in the world. Psalm 2 speaks of the nations raging against God over Jerusalem, saying “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
Yet the NT sees this psalm quite specifically fulfilled in Jesus: around 60 percent of this psalm is quoted or alluded to in relation to Jesus and his followers. This is the psalm the believers quote to God in prayer in Acts 4.25–26 to explain the opposition of the leadership to the Jesus movement. This is the psalm Paul uses to justify belief in Jesus’ resurrection as the fulfilment of God’s promises in his gospel speech in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13.33. And in Revelation, the phrase ‘ruling the nations with an iron rod’ from Ps 2.9 identifies the rule of Jesus in Rev 12.5 and 19.5, a rule which his followers will share in Rev 2.27. So for the NT, God’s installation of the messiah ‘on Mount Zion’ is now a metaphor for Jesus ruling at his Father’s right hand in the heavenly places—and Revelation pictures Zion in just this way in Rev 14.1.
It is striking that Christian Zionist readings that give a special place to modern Israel and Jerusalem must always reach back to OT texts for their rationale, since there is not a single expectation of these physical spaces have any further significance in the NT. And such readings are always odd, for three reasons. Take, for example, the vision of Isaiah for Jerusalem’s restoration. From the start, Isaiah sees that ‘the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it’ (Is 2.2). From the context of exile, and hoping for return, God ‘will rebuild you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with lapis lazuli. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones’ (Is 54.11–12). And in Is 60, ‘nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn’ (Is 60.3) and Jerusalem will be the centre of attention for the whole world. These expectations are remarkable in their poetic extravagance—but if they find their fulfilment in a physical and political restoration of the city (which, it is worth noting, has become here a metonym for the whole nation of Israel) then that restoration did indeed take place when the exiles returned and re-established the city, a process we read about in the book of Nehemiah.
Even more tricky in using these kinds of texts to refer to the present day is the use that the New Testament makes of them. As Peter Walker spells out in detail in his very thorough examination, the New Testament takes a consistently negative view of the future importance of the physical city of Jerusalem:
‘The present city of Jerusalem … is in slavery with her children’ (Galatians 4:25). This startling statement suggests that Paul would have answered the above question in the affirmative. For a Jew of Paul’s background to speak thus of Judaism’s ‘mother city’ testifies to a radical shift in perspective. For Christians the focus is now to be upon ‘the Jerusalem that is above … and she is our mother’ (Galatians 4:26). This proves to be an opening salvo of a re?evaluation of Jerusalem which is found in all the NT writers.
The most striking example of this is in Luke-Acts. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem provides the shape for the central part of his narrative—and yet the prophetic description of Jerusalem’s fall is much more vivid than in Matthew or Mark, and the focus of Acts is centripetal and away from this historic centre.
Of all the Evangelists, Luke brings the theme of Jerusalem’s fate most centrally into his narrative. Indeed, the structure of Luke?Acts is based on Jesus’ going up to Jerusalem (Luke), followed by the apostles’ going out from Jerusalem ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts). Comparatively early within his gospel, Jesus ‘resolutely set out for Jerusalem’ (Luke 9:5 1), ‘for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!’ (13:33). Jerusalem proves to be the place which ‘did not recognise the time of God’s coming’ and which therefore in the future would experience divine judgement (19:41?4; cf. 21:20?24; 23:28?31).
After the resurrection the disciples witnessed to Christ in Jerusalem, but soon many of them were ‘scattered’ by persecution (Acts 8: 1). Those associated with James who felt called to remain there (signifying that faith in Jesus as Messiah was not marginal to Judaism) found themselves in an increasingly difficult situation (Acts 15:5; 21:2Off.). After his description of Paul’s going up (like Jesus) to Jerusalem and experiencing rejection, Luke’s narrative turns away from the city. Paul’s journey to Rome thus signals a shift in God’s purposes away from Jerusalem and into the wider imperial world. Jerusalem has now had its day.
The primary reason for this is the other, more positive language that the NT uses about Jerusalem, the people of God and the temple. In John 1.14, the Word has become incarnate and is now the tabernacling presence of God with humanity. So quite naturally, in John 2.19, Jesus has become the new temple, expressed in a text certainly written after the destruction of the physical temple. But this tradition is an early part of Christian theology; Paul describes those who are the body of Christ as also being God’s temple in 1 Cor 3.16. And the vision of God’s Jewish-Gentile international people as the Israel of God (Gal 6.16) is most fully developed in Revelation. When John hears the twelve tribes being counted out, he turns as sees what they now are—an innumerable people from ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ (Rev 7.9). These uncountable people are pictured as dwelling on a heavenly Zion in the presence of God and the lamb (Rev 14.1). The temple that is trampled on the outside but preserved on the inside (Rev 11.2) is a symbolic picture of the people of God who act as witnesses like Moses and Elijah, who experience both opposition to the point of death but resurrection by divine power (Rev 11.11). Throughout the NT, OT hopes of the restoration of Jerusalem and Zion as metonyms for the people of God are fulfilled in Jesus and his followers. That was Jesus’ intention, shown by his citation of Isaiah’s vision as he cleanses the temple (Mark 11.17 = Is 56.7), and that is our final goal: the features of the New Jerusalem in Rev 21, such as the gold and jewels, are all described in words from these OT prophetic texts, particularly Is 54 and 60. As Peter Walker summarises:
The New Testament therefore witnesses to a shift in attitude towards Jerusalem. It affirmed the special nature of Jerusalem’s past, but it denied its continuing role in the present. The city had now lost its strictly sacred status. This was chiefly because of God’s eternal purposes now revealed in Jesus. Yet there was also a sense of God’s judgement upon the city – not least because of its response to Jesus.
What are we then to make of Christian Zionist interest in Jerusalem today? If this reading of the NT is anywhere close to the mark, then seeing a divine plan in either the establishment of the modern state of Israel or of Jerusalem as its capital is very wide of the mark. Trump’s move threatens to inflame an already tense situation and do harm to the cause of Arab Christians in the area.
Moreover, it runs counter to the teaching of Jesus himself. Despite his natural identification with the aspirations of his own people, Jesus consistently refused to endorse interpretations which led to an exclusive Jewish nationalism or a belief in God’s purposes being supremely fulfilled in a politically independent Jewish state. Why was it that Jesus was opposed to the emerging Zealot movement and those who wished for a more politically active Messiah? Was it just a disagreement over method (pacifism, not armed resistance) or of timing (as some would interpret Acts 1:6?8)? Or was it, rather, a fundamental critique of the movement’s ideology and its whole hermeneutical framework which did not allow that God was fulfilling his ancient promises in Jesus himself In his role both as Messiah and as the one in whom Israel was restored, Jesus was thus giving a radical new twist to the story of Israel, confounding the biblical expectations of his contemporaries.
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