Rethinking Israel

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Once upon a time, I was a supersessionist. I held to this way of thinking about Jewish Israel for much of my self-consciously theological life.

What do I mean by this? Let me explain the faith of a supersessionist. It means believing that the gentile church has superseded Jewish Israel in Yahuwah’s affection. In the Old Testament, God cares only about a little people called the Jews and a little land called Israel. But in the New Testament, God cares about the whole world, not only its people but also its lands. Now he has the entire world in his hands and all the gentiles. To think that he has special care for Jews is to attribute favoritism to Yahuwah. Yet Peter says that Yahuwah repudiated such favoritism when the apostle declared that “Yahuwah shows no partiality” (Acts 10:35 ESV)

Supersessionists believe that Yahuwah did indeed covenant with Israel, way back at the beginning with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3). But they also believe that when most of Jewish Israel failed to embrace their messiah Yahuwah transferred the covenant to the gentile church, which then became the New Israel. They find support for this transfer of the covenant in Yahushua’s parable of the wicked tenants (Matt 21:33-44). Yahushua suggested, it is said, that the tenants who beat, stoned and killed the servants—and then the son—of the vineyard owner were the Jews who killed the prophets and were about to kill him. When he said the owner would “let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons,” he meant the gentiles. Yahuwah, it is said, was through with the Jews and was starting over with the gentiles who accepted Yahushua. These gentiles, who in succeeding generations came to populate the church in great numbers, were the new owners of the covenant.

Therefore, the supersessionist story goes, the true Israel is no longer Jewish Israel but the church which has accepted Yahushua, made up of gentiles and Jews alike. But although Jews are a small minority within this church, they do not follow Yahushua in a particularly Jewish way. Yahushua and Paul abolished distinctions between Jews and gentiles; Jewish law has been transcended by the new “law of Christ” (1 Cor 9:21). Jews outside of this church are of no particular interest to Yahuwah anymore, and the land of Israel is of no more significance than that of Greece.

I believed all this for the first two and a half decades of my adult Christian years. But then I heard a wake-up call. It came in the form of gentle questions from a tour guide in Israel who was helping me lead a group of church people on a pilgrimage there. When I taught the group at biblical sites, I larded my comments with the supersessionist narrative I just described. My guide Baruch Kvasnica posed polite questions to me after most of my lectures and in private. He made me want to learn why he was asking these questions. So I hunted down the books and articles which he suggested.

After several years of following up on these leads, I realized that I had missed much of the Jewish reality of both Testaments because I had been trained to miss it. I had read the Bible carefully (I thought) for twenty-five years but missed what was right in front of my eyes. I missed it because I had been told in my training that it was not there.

The passage that suddenly jumped off the page was Romans 11:28-29. Paul said that Jews who had not accepted Yahushua were still “beloved” to Yahuwah “for the sake of their forefathers.” Their “calling of Yahuwah” (11:29), which was to be “light to the nations” (Is 42:6; 49:6) and a “blessing” to “all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:2-3), was “irrevocable.” In other words, Jewish Israel’s calling by Yahuwah to be the apple of his eye (Zech 2:8) in a way that no other people was would never be revoked. It was still in place, even if the majority of Jewish Israel was still failing to recognize its Messiah. Significantly, Paul was writing this toward the end of his career, in the epistle that was his most mature reflection on the meaning of Jewish Israel.

Later I saw that the church is never called the New Israel in the New Testament. The word “Israel” is used eighty times in the New Testament. In every instance, it refers to the Jewish people or Jewish polity in the land–or the land itself.

But what about Galatians 6:16? And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of Yahuwah. This verse is commonly interpreted as an apparent reference to a gentile or mixed gentile-Jewish church that is called by Paul the “Israel of Yahuwah.” Does this not suggest that there is a church with gentiles that is called Israel?

There are problems with this interpretation. It misses the contrast that Paul draws within the verse between two types of people. The first type is “all who walk by this rule.” What is the rule? Paul tells us in the preceding verse: “Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal 6:15). Those who walk by this rule are all those who embrace the new creation in Yahushua the messiah—the Christ. Paul blesses them: “[P]eace and mercy be upon them” (6:16b).

But the traditional (supersessionist) interpretation misses the import of the words Paul uses to close this verse: “and upon the Israel of Yahuwah” (6:16c,.). Paul is blessing not only those who accept the new creation but also those who do not. And those who do not, he calls “the Israel of Yahuwah.” Who might these be? It seems clear: that part of Jewish Israel that refuses to accept Yahushua as messiah. They do not believe that a new creation has come in Yahushua. It is still the majority of Paul’s Jewish brethren, the same ones whom Paul says–years later in Romans–are still “beloved of Yahuwah” (Rom 11:28).

There is another possible interpretation, that Paul uses a traditional Jewish blessing for the purpose of blessing both the church and also Israel outside the church. That is, Galatians 6:16 may be a shortened form of the end of the Amidah, a Jewish prayer which Jews prayed three times a day. Rabbis often shortened it in a manner similar to the way Paul does in this verse. The longer form of the ending is as follows: “Grant peace, goodness and blessing, grace and kindness and mercy, upon us and upon all Israel your people” (my emph.). If Paul is indeed using a shortened form of the Amidah blessing, which seems likely, it is all the more clear that Paul’s “Israel of Yahuwah” refers to the same people the Amidah calls “Israel your people”—the Jews. Thus by both of these readings—one using the literary context and the other considering the Amidah—the end of Gal. 6:16 refers not to a mixed gentile-Jewish church called Israel but to Jewish Israel.

At about this same time, more than twenty years ago, a familiar passage in the Sermon on the Mount took on new clarity. Yahushua admonished his disciples not to “think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets” (Matt 5:17a). I remember thinking at about this time that the traditional interpretation of Yahushua vis-à-vis Israel was that he had come to do precisely that—abolish the Law and the Prophets—because he had come to start a new religion called Christianity that was a radical break from the Law and the Prophets of Judaism.

But Yahushua insisted, “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (5:17b). He went on to say that “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota [the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet], not a dot [the Greek word here refers to the smallest stroke of the pen in Hebrew] will pass away until all is accomplished.”

When I realized that Yahushua’s Bible was the Old Testament, it became clear that Yahushua was referring to Torah most certainly, and possibly to the rest of the Old Testament as well. I had always thought that only the moral part of Old Testament law had any significance for Christians. But now it seemed that Yahushua was speaking of every part of Torah (the Pentateuch), and not just its moral commandments. I wasn’t sure how those other parts could apply to the Christian life, but it now seemed clear that Yahushua was far more closely connected to the Judaism of his day than I had previously imagined.

Before this wake-up call I had taken Yahushua’s vitriolic denunciations of the Pharisees in Matthew 23 as a sign of Yahushua’s break with Judaism. But then I began to read more widely and to see that a rising number of scholars were distinguishing between different schools of Pharisees. Not all Pharisees were alike. Some like Joseph of Arimathea were attracted to Yahushua and sought to protect him (Luke 13:31), while others grudgingly supported the corrupt temple leadership that was primarily Sadducee—not Pharisee. Long after he had started following Yahushua, Paul said “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6). He did not distance himself from Pharisaic beliefs.

I was shocked to see that Yahushua didn’t, either. At the beginning of his diatribe against Pharisees in Matthew 23, he (startlingly) used not one but two verbs to urge his followers to follow Pharisaic teachings! As we all know, he warned them not to do “what they do. For they preach but do not practice” (23:3b). But just before this he exhorted them to “practice and observe whatever they tell you” (23:3a).

I was standing on the remains of the third-century synagogue at Capernaum, near the beautiful shore of the Sea of Galilee, when Baruch first showed this to me. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Or, more truthfully, I wondered how I could have missed this for decades.


Sea of Galilee1 


After this discovery, the wicked tenants parable looked very different. I began to see that the messengers whom the wicked tenants beat and killed were Jewish prophets. And the new tenants who would replace the wicked tenants were not gentiles but the (Jewish) apostles whom Yahushua was raising up to reconstitute the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28).

So Yahuwah, I started to realize, was not done with Jewish Israel. Even though most of them had not come on board the new messianic project, Yahuwah’s covenant with them was still in place. Yahuwah’s hand is still on them. And we gentile Christians would do well to realize that, and stop claiming that we are the new Israel for Yahuwah who has rejected non-messianic Israel.

There is another piece of this which needs to be rethought. Yahuwah’s original covenant with Abraham contained two promises. He would give Abraham two gifts—sons and a land (Gen 12:1-10; 13:15; 15:1-21; 17:1-8). The promise of these two gifts is repeated hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the promise of the land is repeated explicitly or implicitly one thousand times in those scriptures. The gift of the land also shows up in the New Testament, despite claims to the contrary by countless Christian scholars. For example, the apostle Paul, who is routinely said to have ignored the land promise, actually cites it during his speech to “men of Israel and you who fear Yahuwah” at the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia: “After destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, [Yahuwah] gave [Israel] their land as an inheritance” (Acts 13:19).

Why have so many scholars missed this and other NT references to the land? I submit that we have missed the ongoing significance of the land in the New Testament because of the same problem I mentioned above–we have been trained to miss it. We have accepted the myth that the Old Testament is concerned, after its first eleven chapters, solely with a particular people and a particular land, and that the New Testament reverses that narrow and provincial focus with a new concern for the universal, the whole world. Yahushua and the apostles dispensed with such ethnic narrowness, it is said, and made clear that the Kingdom now is the whole world in which the little land of Israel is no longer important.

Another reason we Christians have missed the land in the New Testament is that we have missed the overwhelming focus on land in the Old Testament. Most of us know that a dominant theme in Tanach, perhaps the predominant theme, is covenant. But few recognize that 70 percent of the time when covenant is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, it is linked explicitly to the promise of the land. This is one reason why Jewish scholars and rabbis wrote in Dabru Emet (2002), a Jewish statement “on Christians and Christianity,” that the land of Israel is the “physical center” of the covenant. But it is also because of the sheer profusion of references in Tanach to the promised land: it appears more than one thousand times. As the editors of the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery put it, “longing for land” is more robust in the OT than for anything else except Yahuwah. This is so, particularly in Torah. Gerhard von Rad wrote a half-century ago, “Of all the promises made to the patriarchs it was that of the land that was the most prominent and decisive.”

A further reason that we have lost the theological meaning of the land is that we tend to assume that it is not significant anymore, and this assumption has caused us to miss the places where the New Testament suggests that it still is. For example, when Yahushua implicitly promised in Acts 1:6 that he would “restore the Kingdom to Israel,” he also told the disciples that the Father “appointed times and seasons by his own authority” for things such as this (Ac 1:7). On another occasion Yahushua spoke of the day when the inhabitants of Jerusalem will welcome him (Lk 13:35). Paul wrote in Romans 11:29 that the “gifts” of Yahuwah to Israel were irrevocable, and for Hellenistic Jews such as Philo, Josephus, and Ezekiel the Tragedian the primary “gift” of Yahuwah to Israel was the land. It is the primary referent for “gift” in all of Tanach, and arguably for Paul too. Robert Wilken writes in The Land Called Holy that early Christians interpreted these and other passages (such as the angel telling Mary that Yahuwah would give Yahushua “the throne of David” and that Yahushua would rule “over the house of Jacob forever”) as indications of future “restoration and the establishment of a kingdom in Jerusalem.”

Were these early Christians naïve to think that Yahushua had any concern for Israel as a distinct land anymore? Didn’t Yahushua make it clear in his Beatitudes that his focus was on the whole earth and not the land of Israel: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Mt 5:5)? Probably not. More and more scholars are recognizing that a better translation of this verse is “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.” Matthew was translating into Greek Psalm 37:11, where the Hebrew erets refers to the land of Israel. In fact, four other verses in Psalm 37 repeat the phrase “inherit the land,” with the clear meaning of the land of Israel. The implication was that Yahushua’ disciples would be able to enjoy the land of Israel (if not live there) in the palingenesia or “renewal of all things” that Yahushua predicted (Matt. 19:28).

Peter also seemed to look forward to a special future for the land of Israel. In his second speech in Jerusalem after the Pentecost miracle, he spoke of a future apokatastasis or restoration that was to come (Acts 3:21). This was the Greek word used in the Septuagint—which Peter was probably familiar with—for the future return of Jews from all over the world to the land of Israel to reestablish a Jewish nation. Apparently Peter did not think that the return of the Babylonian exiles at the end of the sixth century BC fulfilled all the prophecies of a future worldwide return to the land.

The author of the book of Revelation was another witness to a future for the land. He wrote that the two witnesses will be killed in Jerusalem (11:8) and the battle of Armageddon will be in a valley in northern Israel (16:16). The renewed earth comes down not as the New Rome or New Alexandria but as the new Jerusalem (21:2). Its twelve gates are inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel (21:12), whose mention reminds readers of their life and work in the land.

Some might concede everything I have written so far but point to John’s gospel, perhaps the latest piece of NT literature, for evidence that the last major NT theologian relativized all these local references to Israel. After all, they would argue, Yahushua told the Judeans that his body would be the new temple (John 2:21) and informed the Samaritan woman that true worship was no longer restricted to Jerusalem but would now be anywhere as long as it was “in spirit and truth” (4:21-23).

But Richard Hays is not so sure that this new worship completely eclipses worship in Jerusalem. In Reading Backwards he notes that in Mark’s account Yahushua quotes Isaiah’s prediction that the temple will become “a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mk 11:17; Is 56:7). This means, for Hays, that Yahushua agrees with Isaiah’s version of “an eschatologically restored Jerusalem” where foreigners will come to Yahuwah’s holy mountain to join “the outcasts of Israel” whom Yahuwah has “gathered” there. Hays does not think that Yahushua’s claim about his body as the new temple is supersessionist—as if the Church has replaced Israel—or that this claim is “hostile to continuity with Israel.” I would add that, according to Matthew, Yahushua believed that Yahuwah “dwells in” the temple (23:21). In other words, we can think of the temple in two ways, both as Yahuwah’s house and as a symbol of the way that Yahushua’s body would be Yahuwah’s house. True worship in the eschaton will be in every place where there is worship “in spirit and truth,” and in the end of days it will be centered in Jerusalem. The two witnesses will lie dead there (Rev 11:8); the 144,000 will stand there on Mt. Zion (Rev 14:1); Gog and Magog will surround the saints there (Rev 20:9); and the new earth will be centered there (Rev 21:10; 11:2).



I have argued that the land of Israel is theologically significant for the authors of the New Testament, not just because of its past history but also because of its ongoing role in the history of redemption. This of course begs the question of 1948: Was the establishment of the state of Israel a part of that prophesied history? Is this part of what Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets meant by their predictions that Jews would return to the land from all over the world? Does this mean that the massive ingathering of Jews to the land in the nineteenth century and then their organization of a protective state are somehow part of the fulfillment of not only Old Testament prophecies but also apostolic expectation of a time of palingenesia and apokatastasis?

Many Christians don’t want to go that far. They are willing to say that Yahuwah is committed to the people of Israel but are wary of connecting their modern return to biblical expectations. They fear that this might suggest lack of sympathy for Palestinian suffering or Palestinian claims for their own state. Some are willing to say that 1948 might represent Yahuwah’s providential concern for his covenanted people but that the establishment of the state of Israel falls short of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

My response is several-fold. First, there is no reason Christians cannot support legitimate Palestinian aspirations for justice and statehood and, at the same time, see the establishment of the Jewish polity as a partial fulfillment of biblical prophecy. The Israeli government has offered a two-state solution several times to Palestinian leadership. It does not matter what we think of the justice or sincerity of those offers. What matters is that the Jewish state itself has committed itself publicly to Palestinian statehood so that even the Zionist state does not see its claims for itself to preclude Palestinian self-rule. Neither should Christians think that an eschatological understanding of 1948 precludes Palestinian rights to land and statehood.

Second, to separate Israel’s people from its polity is artificial and dangerous. It is impossible to disentangle a people from its political state, especially if that polity has been freely chosen, as is the case in today’s Israel. This is all the more so when the state protects the covenanted people of Israel from neighbors who vow to destroy them.

But is this people’s political consolidation in 1948 merely a sign of Yahuwah’s providential protection of his people and not an instance of prophetic fulfillment? The present state has resulted from a massive ingathering of Jews from all over the world in the last two centuries. There have always been Jews living in the land—for more than three thousand years—but this recent return was unprecedented. In an uncanny way it matches the predictions of Israel’s prophets and the expectations of the New Testament authors. Why is it so difficult to say that the one is connected to the other?

The concern for Palestinians is the answer for some. But as I have just indicated, we can care for Palestinians without denying prophetic fulfillment (at least in part) to the recent return. Other Christian observers deny fulfillment because of continuing problems and injustices in Israel today. There are racial tensions, attacks on messianic Jews, government corruption, and what seems to be secularism in many sectors of the populace. These problems, added to the never-ending conflict with Palestinians, make it impossible to say that today’s Israel is related to biblical Israel.

We need to recall what we Christians say about ourselves and the Church. We are the Body of Christ, we say, despite our deep divisions, moral sin, and theological heresies. With all our egregious spots and wrinkles, we say that we are still a people of Yahuwah, prophesied throughout the Old Testament. In other words, we exercise prophetic and eschatological charity about ourselves. Why do we find it so difficult to do the same for Yahuwah’s Chosen People and their polity, which even secularists concede was miraculously birthed?

Besides, Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones (chap. 37) was, as most scholars agree, about the return of the people of Israel to the land. But it proceeds in stages: first Yahuwah’s word comes to the dry bones, then there is rattling, then the bones are joined. After that come sinews, and then flesh. Finally, they stand up.

The second striking aspect of this prophecy is that spiritual renewal comes after return to the land. In Ezek 37:12 Yahuwah says he will return the people of Israel to the land, and then in verse 14 he vows he will put his spirit within Israel. Later in that verse he says he will “place you in your own land,” and “then you shall know that I am the LORD.”

In other words, we should not be surprised if fulfillment of prophecy about Israel’s return to its land and its spiritual renewal proceeds in stages and not all at once.

To Christian critics who claim to see a mainly-secular Israel, some of my Israeli friends say that Israelis from the top to the bottom of society are returning to the God of Israel and that this renewal is invisible to the media.

To believe that the current return of the covenanted people to their land, with the protection of a state, is an ambiguous and partial—but real–fulfillment of prophecy does not require the belief that this is the last state or the final goal of biblical prophecy. Not by a long shot. It may be only one in a series of events that comprise a long arc of the fulfillment of prophetic and apostolic expectations. But it is to believe that Yahuwah is still working out the world’s redemption and that not all the biblical prophecies have been fulfilled. After all, the nations have not yet been renewed, as Scripture suggests they will be. The book of Revelation forecasts a future world of saints who seem to retain the characteristics of their “peoples and nations” (7:9), and the leaves from the tree of life will bring healing not simply to undifferentiated individuals but to “the nations” (22:2). According to Jean Daniélou, biblical prophecy “is the announcement of the fact that, at the end of time, Yahuwah will accomplish works still greater than in the past.” Perhaps among those more significant works is the restoration of Israel as a firstfruit of the eschatological renewal of the nations.

This is a non-WLC article by Gerry McDermott.

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