Is God’s promise of the land to Israel still valid?

The Old City of Jerusalem. (Photo: http://photos8.org)

[notice]ChristianView Network Director Philip Rosenthal addresses the thorny Israel debate which made the news again this week as a South African Government official “requested” SA citizens not to visit the land. [/notice]

International Relations Deputy Minister Ebrahim Ebrahim: “discourages” Israel visits.

On Wednesday 15th August, the South African Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim said “What we are saying as government is we discourage South Africans from visiting Israel”.  Defying this call, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini accepted an invitation to make an official visit to Israel.

King Goodwill Zwelethini….accepted invitation to visit Israel.

How should Christians view this debate?  Is this just the ‘Holy Land’ to make pilgrimages to?  Or is it an ‘apartheid state’ we should boycott?  Or should we support it as the only stable democracy in the Middle East?  Does the Bible have anything to say to us about Israel in the New Testament era? Is modern Israel the Israel of the Bible?  Does God’s promise to give the land to the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 12:5) still apply in the New Testament era?

When I visited Israel in 1995, I was forced to wrestle with these questions and after about two more years of Biblical and historical study came to conclusions I will outline below.

HISTORICAL LOSS AND RESTORATION OF THE LAND

The kingdom of Judah was carried into exile in Babylon in 586 BC.   Later, there was a partial return to the land under Cyrus and the temple was rebuilt.  After being ruled by various empires, Judah achieved independence from 164 BC to 63 BC under the Maccabees, after which they fell under Roman rule.  They revolted in 66 AD, about thirty years after Jesus death, and were re-conquered by the Romans in 70 AD, when the second temple was destroyed.  In 132 AD, the Jews revolted again.  They lost the land in 135 AD after two and a half years of independence from Roman rule under the false messiah Simeon Bar Kochba.  More than half a million Jews died in the genocidal war and most of the remainder carried into slavery.  The emperor Hadrian renamed the province of Judea ‘Palaestina’ after Israel’s enemies the Philistines.   When the Roman empire Christianised, it became a place of pilgrimage.  After the Islamic conquest in 637, numerous crusades were launched to restore the land to ‘Christendom’.  For a brief period there was a Christian Crusader ‘Kingdom of Jerusalem’.  While there were always a handful of Jews in the land, significant numbers only began to return in the late nineteenth century.  In 1948 the modern State of Israel was restored under Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.  In 1967, in a defensive war, Israel recovered the land between Jerusalem and the Jordan River, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN VIEWS ON ISRAEL’S RESTORATION IN BIBLE PROPHECY

But is this restored state of Israel a work of God in fulfilment of promises of scripture or is it just a work of Jewish nationalists?  From the early church fathers through to the first generation of Protestant reformers, almost all Christian theologians took the view that God’s promise of the land to Israel had ended.  Many of the second generation of reformers, particularly the English Puritans, began to question this view and many came to the conclusion that God’s special purposes for the Jewish people were not
finished and would result in their return to their land.  Their views were predominantly amillennial and post-millennial.  In the 19th Century onwards, many Puritan inspired British Christians began active political advocacy to promote the restoration of the State of Israel.  In the early 20th century, the theological view of dispensationalism (a variant of pre-millennialism) which also predicted a restored Jewish state, gained popularity, especially in America and continues to exert a significant influence. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Zionism  ; http://www.raptureready.com/featured/ice/AHistoryOfChristianZionism.html )

PRACTICAL EVIDENCE OF THE RESTORATION OF ISRAEL

The modern state of Israel parallels in biblical Israel in: its name, its racial population (mainly Jewish but others also), the names of its cities, the location and name of its capital city (Jerusalem), its language  (Hebrew), its currency (shekel), its government (by 70 elders),  its core territory (although this has fluctuated over time), its agricultural produce, its wildlife (some of which was restored from elsewhere).  The Jewish people maintained their identity through two thousand years of dispersal, whereas most other dispersed people lose their identity in two or three generations.

Furthermore, the nation is prospering in all areas of national life: educational levels are the highest in the world; the population density is the highest in the first world; it is contributing completely out of proportion to its size in the development of computer and medical technology.  It has successfully defended itself against repeated wars and ongoing terrorism intended to destroy it.  Agricultural productivity is higher than it ever was during the exile.  It continues to dominate news headlines completely out of proportion to its size.  It is the only stable democracy in that region of the world.  It shows no signs of being a short term political entity like the Crusader states.

In contrast, during the exile, the population of the land was low, most of the land was uncultivated, it was not in the news, there was no significant centre of political power in the land, no race living there claiming a unique identity.  It was an insignificant backwater of successive empires. The so-called Palestinian authority has failed to organise itself into an economically, or agriculturally viable state, brutally oppressed its own citizens and failed to make either peace or war – while supporting ad-hoc
terrorism.   Israel is the only healthy functional viable nation-state that has ever existed in this location since the exile began.   At the same time, the Jews, while scattered all over the earth never managed to organise themselves into a nation-state anywhere else, although many such projects were proposed.

There is no other nation on earth that can claim such practical resurrection.  This practical test of life after death is used in scripture (For example, the budding of Aaron’s staff (Numbers 17:1-8) and the resurrection of Jesus himself).

DOES THE LAND OF ISRAEL STILL BELONG TO THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL?

There is consensus among Biblical scholars that God gave the land of Canaan to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, commonly known today as the Jews (an Anglicisation of the tribal name “Judah”), first in a promise in Genesis 12:5, which is repeated in numerous other places scattered through the Old Testament.  Nevertheless, there is considerable debate around whether this promise still stands in the New Covenant era and if so, what are the practical implications today.   One must then consider the arguments of that this promise is no longer valid:

* THE MOSAIC COVENANT IS ENDED:  The argument is that after Jesus death on the cross, the Mosaic covenant was ended and therefore, the promise of the land given in this Covenant, along with for example the temple and dietary laws are no longer valid.  ANSWER:  The promise of the land was given through Abraham 400 years before the Mosaic Covenant at the same time as the promise of the gospel blessing all nations.  Therefore, since the promise pre-dates the Mosaic covenant, it cannot be set aside by the termination of the Mosaic Covenant.  Further, if one argues that God’s promise to give the land to Abraham’s descendants is obsolete, one could by the same logic argue that God’s promise to bless all nations with the gospel given at the same time to Abraham is also obsolete.  God said his promise to give the land to Abraham was everlasting (Genesis 13:15,17:8, 48:4, Deuteronomy 4:40, Exodus 32:13, Joshua 14:9, 1 Chronicles 20:7, Jeremiah 9:12).  The Mosaic Covenant by contrast was not promised as everlasting.  Thus the promise of the land cannot be set aside by the passing of the Mosaic covenant.

* JEWS NOW THE SAME AS OTHER NATIONS:  The argument is that the Jewish people in the New Testament are the same as all other nations.  ANSWER: This is partly true, partly false.  True that the requirements for salvation among the Jews are the same as all other nations.  During his earthly ministry, Jesus only preached the gospel to Israel and instructed his disciples to do the same (Matthew 10:6, 15:24).  Romans 9-11 explains that God’s special purposes for the Jews are not finished, but that they are currently hardened to the gospel until the gospel has been preached to all other nations.   In fact the reason to preach the gospel to all other nations is to make Israel envious (Romans 11:11).  After this, ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Romans 11:26).  So the nation of Israel hears the gospel first and last and is hardened in between.  If God makes a distinction in the New Testament regarding the hearing and response to the gospel, can he not also maintain a distinction on other things too.  While many aspects of the nation of Israel does prefigure the church, the church does not entirely replace the nation of Israel or God’s purposes for the nation of Israel. While the scripture opposes the forcing of circumcision onto Gentiles (Galatians) as a religious identity marker, it does not oppose Jews from continuing this racial identity marker.  In fact Paul himself circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3), to clarify his Jewish identity.  Paul continued to personally identify himself by race as a Jew (Colossians 4:11; Romans 9).

* THE PROTESTANT REFORMERS DID NOT BELIEVE THIS.  The argument (mostly by Reformed scholars) is that the Protestant Reformers did not anticipate the restoration of the state of Israel. ANSWER: While it is true that the first generation of Protestant Reformers did not anticipate this, many of the second generation did believe in God’s continuing special purposes for the Jewish people and many, especially among the English Puritans did predict the restoration of the State of Israel in the historic land of Israel (see “The Puritan Hope”, by Ian H. Murray).  Men such as Luther and Calvin were mostly focused on studying other issues in scripture and did not have the benefit of hindsight of considering the actual restoration of Israel since 1948.

* THIS IS A PRE-MILLENIAL DISPENSATIONALIST BELIEF:  The argument is that the belief is supported by only one narrow interpretation of end-time prophecy that has only been held for about two hundred years.  ANSWER:  This is incorrect.  Theologians of all major variations of end time prophecy interpretation have held this belief.

* WITH SO MUCH TROUBLE IT CANT BE GOD:  The argument is that God would only restore the land in a peaceful way and not with so much strife.  ANSWER: This belief does not fit the Bible.  God promised to restore the land in the circumstance of trouble (Jeremiah 30:7-10).  God frequently uses trouble to achieve his providential purposes.

* MODERN ISRAEL IS MOSTLY GODLESS:  The argument is that firstly very few Israelis profess faith in Christ, only a minority are religious at all and the founding settlers were mostly atheistic socialists.  ANSWER:  God is bound to keep his promise, which he made to the Patriarchs despite the unbelief of modern Jews (Romans 11:28-29).   The Bible records God using the unbelieving Nebuchadnezzar to carry Israel into exile and unbelieving Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1-4) to restore the temple, so he can also use  unbelieving Jews to restore the state.    Many Christians testify that God worked providentially in their lives before they came to faith in Christ and so God is doing with the Jews in returning them to Israel.

* THE RETURN ALREADY FULFILLED UNDER EZRA:  The argument is that the return the land was already fulfilled through the return to the land under Ezra & Nehemiah.  ANSWER:   Firstly, most of the major predictions of exile and punishment in the Bible are followed by prediction of restoration afterwards (E.g. Jeremiah 29, Ezekiel 37).  The final restoration to the land after the exile is said to be permanent (Amos 9:15), while the Ezra restoration was not.   The final and normative state of the Jewish people is expected to be restored and in the land of Israel.   Secondly, the genre of Old Testament prophecy repeatedly blurs from one time period to another.  For example, from a casual reading of the Old Testament without the benefit of hindsight of history, it is not immediately apparent what refers to the first or the second coming of Christ – or even that there are two separate comings of Christ.  Likewise it is not obvious what refers to the first exile or the second Jewish exile.  Many prophecies refer to two separate time periods in the same passage.  Thirdly, the first exile did not fulfil all of the curses of the broken law (Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26).   For example, in the first exile, the Jews were not scattered among all nations, but only among a few nations in the Middle East.  Therefore, the promises of the curses of exile were only fulfilled after the death of Christ, and so likewise the promises of restoration can only be such.  The second exile has fully fulfilled every promise of the broken law, which the first exile did not.

* WHY THE NINETEEN CENTURY DELAY?  The argument is that, if this was his ultimate purpose, how could God forget about the Jews for Nineteen centuries and then only return them to Israel?  ANSWER:  God didn’t forget about the Jews, but kept them in a state of judgment hardened to the gospel of Christ and exiled from their land, suffering the curses of the broken law until all other nations had heard the gospel (Romans 11).  World missions only properly commenced on an international scale in the 19th century, and shortly after this the Jews began returning to the land of Israel. Nevertheless, there are numerous nations that have still never heard the gospel and the Jews will not convert on a large scale until they do. Nevertheless, the proportion of Jews following Christ today (including myself) is greater now than it has ever been in history.  As Jewish identity becomes more closely connected with the land and nation-state of Israel and less with the rabbinical traditions, the hostility towards the person of Jesus is fading.

CONCLUSION
God’s promise to give the land to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still valid.  The modern State of Israel is the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.  The first exile did not fulfil all the promises of scripture, but the second exile did.   Jews have the same requirements for salvation as Gentiles, but continue to be a distinct race, with a distinct purpose in providential history.  After all other nations have heard the gospel, Israel will convert to Christ.   It is the urgent duty of the church to finish the task.  The first generation of Protestant reformers did not predict the restoration of the people of Israel to the land and state of
Israel, but many of the second generation, especially English Puritans did do so.  The belief in the restoration of Israel is not restricted to any particular interpretation of the millennium in end-time prophecy or to eliefs on the five points of Calvinism/Arminianism but has historically been held by people across the spectrum of these other debates.

The South African government in taking an ongoing hostile stance against Israel puts itself at risk of God’s promise to curse those who curse Israel (Genesis 12:3).  Well done to King Goodwill Zwelithini for defying the deputy foreign Minister’s call to visit Israel.  And for those who have the money and time to travel, if you are looking to explore interesting places (rather than just relax), I would personally recommend you put Israel first on your wish-list of places to go.

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