Friday, July 10, 2009

Why Israel is not Israel

The title of this post is a pun on the three divergent understandings of what 'Israel' is within the Christian tradition. On the one hand, there is the Israel of the Bible, the Israel of the Old Testament with its Temple, prophets, and everything else that goes along with it. Then there is the modern political State of Israel, the Israel of Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Middle East Peace Process and all that load of baggage. We could also mention the idea of Israel as the Church; or rather, the Church as the fulfillment and continuation of Israel.

Among many evangelical Protestants, there is a strict equivalence between the Israel of the Bible and the State of Israel; ie, the current, political State of Israel is seen as the direct continuation of the Old Testament Kingdom of Israel and assumes the former's authority and importance as a divinely constituted government on this earth ruling by the mandate of God. This presupposes one of the major eschatological tenets of evangelical Christianity: that there is to be a national restoration of Israel in the last days.

Before we get into this, it is important to understand that this belief in a national restoration of Israel is not just some eccentricity of evangelical belief but is in fact central to it. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that their entire theology, and even their soteriology, centers on this one idea of the Jews being returned to their homeland, which they assert is prophesied in Scripture. This idea then is the key to the whole fundamentalist understanding of salvation history and biblical prophecy.

First, let us look at the main question: does the Bible in fact predict that in the end times the Jews will return to their homeland? This is a tricky question and depends in a large part upon two other exegetical problems (1) Whether a given prophecy is to be applied literally or figuratively (2) Whether a given prophecy applies to something that has already happened or it yet to come. The evangelical idea of an end times national restoration of Israel is largely based upon a strictly literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy and a general application of these prophecies to the last days (rather than Christ's first advent, the establishment of the Church, etc).

There are literally dozens and dozens of prophecies in the Old Testament that evangelicals will say apply to the end times restoration of Israel, and we really cannot go into them all here. But I will look at some of the more prominent and oft-cited verses.

Deuteronomy 4:27-28,30-31 27

And the LORD shall scatter you among the nations, and ye shall be left few in number among the heathen, whither the LORD shall lead you. And there ye shall serve gods, the work of men's hands, wood and stone, which neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, [even] in the latter days, if thou turn to the LORD thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice;(For the LORD thy God [is] a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them.

The idea here is that God is warning the Jews that they will be scattered among the nations, but that if they cry to Him, even in the "latter days", God will "not forget" His covenant with them and will return them to their land. To get a national restoration of Israel at the end of time out of these verses depends on two huge assumptions:

First, that "in the latter days" means the same thing to Moses in Deuteronomy as it does to fundamentalist evangelicals who use the terms "end times" and "last days." I think it is a gross exegetical blunder to simply apply to Moses' words an understanding that did not come about until the advent of Protestant Dispensationalism in the late 19th century. In the Bible, the phrase "latter days" need not refer to the end of time, but only some period far off. For example, Isaiah 2:2 uses the phrase "latter day" to describe the period of the establishment of the Church. In Daniel 2:28, Daniel uses the phrase "latter days" to refer to the period immediately following the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, a period only a generation in the future. "Latter days" can refer to the end of time (as it seems to in verses such as 1 Timothy 4:1), but in the Old Testament it is much more ambiguous and can refer to any period in the future - which means we need not interpret it strictly to refer to the end of the world only.

Second, the verse mentions only that God will not forget His covenant, but does not state that there will be a restoration. A predisposed opinion that God remembering His covenant equals restoring the land is necessary to get this interpretation, which is circular reasoning.

Isaiah 11:11

And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall set his hand again the second time to recover the remnant of his people, which shall be left, from Assyria, and from Egypt, and from Pathros, and from Cush, and from Elam, and from Shinar, and from Hamath, and from the islands of the sea.

This verse states that God will recover His people a "second" time, the first time presumably being the gathering of Israel out of Egypt. Does this imply a restoration at the end of time? I don't think so - for one thing, if the recovery of Israel from Egypt was the "first" recovery, then the next recovery to happen after Isaiah's time would be the recovery of the Jews from the Babylonian exile. There is no reason to posit an end times restoration when another restoration was only two hundred years in the future.

But I don't think this verse refers to the return from Babylon. If we look at the verse in context, we can see that it is Messianic in nature:

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious. In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea. He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth (Is. 11:10-12).

We see from the preceding verse that the "day" being referred to is the day when the Root of Jesse stands as a banner for all peoples and gathers the exiles together. This is clearly Messianic, refering not to an end time restoration of physical Jews according to the flesh, but to the gathering of the elect in the Church following the coming of the Son of David, which began on Pentecost when Jews from all these nations converted at the preaching of Peter. The ones who are gathered here are not simply Jews, but "the peoples" and "the nations", in addition to "his people." The vision here is not of a national restoration of physical Israel, but of a gathering of Jews and Gentiles together in the Messianic kingdom of the Son of David, something accomplished with the establishment of the Church.

Jeremiah 30:3

For, lo, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah, saith the LORD: and I will cause them to return to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall possess it.

Again, there is no necessary reason why this should be interpreted as referring to the end times, especially since the chapter immediately preceding concerns the captivity in Babylon, it would be most natural to assume this verse is referring to the return of the Jews from Babylon. Jeremiah is seeing the lamentation of his people at their captivity and is speaking these words to comfort them. There is nothing in this verse or in the context that suggests that this "return" to the land is anything other than the return of the exiles under Ezra and Nehemiah.

Let's look at one more:

Ezekiel 36:24,33-35

For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. "Thus saith the Lord GOD; In the day that I shall have cleansed you from all your iniquities I will also cause you to dwell in the cities, and the wastes shall be builded. And the desolate land shall be tilled, whereas it lay desolate in the sight of all that passed by. And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are become fenced, and are inhabited.

I found this verse cited on an evangelical website as a proof for the end times restoration of Israel. First, notice how it is cited: Ezk. 36:24, 33-35. What about verses 26 and following? As we shall see, they are omitted for a reason. Here are the missing verses, 26-28:

For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God.

When we insert the verses that were left out in the original citation, we see that they very plainly refer to baptism, the sprinkling with clean water, the new heart, new spirit - all of this speaks of the new birth that comes to us through the sacrament, not to an end time restoration of physical Israel. This is one of the cases where the prophecies attributed to Israel are applicable to the spiritual realities brought about by the New Testament sacraments. In the evangelical interpretation we can see a bias towards the verses that talk about dwelling in the land and returning to the cities while ignoring the ones that talk about a new heart, spiritual renewal, etc. This is necessary in this frame of mind because the Jews that inhabit modern day Israel do not have a new heart or God's Spirit - they have not been "sprinkled" with clean water in baptism. Therefore, these verses have to be ignored if the fundamentalist ideal of a physical Jewish restoration is to be upheld.

But enough of the verses, you get the idea. Most of the prophecies cited to support the idea of a restored Israel are of a similar kind - applicable to some other event that is mroe feasible or else Messianic prophecies that are ignored because they refer to the glorification or spread of the Church.

But beyond these fallacious interpretations of Old Testament prophecy (ie, beyond the fact that the Old Testament does not prophesy a restored national Israel), I can offer six more reasons why the political State of Israel is not a to be viewed as a continuation of Old Testament Israel.

1) Most Jews Don't Live in Israel

If we grant that the Old Testament predicts a Jewish restoration (which it doesn't), then we have to take account of the fact that despite the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, most Jews in the world do not live there. As of 2007, the Census Bureau of Israel reported 5,415,000 Jews within Israel. The United States alone has 6,000,000 Jews within it, and there are approximately 13,500,000 Jews worldwide. That means less than half of the Jews in the world reside in Israel. This being the case, it makes the argument that the current State of Israel is the promised divine restoration look a little silly - God boasted He would gather them from all the corners of the earth, yet after fifty years not even one half of all Jews are in Israel. Some restoration.

2) The State of Israel is not a Kingdom

If we grant the evangelicals the boon of taking these prophecies to refer to some end times restoration, we must point out that the Israel the Scriptures speak of is always a kingdom, not a democracy with a prime minister. The verses that are applied to an end time restoration of Israel never speak of this without refering to the house of David:

Hosea 3:5: And after this the children of Israel shall return, and shall seek the Lord their God, and David their king: and they shall fear the Lord, and his goodness in the last days.

This verse refers specifically to the "last days" and connects the repentance of Israel with the seeking of "David their king." The State of Israel has nothing to do with monarchy or the house of David, and therefore cannot be what is prophesied. Of course, this just goes to show how these verses should rather be applied to the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of the Church than to some fictional end time restoration.

3) No Proof That This Restoration is the Final Restoration

Granting, again, that there will be a restoration, how do we know that this current incarnation of Israel is the final, definitive one? We don't. As a parallel, we know the Scriptures say that a great persecution will be inflicted on the Church at the time of the end. That does not mean, however, that the next persecution will be the final one, or that there won't be a hundred more persecutions before the end. It just means there will be a persecution at the end, but doesn't help you fit any current or future persecution into any sort of time frame.

Similarly, the nation of Israel, as it currently exists, could end up being dispersed. The Jews could be dispersed and restored a thousand times before the end. We have no way of knowing that this particular restoration of the political State of Israel is the final incarnation of the political power of the Jews.

4) The Current State of Israel Has the Wrong Borders
If we are going with the evangelical literalism with regards to the State of Israel, we have to accept the as literal the Old Testament descriptions of where exactly the land of Israel begins and ends.

First, here is a map of ancient Israel, from "Dan to Beersheba" as the Scriptures always say:

Notice specifically the amount of territory east of the Dead Sea, in Ammon and Moabm which was partitioned out by God and given to the tribes of Reuben, gad and Manasseh, according to Joshua 1:12-18. This land was part of God's divine patrimony to the Israelites, and without it there cannot be said to be a restored Israel. Now, here is a map of modern Israel:

Notice that not only is all of the territory east of the Dead Sea missing, but likewise an enormous swath west of the Dead Sea as well (this is Samaria, or the West Bank as it is now called). Here is a great map showing how ancient Israel and modern Israel overlap:

According to the Scriptures, the land that God gave the Israelites stretches "from the wilderness of the Lebanon as far as the great river, the River Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites to the Great Sea and the going down of the sun" (Jos. 1:4). Any Israel which lacks these territories cannot be the restored Israel. Again, I would ask, what kind of restoration is God doing when He only brings back 40% of the people to 60% of the land?

Incidentally, this gives rise to a Zionist irredentism, seeking to "redeem" the lands of ancient Israel still held by the Gentiles and is the reason why these regions are so contested: Zionists know that, according to this ideology, their Israel cannot really be the prophesied Israel unless it possesses these lands. This forces the fundamentalists to come up with a type of "divided restoration" theory: God gave part of the land back in 1948 but He will give the rest back's a terribly confusing way to get around the plain truth of what the Bible is really trying to tell us about Israel.

5) Israel Does Not Possess The Temple Mount

Every prophecy of restored Israel cited by the evangelicals has as its center the Jerusalem Temple (leading many to expect and desire a restored Jewish Temple). Take, for example, Isaiah 2:1-3:

This is what Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come, The mountain of the LORD'S house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: "Come, let us climb the LORD'S mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths." For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

All of the peoples are coming towards the Lord's "house," which evangelicals interpret as a literal temple. But how can Israel be this restored Israel if there is (a) no Temple, and more importantly, (b) the Jewish people do not even control the site of the Temple?

In the ancient world, possession of a city is reckoned by who controls its most central citadel or temple complex area. In ancient Rome, for example, though the Gauls seized almost all of Rome in 387 BC, the Romans declared that the city had not really been conquered because the Gauls had failed to capture the Capitoline Hill. The essential city was seen to be identical with the one hill upon which the temple complexes and important government buildings stood. Though one could conquer most of the urban areas of Rome, if you had not seized Capitoline Hill, the city had not yet fallen.

Similarly, the Jews identified Jerusalem with the Temple. A restored Israel without the Temple, or at least the Temple site, would be ludicrous. The fact that the Al-Aqsa mosque stands on the Temple Mount is a perpetual reminder that the current State of Israel is not any special divinely constituted kingdom. Unless the Jews control the Temple Mount, there is no restored kingdom.

6) Israel is a Secular State
Israel was founded as a bastion of democracy in the midst of the autocratic Muslim kingdoms of the Middle East. As part of its democracy, it has adopted secularism. Though Israel describes itself as a "Jewish state", there is complete freedom of religion enshrined in law, making Israel basically a secular state, a far cry from the utopian visions of a restored Israel in which "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11:9). Like the democracies on which it is modeled, Israel has no established religion and is officially secular.

Furthermore, as in America, the degree to which the Jews in Israel practice their faith is questionable. In 2007, a poll by the Israeli Democracy Institute found that only 27% of Israeli Jews say that they keep the Sabbath, while 53% said they do not keep it at all. While 85% of Israeli Jews participate in the Passover, only 65% say they believe in God at all. More than half of all Israelis describe themselves as secular (as opposed to orthodox or ultra-orthodox). Therefore, we have only 65% of the Jews (who are only 40% of the world total) who believe in God, living in 60% of the land. If we were to narrow it down to asking if they believed in God and all of the tenets of Judaism, we would probably see the percentage get even smaller.

The restored Israel asserted by the evangelicals is supposed to be a godly, righteous nation where everybody worships God and lives in justice and equity. This is hardly the case in modern Israel. The restored Israel, if it existed, would be a theocracy, not a secular democracy.

Those are my six reasons why the State of Israel is not the continuation of the Old Testament kingdom - we could also cite the fact that none of the Fathers or Doctors have asserted that there would be a restored Israel (though many believed the Jews would convert to Christianity in the end).

This, of course, does not deter fundamentalists in their Christian Zionism, in which Israel is a fantasy-land rather than a real place and in which blasphemous and blatantly anti-Christian things are supported in order to further a false utopian idea of the Kingdom of God. Many, as I mentioned, adopt a kind of split-chronology to get around some of the problems I brought up. So, yes, they would say, Israel is lacking the Temple, some of its land, its population, etc. But what was established in 1948 was nevertheless the seed, the "fig" that puts forth its shoots, as Jesus says, and that soon the rest that is lacking will be filled up and the Messiah will come down to reign from the physical Jerusalem for 1,000 years.

Hope this helps us to better understand where some of these people are coming from, at any rate.

By the way, thanks for taking the time to read my blog - if this is your first time here, and if you enjoyed this post, check out some of my favorite posts here. Also, be sure to scroll down the side-bar for other favorite posts. For other posts on the Jews, Judaism and Israel:

Pope Benedict's troubling comments that the Church "need not concern herself" with the conversion of Jews
The Church Father's understanding of Judaism
On the Jewish nature of the early Church
Rabbi pressures Pope Benedict to deny Jesus
Bishop Williamson and the absurdity of Holocaust denial laws
Why Christians should not support a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem
Jews in the 2008 Missale Romanum
On the 2008 revision of the Good Friday prayers
On Christian obsession with Jewish customs
Cardinal George to Jews: Stop calling Jesus a bastard!
USCCB catechism teaches heresy that Jews have their own covenant


Ben. said...

All spot on. I agree entirely.

God bless,


Unknown said...

Has the sun stopped shining? Has the moon stopped? Then God is NOT done with the Nation of Israel. (The Land) According to Jeremiah. And so many other verses in the Bible. We can't just spiritualize what we want...

Boniface said...


I don't believe I said that God was "done" with Israel - I only said that the political state of Israel is not to be confused with the biblical children of Israel or with some kind of restored Israel.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this enlightening article. I have often heard that the Israel of the Bible referred to the Catholic Church but never knew why - just took it's word for it. Thanks again for making it sensible.

Anonymous said...

What we see as Israel is not Israel... yet. I am convinced that many of them will join the Christianity in the latter days; thus becoming true Israelites.

Unknown said...

A worth reading article. I am evangelical Christians and had always opposed to some evangelicals radical views on the Bible prophecies and what is going to happen in the end of time. Yes, Israel is here and always be here forever unless God Almighty would want to tear it down by the help of the entire nations (in their sympathy for the displaced Palestinian Arabs maybe, or in their lost hope for peace in the Middle East with Israel bashing increased in almost exponential proportions lately, including from nations considered as friends and the Christendom, if we still can call them one). Israel is here and progressing beyond her enemies and critics expectations (more of Israel demise than her prosperity). It is by no way perfect, far from the literal understanding of Christian’s interpretations of the Bible (including Evangelicals and Catholics, self-proclaimed as the one and only true church). Many Jews have returned to their ancestors land (of course many still stay back in diaspora) and reformed the land so neglected and remained sparsely inhabited by the Arabs in the early centuries (but now lay their claim on the land as theirs due to their historical myopia assumption that only they are the sole inhabitants of the land since the beginning of time). Israel today may not fully represent what the Bible says or prophesied (far from the Vatican expectations and hope that there will be no Israel, present and future shown by her supports for anything that would have prevented the returns, the emancipations of the Jewish people throughout the Christendom, and anything that would have delayed, or borne the ideas of free Jews or the ideas, movements and international decisions that may lead to the birth of the sovereign Jewish State).

Unknown said...

Yes, this may not be what the Bible said, but it is still Israel. When and why the Jews will convert to Christianity or evolve into a Christian Israel (as the Vatican had dreamed) nobody can tell, just leave that to God. If this article is to be seen as a generally accepted Catholic point of view on Israel and the Jewish people then one can make a very crucial assumption and impact of this 'belief'. Since according to this article that this Israel is not the Bible-prophesied Israel but mere Netanyahu's or Ariel Sharon's Israel or worse the Evangelicals' Israel it denies consistently the right of the Jewish people for self-administrations and independence, thus an effort to delegitimize the sovereign state of Israel (a view commonly shared by the Vatican's comrade in arms, the Arabs and entire Muslim world). Secondly this article implies that the real Israel will only emerge on earth when they turn to Jesus or become Christians (a Catholic nation subject to a self-proclaimed infallible one in the Vatican of course). But the Jews who suffered a world of hatred and systematic killing for centuries by stereotyping, discriminations, doctrines, the crusades, blood libels and manipulations of state and kingdoms for the purpose of converting or annihilating Jews throughout the Christian world, which are clearly a device formulated by those "holy Papas" to eradicate Jews from their midst. How could they turn to such belief? The Church had been instrumental in almost every pogroms, or other systematic annihilations of these people including the 'holocaust'.

Anonymous said...

"...annihilating Jews throughout the Christian world, which are clearly a device formulated by those "holy Papas" to eradicate Jews from their midst. How could they turn to such belief? The Church had been instrumental in almost every pogroms, or other systematic annihilations of these people including the 'holocaust'."

That's quite the accusations which of course you somehow fail to provide evidence.

How about the six million that died... not during the WWii. This supposedly occurred during WWi. Google ny times 1919 holocaust. Other years also are stressing the mythical six million number.