When we talk about Israel, we must keep in mind that we are really talking about three Israels. The first is ethnic, or historic, Israel, the seed of Abraham after the flesh, who count their descent through Isaac and Jacob, to whom the promises were given, through whom the Messiah came, who figure in the whole sweep of biblical history and prophecy from the patriarchs to the culmination of the age. Second are the spiritual descendants of Abraham, those who share his faith. This is not an ethnic group. It does not include many people who are physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or who are bearers of Jewish culture, and it does include many who are not part of ethnic Israel. The third Israel is the modern political state, which was established thirty years ago in the ancient homeland of the Jews.
What is the relationship betwen these three Israels, so far as God’s program is concerned? Is God still interested in ethnic Israel? Does ethnic Israel still play a significant role? Have the spiritual descendants of Abraham acceded to the position and prerogatives of ethnic Israel and so displaced it? Do the promises made to ethnic Israel automatically accrue to the present political state of Israel or to the present regime in power there?
First, let me set down a double-barreled assertion: God still has a part for ethnic Israel to play in the drama of redemption, and the modern political state of Israel could be act one in the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. Both of these assertions have been strongly challenged. Some people maintain that modern Israel cannot be the Israel that God predicted would return to the land, for, they claim, if God’s hand were in this return to the land and in the setting up of the present Israeli government, all the war and bloodshed we see and read about would not be taking place. The claim, however, that a warlike Israel cannot be the special focus of God’s purpose will not stand up in the light of God’s pronouncements during the immigration under Joshua. God instructed Moses to tell the people that “… LORD hath said unto me …, He will go over before thee, and he will destroy these nations from before thee, and thou shalt possess them.… And the LORD shall do unto them as he did to Sihon and to Og, kings of the Amorites, and unto the land of them, whom he destroyed” (Deut. 31:2–4). The immigration under Joshua was a conquest, not a bloodless coup, and God is not shut off from again making the violence of men serve his purposes.
Others say that an Israel that does not accept the Messiah, which modern Israel does not, cannot be the Israel of prophecy. Yet God, speaking through Ezekiel, indicates just the opposite: “I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you.… A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.… And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God” (36:24–28). Note that the return to the land in verse 24precedes the redemptive events outlined in verses 25 to 28.
Other people claim that the Church has replaced Israel and that present-day Israel has no particular biblical significance, either today or in the future. Yet we find in the New Testament a note of expectancy concerning the future of Israel. James, in summing up the Jerusalem council, states that “God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: ‘After this I will return and rebuild the fallen house of David’ ” (Acts 15:14–16, NIV). By the phrase “after this” James is referring to the calling out of a people for God’s name from among the Gentiles. After this is done, he says, God will rebuild the fallen house of David. Note that “after this” (Greek, metà taûta) is James’s interpretation of the connection and is not a translation of Amos’s phrase “in that day” (Hebrew, bayyo̅m hahû’), nor is it a quotation of the Septuagint’s rendering. Gentiles in the church join with believing Jews of all ages in constituting the spiritual progeny of Abraham (Gal. 3:7). But Abraham’s spiritual descendants do not displace God’s interest in and intentions for ethnic Israel. The descendants of the Israel of old have some important biblical future.
Parenthetically, it might be important to remind ourselves that Abraham’s seed through Ishmael, today’s Arabs, are, like us, “Gentiles.” They can be related to Abraham only as we are related, by having his faith, even though they are, unlike us, in the Semitic family of nations. The promises of the land and the spiritual covenant were reaffirmed to Isaac (Gen. 26:3–4), to Jacob (Gen. 28:4), and to Joseph (obliquely in Gen. 50:24). Ishmael was born of Hagar and Abraham. God had said, however, that the seed of which he was speaking would be born through Sarah, and through her line his promises would be fulfilled. Ishmael was also to be a great nation, but separate from Israel. His lot was to live in the wilderness of Paran south of the biblical Negev. After his death we hear no more about him or his descendants in biblical history. Further, the Abrahamic line that was to carry the blessings went through Jacob and not his elder twin, Esau. Esau married into Ishmael’s line and others outside the promises, and his descendants eventually became Edom (Gen. 36:1). Yet, although ethnic Israel is heir to the promises, it is not the exclusive object of his concern. Note the way Isaiah ends his nineteenth chapter: “In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage’ ” (24 and 25).
Perhaps most important of all is the often-heard allegation that because Israel forsook the Lord, God’s promises to it have been abrogated. Israel, so it is said, lost out on the promise of the land of Palestine as “an everlasting possession” (Gen. 13:15; 15:18; 17:7–8) because it failed to obey God. Some people argue that “everlasting” (Hebrew, ‘ôla̅m) can mean either “a long period of time” or “forever” and what is meant must be determined anew for each context. But this is a dangerous and arbitrary approach to exegesis, unless the context itself contains an indication that the meaning of the word is limited. In Genesis 13; 15; and 17 there is no indication that the promise of the land was for a limited period. In Genesis 17:19 God uses the words “everlasting covenant” to refer to the covenant fulfilled in Christ. This “everlasting” refers not to the land but to salvation, and the covenant was forever. Why should not the promise of the land to Abraham’s descendants—both promises sometimes occur in the same verse—also be forever? The land covenant was not abrogated but interrupted; it was interrupted by the diaspora but not set aside forever by it. The promises of Deuteronomy 30:3–5 and of Jeremiah and Ezekiel look forward to a time when the descendants of Abraham will be back in the land at the end of days, after diaspora: “I will even gather you from the people, and assemble you out of the countries where ye have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel” (Ezek. 11:17).
If the Bible indicates that God has a continuing place for historic or ethnic Israel in his plans, what of the present state of Israel? What gave the Jewish people the idea to return to Palestine? How did modern Israel acquire the land? Is this present Israel a fulfillment of prophecy? Is it a sign of the end times? Must we support Israel even if it performs unjust acts?
Two factors, above all others, contributed to the decision of the Jews to return to their land: their view of the biblical promises and their treatment by non-Jews. Every Sabbath for centuries they had read the promises of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others. In all those centuries, they prayed, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Irrespective of how some Christians interpret the Old Testament passages, the Jews took them at face value. And in all those centuries, from Constantine to the Reformation, from Luther to Hitler, the Jews were restricted, downtrodden, and massacred by both ecclesiastical and secular authorities.
A turning point came at the end of the nineteenth century when Theodore Herzl saw how an enfranchised Jew, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was made the scapegoat in France for a military scandal. He was later proven innocent. However, Herzl and others asked themselves, if being a full and respected citizen could not protect a Jew, what hope was there for Jews to continue in “foreign” countries?
These two factors combined finally to produce a return to Palestine, a return that continued, so that about fifty years after the Dreyfus affair, Israel became a state and was accepted into the United Nations.
At first immigration was small, some 2,000 a year. By statehood in 1948, the immigrants still numbered only 670,000. In the early days all land occupied by the Jews was purchased on the open market. Nothing was “taken,” as some people allege. They bought whatever was available. Most of it was malaria-infested swamps, like the Huleh and Jezreel valleys, or marshes, sand dunes, and denuded hilltops. In the United Nations’s partition plan of November, 1947, some additional land was allocated to Israel, and Israel gained another 2,000 square miles after the 1948 war and the Rhodes agreement subsequent to it. Remember, Israel did not start the 1948 war. As the result of another war, which again Israel did not begin, it has, since 1967, been administering areas on the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai, pending a peace settlement with the nations that attacked it then.
But is this Israel either a fulfillment of the biblical prophecies or a sign of the end times? As for the first part of the question, the Bible mentions three diasporas. The first lasted for 400 years in Egypt, from the time of Joseph to Moses. The second, mentioned by Jeremiah, covered seventy years. The third diaspora was predicted to be world-wide in character. Specific lengths were foretold for the first two, but no specific duration was mentioned in the prophecy of the third. The present Israel could be the opening movement in the fulfillment of God’s promise to regather the Jews from the third, world-wide diaspora. It is also possible, however, that the present Israel will be totally destroyed. God knows which is right; we will not know for sure until the action is over. But note that if the present state and nation of Israel were to be destroyed, another Israel would have to replace it, for the Lord’s return will be to a world in which there is a regathered Israel. Israel will be here when the “full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25–27, NIV, and Jer. 31:31–36; readers should particularly note the final verse in the latter passage).
In considering whether Israel’s existence today is a sign of the end times, we have to remember many instances in which long periods of time elapsed while God was preparing his “fullness of time.” The time it took to get everything ready for the sixteenth-century Reformation and the preparation for the birth of Jesus are cases in point. We should not presume to set dates, even in so general a way as to say that modern Israel is a sign of the end. It may be, but we have no word from God about it. His times are in his hands, and he does not always move at our rate of speed.
What of the question that is sometimes asked: Must we support Israel even if it performs unjust acts? Certainly there are charges of injustice. They take a number of forms and are leveled by various groups, including the Third World, the Communist Bloc, and the Arab World. The charges may point the finger at crime in the “land of the Bible,” the plight of the refugees, “retaliatory” military acts such as those in Karome or Lebanon, “inhuman” treatment of an occupied people, or any one of a number of other anti-Israel charges. However, there are two sides to the story. In discussions of the Middle East, the hard facts of history are all too frequently by-passed and attention is focused on emotionally stirring but relatively isolated hard-luck stories.
I will limit myself to two illustrations. Some people assert that the Jews have not allowed any refugees of the 1948 war to return to their homes in Israel. The fact is, however, that “70,000 were accepted back into Israel under a Reunification of Families program after the 1948–49 war. Israel offered in August 1949 to take back another 100,000. The offer was rejected by the Arab states. Israel released ten million dollars of the blocked bank balances held by Arab refugees without any conditions or quid pro quo. All UNRWA proposals for refugee resettlement were rejected or blocked by the Arab states. The proposal of Eric Johnston, special envoy of President Eisenhower, for the irrigation of the Jordan Valley to allow resettlement of 240,000 refugees was also rejected by the Arab League in October 1955.…” We should also remember that “the U.N. has passed a considerable number of resolutions on this issue, urging either resettlement or compensation for Arab refugees, without once concerning itself with the more than one million Jewish refugees from the Arab countries. And it is precisely the unwillingness of the Arab refugees to live in peace with and accept the existence of Israel that has been the obstacle to any just peace and equitable settlement of the Middle East refugee problem as a whole.” (These two quotations are taken from the January, 1978, issue of the Bulletin of the American Professors for Peace in the Middle East, an organization for a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Arab states.)
The invasion of Lebanon in March, 1978, is the second illustration. This has popularly been called a “retaliatory act”; in light of the full history of the affair, it certainly was not. Israel had been saying for a decade that unless the powers could control the Fatah in southeastern Lebanon from which the constant raids into Israel were launched, Israel would have to do so itself. Yet the PLO-Fatah spread all across southern Lebanon, massacring the Christian population and launching violent raids into Israel. The blowing up of an Israeli bus with the loss of thirty-five lives was merely the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The action Israel then carried out was not spur of the moment; it had been warning the United Nations and the world of it for years. Historical perspective puts a different complexion on the “retaliation” charge.
Finally, why are evangelicals so keenly interested in the nation of Israel today? First and foremost, because of the biblical promises. God has declared that the fortunes of historic Israel are dear to his heart. Without cavil, what God holds precious, Christians ought to hold precious, too. And, quite simply, the rebirth of Israel as a nation is the most significant development within Jewish affairs in this century. If God is still interested in the descendents of Abraham, then we evangelicals cannot help being interested in the nation of Israel.
A second reason is born of guilt. The ill treatment Jews received over the centuries at the hand of “Christians” and “Christian” nations was one of the important reasons for the return to Palestine. This shameful record is well enough known to cause deep concern and add to the interest many evangelicals show toward Israel. The silence of the world in general while 6,000,000 Jews were being massacred by Hitler merely because they were Jews (along with the slaughter of 1,000,000 non-Jews who tried to help them) and the inhumanity shown by the world at large in not wanting these world Jewish refugees in their countries prick the conscience of evangelicals and lend urgency to their concern.
Altogether apart from biblical and political considerations, there is a third reason, a cultural one. The heavy and unusual concentration of Jewish skill and Jewish talent in science, medicine, education, agriculture, art, music, literature, and other cultural areas in modern Israel should cause all men to be greatly interested in the full success of what is taking place in Israel today. Although it is for another time to judge the outcome, what may be seen in embryo in Israel today holds high promise. It is written: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:3). The Lord will once again bless the world out of Zion.
G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.
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