Is modern Israel a divinely-favored nation? For many Christians, the answer is a resounding yes.
Why is that?
Most of us know the biblical history concerning God’s calling of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the latter of whom became the father of Israel’s twelve tribes. We know the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, and their subsequent God-ordered conquest of the land of Canaan, which became the geographical territory of ancient Israel. We know that Jesus was descended from the tribe of Judah, and that His birth, ministry, death, burial and resurrection all took place in ancient Israel.
Most Christians also know that, since the time when modern Israel became a nation in 1948, Jews from around the world have immigrated to their ancient homeland, swelling the reborn nation’s population from one to eight million. Many Christians consider Jewish statehood and the gathering of the Jewish diaspora to be fulfillments of prophecy (see, for example, Jer. 16:14-15; Is. 11:10-12; Ezek. 37:1-23).
Even if those Old Testament prophecies speak of an earlier or future gathering of the descendants of Israel to their ancient homeland, there is another reason for Christians to think that modern Israel’s nationhood and the gathering of the Jewish diaspora have some current prophetic significance. We know Paul wrote of a future time when the antichrist will sit in the temple and declare himself to be God (2 Thes. 2:1-4). If the temple Paul was referring to is a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, the fulfillment of his words requires that a Jewish temple be rebuilt in Jerusalem, because the temple that was standing in his time was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. So modern Israel’s statehood in 1948 and its possession of Jerusalem as its capital pave the way for the eventual rebuilding of that temple. As far-fetched as a rebuilt Jerusalem temple may seem today, it was even more far-fetched prior to 1948.
All these things being so, many Evangelical Christians believe that modern Israel is divinely favored among the nations. Consequently, they unequivocally side with modern Israel on every issue. If there is a conflict, for example, between Israel’s government and the Palestinian people who live within its borders, the Palestinians must be the “bad guys” and the Israeli government must be the “good guys.”
News reports of Israeli confiscation and settling of Palestinian territory, many say, simply can’t be believed. Besides, the land belongs to Israel by divine right and, according to some very popular American preachers and politicians, all the Palestinians should just move to other Arab nations.
God always helps Israel’s military, we’re reminded, and most of their military victories since 1947 have been due to supernatural intervention.
Israel is the “apple of God’s eye” (Zech. 2:8), supporters continue. God promised them, “Blessed is everyone who blesses you, and cursed is everyone who curses you” (Num. 24:9).
So of course we want to be on Israel’s side, many Christians conclude, because we want to be on God’s side.
But would you allow me to question, from a biblical basis, some of these common beliefs? The Bible must always remain our only “rule of faith and practice,” even if it contradicts long-entrenched “Christian political correctness.” Let’s open our minds to what Scripture plainly teaches!
Belief #1: God is always on the side of modern, political Israel
Let us just suppose that Israel adopts a policy that transgresses God’s moral law. For example, if the people of modern Israel, as a nation, do not treat others as they would want to be treated, is God still on their side? Does God have a lesser standard for the modern nation and people of Israel than He does for every other nation and people? Does God give the modern nation of Israel the divine right to do what is morally wrong?
Historically, there have been many, many, many times when God was not on the side of Israel, namely, any time they weren’t obeying Him. At times, Israel suffered temporary discipline or horrific judgments at God’s decree; some judgments lasted for years. So has God changed? Is modern Israel held by God to different moral standards than ancient Israel?
If you’ve answered “no” to the five rhetorical questions I’ve just posed above, then you’ve admitted there is the possibility that God may not always be on the side of modern Israel. So before we support Israel, we would be wise to make some moral assessments.
I’ve personally spent time in Israel with Palestinian followers of Christ, some who live inside the Palestinian Territories and some who live outside. Some were born into Christian families and some are converts from Islam. As new creations in Christ, they love their persecutors, which include Jews, Palestinian Muslims and traditional Christians. They’ve had to forgive a lot of injustices they’ve suffered. But they wonder why American Evangelicals so vocally support their Jewish oppressors while painting them as villainous. It makes it difficult for them to win their fellow Palestinians to Christ, because that population perceives that American Christians hate them and support their oppressors.
Maybe we need to re-think some things.
Belief #2: God said of Israel, “Blessed is everyone who blesses you, and cursed is everyone who curses you. (Num. 24:9). Scripture also says that Israel is “the apple of God’s eye” (Zech. 2:8). So we should always support modern Israel no matter what.
Have we forgotten the most basic rule of Bible interpretation? Namely, that every verse must be interpreted within its immediate context and in the greater context of the Bible. So let’s do that.
At one specific moment in Israel’s history, near the time of the Exodus, God said of Israel through the prophet Balaam, “Blessed is everyone who blesses you, and cursed is everyone who curses you” (Num. 24:9). Was that an unconditional, perpetual promise to the descendants of Israel? Obviously not, as God eventually cursed Israel Himself:
“If you do not listen, and if you do not take it to heart to give honor to My name,” says the Lord of hosts, “then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; and indeed, I have cursed them already, because you are not taking it to heart” (Mal. 2:2).
Was God cursed because He cursed Israel, since He promised, “Cursed is everyone who curses you”?
Also evident is the fact that God’s promise to curse all those who cursed the nation of Israel wasn’t true when God judged Israel through successful conquests by their enemies.
Similarly, the verse in Zechariah in which God refers to Israel as “the apple of His eye” speaks of the future time of Israel’s redemption, when “Jerusalem will be inhabited without walls” (Zech. 2:2), when God will dwell in her midst (2:10) and “many nations will join themselves to the Lord in that day” (2:11). Clearly, that time has not arrived yet, and neither is the nation of Israel currently “the apple of God’s eye.” To say so is to misuse the Bible. (I am not saying, of course, that God does not currently love Jewish people. Jesus died for everyone.)
If we’re going to take single verses from the Old Testament in which God makes some comment about Israel at a certain time in its history, claiming those verses are applicable to Israel today, why not select some of the hundreds of verses in which God condemns Israel? Why not claim that we should not pray for the Jews, since God three times told Jeremiah not to pray for them (Jer. 7:16, 11:14, 14:11)? Why not claim that we should hate Israel, since through the prophet Hosea God once spoke of His hatred for them (Hos. 9:15)? Why not claim that we should abhor Israel, since Scripture speaks of a time when God abhorred them (Ps. 78:59)?
Belief #3: The descendants of Israel have a divine right to Palestine. God gave it to them forever.
Indeed, God promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that He would give the land of Canaan to their descendants (Gen. 12:7; 13:14-15; 15:18; 26:2-5, 28:13-15; 35:11-12), and God initially fulfilled those promises sometime around 1400 BC during Israel’s God-ordained conquest of Canaan. It is important to first keep in mind, however, that Israel’s conquest of Canaan was based on divine moral principles. God said to Abram hundreds of years before Israel’s Exodus:
Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions…. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete (Gen. 15:13-14, 16).
Take note that God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity was based on justice. God said He would judge the nation that oppressed and enslaved Israel, and we know judgment fell in the form of ten plagues and some financial restitution—a delinquent payment of unpaid back wages. So, Egypt got what it deserved.
Similarly, Israel’s conquest of Canaan was based on divine moral principle. Note that God said Abram’s descendants would not enter Canaan for a long time, because “the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Gen. 15:16). That is, the moral trend of the Amorites, one of the tribal groups living in Canaan during Abram’s time, was already on an irreversible downward slide. But God would extend His mercy towards them until they reached the moral bottom, at the point when they would be tossing their children into sacrificial fires out of devotion to their idols and having casual sex with their closest relatives, not to mention having sex with animals (Lev. 18). Only then would God judge them, using the descendants of Israel as a tool of His judgment.
Affirming the morality of Israel’s conquest of Canaan are God’s words to them during Joshua’s generation:
It is not for your righteousness or for the uprightness of your heart that you are going to possess their land, but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out before you, in order to confirm the oath which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Deut. 9:5).
All of this is to say that when God gave the Israelites the Promised Land, it was not because of special, arbitrary favor He granted them. Rather, oppressed people were being released from slavery, and evildoers were getting what they’d long deserved. There were moral principles involved, principles of mercy and justice, because God is a moral God.
Underscoring this undeniable truth is God’s warning to Israel that if they ever started acting like the nations they’d dispossessed from Canaan, He would similarly dispossess them of the land (Lev. 18, 26:27-38). That’s only right. If God didn’t judge the Israelites when they acted like Canaanites, that would make Him an unrighteous judge.
And God kept His promise to the Israelites, ousting the ten northern tribes of Israel around 722 BC during the Assyrian conquest and exile, and ousting 10,000 citizens of the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin around 597 BC during the Babylonian conquest and exile. Those divinely-permitted expulsions demonstrated that the continued right of Israel’s descendants to the land of Canaan hinged on their obedience to God.
Mercy Hinges on Humility
Interestingly, God also promised that if Israel, once dispossessed of their land and living as captives in the lands of their enemies, would humble themselves and repent, He would restore them to their land:
If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me—I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies—or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land (Lev. 26:40-42).
So it is indisputable that God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants regarding possession of the land of Canaan was not an unconditional promise, untethered to any moral principles or requirements.
If you listen, however, to many modern Evangelical preachers and politicians, you would think just the opposite. To them, Palestine belongs to the descendants of Israel by divine right, period. Moral principles and requirements are not part of the equation. It makes no difference if the descendants of Israel are obeying or disobeying God, and it makes no difference who might get crushed in the process of Israel’s repossession of their ancient homeland, or if blatant injustices are committed. There’s no need to listen to both sides of a story, research historical facts or investigate allegations. All people are not created equal, the argument logically concludes. Jews are superior and deserve special favor. The modern nation of Israel has an unconditional divine right to the ancient land of Canaan, and all moral considerations are irrelevant!
But the plain fact is that such an opinion has never, in the history of the nation of Israel, been anywhere close to being biblically accurate. And it isn’t anywhere close to being biblically accurate today.
But here is what one of America’s most popular TV preachers says:
God, in the book of Genesis, takes Abraham out and says, “I’m going to give you this land, to your seed forever.” All of that land around Israel, that we’re now saying the international nations have control of [Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon], have no more control of it than you control the moon. That property was given to them [Israel] by a mandate from God Himself, and it belongs to them. The Palestinians have absolutely no claim to it, not ever. It is the greatest historical fraud in the history of humanity.
There you have a clear example of taking one Bible verse and creating a doctrine from it that contradicts numerous other related texts and controverts the most fundamental attribute of God’s character. Essentially, that TV preacher is calling God a racist, and we should imitate His racism by supporting an ethnic cleansing of the Middle East!
While the World is Watching…
Non-Christians often cringe at Evangelical claims concerning modern Israel, revealing that their own moral compass is actually better calibrated. They know better than many Christians that surely God is not a racist!
Scripture tells us that God is love, which makes it impossible for Him to be racist or show arbitrary favoritism. Jesus died for the sins of the entire world.
From the first pages of the Bible, God’s purpose in His original calling of Abraham was revealed as explicitly non-racist, when God told him, “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Three chapters later we again read God saying to Abraham: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 22:18; this same promise was made to Jacob/Israel in Genesis 28:14).
It couldn’t be more clear. God’s purpose in calling Abraham was not due to an arbitrary whim or special favoritism of him or his descendants; rather, God was thinking of everyone who would ever live, and of how He could bless them through Abraham’s singular seed, which the New Testament affirms is Christ (Gal. 3:16). Yet these most basic biblical truths are impugned by Evangelicals who are convinced that God favors the descendants of Israel over other ethnicities.
As I’ve already pointed out, the historical record by itself proves that God never gave the descendants of Israel the land of Canaan unconditionally, because God ultimately expelled all of Israel’s twelve tribes from the land He gave them, and He scattered them because of their sin.
Yes, concerning the Jewish Babylonian exiles, God did restore 55,000 of them between 538 and 456 BC. They returned to their desolate towns and rebuilt Jerusalem’s temple and walls that lay in ruins (see Ezra and Nehemiah). Those re-patriated Jews certainly were not, however, granted sovereign statehood, but remained under the authority of the Persian Empire. There was no longer a nation of Israel, and the majority of exiles from Israel’s tribes remained scattered among the nations.
25 Centuries Reveal the Truth
A study of the history of the Jews in Palestine from 456 BC onward reveals only a single time period when they might have felt that God restored their exclusive, divine, sovereign right to their original land. Their history in Palestine is primarily one of being repeatedly overrun, ransacked, oppressed and occupied by foreign powers.
Over the centuries, the population of Jews in Palestine ebbed and flowed as, after the fall of Medio-Persia, Palestine continued to be most often controlled by foreign powers, which included the Greeks, Seleucids, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, and the British.
And there were, of course, other times in Israel’s history, besides the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, when Jews were deported from Palestine. There were deportations foretold by Jesus that occurred within decades from when he foretold of them—after Rome’s repression of Jewish revolts in AD 70 and 132:
There will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Luke 21:24).
Clearly, Jesus didn’t believe the descendants of Israel had been given an unconditional, divine right to the land of Canaan. Certainly at least not “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”
It seems the only time in the past 25 centuries, prior to 1948, that the Jews have enjoyed any degree of sovereignty in Palestine was after the successful Maccabean revolt against Greek rule, a sovereignty that only lasted about 100 years, from 134 to 37 BC, ending when Herod the Great was appointed king of Judea by the Roman Senate.
All of this is to say that from 597 BC until AD 1948—a period of 25 centuries—God obviously did not return to the descendants of Israel a divine, exclusive, sovereign right to the ancient land that He granted to their forefathers at the conquest of Canaan, with the possible exception of a 100-year period between 134 and 37 BC.
But what happened in 1948, when Israel once again became a sovereign Jewish nation? Was that the work of God? Now those are two interesting questions, and ones that I’ll consider in next month’s e-teaching.