Professor Gerald R. McDermott of Beeson Divinity School spoke October 17 at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Oklahoma City. We’ve republished McDermott’s remarks here on the land of Israel and a new Christian Zionism for the benefit of our readers.
I am grateful to be invited to this important conference. So thanks to Pr. Darrell Cates and the other leaders for inviting me. They know the truth of the biblical Proverb, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov 18.17).
I am going to present a position that is different from that of others here. I trust that we all will try to listen to each other with an open mind.
These are difficult issues. Just as there are many Israeli Jews who have suffered deep and tragic personal losses, there are many Palestinians who have suffered deep and tragic personal losses. Neither side has a monopoly on pain or reasons for bitterness.
My argument will be almost entirely theological. I believe it is something both Christian Arabs and believing Jews can agree on, no matter what their political positions. And let me state my case up front: there is no reason why Christians cannot support justice and statehood for Palestinians while also seeing that the Jewish return to the land in the last 150 years is a partial fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Not either-or but both-and. As Dr. Munther Isaac put it yesterday, Christians should support a sharing of the land that is thoroughly biblical.
I used to be a supersessionist. In fact, for most of my adult life I believed that after Jesus, God transferred the covenant from Jewish Israel to the New Israel of the church because most of Jewish Israel rejected Jesus as messiah. I read the parable of the tenants in Matt 21 that way: the vineyard owner let out his vineyard to new tenants, gentiles in the church, after the wicked tenants beat, killed and stoned his servants, and finally his own son.
I believed that the New Testament changed everything about the covenant: God had originally made it with Abraham and his Jewish progeny, focused on this particular people and its particular land, that tiny strip on the eastern Mediterranean the size of New Jersey. But Jesus came to universalize the particular: he extended the Kingdom from being about one people to all peoples, and one from one little land to the whole world. While the Old Testament put the Kingdom in physical terms, the New Testament transformed the physical into the spiritual.
As a result, true Israel is no more Jewish Israel but simply the Church which has accepted Jesus, gentiles and Jews alike. Because of Jesus there are no more distinctions between Jews and gentiles; the Jewish people apart from Jesus are of no particular interest to God anymore. And the land of Israel is of no more importance to God than the land of Thailand.
But then I had a wake-up call that started me questioning all these presumptions. I started seeing things in the New Testament that conflicted with this elegant picture.
For example, Rom 11.28-29, a passage that had been largely ignored by the Church until after the Holocaust scholars and theologians asked, What did we miss that allowed this to happen in what was perhaps the most Christianized country in history? Both Protestant and Catholic scholars agreed they had missed the plain statement by Paul, that God still loves the Jewish people, even those who reject Jesus, and that his covenant with Jewish Israel is still in place: they are “enemies of the gospel, but ARE beloved for the sake of their forefathers, for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.” That is, their calling to be God’s chosen people is still in place, even at this point late in Paul’s career, in Paul’s most mature reflection on Jews and gentiles.
Does Paul mean here merely that Jews have an historic honor? That would suggest that God’s covenant was in place but is no longer. But Paul most clearly uses the present tense: are beloved. Besides, just a few chapters before he suggested the same thing, that his “kinsmen according to the flesh . . . to them belong [again, present tense] the adoption, the glory, the covenants . . . and the promises” (Rom 9.3-4).
But, you say, they were Paul’s enemy! They were God’s enemy according to Paul’s own words. You’re right. But Paul makes clear they were God’s and his beloved enemy.
But … they had been unfaithful to God! They had failed the terms of the covenant again and again, and most recently by rejecting the messiah!
Yes, true. But notice that Paul believed the same and yet insists that does not mean they are no longer in the covenant. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true, even if everyone is a liar. (Rom 3.3-4)
Later in this letter he says that God purposely hardened the Jews who rejected Jesus, purposely closed their eyes, and yet . . . when there is a remnant that does accept Jesus, that remnant is a small piece from the whole lump of dough and is the first fruits. But the whole lump from which it is taken is holy, “and if the root [of the olive tree Israel] is holy, so are the branches” (Rom 11.15-16).
But, you might say, you don’t understand. Today’s Israel is almost entirely secular, and is the farthest cry from biblical Israel which at least was religious—even if the wrong version of religious.
My Jewish Israeli friends tell me that there is spiritual renewal going on in Israel from the top to the bottom of society, but that it is under the radar. It will never be on CNN. Israelis are seeking the God of Israel, unbeknownst to most of the rest of the world.
But you might say, Even if that were true, it doesn’t matter. Because Paul says in Gal 3.28 that because of Christ there is neither gentile nor Jew anymore. All are one in Christ Jesus, and there are to be no more distinctions, certainly not ethnic distinctions. But I started to realize there is a problem with this argument. For Paul also says in this verse that in Christ there is neither male nor female. And he made clear distinctions between male and female roles in church and home. We can disagree with one another on how to interpret those Pauline household codes and church leadership passages, but the mere fact that we disagree shows that there are in the plain sense of the text male-female differences that have to be dealt with.
So if after Jesus there are no more distinctions between Jews and gentiles, why does Paul seem to persist in discussing male-female differences?
After getting stuck on these sorts of problems, I took another look at the Matt 21 parable of the wicked tenants, that seemed to justify the idea that God transferred the covenant from Jewish Israel to the mostly-gentile church. On a closer look, it became apparent that the servants the vineyard owner sent were Jewish prophets! And the new tenants were the Jewish apostles whom Jesus had elsewhere indicated would head up the reconstitution of the twelve tribes of Israel. For the same Matthew says in chapter 19 that the apostles will one day rule the 12 tribes of Israel. EP Sanders, the distinguished NT scholar, wrote that these passages imply that the early church believed in a future restoration of Israel. So there is no transfer from Jews to gentiles here in Matthew 21 but a transfer from wicked Jews to faithful Jews.
But these passages are just the tip of the iceberg. Jesus had other things to say about future distinctions between Jews and gentiles. For example, he said that some day in the future the Jews of Jerusalem will welcome him (Lk 13.35).
But it’s not just Jesus in the NT. Paul also believes that Jews and Israel will have a distinct future, even while the gospel goes out to the gentile nations. He says in Rom 11 that after the fullness of the gentiles has come in, then all Israel will be saved.
Is this “all Israel” a mixed church of Jews and Gentiles? It doesn’t appear to be. In the same chapter he identifies this same Israel as Zion and Jacob. Earlier in this chapter he refers to “my fellow Jews” (v 14) as the Israel that failed to obtain what it was seeking (v 7). There is no sign that he suddenly switches from Jewish Israel to another sort of Israel.
So I started to realize that while the coming of the messiah has changed everything related to salvation, it has not changed the distinction between men and women; neither has it changed the distinction between Israel and the rest of the world, or between Jews and gentiles.
It is noteworthy that we continue to see these distinctions in Romans, his most mature theology. Even here, where I had previously thought all Jewish distinctions and advantages for Jews had been abolished, surprisingly they were still there: Circumcision is of value if you obey the law (and Paul suggested this is possible at one level: he was blameless as to righteousness under the law in Phil 3.6), and being a Jew is an advantage, much in every way! (Rom 3.1-2)
But I had a hard time accepting this. Isn’t this Jewish exceptionalism? Is God giving here special privileges to Jews?
Yes and no. Yes insofar as they were given the burden of chosenness and not the Egyptians or the Canaanites. They had a special covenant and worship, which gave privileges but also discipline and painful exile when they broke the terms of the covenant.
But no insofar as Jews and gentiles alike must come to the Father through the Son—the Jewish messiah. Being Jewish does not make them automatically saved. As Paul said, many are in Israel but not of Israel.
But what I have just said, while difficult to receive, is easier than the other part of God’s covenant with Jewish Israel. That is the land.
Some say that Jesus never referred to it and Paul never mentioned it. That while the land was obviously significant for the Old Testament, it is entirely insignificant for the NT. There the sole focus is on the whole world, not the little land of Israel.
For many years I agreed with this. But once I started seeing a future for the Jewish people—as Jews—in God’s purposes, I also started to see that a future for the land of Israel was also on the radar of the NT authors.
But why did I and so many others miss this?
I submit that we have missed the ongoing significance of the land in the New Testament because 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, but that the New Testament reverses that narrow and provincial focus with a new concern for the universal, the whole world. And Paul seems to have confirmed this when he wrote in Rom 4.13 of the promise to Abraham that he would inherit the world.
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 the Old Testament, 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. It is also because of the sheer profusion of references in the Old Testament to the promised land: it appears more than one thousand times. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, “longing for land” is stronger in the OT than for anything else except God. This is so particularly in the Pentateuch. 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 Jesus implicitly promised that he would restore the Kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6), he also told the disciples that the Father “appointed times and seasons by his own authority” for things such as this (Ac 1:7). Scholars have observed that the Greek words for “times” and “restore” are from the same roots (Kairos and apokathistemi) that are used in Ac 3.21 when Peter speaks of future restoration and in Luke 21 where Jesus speaks of the “times of the gentiles” between the destruction of Jerusalem and its restoration. This adds weight to the interpretation that in Ac 1.6 Jesus is speaking indeed of a future restoration of Israel in Jerusalem.
The Oxford historian Marcus Bockmuehl has written of this remarkable statement by jesus that this shows that the early church expected a future restoration of Israel. I have already mentioned the place where Jesus spoke of the day when the inhabitants of Jerusalem will welcome him (Lk 13:35), and that Paul wrote in Romans 11:29 that the “gifts” of God to Israel were irrevocable. For Hellenistic Jews such as Philo, Josephus, and Ezekiel the Tragedian the primary “gift” of God to Israel was the land. It is the primary referent for “gift” in all the Old Testament, 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 God would give Jesus “the throne of David” and that Jesus would rule “over the house of Jacob forever”) as indications of future “restoration and the establishment of a kingdom in Jerusalem.” Besides, Paul did write of the land in his sermon to the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Recounting the exodus, he then said, “After destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, God gave them their land as an inheritance” (Ac 13.19). That is covenantal language frequently found in Deuteronomy, where the land is a principal gift of God’s covenant with Abraham.
Were these early Christians naïve to think that Jesus had any concern for Israel as a distinct land anymore? Didn’t Jesus 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 Jesus’ disciples would be able to enjoy the land of Israel (if not live there) in the palingenesia or “renewal of all things” that Jesus predicted (Matt. 19:28).
As I have alluded, 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.
But what about Paul in Romans 4.13? Abraham inherits the world, not just a little land. Doesn’t this mean that Christ has overturned any biblical right for Jews to possess even part of the land? Not really. First, the context is OT promises of descendants—people rather than land. Paul goes on in the passage to talk about Abraham being the father of many nations. Second, as Tom Schreiner has pointed out, it was commonplace in Second Temple Judaism (e.g., the Book of Jubilees) to talk about Israel inheriting both the land of Israel and the world. The idea was that Abraham’s seed would rule the world but also inherit the land of Israel. Not either-or but both-and. This is strongly implied in the Pentateuch, both particularity in the land and universality in blessing to the world. Nothing new in Rom 4.13.
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, Jesus 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 the formidable New Testament scholar 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 Jesus 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 Jesus agrees with Isaiah’s prediction of “an eschatologically restored Jerusalem” where foreigners will come to God’s holy mountain to join “the outcasts of Israel” whom God has “gathered” there. Hays does not think that Jesus’ 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, Jesus believed that God still “dwells in” the temple (23:21). In other words, we can think of the temple in two ways, both as God’s house and as a symbol of the way that Jesus’ body would be God’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 (all Jews, BTW!) will stand there on Mt. Zion (Rev 7:4; 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).
So there is significant evidence after all 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 (renewal and restoration)?
Many Christians don’t want to go that far. They are willing to say that God 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 God’s providential concern for his covenanted people, but that the establishment of the state of Israel falls short of fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
My response is several-fold. First, there is no reason why 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 leadership has offered a two-state solution several times to Palestinian leadership—in 1947, in 2000 under Barak, and in 2008 under Olmert. 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.
But is the Jewish people’s political consolidation in 1948 merely a sign of God’s providential protection of this 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 non-Palestinian Christians can care for our Palestinian brothers and sisters without denying prophetic fulfillment (at least in part) to the recent return of Jews to the land. Other Christian observers deny fulfillment because of continuing problems and injustices in Israel today. There are injustices large and small experienced by Palestinians, racial tensions, attacks on messianic Jews, government corruption, and what seems to be secularism in many sectors of the populace. These problems seem to 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 of our egregious spots and wrinkles, we say that we are still a people of God, 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 another people who are called specially chosen by both Testaments?
Will this be bad for Palestinians? Will it encourage the wrong kind of exceptionalism that would prevent Palestinians from ever having their own state on the West Bank? As I have said, there is no theological reason for thinking so. In fact, the Bible’s theological exceptionalism for Israel requires that Jews “do righteousness and justice” (Gen 18:19). Nothing in the promises to Israel precludes their sharing the land with Palestinians. Furthermore, there is biblical precedent for this with Lot (Gen 13:1-11). Abraham shared the land with Lot.
But going beyond sharing land is living together in peace. Can Palestinians and Jews live together in a way that ensures peace and prosperity for Palestinians? That is already happening to a great degree in in Israel proper. But to go further, and especially to bring prosperity and security to Palestinians on the West Bank, it requires asking some hard questions. For example, where else in the Middle East (except in Israel proper) can Palestinians openly criticize the government and sleep securely in their beds? Where else can Arab Christians freely practice their faith?
Those of us in the New Christian Zionism do not take an uncritical approach to the Israeli government. But we also know that Palestinian Christians have more to deal with than just Israelis. They live under a PA president in the 14th year of a 4-year term whose regime leaves Palestinian citizens in a climate of fear. They can neither vote nor criticize the PA. Just last summer there was instituted a new cybercrime law that threatens with arrest anyone whose posts on social media are interpreted as criticizing the government. The PA imprisons journalists for exposing its corruption. So the PA is without accountability. In 2016 a Palestinian poll found that 64% of Palestinians want President Abbas to resign. They know that while he and his sons and cronies are profiting enormously from the status quo, most ordinary Palestinians are not. According to Palestinian scholar Kalil Shikaki, 42% of Palestinians still want a negotiated settlement toward a 2-state solution. But Abbas has repeatedly refused negotiations. Arab Christians are also threatened by Muslims in the land. When I walked the land of Galilee in 2009 staying at night with both Jews and Palestinians, time and again I was told by Arab Christians in whispers, for fear of being overheard, “We have our problems with the government of Israel. But our biggest enemy is not the Israeli government but our Muslim cousins and their frightening theology.”
Samir Qumsieh, a Christian in Bet Sahour near Bethlehem, fights for the rights of Arab Christians. He has dared to speak out against the subjugation of Christians under Hamas in Gaza. For this he regularly receives death threats. Once he was the target of a petrol bomb attack. “Every day we hear and see some radical Muslim cleric speak strongly against Christians. One said recently that Christian Copts should be slaughtered like sheep.” (Khaled Abu Toameh, Dec 24, 2016)
I hope this conference will be a prophetic voice discussing how to protect Arab Christians threatened by both the PA and Muslims in the land. If the only enemy at this conference turns out to be the Israeli government, then it would seem that full truth is not being told. And the real concerns of Palestinian Christians are not being fully addressed. But I hope to see that that is not the case.