Nov 8, 2007

The Zion Connection: The Biblical Mandate

By Douglas Bookman

When Abram obeyed God and departed from his beloved homeland, God led him to a new land, just as He had promised. Indeed, as soon as Abram arrived in the land, Jehovah appeared to him and said, "Unto thy seed will I give this land" (Gen. 12:7). From the moment he arrived in that little land on the shores of the Great Sea, Abram’s identity—and that of his descendants—was tied up with that land.

The land promise made by Jehovah in Genesis 12:7 was the first of many. Again and again, the Lord reiterated His covenant promise to the nation descended from Abraham. And again and again, those reminders and restatements of the covenant relationship included explicit reference to the land that God promised to that people. Eighteen times in the book of Deuteronomy alone, as the nation stood on the border of the land, Jehovah reminded them that He had promised that land to them. The theme is so constant that ha-aretz (the land) is the fourth most-often-used substantive in the Hebrew Bible.

At sundry times and sometimes in dramatic ways, the promise was reiterated. When Jehovah actually cut a covenant with Abraham, walking alone through the pieces of sacrificed animals in order to establish the inviolability of His promises, the specific promise was, "Unto thy seed have I given this land" (Gen. 15:18). Again, speaking through His prophet, Jeremiah, the Lord insisted that He would rather break His covenant with the cycle of day followed by night than break His promise to restore Israel to its land (Jer. 33:25-26). In short, the reality of the promises cannot be denied. The earth and all of its fullness is Jehovah’s (Ps. 24:1), but, in a special sense, God says of little Israel, "the land is mine" (Lev. 25:23). God owns that land, and He has deeded it to Israel. His promises granting that land to Israel are eternal, immutable, and irrevocable (Heb. 6:13-18).

Yet, there is today great debate among Bible believers as to whether the Jews have a "right" to Eretz Israel, the land of Israel. From the standpoint of Scripture only, many Christians question the proposition that Israel today has a God-given right to possess the land so often and so carefully promised to them by God, and that believers are under an obligation to support Israel in its struggle. Why is this?

I would suggest that there are three possible explanations. The first is simple neglect. An amazing number of serious, twice-born children of God simply care very little about God’s present relationship with His Chosen People. Indeed, one of the sorriest and most amazing disappointments of Christian history has been the capacity of New Testament believers to forget that spiritually they stand on the shoulders of God’s covenant people—Israel. That tendency toward spiritual amnesia has become less pronounced in this century, largely because of what God has done in restoring Israel to its land. But there are still many who, when pondering the issue of the right of the Jewish people to the little land they now possess in part, do not stop to consider the promises of Scripture concerning that issue.

The second explanation is "replacement theology," which teaches that "the church has replaced national Israel as the recipient of the blessings of God," that "the church has fulfilled the terms of the covenants given to Israel, which they rejected," and that therefore national Israel has forfeited any rights it ever had based upon promises made to them by God (H. Wayne House, "The Church’s Appropriation of Israel’s Blessings" Israel: The Land and the People, p. 78). While this is not the place to struggle with this issue, suffice it to say that replacement theology begins where it should end, and ends where it never should be at all. That is, it begins with the New Testament, insisting that the Old Testament means nothing until interpreted by the New. Jesus and the apostles are represented as the only sure guide to truth; therefore (according to this school of thought), if the New Testament informs us that what the Old Testament plainly says is not what God meant, then we will have to allow the New Testament to unsay what the Old Testament said. On the other hand, replacement theology ends by insisting that God’s promises are not as dependable as they are represented to be. It is better to allow the Bible in all of its parts to speak for itself. Better to acknowledge that Jesus, who was the truth, nonetheless did not regard Himself as a source of revealed truth more dependable than the Scriptures and would never have taught anything contrary to the plain sense of the Hebrew Scriptures that He loved so dearly. Better to remember that wherever we are in the Scriptures, God expects us to bring with us everything He has revealed in the past and to treat that prior revelation, not as a theological wax nose to be twisted into shape as we please, but as the very words of God, authoritative and true. The promises of God are true evermore. They cannot be debased or jeopardized by anyone or anything, least of all by the latter words of the same immutable God!

But there is a third explanation for the skepticism of some Christians as to whether the Jewish people today have a right to the land promised to them by God. Some reason that national Israel has been temporarily and judicially set aside. To be sure, God has not permanently rejected His people (Rom. 11:1), but the natural branch has been broken off, and a day is yet coming when it will be grafted in again (11:19-24). Allowing that in the future the nation will be restored to its land, some Christians reason that it nonetheless follows, from the fact of Israel’s present judgment, that they have temporarily forfeited their right to the land; therefore, believers are not obligated to support Israel in their struggle.

This perspective is, nevertheless, seriously flawed. This attitude properly acknowledges that in some profound sense, God has set Israel aside, that it does not today enjoy the same covenant relationship with the Lord that it once knew. Further, this mentality correctly sees Israel’s judgment as only temporary and thus cherishes the hope of its national repentance and restoration. It overlooks, however, what God’s Word says concerning the relationship that exists between God and the Jewish people during this time of Israel’s temporary blindness.

How are we to understand God’s relationship to Israel today? It is my persuasion that the best place to go for help in this regard is the remarkable and delightful Book of Esther. Indeed, the story is so enchanting that the theological and historical point of the account is often overlooked. It is a point that speaks to the issue at hand.

Think through the story very quickly. Esther, a young Jewish maiden, was swept into a beauty contest, which was entirely inappropriate for one who was prohibited from marrying outside her scriptural faith. If she were to win, she would be wed to the king and thus become the queen of Persia. Her older cousin/adopted father, Mordecai, an officer in the king’s court, counseled her to keep her Jewishness a secret, to learn to get along, if necessary, in a Gentile world. After all, that had been Mordecai’s strategy. Then Haman developed an awful plot to slaughter all the Jews in the land. When Mordecai learned of it, his Jewish heritage suddenly became more important to him, and he determined to do all he could to stop the slaughter. Esther was strategically placed, so together they laid a plot to reveal to the unwitting king the wickedness soon to befall his kingdom. The problem was that Esther was not up to her role, and the plan probably would have backfired anyway had it not been for a series of absolutely remarkable coincidences. It just so happened that the king couldn’t sleep, so he called for chroniclers, who just happened to read to him of a time when Mordecai saved his life. Thus, it just so happened that later that night the king was very warmly disposed toward Mordecai and Esther when he learned about Haman’s plot and about the fact that Mordecai and Esther were themselves Jewish. In his rage, the king demanded Haman’s execution, who, as it happened, could be hanged on the very gallows that he just happened to have built that day.

I would suggest that the Lord intends for us to read Esther as the grand paradigm of His relationship to the covenant people—and of their relationship to Him—during the years of their judicial disinheritance of full covenant blessing. Consider the parallels. In Esther, the main players are two Jewish people who have, for all practical purposes, abandoned their relationship to God and have determined to make the best of it in a Gentile world. But there is a residue of Jewishness, and it manifests itself in an intransigent unwillingness to allow the Jewish people to be destroyed.

The parallel to the Jewish people during the last two thousand years could hardly be more exact. Whether by choice or by coercion, they have had to make their way in a hostile Gentile world, and they have proven themselves remarkably adept at doing so. Over the centuries, one of the most constant threats to the survival of the Jewish people has been from within: the assimilationist impulse. But when a threat arose from without, assimilation was abandoned, Jewishness was proudly reaffirmed, and all energies were given to the task of delivering that people from whatever destroyer happened to be on the prowl.

Now return again to the Book of Esther. What is the most remarkable distinction of that book? The name of God is never mentioned. That is not because He was not at work; it is because He was hiding Himself to all but believers. In fact, it was Jehovah who took the sleep from that monarch and who guided the hands of the chroniclers as they unrolled the scroll. In short, it was God who delivered the Jews from Haman, no less than it was God who delivered the Jews from Pharaoh. In the case of Haman, however, it took the eye of faith to see the hand of the Almighty.
Return again to Israel over the last two thousand years. Despised and hounded, it has nonetheless survived as a people. In the last fifty years it has been victorious in three remarkable wars and continues to survive as a nation. Unbelievers and skeptics attribute that to pluck and luck; believers recognize again the quiet but almighty hand of the God who has promised to preserve His people.

Now return to the question. Should believers support Israel in its struggle for the land? I think the same question could be posed in a slightly different form: Had you been living in the Persian court about 2,500 years ago, would you have been on Haman’s side, or on Esther’s?