The way we understand Israel's story influences the way we read sacred Scripture.
In this article, I want to share with you how rightly understanding Israel connects the Testaments (Covenants) while empowering you to study, live, and teach the Bible for all it's worth. One caveat before we begin. The State of Israel was reborn in 1948 and that is of crucial importance to the times in which we live. However, the topic is beyond the scope of this discussion and can, in fact, muddy the waters. If we start with the biblical witness, I believe the prophetic implications of modern day Israel become self-evident.
Imagine reading the Bible for the first time. You watch with wonder the genesis of humanity unfolding from Adam and Eve through Abraham and Sarah. You witness the birth and adventures of the patriarch's grandson Jacob up to a captivating confrontation that results in a name change; Jacob is now Israel. This event provides us with a wordplay and a definition. Israel can mean both God striving with and striving with God. In Genesis 32:28 his mysterious assailant defines the name change as, "you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." From this point forward you clearly see how the intention of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to form a people—Israel—to redeem them, and through them, bring redemption to the world (Exodus 19:5-6).
As you continue working your way through the holy history of these peculiar people, you enter a prophetic reality of priests, prophets, and kings. You encounter a vibrant culture formed by the experiences of the Exodus, centered around the divine presence, and evidenced by literary creativity: storytelling and social record keeping, law-giving and community organization, poetry, hymnody, wisdom writings, and more. All built around a central revelation stated in first-person tense, “they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.” (Exodus 29:46)
As the prophetic pages of the Hebrew Bible push you forward into the New Covenant, you recognize the place as Israel; the people as Jewish; their Messiah as Yeshua (Jesus). The Gospels lead you into the Acts of the Apostles (who were Jewish) and into their writings as the good news of this God of the Hebrews—as revealed in his Son—shines forth from Jerusalem and begins radiating across the globe. Even the majestic closing book of the Christian Canon, St. John's Revelation, is filled with Israel imagery and is itself a uniquely Jewish literary genre.
Continuing with my illustration, if you read it all without the aid of earthly instruction, would your overall opinion of Israel be judgmental or sympathetic? I have met many such people (typically outside of Western countries) and can tell you that their view of biblical Israel is overwhelmingly positive. For them, the question is not, why Israel? It is, rather, why anti-Semitism (prejudice against people and things Jewish)?
Our Lord Jesus knew that we would need a competent guide in order to draw continual edification from Covenant History. He handpicked and appointed an Apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews) for just such a task. Meet the author of Romans, who gladly identifies himself as both an Israelite (11:1) and slave to Messiah (1:1). Paul wrestles with the place of Israel in God's economy in light of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth. In so doing he provides handles for New Covenant people to overcome negative stereotypes and to grasp the value of Israel, and the larger story of God.
“To begin with,” he says, “the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:2) A sobering commission with a heavy responsibility. Three thoughts spring to mind. First, can you imagine the satanic opposition to such a vocation? It certainly puts Israel's failings into perspective—as well as her historical mistreatment by the nations. Next, they have proven faithful stewards of that trust. Modern archaeology proves beyond a doubt that Israel preserved, passed down, and gifted the Word of God to the world. Finally, if Paul said nothing else, this should be enough to root out all anti-Semitism. We owe a vast debt to the people of the Book. But Paul has much more to say concerning Israel.
As is typical of the passionate apostle, we learn much about his worldview by the way he brings it to bear on subjects as he writes. For example, in Romans 8 we find some of his most exalted expressions concerning the love of God in Christ Jesus. Paul continues his thought (9:1-3) by lamenting the condition of Israelites (his birth family) who don't accept the messianic message (his new birth family). His deep grief is for those who are missing out—in light of their high calling—on that for which they've been waiting. Paul then provides a list which picks up and moves forward the value of Israel argument he initiated in 3:2.
"They are Israelites, and to them belong ..." (Romans 9:4-5)
... the adoption! This introduces a biblical idea that is exclusive in the history of religions. To YHWH, sonship is not for the elite or initiated; his invitation is by grace through faith and is for every man, woman, and child. "Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son." (Exodus 4:22)
... the glory! This is a marvelous concept referring to the Shekinah that filled the Tabernacle (Exodus 40:34) and later the Temple (2 Chronicles 7:1). Adoption together with glory point us to the Father's twin goals, to rescue and restore; to deliver and dwell.
... the covenants! This highlights the historical nature of God's saving work as opposed to the false dualism of spirit vs. matter popularized by Greek philosophers. Each divine covenant is a matter of YHWH entering space and time to offer "steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:7).
... the giving of the law! This word law needs to be informed by the Hebrew word Torah which has teaching as its root word. Like living under the care of godly parents, Torah has rules of right conduct along with God's wisdom and instruction for the life he envisioned. The upshot of all this is that rescue and restoration results in responsibility, "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19).
... the worship! This points to the provision of sacrifice and the service of the Tabernacle/Temple which modeled the ideals of family and community. As a kingdom of priests, Israel received the responsibility and the privilege of interceding for humanity before God, and mediating his presence to the world.
... the promises! These come directly from God: originating in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15, Romans 16:20), blossoming with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3, Galatians 3:16), and steadily growing over time. For Paul, the emphasis is always on the faithfulness of the Promise Giver.
... the patriarchs! This is both a shorthand way of referring to Israel and to Israel's vocation. Through one man sin entered the world (Adam) and through one man sin has been defeated (Jesus) to the praise of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
"... and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ (Messiah), who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen."
May we, like our mentor Paul, prayerfully meditate upon and never grow overly familiar with this list. Even though just scratching the surface, I pray that you discern the divine design that sets Israel apart in the history of religions, and how essential these roots are to nurturing new creation growth under the governance of the Spirit of Jesus.
Israel is a gift to the world. Like their namesake, the people of the covenants have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed. Why Israel? They are God's plan to secure for us the blessing given to Abraham. Now—in Israel's anointed representative Jesus—God strives with us and through us, to share that same blessing of grace to all people.
It's fitting that Paul should have the last word here:
“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (11:1)
"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen!" (11:33-36)
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