>1948 was a seemingly providential year. Against all odds and many enemies, the modern state of Israel was founded, and then defended against invasion. The founding of Israel struck a hopeful note, after the events earlier in that decade, finding a home for those persecuted and unwanted Hebrew people of Eastern Europe. The founding resulted from the unfortunate simultaneous rise of nationalism and racism in Europe that precluded a tolerance of the Hebrew race while at the same time in the Middle East offering a place of a promise of rest from such things. These factors, however, where not the reasons American Christians looked with intense interest to modern Israel. Many American Christians marveled at the founding of a nation with some hereditary link to the Israel of their Old Testament. The event was taken as an omen, a fulfillment of God’s promise of the land to Abraham of Genesis 15. The amazing feat was confirmed by the defense of Israel in 1967 (see Oren’s Six Days of War) and 1973 (See Yom Kippur War) from invasion against great numbers. Both of these events were testaments to Western ways of war and the determination of a people refusing to be consigned to history by European or Arab racism.
It is my contention however that it cannot be established from Scripture that the birth of the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of prophecy. We have grown up in a time where global events, from WWII to the birth of the state of Israel to the Cold War has led us into a practice of reading our Bible in one hand with a newspaper in the other. Entire ministries like Jack Van Impe, John Hagee, and various publications have been launched on this practice. It is, however, an improper, unhelpful and hermeneutically dangerous practice. The practice preceded the founding of modern Israel, but certainly was sped up by the event. I want to look at the reasons the modern state of Israel is not the fulfillment of prophecy, look at how we are to read Scripture passages about Israel answering the question: Who is Israel?
“[the return of modern Israel to their land] constitutes a preparation for the end of the age, the setting for the coming of the Lord for His church, and the fulfillment of Israel’s prophetic destiny.”
-Classical Dispensationalist John Walvoord, Israel in Prophecy p. 26.
“Judged on biblical grounds, the nation today does not pass divine muster as a nation living in covenant obedience to God.”
-Classical Dispensationalist Charles Dyer, Dean of Moody Bible Institute
Two dispensationalists, as we see here, can even disagree about whether the nation of Israel today is the recipient of covenant promise by its existence. How can this be? The problem comes down to how any particular reader of the Bible, be they classical, revised, progressive dispensationalist or covenantal, understands the nature of divine promise. Each needs to answer the question: What is the basis of the fulfillment of promise to Israel? And this question really has two elements:
1) What places one in the party of the promise?
2) What stipulation must be met while in the party to receive the promise?
To Question 1, (What places one in the party of the promise?) there are two main answers proposed. The first position for what places one in the party of Israel is hereditary. This answer sees the promise given to Israel on the basis of the ethnic pedigree. Such a view looks at the interactions between Abraham and God in Genesis 12-17 as an unconditional promise (thus, having no stipulation as an answer to the second question). For instance, an advocate for hereditary party would see Genesis 17:7 as a straight forward confirmation of their view:
Gen 17:7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee.
God’s promise is thereby a decree that He will fulfill his promises to the ethnic descendents of Abraham. John Walvoord, asserting that the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional states “the final restoration of Israel does not rest on their obedience but on the grace of God. A nation does not deserve God’s blessings will receive them much as Christian, who do not deserve God’s blessings…are showered with His blessings.” (Major Bible Prophecies, 64). God then sets aside a people with an unconditional covenant.
Just add Heredity?
A view of God’s promises to Abraham based solely on heredity have major problems in the unfolding of the Scriptures. The Scriptures explicitly state that the sole criteria for inheriting the promise is NOT hereditary. If the criteria for receiving the promise is dependent on heredity, one much ask: Did Ishmael inherit the promises of Abraham?
Gen 17:20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.
Gen 17:21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”
One might rightly point out that God was narrowing the promise within the covenant at this point and the descendants of both Abraham and Sarah are in view and so really what we are concerned with is the descendants of Isaac, since Ishmael was born of Hagar and Abraham. However, the same problem occurs: Did Esau (and the Edomites) inherit the promises of the Abrahamic covenant? Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau, but both did not receive the promises based merely on their heredity.
God does explicitly state that he is setting up a “nation” to himself. But it is clear the ONLY criteria for blessing this nation is clearly not hereditary pedigree. If one can be a descendant of Abraham, but not heir to the promises of Abraham, there must be other criteria or conditions. Indeed, God could not be more explicit in stating indeed there are more requirements to be included in God’s covenant people:
Gen 17:14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his
foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
There is an element of responsibility to “keep the covenant” so as not to be cut off from the people of promise, and being cut off from the people of promise means being cut off from the promise. Paul helps us in Romans 9:6 when he says literally: “Not all Israel is of Israel” or in the ESV: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” Heredity does not guarantee the blessing of the promise.
But is heredity a necessary factor? It seems evident that those born to covenant-keeping Israelites were included in this covenant, provided they did not break it themselves. Does heredity + faith = Israel? Meaning, is heredity a necessary, though not a sole, factor?
Non-Jews as Israel
One might say it may be proved heredity may be proved to not be sufficient, but is it not a part of the requirement? The question then, really is, can a non-ethnic Jew become a member of the covenant nation?
First we may take the famous examples of the non-Jews in the line of Jesus such as Rahab the Canaanite prostitute, or Ruth the Moabite. Part of the promise to Abraham by Yahweh was “I will be your God” and “you will be My people.” Ruth appropriates this in Ruth 1:16, stating: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
Does Ruth have the right as a Moabite to come into the covenant nation, or is this presumption? Ruth indeed does have this right. In fact, foreigners not marrying a Jew even have this right as we see in Exodus, when it speaks of the covenant people’s exclusive meal the Passover:
Exo 12:48 If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it.
A non-Jew can come into Israel and become a member of the covenant community. They do not share the genes of Abraham, but merely his faith. We must pray that this is the case, because if the ancient Jews counted enthic Jewishness as modern Jews do (by the ethnicity of the mother) then Jesus Himself was not a part of the covenant community by that standard.
WHO IS ISRAEL THEN?
So here we see one can be a member of the covenant nation of Israel without Abrahamic heredity. What then makes one a member of the covenant nation? Mere circumcision? Let’s consider Jeremiah 9:25-26:
Jer 9:25 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh–
Jer 9:26 Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart.”
Circumcision is a requirement to keep the covenant, and true circumcision is not merely outward but a matter of the heart. What does this “circumcision of the heart” mean? Keeping the covenant can also be called righteousness. We remember the famous verse of how Abraham received his righteousness: “he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15:6) To be in the covenant community, one must be righteous, which means faith. One must share the faith of Abraham to share his blessings. Membership in the covenant community is not merely outward: heredity and circumcision, but a matter of faith. Paul restates this in Romans:
Rom 2:28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical.
Rom 2:29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
So why does God mention those of physical birth when those not of physical birth can be Israel and physical birth does not guarantee receiving the promise? Because God is making a nation for Himself and this is not a mere ethnic nation, but a faithful nation. Those in this nation are those who share the faith of Abraham, and their children. God’s covenant people, therefore are believers and their children, children who are required to adopt the faith of their parents in order not to be cut off from the covenant nation. Those who share the faith of Abraham are given the grave responsibility of passing on the faith to their physical descendents, lest they be cut off from the promise.
It is not that Israel always understood that being heirs to the promise was a matter of faith and not heredity. Such is the reality Jesus confronts in John 8:
Joh 8:39 They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you
were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did,
Joh 8:40 but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.
Joh 8:41 You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father–even God.”
Joh 8:42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.
Joh 8:43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.
Joh 8:44 You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.
Covenant-keeping faith determines who is the seed of Abraham. Faith in God and his promise, not merely of land, but of redemption in the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15, Genesis 17, and John 8, who stands in flesh before the mere hereditary descendants. Abraham is father, not merely of all ethnic Jews, but is “the father of all who believe.” (Romans 4:11) The Scriptures teach us that “those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (Gal 3:9) The true descendants of Abraham, those who can call Abraham their father are those who share the faith, not genes of Abraham.
Indeed “ in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Gal 3:14)
To inherit the promise required faith. And inheriting the promise is still a matter of faith, namely in the Messiah:
Gal 3:16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.
Gal 3:29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Faith in God and His promise, Who is Christ, is the stipulation for inheritance of the promise of Abraham. A covenant must be kept for a promise to be given. So we see that the Scriptures present the covenant promises to Abraham based on faith and covenant keeping, not on mere heredity.
The question of modern Israel then becomes, not can they trace their ancestory back to Abraham, but does the nation of Israel have the faith of Abraham? Modern Judaism claims to be the faith of Abraham, but viewing Israel as faithful to Judaism has two problems. First, only 15% of modern Israel is religiously Jewish. Second, and more important, the faith of Abraham was in the promise of “the seed.” So we must also ask: What is the response of modern Israel to the Messiah? The answer to that question is the answer to our question. Modern Israel has broken the covenant of faith by rejecting the seed of promise and by refusing to be obedient to baptism to keep the covenant (Col 2:12, Acts 2:38-39). We are left with no other answer than that modern Israel is not the Israel of Abraham’s promise.
This leaves us with the same question as before: Who is Israel? Which I will begin to answer in Part 2