The problem with using the Bible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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“God gave Israel the land. Unconditional. Everlasting. Period.”

For some evangelicals, that’s the definitive answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. End of discussion. This sentiment was echoed in some of the comments to my recent post on why we shouldn’t equate modern-day Israel with the ancient biblical kingdom.

It’s what came to mind as I listened to the appointed readings in my church last Sunday. (It’s funny how the lectionary is able to speak into real-life events sometimes.) As I heard the words of Romans 9, it was impossible not to think about Israel and Palestine. I thought of the 1,300+ Gazan civilians who were killed in the latest round of fighting—400 of them children—and how their deaths were dismissed by some on account of Israel being God’s “chosen people.”

I thought about the volatile—and lethal—combination of politics and theology, which makes reasonable discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so difficult. I thought about what happens when we miss what it means to be God’s chosen people.

Against this backdrop came the words of the apostle Paul:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
— Romans 9

The people of Israel occupied a special place in Paul’s heart—not just because he was one of them, but because they occupy a special place in God’s story. Paul left no doubt about this. They were adopted by God, he says. They have the covenants. The law. The temple. (Paul wrote these words about a dozen years before Rome destroyed the Jewish temple.) The people of Israel have the promises and the patriarchs. The Messiah was one of their own.

But isn’t it interesting what Paul doesn’t say they have? The land. Oh, he mentions covenants and promises all right, which some might read as including the land. But he never comes right out and says, “Theirs is the kingdom,” or, “Theirs is the territory.”

Romans 9–11 is the most extensive discourse on the role of Israel to be found in the whole New Testament. This is where Paul deals with the question of Israel’s future in light of the new covenant. If land was part of that future, surely this would have been the place to spell that out.

Yet there is nothing here about territory. Israel has a future, all right. God still cares about them. The fact that many of Paul’s own people chose not to believe in Jesus had opened the door for him to bring the message about Jesus to the Gentiles. As far as Paul was concerned, opening the doors like this was part of God’s plan from the beginning, going all the way back to Genesis 12. But God was not through with Israel. “All Israel will be saved,” Paul insisted.

Still, Paul says nothing about Israel being restored to a particular piece of real estate. Nowhere in this passage does he mention land. Not once.

He’s not alone in choosing not to depict Israel’s restoration in geographic terms, either. In the book of Acts, Luke records the disciples asking Jesus, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” just as Jesus is about to return to heaven.

In other words: “Are we going to reclaim our land now?”

Jesus dismisses the question out of hand. He’s going to do the opposite, in fact. He’s going to send them out of the land. Luke’s first volume depicts Jesus moving toward Jerusalem as he brings Israel’s story to its culmination. But in his second volume, Acts, the movement is away from Jerusalem. It’s not about one parcel of land anymore. It’s about Samaria*, too. It’s about Asia Minor. It’s about Europe—and even Rome itself. It’s about the whole earth.

This is not a case of God not keeping his promise to Israel. It’s a case of God over-fulfilling his promise. It’s no longer restricted to one particular piece of earth or just one group of people. It’s all nations. All people. That’s why in another letter, Paul declared Gentile Christians to be descendants of Abraham and “heirs according to the promise.”

“Now you,” Paul goes on to say, “like Isaac, are children of promise.”

Like Isaac.

Whose son was Jacob, otherwise known as Israel.

So central to Paul’s message is this idea that God is over-fulfilling his promise to Israel that he keeps returning to it. In Ephesians, a letter addressed to Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, he writes:

You… were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, foreigners to the covenant of promise… But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
— Ephesians 2

In other words… excluded from citizenship in Israel no longer.

To be clear, classical supersessionism—the idea that the church has replaced Israel—gets some things wrong. The church doesn’t replace Israel as recipients of God’s blessing. Instead, the rest of us are invited to join with Israel in receiving that blessing—a blessing that has grown to encompass the whole earth, which is going to be renewed and restored by God someday.

This is where the biblical drama was heading all along. This was the whole point in God choosing a Mesopotamian nomad named Abram and giving his descendants a home at the juncture of three continents. It wasn’t an end unto itself, but the start of something much bigger. God was making “one new humanity.” The old divisions and identities—and all they carried with them, including territorial claims—would be rendered obsolete. A new identity—and with it, citizenship in a kingdom uniting heaven and earth—is here.

That’s the story of the New Testament. That’s the story of Jesus’ kingdom. This story says nothing about a particular piece of land for a particular group of people, because the story has moved beyond that.

When Christians use Scripture to defend the territorial claims of the modern Israeli state, we miss the story the New Testament is trying to tell us. In fact, you might say we’re moving in the opposite direction of that story.

Of course, this doesn’t settle the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians today. We shouldn’t think we can resolve a dispute like this based on the assumptions of one religion. (Not even that—the assumptions of one subset of one religion.) It should be resolved on nonreligious grounds. For Christians to use Scripture to validate the territorial claims of one side is to misuse the Bible.

*Disclaimer: I’m using the term Samaria as it’s used in the New Testament—i.e. the central part of ancient Palestine, the territory formerly associated with the northern kingdom of Israel. I’m not using it in the way that modern-day Israeli settlers do when trying to claim the West Bank for themselves.

14381016166_cd1e784260_zRelated post: 
Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible

4 thoughts on “The problem with using the Bible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

  1. Pingback: Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible | Ben Irwin

  2. I do NOT believe the current Israel is the Israel of the Bible..as related to the covenant in the OT,they (OT Israel) broke the covenant..not God..thus a covenant has to be agreed upon by both parties involved in the covenant or it is no longer a covenant..

  3. Hi Ben,

    Even though you say that replacement theology gets some things wrong what you are doing is basically saying the same thing just in a different way that God has no specific purpose in the future regarding the national promises for Israel.

    Something I really want to object to is the passage in Acts 1 in the way that you portray the Lord as “dismissing the question out of hand.” Really? That is quite a far reaching conclusion to come to from reading the text. The way many theologians such as Calvin portray the Lord Jesus is as rebuking the disciples in Acts 1:6-8 as if the disciples were asking an idiotic question and He then comes down on them like a tonne of bricks when in fact it was indeed a very valid question. We have to ask why did they ask this question? In verse 3 we are told that Jesus had been teaching them after His resurrection of things concerning “the Kingdom of God”. The Kingdom of God is a Messianic Concept, it was their Messianic Hope. Then in verse 5 Jesus speaks of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The disciples knew from the Old Testament that the restoration of the Kingdom would be preceded by Israel’s salvation, references to this include Isaiah 32:15-20, 44:3-5 and Zechariah 12:10-13:1.

    The OT prophets clearly foretold that there would be a national salvation of Israel before the restoration of the Kingdom and this national salvation will be preceded by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit so logically what they were thinking is what was spoken of in verse 5 is the same as the national outpouring of the Spirit upon Israel that the Prophets spoke of. What they were confusing was Spirit Baptism for the individual believer with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the nation of Israel. What they were asking is “will the Messianic Kingdom come now?” “Is the Times of the Gentiles fulfilled?” “Will you now restore the Davidic Kingdom?” The issue isn’t if it’s going to happen but when. They were asking “when is this going to happen?”

    I really don’t want to make this a long winded essay but as to your argument regarding that there is no mention of the land in the NT I have to differ, first, there are clear references in the NT to the restoration and future of Israel apart from Romans 9-11, in Acts 3:17-21 Peter says that Jesus had ascended to heaven “UNTIL the period of restoration” of what the OT prophets spoke about. This is the promised restoration of Israel as a national entity to the land because this is what the Prophets spoke of, they spoke of a time when Israel will possess the land in the future so in this passage what Peter is saying is that Christ will remain in heaven until the establishment of the Messianic Kingdom, Jesus spoke of this as the regeneration (Matt 19:28).

    Also in Matthew 23:39 Jesus clearly predicts that there will be a time when the Jewish people will recognise Jesus for who He is and they welcome their rejected Messiah (Zech. 12:10) and the place He was speaking to was specific, Jerusalem (v37). Also the plain meaning of Luke 21:24 is that Gentile rule and possession of Jerusalem is to have an end, then it will come again into the possession of the Jewish people as their Capital. It is impossible to make Jerusalem spiritual here, it is quite obvious that this is speaking of earthly Jerusalem. To take a Preterist interpretation of this text is also impossible here because Gentile rule over Jerusalem exceeded way beyond AD 70. Jesus is speaking literally and He is saying that the restoration of sovereignty of Jerusalem to the Jewish nation will come when the “times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”

    Lastly, Acts 1:11 says that Jesus “will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” This verse says that Jesus is going to return to a specific place upon this earth and that place is the Mount of Olives because Acts 1:12 tells us that’s where the Ascension takes place, Jesus’ return to the Mount of Olives is clearly predicted in Zechariah 14:1-4 and verse 4 states “His (Jesus’) feet will stand on the Mount of Olives”, which is the same event as referred to in Acts 1:11 when He returns and to spiritualise this text is also impossible, Zechariah 14:2 states that all nations will gather in battle against Jerusalem, this implies that Jerusalem will be the capital of the Jewish nation or why else would “all the nations” be gathered against her? All the nations wouldn’t be gathered against Jerusalem if it was under Islamic control!

    Thanks for reading,

    God bless

  4. To people who do not share your religious views and your faith, the bible-based approach that you take is incredible and untenable. If one accepts your premise, then all that is needed, to justify any atrocity, is a suitable passage in the bible, that can be intrepreted in such a way as to justify the atrocity. In the U.S.A. and other western cultures, we cannot claim to have a fair and impartial perspective on the Israeli-Arab conflict so long as we continue to look to the bible to find justtification for our support of Israel. You are taking a small step in the right direction, but your small step is only that. Grass-root support for Israel within the U.S.A. comes directly from our religious heritage; this is why it is not fair or impartial. God did not promise that land to the Jews. The very idea that the Supreme Being would pick out one group of human beings as his favorite, and do something like that, is outrageous. This clearly is what you and others like you believe, and this is why the U.S.A policy in the Middle East is not fair and is not impartial. And beyond that, the reason that the Israel of today is not the same as the Israel of the Bible is that the Israel of the Bible was a culture of that existed two thousand years ago and that ceased to exist about that long ago. The majority of modern Israelis are descended primarily from the people of that ancient culture, but the Israeli government decides who is and who is not a “Jew” and thereby entitled to the priviledges that they claim for Jews. Thus, the modern state of Israel is a synthetic culture that evolved during the 20th century, starting around the time of WWI, and for which the binding thread, genuinely, is belief in the essential notion that God promised that land to the people who identify themselves with that belief. The whole thing revolves around religious belief. If you are not a religious person or do not subscribe to the Judeo-Christian tradition and point of view, you cannot help but question why the Truman administration even recognized Israel in the first place. You cannot help but conclude that were it not for the fact that we closely identify with Judaism in our predominately Christian culture, we would never have had any inclination at all to align ourselves with Israel, and would not today have a strong sense of obligation to Israel. We are deeply mired in a conflict that will almost certainly escalate and eventually reach a state of all-out, unlimited warfare that will spill over into our country (as it has already) and the reason that we put ouselves in this predicament is because of our religious belief: in the ancient Jewish Text that early Christian leaders continued to embrace (because it foretold the coming of the Messiah), one of the fundamental themes is that God himself promised an ill-defined piece of land to an ill-defined bunch of people who needed a foundation for their claim to the land that they wanted.

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