Written in July 2015
Israel’s newly appointed Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told Israeli diplomats to use the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) as a reference point for the rights of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. In a video broadcast from Jerusalem, Hotovely addressed Israel’s foreign ministry envoys in over 100 foreign countries. During her speech, Hotovely cited the 11th-century Bible commentator Rashi, who explained that the Bible’s focus on the story of the Jewish people’s origins in the Land of Israel and its exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land was meant to shore up the Jewish claim to the land in subsequent generations. ‘It is important to say that this land is ours, all of it, is ours. We didn’t come here to apologise for this,’ she said.
Her speech got mixed receptions from the Israeli media. Some criticised her for using the book of Genesis in terms of modern political realities (Ha’aretz newspaper). Others were encouraged to hear of ‘a strong, Zionist woman who believes in the historical bond between the people and the Land is a strong message for the world to understand’ (Arutz 7).
One has to say that most of the world does not accept the argument that Israel has a right to the land because of biblical promises. In most of the western world the Bible, especially the opening book of Genesis, has been consigned to the area of myth, not to be taken literally. In the Arab Muslim world, the area which most strongly contests the existence of the state of Israel, the dominant idea is that the Bible has been changed by Jews and Christians and is therefore not a reliable book. Muslims say that the Koran has superseded the Bible as the word of God. The Muslim view the land is part of the ‘dar al Islam’ (house of Islam). According to this view any territory which has once been under Muslim control should remain so until the end of days. Muslims ruled this area for most of the time between 637 and 1917.
The more radical the Muslims are, the more committed they are generally to the destruction of Israel, as a religious duty as well as for nationalist reasons. The Hamas Charter says: ‘Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.’ Mojtaba Zolnour, an official close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, asserted that his government has a ‘divine permission to destroy Israel.’ He was quoted in the state news agency, Fars, saying, ‘the Noble Koran permits the Islamic Republic of Iran to destroy Israel.’
Turkey’s President Erdogan has called on Sunni and Shiite Muslims to cease their fight with each other and to ‘raise their hands in supplication for this blessed night toward Allah to restore the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Jerusalem) to be re-owned by Muslims, and to see Jerusalem in their hands at every moment and at every opportunity.’ This latter quote could be very significant if Turkey joins the forces coming against Israel in the War of Gog and Magog, prophesied in Ezekiel 38-9.
Amongst professing Christians the majority view is that God has replaced Israel with the church and that modern Israel has nothing to do with Bible. When Theodore Herzl approached the Pope in 1904 to try to get his support for the return of the Jewish people to Israel, the Pope declined to give support ‘because we (i.e. the Catholic Church) are Israel.’ The Catholic Catechism states: ‘Jesus instituted the Twelve as ‘the seeds of the new Israel and the beginning of the sacred hierarchy’. This view, known as replacement theology, says that all prophecies relating to a future for Israel now apply to the church. For over forty years after the Jewish State won independence in 1948, the Vatican adopted a diplomatic policy of non-recognition of the Jewish statehood. It took the Vatican until 1993 to recognise Israel, 45 years after the state came into existence, but on May 13th 2015 it finalised a treaty with the ‘state of Palestine’, a state which does not exist at present.
Much of Protestant Church agrees with the definition of the church as Israel (replacement theology) and opposes the view that the return of the Jewish people to Israel is a fulfilment of Bible prophecy. They say that prophecies concerning the people of Israel returning to the land from the north, south, east and west (see Isaiah 11.1-12, 43.5-6) apply to people coming into the kingdom of God (i.e. the church) from the north, south, east and west (Luke 13.28-9). Because all of the promises to Israel are now said to apply to the church, the Jewish people today have no particular right to the land.
On the other hand those Christians who view the Bible as the inspired Word of God (as I do), say that Genesis is not myth, but history, and that the covenant promises God made to Israel going back to Abraham remain valid, even after the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. According to this view Tzipi Hotovely is right that there is a basis for the right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel to be found in the Bible, although there is a condition attached which, as we shall see, is relevant to the current situation in Israel.
Israel and the Bible.
In Genesis 15 God makes a covenant with Abraham and his descendants. According to this covenant Abraham will have descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens (Genesis 15.4-6), even though he is an old man and his wife, Sarah, is barren and past the age of child bearing. God also promises him the title deeds of ownership of the land: ‘I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.’ Genesis 15.7. He instructs Abraham to take ‘a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon’ and cut these animals in two, which Abraham does. In those days this was the way a covenant was made between people, particularly relating to a land deal. The animals would be cut in two and the two parties making the covenant would walk between the divided animals, saying ‘May God do to us as we have done to these animals if we do not keep our word.’
What happens next is that the presence of the Lord passes between the animals: ‘There appeared a smoking oven and a burning torch that passed between those pieces. On the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your descendants I have given this land.’ Genesis 15.17-18. This means that God is swearing by Himself and His name that He will keep His covenant with Abraham and his descendants in relation to them becoming a great nation and having the title deeds of ownership of the land of Israel. Significantly Abraham does not pass between the animals showing that the covenant depends on God and His word, which does not change.
In the following chapters God confirms that this covenant goes through Abraham’s son Isaac, not Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Sarah’s maid, Hagar: ‘And Abraham said to God, ‘Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!’ Then God said: ‘No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him.’ Genesis 17.18-19. Ishmael would become a great nation, but the covenant would go through the descendants of Isaac. God confirms this in Genesis 26.2-5, and again with Isaac’s son, Jacob, (but not Esau) in Genesis 28.3-4, 13-15. The covenant would then go through the 12 sons of Jacob (Israel) who were to become the 12 tribes of Israel.
In later generations when Israel was in captivity in Egypt, God promised to bring them out of Egypt into ‘the land of Canaan’ on the basis of the covenant: ‘I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name Lord I was not known to them. I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they were strangers. I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians … And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I will give it to your as a heritage. I am the Lord.’ Exodus 6.1-8.
After the Exodus God takes the Israelites to Mount Sinai where He brings in another aspect of the covenant as He gives Israel the 10 Commandments. Some scholars have compared this to a Suzerainty Treaty, which was practiced in the ancient world. This means that a greater power would make a treaty promising to look after and protect a lesser power. They would first announce who they are, then give the terms under which they would offer protection and then require some act of assent to these terms from the people being offered protection. In Exodus 20 God announces who He is: ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.’ He then gives the 10 commandments (what He requires of the people). In Exodus 24 Moses ‘took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, ‘All that the Lord has said we will do, and be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words.’ Exodus 24.6-8. Israel agrees to God’s terms by which He will look after them and it is on this basis that God will relate to Israel in the coming days as they enter the Promised Land. God then gives Moses instructions on building the Tabernacle, the place where His presence would dwell in the midst of the camp of Israel.
According to Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, if Israel obeys the Lord and keeps His commandments they will enjoy the land with good harvests, peace and prosperity, and they will defeat their enemies and be a light to the surrounding nations. But if they worship other gods and disobey God’s commandments, a series of disasters will come upon them as a judgement, with the final judgement being removal from the land: ‘You will be left few in number, whereas you were as the stars of heaven in multitude, because you would not obey the voice of the Lord your God … and you shall be plucked off the land, which you go to possess. Then the Lord will scatter you among all peoples from one end of the earth to the other. (Deuteronomy 28.62-64)
However, even if this most severe judgement of being removed from the land took place, there would be a return in God’s time: ‘If any of you are driven out to the farthest parts under heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you and from there He will bring you. Then the Lord your God will bring you to the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it.’ (Deuteronomy 30.4-5).
In Leviticus 26 we read, ‘But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, with their unfaithfulness in which they were unfaithful to Me, and that they have walked contrary to Me … then I will remember My covenant with Jacob and My covenant with Isaac and My covenant with Abraham … I will remember the land.’ Leviticus 26.40-45.
We see the outworking of this principle in the events of the Tenach (Old Testament). If Israel is faithful to the Lord then they are blessed in the land and protected from their enemies. If they disobey the Lord they face a series of judgements, the most severe of which is to be removed from the land. However because of the covenant with Abraham, God will bring the children of Israel back to the land in His time, even if they are cast out to the ends of the earth.
Many years later Jeremiah prophesies the coming removal of the Jewish people from the land in the Babylonian captivity. He gives a clear reason for it, warning of the coming destruction of the Temple and captivity because of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God: ‘Behold you trust in lying words that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name and say, ‘We are delivered to do all these abominations?’’ (Jeremiah 7.8-10).
However he also promises a restoration after 70 years of captivity in Babylon. ‘For thus says the Lord: ‘After seventy years are completed at Babylon, I will visit you and perform my good word toward you, and cause you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I have towards you says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.’’ (Jeremiah 29.10-11)
This event takes place when the Persians overthrow the Babylonians and the Persian king Cyrus gives an edict for the Jews to return from Babylon and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Daniel is the prophet whom God raises up in Babylon and when he recognises that the 70 years of captivity prophesied by Jeremiah are fulfilled, he prays to God, confessing the sin of Israel in line with the verses from Leviticus 26 quoted above: ’We have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God, to walk in His laws, which He set before us by His servants the prophets. Yes, all Israel has transgressed Your law, and has departed so as not to obey Your voice; therefore the curse and the oath written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against Him.’ Daniel 9.10-11.
Daniel prays to God for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Jewish people to the land. God answers this prayer through the edict of Cyrus and the return of the Jews from Babylon to the land of Israel. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah we read how Ezra the priest understands that the reason for the exile was the breaking of the covenant of the Law of Moses and sets about re-establishing the people in the land through teaching them to obey the commandments of ‘the Book of the Law’ (Nehemiah 8).
The exile and the restoration of the people to the land illustrate the principle of the covenant with Abraham being worked out as the Lord restores the Jewish people to the land of Israel, while at the same time the principle of God’s judgment causing them to be removed from the land and restored following repentance is also worked out according to the principles in the Torah.
But what about the present dispersion and restoration to the land? In the prophecy of Daniel 9, God sent a message through the angel Gabriel concerning the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple. Within this message there is a word about the Messiah. The implication of this message ties in with Isaiah 53, teaching that the Messiah will come and die for the sins of others. Following this event Daniel says that ‘the people of the prince to come (i.e. the Romans) shall destroy the city and the sanctuary (i.e. Jerusalem and the Temple). This will be followed by a period of ‘desolations’.
This prophecy was fulfilled in the coming of Yeshua, Jesus as the Suffering Servant Messiah, who died a violent death by crucifixion, suffering as a sacrifice for the sins of the world and rising again from the dead. In doing this He brought in the new covenant which replaced the covenant of the Torah as the means through which God mediated with His people (Jeremiah 31.31-34, Matthew 26.26-28, Hebrews 8-9). In the former covenant with Moses God gave the sacrifices to be the way that sin would be covered and the people could approach God in His holiness. Now the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus covers the sins of all who repent and believe in Him. His blood shed once for all time for our sins replaces the blood of the sacrifice offered once a year by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and the Temple (see Leviticus 16-17, Hebrews 9).
Through this new covenant God offers forgiveness for sin (our failure to keep the covenant of the Torah), the way to know God. According to the promise of Jeremiah 31.31-4, God says, ‘I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be My people … I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more.’
The new covenant scriptures show that this is what God gives to those who are ‘born again’ of the Holy Spirit through repentance and faith in Jesus as Saviour and Lord. The new covenant was offered to Israel through the coming of Jesus and the preaching of the Apostles after His resurrection and ascension into heaven. While many Jewish people (including some of the religious leaders – see Acts 15.5, 21.20) did receive Jesus as Saviour, the religious leadership opposed Him and sought to prevent the preaching of the Gospel by the Apostles.
Jesus warned that this rejection of His coming as Messiah would lead to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem of which Daniel had prophesied and the dispersion of the Jewish people into the nations. Speaking to Jerusalem, He said: ‘If you had known even you especially in this your day the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and level you and your children within you to the ground; and they will not leave on you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’ Luke 19.41-4.
What Jesus meant by ‘the things that make for your peace’ was accepting the kingdom of God and the good news that Jesus is the Messiah and Saviour who died for our sins and rose again from the dead to give forgiveness and eternal life to all believers. Rejecting this message would lead to the coming judgment on Jerusalem ‘because you did not know the time of your visitation’, i.e. not recognising that God was visiting them in the person of Jesus the Messiah. In Romans 11 Paul showed how Israel’s fall meant that salvation would come to the Gentiles, and he warned the Gentiles not to boast against Israel, but to pray for their salvation and to look forward to the day when ‘all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’ Romans 11.26
Jesus prophesied the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70AD: ‘For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.’ (Luke 21.20-24) This verse means that following Jesus’ coming there would be a long period of dispersion of the Jewish people, with Jerusalem ruled by successive Gentile powers. But there will come a time when Jerusalem will no longer be ‘trampled down’ (ruled) by the Gentiles.
This time ties in with the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, something which the Hebrew prophets also spoke of. In the New Testament this event is connected with the second coming of Jesus. In Luke 21.29-33 Jesus said, ‘Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. When they are already budding, you see and know for yourselves that summer is now near. So you also, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.’ The fig tree is seen by many as a symbol of the physical rebirth of Israel and therefore when this happens you know that a process is in place which will lead to the second coming of Jesus.
We see how these events have been worked out in history. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD the dispersion of the Jewish people began. However God preserved Israel as a people throughout the long years of dispersion, despite being scattered to the nations and often suffering terrible persecution there. The Hebrew prophets also spoke of such a dispersion but also of a return to the land in the latter days. ‘Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the isles afar off and say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him and keep him as a shepherd does his flock.’ Jeremiah 31.10. See also Isaiah 11.11-12, Ezekiel 36. These prophecies speak of a worldwide scattering and return from the ends of the earth. In bringing the people back to the land God is remembering His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
This however raises a question about what sort of country Israel should be after the return of the Jewish people from the nations. As we have seen at the time of the return from Babylon there was recognition of the sin which had caused the dispersion from the land, repentance and a will to return not just to the land but to the Lord and to His ways.
The motivation for the Zionist movement for founding Israel in our time was to create a Jewish homeland where Jews could be free of persecution and have a country of their own. It was not to fulfil Bible prophecy or bring about a spiritual return to God. In fact Zionism was opposed by many rabbis (and still is by some ultra Orthodox groups) because of its secular nature. These rabbis said that only the Messiah could bring the Jews back to Israel, rebuild the Temple and recreate a Torah observant society.
Israel’s law of return gives the right to Jews from any country or background to come to the land, with the result that you have a great variety of life styles and beliefs (including atheism) amongst Israelis. You can go to Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, and find yourself in a city where the ultra Orthodox dominate, keeping the laws of Judaism strictly, with no cars being driven on the Sabbath and modest dress required by all. Then you can go to downtown Tel Aviv and find yourself in a hedonistic city with bars, nightclubs and a very large gay presence, asserting a secular life style which is complete opposite of Orthodox Judaism.
Between these two extremes there are many varieties of life styles and religious convictions. One which is significant is the growing belief that Yeshua, Jesus, is the Messiah of Israel. There are an estimated 15000 Messianic Jews in Israel today, meeting in about 125 congregations all over the country. This phenomenon is being repeated around the world as Jewish people reach out to Jesus for salvation (see http://www.imetmessiah.com).
There are scriptures which imply that the last days’ return of the Jewish people to the land will be in unbelief, to be followed by events which will cause a return to the Lord: ‘For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean … I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you … I will put My Spirit within you … then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers.’ Ezekiel 36.24-28.
Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming together in Ezekiel 37 sees the ‘dry bones’, which represent the house of Israel, coming together physically and then the Spirit comes upon them. ‘Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,’ says the Lord.’’ Ezekiel 38-9 describes the War of Gog and Magog when an alliance of armies comes against Israel, and God intervenes to save Israel from destruction supernaturally and then pours out His Spirit upon them: ‘Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who sent them into captivity among the nations, but also brought them back to their land, and left none of them captive any longer. And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I shall have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,’ says the Lord God.’ Ezekiel 39.28-9.
Since we are now living in the time of the new covenant, the Holy Spirit will turn people to repentance and faith in Jesus, Yeshua, as the Messiah, rather than Torah Judaism. Jesus is the one who has come to save us from our sins and to give us new life through being born again of the Holy Spirit. According to Jesus’ words, quoted above, the fall of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish people was a result of not recognising and receiving Him as the Messiah. Therefore the return of the Jewish people to the land and to the Lord will aim at accepting Him as the Messiah.
As we have seen in the studies in Zechariah in this magazine, the Lord shows that there will be a great crisis concerning Jerusalem and the land of Israel in the last days of this age, after the return of the Jewish people from dispersion. Through this crisis, God will pour out His Spirit upon the people and bring them back to Himself. Zechariah 12.10 says that at the time of the end Israel will look to ‘Him whom they have pierced’, (Jesus the Messiah) in repentance and faith (Zechariah 12.10). They will be saved from their enemies through the coming again of this same Messiah as He comes to stand on the earth and bring this age to an end, following which He will rule and reign from Jerusalem bringing peace to Israel and the world (Zechariah 14, Revelation 20). Now is the day to look to Jesus as Saviour in order that we may have a place in His coming kingdom when He will bring together all the elements of God’s covenant with Israel and bring final peace to His people in the land of promise