If ever there is a time to return to first principles concerning the nation of Israel and its claim to the land, it is now. While the Sharon administration continues its unilateral disengagement policy that began in August, Palestinian leaders wait in the wings, buying time with promises to rein in the terrorism of Hamas and other indigenous groups bred on violence. Their promises are still unfulfilled.
And behind the Palestinians there is, as always, the Arab League. Positive steps toward democratization in Iraq, and smaller steps still in Saudi Arabia with local elections, cannot mask the fact that Arab/Muslim antagonism toward Israel continues—unabated and unchanged.
The Christian church needs to decide, therefore, where it stands on Christian Zionism. In so doing, it will have to decide where it stands on Israel.
Down With Zionism?
Like a religious, geopolitical earthquake, the tremors are cracking open an abyss along major fault lines: liberals versus conservatives, denominational “moderates” versus “fundamentalists”; Reformed versus non-Reformed evangelical theology.
During the 2004 General Assem bly of the Presbyterian Church, Christian Zionism was formally rejected as “not consistent with the basic tenets of Reformed Theology.” Worse still, that body has begun investigating economic sanctions (“divestment”) against Israel for its policies toward Palestinians regarding Israeli land and borders, its construction of the security fence, etc. Divestiture has picked up tentative support from liberal Jewish commentators like Tikkun magazine’s Michael Lerner.
Part of the muddled thinking on all of this seems to been generated by forgetting or interpreting away the nature of Israel’s most basic claim to the land. This evidence came to me recently while I was perusing the May 2005 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. In an article titled “Will Israel Live to 100?” Benjamin Schwarz, one of its editors, stated that in 1947, UN resolution 181 made “an Arab land into a Jewish state.” His conclusion that “Palestine” was effectively Arab is highly curious, as he admitted that at least 100,000 more Jews than Arabs lived there at the time. If demographics determine land rights, why was it not “a Jewish land made into a Jewish state”? But demographics do not determine the question. That issue must be resolved, as far as Christians are concerned, by a far more transcendent standard.
God’s First Will and Testament
Some of those who object to Christian Zionism do, in fact, resort to Scripture for support. And they deserve a reasoned response. For instance, one argument goes like this: Although God did, in the Old Testament, “promise” possession of certain lands to ancient Israel, that promise was fulfilled in the book of Joshua (21:43–45). They argue that possession was never intended to be permanent. Further, they contend that this merely “temporary” possession terminated with the Roman assaults of A.D. 70 and afterward; and they assert that their view is corroborated by the New Testament writers’ supposed failure to speak (as the Old Testament prophets did) of a future gathering of Israel into the land.
In the law, there are parallels to this situation. If I were to grant to my children a “life estate” in certain lands I owned, their possession and enjoyment of it would only exist for a finite time, to end with their deaths. Then their interest would revert back to me (or to my estate), thereafter to be assigned according to my written intent. They would have no right to transfer the land— and no ultimate claim of permanent possession in the sense of passing it down to their survivors and successors. They would lack what lawyers sometimes call a “fee simple absolute” interest in the land.
Ultimately, then, the issue gets down to what kind of “contract,” what type of covenant, God made with Israel regarding the land of Canaan. If we want to look up a deed to property, we go to the public land registry. If we want to determine God’s grant to Israel, we go to the Bible. As I study the issue, I see at least three reasons why God’s granting of a specific, physical landmass to Israel cannot be read as a merely temporary, mostly Old Testa ment idea that ceased in A.D. 70.
An Inheritance to Israel
Because the Old Testament authors were “moved by the Holy Spirit” and spoke as instruments of God (2 Pet. 1:21), we must conclude that the words of Scripture are divinely intentional. That said, it is dazzlingly clear that the land grant from God to Israel was not couched in terms that suggest a transitory contract with a short-term expiration date. Just the opposite: the conveyance of the Promised Land to Israel was structured as an “inheritance.” When the Israelites entered Canaan, they were told that the cities they would conquer, “the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance” (Dt. 20:16).
In the book of Numbers the land of Canaan, according to “its boundaries,” was given as “an inheritance” (34:2). The word inheritance is also used in 34:17–18 and 35:2. This is significant because the law of inheritance and the legal implications of that term were of divine origin. In the old Testament (unlike the later roman practice under civil law), land was not devised to successors by a written will. Instead, it was conveyed to each generation under the system set by God Himself. A firstborn son received a double portion (Dt. 21:17). If there was no son, daughters inherited; if no daughters, the land went to brothers, etc. (Num. 27:7–11).
The use of inheritance in describing the grant of Canaan to Israel was no accident. It carried the full freight of meaning, denoting a transfer of land rights by God Himself and signifying that the transfer was not based on merit, but on birthright.
A Grant to Israel’s Descendants
This fact is corroborated by another word: descendants.
“Then the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to give Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”’” (Dt. 34:4). A similar statement appears in Genesis 13:15: “For all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever.”
This word indicates a continuing right to the land, from generation to generation, to be held not in temporary or conditional possession but in perpetuity. God did not grant the land to Israel because of its meritorious service, obedience, or righteousness. Just the opposite: “Therefore understand that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Dt. 9:6). God’s providential hand provides in grace and mercy that which is not deserved; and at their essence, His ways (as well as His land covenants) are inscrutable.
An Everlasting Covenant
Contrary to those who see A.d. 70, or any other time, as the termination of divinely granted rights of possession, God’s grant of Canaan to Israel is described as permanent—indeed, eternal. The land is given to Abraham’s descendants “forever” (Gen. 13:15). It is an “everlasting possession” (17:8). How can we diminish the meaning of those clear statements without diminishing the value of God’s Word? To do so involves an olympian exertion of tortured exegesis.
The creation of the modern State of Israel is astonishing proof that the Lord is not confounded by demographics or international politics. What He says, He will accomplish. No purpose of His can be thwarted (Job 42:2). Yet, while His Word is sure and the land of Israel surely belongs to the Jewish people by divine birthright, that right can still be lost by human abdication or abandonment. Esau traded his inheritance for a steaming pot of savory stew, realizing too late that his blessing had been lost (Gen. 25:29–34; 27:38). His weeping was bitter and inconsolable.
The temptation for Israelis to abdicate lands rightfully theirs is understandable. The motivation comes not from a momentary appetite like Esau’s, but from international pressure and a national soul that has wearied of suicide murderers and the sickening sounds of sirens echoing in the streets. Yet, even so, Israel must not forget what God has promised. It must not give away that which was God’s alone to give and ignore the finality with which He gave it.
But even more, woe be to the church of Jesus Christ if we encourage or, even worse, extort Israel into relinquishing its birthright of lands and boundaries. God’s title deed to Israel is filled with geographical boundaries. He takes such things seriously. And what concerns the Lord God, that which occupies His heart and consumes His eye, should concern us:
But the land which you cross over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the LORD your God cares; the eyes of the LORD your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year to the very end of the year (Dt. 11:11–12).