A right biblical understanding of Israel connects the Testaments (Covenants) and informs our faith.
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 their grandson Jacob up to an angelic confrontation resulting in a name change. Jacob is now Israel, a wordplay that means both God striving with and striving with God.
Witnessing the actions of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob writ large in places like Egypt, Mt. Sinai, and the land he promised, you begin to see salvation through his eyes. The Father's passion is to rescue people, train them to be his people, reign among them as a good shepherd, and through them, bring redemption to the world (Exod 19:5-6). One divinely spoken word captures all these big ideas, Israel.
Continue working your way through the holy history of these peculiar people and you encounter a vibrant culture formed by his works, "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." (Exod 29:46) Thirty-nine books of inspired literary creativity gifting us narrative and story, law-giving and community organization, poetry, prayers, hymnody, wisdom writings, and more. Behold the Bible of Jesus!
As these prophetic pages push you forward into the Gospels, you recognize the setting. It is Israel, both a location and a people now known as the Jews. The New Covenant words and works of Israel's Messiah Yeshua (Jesus) 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—revealed in his Son—rises from Jerusalem to cover the earth. Even the majestic closing book of the Christian Canon, St. John's Revelation, is a uniquely Jewish literary genre filled with Israel imagery and scriptural allusions.
If you read it all without the aid of earthly instruction, would your overall opinion of Israel be judgmental or empathetic? I have met many such people (typically outside of Western countries) and can tell you that their view of Israel is overwhelmingly positive. For them, the question is not, why Israel? It is, rather, why antisemitism (prejudice against people and things Jewish)?
Jesus handpicked a competent guide so that every tribe and tongue through the ages would draw nourishment from the church's uniquely Jewish covenant roots. Meet the author of Romans, the Apostle to the Gentiles (non-Jews), who gladly identifies himself as both an Israelite (11:1) and a slave to the Messiah (1:1).
Based on the revelatory birth, life, death, resurrection, and Spirit outpouring of the historical, Jesus of Nazareth, Paul wrestles with the place of Israel in God's economy. Not only his insights, but his approach provides principles by which we overcome negative stereotypes and grasp the value of Israel in the larger story of God.
"To begin with," he says, "the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom 3:2)." A sobering commission with heavy responsibility. Three thoughts come 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 proved faithful stewards of that trust. Modern archaeology demonstrates beyond a doubt that Israel preserved, passed down, and gifted the Old Testament to the world.
Finally, if Paul said nothing else, this idea is enough to root out all vestiges of antisemitism. We owe an unpayable debt to the people of the Book.
But Paul has much more to say concerning our family tree. "They are Israelites, and to them belong ..." (Rom 9:4-5)
... the adoption! Sonship is not for the elite or initiated; YHWH's salvation is by grace through faith for every man, woman, and child. "Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son" (Exod 4:22).
... the glory! This is a marvelous concept referring to the Shekinah that filled the Tabernacle (Exod 40:34) and later the Temple (2 Chron 7:1). Adoption, together with glory, points 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" (Exod 34:7).
... the giving of the law! Teaching is the core meaning of torah, which is what Paul means by the law. Like living under the care of godly parents, the Torah has rules of right conduct along with God's wisdom and instruction for the life he offers. Rescue and restoration result in responsibility, "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live" (Deut 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 privilege of interceding for humanity before God while mediating his presence to the world (Exod 19:5-6).
... the promises! These come directly from the one, true God: originating in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:15, Rom 16:20), blossoming with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3, Gal 3:16), and steadily growing over time. For Paul, the heart of the matter is always the faithfulness of the Promise Giver.
... the patriarchs! This is a shorthand way of referring to Israel but, more importantly, to Israel's divine vocation as those through whom he would work to reverse the effects of the Fall (Rom 5:17).
"... and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ (Messiah), who is God over all, blessed forever! Amen."
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 is fitting that Paul should have the last word here from Romans 11. "I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!" "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!"
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