Many Christians hold the view that the New Testament is, at best, silent on the issue of the land of Israel. Or they say: the Old Testament promise of the land for the people of Israel is cancelled, or transformed to mean the heavenly kingdom of God. Is it true that the NT is silent on the promise of the land?
Does it deny Israel’s hope for restoration? Does the promised land really mean “only” a kingdom of God in heaven? In this series of three articles these questions will be addressed.
‘All promises were nullified by Christ‘ A bishops’ synod was held in the Vatican recently to discuss the difficult situation in the Middle East: the number of Christians has been falling dramatically for decades as a result of the political situation in the region. The dominant pressure of the Islamic surroundings is the principle reason for this, although Israel is accused of being primarily responsible in Arab propaganda. The very existence of the Jewish state of Israel is not only a thorn in the flesh of the Islamic-Arab world, but it is also seen as the primary cause of all the problems in the region, if not in the whole world, and thus of the Christians’ difficult circumstances as well. It was more or less predictable that most of the attention would be paid to this during this meeting of eastern prelates allied with Rome, each of whom bows towards the overruling Islam: the ancient dhimmi-attitude. The final declaration summed up the well-known points too: the Israeli occupation of Arab land, the security fence, the checkpoints etc. The speaker at the presentation of this final declaration was the Melkite archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, who was born in Lebanon, and the theological rabbit was then pulled out of the hat. He declared that ‘we, Christians, can no longer speak of the Promised Land for the Jewish people. There is no longer an elect race. Every man and woman of every country of the world has become part of the elect race’. All the promises originally made to Israel ‘were nullified by Christ’[i]. This is clearly not different to classic replacement theology, but it is declared very strongly: God’s promises to Israel have not only been transferred to the church; they have even been ‘nullified’- destroyed. The Vatican quickly took pains to declare that this was Butros’ personal opinion, and not that of the church; the Roman-Catholic church has been attempting to move on from replacement theology for decades. One thing and another make it clear meanwhile that this theology is still very much alive, and how much it is used in strongly rejecting Israel.
The land becomes the earth The archbishop’s words are wholly in line with so-called Palestinian liberation theology, particularly as expressed by the Sabeel Institute, whose headquarters are in Jerusalem. Briefly, this states that the Old Testament finds its complete fulfilment in Christ; there are no more exclusive promises for Israel; there is therefore no longer any ‘Promised Land’ for Israel; the New Testament expansion of the promise of land brings the whole earth into perspective as the terrain of God’s salvation, the promise of land being moreover fulfilled or even ‘nullified’ in Christ; and the election of Israel comes to an end with Christ. It is clear that political aspirations are at the root of such theology[ii].
What particularly concerns us is whether or not the promise of land is of lasting significance. There are still many Christian theologians who cast at least some doubt on the promise of land since the coming of Christ. The classical argument in replacement theology was that the Old Testament is ‘particular’, whereas the New Testament is ‘universal’; the promises to Israel are fulfilled in Christ; Israel’s election comes to an end with the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah; the church is now the new, spiritual Israel, which replaces the old Israel of the flesh; the promise of land has expired and been replaced – just like all the other aspects of the covenant – by the broad perspective of the whole earth and, eventually, the eternal heavenly kingdom.
Since the events of the previous century (the Holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel) there are no longer many theologians who proclaim rampant replacement theology. Different approaches and, especially, different terminology are used – such as ‘fulfilment theology’ or ‘expansion theology’, but apart from the fact – which is to be observed with gratitude – that these new attempts indeed keep hope for Israel alive, they are nevertheless mainly new labels on very old cargos. And what is remarkable, is the fact that most of these theologies see the promise of land as being fulfilled and obsolete, belonging to the temporary promises of the old covenant, and thus also without any vision of a prophetic return of restored Israel to the Promised Land.[iii] The synod document of the then Dutch Reformed Church, ‘Israel, people, land and state’ from 1970 speaks completely different language in this respect: the promise of land is still valid, and there is talk of a prophetic return and restoration of Israel; 1948 is even called a sign from God.
Jesus the Jew What is decisive is what the NT itself says. It is often pointed out that the promise of land hardly appears as such in the NT. This is obvious, on the one hand, in view of the fact that this promise was completely obvious to Jesus and His contemporaries: no question marks were placed after election, covenant and promise; on the contrary, they were part and parcel of Israel’s faith and needed no separate treatment; and, on the other hand, if the universal broadening of the NT’s field of vision to the nations of the world had brought about a change in the status of the promise of land, the NT would surely have mentioned the fact, in view of the serious implications of this promise for Israel. On the other hand, there is more to be said than a simple reference to the (supposed) silence of the NT on this point. Anyone meditating on Paul’s well-known words in Romans 9:4 will definitely find an explicit reference to the promise of land: ‘They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises’. Paul says therefore, after Easter and Pentecost, that all the privileges of God’s covenant are still valid as far as Israel is concerned, and when he speaks of the ‘covenants’ and the ‘promises’ it would be totally contrary to the use of biblical language to exclude the promise of land from them. Even if we only had this one statement from Paul, it would suffice, in my opinion, to convince us that the promise of land is also valid after Christ. But there is more. The conviction has been growing during recent decades that it is impossible to separate Jesus and the apostles from their context in the community of Israel, as they knew it. Jesus was a Jew; Paul was a Jew – and they never positioned themselves outside their Jewish context. We must learn to read the New or Second Testament anew, against the background of that Jewish context. This is a cumbersome – even painful – but particularly necessary exercise for Christians, who are used to reading the NT through the spectacles of theological tradition, which distanced itself from Israel early on in Christendom, which no longer had any sense of the Jewish context of the Gospels and the epistles, and which even developed an anti-Semitic explanation of the Scriptures sometimes. I believe that we are just starting to ‘return’ the Jewish Scriptures of the NT to their original surroundings, but that we cannot avoid doing so. In this respect, this means that we ask ourselves, for example, what the relationship between Messianic expectation and the promise of land looked like in Jesus’ time, because of the classical Christian conviction that Christ’s fulfilment of the Messianic expectation implied ‘nullification’ of the promise of land. I the following articles I will make a few remarks concerning the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
[i] Item in Israel Today of 24-10-2010
[ii] See Naim Ateek, the founder of Sabeel: Justice and only justice, a Palestinian theology of liberation, New York 1989; there support organizations in several countries, which promote Sabeel’s thinking rather aggressively.
[iii] E.g. Colin Chapman, Whose Promised Land?; Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism, road-map to Armageddon? Leicester, 2004.