On 29 April, we published an article seeking your questions on Israel and Palestine, the current conflict, the Bible, or anything you think is related to this that might be answered by one of our Aotearoa Baptist Biblical Scholars.

Philip Church is a member of Royal Oak Baptist Church and a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Theology at Laidlaw College in Auckland. He has a PhD in New Testament and has taught Biblical Languages and Old and New Testament courses at Laidlaw for 15 years. In his retirement he has taught block courses in several countries in the Majority World. Philip has a longstanding interest in the Middle East and has travelled there several times, he has a particular interest in the Hebrews and the temple.

Thank you to those who sent in questions. To answer them, some questions have been conflated or dissected to respond more easily to what has been considered the underlying issue. Due to the number of questions, this will be published as instalments over the next few weeks. Not every question submitted will get a response. 

1. What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments? 
2. How should we read the Old Testament now that the New Testament has been written?

I begin with these fundamental questions because many of the discussions I have had about Israel and Palestine (and about Israel and the church) rotate around the promises of blessing for Israel found in the Old Testament. To take just one example, Amos 9:14–15 read “I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God (NRSVue).[1] There is nothing like this anywhere tin the New Testament, and the question needs to be asked whether a promise like this still stands. Once it is granted that God remains faithful to his promises, an explanation is required if this promise does not stand.

While it is possible to buy a New Testament bound separately from the Old Testament, the great majority of Bibles sold today (and over the last 400 years since they began to be mass-produced) include both Testaments. This is significant and intentional. They are intended to be read together. One reason for this is that almost every page of the New Testament contains either quotations or allusions to Old Testament texts. I don’t think it is wrong to say that the New Testament often answers the question, “How are we to understand the Old Testament now that Christ has come?” To take an obvious example, in Matt 5:17–21, Jesus sets out to correct the false impression that he had come to abolish the law and the prophets; he came to fulfil them, perhaps meaning that he had come to bring them to their intended conclusion. As R. T France has said, 

On this understanding the authority of the law and the prophets is not abolished. They remain the authoritative word of God. But their role will no longer be the same, now that what they pointed forward to has come, and it will be for Jesus’ followers to discern in the light of his teaching and practice what is now the right way to apply those texts in the new situation which his coming has created.[2]

Along these same lines, the book of Hebrews in the New Testament tells us about the status of the Old Testament sacrificial system now that Jesus has died and risen again and been exalted to God’s right hand. All those sacrifices, so important in Leviticus, have been abolished (Heb 10:1–18). In this case, we can say that Hebrews relativises the ritual law of the Old Testament so that the sacrificial system that was so important in Leviticus no longer has any status.[3]

Consequently, we must take great care when we read the Old Testament without taking into account what the New Testament has to say. This principle will come up repeatedly as we consider questions around Israel and Palestine and Israel and the church, and it speaks directly to the next question.

3. How are we to read the Old Testament Prophets?

Israel’s possession in 1948 of the territory that Hebrews 11:8 calls “the land of promise”, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, is often considered to fulfil Old Testament prophecies such as Amos 9:14–15, quoted above. For this reason, it is important to consider how we should read the Old Testament Prophets. While these books do have some specific prophecies, like, for example, Micah 5:2 “foretelling” that Christ would be born in Bethlehem, specifics like this are rare. More often the prophets “forthtell,” by bringing God’s word to bear on the situation of the people the prophecies were written to (the original readers) as opposed to those they were written for (us).

The Old Testament Prophets mostly contain small units of prophetic speech often called “oracles”, and these oracles can be classified as oracles of judgement against the nations (e.g. Amos 1:3–5), oracles of judgement against Israel (e.g. Amos 2:6–16), and oracles of blessing for Israel (e.g. Amos 9:11–15).

This last oracle has often been read as predicting the return of Israel to the land in the “last days”, and that may be so, although it is significant that the New Testament writers did not read it in that way. James quotes Amos 9:11–12 in Acts 15:16–17 as scriptural evidence for the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God without them having to become Jews first. That oracle of blessing is fulfilled in the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles. This is an example of a principle seen throughout the New Testament that when an Old Testament prophetic oracle of salvation addressed to Israel is picked up in the New Testament, it is interpreted with reference to Christ and the church. 

This is not the place to give a detailed treatment of Amos 9:11–12, but I do note that Amos predicts that the LordGod will restore the throne of David, so that David’s people would “possess” (a word that can have positive as well as negative connotations according to the context) the remnant of Edom and all the nations “called by my name says the Lord.”James saw that “restoration” and “possession” as having taken place when he saw God looking favourably on the Gentiles and taking from among them a people for his name (Acts 15:14–17). I will consider more examples of this sort of thing as we proceed.

4. Who are the People of God?

Near the beginning of Exodus God begins to refer to the Israelites enslaved in Egypt as “my people” whom he was about to rescue (Exod 37–10). Soon after the exodus from Egypt, the people arrive at Sinai and God says to them through Moses,

‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites (Exodus 19:4–6).

This foundational text establishes Israel as the people of God. Throughout the Old Testament God continually affirms that they are God’s people. Even when God threatens them with exile they remain God’s people (Amos 7:8, 15; 8:2). What is interesting, however, is what the New Testament does with these verses from Exodus 19. Peter, writing to gentile followers of Jesus says,

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet 2:9–10). 

Peter applies this foundational text to gentile believers of Jesus showing that they too (and we) are also the people of God. Paul says something similar in Rom 11:17 when he writes that the believers in Rome have been “grafted in” to the “rich root” of the olive tree, and in Gal 2:7 that all who believe are descendants of Abraham. So to answer the question, the biblical Israelites are the people of God, and now in Christ, all believers have been incorporated into that one people of God. Consequently, we can say that the people of God include both redeemed Israelites and redeemed Gentiles.[4]

5. Are the citizens of Israel to be identified with the Israelites of the Old Testament?

If the people of God are all who believe in Jesus, both Jew and Gentile, what is the status of the Jewish people today? Later, I will consider replacement theology and supersessionism, but here I want to consider the Jewish people, both citizens of Israel and those who remain in the present-day Jewish diaspora. I acknowledge that this is a difficult and complex question, particularly after the holocaust and historic Christian complicity in the persecution of the Jewish people. 

At the outset some definitions are important. I once heard a Palestinian Christian theologian say that their country was occupied by a Western power that had taken a religious name. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that statement, when the state of Israel was formed in 1948 it took the name “Israel” and gave its citizens the name “Israeli.” In the Old Testament, the people of God were called Israelites (descendants of Israel, the name God gave to Abraham’s grandson Jacob in Gen 31:22–32) or the Hebrew people. After the return from exile, the name Judean (often shortened to Jew) also appears. “Judean” was an ethnic identifier referring to those descendants of the southern kingdom of Judah exiled to Babylon in 587 BC who had returned to Judea after the exile. It is important to note that while an Israeli (a Jewish citizen of the state of Israel) is most likely a Jew (there are also Israeli Arabs) is it incorrect to refer to Israelis (who did not exist until 1948 AD) as Israelites and to Old Testament Israelites as Israelis. It is also important to note that while we might use the word “Jew” today to refer to both Paul and Peter and James and Jesus and also to a citizen of Israel, that is also not accurate. As John H. Elliott has written,

the concept ‘Jew’ as understood today derives not from the first century but from the fourth and following centuries CE. It denotes persons shaped by and oriented to not only Torah and Tanakh but Mishnah, Midrashim and Talmudim.[5]

He also quotes the standard New Testament Greek lexicon as saying,

incalculable harm has been caused by simply glossing … [Ioudaios in the New Testament] with ‘Jew’, for many readers … of the Bible translations do not practice the historical judgment necessary to distinguish between circumstances and events of an ancient time and contemporary ethnic-religious-social realities, with the result that anti-Judaism in the modern sense of the term is needlessly fostered through biblical texts.[6]

There is no doubt that so-called Messianic Jews are living in the state of Israel today, although they are a minority and most of the citizens of Israel do not believe in Jesus. But can we call them the people of God? Paul’s comments in Romans 9 are significant:

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own brothers and sisters, my own flesh and blood. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. It is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all those descended from Israel are Israelites, and not all of Abraham’s children are his descendants, but “it is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants (Rom 9:1–8, with emphasis added).

Here Paul is excluding unbelieving Israelites, his own “brothers and sisters” and “flesh and blood” from being called God’s children because of their unbelief. For this reason, it is inappropriate to suggest that unbelieving Israelis today are to be included in the people of God. This does not mean that ethnic Jews do not have a special place in the purposes of God, but I am not sure that God has revealed what that is. It remains a mystery that may ultimately be revealed (Rom 11:25–27 a text I will discuss later).

6. Has God rejected his People (Rom 11:1)?

Paul asks this question in Romans 11:1, and gives a resounding “by no means!” But we need to keep reading and not stop at v. 1. Some Christians today see God’s faithfulness to his promises in the formation of the state of Israel and the return of present-day Jews to the promised land I (I will look at this question next time). Paul did not go down that road. In his reply to his own rhetorical question, he refers to himself., “I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Rom 11:1–2). Then he speaks about a remnant: “at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace” (11:5).

When the Old Testament prophets announced that God’s judgement was about to fall upon his people and they were to be exiled they spoke in terms of a remnant. Amos 9:8 is one example, “The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth —except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob, says the Lord.” These prophets realised that God’s covenant with God’s people meant that their rebellion entailed God’s punishment and they saw that punishment in terms of the exile threatened in Deuteronomy 28:64–68. But they knew that God was faithful and would not completely destroy them. There would always be a remnant, a narrowing down of the people of God so that those who were faithful would remain. Luke 1–2 gives some examples of such faithful Israelites, Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Anna and Simeon, but ultimately this narrowing continued until there was just one truly faithful Israelite, Jesus. Since then, the narrowing has been reversed, becoming ever wider. Paul in Rom 11:1–5 includes himself in the faithful remnant, and then he and the apostles took the gospel to the ends of the earth so that now God’s people come from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. So no, God has not rejected his people. Faithful believing Jews today remain part of that remnant and believing Gentiles have also been included in the people of God, heirs together of the promises of God (Eph 2:11-22; 3:6).

Next time

In the next instalment, I will look at the following three questions:

1. What is Replacement Theology or Supersessionism?

2. What does Paul mean when he says, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26)

3. What does the Bible say about the Promised Land?

Click here to view Part 2 (28 May 2024).

Endnotes

[1] The NRSVue is an updated edition of the NRSV, published in 2021. The editors claim to have made “approximately 12,000 substantive edits and 20,000 total changes, which include alterations in grammar and tpunctuation” (“Preface to the NRSV Updated Edition,” 2021). Unless otherwise noted all quotations from the Bible are from this translation.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 183.

[3] This of course had its roots in the Old Testament in such texts as Ps 40:6–8 (quoted in Heb 10:5–7); Amos 5:21–24; Isa 1:12–20; Mic 6:6–8. The writer of Hebrews is now working that out in light of the exaltation of Christ to the right hand of God (Heb 1:1–3).

[4] As an aside I note that the New Testament consistently distinguishes between national Israel and the church so that it is simplistic to say that the church is the “New Israel” or similar. Later I will consider two debated texts around this question, Rom 11:26 and Gal 6:16. I maintain that both these texts refer to ethnic Israel rather than the church.

[5] John H. Elliott, “Jesus the Israelite was Neither a ‘Jew’ Nor a ‘Christian’: on Correcting Misleading Nomenclature.” JSHJ 5 (2007): 120. The Torah is the five books of Moses, and Tanakh is a Jewish abbreviation for what Christians call the Old Testament. The Mishnah is a codification of what Jewish Rabbis refer to as the “Oral Law”, which they believed was also delivered to Moses on Mt Sinai. It was put into writing around 200 AD. The Talmudim (plural of Talmud since there are two of them, the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud) are developments of the Mishnah that reached their final form some 300–400 years later. The Midrashim are various Jewish commentaries on Scripture written between 400 and 1200 AD. 

[6] Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Old Testament and other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 3rd rev. edn, 2000), 478.


Photo: Screenshot from Google Maps, accessed 28 April 2024. 

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