Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Jews: the people of God?

Israel has become a highly contested topic in recent years. For some, the Jews are the people to whom the divine promises belong which God had made thousands of years ago to the Biblical fathers – which include the land of Israel. For others Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its bombardment of Gaza are major injustices – why should the Palestinians who have been living in the land for centuries pay for the Jews’ religious views? Should Christians pick a side?

The declaration on 14 May 1948 of Israel as an independent state was one of the most important geopolitical events of the previous century. It had an enormous impact on the politics of the Middle East where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had become one of the enduring realities of that ancient region. In time Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians and the wars with its neighbors became a major bone of contention which affects many other nations.

Christians also have to make decisions: in general evangelical Christians support the Jews since they regard them as the descendants of the Biblical Israel to whom God’s promises to the patriarchal fathers belong whereas Palestinian Christians – who were once in a majority in some parts of Israel – cannot understand how Israel can be absolved by other Christians from the horrific way in which it treats them. Although their plight was brought to the attention of Christians by the likes of Brother Andrew who co-authored with Al Janssen the book Light Force, A Stirring Account of the Church Caught in the Middle East Crossfire (2004), many Christians could not understand how he could “take the side” of the Christian Arabs. Somehow, for many people, everything is to be taken either as “for or against” in this fight for influence and survival.

In this essay, I bring Israel as a nation into focus within the wider context of Christian thinking. I give a short overview of the Christian-Jewish relationship through the ages. I also engage with some of the important questions regarding Israel’s destiny, such as: Are the Biblical promises regarding the land still applicable to the Jews? Do they still have a part in God’s plan? What should Christians do in the face of the plight of Palestinian Christians? Should Christians give their unconditional support to Israel irrespective of their actions? There are no easy answers but seeing the wider context could help.

Christians and Jews

One of the first things that the early Church had to figure out was what the relationship of the Church, as the redeemed people of God, was to the Jews who was the descendants of the Biblical Israel, the chosen people of God in Old Testament times. Already in the Patristic era (100-500 AD) did the church fathers came to the general conclusion that God had rejected the people of Israel and that they had no further role in his divine plan. They believed that although the Jews had the expectation to be returned to their land when the Messiah comes, that this was a futile hope. Since God had rejected them, that would never happen. In the view of these church fathers, the prophetic promises of restoration had all been fulfilled with the return from Babylon. Jerusalem would never be rebuild.

The relationship between the Jews and the Church was, however, no simple matter. Ever since the Church became an established entity apart from the Jewish nation late in the first century AD, Christians and Jews held conflicting claims about Jesus as Messiah and how that determined their relationship with God. The assertion by both that they were the true people of God eventually led to open hostility between them. Whereas there are some very negative comments about Jesus in the Talmud, many Christians regarded the Jews as “killers of God” who brought misfortune over themselves in accordance with the words recorded in the Bible: “His blood shall be on us and our children” (Matt. 27:25). We find this view already in the fourth century AD in the writings of church fathers such as John Chrysostom.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Jews were regarded with suspicion. The early second millennium AD saw the first persecution of Jews by Christians in 1096 AD when Jewish communities along the Rhine were attacked and many massacred during the so-called “Rhineland massacres” in the period leading up the First Crusade. Jews were sometimes accused of ritual murder and were expelled from many countries – from England in 1290, France in 1394 and numerous areas in Germany, Italy and the Balkan peninsula between 1350 and 1450. Jewish communities were often subjected to severe discrimination – having to wear something such as a badge and live apart in ghettos – and there were many pogroms against Jews.

Some Jews, however, were traders and bankers who were able to overcome the obstacles that Jews, in general, had to deal with in their everyday lives. Since the nineteenth century, some of these Jews rose to high positions in politics and society in general, especially in the UK and US. There were even those who became remarkably influential – many would remember the Rothschild family in this regard, who is to this day a force in international finance. This, however, led in turn to accusations that “the Jews” were conspiring behind the scenes.

One of the important documents that is often mentioned in this regard is the so-called Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion which was first published in 1905 in Russia and in which a program to establish global domination is outlined. Related to this was accusations of Jewish involvement in the revolutionary movement of the early twentieth century in Europe, especially in the Russian revolution of 1917. One of the best-known works in this regard was Henry Ford’s The International Jew (1920), in which a series of articles which were first published in his journal The Dearborn Independent were reprinted. The story is told that the “Jewish media” published only pictures of Ford cars in accidents leading to the rumor that these were unreliable, which eventually forced the great magnate to reconcile with his enemies.

During the early twentieth century, Jewish-Christian relations saw two very different outcomes depending on the countries involved. On the one hand, the Jews gained some real influence within the Anglo-American world which was predominately Christian. Here one may mention the Balfour Declaration of 1917 when the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, handed a declaration in which Britain promised Palestine to the Jews to Walter Rothschild, the second Baron Rothschild, and leader of the Jewish community, to be presented to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland [1].

On the other hand, anti-Semitism increased and led to the Holocaust during Adolf Hitler’s rule when millions of Jews were murdered. In some way, the Holocaust represents the culmination of a very long tradition of anti-Semitism in Europe. Of particular importance in this regard was the role of pope Pius XII who’s actions with regard to the Holocaust is to this day a source of great controversy. Historians, in general, think that he was too cautious in his condemnation of Jewish deportations and Nazi crimes.

Image result for jews ghetto picture
Entrance to the Lodz ghetto during WWII
Both the Balfour declaration and the Holocaust played a central role in the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The Anglo-American support for the Jewish people and the country of Israel, in particular, was one of the important foreign policies which characterized the twentieth century. At last the Jewish people had a homeland where they were safe from persecution. For many Christians, this was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy that Israel would one day be restored to their land.

God’s promises to Israel

After WWII there was a lot of goodwill towards Israel throughout the Christian world. At the same time, the fact that Israel was restored in their original homeland forced the Church to rethink Israel’s role in eschatology. It seemed that the theology according to which God rejected Israel after the crucifixion and replaced her with the Church in his plan (called “replacement theology”) was contradicted by the facts on the ground. The new reality went straight into the face of that assessment. It was time to rethink the well-established views about Israel.

The Church’s actions over the centuries also came under scrutiny. Some argued that the way in which the Church treated the Jews throughout the Middle Ages prepared the way for the Holocaust. Pope Pius XII’s tempered reaction during WWII reinforced the view that the Roman Catholic Church had a deep-seated prejudice against the Jews. This placed pressure on the Church to change its attitude towards the Jews and reevaluate her spiritual relationship with them.

In the US the evangelical Christian community supported the Jew’s return to their original homeland and in time became one of the most steadfast allies of Israel. These Christians rejected the replacement theology. Instead, they developed a dispensational eschatology according to which God still has a plan for Israel. They took St. Paul’s words serious that the covenants belong to Israel (Rom. 9:4), that they are still “beloved for the fathers’ sakes” (Rom. 11:28) since the “calling of God is without repentance” (Rom. 11:29).

The same apostle also writes in the same passage: “[B]lindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the [era of the] Gentiles come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob; For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (Rom. 11:25-27). This passage says that God still has a plan with Israel even though many of them have rejected Him as Messiah and that in the end of times they would come to salvation.

Christians who take Scripture as God’s Word serious have to acknowledge that God still has a plan with Israel – irrespective of how one reconcile it with one’s theology and eschatology. In this context, the events of May 1948 may be taken as confirmation that God is still keeping his side of the covenant with Abraham that He would give the land to his descendants as an eternal inheritance. The only problem was a practical one: large parts of the land were still in the hands of the Palestinians. These Christians, however, believe that God would eventually give the land to the Jews in the same way that He did so after the exodus.

Not everybody accepted this interpretation of Biblical prophecy. Some kept to replacement theology. Others had doubts if the Israeli’s were the true descendants of the Biblical Israel to whom the promises belong. This stems from the fact that the Jews intermarried with other nations during the long period of exile with the result that they do not share common physical traits. Some nations even converted to the Jewish faith without being of Semitic descent. 

The Khazars, for example, were a semi-nomadic Turkic people from the north Caucasian region who converted to Judaism during the eighth century AD. Some think that the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe were descended from the Khazars and were therefore not “true” Jews. In fact, although some of them may be of such descent, the most were descended from Jews who lived in those areas for centuries - even from the time before the conversion of the Khazars. Many Jews also fled eastward after the persecution in the western parts of Europe. As proselytes were always welcome in Israel since ancient times, the conversion of the Khazars should not be taken as an important issue regarding the identity of the Israeli’s [2].

Israel at the crossroads

When Israel became independent, the Western media was solid in its support for the Jewish cause. That has changed in recent years. Through the course of the last few decades criticism of Israel has increased. The handling of the Palestinians by the Israeli government has generated a lot of negative feeling. Even the large Christian community among the Palestinians had not been spared. Many have migrated to the West. Some even compare Israel’s rule over the West Bank with the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The wars with Hamas in Gaza in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014 and the many Palestinians killed in the bombardment have led to a lot of criticism of the Israeli government.

The result is that the pro-Israel sentiment of the post-WWII era has all but evaporated in a large part of the world. Whereas the Palestinians found it difficult to find a willing ear in the post-war period (even though some Arab states were close allies of the US) and the aftermath of the Holocaust gave the Jews a lot of sympathies, this had been slowly but steadily eroded over the last few decades. Today most EU countries have large pressure groups that support the Palestinian cause and most of those countries take a harder line towards the Israeli government.

Also, we live in an epoch where many people in the Western world (not to speak of the Arab world) do not believe that the Bible is divinely inspired. In the postmodern world, people do not take the divine promises made to Israel serious. They only see that Israel occupies the land where the Palestinians and their ancestors have been living for centuries. As such this has become a paradigmatic case of injustice – and not even the injustice of the Holocaust is nowadays taken as a reason to let Israel off the hook. As such it is not only the usual anti-Semites that find a sympathetic audience; fighting for Palestinian rights has become a just cause.

As is often the case in such situations, there are two sides to the story. Some Christians and Jews do not take these accusations against Israel serious. They feel that anyone under the same circumstances would have done the same – Israel has in fact been fighting a low-intensity war for many years against terrorists who do not mind to kill innocent people. The problem is that Israel’s actions are not only directed towards terrorists: innocent Arabs including Arab Christians have suffered a lot as is described very well in Brother Andrew’s book. Should evangelical Christians’ view about Israel blind them to the fate of their own brothers who live in extremely difficult circumstances?

Christians who support Israel have to ask themselves how they reconcile their love for Israel with the outcome of Jewish actions in that land? How should they reconcile the divine promises with the injustice done by the very people who they regard as the “people of God”? These are not easy questions to answer. It is easy to take the Palestinian side and reject Israel’s identity as God’s people. But is that the right way for Christians to go?

We find that God did not absolve Israel from her unjust actions even in Old Testament times. In fact, the prophets spoke out against injustice and warned Israel when they served other gods – but that did not change the fact that they were His People. In my view Christians should take a similar approach: They should not whitewash Israel’s actions but they should also not lose their faith in God’s eternal promises that He would eventually bring them to salvation.

I expect that the tide would turn more and more against Israel. According to Biblical prophecy, there would come a time when Israel would be hated by all nations. This may be one of the reasons why they would gather in the end times to make war against Israel as we read in the prophet Zechariah:

“Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling unto all the people round about… And in that day I will make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it… And it shall come to pass in that day that I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication; and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son” (Zec. 12:2, 3, 9, 10; see also Zec. 14).

When Jesus Christ returns with his Second Coming, Israel will indeed see the One that they have “pierced” when he was crucified. Then will they be reconciled with their Messiah. When we consider things in this light, we should pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps. 122:6) rather than siding with her enemies. Let’s not be caught on the wrong side of history.

Conclusion

In this short essay, I discuss Israel’s identity as the people of God to whom the divine promises belong. St. Paul is clear that God still has a plan for his people. This includes the fulfillment of the promise made to the fathers that God would give the land to them as an eternal inheritance. Israel’s restoration in their land is therefore indeed of prophetic significance.

When we accept Israel’s prophetic destiny, it does not mean that we have to accept everything that they do as right. Israel has done some great injustices over the decades since 1948, especially against those Christians who are also God’s people. As Christians, we should, however, not take side with the enemies of Israel. Even when we criticize the things they do (and it serves no good to always absolve Israel from all wrongdoing!), we should do so with the right disposition. We should pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the salvation of all the people living in that beautiful land.

[1] “His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
[2] There are also other views. “British Israelism”, for example, believes that the white people from the UK and US are descended from the ten “lost” tribes. They often regard themselves as the true heirs of Israel and view the Israeli’s as a mongrel race. There is, however, no evidence to support their claims regarding history. In fact, it is easy to show them wrong.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud (Ref. wmcloud.blogspot.com)

The author is a scientist-philosopher (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, and science.

2 comments:

  1. Baie aktuele onderwerp en deeglik bespreek. Dankie!

    Ek is beslis nog nie klaar gedink hieroor nie maar op die huidige stadium wil ek twee sake beklemtoon:

    In die lig van baie skrifgedeeltes glo ek dat God net een volk het - die ware Israel maw die kerk wat insluit ook etniese Israel wat hulle tot Christus bekeer het. 'n Deurslaggewende gedeelte is byv 1 Petr 2:9-10 wat duidelik 'n teruggryp is na Eks 19:4-6. Wat God van die etniese Israel gesê het word nou direk deurgetrek na mense wat voorheen nie deel van etniese Israel was nie. (voormalige heidene)

    Tweedens, moet ons dit ook net duidelik stel dat geen Christen ooit anti semities kan wees nie! Ons mag ook nooit neersien op etniese Israel nie! (Romeine 11) In hierdie opsig stem ek saam met die artikel dat ons nie kan saamskreeu in die koor van Jodehaters nie.

    Wat ek wel dink, ons geen debat oor hoef te voer nie is dat dit Christene se plig is om mede broers orals te ondersteun - dus ook Christen Palestyne. Dit sal impliseer dat ons die huidige staat Israel mag kritiseer in hulle behandeling van die Palestynse Christene ongeag mens se teologiese verstaan van die staat.

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    1. Dankie, Johannes. 'n Aktuele maar moeilike saak. Soos jy noem, het God nog 'n plan met Israel om hulle te bekeer. Oor die detail van daardie plan is daar natuurlik verskillende sieninge wat ek nie in die essay aanspreek nie. Groete en seën.

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