Understanding Israel

by Stephen Venable

I am so grateful that each year at IHOP-KC we have a conference with a focus on understanding what Scripture reveals about God’s plan for Israel. The subject of how we should think about Jesus relating to the Jewish people in the past, present, and future is enormously important. While there are certainly some significant exceptions, it is also a subject very rarely discussed with much depth. This makes it all the more vital (and I believe pleasing to the Lord) to have an annual event drawing our attention to this biblical theme.

My personal experience has been that often people feel like understanding Israel is complex, and therefore inaccessible. It is true that there are many details that can be explored. It’s also true that among those who esteem the Bible as God’s word and sincerely love Jesus significant differences of opinion exist. Despite this, I would humbly assert that the sentiment of inaccessibility is mistaken. There are profound insights that can and should be gained through careful study, but I believe the essential framework of knowledge is abundantly apparent to anyone looking in the right direction. Perhaps unfamiliarity has had the unfortunate effect of complicating what should be quite obvious.

If I had to identify the most common source of the obfuscation, it would be the tendency to look at the whole matter backwards. It is not uncommon to find people starting with specific statements of Paul, for example, and then arriving at a conclusion related to Israel that is read back into the prophetic texts of the Old Testament. It is baffling that a practice so methodologically flawed can survive, much less flourish. In retrospect, the tenth chapter of a book may cause you to more deeply appreciate the first chapter, but everyone knows that you can only understand the tenth chapter by starting at the beginning. The New Testament unquestionably sheds much light on what had come before it. This effect is annulled, however, when we attempt to interpret without ever truly considering what had come before it. There is nothing to illumine, and elucidation turns into fabrication. A new plot must be invented. Exegesis of a passage from Romans or Galatians, no matter how detailed, will never be a substitute for the simple recognition of the larger narrative that served as the very concrete, historical milieu of the lives of the apostles and their inspired writings. It has become fashionable in theological writings to recognize this, but recognizing and reckoning with something are quite different. When reckoned with, the substance of the Old Testament yields very straightforward conclusions.

Galatians was likely the earliest writing of the New Testament. If traveling chronologically and canonically, we could only arrive there after wading through a truly enormous volume of words. The vast majority of these words involve, either directly or indirectly, the story of Israel’s formation as a nation, her centuries of history as the covenant people of God, and extensive promises concerning her future. To say that the story was about Israel would be wrong. The tale is most certainly about God, and His purpose to glorify His name in an all the earth. Yet from Genesis to Malachi, this mission is inextricably tied to a very peculiar people and a very specific plot of land. One may argue that the identity of Israel changed, or that this purpose was fulfilled, but the relationship between Israel and God’s ultimate purpose in the revelation of Old Testament is indisputable.

For the sake of brevity it is helpful to divide the words of the Old Testament concerning Israel into the very general categories of past and future. Focusing our attention on the latter, we may ask what we are to do when coming to Galatians with dozens of chapters speaking of things related to Israel that simply have no historical fulfillment even after the drama of the first coming of Jesus? Of course nothing can replace actually reading these for ourselves, but it must be noted that this ‘relation’ to Israel is far from generic. “Judah”, “Jerusalem”, “Zion”, “Jacob” and the like are found alongside numerous other specific geographic descriptions and scores of names of nations surrounding Israel.

Attempts to evade the daunting ‘problem’ of these passages by suggesting they were “conditional” promises are contrived. This view proposes that all of the glorious promises of Israel’s future were contingent on their obedience, and since they did not obey then these will never come to fruition. A large portion of Scripture is basically seen as a collection of throw-away texts with no bearing on anyone. Apart from the very dubious harmony that can be maintained with a belief in the inspiration of Scripture, the argument loses all credibility when one observes that in some of the grandest promises, Israel’s disobedience is highlighted as having the opposite consequence. Instead of disqualifying them from being the participant of God’s dramatic intervention, it is specifically used by Him to further magnify the glorious splendor of His majesty. He says to Israel, in essence, “when you have absolutely no hope and nothing whatsoever to boast in I’m going to show You and the nations just how marvelous I am by saving you anyway.” Their disobedience does not nullify His faithfulness, it is used by God as an occasion to showcase it for the sake of His name.

With that objection out of the way, I believe it is fair to say that if the New Testament was actually approached with a weighty cognizance of this massive corpus of prophetic literature and all of its detail (not just a vague sense of its themes), then everything would change related to the question of Israel for the most obvious of reasons. It would be immediately apparent that the issue could not be dispensed with by producing some creative exegesis on a couple of Pauline verses. The radical hypothesis that God has no further plans or promises specifically for ethnically Jewish individuals or the land they occupied in biblical antiquity requires far more than proof-texts where Israel is supposedly shown to be “replaced” by a new entity called “the Church”. It is vital to understand these passages, and I strongly believe that the New Testament never uses the words “Israel” or “Jew” to refer to a Gentile (believer or not). However, to continue to allow these very narrow questions to be the starting point for the conversation and command the overwhelming share of the attention on the subject is truly to miss the forest for the trees. In order for someone who has long trodden the landscape of the Old Testament to enter the world of New Testament thought and leave on the other side convinced of this hypothesis it would require, instead, the discovery of a potently comprehensive, highly systematized allegorical view of Divine revelation and interpretation.

Within such a view, if the Old Testament was to retain any semblance of meaning and not rapidly degenerate into a chaos of inconsistency and subjectivity, all of the names and places in prophetic literature would need clear symbolic definitions that apply to all the books where they are used. A brief glance at Zechariah 14 will demonstrate. The content itself, the context of authorship (post-exilic), and the allusions to it found in the New Testament exclude the possibility of any fulfillment prior to the time of Jesus. All of the astonishing promises for Jerusalem and its inhabitants are preceded by the certainty of severe judgment against the city, so it can’t be dismissed as conditional. Thus, for one to claim this prophecy reveals no specific plan for the Jewish people, a complex matrix of symbols would be necessary. No simple swap of the Church for Israel will do here, regardless of whether the supposed fulfillment happened at the first coming of Jesus or is still yet to come. If “Jerusalem” does not mean the actual city of Jerusalem, what does it mean? What of the “Mt. of Olives”, and what does it mean that it will split in two? Who is “Judah” really referring to? Who are “all the nations”, and what could it possibly mean when we read that their eyes will rot in their sockets and their tongues will rot in their mouths? What do the geographic notices of “Azel”, “eastern sea”, “western sea”, “Geba”, “Rimmon”, and “Egypt” refer to if not to those actual places? What are the “luminaries”, “evening”, “summer”, and “winter”? How should the “living waters” be understood? These examples will suffice, but more could be offered.

From this perspective we can now turn to the New Testament and first ask what Paul (or any of its authors) says in order to indicate that all of these words should not be taken literally, and then secondly where the detailed code for understanding the intricacy of this allegory is found? Asserting that Zechariah 14 is “apocalyptic literature” doesn’t do anything to change these crucial questions. Creating a term like this may explain why a certain scholar thinks the text should be read allegorically, but it doesn’t prove that Paul (or the Holy Spirit) agreed with them, and does nothing to explain what all the symbols actually mean. Meaning that transcends Zechariah, of course, and explains what “Jerusalem” means in Isaiah as well. Of course one never finds anything remotely resembling either of these things in the New Testament. In fact, there is no hint of such a sweeping reinterpretation of the text. Since Scripture clearly doesn’t stipulate how to decipher the elaborate allegory that some scholars claim fills the writing of the Prophets, anytime they dare move beyond Old Testament motifs and attempts to actually interpret the details, their self-imposed allegorical system ends up being hopelessly convoluted and inconsistent.

We must allow what should be obvious to be obvious. Jerusalem means Jerusalem, Judah means Judah, mountain means mountain, and much of the things promised to Israel have not happened and will find fulfillment in the future with real Jewish men and women in a land bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It would not be until the third century when Origen of Alexandria forged a disastrous amalgamation of Platonic philosophy and Christianity that anyone would even think to view the Old Testament allegorically. And, sadly, it would only be after Augustine of Hippo and other post-Nicene doctors proliferated Origen’s hermeneutic and made it sacred that few would ever think to view the Old Testament otherwise. Origen had embraced a view of reality where unseen things were ethereal and immaterial (axiomatic to Plato’s intelligible realm). This caused him to deny that Jesus ascended with His body, which necessitated the denial of His bodily return. If He was not physically returning to the earth then, of course, the Mt. of Olives couldn’t actually mean a real mountain where His feet would stand, Jerusalem could not mean Jerusalem, and Israel could not mean Israel. Once this decisive step was taken, exegetical evidence from the New Testament was then sought to justify its radical implications.

The purpose of this brief treatment of viewing Old Testament prophecy was to introduce a very broad construct for dealing with the questions that often arise related to Israel both now and in the days to come. Yet as it was stated at the outset, there remains beyond this a great volume of detail which must still be explored. The New Testament revelation of how the advent of Jesus affects the biblical narrative of Israel and how Gentile believers relate to the promises given to Abraham merit careful attention and nuanced conclusions. Both sides of the theological spectrum on this subject are prone to oversimplify what is revealed in order to clear the path toward their desired conclusions. While these important questions must be taken up elsewhere, my hope is that this article may be helpful in establishing the vantage point from which they can be more clearly viewed and more effectively answered.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *