Whither The Promise of God That Israel Would Always Be A Nation?
Posted by Job on January 5, 2009
To the post Do Evangelical Christians Consider The Plight Of The Palestinians? I received an excellent reply which asked to justify my comments in light of Jeremiah 31:35-36:
I don’t have time to write a long comment, but one bit struck me:
Even if we accept the Old Testament version of events as history (which of course the Palestinians, being neither Jews or Christians, are not obliged to), that version tells us that the nation of Israel ceased to exist in 586 BC.
Contrast this to Jeremiah 31:35-36:
This is what the Lord says, he who appoints the sun to shine by day, who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar– the Lord Almighty is his name: “Only if these decrees vanish from my sight,” declares the Lord, “will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before me.”
Are these two statement compatible?”
My reply: the modern definition of “nation” and what the Bible means when it uses the term are not always one and the same. Further, there seems to be a common occurrence of merging the related but not identical promises to Abraham given in Genesis 12:1-3 and Genesis 15:18-21. Jeremiah 31:35-36 references one but not the other.
So here is my response to the very legitimate question of the promise of Israel’s always being a nation made by God, and I would appreciate responses. When making them, please note two things:
1. I do not oppose the existence of the modern nation – state Israel and I am fully aware of modern Israel’s obligation to defend itself from many enemies (including but certainly not limited to Hamas, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, the PLO, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia etc.) that are committed to its destruction.
2. Though I reject premillennial dispensationalism, I acknowledge the historical legitimacy of other forms of premillennialism, and I do not subscribe to amillennialism, preterism, covenant theology, nor do I subscribe to replacement theology in its classic sense..
Well, statement two is incompatible with history. Israel lost control of their land in 586 BC, not long after its writer Jeremiah urged the southern kingdom to submit to Babylon. And about 700 years later Jerusalem was burned to the ground and the Jews were scattered into a diaspora. So, statement two would have to be “never except for a huge gap between 586 BC and 1948 AD, and especially between 132 AD and 1948 AD.”
So the only way to reconcile Jeremiah 31:35-36 with the rest of Biblical revelation and of history is to conclude that it did not refer to the physical nation or land of Israel, but the people of Israel. And to confirm that, go to Exodus. The Exodus account is clear: Israel became a nation when God brought them out of Egypt. Yet they did not possess the land of Israel until after 40 years in the wilderness. Again, they were a nation, but wandering in the wilderness and not in Israel.
So Jeremiah 31:35-36 was a promise that the natural seed of Abraham would always exist as a people. That promise is true, and evidence of that is the discovery of Jews who can trace their bloodline in such exotic places as Ethiopia and India. But making the claim that it refers to Jews always living in and controlling the land of Israel would be hard to reconcile with the facts of history.
This is more so when you consider the nature of the Sinai covenant, especially as spelled out in Deuteronomy. The Sinai covenant was not unconditional as was the covenant that God made with Abraham or the Davidic Messianic covenant. The Sinai covenant was conditional. Which meant that for the nation of Israel to remain in the land of Israel (for the people of Shem to dwell in the tents of Canaan, remember Noah’s famous curse against the son of Ham, as the land of Israel is actually the land of Canaan, the Jebusites built Jerusalem if I am correct) and to continue to control Israel, it had to keep the Sinai covenant.
We know that Israel did not keep the terms of the covenant, and that is why 586 BC happened. Make no mistake, and the Old Testament prophets declared, that the falling of the northern kingdom to the Assyrians and the southern kingdom to the Babylonians was the result of Israel’s breaking of the old covenant. And this same Jeremiah that you quote spoke of a new covenant.
Israel’s living in and controlling the land of Israel was tied to the Sinai covenant. Again, the book that best spells this out is Deuteronomy, written by the leader of the nation of Israel at the time, Moses, who himself never set foot in the land of Israel.
Premillennial dispensationalism tries to get around the fact that Israel broke the terms of the conditionial Sinai covenant by claiming that it was the unconditional covenant with Abraham that gave Abraham’s descendants eternal control of the land of Israel. However, http://www.gotquestions.org/Abrahamic-covenant.html does an outstanding job of exposing this false belief. It is based on inappropriately joining Genesis 15:18-21 and Genesis 12:1-3 together. Genesis 15:18-21 simply promises land to Abraham and his descendants. We know that this promise was fulfilled, as Abraham’s descendants were given the land of Israel. That was not what Jeremiah 31:35-36 was referencing.
Genesis 12:1-3 is the unconditional covenant that makes promises to make Israel into a nation. That was what Jeremiah 31:35-36 was speaking of. And why did Jeremiah write Jeremiah 31:35-36? To address people who claimed that the fall of Judah to Babylon meant that God was breaking the Abrahamic covenant. Jeremiah was reminding Israel that the Abrahamic covenant meant that the natural children of Israel through Isaac would always exist as a people, not that they would always live in and have control of the nation of Israel. Again, continued living in and controlling the nation of Israel was conditioned on keeping the Sinai covenant.
Now interpreting scripture with scripture is a legitimate way to interpret the Bible, so adding Genesis 15:18-21 to Genesis 12:1-3 or even using one to interpret the other would appear, in isoloation, to be valid. The problem is that Genesis 12:1-3 and Genesis 15:18-21 do not appear in isolation. We have to consider those two statements in the context of the rest of the Bible. The issue with modern premillennialism (which, yes, does differ from historic premillennialism) is not so much that people add those two promises to Abraham together, but rather that in doing so they reinterpret or outright ignore/reject other parts of the Bible, especially the Sinai covenant, its conditional nature, and basically everything that happened after 721 BC when the northern kingdom destroyed Assyria. Interesting thing about the northern kingdom’s tribe of Dan … they never at any time kept the Sinai covenant. The book of Judges reveals that the tribe of Dan fell into apostasy immediately after Israel possessed the land. Do you know the result of that? The tribe of Dan is not listed among the 144,400 in Revelation. They are replaced by elevating the half tribes of Joseph to two full tribes. If that doesn’t prove that God was serious about the Sinai covenant, I do not know what does.
But dispensational premillennialism teaches that 721 BC was the start of Israel merely being punished for breaking the Sinai covenant, and in 1948 the punishment was over. As a matter of fact, Paul Meier, who wrote “The Millennium” series of books that – among other things – promotes Bible codes, claimed that the punishment for breaking the Sinai covenant was only the 60 year captivity in Babylon, and what happened to Israel thereafter was actually Israel being punished because most of them refused to return to Israel but stayed in Babylon. Well, Meier’s argument breaks down when you consider that A) not all of Israel was sent to Babylon, but that the poor was left behind and B) it completely ignores the northern kingdom.
And that is yet another problem. Dispensationalism starts by referring to all of Israel, then it shrinks to just the two tribes that made up Judah, then it enlarges to include all of Israel again. Why? Because if you don’t shrink it to include Judah, then you will have to deal with the fact that the 10 northern tribes were not restored to all of Israel, only the two southern tribes were. The land formerly occupied by the 10 northern tribes basically went to the SAMARITANS. (Of course, the later books of the Old Testament reveal that the Samaritans included natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that is why they figured so prominently in the gospels and Acts, to the point of Jesus Christ making the special effort to reveal Himself to the Samaritan woman at the well. But they were not Jews or considered to be part of the nation of Israel in any sense.) But now, it has to be expanded to all of Israel so that the descendants of those who returned from Babylon can stake a modern claim to the land given to all 12 tribes.
So we have to points of contention that are critical to premillennial dispensationalism. First is the combination of Genesis 12:1-3 and Genesis 15:18-21 when later Biblical revelation (not to mention historical events) doesn’t support it. Second is willfully misusing the term “nation” in Genesis 12:1-3 and in other relevant places to be the modern meaning of “nation – state”, a combination of a land and a government. Genesis 12:1-3, Jeremiah 31:35-36, Exodus, etc. do not use that definition, which is western. When the relevant Bible passages say “nation”, they are referring to a PEOPLE, such as a tribe (or confederation of tribes) or ethnic group, people united by common lineage. Now the epitome of the modern definition of “nation” is America, which is not defined by a single ethnic group, people group, or lineage but is an amalgamation, and indeed the people who are actually indigenous to our nation – state are a tiny part of the population and have very little – if any – power in it. So, the “nation” of America (out of many, one, e pluribus unum, tons of different races, nationalities, ethnic groups etc. combining to make one entity that is defined by a political entity and a land mass) and the “nation” of Israel (which literally means the natural genetic descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel and exists no matter which political entity they reside under or where they live whether it be in Egypt/Alexandria, Canaan, Babylon, the Greek Empire, New York City/Miami, Mumbai) are direct contrasts with each other. It is one of the classic divergences between what the Bible meant to its original hearers when it was written and what it means to contemporary audiences (especially those in the west, who are completely influenced by the western – Roman! – notions of nation – state and city – state and empire – state that often contain many races and ethnic groups as opposed to the east and other parts of the world where tribes and such still very much exist and influence thinking, even in the cases of tribes that are in the same basic ethnic or racial group … if you doubt that do an Internet search on “Rwanda genocide”).
Now I should point out that I disagree with some of the older fashioned amillennialist sorts, the line of thinking in a lot of conservative Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant circles that opposes the existence of the state of Israel. I have no problem with Israel’s existence, especially when you consider that Jews do in fact need a place of last resort that they can flee to because of persecution and other crises, and no other country on the world want that place to be their own country. (I personally wouldn’t mind that country being America, but I am not a democratic majority.) And if you look at current events in Europe, its allowing itself to be Islamized and assent to sharia law, it does appear that many Jews may have to leave that continent for Israel in the near future. So yes, I can say in a very real way that I do support Israel and the Jews. I am merely pointing out that the existence of Israel is a very bad deal for the Palestinians, who are in a tough spot that cannot be resolved with either politics or military force. People who use questionable premillennial dispensational assumptions to support Israel’s simply crushing the Palestinians beyond doing what is necessary to defend themselves (and I do agree by the way that Israel’s bombing and invading Gaza is a legitimate and perhaps necessary measure to stop being pelted with rockets) are ignoring that fact.
Bottom line: it was the Sinai covenant that allowed Israel to live in Canaan under God’s protection, not the Abrahamic or Davidic covenants. And the Sinai covenant was broken by Israel. If it hadn’t been, then Israel wouldn’t have fallen to Assyria and Judah wouldn’t have fallen to Babylon. That was precisely what the Old Testament prophets and the Chronicler addressed … people who were claiming that God had forsaken His promise to Israel. They replied “God didn’t forsake us, but we forsook God” and then took them right back to Exodus, Leviticus, and especially Deuteronomy (which is precisely why liberal scholarship denies that Deuteronomy was written by Moses, but was instead written during the exile, and the rest of the Old Testament edited to reflect it as a way of Judaism’s “covering its bases” to account for its defeat by Babylon).