Does Modern Israel Inherit the Promises to Abraham? (continued)

If the Old Testament prophets were to visit today and learn that more than half the Jewish population is non-religious—or that Israel is imprisoning non-Jewish residents without criminal charges against them, and stealing their land and water —these prophets would be full of criticism.

While this thinking is popular, it runs up against some enormous problems. First, the Bible makes clear that these promises are conditional. They depend on ancient Israel’s loyalty to the faith of Abraham—believing in the God of Abraham and living according to God’s morals. In Deuteronomy 4:25–27 this is crystal clear. Failure to show this faith and these morals will lead to Israel “perishing” from the land. The reason the promise is given conditionally lies in Leviticus 25:23. Israel is never promised ownership of the land. Israel is promised use of the land. Why? Because the land belongs to God.

   James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the Old Testament we see more examples of this idea. Ancient Israel’s life in the Holy Land depends on faith and ethics. David’s faithful, moral behavior in 1 Chronicles 21 is the ideal. Ahab’s coveting and theft of Naboth’s land in 1 Kings 21 is the opposite. But the strongest warnings come from the Hebrew prophets. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and Jeremiah each repeat the warning (among many possible examples, see Isa 1, Mic 1–2, Amos 5–6, Jer 2–5). Isaiah 5:1–7 is perhaps the most fervent explanation.

What happens when we apply these covenant promises to a secular state like today’s Israel? If the Old Testament prophets were to visit today and learn that more than half the Jewish population is non-religious (65% non-religious, according to an April 2015 article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz)—or that Israel is imprisoning non-Jewish residents without criminal charges against them, and stealing their land and water—these prophets would be full of criticism. The Bible puts a high premium on how ancient Israel is expected to treat the non-Jew in its communities; see, for example, Ezekiel 47:22–23.

In addition, Christians often fail to think as Christians about the covenant promises. In the New Testament we read that Jesus has appeared and that he has started a new covenant. And here is the key: Does Jesus’ new covenant change the covenants that came before? Hebrews 8:13 says yes in its comment on Jeremiah 31:31–34 (regarding the new covenant). Jesus’ kingdom is like new wine placed in old wineskins. The old skins break (Matthew 9:14–17). According to John the Baptist, the special privileges of being “Abraham’s child” can be questioned (Matt 3:9–10). Jesus says the same thing (John 8:39–40). Moreover, in a critical passage, Galatians 3:16, Paul says that there is only one heir to Abraham—and it is Jesus, who has “redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles” (NIV). Therefore, those who attach themselves to Jesus become children of Abraham (Gal 3:7, 29).

The new covenant does not amount to “replacement theology.” God’s love for Israel, manifested in the old covenant, has not been canceled. After all, the Old Testament foreshadows the new covenant. Moreover, the people of the old covenant have not been rejected or replaced; instead, the old covenant has been expanded to include all races and nations. Jews are not excluded—they are invited in to join this new community.

For Paul a great discovery is that the church is no longer tribal. This is the ethnic breakthrough of the Christian church, where Jews and gentiles find a fresh unity. And if this is the case, the answer to the question, “Who are Abraham’s children?” or “Who inherits Abraham’s promises?” becomes far more complex than we imagined. But at least no reader of the New Testament can imagine that a secular political state fulfills a Biblical vision of the promises to Abraham.