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ANALYSIS — Israel: Theological issues at stake alongside foreign policy tensions

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The little town of Bethlehem is not lying very still as this Christmas approaches. In the wake of increasing skirmishes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian rebels, the city has announced that it will cancel most of its Advent activities. Bethlehem is not alone. The entire nation of Israel stands in uncertainty against Palestinian uprisings within its borders and hostile Arab nations without.

For American evangelicals, however, the current happenings in Israel are not just another tricky foreign policy issue on a par with bombings in Kosovo or trade relations with Vietnam. More and more evangelicals are grappling with the question of Israel as they seek to apply an evangelical ethic to public policy concerns. A meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society Nov. 15-17 in Nashville, Tenn., for example, examined the issue of “Israel: Past, Present, and Future.” Evangelicals seeking to construct a biblically informed Christian worldview cannot ignore Israel as a peripheral issue. But how do they relate the images on CNN to the maps on the back pages of their study Bibles?

Israel Past. The relationship of Old Testament Israel to the New Testament church is a longstanding controversy in evangelical life. The very presence of a Baptist congregation across the street from a Presbyterian sanctuary demonstrates differing ways of understanding this issue as it relates to questions such as baptism, church government and Sabbath observance.

Just as controversial, however, has been the question of whether to equate the Old Testament theocracy with the United States of America. Early Baptists such as the exiled Roger Williams and the horsewhipped Obadiah Holmes discovered the political implications of such an idea when the Puritan state/church applied Old Testament civil purity codes to the “New Israel” of the American colonies.

Recent appropriations of Israelite imagery to the United States have been more subtle: Jimmy Carter quoting 2 Chronicles 7:14 as God’s promise to bless a repentant post-Watergate America. Ronald Reagan referring to the United States as a “shining city on a hill.” Bill Clinton dubbing his political program “the New Covenant.” Commentator Stephen Carter pointing to Israel’s handling of the David/Bathsheba affair to suggest that Congress should not have impeached President Clinton following his sex and perjury scandal. Even more recently, some observers have compared the current litigation-riddled confusion in Florida to the period when Israel was ruled by the judges and “everyone did what right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Most conservative evangelicals increasingly have opposed any attempt to equate the promises and curses given to Old Testament Israel to any current American government. This does not mean, however, that the Israelite nation does not at all inform Christians as to what kind of government policies they should support. God’s dealings with Old Testament Israel make clear that he takes seriously the treatment of aliens and strangers (Deut 10:17-19), for example. While such passages do not provide a blueprint for American immigration policy, they should give evangelical citizens and policymakers pause when they are tempted toward “immigrant-bashing” based simply on raw nationalistic fervor. The command for Israel to protect the orphan and the fatherless should provide motivation for Christians to seek legal protection for the unborn and the aged, even as the public relations campaigns of Planned Parenthood and the Hemlock Society goad the nation to embrace more and more fully the culture of death.

If Old Testament Israel provides a model for God’s commitment to structural righteousness, then such righteousness must certainly be mirrored in the activities and government of the local church. While evangelicals do not agree on whether the church has “replaced” Israel in God’s purposes, most do agree that there is some continuity between Israel and the church as the people of God. The apostle Paul points to the government of Old Testament Israel in his admonition to the church to maintain congregational discipline (1 Cor. 5:9-13). The apostle even points to Old Testament texts on the government of Israel to make his point about the payment of church leaders (1 Cor. 9:8-14).

The church, like Old Testament Israel, is called to be a “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). Unlike Israel, the church does not have the power of the sword (John 18:11). But, like OT Israel, the church is to witness by its own internal activities and public pronouncements to what the kingdom of God is like. The church with a slumlord as chairman of deacons has little credibility in calling on the city council to assist the poor. The pastor who refuses to preach on “controversial” issues like abortion cannot expect the state legislature to protect the unborn. The church that will not discipline the husband who leaves his wife for a younger woman has no right to demand that the U.S. president address the decline of family values.

Israel Present. How then do American evangelicals relate to the Israel, not on their Vacation Bible School felt boards, but on their nightly television screens? The modern state of Israel has had a longstanding alliance with conservative American Christians, many of whom saw the 1948 establishment of Israel as a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy of the “budding of the fig tree” (Luke 21:29-34). Buttressed by a dispensationalist understanding of Israel’s restoration, evangelical support for Israel found further theological anchoring in the 1970s and 1980s with the flurry of end-times interest led by writer Hal Lindsey. Lindsey and others suggested that the establishment of Israel meant that the return of Jesus was less than a generation away. Support for Israel became a key component of the political activism of Christian political organizations. Under siege from opponents ranging from the Palestinian Liberation Organization to the United Nations, the Israeli government was glad for such support.

A newer generation of conservative evangelicals seems not as quick to equate the modern state of Israel with the fulfillment of prophecy. The newer “progressive dispensationalist” movement, for example, led by Craig Blaising at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Darrell Bock at Dallas Theological Seminary, have refused to apply God’s Old Testament promise of blessing to the modern Israeli state. We cannot know whether this state of Israel is the beginnings of any prophetic fulfillment, these dispensationalists warn, so it would be best not to speculate on how it fits into the plan of God. Further, these dispensationalists contend, the Israel of biblical prophecy is to be blessed as it recognizes and embraces its Messiah, the Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16), not apart from Christ.

Still, whatever one’s views of biblical prophecy, American evangelicals must recognize that groups like the Moral Majority were not naive in their embrace of modern Israel. It would be a dubious move for evangelicals to overreact to prophetic speculation by canonizing the Palestinians as the “new Israelites” in bondage to a rather ironically cast “new Pharaoh” of the Israeli government. Next to the standards of justice and righteousness defined by the kingship of Christ (Ps. 72; Isa. 11), the tyrannies-in-waiting of terrorists such as Yassar Arafat should be repugnant to Christians. As such, some American evangelicals may be more reluctant to ground their support for Israel in the “Thus saith the Lord” of the prophecy charts, but they will probably continue to support Israel as a threatened outpost of democracy in a hostile Middle East.

Israel Future. Will national Israel be restored to receive the promised blessings of the Old Testament? The Reformed tradition has insisted that these promises have been “spiritualized” into the New Testament blessings of peace with God and forgiveness of sins. The dispensational tradition, however, has contended that passages such as Romans 11 teach clearly that God is not finished with the nation of Israel. Dispensational premillennialism has had a tremendous impact on Southern Baptist theology in recent years, especially since most of the leaders of the SBC’s conservative resurgence were committed dispensationalists.

While the evangelical question of Israel’s future will not be resolved anytime soon, many evangelicals are realizing that the issue carries implications for Christian ethics and political thought. For those committed to a future for Israel, there can be no suggestion that God is unconcerned with politics or that God’s purposes are concerned simply with private “spiritual” matters. To the contrary, in this vision of prophetic hope, history is moving to a stunningly political climax as the resurrected Christ rules the nations from a restored political Israel.

While the debate over Israel’s past, present and future will likely continue among evangelicals for years to come, it remains a debate with great relevance to Christian public activity. Whatever their disagreements on this issue, evangelicals can agree on several points. God’s purposes for Israel guarantee that God is concerned with the public and political lives of his people. The history of Israel proves that God expects a clear moral vision from his people. Any future for Israel means that the Jewish people must embrace their Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, promised to their fathers.

As anguished Christians watch the troubled televised images from the holy land this holiday season, perhaps we will sing with biblical fervor, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”

    About the Author

  • Russell D. Moore