Christian Zionism II: Is It Bad Theology?
Roman Catholic historian Robert Wilken has observed that "hopes of restoration and the establishment of a kingdom in Jerusalem were not, it seems, foreign to early Christian tradition." The angel tells Mary that "the Lord God will give to [Jesus] the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever" (Lk. 1:32-33). Jesus himself seemed to anticipate the day when Jerusalem would welcome him: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord'" (Mt. 23.39). And, according to Wilken, the same Greek word translated "earth" (gēn) in Jesus' beatitude ("Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," Mt. 5:5) is the word usually translated as "land" in the Septuagint's phrase "possess the land" elsewhere in the Bible.
If . . . one interprets Jesus as within, rather than against, his Jewish world, the translation "possess the land" merits consideration. . . . [I]t is a recurring refrain in Jewish history, and in Jesus' time it was one way of designating the messianic kingdom centered in Jerusalem. "Inherit the earth" captures neither the spiritual nor the territorial overtones of the phrase.
But if Paul and Jesus scholarship has eroded support for supersessionism, most Protestant and Catholic scholars have not embraced the countervailing notion that God has a present and future role for Jews in the land of Palestine. That is, while most Protestant and Catholic scholars since the Holocaust fall over each other reaffirming God's eternal covenant with Israel, for the most part they ignore what for most Jews is absolutely integral to that covenant: the land. Jews appreciate Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant affirmations that God's covenant with Israel is eternal, but wonder why they ignore or deny what they believe is an indispensable manifestation of the covenant. As the authors of "Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity" put it, "The most important event for Jews since the Holocaust has been the reestablishment of a Jewish state in the Promised Land." They add, "Israel was promised—and given—to Jews as the physical center of the covenant between them and God." Yet most Protestant and Catholic affirmations of the Jewish covenant ignore this central component. A letter writer to the Christian Century complained that the editor's approach to the land of Israel "is roughly equivalent to a Jew asking a Protestant teenager: 'Hey, what's up with the resurrection thing?' A Judaism without the [covenantal] component of the land of Israel is a faith shorn of most of its power." This is in part because, as the National Council of Synagogues argues, "God wants the nations to see the redemption of Israel and be impressed. . . . They will therefore learn, if they had not learned before, that the Lord, God of Israel, restores His people to His land."
If fundamentalists and evangelicals see a future for Jews in the land of Israel because of their understanding of Paul and Jesus, they also see Old Testament prophecy pointing in the same direction. They take seriously God's promises in Genesis (Gen. 12:7, 13:15, 15:18, 17:8) to give a land to Abraham's descendants. They cite Isaiah's vision for the renewal of Zion, especially in Isaiah 4:2-6, and for the perpetuation of a remnant. They believe that the promise of a kingdom for the new David in Isaiah 9:7 suggests a restored land, and note both Jeremiah's promise that the Jews would return to the land in chapter 32 and receive a new covenant (chap. 33), and Ezekiel's recurring theme of the ingathering of all the scattered Israelites in the land.
Furthermore, evangelical scholars are impressed by the overwhelming importance of land in Torah. Elmer Martens has noted that land is the fourth most frequent noun or substantive in the Old Testament, repeated 2504 times. He notes that it is more dominant statistically than the idea of covenant. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery contends that "next to God himself, the longing for land dominates all others [in the Old Testament]." Land is presented by Torah as a place of spiritual testing; its pollution by sin and Israel's consequent exiles are portrayed as analogous to humanity's fall from grace in Eden and consequent expulsion. Adam, formed from land, failed to protect it and therefore allowed the serpent (evil) access to it." Land also represents the human condition: "Good in principle, land is cursed as a result of humanity's sin, and people are alienated from it as well as being joined to it."
Therefore enjoyment of the land is not guaranteed. With the gift of land come stipulations that must be met to continue on the land. Martens writes of the covenantal obligations God imposed on Israel as conditions for continued enjoyment of the land: cities of refuge must be established for manslaughterers, religious and moral instruction must be given and carried out, dietary rules must be followed, sabbaths and jubilees for both land and people are to be observed, and the following behaviors are proscribed: harlotry, shedding of innocent blood, child sacrifice, sexual perversion, and the remarriage of a husband to a divorced wife (Dt. 19:7, 6:9, 12:20ff; Lev. 19:29, 23:10-11, 25:2, 25:8ff; Num. 35:29-34; Dt. 24:4; Lev. 18: 24-25). Disobedience would bring a curse on the land (Dt. 28:15-68), and the author of Leviticus explains that the Canaanites were "vomited out" from the land because of their sins (Lev. 18:24). McComiskey adds that security in the land is guaranteed by Deuteronomy only by continuing obedience to God's law (Dt. 5:32-33, 6:3, 8;19-20, 11:8f, 13-15). The Psalmists, he writes, especially emphasize the necessity of obedience to remain on the land (Ps. 37:27-29, 34; 85:1-2, 8-10, e.g.). Proverbs sounds a similar theme, as in 2:10: "The upright will live in the land, and the blameless will remain in it." So do Isaiah (60:21, 62.4) and Jeremiah (3:16-18).
Gerald McDermott is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College, Distinguished Senior Fellow at Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, and Research Associate, Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa, University of the Free State, South Africa. He coauthored The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford University Press, 2012), which won Christianity Today's top prize for Theology and Ethics in 2013.