Christian Zionism II: Is It Bad Theology?
Some conservative Christians, especially dispensationalists and fundamentalists, tend to ignore this theme of conditionality. They suggest that Israel should never be criticized, and that no Israeli claim to land should ever be challenged. But evangelicals, particularly non-dispensationalist evangelicals, have emphasized the conditionality of the promises. Gary Burge, New Testament scholar at Wheaton College, has noted that one line of conditions is the repeated commandment of the covenant to "love the alien as yourself." The Israelites were not to "oppress the alien," who "shall be to you as the citizen among you . . . for you were aliens in Egypt" (Lev. 19:33-34). Moses commanded that tithes be collected from Israelites to help poor aliens (Dt. 14:29, 26:12); wages were not to be withheld from aliens (Dt. 24:14); aliens were to use the same system of justice that was provided to Israelites (Dt. 1:16, 24:17, 27:19).
This was remarkably demonstrated by biblical patriarchs and kings. For example, the Canaanites were not displaced when God promised the land to Abraham and his descendants. Instead Abraham and the Canaanites became neighbors and trading partners. Abraham refused to accept parcels of that land as gifts from the natives, but insisted on paying (Gen. 23).
Joshua included aliens in public re-committals to the covenant (Josh. 8:33-35), and kept his agreement with non-Israelites, even when that agreement had been made under false pretenses (Josh. 9). Then he went so far as to risk the lives of his men to protect those non-Israelites in battle (Josh. 10:6-8).
David used foreigners (men from today's Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey) as soldiers and leaders in his army. Some became his trusted advisors (2 Sam. 23; 1 Chr. 11:10-47). Like Abraham, he insisted on buying land even when the land had been promised to him. Ornan, a Canaanite who owned land in pre-Israelite Jerusalem when it was called Jebus, offered land to David for what was to be the site for God's temple. David refused the gift and paid Ornan 100 shekels of gold (1 Chr. 21).
But King Ahab stole land and murdered its owner, Naboth. God then arranged for both Ahab and his wife Jezebel to be "executed," thus suggesting that God intervenes to avenge the defenseless (1 Kgs. 21).
Burge points out that the prophets continued this refrain. Amos prophesied exile because Israelites were oppressing the poor (Amos 7:17), Jeremiah criticized the abuse of aliens (7:5-7), and Ezekiel declared that when the Jews returned from exile, they were to make provision for aliens: "They shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel" (Ezek. 47:22-23).
The upshot of all this is that keeping the terms of the covenant includes treating aliens with justice, indeed love. Covenant keeping is not only a matter of avoiding idolatry and treating fellow Jews with justice, but extending that justice to non-Israelites living in Israel. If Israel was disciplined for violating the covenant, some of those violations were against aliens living in the land.
Both Martens and McComiskey note the prophets' interpretation that the Israelites lost the land and were sent into exile because of disobedience to these terms of the covenant. Yet both evangelical scholars find the prophets and other biblical authors holding to the promise of land for Israel even after Israel by disobedience has forfeited the land. Martens writes,
Israel might and in fact did lose the land, because of failure on their part to live in the land in loyalty to Yahweh. Yet the land was inalienable in the sense that it could not be forcibly taken from Israel. Israel, however, through disobedience, forfeited the land. Prophets in the exile fell back on the inalienable right of Israel to the land, and announced a return from exile to the land, for, they said, it was rightfully theirs still (Jer. 12:14-16; 16:14-15; see also Ezek. 36:8-15).
McComiskey observes that while the prophets expanded the promised inheritance of God's people beyond the definable boundaries of Canaan to include the world, they nevertheless retained their expectation that Israel would return to the land of Palestine: "We cannot conclude that the prophets considered that promise to have been abrogated." In other words, with the prophets we find new promises made for the messiah and his worldwide reign, but these new promises do not overrule the earlier promises of a particular land for a particular people. "Expansion [of the promise] is not synonymous with abrogation." Just as Abraham was to be the father of Israel and many nations, so too Israel would return to her own land and the rest of God's people would live in a whole world.
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.