Christian Zionism II: Is It Bad Theology?
I would add that the prophets recognized a distinction that we seldom recognize—that while the covenant God made with Abraham was full of "I will" promises and its principal gift was a land (Gen. 12–17), the covenant with Moses was full of "you must" requirements respecting the possession of that land. The Abrahamic covenant was unconditional, while the Mosaic covenant was conditional. God's gift of a land to Abraham's progeny was forever, even if their enjoyment of the gift was restricted to certain periods of history.
The relative silence about land in the New Testament does not mean that the New Testament authors believed that the Abrahamic promises concerning land had been abrogated. McComiskey observes that Josephus was also silent about land. But Josephus deleted the theology of covenanted land because of its revolutionary implications for the messianism of the Zealots, whom he feared and despised. Political circumstances and Josephus's purposes thus determined his presentation about the promise of the land; any claim that he did not share the Jewish view concerning the land as promised or covenanted land because of his omissions would certainly be precarious. The same is true of any argument from silence concerning the New Testament authors.
McComiskey argues further that while Jesus does not speak directly in the gospels about God's promise of land to Israel, neither did the Mishnaic Tractate, "The Sayings of the Fathers." Yet the rest of the Mishna was well-known for its belief in the promise. Similarly, the Mosaic law never included the earlier promise of Gentile inclusion, yet the earlier promise was never abrogated. McComiskey links the two promises, both referring to land, typologically: they are two aspects of the promise of land in the prophets—restoration to the land of Palestine, and the rule of the world by the Messiah. The first is the earnest of the second.
Besides, it is curious that when his disciples asked him just before his ascension, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1.6), Jesus did not challenge their assumption that one day the kingdom would be restored to physical Israel. He simply said the Father had set the date, and they did not need to know it yet. My point is not that the present state of Israel is anything close to the eschatological Kingdom, but that Jesus did at that point refer to something in the future for physical Israel. And, if the historic church is correct to teach that the book of Revelation is also a prophecy of Jesus Christ, then this Christ also refers to a Kingdom that has Jewish earmarks pertaining to physical Israel. Christ in glory "holds the key of David (3:7); he is "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David" (6:5); all twelve tribes of the nation of Israel are mentioned in 7:1-8; the two witnesses will be killed in Jerusalem (11:8); and the battle of Armageddon will be in a valley in northern Israel (16:16).
Furthermore, there is more mention of the land in the New Testament than is often recognized. Gē is used nineteen times in ways that point to the land of Israel. Twice it is explicit, when in Matthew 2:20-21 the angels tells Joseph in a dream to take the child and his mother and go to gēn Israēl, whereupon we read that Joseph rose and took the child and his mother eis gēn Israēl. Then there are four citations from the Old Testament. When Jesus says the meek will inherit tēn gēn, he is quoting Psalm 37:11—a psalm in which God's people are told no fewer than six times they will "inherit the land." In Matthew 24:30 we read that when the Son of Man comes all the tribes tēs gēs will mourn, which is a loose translation of Zechariah 12:10 ("when they look on . . . him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, . . . each [tribe] by itself"—[the tribes of] David . . . Nathan . . . Levi . . . Shimeites, [and all the remaining tribes], ESV) This same Zechariah text turns up in Revelation 1:7, where the writer says that he is coming on the clouds, and "all tribes tēs gēs will wail on account of him." Then in Ephesians 6:3 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 5:17, telling children to honor their parents, "for this is the first commandment with a promise, that things may go well with you and you would have a long life, epi tēs gēs." Five more references are based on the Old Testament (in Luke 4:25, Jesus refers to the days of Elijah when there was a great famine epi pasan tēn gēn; James in 5:17-18 uses the same story to say it did not rain epi tēs gēs but that after Elijah's prayer hē gē yielded fruit; the author of Hebrews in 11:9 says Abraham went to live in "the land of promise"; and in the story of Revelation in 20:9 Gog and Magog marched over the broad plain tēs gēs and surrounded "the beloved city." Finally, eight passages imply the land by their context. Jesus says to his disciples in the land, "You are the salt tēs gēs" (Mt. 5:13); he warns his followers not to think that he has come to bring peace epi pasan tēn gēn (Mt. 10:34) but to realize he has come to cast fire; three texts talk about darkness coming epi tēn gēn during the crucifixion (Mt. 27.45; Mk. 15.33; Lk. 23.44), and Jesus warns that the destruction of Jerusalem will bring great distress epi tēs gēs (23:44). The author of Revelation says the bodies of the two witnesses will lie in "the city in which the Lord was crucified," and those who dwell epi tēs gēs will rejoice over them (11:10).
In sum, this sketch of Christian Zionist history and theology of land shows that belief in Jewish return to the land has come primarily from looking to the past, not the future. That is, it has been inspired by biblical prophetic promises that the Jews will return to Palestine, and not just after the second exile. It is also inspired by the conviction that even anti-Zionists would find difficult to deny—that the heart of the story of the Old Testament is God's covenant with Israel, and that central to that covenant, according to the biblical story, is a land.
This faith was widespread among post-Reformation Protestants, not simply premillennialists in America. While it was often connected to civil religious aims for both England and America, the latter were not essential to it. While some premillennialists thought the conversion of Israel and then its betrayal by Antichrist were essential to Christ's second-coming, most Christian Zionists have not. All have believed some sort of large-scale turning of Jews to Jesus would take place at some time in the future, but most have been vague on when and how that would take place. None doubted, however, that Scripture promised a return to the land, that 1948 was at least a partial fulfillment of that promise, and that it was the duty of Christians to support that fledgling state.
Not all of today's Christian Zionists insist that these are the final days, and not all are convinced that Israel as a nation will be able to stay on the land (that is up to the providence of God), and most would not support a unilateral land-grab by Israel that is insensitive to the rights of Palestinians. But they would all agree, as Gary Anderson has put it, that "Israel's attachment to this land is underwritten by God's providential decree [and that] the miraculous appearance of the Israeli state just after the darkest moment in Jewish history is hard to interpret outside of a theological framework."
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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.