Usually, ‘Israel’ in the Bible is taken to mean ‘the Jewish people’.  When Abraham is promised descendants more numerous than the stars, it’s usually taken to mean that his physical descendants, via Ishmael and Isaac, will be a vast quantity of people.  Yet the New Testament appears to interpret these Old Testament themes in ways that would challenge our general outlook.

In Galatians 615-16, Paul links the term ‘Israel’ with the spiritual rebirth given through the cross- whether circumcised (Jewish) or uncircumcised (gentile).  And in Romans 4:11, Abraham’s fathehood is defined not physically but spiritually

So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

Not only are gentiles who have faith in the Living God Abraham’s children, but his physical children who do not follow in his footsteps of faith are excluded!  Jesus makes this very point himself with great force in John 8:39-47.  So is this a New Testament invention?  A spiritual spin on the obvious physical interpretation of the Old Testament understanding?  Has something new happened with the arrival of Jesus to transform our understanding of the word ‘Israel’?

Of course not!  In Genesis 17:23, Abraham circumcises his whole household as a sign of the covenant the LORD has made with him; including slaves and servants.  At this stage only Ishmael is born- no sign yet of the promised son, Isaac and therefore nobody that we could call ethnically Jewish.  From the start, the people gathered around Abraham- the people of God- were international in flavour.

In Exodus 12:48, the LORD anticipates foreigners joining Israel to celebrate the Passover, and they are permitted to do so on the condition that they too receive circumcision, the sign of the covenant.  And v38 shows that this did happen- many people of other nations joined Israel!

Later, Joshua 8:33 recalls,

All Israel, aliens and citizens alike, with their elders, officials and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the LORD, facing those who carried it

There’s a clear reference there to the fact that Israel included people who were not physical descendants of Abraham.  It’s clear then that even in the Old Testament, ‘Israel’ is not an ethno-political group or even really a nation.  That’s why it is so abhorrent to the LORD in 1 Samuel 8 that the people ask for a king, and why Balaam says of them in Number 23:9 that they are ‘a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations.’

Israel is not a group bound together by shared genetics, national identity, or even a common culture: it is an international gathering of those men and women redeemed by the God of Abraham, and included in the gospel promised to him way back in Genesis 12 (Galatians 3:8).  The definition of ‘Israel’ throughout the Bible is, then, identical to the one we might forward today for the word ‘Church’.  And in fact that very word- ‘ekklesia‘- is the one Stephen uses in Acts 7:38 to refer to the Israelites in the desert with Moses.

Israel is not a people-group, but the community of faith gathered around Jesus Christ- Old Testament and New.