You say ‘Israel’, I say ‘Israel’

June 3, 2009

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.


4 Responses to “You say ‘Israel’, I say ‘Israel’”

  1. Yehuda Lyon said

    Yeshua said: “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”…in other words “fill it full”. When something is filled full it is not rendered useless and irrelevant. Yeshua is not the end of the law but, the goal at which the Torah aims. You are apparently into replacement theology. Would Christians who think they are the new Israel have submitted to Hitler and stood with their “Jewish Brothers” during the shoah? I doubt it.
    Israel is a group of People bound together by a special covenant with God. It is a covenant that Gentiles share only a part of. Read Romans 11. We Christians are grafted into Israel’s tree. He doesn’t say there are two trees or that the tree has become a “Gentile Christian Tree”. Yes, we are wild branches that have been grafted in, but Rabbi Sha’ul says ‘not to boast’.

  2. Dear Yehuda,

    Thank you for your comment. I fear you have misread or misunderstood the point I am trying to make. I am certainly not into ‘replacement theology’, as I believe that system envisages two peoples of God- which, as you say, is nowhere to be found in scripture. It makes ‘Israel’ and ‘the Church’ two separate entities- and as you say, Paul is quite clear that there is one olive tree (nourished by the life-giving sap, which I believe is Jesus).

    What I am saying is that I think ‘Israel’ and ‘the Church’ are two names for the same thing: the one, continuous body of believers in the living God throughout history. So it’s not an ethnic people group, and neither is it a new entity formed in the New Testament when gentiles believed in the God of Israel in large numbers.

    So, I in no way want to say that gentile believers are a ‘new Israel’- that’s meaningless language. I want to be clear that gentile believers share in all the blessings of the covenant with the Old Testament believers (see Ephesians 1). So of course, gentile Christians have nothing to boast in except the blessings they’ve received by virtue of being grafted into the tree- how ridiculous that would be!

    You said, ‘Israel is a group of People bound together by a special covenant with God’. AMEN!

    I hope that clarifies my position. Please do comment again if you would like me to do do further.

  3. Si said

    “I am certainly not into ‘replacement theology’, as I believe that system envisages two peoples of God”. I’ve never spotted that at all. It’s quite funny how the hard dispensationalists, who actually do believe in two people of God use ‘replacement theology’ as an insult, as a bad thing. They have that in this dispensation Israel is replaced by the Church and in the next dispensation, the Church is raptured and Israel replaces them as God’s people on earth. It’s also odd to see how it’s banded around when talking about how Israel=the Church as both are names for the people of God (as you say), as somehow that’s replacement theology – it’s not that at all.

    An excellent definition of Israel above, however I’ll tweak it “Israel/the Church is a group of people bound together in Jesus the Messiah, sharing a special covenant of grace with God”.

    Yehuda, I don’t know what you are getting at with your comment about the law – the law never came up in the OP. Guessing from your use of Yeshua and the rest of your comment, you seem to be a Messianic Jew, or similar, trying to say that the law still applies to Jews, as a special blessing from God. The fulfilment of the law by Jesus, means Jews and Gentiles in Christ (Israel/the Church) don’t have to try and follow it. Because he fulfilled the law by coming, keeping it and dying as a substitute, it means those united to him, those who are part of the olive tree, are – through the law (Gal 2:19) – dead to the law (Gal 2:19, Rom 7) that is limited by flesh and leads to sin and death (Rom 8:2-3). To Christians it is useless as law, to not-yet-Christians it points to their need to be saved and for both it points to the Saviour. It’s not useless and irrelevant, just big time misunderstood! Christ removed the sting of Death: sin, whose power is the law (1Cor 15:56). It’s a yoke that you do not need to submit yourself to – you can, if you want, however Paul had a go at Peter for following it when some guys from Jerusalem turned up (Gal 2:11-14) – not because it was morally wrong to follow it, but because it was an awful witness to deny that Jew and Gentile alike are not bound by the law. The law, due it being weakened by our flesh, is a curse: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13).

    Yes, Jews had the promises of the law given to them, the prophets, the special experience of being chosen as a race to be the focus of the promises as the race of Jesus, however the law was not a blessing but a curse if it did not lead them to realise their own sin and trust in the Messiah to redeem them from it and the curse of the law.

  4. Yehuda Lyon said

    You brand me as a Messianic Jew because I use the term “Yeshua”. I hope you don’t have a problem with that name because its very likely that our Messiah will call himself “Yeshua” when he returns. It means “salvation” in Hebrew. Etymologically, the word “Jesus” has no meaning, being an English translation of a Greek translation of a Hebrew word. I made a comment about the “Law” (the root meaning is “teaching” or “Torah”) because most Christians who intend to marginalize Israel and the Jewish People really don’t understand God’s purpose for “the law”. It is only a curse when it is interpreted and applied legalistically. The Law teaches us righteous living, healthy personal habits, fruitful marriages, peaceful civic life, strong relationships and much more. “Baptism” does not give us salvation, but most Christians believe it is an important act of submission. Is Baptism, therefore an unnecessary “Law” that the church blindly follows?

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