Rethinking Israel

The Theopolis Institute has been having a conversation surrounding the identity and future of Israel over on its website. Theopolis Conversations are designed to explore complex yet important issue from different perspectives with various positions in sharpening dialogue. I’ve just posted a piece on supersessionism and the future of Israel.

For God to strip the olive tree of almost all of its natural branches and repopulate it with grafted wild branches instead raises serious questions about the tree’s continued identity. Even if we maintain that the Messiah is the root of the olive tree, bearing all of the branches, the olive tree is not reducible to its root, much as the body of Christ isn’t reducible to its head. The identity of Israel can be focused upon and borne by the Messiah, but it cannot simply be alienated onto the Messiah. As Paul says in the context, ‘the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’

Indeed, Paul’s claim in verse 15 suggests the most startling homology between the Messiah and the nation of Israel, even in its state of rejection: the rejection of Israel is the ‘reconciliation of the world’ and their acceptance would mean ‘life from the dead’. The story of the Messiah, cast away for the reconciliation of the world, is recapitulated in his people according to the flesh: just as the Messiah was raised from death, so must Israel be. And, when they are, it will mean resurrection.

Read the whole thing here.

Photo: Andrew Shiva

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Church History, Election, Eschatology, Luke, Matthew, NT, NT Theology, OT, OT Theology, Politics, Romans, The Church, Theological, Theology, Theopolis. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Rethinking Israel

  1. Name Reserved says:

    Were you aware that the Palestinian inhabitants of Israel are more Semitic by genetic descent — ie., Abraham’s actual heirs — than the European Jews who moved in on them? Like Ethiopian Judiasm, there’s some about of LARPing about the religion in Europe.

    That’s no excuse for attacking Israel or Jews, but trying to fit the modern state specially into God’s prophetic design for the Earth — any more than say, Nigera or Laos — starts to look kind of silly.

  2. hygelac says:

    This has been a tremendous conversation. Indeed, among these several topical conversations “Rethinking Israel” is my personal favorite. I also appreciated this week’s interview of Dr. McDermott at Mere Fidelity.

    I recognized my own position when Derek and Matt spoke of a “soft supercessionism” which identifies Israel with the Church, inasmuch as the Church is Israel, ushered into a more glorious stage of redemptive history in “the administration of righteousness.” That was the paradigm Derek had in mind in a number of questions he posed to Dr. McDermott near the end of the podcast, which seems to have been misunderstood. Nevertheless, I do believe McDermott’s major point boils down to something like this:

    If the Jew/Gentile Church of the NT, described as an olive tree, the commonwealth of Israel and the union of Jew and Gentile as “one new man” (an image with matrimonial and sacramental implications), is in fact the “Israel of God”, then Paul is flattening out the many biblical promises which have been made to the Jewish people apart from any other group. Consequently, God’s dealings with the natural sons of Abraham, post Christ’s ascension into heaven and the coming of the Holy Ghost, no longer retain that clear and distinct particularity of the Hebrew Bible, which we might describe as the salvation of “Israel qua Israel.” At least this seems to be the case if the Gentiles are being saved with the Jews as a single people, through the covenantal means God has established in belief and baptism (Mark 16:16).

    That is a powerful point. But as a soft supercessionist I gladly admit that the Jewish people are still Israel, for they are loved by God for the sake of the patriarchs and retain all their gifts and callings, despite having been cut off from Christ for their rejection of the gospel. The engrafting of a good many Gentiles into Israel’s olive tree does indeed create problems with regard to the integrity and Identity of Israel. But the point that Derek was raising in those questions which Dr. McDermott didn’t quite understand, is this:

    Granted that non-believing Jews are still God’s special people, does Paul present the Jew/Gentile body of Christ as the fulfillment of Israel’s destiny? In other words, though Christ, as the root and fatness of the tree, does not replace the tree, could it be that its fulfillment and maturation arrives only in him and with the engrafting of unnatural, Gentile branches?

    If this happens to be the case, then there is a sense in which the Church is Israel, although with regard to the Gentiles, everything hangs on their unnatural (and, we might say, ill-fitting?) citizenship in Israel by way of union with a remnant of faithful Jews, as an outcome of incorporation into Christ. Furthermore, as it pertains to unbelieving Israel, might we understand their being cut off from the olive tree as something akin to a mass excommunication? What I have in mind is Peter’s address from Solomon’s portico where he exclaims” Repent, therefore, and turn again that your sins may be blotted out, that the times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.'”

    I must say that this conversation and podcast have spurred me on to get a firmer grip on Jewish exegesis. And, quite providentially, I stumbled upon a wonderful series of interviews with Jewish scholars such as Robert Alter and Rabbi Berman, c/o Dru Johnson’s podcast. I’m finding it all very exciting. Thanks, Alastair.

    • Really pleased to hear that you have found the conversation helpful!

      Perhaps one thing to consider with the olive tree is that it may not be Israel but the covenant family, which was once coterminous with Israel, but now includes believing Gentiles on an equal footing. The problem is that, since the covenant people was once coterminous with Israel, we can falsely equate the two. So, the Jew-Gentile Church may be the fulfilment of the covenant people, but that doesn’t mean that it takes the place of Israel.

      Perhaps we could illustrate this with a nation like the United Kingdom, which is made up of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. There was a time when the kingdom was simply England, before expanding to become Great Britain and Northern Ireland. At that time, the kingdom and England were coterminous and interchangeable for most purposes. However, after the Act of Union that changed. The kingdom now included more than England, without collapsing internal differences between English (and Welsh) and the Scots. What was true of England was no longer necessarily true of the people of the kingdom and vice versa. The different peoples are ‘one’ in the United Kingdom, but internal distinctions remain meaningful in certain contexts. Much the same is true in the case of Israel.

  3. hygelac says:

    It never occurred to me that there may be a difference between Israel and “the covenant family” (what Paul has described as the “Commonwealth of Israel”.) And the analogy of the UK before and after the Act of Union is a very helpful way to understand what your’e driving at. This is something I will need to chew on for a bit. In the mean time, I would like to say a word or two about where I think your very fine analogy breaks down (which analogies always do, of course!)

    Thanks to the Act of Union the kingdom took within itself discrete nationalities which should not be conflated with the English, a people who at one time were coterminous with the kingdom. But it seems to me that unlike England, which maintained her distinctiveness as a nation (perhaps in the sense of primus inter pares?) within an enlarged kingdom which now included the Welsh and the Scots, unbelieving Israel, which certainly retained her distinctiveness among the nations, did so at the cost of failing to realize her place in the covenant family of her own Messiah.

    There is a great difference. And It brings us back to the idea of being severed from the olive tree, which may indeed denote covenant family. On the other hand, it is more difficult to map Peter’s warning about the fate of those Israelites who refuse to heed the word of the prophet onto the covenant family of the olive tree. Moses promised that God would raise him up “from your brothers”; the punishment for turning a deaf ear to his word was destruction “from the people.” In both cases, the referrent seems to be a very particular one, i.e., the people of Israel, rather than the covenant family of the Messiah in Jew and Gentile.

    This by no means dismantles your distinction between Israel and covenant family, but it complicates the picture somewhat.

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