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.

24 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.

    • Like any analogy, it has limitations. However, it does help us to get at some of the issues.

      In rejecting its Messiah, Israel has cut itself off from the full realization of its national identity. In some ways analogous to the period of English history during which Charles II was recognized as king in Scotland, but was opposed by Parliamentary forces in England. Jesus is the rightful King of the Jews, but is rejected by his own people, while being accepted by others. If they accepted him—which I believe one day they will—they would be very much be like the primary nation in a larger kingdom.

      • toddott says:

        What “kingdom” would that be? Will there be a Millennium where Israel rules the nations? And what role would the Church play in that?

      • The rule of Christ and his people the Church, formed of people of all nations, with Israel the firstborn of the nations.

      • toddott says:

        If Israel is the primary nation in a larger kingdom, where do the Jews within the Church fit in? And WHEN is this kingdom? Will there be a Millennial Kingdom with Israel at it center after Jesus returns? And will saved Jews and Gentiles rule the earth from this kingdom, over the rest who are not in covenant? During this kingdom will a heavenly Jerusalem hover over the earthly Jerusalem, as Dispensationalists teach? Who are the other people to whom the kingdom was given, and will it be given back to Israel again? What happens after “all Israel is saved?”

  4. hygelac says:

    Excellent points. Thank you, very much.

    For sometime now, my working assumption has been that the olive tree is equivalent to the nation. But you have given me pause to think a second time about that. I have also assumed that when Peter references Deuteronomy’s “destroyed from the people”, he is speaking of the same thing that Paul covers in Rom. 11 when he writes of unbelieving Jewish branches being cut off from the olive tree. But that only makes sense on a soft supercessionist reading of these passages. In other words, you would have to understand the olive tree not as the covenant family, but as Israel herself. But then there is, Peter’s sermon, preached before a Jewish audience, which seems to read most naturally as a threat to Israelites of being cut away from their own nation; the text has a Jewish particularity, which is not there in the Pauline imagery (especially if the olive tree is rightly understood as covenant family.)

    Being destroyed from among the people must certainly be different than the peril of being cut out of the olive tree. But, if so, how do we harmonize them?

    On a tangential note, while I agree with you that within the covenant family, Gentiles are in a relation of parity with their Jewish brothers, might we have cause to push back against that just a little bit? I may be reading connotations into Paul’s theology which are simply not there, but I have always found it striking that he emphasizes the fittingness of the natural, or Jewish branches relative to the wild, unnatural graftings of Gentiles into a tree that has no natural correspondence with them. And even in an estate where they are cut off from Christ, the unbelieving Jewish people are the ones to whom pertain the promises made to father Abraham. Both of these seem to echo the opening verse of Rom. 3: “What advantage then has the Jew, or what benefit is there in circumcision? Much in every way.” Is this a rabbit trail, or could I be on to something?

  5. hygelac says:

    Your podcast of recent has shed more light on this topic. Many thanks for that. And I must say it has been very helpful to compare your arguments with the supercessionist essays of Peter Leithart at Theopolis Institute. In a number of ways, your positions are in agreement, especially with respect to ethnic Israel’s christo-centric homology, which cannot be separated from her calling as God’s special people for the salvation of the nations. This is a salient point, for it explains how the irrevocability of Israel’s gifts and callings are understandable against her failure to recognize in the coming of Christ the climax and fulfillment of her story. But it sheds light on the vocation of the Church too, which seems to recapitulate this homology in her own life and witness. Her divine commission to makes disciples of all nations by preaching the gospel and baptizing-tasks which Israel cannot fulfill so long as she denies that Jesus is the Christ-is the most obvious example. But the Church also imitates the Lord’s passion in her calling to be conformed to his cross. As Paul writes, we who are in Christ will be glorified with him, “if we suffer with him.” We may also state that because she is Christ’s body and bride, the Church carries on a priestly and royal identity which was peculiar to Israel before the Incarnation.

    These correspondences are significant, whether we believe the Church is the New Covenant Israel or not. For her identity is fundamentally Jewish, in virtue of the humanity that the Word assumed at his incarnation, which is concretely Jewish and male, even as it is consubstantial with every member of the human race. Hence, as Paul describes her, the Church is the commonwealth of Israel.

    There are still questions that need to be addressed. Rom. 9: 6s “They are not all Israel who are of Israel” seems to strongly favor a soft supercessionism, as does Paul’s typological association of unbelieving Israel with Ishmael and Esau. Paul is also very forthright when he identifies the bridal Church as the people for whom Christ gave himself. But, thanks to your articles and podcaasts, I have a much clearer idea now of what the new Christian Zionism actually believes. Much of it is quite amenable with my own suppercessionist position.

    Thanks again, Alastair.

  6. CW says:


    It may be too late to get in on this conversation, but it brings to mind a lot of practical questions. For instance, what does it mean for a Jew to be a Jew in the context of a converted Christian life? Is it different from a the way a spaniard, or a teuton, or a comanche may continue to embody certain cultural practices after converting (and those nations Christianizing down to the ground over the years as the Gospel does its work)? Or does it look different? Should the Jews continue to have distinctive religious practice? Or should they attend church and have common ecclesial form with gentiles? If they should remain separate and protect their distinctions this might have unsettling ramifications if applied to other nations.

    Also, McDermott makes much of the land promises. How are we to understand these today. Should Christians honor the current Jewish State’s claim to the biblical biblical borders, should we oppose the dispossession of Arab muslims and christians, or neither?

  7. You present an interesting point of view. I take a view which is in some respects similar to yours theologically even as it exegetically may share more with Wright’s. With Romans 11, I think the “all Israel” is inclusive of the “fulness” of Jewish and Gentile flesh alike. I note that there are multiple phrases shared between Romans 8-11, 1 Corinthians 15, and Ephesians 1-2. In all three texts, we hear echoes of Psalm 110, “fullness” is shared between Romans 11 and Ephesians 1-2. Ephesians 1 speaks of the “fullness of Him who fills all in all”, a phrase we meet again in 1 Corinthians 15. Ephesians 1-2 speaks explicitly to Jew-Gentile issues. I think the “us” and “you” refers to the remnant of Israel and the converted Gentiles, respectively, and this unfolds into the language of the single body, birthed from circumcision and uncircumcision together.

    In looking at these texts together and in light of each other, I believe we can see a larger picture emerge. As the prophets foresaw, the river of life would flow out of Jerusalem and give life to the fish of the nations. And as Isaiah and other prophets similarly foresaw, that river would circle back to Jerusalem, bringing riches with it. The four-sided pyramid of Revelation 21, the city of God, is the true kingdom of which the fourfold kingdom of Nimrod was the parody. When the mountain fills all creation, it will include the fullness of Israel and nations together. In Acts, the gospel flows out to the Gentiles and repeatedly circles back to Jerusalem. Paul embodies this (by appealing to the prophetic promises of Isaiah 66) in his passion for the Jerusalem collection. By Acts 28, Israel has been hardened and Paul proclaims the kingdom in Rome- but there is an open thread which will be closed when that gospel, having leavened all nations, circles back to Israel according to the flesh, uniting Jew and Gentile into one body where distinctions are reconciled but not erased.

    I take the “all Israel” to include Jews and Gentiles because I think “all Israel will be saved” is meant to be read in light of “not all who are from Israel are Israel” and “all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved.” But it includes that double-fullness of which Paul spoke. In Isaiah 66, Israelite heralds carry converted Gentiles as Tribute to Jerusalem. But in Isaiah 49, a similar scene is presented where Gentiles bring Israelites back home from exile. Incorporation into Israel means sharing in Israel’s elective calling to be an instrument of blessing. As the remnant of Israel “according to the election of grace” has become the root sanctifying the Gentile branches, so also the Gentile branches must reach out to ultimately embrace the broken branches of the natural family. And the double-fullness inherits the whole Earth, as Isaiah 66 echoes the language of Numbers 14 concerning the land in light of the promise of a renewed creation. Within that renewed creation, however, there is still that initial birthplace from which blessing flowed and which Judah shall possess.

    So I think of the Gentile incorporation into “Israel” in light of our taking of Christ’s Name. We bear the Name of Christ: we are “Christians.” Yet in bearing that Name, we do not dissolve or nullify its unique relationship to the one person of Jesus Christ. So also, we bear the Name of Jacob’s offspring as the Israel of God. Yet bearing that Name does not eradicate its unique relationship to the Jewish people. We are both branches on the same tree, yet some branches are natural branches and others are wild branches grafted in.

  8. Mike Ford says:

    The nation of Israel was founded by Abraham’s descendants, based on the the promise of God to bless Abraham’s descendants. However, they wrongly assumed that being a “descendant” of Abraham was based on human ancestry. The Bible correctly points out that the true descendants of Abraham are those who believe God will do what He says He will (that is, faith in the as yet unseen, born by the indwelling Holy Spirit).

    The OT portrays Israel on earth as being “typological” of the “true” Israel of God (i.e. Jesus is “true” Israel because he obeyed God, as Abraham did, and believers in Jesus as Messiah through spiritual union with Him). Citizens of Israel on earth become members of “true” Israel through belief in Jesus as the promised Jewish Messiah (i.e. “born” of God through the Holy Spirit), NOT due to fleshly heritage passed on by human birth.

  9. Mike Ford says:

    Note that God gave Abraham a “new” name (changed from old name of Abram), which signifies a “spiritual re-birth” by God. The “h”, signifying the letter “hei” in the Hebrew alphabet, symbolizes the “breath of God” or life bestowed due to the Holy Spirit. (like in Genesis 2:7!).

    So, Abraham’s “true” descendants are born according to the Spirit, not by flesh.

  10. Mike Ford says:

    Also, Romans 2:28 notes that a “Jew” (a true “descendant” of Abraham) is one whose heart (internally) is circumcised by the Holy Spirit (given from Heaven by Jesus), not by an “outward” circumcision or sign.

    • Mike Ford says:

      Jacob was also given the “new” name of Israel (by God) after he struggled (“wrestled”) with God.

      The “new” name also signifies a re-birth by the Holy Spirit.

      From God’s perspective, Israel was always intended to be an “assembly” of people on earth who would worship God “in Spirit and in truth” (Jesus is the Truth)

  11. Mike-

    Some of this repeats what I said in my above comment, which I noticed only after I wrote it. But I think it applies to what you have written.

    The biblical theology of “flesh” seems a bit more complex than you have suggested. “Flesh” has the connotation of being the clay or raw material into which God shapes the people He has intended from the beginning. So Paul says that in the Messiah, God has made “one new man out of the two.” We read in Genesis 11 that God issues the same “let us” decree He did in the creation of “Man” in Genesis 1. Read in light of Genesis 5:1-2, we see that “Man” signifies the corporate human family. The Babel-event is more than a judgment- it’s a creative act. God has molded “Man” into the male-female dyad and then the multinational choir. He takes His knife and then bifurcates Man into Israel and the nations. The pattern of divine activity seems to indicate that when God gathers all things into unity, He does so by reconciling distinctions without erasing them. We do not become unisex in Christ- but the conflict between male and female is replaced by Shalom.

    The language of Ephesians then indicates that the bifurcated Jew-Gentile family is the material out of which God has molded the Church. Both parties are essential to the catholicity of the Church in all her glory. Such is the nature of the *manifold* wisdom of God declared to the powers and authorities through the Church.

    The identity of the heart-circumcised as a “Jew inwardly” is, however, an important text to be dealt with. I take it something like this- we are inscribed with the Name of Christ at baptism. Jesus Christ becomes our name, too. We’re all little-christs, anointed by the same Spirit and marked with that same cross. But that does not mean that “Jesus Christ” ceases to have a referent in the incarnate hypostasis who was condemned by the historical Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, the former depends on the latter. Likewise, we are “partakers in the same promises.” Having been included in the promise to an Abrahamic inheritance, we are given the Name of “Judahite.” Nevertheless, as apostle Paul says, “It is the root whichi supports you.” Just as our being little-christs with that Name depends on Jesus the Messiah, the Root and Branch of David, so also does our heart-circumcision and title to the name “Israel” depend on the ongoing existence of the genealogy of Jacob. It is by that dynamic that Jacob’s genealogy kata sarka is marked for reingrafting- such is the nature of the family. The Church from the Circumcision and the Church from the Nations **must** be grafted into one another. There **must** be a perfect mutual indwelling of Israel and the Church, for both names hold true for both.

    We can see this outwards-inwards pattern throughout the prophets- the river of life flows from Zion in Isaiah 2, it circles back to Zion in Isaiah 65-66, carrying the wealth of nations. In Acts, we begin at Jerusalem, flow to the nations, and then **repeatedly circle back to Jerusalem.** Acts ends in Rome- the thread is open, suggesting an ultimate circling back to Jerusalem. Joseph begins with Jacob’s family, goes to Egypt where he converts all nations (the whole world coming to him for food) before finally being reconciled with his brothers according to the flesh.

  12. Mike Ford says:

    The contrast between Ishmael-Isaac, Esau-Jacob, Manasseh-Ephraim and Saul-David is meant to show that the “younger” NOT “older” inherits the blessing associated with Jesus’ ancestral origins.

    This shows that the New (i.e. “younger”) Man vs. the Old Man, OR the “born again” (born of Spirit) vs. born of the flesh inherits the blessing.

    Born of flesh is according to man’s lineage or ancestry, whereas Born of Spirit is born of God.

  13. Mike Ford says:

    I should note the obvious, that neither Manasseh nor Ephraim were in Jesus’ ancestral line, but Isaac, Jacob and David were.

    However, the “right-hand” blessing of Ephraim (the younger) by Jacob vs. the “left-hand” blessing of Manasseh (the older) illustrate the same “born of Spirit” vs. “born of flesh” principle.

  14. Mike Ford says:

    Perhaps a more intuitive, less obtuse way of viewing the Ishmael-Isaac, Esau-Jacob, Manasseh-Ephraim “blessings” and the Saul-David “kingships” is through the lens of a “First Adam-Last Adam (Jesus)” pattern, which still yields the Born of Flesh-Born of Spirit principle.

  15. Mike Ford says:

    Finally, regarding the reading of a “First Adam-Last Adam (Jesus)” pattern for the afore-mentioned examples, note 1 CORINTHIANS15:46 !!!
    Scripture interprets Scripture.

  16. Angus J says:

    I’ve been catching up with email notifications, and have found the one about the Theopolis article. So although this comment comes months after this blog post, I hope that it might be noticed.

    I recently read a rather interesting article about a possible association between the first petition of the Lord’s prayer and the return of the People of Israel to the land that God gave them. I admit that it isn’t a particularly academic theological discussion of the subject, but I would be interested on Alastair’s opinion on it, as being relevant to the discussion of Replacement Theology.
    It can be found at

  17. Phil says:

    Dr. Jason Staples’ book “The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism: A New Theory of People, Exile, and Israelite Identity” published by Cambridge University Press makes it so that many of the claims in the Rethinking Israel series need to be rethought. Their is a distinction between Jews and Israel. The latter referring most of the time to the northern tribes or the land. Israel and Jews are not synonymous in the bible nor in the second temple literature. With that in mind a case can be made that the rightful place of the Jews is the land of Judah just as in Ezra and Nehemiah (or Joshua 15 when Judah’s portion is described). There is no strong case (as far as I am aware from scripture) for a zionism in which Jews take up the portions of land that were set aside for the rest of the tribes of Israel.

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