Holy Land or Israel?

IsraelSometimes I hear Catholics talking about making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and I must confess that something lightly irritates me about this. “Why would this irritate you?”—you might ask. “What’s wrong with Catholics visiting the land of Jesus and cradle of their faith?”

Nothing is wrong with Catholics visiting the land of Jesus, of course. Quite on the contrary, having lived there for some eight years and knowing how life-changing this fascinating country can be, I would highly recommend such a pilgrimage to anyone.  

It is with the terminology that I have a bone to pick. Almost every time I hear Catholics talking about visiting the land of the Bible, they almost invariably call it “the Holy Land” and rarely “Israel.” A friend of mine recently wrote an article about his own pilgrimage, and after reading through his otherwise moving testimony I realized that he had written the entire article without mentioning a single time the name of the country which he so enthusiastically visited—Israel.

Why does this matter, you might ask?

Well, for one thing, the land of the Bible and of Jesus happens to be a real country and a real nation with a real name—and this name is not the Holy Land, nor Palestine, but Israel. I realize this is a politically charged issue, but it is nonetheless a fact.

Calling Israel by name is not about making a political stand or taking sides in the Middle East conflict. It’s about our own biblical roots and identity. Guess which term appears more frequently in the Bible? A quick search yields the following results:

Palestine:       0 occurrence
Holy Land:      1 occurrence              (Zech 2:12)
Israel:             2,787 occurrences      (2,489 in OT; 228 in Deuterocanononicals; 70 in NT)

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problem at all with the term “Holy Land.” Israel is undeniably a most Holy Land by virtue of it being the stage of all the great events of salvation history.  But why do so many Catholics seem to have such a hard time calling Israel by name when the Bible, our roots, our heritage, our faith—are all about Israel?

Think for a moment about Who is the originator of the word. According to Scripture, God Himself came up with the name when He called the patriarch Jacob “Israel” and immediately associated this name with the land lying between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River (Gen 35:10-12). Jacob’s family, the “children of Israel,” went down to Egypt (Gen 46:1-27), where they multiplied and became a great nation (Ex 1:7). After a long, bitter experience of slavery, they were led out by Moses towards the land that God promised them, a land “flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8) which became Eretz Israel—the Land of Israel. The children of Israel conquered the Promised Land (the "hill country of Israel") under the leadership of Joshua (Josh 11:16), and it is there the Kingdom of Israel was later established under King David, with Jerusalem as its capital (2 Sam 5:5). From the patriarchs to the Egyptian slavery to the conquest of Canaan to the Davidic kingdom to the Babylonian Exile to the return to Judea, up to the time of Jesus—we read about the story of God's covenantal relationship with the people and land of Israel.

This does not change in the New Testament. Jesus’ native land is still called the “land of Israel” (Mt 2:20-21) or “Israel” (Luke 7:9), and Jesus’ people, the Jews, are the “people of Israel” (Acts 4:10), the “house of Israel” (Mt 15:24) or simply “Israel” (John 1:31; Acts 1:6). It is an anachronism to refer to Jesus' homeland as “Palestine,” for it was only a century later (in A.D. 132) that the Roman Emperor Hadrian renamed the province of Judea "Syria Palaestina" as part of an attempt to de-judaize the region.

But there is more. Not only are Jesus' land and people identified as Israel. God Himself is the “God of Israel” (203 times in the Bible) and “King of Israel” (cf. Isa 44:6; Zep 3:15). Jesus is also given this latter title in the New Testament (John 1:49; 12:13).  

Clearly, Israel—land and people—are an integral part of our biblical and spiritual heritage as Catholics, because the name of Israel is inseparable from God's very identity and covenant with His people. But all this begs the question: Why the Catholic reluctance to call Israel by name?

No doubt, for many Catholics the preference for the term “Holy Land” over Israel is simply a matter of habit, with probably little or no theological reflection behind the choice of terms. Catholic pilgrimages are routinely advertized as pilgrimages to “the Holy Land;” most Catholics are used to hearing this term, and so by force of habit they call Israel “the Holy Land.”

This said, I suspect that the issue at stake is more than a harmless choice of words, but is symptomatic of a deeper and more widespread problem.

To put it simply, there seems to be a dichotomy or kind of “Great Divorce” (to borrow C.S. Lewis’ term) between the Israel of the Bible and the Israel of today in the mind of the average Catholic: On the one hand, there is the ancient land of Israel we read about in the Bible. Then there is the “Holy Land”—a sort of wonderful open-air museum where we can go and revisit the ancient cradle of our faith. But then—and here the pilgrim’s enthusiasm turns into a kind of hushed embarrassment—there is the senseless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it’s such a shame that—of all places!—it happens to rage in the Holy Land. Surely the modern, messy, secular state of Israel with all its problems has nothing to do with the glorious and holy cradle of our faith where Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead?

So you're saying that there is no real theological connection between the Israel of the Bible and the Israel of today?

– “Well,” you may say, “Israel was God's people back then. But then Christ came and the Jews rejected Him, and so He founded a new people, the Church, which is now the ‘new and true Israel.’ God’s promises are now spiritual; they are no longer attached to a physical land.”

– So you are basing the disconnect between biblical and modern Israel on the old idea of supersessionism or replacement theology. This theory claims that because most Jews rejected Jesus, God “disowned” them and replaced them by the Church, which is now the “new” and “true” Israel. And so the “old Israel” (i.e. the Jewish people) no longer has a role to play in salvation history and the Jews’ historical connection with the land of Israel is now an outdated thing of the past.

– Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

– The problem is that the Catholic Church rejects this interpretation. Echoing the words of St. Paul, the Church teaches that God has never revoked His covenant with the Jewish people because it is permanent: “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues” (Declaration Nostra Aetate 4; Catechism of the Catholic Church 839; Romans 11:29). [This does not mean that this covenant can save them without Jesus. See What is Dual-Covenant Theology?]

– Hmm, okay, so maybe God somehow still cares about the Jews. But this doesn’t mean that the land of Israel still has any importance today. If the Church is the new people of God and the “new Israel,” then to call Israel by name makes me feel a little uncomfortable: how can there be two Israels? Isn’t that a bit schizophrenic? And isn’t the New Covenant a spiritual covenant? Why does the land matter?

– The Church has declared replacement theology to be wrong and God’s covenant with the Jewish people to be irrevocable and valid even today. Keeping this in mind, how can you separate the divine covenant with the promise of the land? Every time God affirms His covenant with the children of Abraham in the Bible, he adds that Eretz Israel is the sign and guarantee of this covenant (cf. Gen 13:14-17; 17:5-8; 26:3-4; 35:10-12; 50:24; Ex 32:13; Deut 1:8). So how can you say that God’s covenant with the people of Israel is valid and in the same breath deny that the land of Israel has any importance? Now that would be schizophrenic! This would be like a man who marries a woman but refuses to live with her and have children with her. The essence of marriage is the loving union between spouses and procreation of children. Take these away and you are left with a travesty of a marriage, a meaningless declaration emptied of its content. The same goes with God’s covenant with Israel. You can’t say that the covenant is still valid while at the same time denying its content and substance.

– So you're saying that God’s covenant with the Jewish people doesn’t make any sense without taking into account the land of Israel. But modern Israel is a secular entity founded on injustice. Look at what they are doing to the Palestinians!

– Let’s leave aside for now the question of who has the moral upper hand in the conflict and the plethora of imbalanced and inaccurate views portraying Israel as the evil aggressor and the Palestinians as the innocently oppressed. Let’s leave aside the permanent existential threat that the State of Israel has faced since its founding, and its tens of thousands of victims of terrorism and war. Let’s grant that Israel has committed some injustices towards the Palestinians, and that many things are wrong and sinful in Israeli society. No doubt, injustice and sin should never be sanctioned, and we should always pray and work for reparation, justice, reconciliation and peace. We do want justice and dignity for the Palestinians, and peace and reconciliation between both people. But when did human sin ever nullify God’s election, covenant and promises? If this were the case, the Church would have ceased to exist a long time ago, for its history is not lacking in sin, faithlessness, injustice, corruption, and wars. The fact that Israel has sinned and continues to sin does not thereby nullify God’s election and covenant with them, for it is His very nature to remain faithful even in the midst of human sin and failure.

In the Old Testament, God does promise to punish Israel for her sins—and the culmination of divine punishment is exile from the land. But even when Israel fails miserably, God’s covenant faithfulness remains greater than Israel’s sin. God’s covenant with His people, with Eretz Israel as its sign and guarantee, is unconditional and immutable, like the covenant He made with day and night and with heaven and earth (Jer 33:25-26). It was never revoked by the New Covenant. And so even when Israel sins gravely, God’s covenant with them remains firm. Even when their unfaithfulness results in divine punishment and exile, God repeatedly promises that He will gather them back into the land He promised to their forefathers and will pour out his Spirit upon them and give them a new heart (cf. Deut 30:1-6; Isa 11:12; 14:1; 43:5-6; 49:12; Jer 3:16-18; 16:14-16; 32:41; Ezek 11:17-20; 36-37; Amos 9:14-15). Does the prophecy of Israel receiving God’s Spirit and a new heart not point to their future encounter with the Messiah, who came to bestow the Holy Spirit upon His people? And could it be that we are seeing the fulfillment of this prophecy before our very eyes today?  

Allow me to share with you my own experience as a pilgrim to the Holy Land. My first visit was in 1997. I was a fresh convert, then an evangelical Christian. Immediately after my conversion I read the Scriptures very intensely, and I quickly noticed that all the events of salvation history depicted in the Bible—from Abraham to Jesus and the apostles—were centered around the land and people of Israel. And so I decided to go to Israel to “revisit the past”: to see the places where Jesus walked, the hills in the Galilee where he performed miracles, the streets of Jerusalem where He taught, and the hill where he was crucified, was buried, and rose again.  

All this was indeed fabulous. But I also discovered much more. I discovered that as much as Israel’s past is momentous and fascinating and brings the Bible to life for us Christians, its role in God’s plan did not end with the last pages of the Bible. I discovered that when we set foot in Israel, we do not only visit a biblical museum or enter into a time warp taking us back 2,000 years; we also enter into the living reality of the Word of God being fulfilled among His people today. In Israel we can observe first-hand the enduring faithfulness of God's enduring covenant love for His chosen people that continues to be manifested in our midst.

Since 1947/48 we are witnessing the miraculous rebirth of the State of Israel and the return of God’s chosen people to the land that God promised to their ancestors.  In 1967 the Jews regained full sovereignty of Jerusalem for the first time in over two thousand years. That year also marked the beginning of the Messianic Jewish movement, now the largest and fastest growing Jewish-Christian movement since the first centuries of the Church. The resurrection of the Church of the Circumcision is also manifest in the rise of the Hebrew-Catholic community.  

Divine revelation tells us that Christ’s Second Coming is “suspended at every moment of history until his recognition by all Israel” (CCC 674). Jesus hinted that after a long period of Gentile occupation, Jerusalem would eventually return under Jewish sovereignty (Lk 21:24: “Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”).  Can we Catholics seriously believe that the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel—the land that God unceasingly promised to their forefathers throughout the Scriptures—is but a mere accident of history, unrelated to the biblical promises? Or do we dare see in those momentous events something greater happening before our very eyes in our own day?

By all means, do visit the Holy Land. Enjoy the sights and sounds. Go where Jesus was born, lived, died and rose from the dead. But as you go and revisit the past, keep your eyes and heart open to see also the mystery of God’s action in the midst of His people in the present and in the future. Dare to see beyond the struggles, the conflicts, the human frailty, the sinfulness and the pain that afflicts the Holy Land and its people. Remember that the Holy Land is holy because it is Israel. It is holy because it bears the very name of our God, the God of Israel.

Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people,
And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of His servant David,
As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, Who have been since the world began,
That we should be saved from our enemies And from the hand of all who hate us,
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to our father Abraham:
To grant us that we, Being delivered from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.”  (Luk 1:68-75)