Biblical Revelation and the Land of Israel
Between Humanistic and Biblical Worldviews
St. Jerome wrote long ago that "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." More generally, ignorance of Scripture is also ignorance of salvation history and of God's plan for mankind and for the world. Today, largely (but not exclusively) because of a widespread ignorance of Scripture, God's unique calling to the Jewish people is increasingly delegitimized and denied, and at the heart of this delegitimization stands their biblical connection to the Land of Israel. Even among Christians, ignorance or disregard of Scripture results in situations where socio-political agendas - whether well-meaning or not - commonly trump biblical revelation.
To take a current example: On September 20, 2011, the Palestinian Authority officially sought U.N. recognition of a Palestinian State. The increasing number of nations supporting the creation of "Palestine" usually justify their position with a plethora of reasons - be they diplomatic, political, or humanistic. But few, if any, are guided and informed by the covenantal worldview of Scripture.
It is known that not a few supporters of "Palestine" are driven by a hatred of the Jewish State, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the culture of incitement and hatred of Israel that is constantly promoted in Palestinian society - where the establishment of a Palestinian State is viewed as a first step towards the destruction of the Jewish one. Far from educating its people towards peace and coexistence with Israel, the PA continually depicts a Middle East in which Israel does not exist at all, where the historical Jewish connection to the Holy Land is denied, where all Jewish presence in Jerusalem will be erased, and where terrorists who murder Jews are routinely praised and glorified as "martyrs."
By contrast, the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate affirms: "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." This is a quote from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, which in its original form goes like this:
Concerning the gospel they [the Jewish people] are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom 11:28-29).
The Church, echoing the apostle, thus affirms that God's "gifts" to the Jewish people are "irrevocable." But what are these gifts?
There is no doubt that the most important "gift" that God gave to the people of Israel in the Bible is the Land of Israel. The importance and permanence of this gift is repeated and emphasized dozens of times in Scripture. It follows that if God's "gifts" to Israel are irrevocable, as the Church reminds us, then this must include the gift of the land. To deny the connection of the Jews to Eretz Israel thus means nothing less than denying the faithfulness of God's promises and the truth of His Word.
But where do you stand?
Those who neglect or deny the biblical heritage of the land to the people of Israel can be roughly divided into three groups:
- First, there are those who, without any particularly malicious intent on their part, are simply ignorant of the great biblical texts on God's promise of the Land to the Jewish people. The present article, a simple compendium of the most important of these passages with commentaries kept to a minimum, is particularly addressed to this group. For those who still believe in the authority of the Word of God, the sheer number and force of the texts will speak for itself.
- Second, there are those who may be familiar with the biblical texts on the promise of the land but, in good faith, may not agree with their interpretation. This article will probably not be sufficient to convince those in this group, and will call for more elaborate commentaries and theological discussions.
- Third, there are those whose anti-Zionist or anti-Israel stand comes first, and divine revelation, if at all, comes second. Though people in this group may give lip service to professing the Christian faith, they have generally made up their mind on the question of Israel on some other basis than Scripture (e.g. politics or ideology), and they will probably not be swayed by any biblical text, no matter how clear it may be. For this group, prayer will probably be more beneficial than persuasive arguments.
Please note that the present article makes no claim that the State of Israel in its present form is some kind of restoration of the Davidic or Messianic Kingdom. Nor does it advocate the rebuilding of the Temple. Even less does it attempt to use the Scriptures to justify any injustice carried out against anyone, to minimize Israel's moral responsibility or downplay the inherent dignity of the Palestinian people. It merely proposes that the return and presence of the Jewish people to the land of Israel bears prophetic significance. It invites Christians to rediscover God's faithful and providential action in the return of His people home after their long exile, as foretold in the Sacred Scriptures. And it wishes to challenge believers to think and ask themselves: which worldview shapes your view of the Middle East and of the Israel-Palestinian conflict: the humanistic - or biblical one?
The Promise of the Land to the Patriarchs
God promises the land of Canaan for the first time to Abraham and his future descendants after the patriarch had settled in Bethel:
The LORD said to Abram... "Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are-- northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth...Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you." (Gen 13:14-17)
The promise is later repeated as an integral part of God's newly formed covenant with Abraham:
And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. (Gen 17:7-8)
Initially, the promise of the land seems to extend to all descendants of Abraham (which would include both Jews and Arabs). But God then narrows down the promise to Isaac only (to the exclusion of Ishmael, father of the Arabs):
Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed. (Gen 26:3-4)
Later, God renews the Abrahamic covenant with Isaac's son Jacob in Bethel, renaming him "Israel" and further narrowing down the promise of the land to him and his descendants (to the exclusion of Esau's descendants, the Edomites):
And God said to him, "Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name." So He called his name Israel. Also God said to him: "I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body. "The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land." (Gen 35:10-12)
At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob's son Joseph recalls on his deathbed the promise of the land that God had made to his forefathers. Note that the promise is no longer narrowed down; it remains the promised inheritance of the twelve sons of Jacob, the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.
And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die; but God will visit you, and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." (Gen 50:24)
The Land of Canaan as Goal of the Exodus
The promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must have remained vivid in the memory of the Sons of Israel during their years of enslavement in Egypt. It certainly was not forgotten by God. When He reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush, He recalls the promise to return His people to their land:
I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob... I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt... and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. (Exod 3:6-8)
After Israel's betrayal of the Sinai covenant through their worship of the golden calf, Moses appeals to the Abrahamic covenant and promise, causing the Lord to relent from the punishment He had intended for His people:
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, `I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.' (Exod 32:13)
Forty years later, as the children of Israel are on the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan, Moses reminds them of God's covenant and promise. Note that the Promised Land here extends way beyond the borders of modern Israel, going as far as the River Euphrates:
The LORD our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying... `Turn and take your journey, and go to the mountains of the Amorites, to all the neighboring places in the plain, in the mountains and in the lowland, in the South and on the seacoast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the River Euphrates. 'Behold, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them.' (Deut 1:6-8)
Shortly before his death, Moses reminds the Israelites that the possession of the land is now intimately connected with their faithfulness to God's covenant:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deut 30:19-20)
Though the promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was unconditional, its possession has now become conditional upon Israel's faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant. Sin and unfaithfulness will lead to exile:
If you do not diligently observe all the words of this law that are written in this book... the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other; and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone... (Deut 28:58,64)
But even if the Israelites are scattered into exile because of their unfaithfulness, if they repent and return to God, He will return them to their land. In this context, God also promises that He will circumcise their heart and enable them to love Him with all their heart and soul - a promise that is ultimately realized with the establishment of the New Covenant (cf. Jer 31:31-33; Rom 2:29):
When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God...then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the LORD your God has scattered you. Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. The LORD your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. Moreover, the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. (Deut. 30:1-6)
Prophets before the Exile
With the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, the children of Israel take possession of the land that God had promised them. But after the rise of the monarchy, often corrupt, the prophets frequently warn Israel of the harsh judgments that will come upon them if they persist in sin and idolatry. Nevertheless, Israel's unfaithfulness does not negatively affect God's faithfulness. Warnings of exile are counterbalanced by the assurance that the exile will not last forever and that the Lord will return His people to the Promised Land.
The book of Amos, who preached to the northern kingdom of Israel around 750 B.C., is the oldest prophetic book in the Bible. In the midst of dire warnings of judgment, God assures Israel through the prophet that He will raise up again the Tabernacle of David and resettle His people into their former cities:
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land which I have given them," says the LORD your God. (Amos 9:14-15)
The prophet Isaiah, who lived from ca. 740-698 B.C., also announces that God will gather the outcasts of Israel from the ends of the earth and bring them back to their own land:
In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious... [the Lord] will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. (Isa 11:10-12)
The LORD will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land, and aliens will join them and will cleave to the house of Jacob. (Isa 14:1)
Deutero-Isaiah specifies that this new ingathering will come from the four corners of the earth:
Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth... (Isa 43:5-6)
Thus says the LORD... "I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, `Come forth,' to those who are in darkness, `Appear.' ... They shall feed along the ways, on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall smite them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from afar, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene." (Isa. 49:8-12)
(*Note: For the sake of simplicity we include here the entire book of Isaiah as one unit, without excluding the possibility of a post-exilic composition of the latter part of the book)
A century after Isaiah, Zephaniah prophesied to Judah during the reign of King Josiah, from ca. 640-609 B.C. In chapter 3, he prophecies harshly against Jerusalem and warns that hostile nations will be gathered against her and disperse her inhabitants. Yet after they have been humbled, God will bring them back home and the city will be praised among all nations:
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: "Do not fear, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak... At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes," says the LORD. (Zeph 3:16, 20).
Jeremiah prophesied in the last years of the Kingdom of Judah before the exile to Babylon in 586 B.C. With the nation on the verge of destruction, Jeremiah's oracles tend to be particularly gloomy. Yet here too they are interspersed with numerous promises speaking of the restoration of Israel. Jeremiah underlines that the ingathering will reunite the houses of Judah and of Israel, and he places a particular emphasis on a return from "the land of the north."
And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, says the LORD, they shall no more say, "The ark of the covenant of the LORD"... At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the LORD, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart. In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your fathers for a heritage. (Jer 3:16-18)
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly execute justice one with another... and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers for ever. (Jer 7:5-7)
Some Zionist Jews and Christians have seen a modern-day connection between the return from the "land of the north" and the massive immigration to Israel in the 1990s of close to one million Jews from the former Soviet Union, which is situated directly to the north of Israel.
Elsewhere, the prophet compares the return of the people of Israel to their land with the Exodus from Egypt. However, in contrast to the first Exodus, the new Exodus will see the Israelites return not from one single country but from a multitude of nations - with again a special emphasis on a certain "north country." Jeremiah also depicts an interesting novelty: the return of the Jews will be assisted by others whom he calls "fishers" and "hunters":
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, `As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,' but `As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.' For I will bring them back to their own land which I gave to their fathers. "Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. (Jer 16:14-16)
Some Zionist Christians have also given a modern interpretation to the "fishers" and "hunters": they have proposed that the "fishers" might be themselves - Christians friends who have gone to the "land of the north" (Russia) and other countries to "catch" Jews and help them return to the land of Israel; while the "hunters" might refer to the resurgence of hostile anti-Semitic persecutions that will "hunt" the Jews out of their countries and force them to seek refuge in Israel.
Other passages make the same points:
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when men shall no longer say, `As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,' but `As the LORD lives who brought up and led the descendants of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.' Then they shall dwell in their own land." (Jer 23:7-8)
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands afar off; say, `He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.' For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him... There is hope for your future, says the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country. (Jer 31:10-11, 17)
Jeremiah also connects the ingathering of the Hebrews and restoration of the land with the making of a new, everlasting covenant with them by which God will forgive all their guilt and cause them to remain permanently faithful to Him (cf. Jer 31:31-34). He emphasizes the permanence of this covenant by comparing it with the permanence of the created order:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar -- the LORD of hosts is his name: "If this fixed order departs from before me, says the LORD, then shall the descendants of Israel cease from being a nation before me for ever." Thus says the LORD: "If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the descendants of Israel for all that they have done, says the LORD." (Jer 31:35-37)
Now therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning this city [Jerusalem]... Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. "For thus says the LORD: Just as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them. Fields shall be bought in this land of which you are saying, It is a desolation, without man or beast; it is given into the hands of the Chaldeans. Fields shall be bought for money, and deeds shall be signed and sealed and witnessed, in the land of Benjamin, in the places about Jerusalem, and in the cities of Judah, in the cities of the hill country, in the cities of the Shephelah, and in the cities of the Negeb; for I will restore their fortunes, says the LORD." (Jer 32:36-44)
Behold, I will bring to it [Jerusalem] health and healing, and I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them; they shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it. (Jer 33:6-9; also vv. 10-24)
Thus says the LORD: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his descendants to rule over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes, and will have mercy upon them." (Jer 33:25-26)
In the Psalms
Also in the Psalms there are a few references to the gift of the land as an integral part of God's covenant with Israel and to the promise of "gathering the outcasts of Israel":
He is the LORD our God... He is mindful of his covenant for ever, of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant which he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, "To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance." (Ps 105:7-11)
The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. (Ps 147:2)
During the Exile
The great prophet of the Exile is Ezekiel. Perhaps because of Israel's tragic situation at that time, with the Temple and city of Jerusalem destroyed and most of the population deported to Babylon, he is also the one who is the most explicit in describing Israel's return to their land. There is a particular emphasis in Ezekiel's language on the permanence and security of the children of Israel in their land after their return - something that certainly has never yet happened:
Thus says the Lord GOD: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall dwell in their own land which I gave to my servant Jacob. And they shall dwell securely in it, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall dwell securely, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the LORD their God. (Ezek 28:25-26)
Ezekiel underlines that the return of the Jews to Israel will bring with it a renewed fruitfulness and abundance in the land:
But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel; for they will soon come home. For, behold, I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown; and I will multiply men upon you, the whole house of Israel, all of it; the cities shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt; and I will multiply upon you man and beast; and they shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you will know that I am the LORD. Yea, I will let men walk upon you, even my people Israel; and they shall possess you, and you shall be their inheritance, and you shall no longer bereave them of children. (Ezek 36:8-12)
Ezekiel also expands upon Jeremiah's idea that the return of the Jews to the land will be combined with a miraculous spiritual rebirth giving them a "new heart" and God's Spirit dwelling within them:
Thus says the Lord GOD: "Although I have cast them far off among the Gentiles, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet I shall be a little sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone... I will gather you from the peoples, assemble you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.And they will go there, and they will take away all its detestable things and all its abominations from there. Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God. (Ezek 11:16-20)
For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezek 36:24-28)
The same idea is expressed metaphorically in the next chapter with Ezekiel's famous vision of the dry bones. God commands him to prophesy and bring they dry bones back to life. When Ezekiel prophesies a first time, sinews, flesh and skin cover the bones, but there is still no breath in them (Ezek 37:7-8). As he prophesies a second time, breath comes into the bones and they come back to life. The Lord then proceeds to interpret the vision: the restoration of the sinews, flesh and skin represent the physical restoration of Israel to their land, while the breath of life represents their spiritual resurrection when God's Sprit will dwell within them and God's servant "David" - the Messiah - will reign over them.
Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done it, says the LORD." (Ezek 37:11-14)
Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all sides, and bring them to their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all... I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. "My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall dwell in the land where your fathers dwelt that I gave to my servant Jacob; they and their children and their children's children shall dwell there for ever; and David my servant shall be their prince for ever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is in the midst of them for evermore." (Ezek 37:21-27)
(It is worth reading chapters 36-37 of Ezekiel in their entirety)
The restoration of Israel to their land is also described as enduring following the eschatological war of Gog and Magog. Ezekiel depicts a situation in the "latter days" where "Gog," along with other nations such as "Persia" and "Libya," suddenly and viciously attack the people of Israel who have been recently gathered into their own land. But this attack will be in vain, and it will only bring a terrible judgment upon these hostile nations (Ezek 38:1-39:20). Following this great upheaval, the permanence of the Jews dwelling in their land is once again highlighted:
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy upon the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name. They shall forget their shame, and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they dwell securely in their land with none to make them afraid, when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies' lands, and through them have vindicated my holiness in the sight of many nations. Then they shall know that I am the LORD their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them remaining among the nations any more; and I will not hide my face any more from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord GOD. (Ezek 39:25-28)
Prophets after the Exile
The post-exilic prophets continued to announce a return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel:
Remember the word which thou didst command thy servant Moses, saying, `If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your dispersed be under the farthest skies, I will gather them thence and bring them to the place which I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.' (Neh 1:8-9)
Ho! ho! Flee from the land of the north, says the LORD; for I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, says the LORD. Ho! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon. (Zech 2:6-7)
I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph. I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them; for I am the LORD their God and I will answer them... "I will signal for them and gather them in, for I have redeemed them, and they shall be as many as of old. Though I scattered them among the nations, yet in far countries they shall remember me, and with their children they shall live and return. I will bring them home from the land of Egypt, and gather them from Assyria; and I will bring them to the land of Gilead and to Lebanon, till there is no room for them. They shall pass through the sea of Egypt, and the waves of the sea shall be smitten, and all the depths of the Nile dried up. The pride of Assyria shall be laid low, and the scepter of Egypt shall depart. I will make them strong in the LORD and they shall glory in his name, says the LORD. (Zech 10:6-12)
One crucial question remains to be asked: Could all of those prophecies have been fulfilled with the return of the Jews from Babylon to Judah? The answer is no for the following reasons:
- The prophets foretold a return from exile from many lands in the four corners of the earth (Jer 16:14-16, 23:7-8), but the return from Babylon was from only one country.
- The prophets foretold a permanent and secure return whereby Israel would never be exiled again (Amos 9:14-15, Jer 24:5-6); however, the return from Babylon was only partial (with most Jews remaining in the diaspora throughout the Second Temple period), and neither permanent nor secure since the Jews were exiled again in 70 A.D. and 135 A.D.
- The prophets foretold that the return of the Jews to Israel would be accompanied by the establishment of an everlasting covenant and giving of a new heart to Israel (Jer 32:37-44, Ezek 36-37). Although Jesus the Messiah indeed instituted the New Covenant, until this day it has not been widely accepted by the greater part of the people of Israel.
- The prophets spoke of an eschatological and final ingathering occurring some time near the end of human history; but the return from Babylon was nowhere near the end of history.
- The post-exilic prophets continued to prophesy a return of the Jews to Israel. If the return had already been accomplished with the return from Babylon, such later prophecies would have been completely superfluous and irrelevant.
The New Testament
The writers of the New Testament presuppose God's gift of the land of Israel to the Jewish people. While they clearly announce the forming of a new, greater and universal covenant with the house of Israel that goes beyond the earthly possession of land and is now expanded to include all peoples of the earth, nowhere in the New Testament is it ever hinted that the original covenant with Israel and its sign and guarantee, the gift of the land to the Jewish people, was ever revoked.
As an aside note, one serious error that is often made in common parlance is to refer to the land where Jesus lived as "Palestine," because there was no such thing as "Palestine" in the first century A.D. The evangelists matter-of-factly refers to the land of Jesus as the "land of Israel" (Mt 2:20-21) or simply "Israel" (Mt 8:10; 9:33; 10:23; Luke 7:9). While the name "Israel" appears some 2,787 times in the Bible, the name "Palestine," deriving from the name of Israel's ancient arch-enemies the Philistines, does not appear even a single time in Scripture (OT and NT). The name dates from 135 A.D. when, following the second Jewish revolt, Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to blot out the name of Judaea and renamed it "Provincia Syria Palaestina" (See Holy Land or Israel?).
Does this scenario sound familiar to you - attempting to blot out the biblical name and memory of Israel and replacing it by "Palestine"?
Even Jesus hinted at least twice at a future restoration of the people of Israel to their land: First, in his eschatological discourse recorded by Luke, Jesus said that "Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luk 21:24). This seems to assume that the "time of the Gentiles" when Jerusalem is under their control will eventually come to an end, and the Jews will one day regain sovereignty over the Holy City.
Then, just before Jesus' ascension, the disciples asked Him:
"Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" And He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:6-8)
Christian commentators have often interpreted Jesus' answer as saying: "actually, I will not restore the kingdom of Israel but rather will give you the Holy Spirit so that you can be my witnesses and testify to the now purely spiritual kingdom of heaven, the 'new Israel,' that is, the Church."
But Jesus says nothing of the sort. His promise of the Spirit and His commission to the disciples that they be His witnesses does not in any way exclude some real, future restoration of Israel as spoken by the prophets. Jesus' answer, stating that it is not for the disciples to "know times and seasons" is in fact quite ambiguous. He does not dismiss the question as irrelevant or answer in the negative; neither does he say that the kingdom of Israel is somehow transferred to the Church. On the contrary, by saying to the disciples that they cannot know the "times and seasons," He is implying that these times and seasons will one day come to pass and the restoration they ask about will indeed take place. Certainly, it will not happen when they expect it, and it will occur in a totally different way than they think: the restoration will be not only physical but also spiritual; the Holy Spirit will act as its principal agent and restored Israel will be somehow united with the Body of Messiah.
In summary, to claim that the gift of the land of Israel to the Jewish people was somehow abrogated strikes directly not only at Jesus' words and at Paul's teachings in Rom 11:28-29 (echoed in Nostra Aetate), which affirm together the irrevocability of God's gifts to Israel, but also at the very character of God who keeps covenant to His people from generation to generation.
At the same time, the promise of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people is not an end in itself: The earthly Jerusalem is fulfilled in the new and heavenly Jerusalem founded by Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah and King of Israel. Yet the way for Christians to bear effective testimony to the heavenly Jerusalem is not by denying it, but rather by affirming the faithfulness of God's promises to His ancient people, keeping in mind that there are forces at work in the world that are actively and tirelessly working at undermining them.
For a more comprehensive compilation of Bible verses that support God's gift of the land to the people of Israel, see God's Promise of the Land to the People of Israel.