Since 1948, and especially since the Six-Day War of 1967, the tiny state of Israel has remained a central fixture of both political and theological concern. Since June of this year a war has been underway in Palestine as Israel is mounting a sizable assault on Lebanon after the initial abduction of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit; and this conflagration is ever widening as news pundits interject both “Syria” and “Iran” into their hourly broadcasts. What started with a military hostage is becoming a much larger struggle.
Adding to this international attention on Israel was the drunken tirade of Hollywood giant Mel Gibson. Gibson was arrested in Malibu after a night of heavy drinking and, once in custody, Gibson unleashed a diatribe of accusations claiming that Jews were the instigators of all wars. The public backlash has left the powerful Gibson groveling for forgiveness.
Because much of this news is fast moving, a great deal of what I write will be old news by the time you read this article. I’ll not belabor you with details about the Middle East conflict, or the Gibson episode. The purpose of Chalcedon is to examine every area of life from a Biblical perspective. In broaching the subject of Israel, the Jewish people, and the Middle East, we must always begin with the Scriptures and allow them to define our terms and provide the framework for contemporary review.
The Question of Israel: Political and Theological
For the Christian community the question of Israel always carries both political and theological implications. For some, these are intertwined in such a way that the political history of modern Israel is synonymous with Biblical prophecy. It’s as if every shot fired in Israel is somehow related to the futurist interpretation of the Olivet Discourse and the Book of Revelation.
Politically, Israel’s history is somewhat brief with much of it confined to the twentieth century. The story of Israel’s rise to become a nation-state is often clouded by what can only be referred to as disinformation. Most Americans are unfamiliar with the political movement of Zionism or its consuming goal to reassume Palestine as its holy nation-state.
What Is Zionism?
Zionism is the political ideology that espouses a clear link between the Jewish people and the land of Palestine. This is foundational to all questions regarding contemporary Israel. But it is also central to Israel’s history as a whole. Zionism essentially grows out of the frustration of Israel’s perpetual captivity. They were promised land and dominion by both law and prophet; but it was Israel’s rebellion that kept her fettered by foreign powers (Deut. 28:32–48, 64–66).
Zionism also dominated Jewish thought during Christ’s ministry. Sixty-three years before the birth of Christ, Roman General Pompey began a siege of Jerusalem. From that point on Rome would occupy the Holy Land and appoint Israel’s political and religious leadership. During this captivity numerous revolutionaries arose to oppose the puppet regimes and resist the Roman authority, but each movement failed as the iron feet of Caesar stomped out each insurgency.
It was in this climate that our Lord began His ministry. This cultural and political oppression caused both disciple and dictator to misinterpret Christ’s mission. The Pharisees saw the “Christ movement” as one of many uprisings that often came to nothing (Acts 5:33–39). The disciples, on the other hand, saw Christ as the one who would lead Israel out of captivity: “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6b)
Zionism was therefore the source of a great deal of the eschatological confusion in the early church. The nation of Israel was granted emphasis while Gentile inclusion was repeatedly criticized by even those closest to Christ (Acts 10). This is because the salvation of Israel was tied to land promises. This tenet remains a pertinent stone in Israel’s theological foundation. It also remains a central part of the theology of a good many Christians. But without the further revelation granted by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, all Christians would likely support the Israeli state regardless of how that state came about.
The Promise of Rest
The writer of Hebrews is invaluable in helping the Christian community unravel the knotty prophecies of Israel’s land promises. Contemporary Christian prophecy teachers easily miss the subtle but profound revision made by the Holy Spirit to what appear to be obvious texts supporting Israel’s land inheritance:
Seeing therefore it remaineth that some must enter therein, and they to whom it was first preached entered not in because of unbelief: Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts. For if Joshua had given them rest, then would he not afterward have spoken of another day. There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. (Heb. 4:6–9)
What type of rest is it that remains to the people of God? Calvin deemed it a heavenly rest. Others have made it equally spiritual as a present abiding in Christ. Still others, like the Puritan John Owen, saw the rest more holistically:
The design of the apostle is to set out the excellency of the gospel with the worship of it, and the Church state whereinto we are now called by Christ Jesus, above all the privileges and advantages which the people of old were made partakers of under Moses ... The rest here intended is that rest which has an entrance into Jesus Christ in the world.
What we can be certain of is that the rest was not land-based. There was a greater meaning yet to be revealed. According to Hebrews 4:8, Joshua did not establish Israel in her rest, though Joshua had brought them successfully into the land. Even centuries later, under David’s glorious kingdom, the psalmist declared, “To day, if ye will hear his voice” (Ps. 95:7–11)—meaning, though she possessed her land during the reign of David, Israel was still not in her rest.
Even after the cross, a rest remained for the people of God—a rest that spoke of things beyond Canaan or Palestine. A new world was entering into history, a world framed by a new covenant with the house of Israel (Heb. 8:8).
The book of Hebrews speaks of a new prophet (1:1–2), a new Moses (3:1–6), a new priesthood (7:11), a new law (7:12), a new covenant (8:8), a new people with new hearts (8:10), a new tabernacle (9:24), and a new city (12:22). Taken as a whole, these specific revisions equate to a new Israel not defined by land and tribe—not a Zionistic Israel in the material sense, but a spiritual Zion:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature. And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. (Gal. 6:15–16)
In Christ the primary identity marker is that of a new creation. The outward emblem of circumcision gave way to the inward cutting away of sin in the heart, thereby creating a new humanity. Being a Jew under the new covenant was established in terms of the Spirit and not the outward emblem of circumcision:
For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God. (Rom. 2:28–29)
“Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). There is a new Israel with new Jews under a new covenant. There is a new city with a new king. There is even a new heaven and a new earth. There is a new priesthood with a new law calling for new sacrifices:
Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 2:5)
How is it that with all the central elements that make up Israel being made new and spiritual that the concept of land is not included? If the land and the people are the crux of Zionism, it is important that we make the Biblical case to both Jew and Christian, and thereby help extinguish the incessant conflagration that has defined the Middle East. But our primary audience should be the Christian community. Reaching them requires not only Biblical instruction, it requires a brief overview of modern Zionist history.
The Rise of Zionism
You could argue that modern Zionism began after the tribulation of A.D. 70 when Rome ransacked Jerusalem and spawned the last great dispersion. Since then the land of Palestine has switched hands numerous times, but the Jews have consistently remained outside the borders of ancient Israel. They were a people without a land, but it was God’s doing. He had judged them permanently for their rejection of Christ and persecution of the early church (Matt. 21:43; 1 Thess. 2:14–16).
What is remarkable is how the Jews have retained some measure of their religious and racial identity. It is not my intent to discuss the Khazars, the Turkish nomads that converted to Judaism during the time of the Byzantine Empire. That is a controversial discussion that has received significant investigation if you care to research it further. For my purposes, however, there is a contemporary body long claiming to be Jewish and desirous of a political nation-state. The fact that a form of Judaism still exists after 2000 years of dispersion is noteworthy. The fact that this same group commands such international attention should encourage a more serious investigation of their modern history. How did they rise from obscurity to wield such great influence?
The First Aliyah
By the nineteenth century Palestine was a part of the Turkish or “Ottoman” Empire. At that time the inhabitants of Palestine were predominantly Muslim and Christian Arabs. However, a small population of Jews did reside in Palestine, and there was peace between the communities during the Turkish reign. Jews in other lands did not fare so well. Russian Jews suffered tremendously during the pogroms, and this led Jewish philanthropists such as the House of Rothschild to underwrite settlements for Russian Jews in Palestine.
This initial emigration of Jews from Russia was known as the First Aliyah, which means the “first ascent.” The Aliyah was considered one of the 613 mitzvot or “commandments” of the Torah. It’s the idea of “ascending” to the Holy Land. The dream of restoration to the land of Palestine began with this initial settlement, and in less than eighty years this dream would become complete.
Motivated by what he experienced in 1894 during an anti-Semitic outbreak in France, Theodor Herzl, a Jewish journalist for an Austro-Hungarian newspaper, shifted his position from anti-Zionism to an aggressive pro-Zionism. Witnessing the persecution of Jews in France taught him that anti-Semitism could not be fought. Two years later he would publish his book The Jewish State in which he argued that anti-Semitism could only be cured through the establishment of a Jewish state. By 1897 he organized the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland. From out of this initial gathering came the World Zionist Organization, and Herzl would be its first president.
Herzl saw that an anti-Semitic Europe would support a Jewish state as a sure resolution to the Jewish question. The solidarity of the Jewish communities spread throughout both Eastern and Western Europe posed an economic threat to a great many nationalists. Respective countries would be delighted to relocate their Jewish populations to a Jewish state. Making this case would be the ongoing project of Herzl and the Zionist leaders.
Herzl was an idealist of sorts. To him the streams of Jewish persecution could be absorbed in the soil of a national Israel. But this would only affect those Jews who chose to emigrate. A great many Jews were both nationalistic and loyal to their respective countries, and they had no interest in the Zionist movement. Herzl saw no lasting means of survival for those Jews who did not move to Palestine. He felt they would vanish in the rising light of Zionism. Here is what he wrote in the conclusion of his book The Jewish State:
But the Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies. As for those who remain behind, since prosperity enfeebles and causes them to diminish, they would soon disappear altogether. I think the Jews will always have sufficient enemies, such as every nation has. But once fixed in their own land, it will no longer be possible for them to scatter all over the world.
The Political Shift
Although it’s now difficult to conceive, the early Zionists proposed alternatives for the establishment of the Zionist state. Herzl supported Argentina as a viable “Plan B” should their appeals to the Ottomans fail for the land of Palestine. Uganda was also considered. After factions developed within the Zionist constituency, Palestine became the only option for the Jewish state.
The most obvious reason for selecting Palestine is that it was the original homeland for the Jewish people. This does not mean, however, that the Zionists had only religious goals in mind—far from it. Zionism is a political ideology positioned within a religious and ethnic framework. The present State of Israel should demonstrate that religion takes a backseat to politics. Yet it is never very far from politics.
Jewish emigration to Palestine continued in the early twentieth century. The numbers were small and predominantly agrarian. This kept the gradual transformation well under the scrutiny of the Ottomans. However, this transformation of Palestine required much more than a simple transplant of Jews. A political shift would need to happen. It was still the age of empire, and Palestine was not the possession of its indigenous residents.
The British Mandate of Palestine
The Great War (WWI) broke out in 1914 pitting the initial Allied Powers of France, Russia, and the United Kingdom against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Both Italy and the United States would later join the Allied Powers and serve up defeat to the Central Powers by 1918.
Prior to entering the war, portions of the U.S. population—especially the Jewish community—favored the Central Powers. The large contingency of Jewish media leaders supported the undoing of Russia because of the strong anti-Semitism of the czarist regime. In addition, Germany held a large Jewish population, and preserving those communities was important to international Jews.
But after the German sinking of three American merchant ships, along with the killing of 150 Americans on the British passenger ship Lusitania, President Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany in 1917. This added support secured the Allied victory and left the Central Powers defeated and broken up.
The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 worked to negotiate peace treaties and redistribute the territories of the now-defunct Ottoman Empire. The territories of Palestine (i.e., Jordan, Israel, West Bank, etc.) were granted to the oversight of the United Kingdom, and Herbert Samuel became Britain’s High Commissioner in Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917
Before the official redistribution of Palestine to the U.K., British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild on November 2, 1917, that would become known as the Balfour Declaration. Lord Rothschild, though thoroughly British, was both Jewish and a leader of the Jewish community; and as the largest banking house in the world, the House of Rothschild held incredible power throughout Europe. The letter reads as follows:
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
This set the wheels in motion towards a Zionist state in Palestine. And despite the mandate that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” the Zionists have done much to isolate and contain the Palestinians. Much of this aspect is clouded because the Palestinians are painted as obstinate terrorists and haters of democracy.
Israel Becomes a Nation
The increased immigration of Jews to Palestine after 1917 and the declaration to establish Palestine as the home for the Jews caused great strife between the Arab and Israeli communities. Responsibility for resolving the conflict fell to the newly formed United Nations who formulated a partition plan to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The rejection of this plan by both the Palestinians and the Jews led to the Arab-Israel War of 1948 in which Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Iraq joined the Palestinians to fight the newly formed Israeli State.
The war would proceed in phases with brief pauses of truce. Remarkably, Israel withstood her numerous enemies and in 1948 was officially recognized as a nation by the U.N. Nearly 1,900 years after the great dispersion following the tribulation of A.D. 70, the Jewish people were restored to their national homeland.
Not all Jews were pleased with the new nation-state. A strong theological opposition arose from within the orthodox Jewish communities that argued only God Himself could restore Israel to her land. They viewed Zionism as a secular cause to obtain messianic promises by the power of the sword. Anti-Zionist Jews believed that the Aliyah to Palestine would be led by their long-awaited messiah.
At the same time a growing body of Christians rose in support of Zionism fueled by a dispensational theology that held a special place in God’s future plans for the nation of Israel. Whereas classical dispensationalists saw these land promises fulfilled after the return of Christ, these Christian Zionists saw the 1948 establishment of Israel as the most important event in history since Christ’s resurrection.
Today, the Christian Zionists fan the flames of the Middle East crisis with apocalyptic rhetoric that lends validity to the foreign perception that the U.S. is an extension of Israel. But I believe the anti-Zionist Jews are correct: the establishment of Israel as a nation-state appears to be the work of man more so than God. Without inviting the label “anti-Semitic”—an almost impossible feat—the Biblical case against Zionism must be made.
As a Christian ministry, our primary responsibility is the body of Christ and its education. The danger inherent in Christian Zionism is its gross distortion of covenant theology and misunderstanding of the new Israel—the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. This church is made up of both Jew and Gentile, and we bear the identity of “spiritual Israel.” Our rest is more than real estate—our Lord’s Kingdom comprising more than Palestine. We are the children of promise who are counted as the true seed of Abraham (Rom. 9:6–8) and are destined to bless all nations with the glorious gospel (Gal. 3:8).
The solution to all world conflict is the gospel of peace. Attached to that is also the corresponding doctrines of eschatology and the church. While prophecy teachers fill the airwaves with their reinforcing theology of Zionism, we must meet them with a sustained shield of covenant theology and work to reposition the church as the chosen people of God and destined for cultural dominion.
 John Owen, Hebrews: The Epistle of Warning (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1985), 63.