Just what IS Israel?

The Relationship Between Christians and Jews

It is a question that is suddenly quite relevant, as the cyclical violence that has plagued the Levant has sparked again after the attack on Israel by Hamas on October 7th. It was a brutal move by the operative wing of the political leaders of Gaza, the enclosed refugee camp that has housed Palestinians since 1949. In recent years it has become completely enclosed with extremely limited egress and ingress. Both Israel and the Gazans have killed in attacks and defensive actions in recent years, with this last move by Hamas the largest in scope and brutality in recent history. As a result, politicians are eager to make proclamations of unity with Israel, a unity of utmost vigor. To wit:

President Biden:

“We stand with Israel.  We stand with Israel.  And we will make sure Israel has what it needs to take care of its citizens, defend itself, and respond to this attack.”

Republican Presidential Candidate Nikki Haley: 

“This is not just an attack on Israel—this was an attack on America.”

Senator Lindsay Graham, answering whether the US should influence Israel to consider the human suffering in Gaza:

“If somebody asked us after World War Two, ‘Is there a limit what would you do to make sure that Japan and Germany don’t conquer the world? Is there any limit to what Israel should do to the people who are trying to slaughter the Jews?’

“The answer is no. There is no limit.”

So, again I ask, what is Israel? What is it that makes the focus of such extreme supportive rhetoric? Perhaps one gets the sense that with the dying of a distinctive “American” identity, borrowing that of another nation that certainly embodies a nationalistic fervor is both cost-effective and opportunist for the modern politician. One cannot deny, however, that the support is broad in the US, even with the opposite support for the Palestinian causes giving rise to many worldwide demonstrations. Evangelicals in the USA have long supported the state of Israel, as have most leading politicians from both parties. This type of support points to something beyond an alliance with a simple political state. We are, for instance, allied with Egypt as well. Many are unaware. Egypt, however, controls the Suez Canal. This is of massive strategic import.

In Israel’s case, what is the strategic lever it holds? What is it that engenders such devotion? It is a nuclear power, and one with whom we share many military platforms (especially US-made air assets). This goes beyond a mere “client state”. Israel is a liberal democracy, the saying goes…but this is easily questioned in reality and many would argue perhaps hyperbolically, that Israel is an Ethno-Nationalist State. I doubt this, for one, and we still haven’t gotten to why it is beloved to such a degree. The answer to “why” could be that it carries religious significance to many Americans, and not only American Jews…but in far greater numbers (and perhaps zeal) by Evangelicals. Is this correct? Should Bible-believing Christians have a beyond-historical tie to the modern state of Israel?

Perhaps we should first understand what Israel was.

What became Israel was first called the Hebrews. This nomenclature is from the man Eber (or Heber), the great-grandson of Shem, one of Noah’s three sons. It is from Shem (Sem) we get the term “Semite”, as all his descendants are called (but admittedly it is the modern Jew who has especially appropriated this moniker), but Arabs are “Semitic” as well. Eber’s son was Pelag, which means “division”, and therefore he has been linked to the Tower of Babel narrative. Little else is known of Eber. Pelag is the great-great-great grandfather of Abram, the Father of the Jews. 

Abram (later Abraham) was from Ur, where he lived with his father Terah, and Ur was in lower Mesopotamia just north of where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. This was part of the Semitic Akkadian Empire, which had overtaken the Sumerians. Abram went with his father and a company of family and servants to Canaan but settled instead in Haran, usually identified as being in modern-day southern Turkey, far north of Canaan. This is where Abram was until he was seventy-five years old. He’d built or inherited quite the sheikdom, as he took his wife, extended family and the servants and company (we see this latter category contained 318 men, and many more women and children).

God calls Abram to go south, and says “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Abram was therefore called to be a blessing to all the “families” or nations of the earth. All of them. He wasn’t called to be a blessing to his bloodline only. This distinction is often lost in our rush as Christians to get to the Jesus narrative, who we recognize as a blessing to all the nations, but the language of God’s promise is directed at Abram, personally. 

After an adventure of sorts in Egypt, Abram returns to the north and settles in Hebron, around 20 miles south of Jerusalem. War soon breaks out among the local Kings, and battles ensue near the Dead Sea. Abram takes his men, 318 in all, to battle for some of his extended family who had been captured in the fighting. After a pursuit to Dan (in the north) and then past Damascus, Abram and his men defeat Cherdolaomer and his allies and earn freedom for Lot and his families, possessions and his company of servants.

Something interesting then happens in Genesis 14: 

After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.)  And he blessed him and said,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
     Possessor of heaven and earth;
       and blessed be God Most High,
    who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

A King of Salem (later Jerusalem) who was priest of the God Most High, existed before the “ministry”, such that it was at this point, of Abram. This Melchizedek (from Hebrew Malchi “king” and Zedek “righteous”) presents Abram with bread, wine, and a blessing. Abram responds with a tithe. The richness of this passage is betrayed by the paucity of time given to it in modern evangelicalism. 

What do we take away? One, the priestly ministry of the God Most High was not exclusive to Abram. There were believers in God before, and these believers did not simply exist in a state of family devotions. They had priests, if it is assumed Melchizedek was not the only one in the world at that time, that in some sense shepherded them in their worship. What was the worship of the One True God under the guidance of Melchizedek like? We may never know, except that it was distinct from the calling of Abram.

Secondly, we see the liturgical pattern of bread, wine and offerings is not innovative in the least. We see later that wine, when it replaced the “strong drink” libation offering in the Tabernacle cultus, is a kingly drink, suitable for rule and rest. A symbol of peace brought by victory.

Lastly, we later learn in Genesis 17:23 that all the men, not just Abraham, who were of his household were circumcised. God had said, 

Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.

This means that the Abrahamic people were never exclusively a genetic group, defined by bloodline. Bloodlines, like families, provided the “scaffolding” as it were to the structure, but did not define the boundaries. The Hebrews were from the beginning a covenantal people of allied assimilation united under the calling of Abram to draw the peoples of the world to the One True God. Similarly reflecting the covenantal nature of the “nation”, Jacob later went down to Egypt, and so many “Hebrews” went that they needed the whole land of Goshen, yet the bible only lists 70 actual “blood” relatives of Abraham.

From the beginning, the Hebrews were a people of COVENANT, not of race. The “family princes” formed a scaffolding in a way to build a priestly people. This was true of the tribes as well, as house servants were considered tribal members. These few thousand became over 2 million by the time of the Exodus. Only a few would have direct Abrahamic lineage. Caleb the Kenizzite, a gentile, is sent by Moses and accompanies Joshua on the famous mission to the land of Canaan.

Later, in the time of David and Solomon, many gentile converts to the God of Israel were added. Uriah the Hittite is a memorable example. Were these special cases? No, for the Psalms include these exhortations from Psalm 115:

O Israel, trust in the Lord;
He is their help and their shield.
O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord;
He is their help and their shield.
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord;
He is their help and their shield.

The Lord has been mindful of us;
He will bless us;
He will bless the house of Israel;
He will bless the house of Aaron.
He will bless those who fear the Lord,
Both small and great.

This passage includes three distinct groups; the people of Israel, the priests specifically, and the Gentiles who are God-fearers (believers who don’t convert to Judaism but are “saved” in our parlance).

Furthermore, we see in Psalms 128 the same idea when it says 

Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in His ways.

This is not exclusive to the circumcised. Consequently, we can see, Israel was not exclusive to those of Abraham’s DNA, and salvation continued to be available to anyone who trusted in the One True God, Yahweh.

We also see an interesting literary pattern of naming and purpose, as the Hebrews ceased to exist when they were transformed into Israelites, the Israelites ceased to exist when they were transformed into Jews, and the Jews ceased to exist when they were transformed into Christians1. These covenantal transformations, as names are covenantal identities, carried differences in cultic practice. For instance, as the Hebrew to Israelite transformation was fully consummated, the practice of “high place” worship was forbidden. When the Jew-to-Christian transformation was fully realized, circumcision as a religious rite was forbidden.

By the time of the end of the Old Covenant and with it the Old Creation, the “Jewish” distinction wholly passed away. God has the author of Hebrews confirm this by explaining that Jesus is the new High Priest, in the PRE-HEBREW order of Melchizedek.

Israel, therefore, was a covenantal and priestly people called to draw the nations to worship the one true God. This should sound familiar as 1 Peter 2:9 says:

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light

This passage was written to those in Christ, and who believed Him to be the resurrected Lord. This priestly duty had passed from one state of glory in the Old Covenant to a new and higher state of glory in the New Covenant, under the true and faithful Israel, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. It is interesting to note that Jesus was baptized, not for the remission of sins, but as Joshua (Yeshua) the Second, the faithful one to conquer the Promised Land in Spirit and Truth, and beginning His campaign by symbolically crossing the Jordan.

We also see that Old Covenant Israel serves as an illustration to the Church as to mission and pitfalls, as to priestly service to the world drawing the nations to submit to His Lordship, and the dangers of undue and exclusivist pride as such. This latter feature drew the ire of Christ, as it cut directly against the very mission they were called to accomplish.

If the priestly people of God have always been a people primarily of covenantal status, centered on a lineage but not bounded by such, what happened to the “Jews”? Paul tells us that a change was afoot when he wrote Ephesians. To wit:

Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands— that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

We have a new blood that draws us near to God. Not the blood of endless sacrifices, nor the blood of the cutting of the foreskin.

For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.

There was an unbiblical wall in Herod’s Temple that separated the previously-mentioned God-Fearers from the Jews. This was the area in which the money changers set up shop, and which Jesus “cleansed”. In error, only circumcision gave access to the inner court and where the sacrifices were made, and this extra distinction was unbiblical and angered the Lord.

Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.

The “blood status” is no longer valid. Jewish “flesh” and circumcision are now meaningless2. Jesus is now of a High Priestly line that existed pre-Judaism, the line of Melchizedek, as explained (by Paul?) in Hebrews.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

Interestingly, this famous verse does not include the “he is”. It reads, even more powerfully, that “if anyone is in Christ, new creation!” In other words, the new cosmos where the Jew/Gentile distinction does not exist is being made manifest with every new believer in Jesus. Furthermore, it (this Jew/Gentile distinction) is no longer defining as to being set apart for sacrificial devotion to the One True God.

So, what happened to the Jews of the first century? Those who lived in Palestine, for the most part, either converted to faith in Christ or died in the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. We now have direct genetic evidence of this from the recent studies of the completed genomes of four samples from Palestine and comparing those to modern sample sets. But regardless of this frankly amazing new data, the Bible is simply clear. “There is neither Jew nor Greek.”

Rabbinical or Talmudic Judaism is only distantly related to Old Covenant Temple Judaism. It is based upon the Mishnah, the later-codified oral tradition developed by the Pharisees originally in an attempt to quell sin after a dispute with the Maccabees (later Sadducees) about the validity of the High Priest. It added to God’s holy law, and Jesus condemned it (see the thematic sweep of the Sermon on the Mount and the “you have heard it said” passages). The Jews have their own “New Testament”, the Talmud – extensive commentaries on this condemned-by-Christ Mishnah. We have our New Testament, written by Jesus’ disciples and a converted Pharisee. The contrast couldn’t be more different.

So, to return to our original question: just what is modern Israel, and what are Israelis? What they are NOT is cultically related to the priestly administration of the Old Covenant Temple worship. They are not a called priestly people. 

What the modern state of Israel is currently, must wait for another essay.  

Image Credit: Unsplash

Show 2 footnotes
  1. This idea is explored more fully in James B. Jordan’s excellent “The Future of Israel Reexamined”, BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 27, July, 1991 Copyright 1991
  2. “Flesh” as the motivator for the sinful desires of the heart, as shown in the Laws of Leprosy (where the skin would become a window to the “flesh”), gave way to a category of “sinner” in the latter Pharisaical framing. The “flesh” of the Jew and the “flesh” of the Gentile were understood to be qualitatively distinct unless it was cut via circumcision. This distinction is not found in Torah, and the innovation seems to be behind Paul’s anger in Galatians, perhaps his first letter
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Ronald Dodson

Ronald Dodson is CEO and Portfolio Manager of Dallas North Capital Partners, a private fund management firm. He also frequently writes on geopolitical developments and global risk. He has worked with the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts. His interests include the Noahic Covenant gentile believers in the ancient world, continental theology and coaching soccer. He is a deacon in the PCA.

6 thoughts on “Just what IS Israel?

  1. I’ve been waiting for an article like this. One that plainly and painstakingly shows that Christianity is one continuous tradition, all the way from Abraham and the prophets to the modern day. Abraham looked forward to Christ, we look back. All of those that hold faith in God are called Israel. Just as God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness, so too does He credit our faith in Christ to us.

  2. Thanks for the article. I have been in reformed world (PCA) for a number of year and count this very helpful in understanding Israel past and present. Many people are asking these questions you raise in light of current events. Just a day or so ago I listened to Doug Wilson Joe rigney Jared Longshore and Pastor Isker discuss some of these same issues.

    Bill Stupfell

  3. “ Those who lived in Palestine, for the most part, either converted to faith in Christ or died in the Roman sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD. ”

    “ direct genetic evidence of this from the recent studies of the completed genomes of four samples from Palestine and comparing those to modern sample sets”

    Sir, this is right provocative. Do you have any sources for this section?

  4. Excellent synopsis of how the ecclesia has always been the faith line rather than the genetic line and we reformed Christians are part of an unbroken line of called out believers. There are not two classes of believers. There is only one class of called out believers, for whom the atoning blood of Christ saves us. We are called irresistibly to be part of his body. We so call gentiles are grafted into the true vine which is Christ. This is not cause for smug self-satisfaction. It is cause for deep humility and thanksgiving for the sacrifice Christ gave for us. We are one with those believers who come from an ethnic Jewish background, but now see that there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Greek.

  5. If there is “neither Jew or Greek,” then there is “neither male nor female” (Gal 3:28). Might want to reexamine your presupposition on the apostle Paul’s understanding of being Jewish (Gal 2:14).

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