Jewish and Christian Understandings of Israel

By Sandmel, David | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer-Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Jewish and Christian Understandings of Israel


Sandmel, David, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


JEWS AND CHRISTIANS HAVE EACH TRADITIONALLY considered themselves to be the heirs of biblical Israel, God's chosen people. Perhaps more than any other difference between Judaism and Christianity, this claim to be God's covenantal partner, to be Israel, is at the root of the tragic history of relations between Jews and Christians. It is also the single aspect of Christian theology that has changed most radically in the last fifty years. This change is the result of two interrelated phenomena. One is the process of theological and historical self-examination among Christians since the Holocaust, the Shoah. The second is the dialogue between Jews and Christians over the last fifty years. (1) For Jews, the fifty some years since the establishment of the modern state of Israel have also led to some rethinking of what it means for us Jews to be Israel. If we want to know how Jews and Christians understand the land of Israel, we must first consider how each tradition understands what it means to be Israel.

For us Jews, the word "Israel" has three interrelated meanings. In Genesis 32, God gives Jacob the name Israel, after Jacob wrestled with the "angel." We, the Jews, are the descendants of this man, Israel. Thus Israel is a people, an extended family in which all Jews consider themselves related. But the family is open. Those who become "Jews by choice" are adopted into the Jewish people and become indistinguishable members of the family. (2)

Second, this people Israel has a special covenant with God, first established with Abraham and subsequently renewed at Mt. Sinai. It is an eternal covenant that binds Israel to God forever. Thus we Jews are Israel the people who entered into the covenant with God at Mount Sinai.

Third, according to Torah, God has given us a specific land. Because Jewish tradition views the land of Israel as a gift from God, and because of our history as people in that land, we have developed a deep emotional attachment to it. We also have a history outside of the land, a history marked by exile, persecution and genocide. In light of that history, the rebirth of an independent Jewish state in that land, whose founders chose for it the name "Israel," has made the connection to both the land and the state even stronger. Both the land of Israel and the state of Israel are integral to what it means for contemporary Jews to be Israel.

So the Jews are Israel--a people descended from a common ancestor. As Israel we have an eternal covenant with God; part of that covenant is the gift of the land of Israel.

It may come as a surprise to Jews and, perhaps, even to some Christians, that the church also considers itself to be Israel. Christianity began as one of many groups within the complex religious world of Second Temple Judaism and originally did not see itself as something different and separate from Judaism. As the movement that evolved from the followers of Jesus grew, it attracted relatively few Jews but increasing numbers of Gentiles. One of the challenges for emerging Christianity was defining the relationship between an increasingly Gentile church and Christianity's historic Jewish roots. The church had to answer these questions: what did it mean to be a Gentile who believed that Jesus as the risen Christ was the Messiah promised to Israel by the God of Israel, especially when most Jews--Jesus' own people--did not accept this? How could Gentiles share in God's promise to Israel? How could they worship the God of Israel without being Israel?

As Christianity began to develop an identity independent of Judaism, it dealt with the "Israel question" by coming to view itself as the "new Israel," partners with God in a "new" covenant through Jesus Christ. Several passages in the Gospels portray the Jews rejecting Jesus and Jesus (and/or God), in turn, rejecting the Jews and turning to the Gentiles. (3) The church fathers taught that the Jews had abrogated God's covenant and had been spurned by God.

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