Does the Promise Still Hold? Israel and the Land

By Anderson, Gary A. | The Christian Century, January 13, 2009 | Go to article overview

Does the Promise Still Hold? Israel and the Land


Anderson, Gary A., The Christian Century


WHAT ARE CHRISTIANS to make of the promises God made to the Jews? Ever since World War II and the Holocaust, Christians have been anxious about the implications of the strains of anti-Judaism that survived into the 20th century. Time and again, writers have turned to Paul's epistle to the Romans to seek comfort and aid. For what we find in this epistle is a full-throated affirmation of God's promise to the Jews.

The advantage of the Jews, Paul avers, lies in the fact that they "were entrusted with the promises of God." Could their refusal to acknowledge God's Messiah be a sign that those "promises have been annulled? "By no means," Paul declares. "Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true" (Rom. 3:2, 4).Though they have become enemies for a time, "as regards election, they are [still!] beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (11:28-29).

Inspiring words, these. But what do they really mean? For many Christians, these verses are understood against the background of tolerance for the other. Though tolerance is certainly a laudable goal and everyone should be encouraged to learn about and respect people unlike themselves, Paul's claim about one's attitude toward the Jews is far more specific and penetrating. For Paul, the reason the Jews remain the chosen people is because of a concrete promise that God gave their ancestors. It is that irrevocable promise that gentiles must learn to respect. And what might that promise be? The book of Genesis could not be clearer: Israel is God's chosen nation, and the land of Canaan will be its land for all eternity (Gen. 13:15). The first question that should be in the mind of all Christians, it seems to me, is How are we to understand this promise in our own day?

The question is a perplexing one, and it gets at the heart of a significant difference between the two religions. Christianity thinks of the goal of salvation in terms of resurrection and beatific vision; only a small percentage of very conservative Christians add to this mix the millennial restoration of a kingdom in the land of Israel. Judaism, on the other hand, pins a considerable portion of its eschatological hopes on the return of all Jews to the land of Israel and the restoration of the Temple and its liturgical rites. Even a cursory glance at a Jewish prayer book will show how deeply embedded these hopes are in the Jewish soul.

One answer to this problem of differing eschatologies is to allow the Christian hope to trump the Jewish. But to do this requires one to dismiss the promises that scripture makes about that land. Augustine and other Christian theologians have argued that the Jews lost their title to the land because they crucified our Lord and Savior. In many early Christian works one almost gets the idea that the Roman armies invaded Jerusalem shortly after that tragic event. But this sort of theological judgment is something that the contemporary church has worked hard to overcome.

Fortunately, such supersessionist strategies are not the only ones on the table. There are other ways to think about the land that have better theological roots. For example, the Israeli biblical scholar Uriel Simon distinguishes between two sorts of claims a people can make on a land. The first type pertains to the overwhelming majority of nation states: they make a natural claim, that is, a claim that a certain piece of land belongs to them because that is where they have dwelt for many generations. There they have raised their children, buried their ancestors, and created a distinctive local culture.

The Jews' claim to a land is of a completely different order. Canaan is theirs not by dint of any set of conventional circumstances; it came to them as a gift from God. Israel's claim to the land is of a supernatural order.

As Simon notes, each sort of claim has its own advantages and disadvantages. A natural connection to one's land results from a history of continuous occupation, so that legal title to the land comes to be felt as a kind of natural right. …

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