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Friday 2 February 2024

Israel not Just for Israelites


"Israel has always been a Jewish land back into ancient times, not a land for the Gentiles." You have heard this claim from many different sources. But actual ancient times show us this:

"But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations." (Isaiah 9:1; emphasis added).

John N. Oswalt says about this region in his commentary on Isaiah,

“Galilee of the Gentiles. The area between the Sea of Chinnereth and the Mediterranean north of the Jezreel Valley had always been something of a melting pot, with Hebrews, Canaanites, Arameans, Hittites, and Mesopotamians all contributing to the mix. It was in this region, through the various inland powers westward and southward toward the seacoast, that Israel commonly encountered the rest of the world (hence the name). But the area was destined to see an even more intense mixing after 735, for this was the first part of Israel to be stripped away by Tiglath-pileser, with its inhabitants resettled in Mesopotamia and new settler from the area brought in. The humbling of Israel had begun. She had thought the land was hers. Now she was to begin to see that she was only a tenant by the permission of the true landlord.”[1]

There is no doubt that God promised the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham. To deny this is to deny Scripture. But it was always a conditional stewardship, not an ownership, and it was a stewardship for a purpose.

Moses tells the Israelites in Leviticus 25:23-34, “23 The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me. 24 And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land.” The Israelites were no more owners of Israel than Denethor was the owner of the throne room of Gondor. He was simply meant to steward it well until the true owner, the king came. They were meant to steward it for the purposes of mission.  

As Isaiah says,

“2 The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
3 You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
4 For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

The land of Israel was meant to be a light, and this light was meant to attract the gentiles, just as the Queen of Sheba was attracted to Solomon’s reign. The Hebrews were never meant to create an Israeli state just for their own purposes of owning their own land, though this is itself a good purpose. God's intention was for them to be a nation of priests to the nations (Exodus 19:1-5).

In other words, Israel was always meant to be a land that attracted Gentiles to the light, ultimately that light is Jesus, as Matthew the Apostle writes,  

“12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned. 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 4:12-16).

So we can see here how both Jews and Gentiles have both always had a claim on the land, both by presence and promise. Presence because the Gentiles were always there and possession is 9/10’s of the law, as they say. But even more importantly by promise that the light of Israel was for them as well. How could Israel reject Gentiles that wanted to come to the light of God and dwell in the land of that light?

You can take proof-texts out of books like Genesis that the land is just for the physical descendants of Abraham’s kids through the line of Isaac and Jacob. But to do so forgets that the purpose of giving the land was always to open the gates to believing gentiles:

“1 The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

2 It shall come to pass in the latter days
    that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
3     and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:1-4)

It is, therefore, no an accident that Jesus had his most fruitful ministry in "Galilee of the Nations". The light of Israel was always meant to be for the Gentiles. God made sure that Israel always had Gentiles in their neighbourhood to help them fulfil this role. This is of course fulfilled in the New Israel, the Church. But for those who think that the land of Israel is just for Jews, or just the 12 tribes born of Jacob, the very scriptures you look to make this case do not actually make this case. To make Israel just for physical Israelites is to make certain that Israel fails in its purpose to be a light to the nations. Which I think you could say is conclusively the case with modern Israel.

List of References

[1] John N. Oswalt, 1986, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, pp.239-240.

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