The Bible and the West Bank

Bethlehem as seen from the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

An unsettling view

This past September, I was standing on the balcony of my friend’s house in Jerusalem. From there, I had a great view of Bethlehem (pictured above). I just stood there and stared, trying to take it all in. The neighborhood we were in is Gilo. Before 1967 and the Six-Day War, this was Jordan, not Israel. My friend pointed out a house down below. The owner was born before 1967. He has a Jordanian passport. That’s because Gilo is on the other side of the “Green Line,” the 1949 armistice line, written with green marker at the end of Israel’s War of Independence.

Following the Six-Day War, Israel annexed Gilo, making it part of Israel proper as it did with the rest of Jerusalem. The world community, on the other hand, regards Gilo as an illegal settlement, like all the other Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Standing on that balcony, aware of the disputed status of the neighborhood, I felt agitated. While I fundamentally support the State of Israel, I was unsettled by world opinion.

Policy shifts

Last month, November 18, 2019, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, signified a shift in the State Department’s policy toward Israeli settlements in the West Bank, when he announced: “The establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.” The very next day, the United Nations overwhelmingly passed one of its one-sided anti-Israel resolutions that deems Israel as occupying Palestinian territory with no reference to Palestinian responsibility. Surprisingly, and marking its own policy shift, Canada supported the anti-Israel resolution, thus regarding the settlements, including where I was standing in Gilo, illegal.

Map based on UN Partition Plan of 1947 (click to enlarge)

The technicalities regarding the legal standing of the West Bank are far more complicated than what many think. The West Bank, a Jordanian designation for the biblical territories of Judea and Samaria, wasn’t intended to be part of Jordan. Jordan annexed it after capturing it in the Israel War of Independence. Under the UN Partition Plan of November 1947, it was proposed that the region was to be part of an Arab Palestinian state; that is, not Jordan, but a state for the Arab Palestinians living in the land, as opposed to the Jewish Palestinians (as they were then called). The term “Palestine” in those days had no ethnic connotation; it referred to the region as inhabited by Jews, Arabs, and others. The UN Partition Plan was passed by the UN and, in spite of the Arab world’s rejection of it, became the basis of the Palestinian Jewish settlement’s declaration of independence. Ironically, there was no outcry following the Jordanian takeover of the region as a part of the War of Independence; no outcry over the exile and murder of the residents of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. And yet, in June 1967, when Israel recaptured the Jewish Quarter as well as Judea and Samaria as part of the victory in a defensive war and was once again able to establish a presence in their ancient homeland, almost the entire world deemed it illegal.

Changing map of Palestine/Israel: 1947-1967 (click to enlarge)

I find it hypocritical that a country such as Canada can pass judgement on Israel when so much of our population enjoys the fruits of colonization. It is now popular, especially at public gatherings, to acknowledge the historic connection of a locale to the indigenous people who may have lived there centuries before. How they can be certain who the actual original people or peoples were, I don’t know. Be that as it may, in spite of these acknowledgments, to my knowledge, there is no attempt among Canadian governmental leaders to restore these lands to their original inhabitants. Neither has the UN passed a resolution declaring the Canadian Parliament, for example, and other such settlements, illegal.

So much more could be said about the historical, political, and social issues relating to Israel and  the West Bank. Understanding such issues are essential to developing a helpful perspective on a most difficult conflict. But as I stood on the balcony in Gilo, more than any of this, I longed to grasp what God thought.

Christians support of Israel

Some Christians express unwavering support of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. However, in my experience, most people who identify as Christian are either ambivalent or uncomfortable with making any connection between their faith and current issues surrounding the “Holy Land.” They are happy to make a religious pilgrimage to the region where the vast majority of Bible stories happened and “walk where Jesus walked.” Beyond that, modern Israel isn’t any more relevant to them than any other country.

These Christians may take the Bible very seriously yet regard the contemporary land of Israel as having no practical and ongoing relevance to their lives or their theology. They may affirm that Israel the people and Israel the land are central to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), and yet take Jesus’s fulfilment of Old Covenant expectation as a transformation of national and geographic issues to universal spiritual ones. The land of Israel becomes nothing more than an ancient stage upon which to learn grander spiritual truths.

Those Christians who support Israel tend to simply point out the very many land promises God gave to Israel (e.g. Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 16; 25:1-6; 26:3-4; 32:28; 35:12). Apart from treating the land promises of Hebrew scripture as still relevant, they may point to a New Testament passage such as Romans 11:29 (“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”) as evidence of God’s ongoing plan for the Jewish people, including the land promises.

The messianic connection

It seems to me that one of the reasons for many Christians’ resistance to the idea that the whole Bible consistently and unequivocally supports the ongoing Jewish divine claim to the land is that it doesn’t seem to have any connection to the centrality of Jesus as Savior. Many believers would agree with the sentiment recently expressed to me by a pastor who said something to the effect that the entire Bible is about salvation. Others term this as “it’s all about Jesus.” As someone whose life has been radically and wonderfully transformed by how the Scriptures vividly point to Yeshua, I understand the emphasis, but there is much more to the Bible than it’s functioning as a spiritual device to create a saving transaction between God and human beings through the Messiah.

The Bible is God’s written revelation to equip us to live effective godly lives (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This begins with and is sustained by a right relationship with God through trusting in his Son. But that’s just the beginning. The Bible also provides all we need as the basis of how to live life as God intends. Genuine, biblically informed, godliness requires gaining God’s perspective on the world in which we live, including understanding God’s relationship to Israel and the Land. Core to this is the direct connection between Jesus and the land promises to Israel.

Genesis chapter fifteen is well-known for the doctrine of justification by faith. In response to Abram’s concern that, due to his being childless, any inheritance he might have would eventually go to his servant, God clarifies that he will indeed have a son of his own. In fact, he was to have innumerable descendants. In spite of his current state, Abram trusted what God said, which in turn was counted to him by God as righteousness (see Genesis 15:6). But that’s not how the passage ends. In the very next verse, God reiterates the promise of the land. Note how he does it: He directs Abram to offer a special sacrifice, so he laid cut up carcasses of animals on the ground. Abram fell into a deep sleep in which God spoke to him about his descendants’ future bondage in Egypt, eventual release, and land acquisition. Then he saw (either in the dream or awake) a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passing between the carcasses followed by these words: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites’” (Genesis 15:18-21).

This scene depicts an ancient custom of covenant making. The Hebrew for “making a covenant” is actually “cutting a covenant” most likely due to a custom such as this. It appears that when two parties cut a covenant in this way, their walking together between the pieces of the sacrifice was to illustrate that if either party fails to uphold their part of the covenant, then a plight similar to that of the carcasses was to befall them (see Jeremiah 34:18). However, in this case, Abram didn’t walk along with God. Instead God (illustrated by the smoking fire pot and flaming torch) walked through the pieces alone. Abram was to surmise, therefore, that if ever he (or his descendants after him) in any way betrayed the covenantal arrangement between him and God, God alone would suffer the consequences. Whether or not Abram understood the implications of what he saw, there is no doubt that God’s promise to him and his future offspring regarding the land was solemnly guaranteed by a pledge of God’s own life, so to speak.

Apart from the insight God gave Abram concerning the future plight of his offspring (see Genesis 15:13-16), Abram knew little of the complexity of the development of Israel—particularly the covenant given them through Moses at Mt. Sinai. He knew nothing of the specifics of how they would acquire the land under Joshua or the struggles they would face in the subsequent centuries. He didn’t know that his people would be eventually judged by God due to their unfaithfulness or that this judgment would include exile from the land promised to them through him. Yet Israel’s failure to be true to its calling as God’s chosen nation could not result in the absolute loss of the land. For God guaranteed otherwise by pledging to suffer the consequences of Israel’s failure. This he did through the Messiah when he died on the cross.

Readers of the New Testament rightly understand Jesus’s sacrifice for sin as the vehicle through which human alienation from God is resolved. What we have missed is that core to this sacrifice is God’s commitment to Abram and its direct relationship to the Land.

God’s giving of the Land to Abram’s descendants doesn’t automatically resolve the difficult and complex problems of modern Israel and the West Bank. But being aware of the foundational claim of the Jewish people to the Land, the West Bank included, sure makes me feel a lot better about staying with my friend in Gilo.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version.

Hanukkah for the Nations

This is an updated version of a TorahBytes message I wrote a few year ago.

Hanukkah for the Nations

Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem. (Zechariah 2:14-16 / English 2:10-12)

In Jewish tradition, Hanukkah is referred to as a minor festival, since it was not established through Moses. But this is not a reflection of its importance. For without the events commemorated by this popular celebration, the world would be a very different place.

In the mid-2nd century before Yeshua’s coming, the plan and purposes of God almost came to an end. The assimilation forces under the rule of the Hellenistic Seleucid emperor Antiochus Epiphanes were being very effective among the Jews in Israel. They, along with the ongoing presence of God’s truth on Earth, may have been wiped out had not God intervened through the small band of faithful Israelites known as the Maccabees. That God may have preserved his people and his plan by some other means is most likely. Yet, it is instructional to look at just how crucial these events were and what was at stake.

God chose the people of Israel to make himself known to the nations. That was why God called Abraham in the first place. His plan was never concerned about Israel alone, but about the world. Precisely how that was going to work out was not clear in the Hebrew Bible. A common notion derived from the prophets was that as God brought restoration to Israel, the nations too would benefit as a spillover effect. What was not anticipated was that people from all nations would have the opportunity to personally and intimately come to know the God of Israel too.

While this does not get clearly spelled out until after Yeshua’s coming, there are prophetic portions that do suggest that non-Jews would one day have a personal relationship with God. One of those portions is read as a special reading on the Sabbath that occurs during the eight days of Hanukkah. Zechariah was a prophet a few centuries before the first Hanukkah, when the Jewish people were in the early stages of rebuilding the nation after returning from the exile to Babylon. It was a difficult and discouraging time. But God through Zechariah sought to encourage the people by speaking of an unknown future time of great restoration when God himself would live among his people. When this happens not only will the Jewish people be restored to God, but members of other nations would join themselves to the God of Israel and become his people too.

The inclusion of other nations to be part of the people of God is the fulfillment of God’s promise of blessing through Abraham and his descendants to the world. But note how the inclusion of Gentiles is connected to Israel’s restoration. God’s establishment of and faithfulness to the nation of Israel is a necessary component of God’s rescue plan for the world. Israel was not simply the warm up to God’s greater purposes among the nations. Israel is God’s plan through which salvation comes to all.

That is why God’s preservation of Israel commemorated at Hanukkah is a cause for celebration not just for Jewish people, but for everyone. The whole world should honor the Maccabees for resisting being absorbed into the Greek worldview of their day, so that through the Messiah Yeshua people of every tribe, nation, and language could be an instrument of God’s light today.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version

The Indivisible Scriptures

Hebrew and Greek biblical manuscripts side by side

Hebrew & Greek biblical manuscripts

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35)

This past spring, popular megaplex church leader, Andy Stanley, presented a three-part sermon series, entitled “Aftermath,” described on his church’s website as: “Jesus’ resurrection launched a series of events that introduced the world to his new covenant and new hope. But old ways don’t easily give way. Not then. Not now” (http://northpoint.org/messages/aftermath/). In part three of the series  Stanley claims that the early Jewish believers called for a sharp disconnect between the fledgling New Covenant community and the Hebrew Scriptures. Much can be said to critique Stanley’s approach and many of his specific statements, but what I wish to demonstrate here is that his attempt to undermine the ongoing authority of the whole Bible is not new. From the ancient heretic Marcion, who claimed the New Testament “god” was different from the Old Testament “god” to the Nazi-inspired “Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life” to Andy Stanley’s attempt to make Christianity “irresistible,” there have been all sorts of intentional schemes to tear the Hebrew Scriptures away from Christianity. While many believers immediately reject such anti-biblical ideologies, you may be surprised to discover how common negative views of the Old Testament really are.

Two gods?

Do you find how God is depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures overly harsh? If so, you may be further along the road to Marcionism than you may realize. Refusal to accept that the God who commanded Joshua to exterminate the nations of Canaan is the same God who through Jesus blessed little children and offers you forgiveness, then you may actually believe in two (non-existent) gods. The one God of the entire Bible may be difficult to understand, but not impossible. God himself succinctly expressed his complex and integrated character to Moses:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)

“Merciful and gracious… but who will by no means clear the guilty.” God is both merciful and just. From Genesis to Revelation, God is always and forever consistent with himself.

Breaking an essential bond

We break the connection between Old and New Testaments every time we create illegitimate contrasts between them. For example, when Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said to those of old” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43), are taken to mean “You have heard that it was written to those of old,” that assumes that Jesus is contradicting, not interpreting, Moses. Is not twisting “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law (Torah) or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17) into abolishing the Torah and the Prophets an attempt to unhitch the New from the Old? And this is in spite of what Jesus says in the second half of that same verse: “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them”? “Fulfill” here cannot mean “to put an end to.” Rather, it indicates Jesus’s intention to demonstrate bringing the Hebrew Scriptures to their fulness by truly living them out and to equip others to do the same.

This would be a good place for me to clarify that there are indeed contrasts between the Testaments. How Scripture is to be understood and applied must be in light of our living in the Messianic age – these days of the New Covenant since Jesus’s coming. The Levitical sacrificial system is no longer in force nor is the Israelite theocracy, even though the sacrifice of the Messiah and his kingly role are central. The homogeneous makeup of Israel as the people of God has been extended to the ingrafting of the nations without the need of initiation rites. Yet this reconstitution of God’s covenant relationship to his people should not lead us to assume a casting away of the foundational function of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention the unconditional, eternal promises to Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But doesn’t John chapter one, verse seventeen, for example, distance the New Testament from the Old? It reads: “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” This wording is found in the King James Bible and many other, though not all, popular English versions. But the “but” isn’t in the Greek. It was added in these translations, because the translators deemed it to be implied. The problem is that the implication may be more due to prejudice towards the Hebrew Scriptures than sound scholarship.

The addition of “but” in this verse fuels the law vs. grace false dichotomy. Christians have often taken Paul’s insistence on faith being the sole basis of God’s acceptance as necessarily devaluing the books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul was certainly concerned about an aspect of rabbinic teaching that regarded the embracing of Torah, not faith, as the sign of genuine covenant relationship with God. According to this traditional view, only born Jews and converts to Judaism can truly fulfill that role. The New Covenant opens the door to non-Jews to find full acceptance by God outside of the community of Israel. The term “law” in such contexts is a reference to the rabbinic system they erroneously assumed to be based on Torah, rather than the contents of the Books of Moses themselves.

Grace isn’t an exclusively New Covenant concept. Paul demonstrates that right relationship with God has always been established on the basis of grace through faith. The term, “grace,” is to be understood as God’s enabling power freely given to those who trust him, as reflected through all those who have been faithful to him from Abel onwards. The  contrast between Moses and Jesus in John 1:17 is one of degree and application, hearkening back to Jesus’s words from Matthew about “fulfillment.” Grace doesn’t nullify the essential role of the Hebrew Scriptures. On the contrary, we can’t fully understand grace apart from it. Through Jesus the satanic oppression of sin is broken, thus enabling anyone anywhere to know the God of Israel and be filled with his Spirit. What was experienced by a few in a relatively small region of the world is now accessible to all everywhere through the New Covenant.

The Law as negative

Another way some disconnect the Hebrew Scriptures from the New Testament is even though they passionately value God’s Law, they do so only in a negative sense by focusing exclusively on how it demonstrates our need for God. Doesn’t Paul make a case for this?

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)

The Torah’s function in illuminating the human sin problem is core, but is that it? Is this all that’s behind these words from Paul to Timothy?

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Are we made “complete” (meaning “mature”) and “equipped for every good work” by the Hebrew Scriptures showing us nothing but how sinful we are? You might think that’s why Paul told the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-13) that Israel’s failure in the wilderness should act as an example – a bad example – to them. If so, you may have negative prejudicial glasses on. Israel did act badly. But how do we know this was ungodly behavior except that the Books of Moses plus commentary from the Psalms inform us of such? Paul’s goal for the Corinthians wasn’t only that they wouldn’t follow the bad example. It was that they would act in the desired godly manner as revealed in these Torah stories. The effectiveness of these examples is that they reflect the reality of life and God’s will regardless of the time period.

This is what Paul is talking about when he reminds Timothy that “all Scripture” is essential for godly living – “all Scripture” meaning, as it did in the entire early church, the Hebrew Bible, since there was no New Testament yet. Not only did Paul regard the Hebrew Scriptures as effective, they were also sufficient. This may be difficult for many Christians to accept, due to how much they are ignored, with or without the negative sentiments I have outlined. This in no way downplays the inspiration and authority of the New Testament. Rather it emphasizes how foundational and effective the Hebrew Scriptures were (and should still be) for believers.

The “Old” Testament

Then there’s the title itself, “the Old Testament.” You likely have never thought about how this way of referring to it devalues it. First, Old rather than New automatically sounds negative to modern ears as in “Tired of the same Old Testament? Try the new and improved one!” Of course, that might be due to we moderns’ overly positive take on progress. Be that as it may, it doesn’t accurately describe this sacred collection. It’s misleading, in fact. While the Old Covenant (“testament” being another word for “covenant”) given through Moses at Mt. Sinai plays a central role in the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s revelation of truth in these writings isn’t limited to the covenantal arrangement itself.

There are obvious passages that are outside of the Sinai covenant. All of Genesis through Exodus chapter nineteen precede it. The Book of Job doesn’t have covenantal references nor do some of the prophetic messages given to non-Jewish nations. Even within the narrative context of the Sinai covenant itself and its specific directives (commandments), we discover universal truths about God and life that both predate and outlive it. This is why I prefer to use the term, “Hebrew Scriptures.”

The New Testament’s dependency on the Hebrew Scriptures

Finally, contrary to popular misconception, the New Testament doesn’t stand on its own. This is not to say that it can’t or should never be read on its own. It’s that it understands itself as being based on the Hebrew Scriptures. Not only is it filled with hundreds of direct quotes from, and allusions to, the older writings, the concepts of God, righteousness, sin, salvation, redemption, forgiveness, Messiah, the Holy Spirit, and on and on, are all deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. To read the New Testament apart from its scriptural context is to leave it open to great abuse and manipulation. To unhitch the Hebrew Scriptures from our faith is to cut ourselves loose from God himself.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Reason To Celebrate: Reflections on Israel’s 70th Anniversary

Illustration depicting celebrating Israel's 70th anniversary

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children. (Isaiah 66:8)

I just returned from a very fruitful time teaching to a wide variety of groups on Vancouver Island. I was primarily in the Victoria area, but also presented my “God’s Epic Story” seminar in Ladysmith about an hour north of there.

Being in one of the most beautiful regions on this planet during a very gorgeous time of year wasn’t lost on me. The Lord provided all sorts of wonderful surprises along the way, both in terms of delightful scenic spots and in spending time with old and new friends.

But a week ago Monday was especially difficult for me as it marked 70 years since the birth of the modern state of Israel (according to the Gregorian calendar) and the U.S. became the first country to move its embassy to the capital, Jerusalem. That wasn’t the difficult part,however. What was difficult was the time I spent scanning major Canadian news sources only to discover that they buried the story and/or portrayed it as a Palestinian tragedy. That was a day of Palestinian tragedy is clear, but none of these news outlets provided the kind of complex coverage needed to paint an accurate picture of the whole situation.

The entire world would do well to applaud the achievements of the State of Israel in spite of – even because of -all its challenges. That we have lived to see this day is a great privilege. For 2000 years the Jewish people were relegated to the fringes of both history and the world community. Only a few, first among Christians and only later Jews, aligned themselves with God’s promises in the Bible, and began to envision the return to Zion. Against all odds, from the early Jewish settlers until now, Israel has not only survived, but thrived, and has become a blessing to the world through its advancements in all kinds of technology, all the while facing an existential threat each and every day.

To miss this great accomplishment is to be blind to a miracle of God.

Those who can’t accept Israel’s existence, but rather believe they have a claim on the Jewish people’s divine inheritance understandably cannot join in the celebration. I do believe that the bulk of responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians falls on the shoulders of their own leadership. The refusal to negotiate in good faith and to work toward a compromise agreeable to both parties has been the cause of ongoing strife and unnecessary suffering.

That the media in Canada and elsewhere allows the arrogance and nearsightedness of the Palestinian leadership to define the narrative is absolutely irresponsible and fuels the deception and destruction. Israel cannot compete for media attention when groups like Hamas allow civilians, including children, to purposely be in harm’s way. Such tactics must be condemned. We should insist that all terrorist activity stop, and not be given a public platform in the meantime.

The establishment, survival, and thriving of Israel is a key component of the grand epic story of God as it demonstrates in such practical terms his enduring faithfulness to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That all is not well shouldn’t distract us from celebrating this great milestone. At the same time, let us pray for the region that peace may come, and that King Messiah will reign over all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version