Elephants in the Room?
The Hidden Roots of the Crisis of the Church in the Holy Land
(An Open Letter to the Leaders of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land)
Written by Ariel Ben Ami
Mon, 04 Jul 2011
Elephants in the Room?
In the troubled Holy Land, divided and torn by conflict, local Church leaders and Christians of all colors often claim to speak a tireless message of justice, reconciliation and peace. If only more people would listen to this message - so they claim - it would surely dramatically improve the prospects for peace between the conflicting parties in the region.
But is this true?
On the one hand, there is no doubt that the Gospel message is one of reconciliation. Through Jesus the Messiah, God reconciled the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:18-21; Rom 5:11) and broke down the wall of hostility that once divided Jews and Gentiles, making peace between them (Eph 2:14-16). The Church is indeed the world reconciled, called to manifest the just order of Gods Kingdom on earth. And certainly not a few Catholics in the Holy Land - clergy and laity - do their best manifest the Kingdom in their own lives, quietly and faithfully carrying out the Lords work through their perseverant labor of love, ministering to local Christians and pilgrims through pastoral work, works of charity, hospitality, caring for the poor and the sick, and taking care of the Holy Sites. The universal Church owes a debt of gratitude to these faithful believers who are guardians of the living Christian presence in the land that is the cradle of our faith.
Yet on the other hand, in the broader scheme of things and despite the laudable work of these many individuals, one cannot help but wonder whether the Christian presence in the Holy Land is really having such a significant impact at all. One constantly hears about the great exodus and dwindling number of Christians, invariably blamed on socio-political and economic reasons such as the Israeli occupation, the lack of freedom of movement, the absence of work and dire economic prospects, etc
Now these well-known external problems certainly play a part in the demographic crisis and decline of Christianity in the Holy Land (although there is also much myth being told regarding this decline, as Malcolm Lowe has shown). Yet there are good reasons to believe that there are also other, lesser-known but perhaps even graver internal issues that seriously weaken the life of the Church in the land of her birth. While the socio-political problems are constantly repeated and rehashed in official and public discourse, the internal issues are very rarely discussed or even mentioned. This is a serious omission, because we know that in the history of the Church external afflictions and persecutions, by the paradoxical union of the suffering Church with the suffering Christ, have often resulted in a renewed vitality and strength of the Church. By contrast, it is usually the failures of the Churchs own members from within that have traditionally sapped her vitality and strength and been the most dangerous agent of her decline.
The Word of God reveals spiritual principles and laws at work in the Church and in the world. If they are respected and put into practice, they are a source of blessing, life and growth. But rejecting, ignoring, or even just neglecting these principles results in a blocking of the divine blessing and the withering up of the life of the individuals and communities responsible for this neglect.
It would therefore seem opportune and important to set aside for a moment the external problems related to the Middle East conflict and devote a greater attention to the inner challenges that run the risk of seriously undermining and weakening the life and work of the Church in the Holy Land from within. This is the goal of the present observations and reflections, written in light of the recent Middle East Synod (October 2010) and the fruit of my own many years of personal experience with the Church in Israel. Any additions, comments and corrections that might complement and improve what follows are welcome. Even more so, if anything written below should be wrong and you have some experience or knowledge of the Church in the Holy Land that might shed more light on the situation, we invite you to let us know so that we may make the appropriate corrections.
Elephants in the Room?
The Synod has called the Christians of the Middle East to "persevere with courage, strength and steadfastness in bearing the message of Christ and witnessing to his Gospel, the Gospel of love and peace" (Final Message 1). In order to faithfully carry out this witness, the same courage, strength and steadfastness impels us to ask the pressing question: Are there a number of elephants in the room in the Catholic Church in the Holy Land very serious issues that, even though they are having a debilitating effect on the work of the Church, remain virtually ignored and unaddressed by Church leaders?
There is at least one indication pointing to the existence of such elephants: in stark contrast to the declining Catholic Church and other mainline Christian churches, there are in fact Christian groups in Israel that are actually growing and thriving, namely the Messianic and Evangelical communities. These new communities demonstrate an impressive vitality and life. They are growing rapidly. They are full of young families with many children. They show a great enthusiasm and commitment towards their faith and are not afraid to give witness of it to unbelievers. They love the word of God and study it diligently.
The dynamism and growth of the Messianic and Evangelical communities raises another question: what are they doing right that Catholics (and other mainline churches) are doing wrong? The question is especially troubling considering the fact that, from the Catholic perspective, Messianic and Evangelical believers are much less equipped to live a strong life of faith, for they lack many elements of sanctification and truth that Christ gave to His Church (see Why be Catholic?). So why are they growing while Catholics are declining?
Perhaps the answer lies precisely in the elephants in the room in the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. I propose that there are at least ten such elephants - and that the task of addressing them and earnestly dealing with them is long overdue. Many Catholics will find these points to be challenging. But has this not always been the essence of the Gospel - to be a great challenge to our old ways of thinking, yet one that, if pursued with determination, is able to bring a new life and vitality to the people of God? It is precisely because the work of Catholics in the Holy Land is so important that we should stop and think about how to make this precious work more fruitful and effective, in greater faithfulness to the principles and truths revealed in God's Word.
Let us now review ten "elephants in the room" in the Catholic Church in the Holy Land.
1. Neo-Marcionism, Replacement Theology and the Great Disconnect
Marcionism was one of the first great heresies in the history of the Church. The second century heresiarch Marcion rejected the Old Testament and wanted a Christianity that was based on the New Testament alone, untrammeled by any association with Judaism. He completely dissociated Jesus Christ from the God of the Old Testament, and he purged the New Testament from all passages that referred to the Old.
The Synod of Bishops recalled that the Old Testament unites Christians and Jews, and that Christians believe "all that God revealed there." Addressing the Jews, the Final Message states: "We believe in the promises of God and his covenant given to Abraham and to you.We believe that the Word of God is eternal" (FM 8).
Nevertheless, today a milder form of Marcionism is making a strong comeback in the Churches of the Middle East. Skewed by the Israeli-Arab conflict, not a few pastors preach a message that is infested with neo-Marcionist views and positions. Of course, no Catholic today would dare to openly reject the inspiration or validity of the Old Testament. Instead, neo-Marcionism subtly creeps in through a reinterpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures though the lens of supersessionism or replacement theology, based on the fundamental assumption that Israel has been rejected as chosen people and replaced by the Church.
The Marcionism and supersessionism of the Church in the Holy Land is manifest in many different ways, including:
Avoiding and ignoring the Old Testament passages that speak of blessings and promises to Israel, or reinterpreting them as now applying exclusively to the Church;
Avoiding biblical mentions of Israel or Zion, or renaming them to more neutral terms such as Jacob;
Ignoring or dismissing the topic of the election, promises and calling of Israel in homilies and in catechesis;
The Great Disconnect between biblical and modern Israel - where the Israel of the Bible is entirely dissociated from the Israel of today;
The Great Disconnect between Israel and the Church - where despite the unique proximity of Judaism in Jerusalem, many Catholics remain woefully ignorant of the Jewish roots of their faith, and their pastors make little to no effort to educate them in this respect;
The inability of many Catholics to even call Israel by name (see Holy Land or Israel?);
The de-judaization of Jesus, Mary, and the apostles in the popular Christian culture. Examples of this include:
the absurd claim that Jesus, Mary and the apostles were not Jews but in fact Palestinians;
the dozens of beautiful representations of Mary at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, portrayed in the colors of all nations and ethnicities - but not appearing in her true identity as a Jewish woman;
The existence of anachronistic feasts such as that of Our Lady, Queen of Palestine, whose original meaning has now become highly charged politically.
But why does this matter? Biblically speaking, the neo-Marcionism, supersessionism, and Great Disconnect of the Church from Israel has disastrous consequences in the life of the Church today. As St. Paul writes, Gentile Christians have been joined to the commonwealth of Israel (Eph 2:12-22) and were grafted in among them, becoming partakers of the root and fatness of [Israel] the olive tree (Rom 11:17). This grafting in calls for much humility and gratefulness towards Israel: St. Paul forcefully exhorts the Gentiles not to boast against the fallen branches (Jews who do not believe in Christ), but to remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you (Rom 11:18).
We cannot expect a Church to thrive while it is at the same time cutting itself off from its own roots. It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to definitively reject Marcionism, supersessionism, and the Great Disconnect, and to humbly return to a healthy appreciation of its Jewish roots.
2. Biting the Hand that Feeds You: anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism
Inevitably, the theological neo-Marcionism and supersessionism that suffocates much of the Church in the Holy Land also spills over into the socio-political and human realms. At an official level, Church leaders usually claim that they dont get into politics. But this is immediately contradicted by the messages that one constantly hears from some of the clergy, whether preached from the pulpit or through other channels. Every time that Church officials speak of occupation they are making a partial, pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel political statement. Every time they use the word Palestine, they are taking a political stand (for "Palestine" is not a nation but the name of the former administrative region that was dissolved in 1948 with the conclusion of the British Mandate). Every time that they criticize the wall/fence separating Israel from the Territories without recalling the hundreds of murderous Palestinian acts of terrorism that forced its construction, they are not standing for true justice but manifesting bias and partiality.
Why this anti-Israel bias? Of course, it is possible - and sometimes necessary - to legitimately criticize some unjust Israeli policies and actions. But the partial and hostile stand that some churchmen take against Israel goes way beyond such legitimate criticism. Is it a new form of anti-Semitism? Today, it is no longer socially acceptable for Christians to openly manifest the crude racial anti-Semitism that came to its horrific culmination in Nazi Germany. Manifestations of hatred against the Jews have made way to more subtle and refined expressions of the same sentiments. Anti-Semitism thus most commonly appears now under the form of anti-Zionism and anti-Israel attitudes. In other words: Jews are ok, as long as they dont live in Israel. Anti-Semites of this type often begin their discourse with a disclaimer that they have nothing against Jews before they go on to angrily criticize, blame and excoriate Israel in countless ways, ignoring, excusing or sometimes even supporting the terrorist attacks, threats, violations against Israeli borders and sovereignty, incitements to violence and ongoing campaigns of delegitimization that constantly rage against the very existence of the State of Israel.
One often hears Christians living in the Holy Land complaining about the difficulty in obtaining Israeli residence visas. This is a legitimate concern, yet perhaps it would be appropriate to review our attitude towards the State that is hosting us. Can we expect Israel - or any state - to warmly welcome and grant residency to people who constantly criticize, undermine and delegitimize the country in which they are guests?
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to definitively rid itself of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Israel attitudes, and to embrace a true biblical love for Israel.
3. Palestinian Liberation Theology: Sacrificing the Gospel for a Socio-Political Agenda
The politicization of the Church in the Holy Land is also apparent in the widespread embrace of Palestinian Liberation Theology, aggressively pushed by groups such as Sabeel or the "Kairos Palestine" initiative, and tacitly approved or at least tolerated by many elements in the Church hierarchy. Palestinian Liberation Theology builds upon neo-Marcionism and anti-Zionism and goes beyond them, losing in the process not only the Abrahamic covenants and Old Testament prophecies, but also, to a large extent, the Gospels message of salvation. The spiritual and salvific mission of the Church is sacrificed on the altar of a temporal political agenda. In Sabeels own words, following in the footsteps of Christ means standing for the oppressed, working for justice, and seeking peace-building opportunities, and it challenges us to empower local Christians. This sounds very nice, but going beyond the slogans one quickly finds out the basic principles of PLT: the Israeli occupation is the root of all evil, and the Gospel is reduced to socio-political activism for the sake of pushing the Palestinian nationalistic cause. The Scriptures are routinely distorted and reinterpreted to fit the Palestinian narrative. In one particularly absurd but typical example, the story of the Exodus is flipped around so that the oppressed Israelites in Egypt represent the oppressed Palestinians today, and the evil, obstinate Pharaoh who keeps them in slavery is Israel today. It is hard to see as inspired by the Gospel a movement that indulges in such bizarre deconstructions of Scripture and that habitually translates its alleged noble claim to work for justice, peace and reconciliation into the much less noble agenda of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
What is particularly disastrous about the PLT movement is not only its hostile political activism against Israel, creating more tensions and placing more obstacles in the way of peace and reconciliation (thus achieving exactly the opposite effect of what its advocates profess to strive for). It also results in a self-cutting off of Palestinian Christians from their Jewish roots, from salvation history, and in fact from the Gospel of salvation, thereby sapping their own spiritual strength. For Liberation Theology is not really a Palestinian theology at all but rather an ideology based on marxist principles that is completely alien to the Middle Eastern culture and way of thinking, and really quite foreign to Christianity alltogether. Genuinely working for peace, justice and dignity for the Palestinians is one thing. But by focusing on politics, advocates of PLT lead their people astray, in flagrant opposition to the example of Jesus who did not agitate the masses to liberate them from occupation in the political and temporal realms, but rather came to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God in their midst.
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to reject the political activism of Palestinian Liberation Theology and to care for the well-being of Palestinians in ways that are more respectful and friendly towards Israel.
4. Dhimmitude: the Surrender to Islam
The absurdity of the Catholic criticism of Israel is only matched by its equally absurd silence regarding the threat of Islam. Anyone reading the newspapers or watching the news can see that it is not Israelis or Jews who are bombing churches and killing Christians all across the Middle East. Yet despite the increasingly aggressive Muslim persecution, many Christians continue to blame Israel rather than Islam for their troubles. While Israel is singled out for any infraction, no matter how trivial, Church bombings and massacres of Christians are seemingly committed by nameless perpetrators. For example, while the Synod's Final Message goes on in quite some detail about how the Palestinians are "suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation," there is a mysterious silence as to who might be responsible for the "Christians assassinated in Iraq" (FM 3.2-3.3).
Why is this so? Simply said, because it is always possible to criticize democratic Israel without any consequences, but public criticism of Islamic regimes can be deadly. This reflects a practical state of dhimmitude, a condition described as a behavior dictated by fear (terrorism), pacifism when aggressed, rather than resistance, servility because of cowardice and vulnerability following the pattern whereby non-Muslim subjects under an Islamic regime traditionally obtained the security for their life, belongings and religion, but they had to accept a condition of inferiority, spoliation and humiliation.
And so we are faced with preposterous situations where, for example, following a bloody church bombing in Alexandria in which 21 were killed and 79 wounded, and in the midst of the well-known and ongoing Muslim persecutions of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Franciscan Media Center in Jerusalem politely grants an interview to a Muslim sheikh who declares with impunity that the relations between Muslims and Copts are in fact just fine, and that Muslims are the first to condemn such acts of violence. Or, more recently, we heard the Latin Patriarch and his auxiliary bishop in Jerusalem claiming that the Palestinian Authoritys agreement with the terror organization Hamas, responsible for countless suicide bombings and rocket attacks on civilian populations, is a good thing.
Even the Synod's message reflects to some extent the spirit of dhimmitude. Knowing the long history of conflict between Christianity and Islam, one wonders whether any serious historian would endorse its statement which seems, in all fairness, rather detached from reality: "Since the appearance of Islam in the seventh century and to the present, we have lived together and we have collaborated in the creation of our common civilisation" (FM 9).
As we have written elsewhere, the dhimmi attitude of Christians is disastrous to the Church in the long run because it sends a false message to the world, creating the illusion that Israel is the chief culprit for the suffering of Christians in the Holy Land while the Islamic threat to Christians continues to grow unabated. While it is indeed important and good to foster good relationships with Muslims on a personal level, attempting to pacify perpetrators of violence and oppression, and downplaying or ignoring the problem of islamic jihad will not make it go away but will only make it worse.
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to wake up to the increasingly aggressive threat of militant Islam and to understand that Israel is its best ally in this respect.
5. Dialogomania and Practical Relativism: the Paralysis of the Churchs Mission
In the face of the many tensions between religious groups in the Holy Land, the local Church proposes "dialogue" as the solution. Of course, it goes without saying that dialogue is essential to the Churchs work. Christians must always speak with and listen to everyone. But one gets the impression at times that dialogue in this context has become a meaningless catch word. Dialogue about what? Talking for the sake of talking? Just being nice and getting along with everybody?
Anyone familiar with the Bible can easily see that such an attitude of aimless dialogue is completely absent from and even diametrically opposed to the biblical model. Jesus came not to politely "dialogue" with everyone, but to preach the Kingdom of God to save sinners and grant them forgiveness and eternal life. Any "dialogue" he engaged in was for the purpose of communicating his salvation, his life, and his love to his interlocutors. Likewise, he sent His apostles to go and preach the Gospel, calling people to repentance, conversion and sanctification, baptizing them, and teaching them about the Kingdom.
The Church teaches that dialogue is not an end in itself, but a moment and part of the greater task of her mission of evangelization. In this light, it is worth recalling the words of Pope Benedict XVI, written some years ago as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:
Does this mean that missionary activity should cease and be replaced by dialogue, where it is not a question of truth but of making one another better Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus or Buddhists? My answer is No. For this would be nothing other than total lack of conviction; under the pretext of affirming one another in our best points, we would in fact be failing to take ourselves (or others) seriously; we would be finally renouncing truth. Rather, the answer must be that mission and dialogue should no longer be opposites but should mutually interpenetrate.
Dialogue is not aimless conversation; it aims at conviction, at finding the truth; otherwise it is worthless. (Many Religions, One Covenant, pp. 111-112, emphasis added)
This is also the line taken by the Synod, which invites all Christians to "have the courage objectively to proclaim the truth" (SM 4.4).
Yet I have heard priests tell me of their frustration at how almost all of their work and ministry in the Holy Land consists in dealing with temporal matters: administrative duties, issues of finance and taxation, housing and real estate, renovations, maintaining the Status Quo between the Christian confessions, etc... At best, some Church organisms are involved in humanitarian and educational work. No doubt, these things are important and good, but they are not at the core of the Gospels message of salvation.
The truth must be said frankly: For much of the clergy in the Holy Land, the idea of praying for the conversion and salvation of sinners, including Jews and Muslims, is completely off their radar. Its not just that they are prudent about it. Its not that they dont act upon it. Its not that they dont talk or pray about it. Many of them are so engrossed in temporal matters and immersed in the atmosphere of politically correct "dialogue" that dont even think about it.
The spiritual Mission of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land is largely paralyzed by a spirit of secularism, of humanism, of political correctness, and of practical relativism. To constantly and vaguely speak for peace and justice will remain pointless and fruitless if the clergy of the Catholic Church do not begin to place their principal emphasis on the Churchs spiritual mission, that is, of working and praying so that all people - including Jews and Muslims - may come to a personal faith and saving encounter with Jesus the Messiah. This does not mean to engage in reckless or insensitive proselytism, but it does mean to take the Gospel seriously. True peace does not depend on social activism and empty words, but on the Churchs work of evangelization and the measure by which it will be able to a true channel of divine truth and transforming grace, of salvation and of sanctification for men and women who are alienated from God and ignorant of Christ through the double darkness of sin and ignorance.
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to remember that dialogue separated from true evangelization is - in Pope Benedict's words - worthless, and that her main mission is not "aimless conversation" but leading all people to salvation, sanctification and divine life through a living encounter with Christ.
6. Blurring the Doctrine: The Catechetical Crisis
The fact that such serious problems as Marcionism, supersessionism, liberation theology, and practical relativism are present in the Church in the Holy Land points to an even greater concern: a catechetical and doctrinal crisis. In general (with a few notable exceptions) Catholics in the Holy Land are exceptionally poorly catechized, if at all. Many Palestinian Christians are largely cultural Christians - Palestinians first, and Christians second. Despite the presence of four seminaries and several advanced institutes for the study of Scripture in the Jerusalem area, the level of catechesis of local Christians at the popular level is abysmal. It would appear that this popular ignorance of the faith largely stems from poor catechesis from the pulpit. I have hardly - if ever - heard clear and solid homilies or teachings on foundational topics such as the mystery of the Trinity and divinity of Christ, original sin and its effects, the fallen nature of man, angels and demons, the necessity of grace for salvation, the meaning and effects of the liturgy and sacraments, the nature of the priesthood and of the Church, the universal call to mission, sexual morality and the issues related to it, life issues such as contraception and abortion, the distinction between venial and mortal sin, etc
Christian life in the Holy Land has the tremendous advantage of being situated at the very places where the events of salvation history occurred, and the mysteries of Christs life are generally well emphasized in the liturgical life of the Church. But despite this advantage, preaching and teaching (again, with some exceptions) are often watered down to vague messages on peace and justice, or on somehow following Jesus (without going into much detail as to what this entails). Popular devotions to Mary and the saints take precedence over solid doctrinal and catechetical formation. To make matters worse - or perhaps a symptom of the problem - it is nearly impossible to find good quality catechetical materials and books on the foundations of the Catholic faith in the Holy Land - including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is almost nowhere to be seen.
The result of this blurring of the Churchs doctrine and pitiful formation in catechesis and apologetics means that, for the most part, the faithful in the Holy Land, living as a small minority in the midst of majority of non-Christians, are utterly unable to explain or defend the basics of their faith - let alone invite others to take part in it. Fortunately, relatively few of them convert to other religions or abandon Christianity altogether because it forms such a strong part of their social and cultural identity. But the result is a Christianity that is weak and largely devoid of content, at the mercy of every new wind of doctrine and manipulations of the Gospel such as those that we have mentioned above.
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to come out of its muddled doctrinal waters and to begin teaching the beauty of the Churchs doctrine, proposing the entire deposit of faith to the faithful in all its rigor and vigor.
7. Battling Evil: Spiritual Warfare and Dormant Soldiers
Everyone knows that the Holy Land is a place of tension and conflict. Journalists and analysts discuss and write endlessly about it, considering the causes and proposing solutions to attain peace and justice in the human, natural and political realms. While the Church can - and should - also play a part in this respect, its main mission is not a temporal but a spiritual one. Too many Catholics in the Holy Land have forgotten (or never even considered) that the ongoing political conflict is a dim reflection of the intense battle between good and evil taking place in the spiritual realm.
The greatest source of evil in the Holy Land today is not the occupation, wall and checkpoints. It is not even violence or Islamic terrorism. The invisible source of all this visible evil is Satan, the father of lies, and some of his most dangerous and insidious work is not that which is obvious to all (the conflict, divisions and violence) but that which is much more subtle and hidden - indeed the elephants in the room that we have been describing: the sapping of the Churchs strength through Marcionism, supersessionism, liberation theology, dhimmitude, relativism, and the blurring of the Churchs doctrine.
The leaders of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land have failed to prepare and form the faithful to understand and fight against the work of the devil in the Church today. While one constantly hears insipid and ineffective prayers for peace and justice, one hardly ever hears specific prayers focusing on spiritual warfare. For example, I have never heard a priest in Jerusalem lead the faithful to pray the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, or any other specific prayer asking the Lord to protect the Church from the works of the devil and his demons. Many Catholic clergy, tainted by rationalism, would dismiss this topic as superstitious or fundamentalist, despite the evidence of Scripture and the teachings of the Church in this respect. Others are so engrossed in temporal matters that such considerations fall completely outside their scope of thoughts and activities.
It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to remember that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12). It is time to shift the prayer focus in the Church so that it takes seriously the intense spiritual battle taking place in the Holy Land.
8. Blind Spots: Loss of Prophetic and Eschatological Vision
The Church in Israel has largely lost its prophetic vision. With the Gospel commonly manipulated for socio-political aims, the clergy taken up by temporal affairs, and the faithful woefully ignorant of Scripture (and especially of the Old Testament), very few are able to read the Bible, the tradition of the Church, and the writings of the saints in a farsighted and prophetic way. Unfortunately, many of the learned scholars who do know the prophetic writings of the Scriptures and could instruct the faithful are themselves infected by skepticism and rationalism, failing to connect the biblical texts with the events of our own day. The result is a faith that is often sterile, lacking momentum and direction, whereas the prophetic Word of God, being living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb 4:12), if received with faith can speak powerfully and shed divine light onto the events affecting both individuals and Christian communities.
The loss of prophetic vision in the Church is perhaps related to the loss of an effective operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in large segments of the Church: these include words of wisdom and knowledge, gifts of healing and prophecy, discerning of spirits, praying in tongues, etc... (cf. Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11). This is where charismatic individuals and communities, whether Catholic or not, can play a key role in revitalizing and rekindling the gifts that have become dormant in many sectors of the Church because of a lack of faith and leadership.
In the same vein, the Church in Israel has also completely lost its eschatological vision. Despite the fact that we recall the Lords Second Coming at every Eucharistic liturgy, most local Catholics are oblivious to the Churchs teachings on eschatology. This is a disaster, because eschatology is the telos, the goal of human history. If you are confused about the aim of your life, work, and activity, then you will probably be working towards the wrong goal. Very often, the highest aspiration of local Catholics is to see an end to the Middle East conflict, and their work and prayers are largely focused on this aim. Although hoping and striving for peace is a good thing, this vision can easily be devoid of transcendence, lacking the perspective of salvation history and of the Churchs faith.
If praying and working for peace and justice is a noble task, Catholics should keep in mind that the Churchs primary task is not to aspire for peace on earth but to work for the salvation and sanctification of men and their reconciliation with God. Moreover, a fixation on a purely human peace and justice could be diametrically opposed to Gods plan. How many remember the Lords stern admonition that He did not come to bring peace on earth but a sword (Mt 10:34) - because faith in Christ can sharply divide his followers from those who reject him? How many are aware of the great apostasy that will hit the Church in the last days (2 Thess 2:3; 2 Tim 3:1-5)? How many keep in mind that the Church will face a supreme religious deception with the coming of the Antichrist who will unveil the mystery of iniquity in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth" (CCC 675-76). It certainly seems that a pseudo-peace in the Middle East, alongside the secularization of the Gospel message and the neutralization of Churchs spiritual mission might well qualify as apparent solution to mankinds problems at the price of apostasy from the truth (see A Catholic View of the End Times).
Here too, some members of the Catholic clergy tainted by rationalism might have the tendency to dismiss any talk of eschatology as fundamentalist, even though its most important tenets are an integral part of our faith, as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (668-82). It is true that Jesus said that no one knows the day and the hour when the Son of Man will come; but he also said that we should learn from the fig tree and be able to know when summer is near, that is, in what season of salvation history we find ourselves (Mt 24:23-36).
At a time where the Church in the Holy Land is facing more challenges than ever, it is time for it to recover its prophetic and eschatological vision. Only if it is enlightened by the truth of Gods Word will it be able to protect itself from deception, error, and false paths.
9. Silence is not always of Gold: The Tyranny of Political Correctness
Of all the problems afflicting the Church, perhaps the most debilitating is the widespread denial and refusal to acknowledge and address these problems. It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to stop blaming her decline on external socio-political problems, and to acknowledge that many of her most critical weaknesses stem from a lack of faithfulness to her own mission. It is time for the Church in the Holy Land to stop blaming her problems on the Israeli occupation, acknowledge and courageously combat the anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and Liberation Theology in her midst, abandon the spirit of dhimmitude and speak clearly and forthrightly on the Islamic threat, vigorously revive the Church's spiritual and evangelical mission, openly recognize and remediate its doctrinal, prophetic and eschatological lethargy, establish solid programs of biblical and doctrinal formation, etc...
The time has also come for the Church in the Holy Land to change her message to the world: it is not enough to appeal for more people to come on pilgrimage or to donate money. We must trust in Christ, in obedience and faithfulness to his words, and not only seek material help from the West! World opinion must be formed and informed not with politically correct platitudes, appeals to political activism or fundraising campaigns, but with the whole truth. The greatest appeal to the worldwide Christian community should be that they pray that all of us Christians in the Holy Land acknowledge the elephants in the room that are paralyzing the Church's mission so that we might diligently work together to tackle and overcome in all earnestness these problems.
10. Selective Ecumenism: Ignoring the Messianic and Evangelical Communities.
The gravity and number of the internal problems affecting the Catholic Church in the Holy Land shows that Catholics need help to overcome them. Some of this help could come from our Evangelical and Messianic brothers, whose strength lies precisely in our greatest areas of weakness: they have a good grasp of the dangers of replacement theology and a sincere and true love for Israel (although many of them suffer from many persecutions and injustices); they appreciate their Jewish roots; they clearly understand the Gospel's priority of the spiritual over the temporal; they are not bogged down in liberation theology and are less susceptible to falling into socio-political agendas; they understand well the nature and threat of Islam; they are less prone to relativism and more faithful to the call to evangelization and leading others to Christ; they take faith formation, discipleship, and catechesis seriously; they understand well the reality of spiritual warfare; they have a sharp prophetic and eschatological vision; they are not mired in political correctness and are generally not afraid to speak out the truth.
As mentioned above, it is not as if the Messianic and Evangelical communities dont have problems of their own: they lack the guidance of the successor of Peter in the person of the Pope and teachings of the Church, they are deprived of the priesthood instituted by Christ, of most of the sacraments, and especially of the Holy Eucharist; they have a reductionist understanding of Mary and the communion of saints, and much more. Yet these lacks need not be an impediment to dialogue; on the contrary, they should impel us all the more to increased ecumenical collaboration between them and the Catholic Church, since this collaboration could be so greatly beneficial for all parties.
Sadly, the Catholic Church in the Holy Land currently engages only in selective ecumenism. While much effort is put into fostering relationships with the Orthodox and mainline Protestant churches (often with serious problems of false irenicism and intercommunion among confessions, against the explicit regulations of the Church), the Messianic and Evangelical communities are ignored, shunned, and sometimes even demonized. Perhaps because their friendly stance towards Israel does not agree with the anti-Zionist and anti-Israel attitudes of the mainline churches, the Messianic and Evangelical communities are often unfairly caricaturized as fringe apocalyptic sects who proselytize recklessly only in order to usher in the Second Coming as soon as possible.
It is time for the Catholic Church in the Holy Land to put an end to the selective ecumenism and shameful shunning of the Messianic and Evangelical communities, and to open their doors and arms to all fellow believers in Christ especially those who are best equipped to help Catholics overcome the grave issues that are paralyzing the work of the Church.
Summary: A Proposed Roadmap for a New Direction in the Church
Many good people live, work and pray in the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, and they sincerely and conscientiously wish to make a positive difference. If you are one of them reading this, know that your life and work in Israel is important. The goal of this letter is not to blame anyone, but rather to encourage all Christians - and especially Catholics - to reflect on how we could carry out our Christian calling in a more faithful way. The dire situation of the Church today indicates that many of the positions and policies that have been accepted and followed in the last few decades - whether officially or unofficially - have failed. It is time for a new approach, and this new approach (in summary) must include:
decisively rejecting neo-Marcionism, replacement theology, and rediscovering the Jewish roots of Catholicism and of the Christian faith;
decisively rejecting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and fostering among Catholics a true appreciation and love for Israel (obviously, this does not mean that everything Israel does is good, and it does not exclude legitimate criticism of some Israeli actions);
decisively rejecting anti-Israel Palestinian Liberation Theology, and finding ways to support the Palestinian people in a way that is more respectful and appreciative of Israels prophetic calling;
decisively rejecting the dhimmi mentality and stop being silent or in denial about the increasingly aggressive threat of radical Islam;
return the role of dialogue to its proper place as a subset of the Churchs mission of evangelization;
establish vigorous programs of catechesis and doctrinal formation for the faithful;
raise the awareness of the need for spiritual warfare, and train and equip the clergy to pass on this awareness to the faithful;
restore the prophetic and eschatological vision in the Church, and translate this vision into action;
reject political correctness and describe the reality in the Holy Land as it truly is;
restore a true and complete ecumenism, with a truly welcoming and open outreach to Messianic and Evangelical believers;
Implementing these changes will require a real change of heart, of thinking and of mentality on the part of our Catholic clergy and laity. As Pope John Paul II said it so often: "Do not be afraid!" May our Lord Jesus Christ give the leadership of the Church the courage and the vision, the flexibility and the determination to change the current course, and to guide the Catholic Church in the Holy Land towards a greater fidelity to her mission, so that she may be again salt and light to the people of the land where Jesus was born.
As we have mentioned, if any point we have written should be inaccurate or wrong, we invite you to let us know, along with the relevant facts, so that we may make any necessary correction or improvement to our statement. We at Catholics for Israel stand in solidarity and communion with the local and universal Church, remaining at the disposition and service of our pastors, and happy to help in any way we can towards an authentic renewal of the Church's mission, for the salvation of Israel and of the whole world.
Ariel Ben Ami and the Catholics for Israel team
Biblical Revelation and the Land of Israel
Tuesday, 30 August 2011 Author: Ariel Ben Ami
Biblical Revelation and the Land of Israel
Between Humanistic and Biblical Worldviews
St. Jerome wrote long ago that "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." More generally, ignorance of Scripture is also ignorance of salvation history and of God's plan for mankind and for the world. Today, largely (but not exclusively) because of a widespread ignorance of Scripture, God's unique calling to the Jewish people is increasingly delegitimized and denied, and at the heart of this delegitimization stands their biblical connection to the Land of Israel. Even among Christians, ignorance or disregard of Scripture results in situations where socio-political agendas - whether well-meaning or not - commonly trump biblical revelation.
To take a very current example: In just a few weeks, on September 20, the Palestinian Authority will officially seek U.N. recognition of a Palestinian State. The increasing number of nations supporting the creation of "Palestine" will justify their position with a plethora of reasons - be they diplomatic, political, or humanistic. But few, if any, will be guided and informed by the covenantal worldview of Scripture.
It is known that not a few supporters of "Palestine" are driven by a hatred of the Jewish State, while other nations and leaders turn a blind eye to the culture of incitement and hatred of Israel that is constantly promoted in Palestinian society, where the establishment of a Palestinian State is viewed as a first step towards the destruction of the Jewish one. Far from educating its people towards peace and coexistence with Israel, the PA continually depicts a Middle East in which Israel does not exist at all, where the historical Jewish connection to the Holy Land is denied, where all Jewish presence in Jerusalem will be erased, and where terrorists who murder Jews are routinely praised and glorified as "martyrs."
By contrast, the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate affirms: "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues." This is a quote from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, which in its original form goes like this:
Concerning the gospel they [the Jewish people] are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom 11:28-29).The Church, echoing the apostle, thus affirms that God's "gifts" to the Jewish people are "irrevocable." But what are these gifts?
There is no doubt that the most important "gift" that God gave to the people of Israel in the Bible is the Land of Israel. The importance and permanence of this gift is repeated and emphasized dozens of times in Scripture. It follows that if God's "gifts" to Israel are irrevocable, as the Church reminds us, then this must include the gift of the land. To deny the connection of the Jews to Eretz Israel thus means nothing less than denying the faithfulness of God's promises and the truth of His Word.
But where do you stand?
Those who neglect or deny the biblical heritage of the land to the people of Israel can be roughly divided into three groups:
First, there are those who, without any particularly malicious intent on their part, are simply ignorant of the great biblical texts on God's promise of the Land to the Jewish people. The present article, a simple compendium of the most important of these passages with commentaries kept to a minimum, is particularly addressed to this group. For those who still believe in the authority of the Word of God, the sheer number and force of the texts will speak for itself.
Second, there are those who may be familiar with the biblical texts on the promise of the land but, in good faith, may not agree with their interpretation. This article will probably not be sufficient to convince those in this group, and will call for more elaborate commentaries and theological discussions.
Third, there are those whose anti-Zionist or anti-Israel stand comes first, and divine revelation, if at all, comes second. Though people in this group may give lip service to professing the Christian faith, they have generally made up their mind on the question of Israel on some other basis than Scripture (e.g. politics or ideology), and they will probably not be swayed by any biblical text, no matter how clear it may be. For this group, prayer will probably be more beneficial than persuasive arguments.
Please note that the present article makes no claim that the State of Israel in its present form is some kind of restoration of the Davidic or Messianic Kingdom. Nor does it advocate the rebuilding of the Temple. Even less does it attempt to use the Scriptures to justify any injustice carried out against anyone, to minimize Israel's moral responsibility or downplay the inherent dignity of the Palestinian people. It merely proposes that the return and presence of the Jewish people to the land of Israel bears prophetic significance. It invites Christians to rediscover God's faithful and providential action in the return of His people home after their long exile, as foretold in the Sacred Scriptures. And it wishes to challenge believers to think and ask themselves: which worldview shapes your view of the Middle East and of the Israel-Palestinian conflict: the humanistic - or biblical one?
The Promise of the Land to the Patriarchs
God promises the land of Canaan for the first time to Abraham and his future descendants after the patriarch had settled in Bethel:
The LORD said to Abram... "Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are-- northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth...Arise, walk in the land through its length and its width, for I give it to you." (Gen 13:14-17)The promise is later repeated as an integral part of God's newly formed covenant with Abraham:
"And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God." (Gen 17:7-8)Initially, the promise of the land seems to extend to all descendants of Abraham (which would include both Jews and Arabs). But God then narrows down the promise to Isaac only (to the exclusion of Ishmael, father of the Arabs):
"Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed." (Gen 26:3-4)Later, God renews the Abrahamic covenant with Isaac's son Jacob in Bethel, renaming him "Israel" and further narrowing down the promise of the land to him and his descendants (to the exclusion of Esau's descendants, the Edomites):
And God said to him, "Your name is Jacob; your name shall not be called Jacob anymore, but Israel shall be your name." So He called his name Israel. Also God said to him: "I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body. "The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land." (Gen 35:10-12)At the end of the Book of Genesis, Jacob's son Joseph recalls on his deathbed the promise of the land that God had made to his forefathers. Note that the promise is no longer narrowed down; it remains the promised inheritance of the twelve sons of Jacob, the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.
And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die; but God will visit you, and bring you up out of this land to the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." (Gen 50:24)The Land of Canaan as Goal of the Exodus
The promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must have remained vivid in the memory of the Sons of Israel during their years of enslavement in Egypt. It certainly was not forgotten by God. When He reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush, He recalls the promise to return His people to their land:
"I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob... I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt... and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites." (Exo 3:6-8)After Israel's betrayal of the Sinai covenant through their worship of the golden calf, Moses appeals to the Abrahamic covenant and promise, causing the Lord to relent from the punishment He had intended for His people:
"Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, `I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'" (Ex 32:13)Forty years later, as the children of Israel are on the plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan, Moses reminds them of God's covenant and promise. Note that the Promised Land here extends way beyond the borders of modern Israel, going as far as the River Euphrates:
"The LORD our God spoke to us in Horeb, saying... `Turn and take your journey, and go to the mountains of the Amorites, to all the neighboring places in the plain, in the mountains and in the lowland, in the South and on the seacoast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the River Euphrates. 'Behold, I have set the land before you; go in and take possession of the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their descendants after them.'" (Deut 1:6-8)Shortly before his death, Moses reminds the Israelites that the possession of the land is now intimately connected with their faithfulness to God's covenant:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (Deut. 30:19-20)Though the promise of the land of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was unconditional, its possession has now become conditional upon Israel's faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant. Sin and unfaithfulness will lead to exile:
"If you do not diligently observe all the words of this law that are written in this book... the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other; and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone... (Deut. 28:58,64)But even if the Israelites are scattered into exile because of their unfaithfulness, if they repent and return to God, He will return them to their land. In this context, God also promises that He will circumcise their heart and enable them to love Him with all their heart and soul - a promise that is ultimately realized with the establishment of the New Covenant (cf. Jer 31:31-33; Rom 2:29):
When all these things have happened to you, the blessings and the curses that I have set before you, if you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God...then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the LORD your God has scattered you. Even if you are exiled to the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there he will bring you back. The LORD your God will bring you into the land that your ancestors possessed, and you will possess it; he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors. Moreover, the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live. (Deut. 30:1-6)
Prophets before the Exile
With the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, the children of Israel take possession of the land that God had promised them. But after the rise of the monarchy, often corrupt, the prophets frequently warn Israel of the harsh judgments that will come upon them if they persist in sin and idolatry. Nevertheless, Israel's unfaithfulness does not negatively affect God's faithfulness. Warnings of exile are counterbalanced by the assurance that the exile will not last forever and that the Lord will return His people to the Promised Land.
The book of Amos, who preached to the northern kingdom of Israel around 750 B.C., is the oldest prophetic book in the Bible. In the midst of dire warnings of judgment, God assures Israel through the prophet that He will raise up again the Tabernacle of David and resettle His people into their former cities:
I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land which I have given them," says the LORD your God. (Amos 9:14-15)
The prophet Isaiah, who lived from ca. 740-698 B.C., also announces that God will gather the outcasts of Israel from the ends of the earth and bring them back to their own land:
In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as an ensign to the peoples; him shall the nations seek, and his dwellings shall be glorious... [the Lord] will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. (Isa 11:10-12)The LORD will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land, and aliens will join them and will cleave to the house of Jacob. (Isa 14:1)
Deutero-Isaiah specifies that this new ingathering will come from the four corners of the earth:
Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth... (Isa 43:5-6)Thus says the LORD... "I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, `Come forth,' to those who are in darkness, `Appear.' ... They shall feed along the ways, on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall smite them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from afar, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene." (Isa. 49:8-12)(*Note: For the sake of simplicity we include here the entire book of Isaiah as one unit, without excluding the possibility of a post-exilic composition of the latter part of the book)
A century after Isaiah, Zephaniah prophecied to Judah during the reign of King Josiah, from ca. 640-609 B.C. In chapter 3, he prophecies harshly against Jerusalem and warns that hostile nations will be gathered against her and disperse her inhabitants. Yet after they have been humbled, God will bring them back home and the city will be praised among all nations:
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: "Do not fear, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak... At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you together; yea, I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes," says the LORD. (Zeph 3:16, 20).
Jeremiah prophecied in the last years of the Kingdom of Judah before the exile to Babylon in 586 B.C. With the nation on the verge of destruction, Jeremiah's oracles tend to be particularly gloomy. Yet here too they are interspersed with numerous promises speaking of the restoration of Israel. Jeremiah underlines that the ingathering will reunite the houses of Judah and of Israel, and he places a particular emphasis on a return from "the land of the north."
And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, says the LORD, they shall no more say, "The ark of the covenant of the LORD"... At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the LORD, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart. In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your fathers for a heritage. (Jer 3:16-18)"For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly execute justice one with another... and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers for ever. (Jer 7:5-7)Some Zionist Jews and Christians have seen a modern-day connection between the return from the "land of the north" and the massive immigration to Israel in the 1990s of close to one million Jews from the formet Soviet Union, which is situated directly to the north of Israel.
Elsewhere, the prophet compares the return of the people of Israel to their land with the Exodus from Egypt. However, in contrast to the first Exodus, the new Exodus will see the Israelites return not from one single country but from a multitude of nations - with again a special emphasis on a certain "north country." Jeremiah also depicts an interesting novelty: the return of the Jews will be assisted by others whom he calls "fishers" and "hunters":
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, `As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,' but `As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.' For I will bring them back to their own land which I gave to their fathers. "Behold, I am sending for many fishers, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. (Jer 16:14-16)Some Zionist Christians have also given a modern interpretation to the "fishers" and "hunters": they have proposed that the "fishers" might be themselves - Christians friends who have gone to the "land of the north" (Russia) and other countries to "catch" Jews and help them return to the land of Israel; while the "hunters" might refer to the resurgence of hostile anti-Semitic persecutions that will "hunt" the Jews out of their countries and force them to seek refuge in Israel.
Other passages make the same points:
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when men shall no longer say, `As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,' but `As the LORD lives who brought up and led the descendants of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.' Then they shall dwell in their own land." (Jer 23:7-8)Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands afar off; say, `He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.' For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him... There is hope for your future, says the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country. (Jer 31:10-11, 17)Jeremiah also connects the ingathering of the Hebrews and restoration of the land with the making of a new, everlasting covenant with them by which God will forgive all their guilt and cause them to remain permanently faithful to Him (cf. Jer 31:31-34). He emphasizes the permanence of this covenant by comparing it with the permanence of the created order:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar -- the LORD of hosts is his name: "If this fixed order departs from before me, says the LORD, then shall the descendants of Israel cease from being a nation before me for ever." Thus says the LORD: "If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the descendants of Israel for all that they have done, says the LORD." (Jer 31:35-37)Now therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning this city [Jerusalem]... Behold, I will gather them from all the countries to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will make them dwell in safety. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. "For thus says the LORD: Just as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good that I promise them. Fields shall be bought in this land of which you are saying, It is a desolation, without man or beast; it is given into the hands of the Chaldeans. Fields shall be bought for money, and deeds shall be signed and sealed and witnessed, in the land of Benjamin, in the places about Jerusalem, and in the cities of Judah, in the cities of the hill country, in the cities of the Shephelah, and in the cities of the Negeb; for I will restore their fortunes, says the LORD." (Jer 32:36-44)Behold, I will bring to it [Jerusalem] health and healing, and I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them; they shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it. (Jer 33:6-9; also vv. 10-24)Thus says the LORD: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his descendants to rule over the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes, and will have mercy upon them." (Jer 33:25-26)
In the Psalms
Also in the Psalms there are a few references to the gift of the land as an integral part of God's covenant with Israel and to the promise of "gathering the outcasts of Israel":
He is the LORD our God... He is mindful of his covenant for ever, of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant which he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, "To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance." (Ps. 105:7-11)
The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. (Ps 147:2)
During the Exile
The great prophet of the Exile is Ezekiel. Perhaps because of Israel's tragic situation at that time, with the Temple and city of Jerusalem destroyed and most of the population deported to Babylon, he is also the one who is the most explicit in describing Israel's return to their land. There is a particular emphasis in Ezekiel's language on the permanence and security of the children of Israel in their land after their return - something that certainly has never yet happened:
Thus says the Lord GOD: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall dwell in their own land which I gave to my servant Jacob. And they shall dwell securely in it, and they shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall dwell securely, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt. Then they will know that I am the LORD their God. (Ezek 28:25-26)
Ezekiel underlines that the return of the Jews to Israel will bring with it a renewed fruitfulness and abundance in the land:
But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to my people Israel; for they will soon come home. For, behold, I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown; and I will multiply men upon you, the whole house of Israel, all of it; the cities shall be inhabited and the waste places rebuilt; and I will multiply upon you man and beast; and they shall increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you will know that I am the LORD. Yea, I will let men walk upon you, even my people Israel; and they shall possess you, and you shall be their inheritance, and you shall no longer bereave them of children. (Ezek 36:8-12)
Ezekiel also expands upon Jeremiah's idea that the return of the Jews to the land will be combined with a miraculous spiritual rebirth giving them a "new heart" and God's Spirit dwelling within them:
Thus says the Lord GOD: "Although I have cast them far off among the Gentiles, and although I have scattered them among the countries, yet I shall be a little sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone... I will gather you from the peoples, assemble you from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.And they will go there, and they will take away all its detestable things and all its abominations from there. Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God. (Ezek 11:16-20)
For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezek 36:24-28)The same idea is expressed metaphorically in the next chapter with Ezekiel's famous vision of the dry bones. God commands him to prophesy and bring they dry bones back to life. When Ezekiel prophesies a first time, sinews, flesh and skin cover the bones, but there is still no breath in them (Ezek 37:7-8). As he prophesies a second time, breath comes into the bones and they come back to life. The Lord then proceeds to interpret the vision: the restoration of the sinews, flesh and skin represent the physical restoration of Israel to their land, while the breath of life represents their spiritual resurrection when God's Sprit will dwell within them and God's servant "David" - the Messiah - will reign over them.
Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, `Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.' Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done it, says the LORD." (Ezek 37:11-14)Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all sides, and bring them to their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all... I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God. "My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes. They shall dwell in the land where your fathers dwelt that I gave to my servant Jacob; they and their children and their children's children shall dwell there for ever; and David my servant shall be their prince for ever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is in the midst of them for evermore." (Ezek 37:21-27) (It is worth reading chapters 36-37 of Ezekiel in their entirety)
The restoration of Israel to their land is also described as enduring following the eschatological war of Gog and Magog. Ezekiel depicts a situation in the "latter days" where "Gog," along with other nations such as "Persia" and "Lybia," suddenly and viciously attack the people of Israel who have been recently gathered into their own land. But this attack will be in vain, and it will only bring a terrible judgment upon these hostile nations (Ezek 38:1-39:20). Following this great upheaval, the permanence of the Jews dwelling in their land is once again highlighted:
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy upon the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name. They shall forget their shame, and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they dwell securely in their land with none to make them afraid, when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies' lands, and through them have vindicated my holiness in the sight of many nations. Then they shall know that I am the LORD their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them remaining among the nations any more; and I will not hide my face any more from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord GOD. (Ezek 39:25-28)
Prophets after the Exile
The post-exilic prophets continued to announce a return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel:
Remember the word which thou didst command thy servant Moses, saying, `If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your dispersed be under the farthest skies, I will gather them thence and bring them to the place which I have chosen, to make my name dwell there.' (Neh 1:8-9) Ho! ho! Flee from the land of the north, says the LORD; for I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, says the LORD. Ho! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon. (Zech 2:6)"I will strengthen the house of Judah, and I will save the house of Joseph. I will bring them back because I have compassion on them, and they shall be as though I had not rejected them; for I am the LORD their God and I will answer them... "I will signal for them and gather them in, for I have redeemed them, and they shall be as many as of old. Though I scattered them among the nations, yet in far countries they shall remember me, and with their children they shall live and return. I will bring them home from the land of Egypt, and gather them from Assyria; and I will bring them to the land of Gilead and to Lebanon, till there is no room for them. They shall pass through the sea of Egypt, and the waves of the sea shall be smitten, and all the depths of the Nile dried up. The pride of Assyria shall be laid low, and the scepter of Egypt shall depart. I will make them strong in the LORD and they shall glory in his name," says the LORD. (Zech. 10:6-12)
One crucial question remains to be asked: Could all of those prophecies have been fulfilled with the return of the Jews from Babylon to Judah? The answer is no for the following reasons:
The prophets foretold a return from exile from many lands in the four corners of the earth (Jer 16:14-16, 23:7-8), but the return from Babylon was from only one country. The prophets foretold a permanent and secure return whereby Israel would never be exiled again (Amos 9:14-15, Jer 24:5-6); however, the return from Babylon was only partial (with most Jews remaining in the diaspora throughout the Second Temple period), and neither permanent nor secure since the Jews were exiled again in 70 A.D. and 135 A.D. The prophets foretold that the return of the Jews to Israel would be accompanied by the establishment of an everlasting covenant and giving of a new heart to Israel (Jer 32:37-44, Ezek 36-37). Although Jesus the Messiah indeed instituted the New Covenant, until this day it has not been widely accepted by the greater part of the people of Israel. The prophets spoke of an eschatological and final ingathering occurring some time near the end of human history; but the return from Babylon was nowhere near the end of history. The post-exilic prophets continued to prophesy a return of the Jews to Israel. If the return had already been accomplished with the return from Babylon, such later prophecies would have been completely superfluous and irrelevant.
The New Testament
The writers of the New Testament presuppose God's gift of the land of Israel to the Jewish people. While they clearly announce the forming of a new, greater and universal covenant with the house of Israel that goes beyond the earthly possession of land and is now expanded to include all peoples of the earth, nowhere in the New Testament is it ever hinted that the original covenant with Israel and its sign and guarantee, the gift of the land to the Jewish people, was ever revoked.
As an aside note, one serious error that is often made in common parlance is to refer to the land where Jesus lived as "Palestine," because there was no such thing as "Palestine" in the first century A.D. The evangelists matter-of-factly refers to the land of Jesus as the "land of Israel" (Mt 2:20-21) or simply "Israel" (Mt 8:10; 9:33; 10:23; Luke 7:9). While the name "Israel" appears some 2,787 times in the Bible, the name "Palestine," deriving from the name of Israel's ancient arch-enemies the Philistines, does not appear even a single time in Scripture (OT and NT). The name dates from 135 A.D. when, following the second Jewish revolt, Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to blot out the name of Judaea and renamed it "Provincia Syria Palaestina" (See Holy Land or Israel?).
Does this scenario sound familiar to you - attempting to blot out the biblical name and memory of Israel and replacing it by "Palestine"?
Even Jesus hinted at least twice at a future restoration of the people of Israel to their land: First, in his eschatological discourse recorded by Luke, Jesus said that "Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled" (Luk 21:24). This seems to assume that the "time of the Gentiles" when Jerusalem is under their control will eventually come to an end, and the Jews will one day regain sovereignty over the Holy City.
Then, just before Jesus' ascension, the disciples asked Him:
"Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" And He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. "But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Acts 1:6-8)Christian commentators have often interpreted Jesus' answer as saying: "actually, I will not restore the kingdom of Israel but rather will give you the Holy Spirit so that you can be my witnesses and testify to the now purely spiritual kingdom of heaven, the 'new Israel,' that is, the Church."
But Jesus says nothing of the sort. His promise of the Spirit and His commission to the disciples that they be His witnesses does not in any way exclude some real, future restoration of Israel as spoken by the prophets. Jesus' answer, stating that it is not for the disciples to "know times and seasons" is in fact quite ambiguous. He does not dismiss the question as irrelevant or answer in the negative; neither does he say that the kingdom of Israel is somehow transferred to the Church. On the contrary, by saying to the disciples that they cannot know the "times and seasons," He is implying that these times and seasons will one day come to pass and the restoration they ask about will indeed take place. Certainly, it will not happen when they expect it, and it will occur in a totally different way than they think: the restoration will be not only physical but also spiritual; the Holy Spirit will act as its principal agent and restored Israel will be somehow united with the Body of Messiah.
In summary, to claim that the gift of the land of Israel to the Jewish people was somehow abrogated strikes directly not only at Jesus' words and at Paul's teachings in Rom 11:28-29 (echoed in Nostra Aetate), which affirm together the irrevocability of God's gifts to Israel, but also at the very character of God who keeps covenant to His people from generation to generation.
At the same time, the promise of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people is not an end in itself: The earthly Jerusalem is fulfilled in the new and heavenly Jerusalem founded by Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah and King of Israel. Yet the way for Christians to bear effective testimony to the heavenly Jerusalem is not by denying it, but rather by affirming the faithfulness of God's promises to His ancient people, keeping in mind that there are forces at work in the world that are actively and tirelessly working at undermining them.
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(Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the State of Israel)