Previously, we were discussing what the New Testament has to say about the land promise. It would appear that from a straight forward reading of Romans 4:13 that Paul is redefining the promise of the land to include, not just the physical nation of Israel in the Middle East, but rather the entire world would be promised to both redeemed Jew and Gentile!
What an expansion of the original Abrahamic land promise! Yet as it turns out, it is very difficult to decide debates like this simply on the basis of citing a few Bible quotations. The temptation, one that I have often given into at times myself, is to cherry pick a favorite passage of the Bible, hold that up as “proof,” but failing to consider the possibility that other passages of the Bible might shed more light on my cherry picked verse. Let me show you what I mean.
Getting the Other Side of the Story on Controversial Bible Passages: Romans 4:13
In Romans 4:13, where Abraham, through his offspring, would be “heir of the world” (ESV), the idea that Paul is redefining the land promise in terms of the “world,” is based on what some would call a “literal” reading of the text. The original Greek word, cosmos, normally has that meaning of “world,” which is why most English translations have “world” in your Bibles. That makes sense, right?
Case closed, right?
However, cosmos could have another meaning, depending on the context. The word cosmos could also mean “people,” as in the “people of the world.” A good example of this is found in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world (cosmos), that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (ESV).” Here, the emphasis is on God’s love for people, and not the material planet earth.
Therefore, if cosmos is to be understood as “people” in Romans 4:13, then this would imply that Abraham and his descendants will “inherit the people of the world.” In other words, the nation of Israel would inherit many people, which is consistent with God’s promise to Abraham that he might have many, many descendants. If that is indeed the case, it would be fair to conclude that Paul is not even talking about the land promise at all! In other words, we would then have every right to believe that a future promise of a return of Jews to the land would still be in effect, thus anticipating the momentous events of the founding of Israel in 1948.
Is this counter-argument persuasive to you?1
Getting the Other Side of the Story on Controversial Bible Passages: Ezekiel 36
The problem of proof texting can snag the Bible’s supporters of Zionism, too. For example, there are many defenders of Zionism who seek to explain why there might be a restoration of the land of promise, even while the vast majority of Jews remain in unbelief. This would explain why there are so many non-believing Jews in Israel today. If the theory were correct, that would answer one of the big difficulties I had when I visited the Holy Land, as I witnessed how secularized the culture of the modern-nation state of Israel really was. We read in Ezekiel 36:24-26:
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 on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.
If you follow the flow, you get the sense that this would then “prove” that the Jews would first enter the land in unbelief, and then later be converted to faith by the cleansing of God (note my emphasis).
This sounds quite convincing until you read a little bit farther in the same chapter. In Ezekiel 36:33 we read:
Thus says the Lord God: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt.
Here, the text appears to clarify when the events mentioned in Ezekiel 36:24-26 will actually happen. First, the people will be cleansed, and on that same day, the cities of the land will be inhabited. The restoration of the land is tied to the cleansing of sin, with no indication of a long period of time, involving possible decades between the inhabitation of the land and the cleansing from sin. The earlier passage describes a list of things that will happen, such as the regathering of Jews from among the nations, entering the land, cleansing from uncleanness, etc., but to insist on a chronological sequence with significant gaps of time in between would conflict with verse 33.
This then would rule out the idea that God would give the land to the Jews, while they are still in unbelief, or at the very least, make the popular, pro-Zionistic reading problematic. Sixty-six years have already past since 1948! When we read Deuteronomy 30, we again see that the blessings of God will be given to Israel after they return to the Lord in belief, not before. If there is to be a future land promise, its fulfillment would be associated with a believing, not a disbelieving, people.
Then again, we know from the Old Testament, that God was very forbearing, in allowing an unbelieving people to inhabit the Promised Land. Decades and decades passed before God would finally bring judgment upon Israel, through events such as the Babylonian captivity and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, in the first century era. Furthermore, even since the first century A.D., there have been Jews living in the land, most of them not believing in Jesus as their Messiah. Unbelieving Jews have continued to inhabit the land, even prior to the mass movement of Jewish people back to the land of Israel over the past century.2
So, which is it? In order to fulfill Ezekiel’s prophecy, does Israel need to believe exactly when or prior to inhabiting the land, or does an unbelieving Israel inhabit the land, only to be converted later? Scripture does not contradict Scripture, so we need a broader perspective.
A Better Way Forward?
I could keep going and going, with example after example, of Scripture passage after Scripture passage, where one side will emphasize one particular detail and ignore another. This might appear to be a discouraging state of affairs, but this would be a misguided way of thinking. Instead, we need to probe more deeply into Scripture, but in doing so, we need a better way forward.
Let us dig deep into God’s Word. Different Bible teachers will use different hermeneutical approaches, or interpretive “grids,” to read the Bible. This is why Christians from different backgrounds will often read the same Bible verse in different ways. So, when a Bible teacher gives you an interpretation on a controversial passage of Scripture, and neglects to interact with a different view, take what they say with a grain of salt. Consider the alternative and weigh it in view of the broader themes within Scripture, under the Holy Spirit’s tutelage.3
In other words, a wiser way to approach the question of Israel and the land is to try gain a bigger picture of what is going on in the whole Bible. What is the general flow of the whole Scripture? What is the story that God’s Word is trying to communicate at a broader level? What is the appropriate interpretive “grid” to use when interpreting Scripture? Once we get a better grasp of these bigger questions will we be able to properly understand the meaning of specific Bible verses.
Stayed tuned to future posts on the question of the Bible and Christian Zionism. If you have missed the previous posts in the series, you can find them here.
1. See Defending Christian Zionism, David Pawson (not sure of the page). Pawson, who is ordinarily quite convincing in his Bible teaching, avoids the direct reading of cosmos as “world” in Romans 4:13, implying that “people” or “people of the world” is meant, without any explanation! However, see MSJ 26/1 (Spring 2015) 95–110 ABRAHAM AS “HEIR OF THE WORLD”: DOES ROMANS 4:13 EXPAND THE OLD TESTAMENT ABRAHAMIC LAND PROMISES? Nelson S. Hsieh. Hsieh draws the same conclusion as Pawson, at least tentatively. I greatly appreciate the fact that Hsieh gives both arguments a fair hearing. However, I find the reading of cosmos as “people,” though plausible, to be ultimately unconvincing because it sounds redundant. Why would Paul speak of Abraham and his descendants inheriting other descendants? Why would Paul be repeating himself and yet not making himself clearer? I do not get the point. The straight forward reading of cosmos as “world,” is more clear, as it fits in well with Paul’s challenge to law-keeping Israel to consider the truth that righteousness is based on faith in Christ, and not in better law-keeping. Also, the concept of inheritance is normally tied to property, not people, thus making the non-literal interpretation more problematic. Nevertheless, I do find that the New Living Translation over-interprets Romans 4:13, making this read “the whole earth.” Translations like the English Standard Version (ESV) preserve more of the ambiguity. What I find ironic about this verse is how a number of pro-Zionist interpreters make such a big deal in promoting a “literal” interpretation of Scripture in general, yet they will seek to avoid such a “literal” interpretation here in Romans 4:13. So, when someone tells you that a “literal” reading of the Bible requires a literal fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, ask them what they think of Romans 4:13! Nevertheless, the non-literal reading is surely possible, and I am willing to be corrected, if I am wrong about this. If only more pro-Zionist interpreters, as I assume Hsieh is, were more generous and engaging with their critics as Hsieh is, then perhaps they would find less opposition!!↩
2. Understanding the Arab-Israeli Conflict: What the Headlines Haven’t Told You, Michael Rydelnik, p. 158, and also The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, edited by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glasser, with essay by Michael Rydelnik, p.259. I have enjoyed watching a number of the Day of Discovery videos featuring Michael Rydelnik, which I would highly recommend to people. However, though Rydelnik makes a good argument here, as in this video presentation, it is disappointing that he fails to engage Ezekiel 36, in the fullest context. In Perspectives of Israel and the Church, essayist Robert Reymond points out that pro-Zionist interpreters, like Rydelnik, are ignoring verse 33 (as well as Leviticus 26:40-43, which parallels Deuteronomy 30). If indeed, the Bible teaches that Israel would enter the land in unbelief before its eventual restoration in the Last Days, then there needs to be an explanation for these other passages. I suppose you could split up Ezekiel 36 somehow to have it splice better into other passages of Scripture, but this does not seem like a very natural way of reading the Bible. A number of my fellow believers in my church admire the teachings of Rydelnik, so I would like to see Rydelnik answer this criticism someday.↩
3. In this blog series, we can only examine an all too brief sample of the various passages used by different sides in the Zionism debate regarding the promise of the land. The purpose here is to show that godly men and women have studied these particular passages for centuries, and yet they have come to remarkably different conclusions as to their specific meaning. Why is there such divergence in thought how to interpret the Bible? I would propose that the opposing viewpoints are operating within different frameworks of the overall message of the Bible, when it comes to the relationship between Israel and the church, and the prophetic outworking of God’s providential plan throughout world history.↩