Restoring the Kingdom to Israel (Part 1)

A couple of months back I wrote a short series for ThinkTank, the Moore College faculty blog. I’ve decided to post the series here as well. So here is part one of Restoring the Kingdom to Israel.

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The concept of ‘Israel’ is loaded with significance. From the pages of the Old Testament, we see Israel as the descendants of the patriarch Jacob. They are a national entity, God’s chosen people, the carriers of his promises, and the recipients of divine revelation who stand in a covenant relationship with God. In the Old Testament, Israel is ‘the people of God’.

For this reason, it should come as no surprise in the New Testament when we find the apostles asking the risen Jesus whether, having conquered the grave, he would now conquer Israel’s enemies and restore Israel’s kingdom (Acts 1.6). For the apostles, faith in Jesus as the Messiah was simply the capstone of Israelite faith. Jesus’ response to them is very interesting. He does not chide the apostles for asking the question about restoration. Indeed, the question was brimming with classic biblical expectation. Instead, Jesus informs them that the timing of such things is not to be disclosed to them. In other words, he does not answer ‘No’, but rather ‘In God’s good timing’.

This, of course, begs the question: Has the kingdom been restored to Israel, and if it has, when did it occur? Over the course of a few blogs, I want to consider briefly two widely held views on this issue, and then argue for a third view.

The first view I want to consider is that which says Israel was restored when the modern-day State of Israel came into existence in 1948. As a result of this ‘restoration’, many eagerly expect the imminent fulfillment of the Bible’s eschatological promises.

However, there are numerous problems with this view. Firstly, it assumes that citizens of the modern State of Israel are coterminous with the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, or at least with ancient Jews in a generic sense. Yet, they are vastly different. Consider the following factors:

  1. Ancient Israel/Judah was a monarchy ruled by the Davidic dynasty. Modern Israel is a democratic republic with a president elected by the Knesset (parliament) and a prime minister elected by popular vote.
  2. Ancient Jews saw themselves as being under the terms of a national covenant with Yahweh, their national God. Obedience to the terms of this covenant (the ‘Law’) was critical for Israelite identity. Today, however, Arabs make up approximately 20% of modern Israel’s population. The great majority of them are Muslims, while some are Druze, and others Christian. Furthermore, many Israeli citizens are agnostics or atheists. There is no ancient covenantal framework binding over modern Israeli citizenship. As such, the modern concept of ‘Israel’ and citizenship within it are quite different to the biblical concept.
  3. After the fall of the Davidic dynasty, the biblical prophets looked forward to its restoration. In fact, this was a common hope within mainstream Judaism for many centuries. However, there is no ‘constitutional’ room for a Davidic dynasty in the political structures of modern Israel today. If a Davidic descendant could somehow be found and his ancestry confirmed (which would be virtually impossible), the modern State of Israel would have to be dismantled in order to make way for a new Davidic Kingdom of Israel. As such, today’s State of Israel cannot be the long-hoped for kingdom.

There is a lot more we could say about these factors. They certainly have significant political ramifications for how we should (and should not) treat the State of Israel today. Yet perhaps the most critical factor to consider is the status of Jesus himself. The apostles viewed him as the long awaited ‘King of the Jews’—the promised Davidic descendant. In fact, this is the very reason why they asked him about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Jesus’ status as Messiah, then, is totally unrelated to the modern political nation-state that today bears the name ‘Israel’. He was not foretelling the inauguration of the State of Israel in 1948. Jesus must have had something else in mind.

In the next blog, I’ll consider the second widely held view relating to the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Stay tuned.

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6 thoughts on “Restoring the Kingdom to Israel (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Cleaning Up Another Apocalyptic Mess: Israel and the Palestinians | Exploring Our Matrix

  2. Very interesting! Are you familiar with the Satmar Rebbe’s (Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum’s) three-part thesis on the State of Israel, VaYoel Moshe? A rabid anti-Zionist, he does make some very interesting observations, and the result of his enquiry is similar to the third of your points above. Divesting the State of Israel of any theological significance, he also stresses the fact that it will need to be destroyed before the coming of the true restitution, which will (by necessity) be a resumption of the Davidic dynasty.

    I’ve been thinking of this lately, given the nature of some of the classes that I’ve been teaching, and I cannot help but feel that this is a concern born of the fact that the Persian period restoration precluded the possibility of there having been a king. Had the people been in possession of a monarchy (even under a different dynasty) then perhaps Zechariah’s answer as regards whether or not it was still necessary to fast on the 9th of Av, etc, would have been different? There would certainly have been those at the time of the Maccabean revolt who considered the Hasmonean dynasty as constitutive of true redemption, and so it is no surprise that there are those today who view the State of Israel as “ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו”. I am no Zionist, but I do find this logic compelling.

    From a more pragmatic perspective, however, what you say in this post makes a lot of sense to me. So why is it that many evangelical Protestants are so vocally in support of the State of Israel today? I would think that the modern state is so vastly different to its biblical predecessor that only the most ardent Zionist, in love with the concept of Jewish self-governance, could draw a parallel.

    (Sorry for such a long comment.)

  3. Hey Simon! No, I wasn’t aware of Satmar Rebbe’s position, but thanks for mentioning it. I certainly do understand how people derive theological or socio-historical reasons for the existence of modern Israel. The comparison you raise with the Hasmomean state is quite useful as a model of Jewish self-governance. Note, however, that even in 1 Maccabees there is still some sense of theological provisionality in priestly monarchy — pending the rise of a prophet who could show otherwise. Also, I do understand the Zionist position, even if I disagree with it.

    In my opinion, the reason that many evangelical Protestants are so supportive of modern Israel as a modern-day revival of the ancient entity is that they fail to appreciate fully just how the New Testament perceives and deals with the Old Testament, particularly when it comes to such issues as the theological significance of the land, Jerusalem, the temple, and the ‘chosen people’. They see a continuity that is hard to deny because the modern state occupies the ‘traditional’ lands, and they do not fully appreciate the way the themes are seen as ‘fulfilled’ within the New Testament. There is also a tendency to read themes, images, and concepts monolithically such that regardless of where they might appear in the Bible, they are always interpreted as being about the same thing (usually, that means it’s always about the end of the world, of which, the revival of Israel is seen as a part). I myself have come from a pro-Zionist kind of evangelical background, so I’m familiar with this line of thinking, even if my evangelical Protestant stance is now significantly different.

    In terms of Zechariah, I’m convinced that he was still firmly pro-Davidic, but advocated a softly-softly approach to Davidic expectation in a very delicate political climate during the rise of Darius I. I think Zerubbabel probably did step out in autonomy and was taken off the scene by the Persians. But rather than scuttle Davidic hopes, Zechariah simply invested them in the priesthood as an interim and politically expedient measure. But the fact is that the temple was the physical sign of Yahweh’s patronage of a Davidic dynasty. If you have a temple, it implies the need for a Davidic king. The fact that Davidic messianic expectation survives for centuries after is, I think, testimony to the Davidic significance of the temple. Herod the Great tried to exploit this connection by becoming the new king of the Jews who built the temple, but his ancestry was a big problem. It’s interesting, however, that the New Testament sees the Davidic expectations of Zechariah (cf. Zech 9) as fulfilled in the life of Jesus.

  4. Getting off the topic of your original post now, but what is it about Zechariah that makes you think he “advocated a softly-softly approach to Davidic expectation”? I read Zechariah as an all-out trumpeting of Zerubbabel, against the backdrop of which the silence of Ezra and Nehemiah on the matter makes a clamorous noise. And I do agree with what you say about 1 Maccabees. My suggestion that there would have been those who thought otherwise at the time was conjectural: the literature says one thing, to be sure, but I would not imagine it as being representative of the majority opinion. In fact, the literature takes so overtly a theological tone, that I don’t think it could be treated as representative of the majority opinion. Whether or not it is representative of the opinions of the monarchic elite, however, is an interesting question.

    Anyway, a great post! As somebody who doesn’t expect a resumption of the Davidic dynasty (nor one who desires it!), I nonetheless appreciate your contrasting expectations of it with the realisation of a political state. This is the very linchpin around which different contemporary communities of Haredim dissent: those on the Zionist side constituting the Hardal camp (חרד”ל = חרדי דתי לאומי), and those on the anti-Zionist side being mostly represented by the non-Israeli Edah haChareidis (עדה החרדית). Me, I prefer to look at both perspectives from the non-committal sidelines :)

  5. It’s the centrality accorded to Joshua ben-Yehozadaq that makes me think Zechariah advocated a ‘softly softly’ approach. Zerubbabel was the carrier of all the Davidic expectations, but he seems to be reprimanded for ‘jumping the gun’ in Zech 4.6. All the indications are that he was removed from the scene by the Persians, leaving a power vacuum in the community. But rather than ditch Davidic hopes, Zechariah advocated camouflaging them, by nominating Joshua as ‘acting Branch’ (Zech 6.9–15). The political climate was just too delicate to keep trumpeting Davidic hopes, so Zechariah just wanted to muffle them for a short time. The problem is, the Davidic royal family never regained their standing afterwards and the Jerusalem community quickly developed into a practical hierocracy. But the fact that the Davidic royal family became plebs allows the New Testament to claim that the Davidic heir is a pleb from a Nazareth.

    Speaking as an evangelical, I know that many of us find it hard to be objective on the sideline when it comes to the issue of modern Israel. The name and the geography just pull us in because they seem to ooze with theological import. But, I hope that we can be more objective and actually realise that a proper New Testament perspective has no vested interest in modern Israel at all. I like where you’re at on this issue, Simon. I think we evangelicals need to be more objective and ethically minded so that we approach Israel the same way we would approach any other nation state in the world: no special treatment—just fair treatment. Ironically, that would, I feel, be more in keeping with our theology.

  6. Pingback: Restoring the Kingdom to Israel - Gentle Wisdom

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