The question is put to me from time to time: How does the modern state of Israel fit into your narrative-historical schema? Does Israel still have a covenantal right to the land? It’s come up in passing, but I don’t think I’ve addressed the matter directly. Donald Trump’s apparent support for Israel and the continued expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank reminds us that this is not a merely academic question.
My view is that from the Christian perspective the basic Old Testament storyline has been fulfilled—not in a transcendent manner, but in the more or less realistic historical terms that are everywhere presupposed in the prophetic visions.
In the Hellenistic and Roman period many Jews believed that Israel would be wonderfully restored following a decisive eschatological clash with the pagan nations and that a new political order would be founded with Zion at the centre of what would be, in effect, a Jewish empire.
In the age-that-was-passing-away the great pagan cities of Babylon and Rome had been the focal points around which the nations had organised themselves, to which the nations had paid tribute, from which the nations had been ruled. In the age-to-come the nations would be ruled from Jerusalem by YHWH, probably through a Davidic king whose dynasty would never fail.
The nations would bring tribute to Jerusalem, they would come to do obeisance to Israel’s king, they would be taught the Law, they would learn to walk in the ways of Israel’s God, they would no longer take up arms against each other but would bring their disputes to be settled by the righteous Judge in Jerusalem—so they would no longer need their weapons and would turn them into agricultural implements.
The New Testament story was that this eschatological transformation was now under way because of Jesus, who had been raised from the dead and given the kingly authority to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations. It would come to a climax at the parousia when the nations would confess Jesus as Lord, and the long-suffering churches would be publicly vindicated.
This reading, however, makes it difficult to keep the Old Testament narrative open for modern Israel—though obviously not from a Jewish point of view. People will argue, I suppose, that the prophecies of restoration to the land and the glorious transformation of Zion were not fulfilled in the New Testament. So perhaps the return to the land in the twentieth century was a precursor of, or first step towards, a final and complete restoration of Israel—a parallel eschatological trajectory alongside that of the church.
But the Old Testament prophetic (and Jewish apocalyptic) narrative culminates not in the return of diaspora Jews to the land but in the rule of Israel’s God over the nations. This was an outcome that the apostles certainly expected to be achieved through Jesus, and I think that we are bound—if we read historically—to equate this “eschaton” with the official confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the empire from Constantine onwards, distasteful though the idea may be to the anabaptists among us.
Under such a reading, the return to the land has become superfluous to requirements. The final objective has been achieved by other means—not by the establishment of a new imperial capital in Zion and the ingathering of scattered Jews, but by the consistent witness, often under persecution, of the churches dispersed throughout the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.
Within the limited purview of the biblical narrative, therefore, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the expulsion of the Jews from the land by the Romans must count as a final judgment on national Israel according to the Law as the means by which YHWH would gain sovereignty over the pagan nations.
In Romans Paul sets out the reasons for this catastrophe: on the one hand, the failure of the synagogue communities across the pagan world to live up to the standards of the Law (Rom. 2:1-3:20); and on the other, their refusal to believe that YHWH had made the crucified Jesus from Nazareth Lord and Messiah (Rom. 9-11).
But in the mid-50s Paul, I think, still hoped for a more positive outcome for his people. He probably had little confidence by that stage that the Jews would come to their senses and repent before the coming judgment of God—out of jealousy over the inclusion of Gentiles in the new people of God, for example (cf. Rom. 11:11-14). But the argument from Isaiah 59:20-21 LXX in Romans 11:25-26 suggests to me that he hoped that the Jews would repent after judgment and so “all Israel will be saved”. It didn’t happen.
That seems to me to be pretty much all we can say about the future of the state of Israel. If we accept that the eschatological horizons of the New Testament are historically restricted, I think we have to conclude that the judgment of AD 70 was final as far as the land was concerned, while there was a lingering hope that the diaspora Jews—including those scattered by the war against Rome—might repent and be grafted back into the rich root of the patriarchs as reinterpreted by Paul.
Subsequent developments are simply beyond the horizon, out of sight, off the map. They are formally post-biblical. Whether we should try to work them into the continuing Shakespearian “drama” of the people of God is another matter.