Is the land of Israel still spiritually significant?

I saw the following post on twitter from Bernard Howard yesterday:

I would encourage you to read the case put forward in the post. It is reasonable and worth thinking through. But, cards on table, I ultimately wasn’t convinced.

Feeding our faith

The first argument put forward was that the land of Israel helps us to believe God’s Word. The case is made this way:

The land of Israel—the very soil itself—has acted as a depository for Bible-related artifacts. Archeological discoveries can strengthen our confidence in God’s Word by verifying the Bible’s version of events. Ancient manuscripts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls have also been found in the land, confirming the trustworthiness of existing biblical texts and shedding light on the relatively few cases where there’s uncertainty about the original text. Year by year, the land delivers up new and exciting discoveries. This makes the land itself something that feeds our faith in God’s Word.

The issue with this argument is that it equally applies to any place or nation mentioned in scripture. Being able to see the geography and archaeology of Egypt or the countries that were once part of the Medo-Persian Empire are all helpful in proving the trustworthiness of the Bible too. There is nothing special, in that regard, about the land of Israel.

It is true that archaeological finds in Israel have, indeed, fed our faith. But it is equally true that archaeological finds in other countries have fed our faith too. But we aren’t making the case that any of those other lands are particularly spiritually significant. If we want to make a case for the land of Israel being spiritually significant in this regard, we would have to say lots of other countries that affirm biblical history are equally spiritually significant on this ground too. If finds in Israel feed our faith, finds in other countries must also feed our faith. If we don’t think this makes Iraq, Iran, Turkey or Egypt spiritually significant, we will have a hard time using this as grounds to insist it makes the land of Israel spiritually significant.

New creation “sample”

Various things in the second argument are certainly true. The land of Israel was, indeed, a prefiguring of the eternal inheritance Abraham was to receive. It is true that the New Creation will be distinctly earthly and properly physical. It is true that Canaan was a representation, in some respect, of the New Creation. So, I don’t dispute everything written here by any means. But I do think there are some missteps.

Take, for example, the argument that Canaan best represents Abraham’s future inheritance. Bernard argues that this is principally because it is a good, desirable and pleasant land. And that is certainly true and part of the picture. But even in the verses quoted, Deuteronomy goes on to specify that this land – specifically unlike Egypt from whence the Israelites came, which relied on man-made irrigation – was watered by rain. The Promised Land was indeed pleasant and good, but more importantly, it was a land watered by God and disobedience would lead the Lord to stop it raining and producing crops and the rest. The picture isn’t just that it was a good land, but a good land that specifically reliant on the Lord for its goodness (cf. Deuteronomy 8:6-18; 11:8-17). The picture of the New Creation is not merely the goodness of the land, but the evident reliance on the Lord for its produce as opposed to the apparently man-made irrigation of Egypt that would feel more like this was done by the people themselves.

But more than this, I think the post goes beyond the biblical data. This is close to acknowledge when it states, ‘Perhaps it’s overly romantic to think that the current land of Israel still serves as the best sample of our future dwelling place.’ I think perhaps it is, at least in the terms it is presented here. Israel is, indeed, picture of God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. But then, the temple was the best picture of dwelling of God with his people but Bernard does not argue – on similar grounds – that therefore we should seek to restore temple worship. I suspect the argument against that would be, now Christ has come, the picture has given way to the reality. The question is whether, now Jesus has come and inaugurated his kingdom, whether the type has now given way to the reality with the coming of Christ.

Chosen people

It is this third, and final, point that is inevitably the most controversial. The vexed question of whether there will be a mass influx of Jewish people in the last days has been the point of some theological debate for quite some time. Whilst there can be no debate whatsoever that God has not cut off nor rejected the Jewish people – Paul explicitly says it so in Romans 11 – the exact nature of their inclusion now is usually the point at issue. Is national or ethnic Israel included – and do they remain chosen – on that ground, or are Jewish people, by virtue of faith in Christ, still included in God’s plan that and thus not cut off? Very few want to argue every ethnic Jew will be saved by virtue of their ethnicity, so there remains a need to explain in what other possible way they might remain included and chosen.

Bernard’s argument rests on the land today providing a place for God’s chosen people. But how we answer some of the questions above will impact on that question. However, we can make one uncontroversial point (I think). Clearly, Gentiles are also included as God’s chosen people too. The word elect, if we want to follow the root argument that Barnard does, necessarily includes Gentiles. But Bernard’s argument for the spiritual significance of the land is that it provides a home for God’s chosen people. But, if we want to be accurate, it only provides a home for some of God’s chosen people at best. Whilst there may be all sorts of non-spiritual reasons this is a good thing, I think it becomes a stretch to argue that this is spiritually important on that ground lest we then want to argue that some of God’s chosen people do not have the land. Indeed, are excluded from that land raising the real problem of how the dividing wall of hostility that Jesus came to break down has not been erected. This, however, is not a biblical problem to answer if we suggest that the land is not itself spiritually significant, but may have non-spiritual yet significant reasons for existing.

There are other vexed questions here that require much longer than I have. But Paul – himself a Jewish man – does insist repeatedly in his writing that the promises to Abraham, that are received by faith, now belong to the entirety of God’s people – both Jew and Gentile together – in Christ. Indeed, Paul states clearly enough that the true children of Abraham are those – whether Jew of Gentile – who possess faith in God’s promise. All the promises that belong to Israel do indeed belong to the elect by faith. In this sense, Jesus is the true Israel. He is the faithful remnant of one in whom all God’s promises find their fulfilment. He is the one in whom, if someone puts their faith, if an individual is found in him, they will be saved and inherit the promises God made to Abraham that centred on Jesus.

If that is right, then the land must be understood in typological terms. The physical land of Israel was a picture of the promises all God’s people would inherit in and through Christ. Which would lead us to the view that the physical land of Israel does not continue hold particular spiritual significance. Certainly not, following Bernard’s arguments, any more so than other Ancient Near Eastern countries that might also ‘feed our faith’.

Does that mean Israel doesn’t matter at all? Not at all. Israel clearly matters, just as other nations matter to the Lord too. Nor does it mean there are not – as I said before – legitimate non-spiritual or biblical reasons why it may be important for Israel to exist altogether. One may mount a good case for exactly that. But these would not be particularly biblical or spiritual reasons, even if they are legitimate practical, political or personal ones.