For many Jews and some Christians the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is seen as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. In particular, they have reference to the oracles in the exilic and post-exilic prophets about the return of the exiles from Babylonia and the reconstitution of the people in Jerusalem and Judaea.
Among the sixth-century prophets none spoke more tenderly of the return than Ezekiel: “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 people 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 . . . . And I will not let you hear any more the reproach of the nations, and you shall no longer bear the disgrace of the peoples and no longer cause your nation to stumble, says the Lord God.” (Ezek. 36:8-15)
The seeming correspondence between events in our own day and the language of the prophets has prompted Christians to look with fresh eyes on the biblical promises about the Land and the prophetic oracles about return and restoration. And as Michael Wyschogrod observed recently in these pages (“The Bishops and the Middle East,” April), Christian opinion is divided. Some Christians find “too little difficulty validating the Jewish right to the land of Israel on the basis of biblical promises” and others “err in the other direction.” Wyschogrod has no quarrel, it seems, with those Christians who interpret the return to the Land as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, but he is impatient with those who resist such an interpretation. The difficulty, as he sees it, is that Christians “persist in spiritualizing the promises of the land” and hence cling to “an ancient strategy not easy to defend in the new theological climate of Jewish-Christian dialogue.”
As appealing as this argument may appear, it founders on the fundamental principle of Christian Messianism. It is one thing for Christians to understand and appreciate Jewish convictions about the Messianic Age, and hence of the restoration of the Land of Israel, and therefore to acknowledge that one strand of biblical religion did not “spiritualize” the biblical promises. But it is quite another to expect Christians to abandon a spiritual (as distinct from political) interpretation of the land promises. For if the words of the prophets are not given a “spiritual” sense, there is no biblical and theological basis for the confession that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ.
Origen of Alexandria and other early Christian thinkers realized centuries ago that the promises of return are part of the hope in a future Messianic age. For Christians this age has already begun. “In many and various ways God spoke of old . . . by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son . . . .” (Heb. 1:1) If Jesus is confessed as the Christ, the biblical promises of restoration and return to the land require a spiritual (or eschatological) interpretation.
To be sure, some of the signs of this new age are not yet visible, e.g., “the wolf shall dwell with the Iamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together.” (Isa. 11:6) Nevertheless, Jesus’ contemporaries beheld the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, sins being forgiven, and they witnessed the resurrection of Christ, the first fruits of the resurrection of all humankind. Isaiah 11, it should be noted, is read by Christians in Advent, the liturgical season that leads up to Christmas. Its opening words are: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The birth, death, and resurrection of Christ inaugurate the Messianic age.
In disputes with Jews, Christian thinkers in the early centuries argued that the promises of return and restoration (in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and the minor prophets) must be interpreted to refer either to the time of the exile in the sixth century B.G.E , i.e., the time of the return from exile in Babylonia, or to the new gathering of humankind in the church. In the fifth century, St. Jerome, who was living in Palestine, carried on a running debate with Jews in his biblical commentaries on the interpretation of the prophecies of return and restoration. Jews took them to refer to a future rebuilding of the cities of Judaea as Jewish cities and to the reestablishment of Jewish rule in Jerusalem, while Jerome saw them as fulfilled in the coming of Christ and the new reality of the church.
All of which is to say that Christians have been thinking about these matters for some time, and there are sound reasons for their insisting on a “spiritual” interpretation. On exegetical and theological grounds, it is difficult for Christians to interpret the return to the land in our day as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, i.e., to give the return a “political” interpretation, without abandoning the confession that in Jesus of Nazareth the Messianic age has commenced. It is tempting to make things otherwise, but the theological consequences of abandoning this conviction are profound and far-reaching, touching even on a matter as fundamental as the doctrine of the Trinity.
For Jews, identification with the Land of Israel is rooted in the original promise to Abraham set forth in the Torah. “The Lord said to Abram: Lift up your eyes, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see I will give to you and your descendants forever.’“ (Gen. 13:14) Two thousand years have passed since the beginning of Christianity, and during that period Christians have learned some things about the Jews. Not only have the Jews survived as a people, but many are still observant, that is, they remain faithful to the covenant, as expressed in Deuteronomy: “And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them; that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your fathers, gives you.” (Deut. 4:1) Long after personal and familial ties to the land have been severed, Jews have not surrendered the conviction that the promise of the Land is an integral part of the covenant.
All this leaves things in an unsettled and unsatisfactory state. For Christians, the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel is an event without parallel. There are no precedents by which to discern its meaning, hence the readiness of some Christians to apply the ancient words of the prophets to events in our time. Because the return has brought about the reconstitution of the Jewish people as a political community within the territory promised to the “descendants of Abraham,” the events of our time invite interpretation within the framework of biblical history. That is, what appears to some solely as a new chapter in Jewish history (and the history of the Middle East), makes a claim on the Christian construal of history. The Jews, so to speak, have returned to “history” and Christians can hardly be indifferent to the theological overtones of these developments. But how these extraordinary events are to be woven into the fabric of the biblical promises is yet to be seen.
For believing Jews and Christians alike, the ongoing process of interpretation will require both theological toughmindedness and a refusal to leave the matter fixed at a point of mutual incomprehension.
Robert L. Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia and the author of John Chrysostom and the Jews: Rhetoric and Reality in the Late Fourth Century.