Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Few movements are as difficult to understand as modern Zionism. In conversations with well-educated people, I often meet with great surprise when I inform them that Zionism began in the nineteenth century among secular Jews. They are even more surprised to learn that when the movement started nearly all religious Jews opposed any effort to establish a Jewish homeland. To be sure, the prayer book used on the Sabbath and festival days was chock-full of petitions for the day when God would gather His people from the four corners of the world and draw them to the land He holds so dear. But those prayers were all cast in highly theocentric terms. The end of the Diaspora was to be accomplished by the hands of the Holy One, not by mere mortals. And certainly not by mortals who had little or no interest in the life of the Torah as it was traditionally understood. Although many religious Jews became avid Zionists over the course of the last century, these tensions did not disappear. To this day, one still sees secular Israelis infuriated when one of the ultra-orthodox religious parties in their country is able to negotiate a large government subsidy for its religious schools and housing complexes while its members refuse to serve in the military.

Yet for all the controversy over the identity of the state of Israel, most Jews are in agreement that the state itself is worthy of constant support and prayer. Better to be an unhappy Jew in Israel than to be at the mercy of the country’s Arab neighbors. The situation in the Christian West, however, is not so tolerant of what is sometimes dismissively called the “Zionist entity.” Indeed, in recent months some mainline church bodies have called for an international effort to isolate Israel, and they routinely compare the Jewish state to apartheid South Africa. Given the political and theological significance of Zionism, we should expect and encourage an honest airing of different opinions. But one is struck by how few arguments about Zionism seem informed by any real theological knowledge. One is not surprised that secular journalists have been so flat-footed in this area, but the response of the mainline churches has been almost as bad. Few Western Christians seem willing or able to examine the theological challenge Zionism presents both to religious Jews and to Christians.

Any discussion of the modern Zionist movement must begin with the biblical claim that the land of Canaan was given by God to the people Israel. And any discussion of that claim leads back to the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 and its immediate literary context.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis depict a growing rebellion in the human community. Each story presents the reader with a new form of sin, and many such stories culminate in an act of dispersion. Adam and Eve are exiled to a place just east of Eden; Cain, in turn, must absent himself from the vicinity of Adam and Eve (a similar fate will greet the survivors of the flood); and the proud generation that set to work on the tower of Babel is dispersed across the face of the earth. All of humanity shares in the condition that would come to be Israel’s special lot after the invasion of the Babylonians: exile. But there is one important difference: Israel remembers that she is in exile and prays for her exile to end, while the gentiles remain blissfully ignorant of their condition and its origins. (Christians have been allowed to share in this memory; Latin hymnody, in particular, is full of references to the human race as the “exiled children of Eve.”)

All seems to be lost until God addresses Abram, son of Terah: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Genesis 12:1-3). In this striking message Abraham is called to leave all that he holds dear and set off for an unknown land. Through this paradigmatic migration God intends to rectify the created order that has spun so badly out of control.

It may be worth pausing for a moment on this audacious promise. In terms of the larger tableau of the Old Testament it is a promise that is both irrevocable and unfulfilled. It is irrevocable because it is a promise made by God. To this particular people (and to no other) God has tied His identity; to their fate His very nature is bound. As the apostle Paul puts it, the advantage of the Jews lies in the fact that “they were entrusted with the promises of God.” Could their apostasy erase these promises? “By no means,” Paul answers, “Let God be true though every man be false!” (Romans 3:2,4)

It is not so easy to see that this promise is also unfulfilled. Some would insist that it has been fulfilled. They would point out that much of the book of Joshua is devoted to showing precisely how the land promised to Abraham came under the control of the Israelite tribes. But to this it must be answered that the book of Joshua is not part of what the Jewish canon (and Jesus himself in the Gospels) identifies as “The Torah.” At the end of this collection of five books, Moses and the Israelite tribes are still waiting to enter the promised land. “Moses went up from the steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the summit of Pisgah, opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali; the land of Ephraim and Manaaseh; the whole land of Judah as far as the Western Sea; the Negeb; and the Plain”the Valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees”as far as Zoar. And the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, “I will assign it to your offspring.” I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there’” (Deuteronomy 34:1-4). And so with the entire promised land in his sights, Moses breathes his last and the account of Israel’s beginnings”Israel’s Torah”comes to a close.

As many have noted, the very last words of the last book of the Jewish Bible end on a similar note. “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: the Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has charged me to build Him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all His people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up” (II Chronicles 36:23). The similarity between the passage in Deuteronomy and this passage in II Chronicles cannot be accidental. The status of the Israelite people at the close of the biblical period is drawn into alignment with her founding charter. Israel is a people waiting just outside the land for the moment when God will bring it home.

Seen this way, the return to Zion represents the completion of the promise made to Abraham. For this reason, it does not belong in any solely anthropological category; it constitutes a true opus Dei , or “work of God.” It is an eschatological event in the sense that it requires the push of the divine hand to set it in motion. And there is more. When the moment arrives and God finally vindicates the claims He has made on behalf of His chosen people, the righteousness He displays will resound to the ends of the earth. Through the choice of Abraham, all nations will find blessing. The prophet Isaiah is most clear on this point:

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us His ways and that we may walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:1-4)

How, then, are we to understand the modern state of Israel in light of the irrevocable promise made to Abraham that still awaits fulfillment? The Bible would seem to allow only one answer: the return to Zion is the beginning of the messianic era. And indeed many fundamentalist Christians have asserted precisely this. Because the modern state of Israel is an objective sign of the messianic end times, Christians should unite with their Jewish brothers and sisters and defend the modern state of Israel against its many adversaries. As if in reaction to this unyielding attitude, many thoughtful Christians err in the opposite direction. They approach the question of the Jewish state as a purely political affair, ignoring any sort of theological framework”or, even worse, they approach the state of Israel from the classical position of adversus Judaeos and so try to make Israel a pariah among the community of nations. The relationship of the Jewish people to the land of Palestine is thus viewed, even by many Christians, from an entirely secular perspective.

Here, then, is the central question I would like to consider: If we truly believe that God’s promises to the Jewish people have not come to an end, and that those promises are linked inextricably to the land, what are we to make of the current return to Israel? We seem to be left in a quandary. It would appear that in order for Christians to sympathize with Zionism, they must believe that we now live in the shadow of the end times. But this is not the only way to read the biblical evidence. To get another perspective on the matter it would perhaps be useful to see how Judaism has struggled with the very same issue.

To the surprise of many Christians, a fair number of religious Jews are equally puzzled over how to assess the current resettlement of the land of Israel. And not a few Jews remain devout non-Zionists both in and outside of Israel. The grounds for their position are twofold. The first is the Bible’s admonition to those who naïvely presume that it is their simple human right to live on this hallowed ground. According to Leviticus 18:24-30, the moral standards of the land are so high that it will vomit forth anyone who conducts himself improperly while living on it. This was the reason that the Canaanites were evicted from the land, and it is presumably a standing threat to anyone else who wants to settle there. Holiness has its privileges but it also comes loaded with important responsibilities. One thinks here of Shai Agnon’s novel Only Yesterday . The protagonist of the story is a young, spirited Zionist named Isaac. On his boat ride to Israel he meets an older religious Jew who asks the young man where he is headed. When the older man learns that Isaac plans to move to Israel and participate in the resettling of the land, he breaks out in anger and reproaches Isaac for profaning the sacred bequest of Israel. Does he think the land of Israel is a land just like any other, a land to which you can simply migrate in hopes of attaining a better life?

The other reason for Jewish skepticism about the claims of Zionism comes from the biblical story of the spies sent to reconnoiter the land in preparation for the arrival of the Israelites. After the spies have returned and warned the people about the terrible dangers that will attend their march forward to take possession of the promised land, all Israel rises up in rebellion. “‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt,’” they complain before Moses and Aaron, “‘or if only we might die in this wilderness! Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!’ And they said to one another, ‘Let us head back for Egypt’” (Numbers 14:2-4). After this rebellion God decrees that the entire generation is to die in the wilderness over the next forty years and only after a new generation has arisen will the promise of entering the land be fulfilled. But after Moses has conveyed this divine decree, a number of Israelites reconsider the matter and decide on their own to enter Canaan. Moses admonishes them sternly but to no avail. They defiantly march into the hill country of southern Canaan and are vigorously repelled: “And the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow at Hormah” (Numbers 14:45).

As the historian of Jewish thought Aviezer Ravitsky has shown in his book Herut al ha-Luhot , biblical texts like Leviticus 18 and Numbers 14 led many Jewish thinkers to express grave misgivings about returning prematurely to the land of Israel. In the thirteenth century Meir of Rothenberg declared, “Let him be abstinent in the Land and beware of any transgression, for if he sins there, he will be punished most severely. For God supervises the Land and watches over its inhabitants. He who rebels against the king from within the king’s palace is not the same as he who rebels outside it. This is the meaning of ‘a land that consumes its inhabitants’ [Numbers 13:32]. As for those who go there and think they can get away with levity and reckless contentiousness, I would invoke the verses, ‘But you came and defiled my land’ [Jeremiah 2:7] and ‘Who asked of you to trample my courts?’ [Isaiah 1:12]” Still, such pointed reservations need to be set in proper historical context. Despite all his worries about the danger of return, Meir of Rothenberg made his own plans to settle in the land of Israel. Only his premature death prevented him from doing so.

How should we understand this ambivalence about the land of Israel? Certainly Ravitsky is correct when he remarks that the longer Jews remained in exile, the more they were in awe of the Holy Land. How, they wondered, could God’s own land be a fit habitation for mere mortals? Indeed, for some Jewish thinkers a return to the promised land is so tied to moral and spiritual purity that the very nature of the human person would have to be transformed in order for the return to be safe”and even then it would have to come as the result not of human decision but of an explicit act of God, lest Jews repeat the sin of the spies by “hastening the end.”

It would be hard to overestimate the historical importance of Jeremiah’s dictum to those who suffered the first exile of 587 bc: “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper” (29:7). Indeed the siddur, or Jewish prayer book, honors the advice of Jeremiah by including a prayer on the Sabbath or festival day for the government of the country in which the local community of Jews resides. For all the spiritual attraction of the land of Israel, there were good scriptural reasons to wait patiently before “going up to Zion.”

But the vagaries of human history have a way of jarring one loose from once-settled convictions. The God of the Bible is not some ethereal Gnostic spirit but a personal God covenanted to the people He chose. To slightly alter a biblical maxim, their ways are not inseparable from His ways. In the wake of the Holocaust, and of the stupendous victory of Israel’s armed forces over its Arab neighbors in the Six-Day War of 1967, it seemed to many Jews that the traditional Jewish reservations about modern Zionism were in need of revision. God was again at work in this land on behalf of this people. The question now becomes how to conceptualize this work of God in light of biblical antecedents. Some secular Jews such as Michael Walzer have argued that the policy advocated by Jeremiah has been dramatically disconfirmed by the events of the twentieth century, and that, as a result, Jews should follow the example of the Israelite rebels of Saul’s day who demanded a king in order to be like the rest of the nations (I Samuel 8).

Though not without its own internal rationale, such an explanation does not convince the religious. An act of rebellion in the Bible’s day cannot become the inspiration for an act of obedience in ours. The question for the religious Jew”and, I would argue, for the sympathetic Christian observer as well”is whether the return to Zion can be articulated in a manner that is biblically and theologically compelling.

There is, I think, no better guide to this question than the Israeli biblical scholar Uriel Simon, who distinguishes between two sorts of claims a people can make on a land. One is a natural claim”a claim that the land in question belongs to a people because that is where they have dwelt for several generations, where they have raised their children, buried their ancestors, and created a distinctive local culture. The Jews, by contrast, claim a very different sort of connection to their land. Canaan is theirs not by dint of any set of conventional circumstances; it came to them as a gift from God. Israel’s claim to the land is of a supernatural order.

As Simon notes, each sort of claim has its own advantages and disadvantages. A natural connection to one’s land results from a history of continuous occupation, so that legal title to the land comes to be felt as a kind of natural right. In such a case, one may not even consider what would become of one’s people if it lost its land, so complete is the identity between the people and its place. “The population feels an obligation to defend its land and its independence,” Simon writes, “but in general it does not worry about being uprooted in toto . The danger of exile [is not perceived] as a real threat, nor does it impinge on their consciousness.” But once such a connection is broken, it is broken forever: when, for example, the Hittites were driven from their land, their identity as a people came to an end.

Israel’s supernatural claim to Canaan is not continuous in the same way, since its relationship to the land is marked by rupture. What God has given He can also take away, and on at least two occasions”the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 bc and 70 ad”Israel has been driven into exile. And yet, unlike the Hittites, the people of Israel have perdured. Wherever they are driven they remain unassimilated.

The fact that Israel has lasted two millennia without a homeland or any sort of native rule is miraculous. If we could go back in time and quiz those who lived in the ancient Near East about which people had the firmer claim to its land and which culture would most likely stand the test of time, they would more likely have chosen the Hittites than the Israelites. A natural connection to the land, supported by a large standing army, is far more impressive by worldly standards than the promissory note of a national god.

The first to note the peculiar fact of the perdurance of Jewish identity was Haman, the notorious anti-Semite in the book of Esther. In his advice to King Ahasuerus he declares, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury” (Esther 3:8-9). To be a people set apart has its attendant dangers. Augustine was also cognizant of this fact, though he regarded it in a more favorable light. That the Jews still survive in spite of their role in having God’s messiah crucified is proof that God acts in accord with the teaching of the Gospels and continues to love His enemies. Though Augustine’s position is considerably better than that of Haman, one still winces at the description of the Jews as “God’s enemies.” Yet what is important for our purposes is Augustine’s historical observation that the Jewish identity has survived in spite of the Diaspora and in contrast to conventional historical patterns. This fact, Augustine argued, demanded a theological explanation.

The Catholic novelist and occasional philosopher Walker Percy comments on this fact in a far more sympathetic way. He argues that the Jewish people, as a people, point toward the reality of the God who has tied His identity to them:

Where are the Hittites? Why does no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today there are Jews but not one single Hittite even though the Hittites had a great flourishing civilization while the Jews nearby were a weak and obscure people? When one meets a Jew in New York or New Orleans or Paris or Melbourne, it is remarkable that no one considers the event remarkable. What are they doing here? But it is even more remarkable to wonder, if there are Jews here, why are there not Hittites here? Where are the Hittites? Show me one Hittite in New York City.

It is worth noting how Percy’s assessment of the matter overlaps with that of Simon. The Hittites, of course, had a natural connection to their land, a connection that would have been understood by them and their neighbors as enduring. Yet history has defied their expectations. Enter rapacious invaders from the east and west and whatever was left of a venerable Indo-European culture went into rapid decline. The Jews cannot possess their land without interruption until the end of days, but their identity as a people is a promise guaranteed by God. They have lost their land twice”and could lose it for a third time”but their identity remains, and will remain, intact by virtue of God’s gracious hand.

Israel’s claim to its land is to be distinguished from that of other peoples in another important way. The choice of Abraham and the people he would engender was not an end in itself. Rather, through that choice God sought to bring blessing to a troubled world. Through Abraham the nature of God’s relationship to humanity was to be made known. Thus, when God was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their flagrant wickedness, He decided to bring Abraham into His confidence, and the reason for this is important: “For I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him” (Genesis 18:19).

But God’s dealing justly with the nations of the world is not something that Abraham learns about only by way of dialogue. His own life and the lives of many of his descendants will be witness to this principle in a far more concrete way. For God has bequeathed this land to Abraham’s people on the surprising condition that they patiently wait hundreds of years before they actually take possession of it. “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.” Why this surprising codicil to the promise? Because the wickedness of the Amorites, who were the current inhabitants of the land, had not yet reached its tipping point. God will not give this land away until its former occupants have relinquished their rights. So Israel’s right to the land, though the result of a divine grant, is not without its restrictions. And the Torah warns that should Israel violate the rules incumbent upon those who would dwell in that land, it will be thrown out, just as the Amorites were. To be sure, God’s promise to Israel is eternal, but this does not mean that Israel’s presence in the land will be continuous and without interruption. Only in the messianic age, the Tanakh promises, will Israel’s settlement in the land be secure and final.

Of course, God’s promise to Israel is not to be understood as just a settling of accounts with the Amorites. Through His choice of Abraham, God makes known to the world the superabundance of His love and graciousness toward all creation. And the graciousness of God finds a fit recipient in the person of Abraham, who responds with unparalleled obedience. Abraham offers back to God that very part of his own being that he holds most dear: his beloved son Isaac. But even more important for the present discussion is another example of Abraham’s generosity. In Genesis 13, just after Abraham has escaped from Egypt and brought great wealth back to the land of Canaan, he finds that his possessions and those of his nephew Lot are too numerous for the land to support. One option that lies well within Abraham’s rights is to send Lot back to his home in Mesopotamia. But rather than do this, Abraham allows Lot to choose whatever portion of land he wishes. Lot immediately responds by choosing for himself the very best portion”a piece of land Scripture compares to Eden. (Of course, this land turns out to be in the territory of Sodom and Gomorrah, but only the reader is aware of this detail. At the time of Abraham’s offer, the valley Lot chose was lush and attractive beyond measure, and neither Abraham nor Lot had any inkling of what fate lay before it.) The original beneficiary of the divine promise, Abraham concedes the very land that seemed most conducive to the fulfillment of that promise.

It is precisely at this point in the narrative, when Abraham shows himself willing to give up this choice territory, that God intervenes and rewards Abraham with explicit title to all the land that had been promised: “Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and to the west, for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever . . . . Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you.” Whereas Lot had lifted up his own eyes (Genesis 13:10) in order to select the choicest land, it is God who lifts up Abraham’s eyes (Genesis 13:14) to bestow upon him a far better portion. Whereas Lot is asked to look to the north and south to determine the land that would be his (Genesis 13:9), Abraham is instructed to cast his glance toward all four points of the compass (Genesis 13:14). The generosity of Abraham does not put the divine promise at risk; on the contrary, it becomes part of the fulfillment of that promise.

Where does this leave us with the Jewish claim to the land of Palestine? We need not agree with the Christian Zionists who insist that because this is the onset of the messianic era, anything Israel does in Palestine is part of its larger divine mandate. Even if we are witnesses to the beginning of the final messianic age”and this possibility can never be wholly dismissed”we should certainly expect that whatever God does with the Jews during this time will conform to the character of His relationship to this people as it is revealed in the Bible. A unilateral land-grab that takes no moral cognizance of the plight of Israel’s neighbors is not consistent with Israel’s foundational story.

Still, we must also insist that the promises of Scripture are indeed inviolable and that Israel’s attachment to this land is underwritten by God’s providential decree. The miraculous appearance of the Israeli state just after the darkest moment in Jewish history is hard to interpret outside of a theological framework. Certainly this is one reason (though not the only reason) why Islam has such difficulties with the modern state of Israel. The Jews are a protected people in the Koran but also a people who must know their place. Many Muslims believe that the Jews have gone far beyond their limited set of rights by possessing an independent state with authority over Muslim holy sites. Many Arab nations continue to draw maps of the Middle East in which the state of Israel does not even appear. But even worse is the silence of those mainline church bodies that ignore such blatant nonrecognition while loudly attacking Israel for its shortcomings.

Nevertheless, the acknowledgement of Israel’s right to some form of sovereignty in Palestine leaves many pressing moral questions open. How is Israel to view the present moral quandary in which it finds itself? What is the relationship of Israeli Jews to the people with whom they dwell? The close of Uriel Simon’s essay on the role of the Bible in modern Zionism is worth citing in full, since it presents us with a perspective that the Church could assent to:

I believe that we are living in an era in which the divine promises are being enacted, a time in which God is extending assistance to his people, a time in which a portion of our biblical destiny is taking bodily form. This faith ought to instill in us patience, personal and spiritual trust, a readiness to assume great personal sacrifice, and above all this faith should support us in marshalling our energies for a fitting embodiment of this destiny. Along with this, it is incumbent upon us to take every precaution against “false messianism,” from an advancement of the course of human history by dint of sheer human will and the refusal to distinguish between an era in which the ways of this (fallen) world still remain in force and the messianic age wherein the wolf shall lie down with the lamb. The failure to make precisely this distinction will occur when we convince ourselves that what we have has been promised from above and that our return to the land is indeed final. Precisely this sort of false confidence is liable to lead to our spoiling once more, [God] forbid, the great opportunity that has been given us. On the other hand, our hold on this land will grow stronger the more we remember that it has been given conditionally, that is, on the nature of our deeds. These deeds must include a zealous pursuit of peace.

For Simon, Israel’s providential right to the land is secure. It is the subject of a divine promise. The nature of Israel’s present return was unanticipated by many Jewish thinkers and posed a serious challenge to many thoughtful religious Jews. But then, so were the many horrors visited upon this chosen people in the twentieth century.

The return of the Jews to Israel has also posed a challenge to Christians. For ever since the days of Augustine, Israel’s landlessness was commonly thought to be a punishment for the death of Christ. Events of the previous century showed us where this type of thinking can lead. Happily, many thoughtful Christians have moved beyond this position. Certainly the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land”his walking the streets of the Jewish state and praying at the Western Wall”is a powerful expression of this. The question now is whether we can move from an attitude of toleration and acceptance to bold theological affirmation. Is the return to Zion part of God’s providential design and eternal promise to His people Israel? I believe that it is. Is Israel’s most recent return to this land final and permanent? No one can know for sure. That will depend, as Uriel Simon wisely argues, on the providential plan of our benevolent Creator and on the actions of Israel.

Gary A. Anderson is Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the University of Notre Dame.