"Was it Fair for God to Choose Israel?"
Romans 9(1-18) Sept.20, 2009
JIHAD ON ISRAEL JUSTIFIED?
The Bible portrays Israel as God's "Chosen People", but in today's world, many nations question how closely they should ally themselves with that country. Recently Osama Bin Laden issued a communique to mark the 8th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York and at the Pentagon. The Al Quaeda leader makes a close connection between the ongoing terrorism and American support for Israel as a nation. A CTV News article summarized the "key grievances often voiced in the Arab and Muslim world" as involving Washington's policies which "are seen as blatantly favoring Israel at the expense of the rights of Palestinians and other Arabs." Bin Laden said, "We have demonstrated and stated many times, for more than two-and-a-half-decades, that the cause of our disagreement with you is your support to your Israeli allies who occupy our land of Palestine...The delay in your knowing those causes has cost you a lot without any result whatsoever...This position of yours, combined with some other injustices, pushed us to undertake the events of (Sept. 11)." In fact Bin Laden suggested for the Americans it's a choice between their own security and the security of Israel: "Ask yourselves to determine your position: is your security, your blood, your children, your money, your jobs, your homes, your economy, and your reputation dearer to you than the security of the Israelis, their children and their economy?" (Source: http://ctv.qwapi.com/site?t=aH1EjRkCBCGThuZKTihHCQ&sid=ctv)
This is relevant not just to Americans, but Canadians too, and other NATO countries involved in Afghanistan. The toll on Canadian soldiers' lives has risen to more than 130. Some senior government officials have begun to question whether the war against the Taliban is winnable, or whether we've gotten ourselves into a situation like Vietnam.
Being a long distance from the Middle East, we may wonder what all the fuss is about, why Israel and the Palestinians can't just settle their dispute, forget the past, and get on with life. But the more you read about the history and delve into the background of the controversy, the more complicated it becomes. Due to powerful political, economic, and religious forces on this continent, Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned, voices from Jerusalem dominate in our media, and most Canadians are unaware of circumstances in the occupied territories. Not so in Europe, where leaders and media are highly critical of Israeli policies: in 2003, a poll of 7500 citizens in 15 European nations indicated that the top threat to world peace was considered to be Israel - ahead of North Korea, Iran, or Afghanistan.
At first we may suppose the bias is all on one side. It seems ridiculous that Hamas, along with Iran, would refuse to recognize the right of Israel to exist. Or that new textbooks for 12th-grade Palestinian students reject the existence of Israel; reviewers note, "Maps of the region likewise teach children to visualize a world without Israel, as Israel does not exist on any map and its area is marked as 'Palestine.'" (source: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/839584.html)
To us, that sounds just plain silly. But then IslamOnline.net points out "the 100% of historical Palestine occupied by Israel since June 1967 and shown as 'Israel' (without any 'Green Line') on maps in Israeli schoolbooks...Israel has never defined its own borders, since doing so would necessarily place limits on them."
John Whitbeck, an international lawyer, explains the more in-depth reason why Palestinians have a hard time accepting Israel's 'right to exist' - something that for us sounds like it should be obvious. He writes, "For Palestinians to acknowledge the occurrence of the Nakba -- the expulsion of the great majority of Palestinians from their homeland between 1947 and 1949 -- is one thing. For them to publicly concede that it was 'right' for the Nakba to have happened is something else entirely. For the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, the Holocaust and the Nakba, respectively, represent catastrophes and injustices on an unimaginable scale that can neither be forgotten nor forgiven. To demand that Palestinians recognize 'Israel's right to exist' is to demand that a people who have for almost 60 years been treated, and continue to be treated, as subhumans unworthy of basic human rights publicly proclaim that they are subhumans - and, at least implicitly, that they deserve what has been done, and continues to be done, to them. Those who recognize the critical importance of Israeli-Palestinian peace and truly seek a decent future for both peoples must recognize that the demand that Hamas recognize 'Israel's right to exist' is unreasonable, immoral and impossible to meet." (Source: <http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?c=Article_C&cid=1199279332162&pagename=Zone-English-Muslim_Affairs%2FMAELayout>)
Perhaps this isn't as clear-cut as it first seemed. What does the Bible say? Does Israel have special status that warrants it to possess the land, at the cost of rights to others? At the core of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan that's costing so many lives hangs a question, Was it even fair for God to 'choose' Israel? Does the Bible back Israel unconditionally - giving it carte blanche to oppress? To what degree should we be its ally? Does the New Testament mean the Christian church has superseded Israel, to the extent they're to be treated just like any other nation? Or does God still have a special destiny for Jacob's descendants?
In writing the book of Romans, Paul's been sailing along at the pinnacle of New Testament theology, describing sublime spiritual truths about the Christian believer's status, empowerment, and experience. Some refer to Romans 8 as 'the great Eight'. Then suddenly he pauses and seems to hike down a bunny-trail for three chapters, before picking up again in chapter 12 with more on the practical aspects of Christian life. Why the digression?
But the three chapters dealing with the question of the Jews are not an unnecessary detour. At stake is the integrity of God's character, His faithfulness, whether He keeps His promises: if God abandoned His people from the Old Covenant, what security would we have under the New Covenant? 9:6 states the issue: "It is not as though God's word had failed." That's important: all these great spiritual blessings and promises in chapter 8 are underwritten by God's word; can that be trusted - can God be trusted, given how many of Paul's fellow-Jews did not believe in Jesus and are now 'cut off'?
Paul begins by rehearsing the many privileges of the Jews in vv 4-5: "Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen." Adoption is about God's choosing the descendants of Jacob, as God told Moses to say to Pharaoh, "Israel is My firstborn son." (Ex 4:22) The divine glory refers to the pillar of cloud and fire that accompanied the Hebrews from Egypt, and the cloud of Shekinah glory that filled the Tabernacle and the Temple, God's presence associated with the Ark of the Covenant (Num 7:89; 1Kings 8:11). God had revealed to them how to worship Him through the centuries. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the physical blood-ancestors of the various tribes of Israel; Paul was conscious of his own background being anchored in the tribe of Benjamin (11:1). Humanly speaking, it was through the tribe of Judah and David specifically that the Messiah would trace His lineage - Jews were the human ancestors of Christ. That's a huge privilege!
But what made Israel most 'special' was their being entrusted with God's word. Here in this list three factors - "the covenants, the receiving of the law,...and the promises" are all related to God's special revelation through His word. Israel was to be the medium through which God made His will and mind and purposes known to humanity. Psalm 147(19f) notes, "He has revealed his word to Jacob, his laws and decrees to Israel.He has done this for no other nation; they do not know his laws."
So God's saving and dealing with Israel constitute a huge privilege that's not to be forgotten. It's interesting that there is an attempt by Muslims to link their heritage with Ishmael, Abraham's son by the slave girl Hagar; in fact there are stories that Ishmael was the son nearly sacrificed, instead of Isaac. Hence springs a rivalry. However some modern Arab scholars trace their roots instead to Qahtan or Joktan rather than Ishmael.
Though Israel was very privileged, they developed a big problem. Paul lays this out at the end of chapter 9, vv31f: "but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works." Religious leaders by the time of Jesus had codified the law minutely and added ponderous human interpretations, to the point they couldn't see the forest for the trees. In Matthew 12, the Pharisees criticized Jesus for allowing His disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath; later, when Jesus asked if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath then healed a man's shriveled hand, the Pharisees "went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus." (Mt 12:2,14) In John 9, when Jesus heals a man born blind on the Sabbath, the Pharisees consider Him not from God, but a sinner, because He didn't 'keep the Sabbath' as they expected (Jn 9:16,24). Jesus was charged with blasphemy and killed because they couldn't accept that God would send them such a Messiah; keeping their interpretation of the law was more important than believing the One God had sent in grace and truth to bless us (Jn 1:16f). As Paul puts it, pursuing righteousness by works, they "stumbled over the 'stumbling stone'" (9:32).
Many religions in the world suppose it's up to people to work our way to acceptance with God, as if we can put God in our debt by doing enough good works. What about you? Are you off-track like the Jews, trying to earn your way to heaven by good deeds? If you attempt that, like Israel, you have a problem. According to the Bible, that's a perversion of true religion. If you want the righteousness God offers, you have to receive it by faith, through believing in Jesus as God's Son and our Saviour, not by works - as if piling up our accomplishments could ever impress Almighty, Holy God! Faith is all about recognizing what Jesus has accomplished for us, in love, and welcoming Him to be in charge of our life. Ephesians 2(8f) says, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast."
Step back a minute and ask, "Why would God choose anyone, anyway?" If He did choose Israel - or us, for that matter - what might that be for? What would be the goal?
While chapter 9 might seem to be quite different from chapter 8, systematically there are 3 factors that tie them together quite naturally: God's sovereignty; God's election (or choosing); and God's glory. These 3 things help us not only understand why these chapters go together, but also point us in the direction of God's mega-purpose in creating us and saving us. Cast your eyes back over verse 28-30 in chapter 8, some of the best-loved and significant verses in Christianity. "We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him..." That's God's sovereignty, He's in control, managing events for our good. "...Who have been called according to His PURPOSE" - that's what we're talking about, what's God's aim or design in all this? 29, "For those God foreknew He predestined..." and 30, "And those He predestined, He also called..." That's God's election, or choosing - a mystery based not on our merits or deserving (fallen blinded sinners that we are, coming even from the womb), but His sheer grace. 29 again, "...He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son..." 30, "...Those he justified, He also glorified." 8:17, we are "co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory." The thrust or drive here is for God's glory to be experienced, known, displayed, broadcast and admired.
These same factors - God's sovereignty, election, and glory - are at play here in chapter 9 in the choosing of Israel. V7, selectivity is at work: not all Abraham's descendants are fully his 'children' (or heirs) but through Isaac his offspring are reckoned - the child of the promise, unlike Ishmael the child of human conniving. Likewise, Rebekah had two children, but God chose Jacob not Esau. This was decided, v11, "before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad" - simply God in His sovereign freedom exercising His almighty prerogative as Creator; v12, "Not by works but by Him who calls." Why? V11, "In order that God's purpose in election might stand" - the purpose at the back of His choosing. What purpose could that be?
At first God's statement to Moses in v15, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion," seems rather arbitrary. "Is God unjust?" is a relevant question that Paul addresses. There is a purpose in His choosing; a purpose tied, v16, not to man's desire or effort, but to God's mercy. Here Paul illustrates using what Scripture says to Pharaoh in v17, "I raised you up for this very purpose, that [get ready for it - here's a purpose statement] (that) I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." Why did God raise up Pharaoh and harden his already-idolatrous heart so he was so stubborn awesome miracles were needed to let the people go? To display God's power in Pharaoh and so Yahweh's name would spread like wildfire through many nations as the story was told. God's purpose in sovereignly - unilaterally - choosing Abraham, Jacob, Pharaoh, the nation of Israel - or us - is to make His glory known.
We see this echoed down in vv22f: "What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath-- prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory..." God's purpose is to make His glory known. God, a Trinity, an infinitely good, holy, and loving community within Godself, is the only being in the whole universe for whom pursuing infinitely the display of one's glory is not selfish, but fitting. His relations with people, then, from Moses to Pharaoh to Paul and the Pharisees, are oriented to ultimately manifest or show off (to be savoured and enjoyed and appreciated) His glory and goodness.
Although Paul started out talking about Israel, he comes back to talking about believers. In this passage we get a better understanding of our own purpose within God's goals. He's preparing us for something amazing.
We are DETOURED FROM WRATH: the phrase "objects of His wrath" once included us as sinners. V28 says, "the Lord will carry out His sentence on earth with speed and finality." Eternally the sentence of the Just Judge would have confined us to hell; but Jesus made a propitiation at the cross, sacrificing His righteous holy person for us.
We are DRAWN IN MERCY AND LOVE: v15, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy;" vv23f, "the objects of His mercy" refers to "even us"; 25, "I will call her 'my loved one' who is not my loved one." As Paul wrote to Titus, "But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy." (Tit 3:4f)
We are DEEMED GOD'S SONS AND DAUGHTERS: vv25-26, "I will call them 'my people' who are not my people;" "and, It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, 'You are not my people,' they will be called 'sons of the living God.'" Chapter 11 talks about Gentile believers being 'grafted in' to the root of Israel like a wild olive shoot now sharing nourishing sap from the original root. Chapter 8 says we have received 'the Spirit of sonship' by which we cry 'Abba, Father; the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are in fact God's children (8:15f).
Finally, we are DESTINED FOR AND DEMONSTRATING GOD'S GLORY: v23, God's plan was to make the riches of His glory known to us, the objects of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for glory. In 1Corinthians 15(42ff) Paul describes believers' resurrection bodies as, like our Lord's, being raised in power, changed, imperishable, glorious! (Do I hear an 'Amen!'?)
Why would God choose Israel? Why has God called us? Why did God choose Jacob over Esau and raise up Pharaoh? For His glory. 1Peter 2:9 is written for believers, but it echoes God's purpose in originally choosing the Jews: "But you [you here in Blyth this morning!] (you) are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that [here's a purpose statement coming up] (that) you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." (1Pe 2:9)
The goodness of God's glory isn't fully appreciated or completed until it's savoured and expressed by His Creation. It was fun selling baking at our church's Thresher's booth because it was all GOOD STUFF - homemade, from fresh ingredients, by skilled cooks. We had people coming up to us later and saying, "I just HAD to tell you, that was the best elderberry pie I ever tasted." Why did they 'have' to tell us? Because something about the exquisiteness of such a delight prompts us to express it to the person responsible. So God chooses and raises up a nation of people (from both Jews and Gentiles) to revel in and praise right out loud the goodness of His glory.
PALESTINE - PEACE OR APARTHEID?
So, where does that leave Israel? Like Paul, our "heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved." (Rom 10:1) They can be grafted back in to the root as easily as we were. They are, as Isaiah (43:21) prophesied, "the people I [God] formed for Myself that they may proclaim My praise.Yet (God continues) you have not called upon Me, O Jacob..." Jews do need Jesus to become truly God's people. Romans 11(25f) says they have experienced "a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in." The hardening is partial and temporary, hinting there may be widespread conversions around the time of Jesus' return.
However, in the interim, as a state, they are to reflect God's principles in their conduct as a model to the nations. Isaiah's vision about Jerusalem is of many peoples coming and saying, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.' The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem." (Isa 2:3) No excuse for unwarranted aggression or oppression of others.
Former American president and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Jimmy Carter in 2006 released his book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. Carter maintains the general conditions for a potential long-term, two-state agreement are well known; but there will not be peace as long as Israel violates key UN resolutions and the international 'road map' for peace by occupying Arab lands and oppressing the Palestinians. It must draw back to its official pre-1967 borders, apart from mutually agreeable land swaps. On the other hand, Arab neighbours must pledge to honour Israel's right to live in peace under such conditions - ending their suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism.
Carter summarizes the policy now being followed as "A system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights."
That doesn't sound like Isaiah's vision - or a way to 'make the riches of God's glory known'. Those claiming to follow God's ways can do better. Let's pray.