While I’m slowly unfolding my understanding of covenants, beginning with a very brief and general overview of the doctrinal history and hopefully progressing to definition and discussion of each biblical covenant, there are far too many related issues that are coming up in my personal study and as well as two ongoing teaching ministries through Hosea and Hebrews that I simply can’t put off writing down.
One particular issue, heavily related to the covenants, is the identity of Israel, first in the Old Testament and then in the New. Naturally, understanding this and properly identifying the Israel of Scripture lends itself to how one interprets such covenants as the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and even the New Covenant. Likewise, it has a profound impact on ecclesiology and eschatology as well. In our modern, America-centered theology, it also impacts how we relate to the current state of Israel politically, as seen in many of the questions from recent electoral debates. As we’ve seen in our historical survey, one of the contrary positions to covenant theology, dispensationalism, defines itself by seeing a rigid distinction between Israel and the Church. So it is simply not a question that we can put off answering. Due to the complexity and associated confusion over this subject, it’ll be necessary to run this post a little longer than usual. So hang in there with me as we look at who the Bible identifies as Israel.
If one were to ask the question of 10 self-identifying evangelicals, you would likely get 10 different responses. Why? Because most of what evangelicals, if I can even use that term anymore, know and understand about Scripture comes not from personal study, but from what they have either read in pop-Christian books, seen in Christian films, and heard from televangelists, and perhaps to a lesser extent, their local pulpit. This is especially true as it relates to the identity of Israel. It would not be a shock to see that the vast majority of self-identifying evangelicals believe that unconditional support of the modern state of Israel is a biblical mandate.
Driven largely by the dispensational theology explosion and her daughter Christian Zionism, the distinction between Israel and the Church has been maintained to such a degree that the test of orthodoxy today is not based on one’s Christology or Soteriology, but whether one pledges their unequivocal allegiance to the modern state Israel, established by treaty in 1948. For many, this has become the confessing position of their church.
Before one can even begin to throw his or her hat in the ring of support for the state of Israel, it would serve us well to find out who Israel is and if the modern state is in fact a continuation of biblical Israel as so many would have us to believe. Keep in mind when answering this we are not determining whether Israel should receive political support from the U.S., that’s not the intention. Rather, the goal is to let Scripture define who constitutes Israel to 1) Better understand redemptive history 2) Rightly determine who the people of God are and 3) Understand whether political support for the current State has its foundational support in the Bible; in other words, is the modern state of Israel the result of fulfilled prophecy.
While in some respects, this post gets the cart before the horse in our unfolding discussion of covenant theology, nevertheless its pressing on me from both sides from Hosea and Hebrews and demands that I hash out my thoughts now, rather than to wait for an overview of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, which are the obvious places to turn for the beginning of Israel’s definition. That said, we turn now to the birth of the nation in Genesis 12.
Here we read of Abram who is called by God out of idolatry in Ur and commanded to go to a land that God would show him. This call is accompanied by several promises, namely the promise of a nation, blessing, and land, which we will discuss in more detail at a later time. The basis for these promises comes by way of a genealogical principle reestablished in Abram, but introduced to Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15) and continued through Noah (Gen. 9:9).
As this covenant is progressively unfolded to Abram, we see repetition and enlargement of the promises. We find woven through the narrative Abram’s faithfulness and failures, perhaps culminating with his own self-efforts to bring about the promises of God. With Abram’s wife, Sarai, beyond child-bearing age, she encourages Abram to lie with her Egyptian servant Hagar, which he does, and she bears him a son whom she names Ishmael. At first blush, it would seem Ishmael, being from the lineage of Abram, would be in line to receive the promises of God.
But it was not to be. In Genesis 17, 13 years after the birth of Ishmael, God instructs Abram to “walk before [him] and be blameless, that [He] may make [His] covenant between” He and Abram. Upon Abram’s posture of worship, God changes his name to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude [of nations]”.
Here we should note that although the genealogical principle is clearly in place, association with the promises is not strictly based on this. If inheritance of the promises had been strictly based on genealogical descent, then by all rights Ishmael would have been heir to the promises given to his father Abram. Grasping this point will be key for our identification of Israel. Again, we’ll look at the details of the Abrahamic covenant more closely in a future post, but for now we must turn our attention to the covenant of circumcision that is given to Abraham in this chapter of Genesis.
Following the promise of nations, kings, and land, the conditional requirements of this covenant were to circumcise every male offspring descended from the loins of Abraham. Contrary to most explanations of this passage, the instructions do not stop there. In fact, circumcision was to be given even to those OUTSIDE of the loins of Abraham. “He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.” Gen. 17:12-13 Here, in the midst of the promises to Abraham, we see a much neglected passage of Scripture delineating the boundaries for entrance into the Covenant of Circumcision.
It should be stated that many commentators, theologians, and preachers see the Abrahamic Covenant as the overriding covenant of all Scripture. Additionally, it is widely considered (especially by dispensationalists) to be a covenant with Israel (see Dwight Pentecost, et.al.). While those assertions may be debatable, this aspect of the covenant, the element which serves as the definitive sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:11) clearly states that it is not limited to the posterity of Abraham. Furthermore, in verse 14 we read that those who are from Abraham’s posterity who do not receive the sign of circumcision “shall be cut off from his people.” Summarizing these two points, we have requirements for entrance into the covenant and expulsion from the covenant; the former independent of those having Abraham’s DNA and the latter expressly applied to those who would carry the DNA of Abraham. IF (and certainly this is a big if) this is a covenant made with Israel as so many dispensationalists assert, then Israel is defined not primarily by genetics, but by obedience to the covenant of circumcision, i.e. a commandment from God. This would mean that Israel may be composed of non-Abrahamic people AND Abrahamic people. Additionally, the gentile world may be composed of non-Abrahamic people AND those Abrahamic people that have been cut-off for refusing to obey the covenant sign.
On this point O. Palmer Robertson cites Jewish commentator Benno Jacob, “‘Circumcision is a national and religious symbol and remains such beyond the people that are descended from Abraham by birth. Every stranger who submits to it receives Abraham as his father and becomes and Israelite.’ The circumcised Gentile ‘becomes an Israelite.’ Since this is the case, obviously ‘Israel’ cannot be defined simply in terms of racial distinctives. As Jacob further states” ‘Indeed, differences of race have never been an obstacle to joining Israel which did not know the concept of purity of blood…. Circumcision turned a man of foreign origin into an Israelite (Exod. 12:38). (Christ of the Covenants, pg. 154-155)
Continuing on, in Genesis 17:22-27 we read of Abraham’s unquestioned obedience to the covenant conditions through his circumcision of Ishmael (age 13) and “all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.” Gen. 17:23-24 At minimum it would seem this number of men who comprised “infant Israel” were at least 318 in number (Gen. 14:14), but likely more by this point. Additionally we may note that those who were circumcised also included Ishmael.
But would Ishmael ever be considered an Israelite?
When we turn to the birth of the promised seed, Isaac, we find our answer. In Genesis 21, and at 100 years old by this point, Abraham becomes a father again as the long awaited (25 years?) promise of the son is fulfilled. As the two sons of Abraham grew, it becomes obvious that tension arises and Sarah demands the removal of both Hagar and Ishmael from the house of Abraham. However, Ishmael is not cast aside altogether but specifically because he is Abraham’s son, God grants him the promise of a great nation through his own seed, distinct and separate from what would be Israel.
Let’s pause again to observe that the offspring of Abraham should not be considered unimportant. As becomes apparent in the New Testament, the genealogical principle under the Old Covenant was for the purpose of establishing the lineage of Christ (see Gal. 3:16), not for the exclusivity of one ethnicity over another or even for the restriction of specific entrance into the nation of Israel, as we will continue to see. These points are made clear in the continuation of the promise to Isaac and not Ishmael. (See Gen. 26:2-5). Additionally, it must be remembered that the geneaological principle does not originate with Abraham, but reaches all the way back to the Garden in Gen. 3:15.
Progressing through the history of Israel’s roots and identity we arrive at the birth of Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Whereas with Isaac and Ishmael, the promise of God was given to Isaac, regardless of a common father, with Jacob and Esau we see the promise given to Jacob regardless of common parents or birth order. Since neither son was “cut-off” and Isaac was not threatened with discipline, we may presume that he circumcised both of his sons. Despite once again the participation in the covenant of circumcision, we have no reason to believe that Esau would be considered a patriarch of Israel. As with Ishmael, neither of whom are children of promise, Esau too would form his own nation, the Edomites.
Likewise, it becomes evident from these two examples of Ishamel and Esau, that there was a duality in the Abrahamic Covenant that distinguished the promise from obedience to the commandment of circumcision. A distinction that the Apostle Paul recognizes and unpacks in Romans 9 and Galatians 3 &4. That principle doesn’t simply disappear with the continued formation of the young nation. Moving on, from Jacob, whose name would later be changed to Israel upon conferrence of the Abrahamic promises to him, would descend the 12 tribes of Israel.
With this progress in mind, we turn to the formation of the nation at the great redemption from Egypt. We will examine in detail at a later date the organic relationship and also discontinuity between the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants, for now we are simply interested in the composition of Israel. Our significant passage for this era can be found in Exodus 12. Here, several noteworthy comments may be made regarding Israel, upon their precipice of deliverance from Egypt.
First is the passage stipulating the requirements for the Passover and the threat of expulsion for eating leavened bread during observance of this feast, “On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.” Recall that God has commanded Moses to repeatedly confront Pharaoh over the slavery of the Israelites and to demand their release. Time and again, Pharaoh refused, even after God sent 9 different plagues. The tenth and final plague was the death of the firstborn for all those who did not obey God’s command to spread the blood of a lamb on their doorposts such that the Destroyer would “pass over” their house.
The Passover was to be considered the covenant meal for the nation of Israel. It was to be a time for remembrance of their miraculous deliverance from Egypt and it was not to be treated irreverently, thus the threat of excommunication. This is emphasized further in vs. 19, “For seven days no leaven is to be found in your houses. If anyone eats what is leavened, that person will be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a sojourner or a native of the land.” Again we have a clear example that the ranks of Israel could not be assumed on either the basis of Abrahamic genealogy nor on the basis of entrance via circumcision for a non-Abrahamic person, rather it was the expectation of continued obedience. Either a native born Israelite or a sojourner that did not display continued obedience to the commands and statutes of God would be cut off from the Israelite community.
Our second passage from this chapter (12:38) details the Exodus and specifically mentions a “mixed multitude” left Egypt with them. While some debate exists over who comprised this mixed multitude and perhaps whether they continued on with Israel after her Exodus, general consensus seems to be that this group likely included slaves from other nations, some Egyptians, and perhaps others who seized an opportunity to escape the oppression of Pharaoh. Nevertheless, it would again seem problematic to assume that Israel was comprised of strictly Abrahamic DNA.
Finally we have in this chapter the institution of Passover building off of the requirements outlined earlier in Exodus 12,
“43 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44 but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. 45 No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. 46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. 49 There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”
In the passage quoted above we see a distinction in peoples, those who were of the congregation of Israel, foreigners, purchased slaves, hired workers, strangers or sojourners, natives of the land, and uncircumcised people. Despite the variations, there are in reality three groups being identified: the congregation of Israel, outsiders who become circumcised, outsiders who remained uncircumcised. Again, the consistency of this passage with others in this chapter and the truths gleaned from the originating sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, circumcision, which as we will see is continued under the Mosaic Covenant, it would be faulty to assume any notion of strict genealogical principle for the purpose of identifying the constituents of Israel.
Commenting on this passage, Robertson writes,
“Exodus 12:43-49 presents the requirement that non-Israelites must be circumcised to participate in the passover. The existence of such a requirement should not be interpreted as evidence of a sense of superiority within the Israelite nation. Exactly the opposite implication must be concluded. Any Gentile might participate in the highest privilege of Judaism, if he should indicate willingness to meet the same requirements laid on the Jew himself.” (Christ of the Covenants, pg 154)
One additional comment needs to be made regarding the identity of those who are of non-Abrahamic descent that submit to circumcision and the law of God as given to Israel. By embracing the community of Israel and the God of Israel, these people denounce their identity and embrace the identity of the Israel, for all intents and purposes become an Israelite, thus “one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.” To use common vernacular, Gentiles could become Jewish by embracing the law of God and joining the community of God’s people.
From these passages we have further confirmation that the nation of Israel, rightly called by this point (Ex. 19:6), was legitimately and legally compromised of other people besides those of strict, 100% genealogical descent/DNA from Abraham (if that was even possible by this point). Space prevents a discussion on the admittance of females to Israel, ala Ruth and Rahab, apart from the Covenant of Circumcision. It probably goes without saying that this happened far more frequently than the two examples just mentioned (see also Tamar and Bathsheba), yet this truth should continue to dispel any reasonable argument of pure racial identity. One thing we do know, however, is that Christ descended from Tamar, Ruth, Rahab and Bathsheba, so even our Lord was not of pure, unmixed Abrahamic DNA, though he too was an Israelite (Matt. 1:3-5). For Ruth as an example of a non-Abrahamic woman joining Israel see her covenant oath in Ruth 1:16-17.
Understanding the composition of Old Testament Israel and the addition of sojourners and foreigners will go a long way towards a proper interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, including that which describes the land, restoration of the nation, millennium, and the relationship between Israel and the Church. Perhaps an analogy for summarizing this discussion is that National Israel was the shell which God created to protect and preserve the Promised Seed, Jesus Christ, until His arrival. Is the shell necessary? Of course, but is it needed once the seed takes root? No.
Much remains to be discussed in formulating our biblical definition of Israel, namely discussions on the Remnant, “Not my People”, and who is Israel according to the New Testament. But those topics for another day, Lord willing.
***Update, I’ve revised the post to remove erroneous uses of the words ethnic and ethnicity and modified the post to reflect a proper use of these words based on the meaning of these words to include culture, language, nationality, ancestral, and social experiences. Certainly that was the case with national Israel. Initially, I had used the term incorrectly to refer to genealogical descent, rather than the more inclusive term that reflects the intent of this post.***