The Bible is replete with the use of the word Israel but today it is confusing and often misunderstood. What is being referred to are the multiple nations that came from Abraham through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel), and his 12 sons. But God’s plan includes all people of all nations. Abraham’s family was only the first step in God’s amazing plan. So, why Israel?
The Bible plainly says this about the nation of Israel: “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
The Old Testament and New Testament agree that both physical Israel and spiritual Israel (the church) are chosen. They are special. In Christopher Wright’s book, Living as the People of God there is very good scholarship about the importance of physical Israel. He states that Israel is a community, not a race. The operative labels in the Hebrew are the words ‘am’ and ‘goy’ Goy is a nation or what we would probably think of as a race in the geo-political sense. But ‘am’ is a community. Usually Israel is referred to as the ‘am’ of God, which means it is the community created by and belonging to Yahweh.
It is difficult to understand how people get wrapped up in the race issue concerning Israel because Israel is a genetic soup. It didn’t have this pure genetic line that could be described as some sort of racial purity. Race, apparently was not God’s purpose in His work with Israel.
The sons of Jacob married Canaanites and Moabites. Ephraim’s and Manasseh’s mother (Joseph’s wife) was Egyptian. The Israelites went out from Egypt with a mixed multitude. Caleb, one of the great figures of heroes of Israel was the son of a Kenizzite of the people of Canaan. The lineage of Christ Himself is mixed. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute. Ruth was a Moabite.
The key issue is not racial genetics. It is Abraham’s Y chromosome. Israel is not a race; it is a family. God created Israel from scratch. He began this community from nothing. They are the descendants of a man that God picked to accomplish His work.
The biblical progression hits the major crisis-point in Babel in man’s downward spiral. There is increasing sin and rebellion that culminates in God’s intervention through the Noachian flood. From that post-flood world, God called Abraham, redeemed him, and used him to initiate a process of renewal and restoration that is continuing: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).
Abraham and Sarah begat Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah begat Jacob. Jacob was renamed after wrestling with God, to “Israel”. Israel had children by four different women: Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. And they had twelve sons. Israel, his sons, and all their families went to Egypt during a long famine and eventually were required to serve Pharoah as slaves.
The nation of Israel and a mixed multitude went out of Egypt 430 years to the day from when God made His promises to Abraham. They migrated to the Promised Land and grew to great power. But they were unfaithful: “Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their own ways and deeds; . . . So I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed throughout the countries; I judged them according to their ways and their deeds (Ezekiel 36:17,19). But that is not the end of the story (Ezekiel 36:24-36). We have not seen the second part of this story because it has yet to occur.
Christ is the pre-eminent figure in this salvation story and the blessings that God promised would happen through Abraham’s seed. But introducing Christ does not discount Israel’s role. Israel had a function that God decided it would serve and He will have it serve that function. Israel’s role physically is analogous to Christ’s role. In “The Servant Passages” of Isaiah 42 and 49, the identity of the servant shifts back and forth from Christ to Israel and the role that Israel was supposed to serve. Israel as a physical nation was to serve the same purpose, in type, as Christ did. It was to be a conduit by which all humanity would come into a relationship with God.
What was it that made Israel unique? Why were they special? It wasn’t because they were great : “The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the Lord loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). And It wasn’t because they were somehow special (Amos 9:7). God was just using them for His purpose.
What made them special was the gift of God’s way of life. God gave them a law and statutes and judgments, and He gave them His own counsel and by that He formed them into a community that was different, that had a way of life that was to make them holy. It was to form God’s nature and character.
God’s holiness is practical and actionable, and it has to be learned through physical means. We learn about God through the physical environment, this classroom that He has created for us. That’s how we learn. The rest of the world, in their time will learn about God through a physical environment. And God is instructing the entire world through that same physicality by which He instructs His church.
The instruction God gave to Israel is that they were to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. They were to be mediators and teachers and they failed. But God won’t. God will redeem Israel and Israel will serve all of humanity. In that way Israel is both the medium, and the message that God is delivering to the world. The message is that He redeems.
Regardless of how the ancient and modern descendants of Israel have failed God, they are still the people that God will use. What message does that send to the world when they see Israel as God’s people, within God’s way and being blessed for it? It sends a very powerful message about what God is doing: “Look, there goes the product of God’s mercy”.
“And the Lord passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,’ . . . “ (Exodus 34:6-7).
The arc of Israel’s story is the gospel message. It must be completed successfully. And it will be done. The election and redemption of Israel was God’s response to the rebellion of man and the global spread of evil. That story is aptly summarized if you would like to read it in Ezekiel 36. Israel was supposed to be a light to the world, a holy nation, and a priesthood. But now God has to fix that because they didn’t do as God instructed.
What He has determined in His righteousness He stands by with fixed purpose: “. . . the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations . . .” (Deuteronomy 7:9).
God is laboring through both physical and spiritual means to bring His creation into unity with Him. And Israel is a central component of that great plan. We must not spiritualize away His actions in physical life. If we do we will also spiritualize away His expectations and His requirements of us – what we should be doing individually and collectively as a holy people, as a spiritual extension of physical Israel.
We are, as Israel will be, to be set apart as a model of God’s way and a conduit to God. That knowledge casts a very bright and hopeful but also demanding light on Israel and on the church. We shouldn’t throw it away simply because Satan has managed to blend truth and error together with some very terrible ideas.
We must remember that within the election, selection and construction of Israel there was to be a unique community that represents God. There is a very important message buried in that. It is that Israel is just the beginning. Israel is just one step to what God is doing more broadly.
The story of Israel is the story all nations, all peoples, all humanity.
“For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, That they all may call on the name of the Lord, To serve Him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).
“In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria—a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance” (Isaiah 19:24–25).
“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace . . . that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him” (Ephesians 1:7,10; Romans 11:11-31; I Timothy 2:4).
We should be awed by God’s purpose, promise and faithfulness. He has an all-inclusive plan for all who seek Him. His thoughts toward us are thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give us a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:11).