Conflict has long raged in Palestine over the right of Jews to have their own kingdom in the Middle East. Most of the disagreement today is political and ethnic, but many Christians and religious Jews see the possession of Palestine as a Divine right granted to the Israelites thousands of years ago. Did God promise to give the Israelites the land along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea?
In Genesis 15:8 God promised to give Abraham’s descendants the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. “In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates:” In Ezekiel 47 the promise is repeated to the Israelites as part of the kingdom to be established by the Messiah. In Ezekiel is given a more specific description of the borders of the promised land. The geographical markers have changed or been lost over the millennia so it is hard to identify the exact boundaries of the promised land. Despite the difficulties of finding the specific borders it is clear that the land God promised to Abraham is all the territory between Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River stretching north to the Euphrates river (in modern day Syria) and south to beneath the Dead Sea towards a point parallel with the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean. Something like this:
After the exodus from Egypt God led the Israelites to the eastern border of the land of Canaan. He commanded them to go in and conquer the land He had promised them. If they would obey Him God would give them victory over the inhabitants. If they disobeyed God and turned to idolatry then the Canaanites and other nations would take Israel captive. Israel began to conquer the land. After early successes the nation fell into a vicious cycle of disobedience, captivity, repentance, deliverance and then disobedience again. As a result Israel conquered very little of the promised land until the time of David. Under King David and his son Solomon Israel took possession of most, but not all, of the land promised to Abraham. After Solomon’s death the kingdom split and began to dwindle. Israel has never held all of the territory promised to her by God.
The history of the Israelites and the current political situation makes it seem unlikely that the Jews will hold all the promised land. However, God’s promises will always be fulfilled. When Jesus returns to establish His kingdom He will make Jerusalem His capital city. He will rule over the whole earth. He will be King of Israel and give to the Jews the land promised to Abraham’s descendants. God always keeps His promises.
Those with a basic familiarity with the Bible know it is divided into two portions- the Old Testament and the New Testament. For many Christians the Old Testament poses problems and challenges. The Old Testament is obviously written about and to the Israelites. How are these ancient Jewish books relevant to American Christians today?
The New Testament mentions several particular benefits of the Old. The stories of the Old Testament are examples and admonitions to modern day Christians (1 Corinthians 10:11). The stories of the Old Testament teach the blessings of obedience to God and the dangers of disobedience. The Old Testament is a treasure trove of truth lived out. Except for the gospels the New Testament is mostly concerned with doctrine and application. The Old Testament gives stories of the people of God that teach Christians today how to live.
The Old Testament was written for our learning to give Christian’s hope. (Romans 15:4) The rich doctrines of the Old Testament encourage believers to endure and they give comfort in difficulties.The Old Testament gives many examples of faithful men and women that encourage believers to be faithful today. The Old Testament shows how the saints of old dealt with problems and trusted in their God.
The Old Testament points to Jesus. (Luke 24:27) On the road to Emmaus Jesus taught two of His disciples what the Old Testament said about Himself. Jesus’ teaching points to the vast body of material in the Old Testament that describes the work of the Savior. The work of Jesus did not end with His death and resurrection. His work will continue until all the promises of the Messiah’s kingdom are fully accomplished. Revelation reveals some details of this kingdom, but it is the Old Tesetament that gives a fuller picture of the reign of the Messiah.
The Old Testament is profitable for doctrine, correction, reproof and instruction in righteousness. (2 Timothy 3:16) For example, the Old Testament is the primary source for our doctrine of God. The Old Testament vividly displays the person, work and character of God. Through the histories, the commands, the psalms and the proverbs the reader is given a picture of the nature of God, particularly of God the Father, as He works in the world and with His people. The theology of the Old Testament is taught through proposition and experience. The proposition that the Lord is holy becomes plain when God destroys Nadab and Abihu for offering strange fire. The proposition that God is merciful becomes real when He repeatedly delivers rebellious Israel from her captors. The Old Testament is a practical theology that teaches through living illustration.
Paul says in Romans 4:24 and in 1 Corinthians 9:10 that the Old Testament was written for our sakes. The early church only had the Old Testament for at least the first fifteen years. Though they had the teaching and preaching of the apostles the only written Word of God available to the earliest church was the Old Testament. The Old Testament was written to Israel and it was written for us.
A recent answer stated that the people who lived before Jesus was born were saved by looking ahead to the promised Savior and trusting Him for their salvation. Some may wonder about the law of Moses. If people before Jesus were saved by trusting God’s promises to save, why did God give the law to the Israelites?
Historically, many Israelites believed they could be saved by obeying the Mosaic law. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day believed they were righteous because they were the children of Abraham who kept the law of Moses and the traditions of their fathers. All throughout the Old Testament the Israelites seemed frequently to misunderstand the role of the law. Even today many people look at the Old Testament and think the Israelites gained eternal life by being devout keepers of all the commands, rituals and sacrifices given through Moses. Is this true? Were the Israelites saved by obeying the law of Moses?
No Israelite was ever saved by his obedience to the law. The major theme of Romans and Galatians is the inability of the law to save. Galatians 2:16 says, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” No one was ever justified- made righteous before God- by keeping the law. Old Testament Israelites were saved by trusting God for forgiveness of sin. Habakkuk 2:4 says, “the just shall live by his faith.” In Psalm 32 David rejoices in the blessings of being forgiven. He does not associate forgiveness with his keeping of the law but with the grace and mercy of God. David acknowledged his sin to God. He cried out in confession of his guilt and God gave forgiveness. Throughout the Psalms David declares that God is his salvation. The salvation that David describes is always based upon the compassion of God, not the obedience of the individual. He that could be righteous enough to earn salvation would have no need of forgiveness. In the Old Testament God never forgave because men earned His salvation. God forgave because of His great compassion. God poured out mercy on those who sought it from him.
The book of Isaiah is full of promises about the coming Jewish King and Savior. The Messiah and His kingdom are described at length. Isaiah ends with a great confession of sin and a plea for God to pardon the Israelites. Isaiah 64 recognizes the righteousness of men is no righteousness at all. The only answer, the only hope for Old Testament Israel, was to be pardoned by God. Isaiah 53 describes the work of the Messiah to gain that pardon and the eleventh verse says, “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.” Old Testament Israelites were saved by Jesus’ bearing their sin on the cross. God’s judgment was satisfied by the suffering of His Son. Jesus makes men righteous, whether those men live now or 3,000 years ago, by carrying on His shoulders the consequences of their sin. Salvation is always, and only, by Jesus. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Daily life of Israel under Roman occupation was governed by a group of religious and political leaders known as the Sanhedrin. Rome allowed Israel to govern itself in many matters as long as they did not interfere wtih Rome’s laws or foster rebellion against the Empire. Like the American Congress today the Sanhedrin was comprised of men holding allegience with one of two ideological groups. The larger of the two groups was the Pharisees. They held a strict adherence to a broad reaching series of traditional laws that governed every part of daily living. The Pharisees endured the government of Rome but generally did little to cooperate with it.
The other group within the Sanhedrin was known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees were very different from the Pharisees in politics, theology and daily living. Sadducees were mostly wealthy men of the ruling class. They were fewer in number than the Pharisees, but they held the positions of leadership within the Sanhedrin. The Bible tells us that the High Priest in Jesus day was a Sadducee (Acts 5:17) and history indicates that most of the High Priests under the Roman occupation were Sadducees. As a result, the Sadducees were the more powerful of the two groups.
The greatest political disagreement between the groups was over the relationship of the Sanhedrin to civil government. This issue is believed to be one of the primary reasons the Sadducees split away from the Pharisees sometime around 150 BC. The Sadducees desired both political and religious authority, while the Pharisees taught that civil government and religious government should not be invested in the same individual.
Very little first hand information about the theological teachings of the Sadducees is available. History has not preserved any of their writings. What is known about their doctrine comes from a several references in the Bible, the writings of Josephus and a couple other Jewish works. The Sadducees held to the teachings of the Old Testament, particularly the writings of Moses, but rejected the authority of the traditions of the Pharisees. This caused great conflict with the Pharisees who believed the oral traditions to be as authoritative as Scripture. While the Sadducees adherence to Scripture alone appears laudable their rejection of the traditions of the Pharisees seems to have been driven by a refusal to follow the Pharisees rather than by a desire to obey God’s Word.
The Bible says the Sadducees rejected belief in the resurrection (Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8). The believed the soul died with the body and that there was no promise of a future resurrection, either to a kingdom on this earth or to a life in heaven. The Sadducees also denied the existence of a spiritual essence in man and of angelic beings. They appear to have been materialists who were most concerned with maintaining their own power and wealth. Their influence in Israel lasted a little over 200 years. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, so was their power. They fell off the pages of history in 70 AD and have not reappeared since.
I want to answer a follow up question to last week’s article about Christianity and violence. If the Bible teaches all men should love one another then why do Deuteronomy 7:1-6 and Deuteronomy 20:17-18 tell us that God commanded the Israelites to wipe out entire groups of people? This is a significant question. Some have attempted to get around these difficult passages by saying they mean something else. That is a tempting but unacceptable solution to the problem. If the passages in question do not mean God commanded utter destruction of entire tribes, then it is impossible to determine any real meaning from those passages. A natural reading leads to one inevitable conclusion. God commanded the nation of Israel to eradicate entire tribes of people.
God is not evil for decreeing the destruction of a people or nation. As the Creator, Kign and Judge of all humanity, God has the authority to execute judgment how and when He wishes. When God created Adam and Eve, He warned them the consequence of disobedience would be death (Genesis 2:17). On the day man sinned God condemned all humanity to death. Everyone who dies does so because God has decreed the destruction of all humanity. Later in human history, God destroyed all but eight people. In the flood God put to death millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of men, women, children and infants. Still later God destroyed two major cities and their surrounding villages. He wiped Sodom and Gomorrah off the map, killing all but three people. In the days to come God will once again pour out His judgment on humanity. During the time of the Tribulation, billions of people will be killed by the catastrophic judgments of God. God is the Creator, King and Judge of all humanity. He is righteous in executing judgment on men. Though it is disconcerting to consider the justice and wrath of God, we cannot attribute evil to God for exercising His just wrath.
We are disturbed by the commands for Israel to destroy the tribes of Canaan because God is commanding a nation, an army and its individual soldiers to put to death women and children, even infants. The troubling question is how can a loving God command His people to kill non-combatants and to annihilate a whole group of people? Though the command to the Israelites is extreme, it is not out of keeping with the character of God. Since the days of Noah God has used men as His instruments of justice. He appointed governments to be ministers of the sword. He gave to governments the responsibility of executing capital punishment.
Israel was a nation uniquely set apart by God. They were a holy people unto the Lord. They were a nation governed by unique laws, given a unique territory and holding a genuine national identity. God’s use of a nation to bring judgment upon another nation is not contrary to His character. Passages like Isaiah 45 shows that God uses nations as a means of bringing punishment upon other nations. To begin to understand these passages, one must consider the nations under God’s condemnation. The nations inhabiting Canaan were extremely wicked. They were idolaters routinely practicing a wide variety of immoral sex acts as part of their worship of false gods. They offered human sacrifices and even killed their children at the altars of their false gods. They were demon worshipers serving devils that they imagined to be real gods. God in His justice determined to destroy these nations because of their awful depravity.
In the end we must be content to trust the justice of God. Israel was not acting out of malice or a mistaken sense of racial superiority. No megalomaniacal tyrant decreed Israel destroy the nations so he could elevate his prestige. No self-declared superman demanded Israel exterminate all those he deemed inferior. Israel did not devise this course on her own. The nation was following the command of an all wise, just God. Israel was acting under the command of God as the agent of God’s justice. We naturally cringe at the thought of the death of so many. The wages of sin are terrible and passages like this bring home the enormity of sin’s hideousness. We must let the truths of God’s holiness, justice, goodness and wisdom give comfort to our troubled hearts. We must remember that the Judge of all the earth will always do right.