Part 3: Why Does Israel Still Matter?
I ended the last segment with a question about Moses and the Law. How are we to understand the relationship between God’s one-sided covenant with Abraham and his descendants that had zero conditions, and the two-sided covenant God made with those same descendants 430 years later that contained a lot of conditions?
Have you ever noticed that there’s something about the idea of unconditional love or an unconditional covenant that is hard to swallow? It even makes some people nervous and uncomfortable rather than reassured.
Becky told me of a study she’d read once about the behavior of children on a schoolyard playground. In group one, the playground didn’t have a fence around it and in the second group there was a standard chainlink fence surrounding the entire perimeter of the play area. With the first group, the study showed that when there was no fence present (no conditions), the children would huddle and play near the center of the playground. In the second group the study showed that when a fence was present (conditions), the children tended to go out to the boundary that the fence created. Mmm.
Tom was an elder in his church and was attending a men’s retreat where the guest speaker was Wayne Jacobson teaching about the grace of God from his book, “He Loves Me“. Opening night didn’t go very well. He said later that as he spoke it felt like as the words came out of his mouth they immediately fell to the floor with a thud. It was a speakers worst fear, he just wasn’t connecting with his audience. So, the next morning before the session began, Wayne leaned forward from the lectern and told the audience what he was feeling. He said that as he looked into their faces for an answer the entire room turned their gaze onto Tom who was sitting at the end of the front row with his arms and legs crossed and his head tilted to the side. Recognizing that Tom must have some influence with the audience, Wayne looked at him and asked what the problem was. Tom sat up straight and said, “Well sonny, it sounds to me like you’re saying these young guys coming up today won’t have jump through the same hoops I forced myself through my whole life”.
I suspect that attitude reflects how a lot of people feel. They want to make sure other people pay their dues and that no one gets away with anything. The work ethic that we value so much in the West sort of crept into the Church. The thing is, a lot of Western values run directly against the grain of the Kingdom of God.
I think if we’re honest, many of us prefer the feeling that we’ve got some skin in the game… sweat equity, an ownership stake. We like to own our homes, our own companies or at least an attitude of ownership with our jobs. It’s the same way with our faith… it’s OUR faith, we’re vested. This is one reason the legal and contractual matrix I pointed out in the first article has been able to get so much traction.
Part of the struggle we have in understanding why Israel still matters is because we’re looking at them through lenses we’ve inherited after nearly 2,000 years of Church history, a history that developed concurrent with the spread of Western Civilization, a civilization reeking with a legal and judicial bias. Over time, one of the consequences has been that our understanding of Israel has gotten distorted… confused. It’s very natural for us to be “judgy and critical of Israel, especially as a geopolitical entity and, theologically speaking, the dominant view is that the Church is now primary… the post resurrection continuation of Israel… that they fumbled the ball but we recovered it and are continuing to march downfield towards the end zone. The Church has taken Israel’s place. Although it is not the purpose of these short articles to deconstruct the error of Replacement Theology, it’s root system is the same.
I want to help you see that when we’re thinking this way, we’re thinking contractually. Our sturdy Western work ethic that encourages us to pull ourselves up by our boot straps betrays us and leads us into a trap. Contractual thinking, “Quid pro quo” is an exchange… it’s simple, uncomplicated compensation. I’ll do this and you’ll do that. As effective as this is in our economic model, it’s the wrong ground to stand on to try to understand God and it’s the wrong ground to stand on while you’re trying to understand Israel. This pair of glasses is very difficult to break free from because it’s so ingrained into the fabric of our families, communities and culture. God help us as we try and remove our contract lenses and pivot to new ground.
As I pointed out in part 1, the covenant God made with Abraham, and by extension Israel, is God’s covenant. It belongs to Him because He initiated it and because it was one-sided. That means all the promises that were being made were for the benefit of Abraham and his descendants, Abraham made no reciprocal promises. So the continuation of that covenant today does not depend upon Israel, it depends entirely upon God.
It’s really impossible to overstate this point:
This larger overarching covenant has never depended upon what Israel did or didn’t do. Their performance, sin or disobedience cannot invalidate or cancel it.
Now, having said all of that, it certainly is true that with the introduction of the covenant made at Sinai, some conditions were introduced and there is absolutely no way around that. But before I go any further, let me tell you exactly what those conditions have to do with. They have to do with things that blocked Israel’s ability to enjoy the benefits that go with belonging to God, they do not change who Israel belongs to or the logic behind their belonging. In fact, the conditions are actually proof of belonging.
So, how can you have conditions within an unconditional covenant? Let me give you an analogy.
Picture some Russian nesting dolls, the ones where the small dolls fit inside the bigger ones, or maybe just picture 2 boxes, a big box and a smaller box that fits inside it.
Let’s put a label on the larger box that reads “YOU BELONG TO ME”” in bold capital letters. This box is assembled from the many scriptures that express this sentiment not only about Israel, but the nations and the entire cosmos. In grammar these statements are called “indicatives” because they are statements of fact… they indicate what’s what and who’s who.
Scriptures like that are all about belonging and identity and they form the starting point for all of us. No one can be lost unless they belong.
Next, let’s picture a smaller box with a label that reads ”live this way” in lower case letters. The Bible has plenty to say about this too. This box is assembled from all the “behave this way or else” statements that make people nervous. In grammar they’re called “imperatives” because they emphasize or highlight actions that have good and bad consequences.
Let’s zoom out so we can see what this looks like in the big picture. The “Indicatives” of identity and belonging precede the “Imperatives” that involve behavior. The indicative statements come first… they’re weightier… more important and they actually provide the context or framework for understanding the imperative statements.
So, how can you have conditions within an unconditional covenant? You’re probably already seeing this. All of the imperative statements, the do’s and don’ts and “or else’s”… fit inside the larger idea of “You belong to me”.
The starting point is belonging and is followed by all the behaviors that flow from and result from the knowledge of our belonging.
Do you see?
That’s how you can have conditions within an unconditional covenant. I alluded to this in part 1 when explaining that the Hebrew word “Torah” was panoramic… a sweeping description of God’s covenant commitment and his covenant faithfulness to his people. It included the variety of ways He graciously provided for Israel to respond to Him, to each other and to the nations.
To sum up, the conditions are simply the righteous obligations that flow from within the unconditional covenant. They are the detailed ways of responding to God and to each other that God has graciously provided. Notice he didn’t leave anything up to them… all of it has been thoughtfully provided.
With all of that as context, lets examine the Exodus through this lens. It was 430 years after God made his one-sided unconditional covenant with Abraham and all of his descendants through Isaac are now slaves in Egypt. Out of love and grace, God sends Moses to deliver them from slavery. The next thing you know they’re all sitting in the desert terrified with their heads spinning.
Shortly after that, in Exodus 20:2, just before we get to the so-called Ten Commandments, the Holy Spirit reminds the reader of who’s who and what’s what… of Gods prior commitment to Israel that resulted in their rescue from Egypt.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.…”
So when Moses comes down from Sinai with the tablets, the story has the following structure, “…You belong to me, I love you and have redeemed and delivered you, therefore I will now explain describe and provide for you the ways of living so you can be faithful to me and to each other…”.
To put this in Evangelical terms, Sinai wasn’t about an angry God giving Ten Commandments in some distant and disapproving way. No, after being set free from hundreds of years of slavery, Israel needed more than just deliverance, they needed inner healing…a complete transformation in order to get Egypt off of them and out of them.
In New Testament language, they needed to be “transformed by the renewing of their minds” (Romans 12:2).
Let me give it to you in slow motion.
God delivers His people from bondage then sits them down and says, “Listen to me… Hear O Israel… I rescued you because you belong to me, I’m your God, and you’re my people”.
Now, let’s pause and appreciate this for what it is… that right there is a straight shot of pure, undiluted grace. No water, no ice, no chaser.
He continues, “… Because you belong to me, I’m going to explain the ways of living and behaving that will lead to life, health and blessing and the ways of living and behaving that will lead to pain, suffering and death… I want you to choose life”.
He concludes, “… Regardless of what you choose, both outcomes will let the other nations know what I am like. But, Hear O Israel… neither way of behaving makes you mine. What makes you mine is that I chose you and pledged my own self to you, that’s what makes you mine”.
The $10 word for this is election and we’ll get to that later.
Israel’s inability to be obedient and enjoy the benefits that come from belonging to God will NEVER change the fact that they belong to God.
Judgement or negative consequences are not the same thing as rejection. By initiating the covenant with Abraham, God did not suspend the laws of nature. Gravity, and cause and effect, etc., still work. Sin and disobedience have repeatedly disrupted Israel’s ability to enjoy the benefits of the covenant and one of those blessings was their ability to possess and remain in the land.
Does this dynamic sound at all familiar to you… have you been getting a faint sense of déjà-vu?
Israel is an object lesson… Israel is us.