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Few topics are guaranteed to divide evangelicals as quickly as discussions about modern Israel. Not only do theologians and laity debate this but the U.S. Congress does as well. In March legislation was introduced (Israel Anti-Boycott Act, S. 720, that would make it a federal crime to join an international boycott of Israel. And this, of course, shocked free-speech advocates. Congressional evangelicals were, in many instances, behind it.

Why this preferential treatment for Israel? Among evangelicals the reason is generally theological. Privileges given to Biblical Israel in the scriptures are inherited by modern secular Israel. The covenant benefits promised to the descendants of Abraham in the Old Testament now are taken up by modern Israelis regardless of whether they are practicing their faith or completely secular.

The most recent attempt to promote these views is Gerald McDermott’s Israel Matters. This is not a scholarly engagement of deeply complex exegetical or theological matters. Nor is it a thoroughgoing treatment of the tortuous historical puzzle in Israel. The major scholars who might disagree with this thesis are not represented. Most scholars will find themselves etching question marks in the margin of almost every page. Volatile issues such as Israel/Palestine require delicate treatment that at least makes us aware that competing views exist. Israel Matters does not.

The question at the heart of the matter is the ongoing importance of Judaism in history since the coming of Christ. On the one hand, there are scholars (like McDermott) who believe that God’s election of Israel is unaffected by Christ and therefore Judaism-without-Christ enjoys covenant privileges denied to other people. This of course means that the Holy Land (the most contentious issue) belongs to modern Israel since Israel is a Jewish state.

On the other hand, there are many scholars who would disagree. In this view, the coming of Christ within the Jewish covenantal framework is like new wine in old wineskins. The wineskins break. In other words, Christ has rearranged everything and so the new community, the kingdom of God, has now been forged from Christ-followers who are both Jewish and Gentile. These scholars worry that the first view has demoted Christology for the sake of elevating Judaism. But, they argue, if we take in the full weight of what the incarnation means for Judaism and the world, then all traditional categories must change. This has been the historic view of the church and today it is the majority view of leading NT scholarship.

Israel Matters explains the church’s historic rejection of Jewish exceptionalism (ch. 1) and then argues that the NT never rejects Israel’s covenant privileges (ch. 2). We then meet Christian writers who continued to promote Israel chiefly in the last 200 years (ch. 3) and we learn that the OT likewise holds to an unyielding commitment to Israel’s future (ch. 4). Chapter 5 returns to the NT again and revisits the material of chapter 2 in more detail. Political questions are summarized in a mere 12 pages in chapter 6 while anticipated challenges are answered in chapter 7. The book ends with a call to the readers to rearrange the church’s theology and recommit themselves to the modern state of Israel.

Throughout the book’s argument a misunderstanding becomes evident quickly. It provides no help to outline how fully the NT embraces its Jewish context (for Jesus or Paul). That is not the point. The NT does not reject Israel or Jewish identity. The question is whether the NT explicitly teaches the covenantal permanence of Israel apart from the gospel.

Most scholars argue that in the NT Israel-without-Jesus is in jeopardy. And this is the theologically critical point that strains interfaith relations with Judaism. Indeed, McDermott emphasizes rightly that in Romans 11 Gentiles are grafted into the Jewish olive tree of Israel. But he fails to mention that natural branches are broken off as well. This is the source of Paul’s grief in Romans 9. Failing to mention this crisis is like underscoring the promises to Abraham without mentioning the warnings of the prophets. The end result is a sorely imbalanced presentation of what scripture teaches.

The first question here is about Judaism without Christ. But this book goes further. It also asks whether Jews who embrace Jesus have an independent significance within the church. Of course, any ethnicity must be celebrated in the church and this includes Jewish-Christian believers. But here is the crux: Paul says in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, what does he mean? Is the church an entirely new entity bringing together Jews and Gentiles (Eph 2)? Or do the distinctions remain (just as the distinction between male and female remain)? Some exegetes would say that McDermott has missed the primary question in Galatians 3. It is not whether Messianic Jews have an independent and recognizable life, but whether within the church one group has privileges the other may not. This is how we understand gender in these verses; it is about privileges and exceptionalism. This may be how we need to understand Israel and the gentile.

The book provides an unfortunate summary of political history in chapter 6. This is hotly debated territory and any treatment must be done with care. But here there are so many omissions and mischaracterizations, the informed reader will be left astonished. Example: we now know that the source of the 700,000-person Palestinian internal exile was not Arab pressure to run. It was about Israeli terror militias who forced them out. But here the book just isn’t current. Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015) is a Jewish account of this terrible story and an Israeli confession.

Israel Matters is essentially a popular theology book and that is where its merits should be weighed. It is passionate and persuasive. But a reader who is looking for a thorough treatment of the theological issues should consult Oren Martin’s well-written Bound for the Promised Land: The Land Promise in God’s Redemptive Plan (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015). Israel Matters is a book promoting Zionism that wants to avoid any links to Dispensationalism. It does this nicely but the end result is the same: it is a plea for Israeli exceptionalism and an argument for the independent validity of Jewish covenants without Christ. As the book’s endorsements show, those who are Dispensational or Messianic will celebrate it. Others will find it problematic.

Gary M. Burge
Calvin Theological Seminary
Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA