Re-interpreting scripture

Some years ago, I was asked to review two books that have a very negative slant on the modern State of Israel. I wrote a lengthy letter to one of the authors and have had extensive dialogue with the brother who recommended one of the books. Both books emphasize in detail Israel’s sins against the Palestinian Arabs (as if this should change our understanding of what Scripture says?). There is plenty of factual material for both Israelis and Palestinians to make a one sided case against the other. However, the most alarming assertion in these books was that because the New Testament does not explicitly emphasize the promise of the Land to the Jewish people, this must not be a continuing promise. In addition, both authors held that the New Testament re-interprets the Old Testament and universalized the idea of the Promised Land as a place for all God’s people. “The meek shall inherit the earth.”

The Concept of Re-interpretation

Another book by a very prominent Catholic also used the idea of the New Testament as re-interpreting the Old. The Roman Catholic Church has repudiated replacement theology; the idea that the Church has replaced Israel or is the superceding ongoing meaning of Israel. However, this book described the Church as forming a new universal Israel with greater transcendent significance. It argues that the New Testament teaches that the Church, to a significant degree, is the fulfillment of the promises to Israel. The choosing of 12 disciples is given as further evidence. In this viewpoint, old Israel is not rejected (which is contrary to official Catholic doctrine) but is certainly diminished.

Is the Land Promised to Israel?

Let’s look at the easier matter first – the claim that the New Testament does not affirm the promise of the Land to Israel, but universalizes this promise as meaning the future inheritance of all believers. The New Testament Scriptures write to the specific situations at hand and do not present a systematic theology. There was no need to re-state what was clearly stated in the Hebrew Scriptures, the only Bible at that time. The Gospels were written to preserve the record of the ministry of Yeshua when the original Apostolic Company was dying out. The Epistles were written to respond to specific challenges in the Gentile congregations. Of course, these writings have applications for all believers in all times.

However, when Paul specifically writes concerning the issue of Israel, because of the arrogance amongst Gentiles in Rome, he is as explicit as we could ever desire. Romans 9-11 is very clear. When he states “Theirs are the covenants” (Romans 9:4), such covenants obviously include the content of the promises within them.When Paul states that “the gifts and call of God (to Israel) are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29) the gift of the Land is again obviously one of those gifts. In addition, why would this issue of Land be addressed in the first century? The Land at that time was populated by Jews. Yes, there was Roman occupation and government.  However, no one doubted that this was the Jewish land. It simply was not an issue!

Does the New Testament Have to Repeat the Content of the Hebrew Bible?

The viewpoint that the New Testament must directly speak about all important issues, even if clearly asserted in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a foolish one. The New Testament does not deal with some of the issues of economic justice, but the Hebrew Bible does when it enjoins the cancellation of debt on Sabbatical and Jubilee years. It does not describe how courts should operate, but this is a crucial issue. Are we to then conclude that just courts are now abandoned because this is not addressed? New Covenant Scriptures do not define what constitutes incest. Leviticus gives us the list of forbidden relationships. Are we to ignore this because it is not repeated in the New Covenant scriptures?

This approach smacks of the very arrogance against which Paul speaks. If the New Testament re-interprets the Old so that Israel is now the Church and the Land is the earth, we have a huge problem. This approach does not allow the texts of the Hebrew Bible to speak on their own terms with the integrity of their straightforward meaning; the result is they can be made to say something other than what the author intended. That is the core problem with the whole concept of re-interpretation. For this reason, Messianic Jews do not like to use the terms Old Testament and New Testament, but instead use non-prejudiced terms like the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Covenant Scriptures.

Scripture after Scripture in context states that the Jewish people will never cease to be a people before God and that they will ultimately inherit the Land, never again to be uprooted (Jeremiah 23:5-8; 31:35-37; Ezekiel 36:24-28).  This is sufficient for our teaching. With integrity, this cannot be re-interpreted as fulfilled by “the Church as the ongoing meaning of Israel,” or by “the Church which is preserved and will inherit the earth.”

The Church and Prophetic Analogy

The New Covenant Scriptures do speak of the New Covenant People of God, the Body of the Messiah, in terms that are analogous to what is said about ethnic Israel. It uses the very language of the Hebrew Bible to make such statements. Believers are called a royal priesthood reminiscent of Exodus 19 (I Peter 2:9, 10). They are called the Bride of Yeshua as Israel is called the Wife of God. What is going on here? This is not a matter of re-interpretation so that the original meaning of the text is now changed.  Rather, the Spirit speaks new revelation by prophetic analogies to what was promised to ancient Israel. This new revelation tells us that the Body of Believers, rooted in Israel and called the commonwealth of Israel in Ephesians 2, has parallel promises to Israel. In Messiah, Gentile believers become children of Abraham. Hence, they are blessed with promises that apply to Abraham’s descendants. Indeed, they will inherit the Earth, for in the Age to Come, the whole Earth becomes Promised Land. Thus there are many new applications for the promises. However this is the Age where the Jewish people come into their inheritance in the central Promised Land that is allotted to them. The meaning of the Passover-exodus will be applied to all nations. The whole earth will experience the prosperity promised to ancient Israel as a reward for faithfulness in their Land. This was anticipated in the prophets, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord (Isaiah 11:9).  I call this theology “addition theology.”

Addition theology has many benefits. It recognizes that the New Covenant made with Israel includes Gentiles. It recognizes that the meaning of covenant relationship and priesthood has been expanded to include all who come to faith through Yeshua. It recognizes a bridal position for the Body of Believers that is no less than the position of the priesthood of the Jewish people. It embraces the universal fellowship that is the new reality brought into being by Yeshua. At the same time, it reaffirms the promises made to the Ancient Nation of Israel which should be taken in a straightforward manner.  God does not speak in a fast and loose way so that His words can mean something so apart from what would have comforted the original listeners.  Imagine saying to the ancient Israelites that the promise of never being again plucked up from their Land means that people from all nations would be called of God and would inherit the earth. These would have hardly been considered as adequate, comforting words of assurance directed to them as an ethnic people. The Jewish people understood these words rightly in their obvious sense.

Deriving our Theology from the Integrity of Each Text

This becomes very important to how we are to do theology. Wherever possible, we are to take every text in context as it was intended by the author and as it would have been understood. The meaning of each Bible text and each book is to be organized and harmonized with the assertions from other texts and books, but never by doing violence to the text. What do we mean by doing violence to a text? It is to re-interpret a text so as to forgo its intended meaning.

The weight of the texts of the Hebrew Bible concerning the preservation of the Jewish people, their return to the Land and their inheritance in the Land are very clear and plentiful. This will be the natural conclusion of any open minded (unbiased) reader of the Hebrew Bible, unless one has been indoctrinated against a straightforward reading of the texts. So let us take heart and not be shaken! Those who work for the return of the Jews to their ancient Land and are part of the effort to bring the Jewish people to the knowledge of Yeshua are living out the truth of the Word of God.

This article originally appeared on Tikkun International, May 21, 2019, and reposted with permission.

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Dr. Daniel Juster, founder and director of Tikkun International, has been involved in the Messianic Jewish movement since 1972 and currently resides in Jerusalem, Israel, from where he serves and supports the Messianic movement worldwide. Dan was the founding president and general secretary of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations for 9 years, the senior pastor of Beth Messiah congregation for 22 years, and a co-founder of the Messiah Bible Institute in several nations. Dr. Juster serves on the board of Towards Jerusalem Council II, provides oversight to 15 congregations in the USA as well as overseeing emissaries in Israel and the Former Soviet Union. Daniel has authored about 20 books on topics ranging from theology, Israel and the Jewish people, eschatology, discipleship, and leadership.