The ideology of Zionism, which provided the philosophical underpinning for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, was not initially a religious movement. Whether or not Theodor Herzl was an Atheist, his writings display no interest in religion, and he certainly made no connection made between his vision for a new Jewish state and the activities of the Almighty. Modern defenders of the state of Israel though are far less reticent in their use of religious language. Indeed, it is rare to hear any contemporary politician speak in support of Israel without making reference to some Biblical text or image! This seems to be especially true of politicians who identify themselves as Christians.
Over the last generation, Christian Zionism has indeed become a bulwark of support for successive Israeli governments – allowing the State of Israel to flout the mandates of the United Nations and to oppress Palestinian Arabs with increasing impunity. Zionist governments are shielded from the dictates of the UN and from international law by their Western allies – most obviously the United States – and the US gets significant domestic support for its pro-Israel policies from the church.
If Norman Finkelstein’s analysis in his book of 2012 – “Knowing too much – why the American Jewish romance with Israel is coming to an end” – is correct, Zionist governments can no longer take for granted the support of Jewish communities outside of their country. Bizarrely though, they seem to be on much firmer ground when it comes to support from the church, at least in the United States.
According to the Pew Research Centre, 63% of white evangelical Christians in the USA believe it is their biblical responsibility to support the nation of Israel, and Christian Zionist groups such as the International Christian Embassy (ICEJ), Christian Friends of Israel (CFI) and Christians United for Israel (CUFI) claim to have over 50 million members between them! These groups form a virtually impenetrable lobby when it comes to US foreign policy regarding Israel, and this is what allows the crimes of violence, such as those we see now perpetrated against unarmed protestors in Gaza, to continue, with Mr Netanyahu confident that no one is ever going to hold him to account.
As to the origins of this aberration of the church, I can do no better than refer you to my friend and colleague, Dr Stephen Sizer, who is an expert in this field. For today’s purposes, I want to focus not on the origins of Christian Zionism but on what keeps this ideology in place at a theological level, and I think the answer to this is reasonably straightforward. It is the appeal Christian Zionists make to their Scriptures – both to their New Testament and to the Jewish Bible – and most especially to a series of prophetic texts that they believe foretell both the establishment of the Zionist state and its victory over all its political opponents!
Armed with these prophetic texts, Christian Zionists claim that defending the state of Israel is a Biblical mandate for all believers, regardless of what injustices they might thus be sanctioning or how many people might be oppressed or killed. It is my contention though that not only have the Christian Zionists misread particular verses, but they have misunderstood their sacred texts at a deeper level and have failed to understand the way prophecy works in the both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.
In terms of the texts these people appeal to, there are multiple sites on the Internet, (such as christinprophecy.org) where they are laid out systematically. The starting point is generally the promise given to Abram in the Torah (in the book of Genesis) that the whole land of Canaan, which includes all of modern-day Israel and Palestine, will be given to his descendants as an everlasting inheritance:
“The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:8)
Indeed, the Hebrew Bible’s narrative of the people of Israel begins with this promise to Abram, which is a promise that has two other parts to it – namely, that Abram will also become the father of a great multitude and, most significantly, that through these descendants ‘all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 13:3)
The focus of Christian Zionists though is on the part of the promise concerning the land, which they see as still being in the process of fulfillment.
In the history of Israel, as related in the Jewish Scriptures themselves, the land is both conquered by the descendants of Abram and subsequently lost to them, though there are indeed various prophecies of a return to the land.
“Say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will take the sons of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land” (Ezekiel 37:21)
Christian Zionists will claim that this prophecy was not fulfilled (as is generally supposed) when the king of Persia, Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to their land – an event generally dated at around 538 BCE – but nearly 2,500 years later, in 1948, with the foundation of the modern state of Israel!
Once this leap is made, and prophecies that are normally thought to be related to events that occurred two and half thousand years are identified as finding their fulfillment in the modern day, it doesn’t take too much imagination to find a plethora of other contemporary events referred to in similar fragments of Scripture.
Hence, Zechariah 8:4 – “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Old men and old women will again sit in the streets of Jerusalem” – is seen by Christian Zionists as being fulfilled not in the above-mentioned return from exile, but in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 when the Israeli army seized control of East Jerusalem from Jordan!
Likewise, prophecies that speak of coalitions of armies conspiring against Jerusalem, such as Psalm 86 or Zechariah 12:3 – “all the nations of the earth will be gathered against it” – are taken as references to current hostilities between the modern state of Israel and its Arab and Persian neighbours.
Moreover, and most disturbingly of all, the victory of the state of Israel over all of its neighbours is seen as being clearly foretold by the same prophets:
Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord Will be established 1as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. (Isaiah 2:2 and Micah 4:1)
Of course, for Christian Zionists, the end-point of their story is not the victory of the state of Israel over its enemies but the return of Christ, which they see as being intrinsically linked to Israel’s military victories.
I won’t bother explaining in detail how exactly they connect these military and spiritual events, as even I find it a bit baffling, but the upshot is that Christ can’t return until Israel has destroyed all her enemies, which, they say, makes it incumbent on every Christian believer to get behind the state of Israel in its military ventures so that the plan of God for the world might come to completion!
I hope I’m doing Christian Zionism some degree of justice in my brief summary. When I have heard these people speak, they generally pull out a lot more verses from the Bible to buttress their case than the small number I have offered above. Even so, I’ve limited my presentation to a handful of prophetic texts as my main contention with Christian Zionism is not with their interpretation of any particular text but with the way these people approach the prophetic literature as a whole.
Christian Zionists give their support to the state of Israel based on prophetic texts that they believe predict the victory of Israel over its enemies. I consider their interpretations erroneous, but even if I agreed with their interpretations it would not affect my politics since prophecy in the Jewish and Hebrew Scriptures doesn’t work that way. Biblical prophecy is never normative. The prophecies themselves do not tell us what to do. Biblically speaking, it’s always the commandments that tell us what to do. The role of prophecy is to bring us back to the commandments.
This is one thing that both Christianity and Islam and, I believe, Judaism agree on. Being a prophet of God is not fundamentally about predicting the future. There is a big difference between prophecy and fortune-telling.
In the Jewish Bible, as in the New Testament, as also in the Qur’an, the role of a prophet is to call people back into a relationship with God. If the prophet’s message includes dire predictions about the future, this is because God’s commandments have been broken and the prophet is urging his hearers to avoid the judgement he foresees by showing repentance and faith and obedience to God’s commandments.
It is God’s commandments that are normative. It is the commandments that must be obeyed. Prophetic predictions about the future function to call us back to those commandments, but the predictions themselves do not tell us what to do.
When Amos proclaims God’s judgement – “For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” (Amos 3:6) – his purpose was not simply to upset people by telling them that they were about to be destroyed, nor was he inviting anyone to come and join him in destroying Israel. On the contrary, his purpose was to call his hearers to repentance so that the nation might not be destroyed.
When the prophet Jeremiah railed against the sins of Israel and predicted that
a ‘boiling pot from the north’ (Jeremiah 1:13) would spill over in their direction and destroy everything, this was not designed to shift anybody’s political allegiance from Israel to the northern nation of Babylon (or Assyria).
Jeremiah’s hope was always that the events he prophesied would not come to pass, and when things did take place just as he had predicted, Jeremiah wrote a whole book of Lamentations, mourning Jerusalem’s destruction.
Biblical prophecy is never normative. Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom did not make destroying Jerusalem a moral imperative, such that the correct response from his hearers would have been to enlist in the Babylonian army and join in the looting. Such prophecies were rather designed to function like shock therapy – jolting listeners back to a sober awareness of their spiritual plight.
Hence Biblical prophecies were never designed to shape 21st century foreign policy any more than they were given for the sake of satisfying curiosity about the future. Prophecies were given in order to call people to back to God and to God’s commandments.
Once we recognise this, the fundamental flaw in the logic of Christian Zionism is laid bare. They claim that the Biblical prophecies point to the triumph of the modern state of Israel over neighbours. Even if this were correct and that some prophet had predicted a military victory for modern Israel, this would not mean that either the prophet or the Bible endorsed such an event. Nor would it mean that believing people should support it, any more than Jeremiah’s dire warnings were intended to garner support for the destruction of Jerusalem.
In the Hebrew Bible, when a prophet gave dire predictions about the future, his hope was that his warnings would cause his hearers to come back into a relationship of obedience to God, and that this would result in his prophecies proving false. Prophecy thus always functions to lead us back to the commandments. The tragedy of Christian Zionism is that it gets the whole process back-to-front – urging us to follow the prophecy, even if this means breaking God’s commandments!
Prophecy has never been normative for people of faith. It’s the law of God that is normative. The commandments inform our actions and tell us how we ought to behave towards God and towards our neighbours. It is on the basis of the commandments that we might construct a Biblically-based foreign policy, which would require focusing, of course, on justice.
As a Sydney Anglican priest, I am privileged to be from a church tradition that has never been greatly influenced by Zionism. Indeed, I believe that at the Sydney Synod of 1948, when some people did stand up and suggest that the creation of the State of Israel was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, it was the principal of our theological seminary who corrected them, saying “No, no! It’s the fulfillment of the eighth commandment – ‘Thou shalt not steal’!”
This is indeed the great tragedy of Christian Zionism – that under the guise of faithfulness to Biblical prophecy, it justifies stealing and murder and any number of other crimes that are clearly contrary to the commandments of God.
A genuinely Biblical approach to the situation in Israel/Palestine must begin, not with prophecy, but with God’s unambiguous command to do justice – a justice that respects the rights of the Palestinian people to their land, to life and to liberty.
Father Dave – May 12th, 2018, New Horizons conference, Mashad, Iran