The name “Israel” denotes today a small mideast nation-state which came into existence as a state in 1948 after a war of independence. About 70% of this nation-state’s citizens are Jews, and Israel identifies itself as a Jewish state. It won a significant military victory over its Arab neighbors in 1967.
If someone today says “Israel,” he is likely referring to this modern state in the Middle East, just as if someone speaks of “France” he means a state in Europe.
“Israel” once meant something significantly different. In the Old Testament “Israel” is at once a spiritual term describing the people of God and a largely racial term naming the physical descendants of Abraham and Sarah (Judges 5.11; Genesis 17.7-19). The spiritual history of this Israel, the sole people of God, began with Jehovah’s call to the mythical patriarch Abraham to remove his family from Haran and journey to Canaan, the promised land, where they would form a great nation devoted to his worship (Genesis 12.1-3).
In biblical myth Israel received its name from a wrestling match between Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, and Jehovah (YHWH): “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32.28). The twelve sons of Jacob/Israel would subsequently father twelve tribes, the children of Israel.
“Israel” was the name of this people whether they occupied the land that Jehovah selected for them or not; Israel was defined by heredity, not geography. For example, a slave held in captivity outside the land of Israel remained part of Israel (II Maccabees 1.24-27), and Israel could still exist even when many of the former inhabitants of the land of Israel were living in exile in Babylon. In fact, most modern historians believe that the religious identity of Israel was largely shaped, and many of its scriptures written or restructured, during or immediately after its Babylonian captivity (586-538 BC).
Through his calling of Abraham Jehovah had selected Israel as his preferred folk and had set Israelites apart from all other peoples. Israel would subsequently be bound to him by the unique covenant made at Mount Sinai and would eventually be entitled, by virtue of its worship of the sole God, to subjugate and dispossess polytheist infidels (Isaiah 45.14-25; 61:5-6). Israel would remain God’s preferred folk and his personal possession so long as the Israelites kept the covenant between him and them (Exodus 19.5-6). All other peoples, ignorant of the truth and excluded from the covenant, were left “to walk in their own ways” (Acts 14.16). Even a public reading of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, was incompatible with the physical presence of non-Israelites (Nehemiah 13.1-3). Jehovah’s scriptures existed for the instruction and edification of Israel alone.
Only “the holy race” (Ezra 9.2) received Jehovah’s special attention, and only the holy race could properly serve him with animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple, where the one true deity often dwelt. All gentiles were prohibited, under pain of death, from contaminating the temple’s inner precincts, which were reserved for Jews. Just as the angels worshiped Jehovah in heaven, so the Jews, divinely chosen as the earthly equivalents of angels, worshiped him in Jerusalem (Jubilees 15.27, 31.14).
There is, as Savitri Devi observed, a remarkable racial audacity in these various religious claims. The strict form of Old Testament monotheism denies the existence of other gods (Deuteronomy 4.35), yet confines knowledge of this important truth to a single people. Jehovah, though the creator of the universe and its owner, nevertheless selected one small part of mankind as his special folk, leaving the vast majority of the human race, in whose lives he shows only minimal interest, to worship lifeless celestial objects or worthless idols (Deuteronomy 4.18; Psalm 115.2-8). The latter they vainly imagine are images of actual deities, unaware that they are merely “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2.13). Only one people knows and serves the one true God. All others are mistaken. Nor could they enter the ranks of Jehovah’s preferred folk, the people of God, even if they recognized their errors and abandoned their belief in false gods.
This radically ethnocentric religious structure, which reflected the high value Israel placed on racial purity (Joshua 23.12-13; Ezra 9-10), is poorly suited to proselytizing, and conversions to the religion of ancient Israel were consequently rare. No monotheist Israelite king or patriarch sent out legions of missionaries to convert disbelievers, even though, if we trust the Old Testament, all of them were confident that the bulk of their fellow men were living in spiritual darkness. Non-Israelites were born in darkness and in darkness they would perish. They were, by an accident of birth, doomed to idolatry and impurity, and insofar as the God of the universe showed any interest in their doings, it was only because he wanted to mock them or frustrate their crude ambitions (Psalm 33.10, 59.8).
The world’s spiritual geography was divided between Israel and everyone else, and Jehovah had chosen the side of Israel and had rejected all the other nations, though they too were populated by men and women created in the image of Elohim (Genesis 1.26-27). Our creator’s only ethical restrictions on all of us outside the covenant were that we refrain from homicide and the ingestion of blood (Genesis 9.4-6), and in the later Talmudic tradition even our humanity would be exegetically removed from us: through our worship of idols and other abominations we had marred the divine likeness once within us and were no longer the adam (“man”) that God had fashioned after his own image (Yevamot 61a; Bava Metzia 114b). So impure and inhuman had we become that sexual relations between Jews and gentiles could, through a process apparently akin to black magic, physically defile the temple from afar and make the atoning sacrifices that the priests offered there unacceptable to Jehovah (Jubilees 30.11-16).
Seen in this light, Christianity, history’s most successful proselytizing religion, is clearly discontinuous with its Old Testament antecedents. It marks a radical break with the past, for in the New Testament the people of God, the true Israel, become all those who believe in the Messiah’s resurrection, accept him as Lord, and adjust their lives accordingly.
This break with the Israelite past is an important subject in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, which recounts the early history of the apostolic church. The evangelist Philip converts an Ethiopian eunuch by explaining a scriptural prophecy of the Messiah (Acts 8.26-38). Peter, in response to an inspired trance-vision, recognizes that his old Jewish ethnocentrism must now be discarded, and he therefore welcomes Cornelius the Centurion into the new body of Christ, though he had previously shared the view of other Jews that contact with gentiles was contaminating (Acts 10.1-35). Soon thereafter faithful gentiles receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10.44-48). Frequent beatings and stonings at the hands of Jews convince Paul that a more valuable harvest of souls should be found away from his own people (Acts 13.44-52, 28.28; cf. II Corinthians 11.24-25).
In the new religious movement created by the followers of Jesus, originally called the Way, all men could, if they embraced the truth, find salvation and be united in the church, whether bond or free, male or female, Jew or Greek (Galatians 3.28). Under Jehovah’s old system Jews by nature (physei) were categorically distinct from gentile sinners; now through Christian faith even non-Jews could be purified and redeemed (Galatians 2.15-16; Ephesians 2.12-13). The Messiah could ransom “men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5.9).
There is a universalist moral logic in this message, which helps account for its success among non-Jews and its failure among the people it was first aimed at. If Jehovah is the only god, then he must, if he is just, be the god of everyone. The same Lord must be the Lord of all (Romans 10.12). Any redeemer he might care to send would act for the benefit of humanity as a whole.
The early Christians convinced themselves, despite some strong evidence to the contrary, that the God of the Pentateuch had always planned to become the God for all mankind, not merely the jealous tribal god of one misanthropic people. His intention eventually to welcome gentiles into his church was “the mystery of Christ,” concealed from earlier generations but now revealed through the Holy Spirit to the apostles (Ephesians 3.1-6).
An important consequence of this mystery was that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants” (Romans 9.6-8). Peter and Paul still belonged to Israel, as did all of the first apostles and all of the Jews who experienced the fiery descent of the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues along with non-Jews; but most of their fellow Jews no longer belonged to the true Israel, despite their own opinion of the matter. They had put themselves at odds with God’s more recent design, and since no one can save himself through the old Law of Moses, they had also jeopardized their immortal souls.
The New Testament eliminated the idea that the people of God were the physical descendants of Abraham and Sarah. No longer would “all Israelites have a share in the World to Come” (Sanhedrin 90a) simply because all Israel had once been chosen. There was now an old Israel of the flesh on the one hand, namely Jews who rejected God’s Son and were pleased with his crucifixion, and on the other the followers of Jesus, gentiles and Jews who accepted him as their savior. The latter had become, under a new and better covenant (Luke 22.20; Hebrews 8.6), the real “Israel of God” (Galatians 6.16). As Jesus had predicted, “many [non-Jews] will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8.11).
God’s Israel had become as distinct from Judaism as faith is distinct from genealogy. Whereas Jehovah had once schemed to prevent non-Jews from learning the truth, even causing demonic “spirits to rule [their nations] so that they might lead them astray from following him” (Jubilees 15.31), the God of the New Testament had sent his Son to offer redemption to all of humanity and to transform Christian believers into a spiritual kingdom of priests (Revelation 1.6). In Christianity’s prophetic record of the end-time, John of Patmos pointedly notes the absence of a temple in the heavenly city of the Christian faithful, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21.22). The material accouterments of old Israel’s religion, along with old Israel’s belief in its permanent election, were no longer valuable in the new economy of salvation (Matthew 27:51; Hebrews 9-10).
With thoughts of a spiritual Israel in mind, early Christians had no difficulty finding in the Old Testament numerous allegories and prophetic predictions of the moment when Jehovah would, much more generously, set non-genealogical criteria for admission into his preferred people (e.g. Acts 15.13-18). That most Jews were unwilling or unable to see these allegories and prophecies was an indication of their hardened hearts and their spiritual blindness.
In the early second century the Epistle of Barnabas, purportedly written by Paul’s evangelical co-worker in Antioch, would argue that Jews had lost the ability to read the scriptures and had in fact lost their covenant soon after they received it. In medieval Christendom the myopia of the Jews would be expressed in the contrasting allegorical images of Ecclesia and Synagoga, the former beautiful and crowned in triumph, the latter holding a broken staff and the broken tablets of the old Law, with her eyes covered to indicate her willed blindness.
This set of ideas is now decried as replacement theology or supersessionism. Some helpful Jews have written books documenting supersessionist errors among unenlightened Christians, so that they can avoid them in the future. Dutifully enlightened Christians, like Pastor John Hagee, are careful to avoid, and at times even openly reject, traditional Christian teachings on the subject.
Yet there can be no doubt that as a whole the New Testament is a supersessionist document. The old Law had been fulfilled in Christ, and the old covenant had been superseded and rendered “obsolete” by the new (Hebrews 8.13). Because most of old carnal Israel — Israel by physical descent, “Israel according to the flesh” — wrongly rejected Jesus, the “one mediator between God and men” (I Timothy 2.5), the promises God made to the faithful patriarchs were transferred to the new spiritual Israel (Matthew 21.43).
Through the trespasses of the Jews, including a deicide that the apostles spoke about often and unambiguously (e.g. Acts 7.52-53), salvation had come to the gentiles; the old branches of Israel had been broken off as the penalty for disbelief, and new branches had been grafted into the stem (Romans 11.11-20). Christians had become “Abraham’s offspring” (Galatians 3.29). Peter called them “God’s own people” and his new “holy nation” (I Peter 2.9). To the claim of the Jews that they were the descendants of Abraham, Jesus himself replied that their real (spiritual) father was the devil (John 8.39-44; cf. Revelation 2.9).
Although in the fullness of time many Jews would recognize their errors and would be welcomed into the church as Christians (Romans 11.25-26), for the moment most were outside of salvation, consigned by their own self-willed blindness to spiritual ignorance and damnation. These former “sons of the kingdom,” trusting in their physical descent, would find themselves “thrown into the outer darkness,” since they had rejected the promise of eternal life (Matthew 8.12; Acts 13.46).
The traditional Catholic prayer for the conversion (and therefore the salvation) of the Jews reflects this idea; the analogous Jewish prayer, added to the synagogue service around AD 85 and directed against Christians in Palestine, asks that “the Nazarenes and the heretics be suddenly destroyed and removed from the Book of Life.”
In the fourth century St. Augustine, the great patriarch of the Latin Church, would declare as a simple matter of fact what had become the consensus opinion of Christianity: “the people of the gentile nations themselves are spiritually among the children of Abraham and for that reason are correctly called Israel” (City of God 18.28). Augustine, who was himself addressed by fellow Christians as “the blessed teacher of Israel,” would likely have understood the English word “supersession,” which derives from Latin; he would not have understood how it could possibly be considered a theological error. His supersessionism was merely a restatement in his own words of the divinely inspired words stated plainly in the New Testament and prophesied obliquely in the Old.
The mideast nation-state of Israel embodies, some Christian traditionalists have argued, a rejection of New Testament Christianity and of an Israel in which Christ is the acknowledged king (John 1.49). It is, on this view, a material perversion of what had become, after the resurrection, a spiritual concept. The Jewish state locates Israel in a physical territory, and it is governed by people who do not belong to the new Israel. The true people of spiritual Israel who have the misfortune to live in this Jewish state, the Palestinian Christians, often find their holy places desecrated. Pious Jews spit on their priests in the streets of Jerusalem. In opposition to alleged Christian idolatry Israeli fundamentalists intend eventually, as acts of strict monotheist principle, to destroy all their churches.
It is therefore surprising that the most committed Christians today are also often the most fervent supporters of modern Israel and are among the strongest opponents of supersessionism. Some of these Christian Zionists even provide assistance to fundamentalist Jews who want to reinstitute the sacrifice of animals in the Jerusalem Temple, which, in addition to the rejection of New Testament teachings on the Law and on sacrifice that this plan implies, would require the destruction of the Muslim Dome of the Rock that happens to be located there. Many Christian Zionists also deny that Jews require Christian salvation, which is tantamount to a repudiation of the most crucial doctrine of the religion they profess (John 3.16-18, 36), as well as a repudiation of Christ’s command that his disciples preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, beginning in Jerusalem (Luke 24.47). Whether we identify ourselves as Christians or not, Christianity’s basic ideas of salvation, punishment, and evangelism are not difficult to understand.
The striking rise of Jewish political power during the twentieth century, which led to the adage that Jesus is the one Jew modern Christians do not fear, may provide an obvious explanation for this strange phenomenon. Abandonment of contentious Christian ideas in favor of a philo-Semitic theology is the easiest way for Christians to avoid Jewish anger and punishment.
As well, in an era when traditional religious beliefs appear increasingly irrelevant to many occidentals, modern Israel’s ongoing troubles perhaps make Christianity, rooted as it is in the ancient history of the Near East, seem vividly topical. The biblical Holy Land has become, thanks at least in part to modern Israel, an arena of constant violence and turmoil. The fundamentalist practice of ferreting out obscure biblical prophecies of the end-times, and connecting them to modern events surrounding the state of Israel, brings the world of the increasingly post-Christian present back in contact with the world of Christianity’s foundational scriptures, seeming to validate their contemporary significance in the process. A bible-believing Christian’s religious texts become keys to opening the secrets of important current events, keys unavailable to the sneering disbelievers who disdain his literalist faith. The existence of the troubled and troublesome state of Israel helps make the scriptures seem relevant.
Whatever the reason for the preference today of many Christian fundamentalists for modern Israel over the New Testament, there can be no doubt that the most important text for Christian Zionism is Jehovah’s pledge to Abraham in Genesis 12.2-3, part of what is often called the Abrahamic promise or covenant (Genesis 12-17 passim). I quote here from the King James translation:
And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.
Modern fundamentalists, like Pastor Hagee, interpret this as a condemnation of anti-Semitism and an admonition that Christians must unconditionally support the Jewish state in physical Israel. Our nations will be blessed if we do and may be cursed if we do not. America is wealthy and strong and safe from earthquakes because it has often blessed the Jewish state and has received Jehovah’s blessings in return. Zimbabwe would also be wealthy and strong if its leaders would wisely embrace the Abrahamic covenant. A nation gets rich by supporting Israel; it risks divine judgment if it does not.
The standard Christian interpretation of the verses is much different. Genesis 12.2-3 is, according to traditional Christian exegesis, an anticipation of the new Israel and the universal church of God. Augustine had no doubt that the Abrahamic covenant was “a promise now fulfilled in Christ” (City of God 16.28).
The key clause for most traditional commentators is “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed,” which suggests that the calling of Abraham somehow involved God’s intention eventually to bless, through him, all the non-preferred nations excluded from the covenant. At some moment in the future, the text seems to say, the people Israel would become a source of important benefits for the rest of the world.
For Christians the meaning was obvious: all of humanity would be blessed in Abraham’s physical and spiritual posterity. The Son of God, sent into the world as a blessing for us all, would be born from his line (Matthew 1.1-16). We could now be saved and hope to arrive one day in heaven. The promise of land and the possibility of salvation were related. God had promised a material homeland in Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, John Calvin argued, “not that it might be the limit of their hopes, but that the view of it might train and confirm them in the hope of that true inheritance,” namely “the true country, the heavenly city of believers” (Institutes 2.11.2)
Christian bible scholars once did that: they delved into the Old Testament, following Christ’s own advice (John 5.39-46), looking for anticipations and prefigurings of the New, not for buried hints of modern Iran’s role in the imminent end-times, or for biblical reasons to support the Jewish state. They were Christians, so they interpreted Old Testament texts as Christian messages.
In its bitter conflict with Pharisaic Judaism one of early Christianity’s most important claims was its ability to correctly interpret the spirit of the scriptures, thereby preserving and illuminating God’s true intentions. Until our own era, most Christians maintained that traditional belief in their special mastery of the Old Testament. Whereas Jews might be capable of understanding the fleshly or carnal meaning of Old Testament texts, only Christians could understand their spiritual meaning, which was much more important.
In Christian eyes Abraham is the spiritual father of the true Israel. The Latin poet Prudentius, in the opening line of his Psychomachia, would call him “the faithful patriarch who first showed the way of believing,” because, like Christian believers, Abraham believed and was accounted righteous without the Mosaic Law and without the rituals of temple-based Judaism (Romans 4.3), both of which arrived centuries after his death.
This Abraham was an early witness of the Christian Trinity (Genesis 18.1-2), and in his encounter with Melchizedek, the mysterious gentile priest-king of Salem, he met a type of Christ (Genesis 14.17-18; Hebrews 7). Since Melchizedek presented him with bread and wine, he encountered also a prefiguration of the eucharist. His willingness to sacrifice his son was an imprecise but important prefiguration of Christ’s Passion (Genesis 22). In other words, for readers who examine the Old Testament with genuinely Christian eyes, Abraham’s life as it appears in scripture is a crucial part of the Christian story.
Abraham’s Christian faith was in a divine promise that had yet to be fulfilled, a promise of a heavenly home and of a universal redeemer, whose coming he expected (John 8.56). His numerous physical and spiritual progeny — including Jesus, the most important “son of Abraham” (Matthew 1.1) — were heirs to the same Christian promise of “a city . . . whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11.8-16). This Abraham was the forefather of all the Christian faithful, both Jews and gentiles, not because he was by race an Israelite, but because of his faith (Romans 4.10-12).
In their commentaries on Genesis 12.2-3 Catholics and Protestants alike over the centuries arrived at similar interpretations of the verses. They did not interpret them as a divine command to bless and support Jews. They looked instead at the line of descent from Abraham that culminated in Jesus and interpreted the text accordingly. In the Abrahamic covenant and its promise of blessings for all families of the earth they saw the gift of salvation for everyone.
They did not arrive at the same conclusion through a miraculous meeting of minds across time and across denominations, but because the verses had already been authoritatively interpreted for them by Paul and Peter. They therefore based their own interpretations on the Christian interpretation found in the New Testament.
Neither Paul nor Peter saw Genesis 12.2-3 as a divine promise for the specific benefit of their first-century Jewish adversaries. On the contrary, the beneficiaries of God’s promise to Abraham would not, Paul made clear, be Jewish followers of the carnal Mosaic Law, which would deny the necessity of faith and the purpose of the redeemer, but faithful Christians, believers in Christ and in his resurrection. “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” was scriptural proof that God had always intended to justify the gentiles by faith and had announced, in a pre-gospel long ago, his intention to Abraham (Galatians 3.6-18). This opportunity to believe and be saved was offered first to the Jews, in the forlorn hope that they could be turned, as Peter put it, from their wickedness, but it was offered soon thereafter to everyone else (Acts 3.25-26, cf. Romans 1.16). All of us therefore have been blessed in the posterity of Abraham, though only Christians have taken practical advantage of the blessing.
Belief in this interpretation of Genesis 12.2-3 implies belief in Christianity. Since I do not believe in Jehovah and do not believe that Jesus was his son, I am confident that this Christian interpretation of an Old Testament text is false. The authors and scribal editors of Genesis had no suspicion of an expected Messiah for the gentiles and would have been horrified by the prospect that a redeemer might eventually lead their enemies out of idolatrous darkness. Pastor Hagee’s interpretation of the verses is, in my opinion, closer to the truth than St. Paul’s. It is also much more consistent with Israel’s history and peculiar national psychology.
The people Israel, contrary to the fictional ethnogenesis reported in the Old Testament, emerged from among indigenous Palestinians as a result of the widespread crisis of the Late Bronze Age that afflicted most of the Near East. Amidst the chaos of war and cultural collapse pastoral nomads gradually coalesced to form a small nation called Israel in the sparsely populated highlands of Canaan. Located between Egypt and Mesopotamia, this small nation was always at the mercy of its much more powerful neighbors. It had, despite its often vaulting ambitions, a consciousness of its smallness (Deuteronomy 7.7).
Its first entry into extra-biblical history appears, in the late thirteenth century BC, on a victory stele of the Pharaoh Merneptah, which contains his boastful report of Israel’s defeat in Canaan: “Israel is laid waste and its seed no longer exists.” Around 720 the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, removing ten of Israel’s twelve tribes from Canaan and sending them into permanent exile (II Kings 17.6). In another of ancient Israel’s many defeats, recorded in the Old Testament and corroborated by an extra-biblical source, the Pharaoh Shishak captured Jerusalem in 925 and despoiled the temple (I Kings 14.25-26). In 586 the Babylonians burned the temple, blinded the last Davidic king, and took him and the bulk of the elite population into exile (Jeremiah 52). It is often conjectured that the Old Testament took shape during Israel’s captivity in Babylon.
Genesis 12.2-3 should be understood with this historical background in mind. The Israelites dreamed, as many mistreated peoples do, of the day when they would no longer be weak and insignificant but strong and powerful, no longer at the mercy of the belligerent empires of the ancient Near East. Since they were a literate people, unlike other insignificant ancient peoples mistreated by the powerful, their scribes left an extensive written record of their yearnings and their fantasies of revenge, which, through an unfortunate turn of history that Savitri plausibly blamed on St. Paul, came to be regarded as a body of religious texts within our Western civilization.
A more positive analysis would be that, by creative misreading of the Old Testament, first-century Jewish Christians and our Christian forefathers succeeded in transforming this at times monstrous collection of ethnocentric tales, with its violent fanaticism (e.g. II Samuel 15.2–3) and its comically primitive laws (e.g. Deuteronomy 25.11), into a source of moral edification and artistic inspiration. This alchemical transformation could arguably be seen as one of the great cultural accomplishments of the West, though it came at the cost of the entanglement of our religious beliefs with the folklore and mythology of Jews. The early Christians assigned their successors the difficult interpretive task of extracting moral universalism and Christian altruism from the sacred ethnocentrism that physical Israel recorded in the Old Testament.
The oldest verses in the Pentateuch are likely found in the “Song of Moses,” an archaic poem recounting Israel’s escape from slavery in Egypt and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army, which through Jehovah’s terrifying power falls into the Red Sea (Exodus 15:1–18; Revelation 15.3-4). It is an imagined moment, entirely unhistorical, of triumph for Israel and defeat for its powerful Egyptian enemy. It relies on a deeply held but false belief, namely Israel’s liberation from four centuries of bondage in Egypt, the story of the exodus. This false historical memory, recalled frequently in scripture, served to demonstrate Jehovah’s special concern for Israel, while rationalizing Israel’s hostility to adversary nations in the Near East. It is a revealing myth: few peoples would choose to invent a history of lengthy enslavement by others as their most important national memory.
In Israel’s vision of the invasion and conquest of Canaan, which also never occurred, the Old Testament writers imagined their forefathers mercilessly eradicating their enemies and their heathen shrines in order to obliterate everything non-Israelite (Deuteronomy 7.1-5; Joshua 10.16-42). In Israel’s conflict with the neighboring Edomites they imagined Jehovah, with his garments stained in blood, vowing to destroy all non-Israelites in a terrible day of vengeance (Isaiah 34, 63.1-6). In their prophetic visions of acquiring overwhelming power in the future they imagined the kings and queens of the earth groveling at their feet and their warrior-messiah shattering the gentile kingdoms with a rod of iron (Isaiah 49.22–23; Psalm 2.8-9). In Israel’s captivity in Babylon they imagined themselves smashing the heads of their captors’ children on the rocks (Psalm 137.9). In the Essene community near the Dead Sea the fanatical Sons of Light imagined the day when Jehovah would “execute judgment on all the gentiles by the hands of his Elect” and “annihilate all the Sons of Darkness” (Habakkuk Commentary 5.4; War Scroll 13.16).
The Abrahamic covenant is a more subdued expression of the same yearnings. It is at its core the fantasy of a persecuted weakling who dreams of becoming, with the assistance of a magical helper, much more powerful than his tormentors. It imagines a time when, aided by Jehovah, Israel will dominate its neighbors. Those who oppose Israel will be cursed and punished by Jehovah, and since the gods of Israel’s enemies are nonexistent, their enemies will have no supernatural power that they can call upon in response. Prudent nations will therefore bless Israel to avoid the curses of its omnipotent tribal god.
We can think of Genesis 12.2-3 as a textual Rorschach test.
A disbeliever would look at the verses and see, as I do, one small ancient people’s optimistic vision of future power.
The supposedly key clause in verse 3 is, to disbelieving eyes, not an uplifting promise of blessings for all the families of the earth, but a trivial prediction, obscured by the KJV translation and by ambiguous grammar in the Hebrew text, that in future Israelites would invoke Abraham when they bless one another. When they utter a blessing, they will use his name, because he was especially favored by Jehovah (cf. Genesis 48.20). The Catholic Jerusalem Bible provides a convincing translation for skeptics inclined to doubt the altruism of the ancient Israelites: “. . . all clans on earth will bless themselves by you.” The evangelical NIV similarly suggests “will use your name in blessings” as an alternate reading.
On the other hand, later Jewish tradition accepted the universality implied in the apparent blessing of “all families of the earth,” but interpreted it to mean that the entire world was the birthright of Abraham’s physical descendants (Romans 4.13). The strongly ethnocentric rabbinical sages who wrote the Talmud accordingly interpret Jehovah’s ancient promise that all families of the earth will be blessed through Abraham to mean that the world revolves around the sacred existence of Jews: “Even the other families who live on the land are blessed only for Israel’s sake. . . . Even the ships that go from Gaul to Spain are blessed only for Israel’s sake” (Yevamot 63a). It is an important ethical principle in the Talmud that all gentile activity ideally should serve Israel and provide leisure for Jews to study the Torah (Avoda Zara 2b).
We also know what early Christians like Peter and Paul, both of whom likely died for their faith in the Neronian persecutions, saw when they looked at Genesis 12.2-3. They saw in God’s covenant with Abraham a Christian promise of salvation, recently fulfilled through the effects of an atoning crucifixion and now made available to everyone.
When looking at the same verses, Pastor Hagee and his fellow Judeo-Christians see something quite different. They see a divine command from the ancient Israelite past directing us in the present to provide material assistance to Jews. They read the text as a Jewish ethnocentrist would want them to read it.
They do not, as Christians once did, see in Abraham the proto-Christian patriarch who encountered the triune God under the oaks of Mamre. They do not see the universal church of Christ or the heavenly Jerusalem in the “great nation” that God promised Abraham’s descendants. Their Abraham is not the spiritual progenitor of the Christian faithful, as Peter and Paul believed, but the distant forefather of the modern Jewish state, yearning as he journeys to Canaan for the promised day his descendants will subjugate their enemies. This Abraham would be pleased to learn that in our era the world’s leading power annually sends billions in material blessings to the Jewish state.
Belief in the Jewish Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch who received from Jehovah material blessings for himself and for his physical descendants, is incompatible with belief in the Christian Abraham, the spiritual forefather of a morally universalist religion. Unfortunately for the religious coherence of Christianity, Abraham the ethnocentric Jew is a much more accurate interpretation of the Abraham of Old Testament scripture than his Christian counterpart, the spiritual ancestor of the raceless faithful. Abraham is only thought of as a pious holy man today because of the powerful Christian misreading that constructed his near antonym.
For many modern bible believers the Christian Abraham is now a troublesome distraction that they feel free to abandon, while they focus their Christian altruism on their religion’s former rival, with no expectation that their blessings will ever be reciprocated.