Israel is a frequent focus of attention in American Christian circles, but I suspect that a lot of people don’t have a good “big picture” idea of the role of Israel in the world according to the Bible. I would like to take you on a quick flyover of Israel’s history so that we can better understand what the Bible says about Israel’s role today.
(I pray you would consider this series for its own merits without assuming I’m going to fit in a certain niche. I’m going to try to avoid making conclusions that Scripture itself doesn’t make.)
First, we need to know who, (not what,) the “original” Israel was. Israel is a person, and for him, we need to go to Genesis. The Old Testament (i.e. Old Covenant) is a series of covenants that God made with man, and Genesis tells us about the first two. Noah gets the first one, sealed by a rainbow, including the promise that God will never again flood the whole earth (with water, that is).
The second covenant is given to Abram (Noah’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson). Here, God promises that Abram (a 75-year-old man whose 65-year-old wife, Sarai, is infertile) that he’ll be a “great nation”. Abram, whose name means “father,” is told to leave his homeland, move across the known world, and settle among strangers. Once he arrives, he’s told that his (non-existent) descendants will inherit the land of the Canaanites. (I’ll talk about them, and their land, in a later installment.)
This is a real problem for “Father” Abram. If he died childless, the whole “nation” thing wasn’t going to happen. After 10 years of waiting for this promised child, Abram and his wife thought it would be a good idea to for him to have a child with their servant Hagar. It works, and God does indeed bless that child, Ishmael, with several children himself later on, but it wasn’t exactly what God was indicating in his promise to Abram.
Fast-forward to a 99-yr-old Abram, 89-yr-old Sarai, and 13-yr-old Ishmael. God appears to Abram, changes his name to “Father of many nations”–Abraham, and promises that Sarai (now, Sarah) herself will have a child. God specifically promises that this child, Isaac, will be the recipient of Abraham’s covenant. Isaac is born within a year.
Isaac doesn’t get as much “air time” in Genesis compared to his dad and sons. For our purposes, we need to focus on the birth of his twin boys, Jacob and Esau. Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, struggled to conceive for 20 years, but God answered their prayers and gave them twins. In a day before sonograms, Rebekah was wondering why the baby was kicking so much, so God told her:
“Two nations are in your womb;
And two peoples will be separated from your body;
And one people shall be stronger than the other;
And the older shall serve the younger.”
Esau gets his red head out first, Jacob literally pulling his leg. In later years, Esau, like Ishmael, is blessed with wealth and a large family, but not with the unique covenant given to Abraham and Isaac.
So, where does Israel come into the story? One day, preparing to meet his estranged brother, Esau, Jacob wrestles a guy. This guy may in fact be God. This guy tell Jacob (which basically means “deceiver”, a fitting description for Jacob so far) that his name is now “Wrestles-with-God”–Israel.
Earlier in his life, Jacob/Israel was taking a nap in northeast Canaan when God told him, “the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants.” Later, God also says, “The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you.” As a result, God later calls this his covenant with Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham.
So, before we proceed with the series, we need to know first who Israel, the person, was. His story covers a lot of family conflicts, but results in a strong, powerful group of people. We’ll talk next time about how Israel is a people.