One of the most confused areas in evangelical theology today concerns the place and standing of the nation of Israel in Scripture. Covenant Theologians teach that Israel is continuous with the church in the New Testament and that the major change we see in Scripture is the inclusion of the gentiles into the people of God in the New Covenant era. On the other hand, Dispensationalists teach that God has two faithful peoples of God, Israel and the church. We believe both theological systems are in error in the way they view the nation of Israel. New Covenant Theology teaches that Israel is an unbelieving picture of the people of God and (except for the remnant of Israelites who actually believed) the individuals of that nation received God’s judgment. In the following pages we intend to show that the uniform teaching of Scripture is that the nation of Israel was never a believing people as a whole.
The History of Israel
The nation of Israel is first established through the sons of Jacob and really comes into its own in Egypt under the tyrannical shadow of Pharaoh. Its beginning was tenuous but God caused them to be fruitful and became their deliverer through Moses.
The Exodus Generation
After delivering the Israelites out of the hands of Pharaoh, God made certain that they did not enter the promised land because of their rebellion. Are we to understand this punishment as merely a temporal discipline which God gives to His children for their good (Hebrews 12:3-11)? Or should we see this as God’s eternal wrath poured out on an unbelieving generation? The book of Hebrews addresses this issue by using that generation of Israelites as an example to spur on believers who seem to be turning away from Christ due to hard times (Heb. 3:7-14)
So, as the Holy Spirit says: “ Today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, they shall never enter my rest.”
William Lane in his commentary on the book of Hebrews writes concerning this passage: His (the author of Hebrews) concern is that the community should maintain its integrity and continue to live in terms of the divine promises. The memory of Israel’s failure in this regard, as set forth in Ps 95, provides the basis for the sober warning that a refusal to listen to God’s voice and to respond in obedience would entail the tragic loss of their promised inheritance. The loss of inheritance that we see for the Israelites is the loss of the promised land. But clearly this is shown to be a picture of or analogous to spiritual salvation resulting in eternal life. Lane goes on to write: In 3:7-19 the quotation from Ps 95 furnishes the basis for the exhortation to remain sensitive to the promise of eschatological salvation…His interpretation of the text was heavily influenced by Num 14. According to Num 13-14, Israel was camped at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran, on the verge of entering Canaan. Entrance into the land was the goal of the Exodus and was necessary for the fulfillment of the promise. When those who had been sent into Canaan to explore the land brought back a bad report, however, the Israelites refused to enter. They rejected the promise through unbelief. What is illustrated for us in the Old Testament is a people unwilling to believe God’s promise concerning a physical inheritance and therefore a refusal to obey resulting in a loss of the inheritance. This is then interpreted by the Holy Spirit through the author of the book of Hebrews to point to the reality of people refusing to trust in the work of Jesus Christ alone to save them resulting in loss of a spiritual inheritance and receiving spiritual condemnation. This becomes alarmingly clear in verses 15-19 of Hebrews chapter 3:
As has just been said: “Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they ere not able to enter, because of their unbelief.
The message of these verses can be paraphrased as follows: “The Israelites of the wilderness generation turned from God and experienced his judgment. They were a disobedient people who lost their inheritance because they were UNBELIEVERS. Don’t be like them.” The wilderness generation, who had the blood of Abraham coursing through their veins, was a generation of unbelievers. They heard the “good news” and they did not believe and therefore received God’s eternal judgment. This judgment is illustrated to us by their physical death before entering the Promised Land. But this is only the first step in our journey in understanding the biblical identity of the nation of Israel. Perhaps Israel learned her lessons and turned to God in true repentance and faith leading to a bright and godly future. It is to this possibility that we will now turn our attention.
Crossing The Jordan
Moses addresses this next generation as he is about to die and just before they cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan and he prophesies in Deuteronomy 31:24-29
After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord: “Take this book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God. There it will remain as a witness against you. For I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are. If you have been rebellious against the Lord while I am still alive and with you, how much more will you rebel after I die! Assemble before me all the elders of your tribes and all your officials, so that I can speak these words in their hearing and call heaven and earth to testify against them. For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall upon you because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord and provoke him to anger by what your hands have made.”
These are pretty strong words from Moses about the future of national Israel. Was Moses correct? Were the people of Israel to continue in rebellion after the death of Moses? Or were these bitter words from a dying prophet? The first step to answering these questions is to look at the very next stage in redemptive history, the entrance into and possession of the Promised Land found in the books of Joshua and Judges.
Joshua: Turning Over a New Leaf?
The book of Joshua presents Israel with a bright new start. We have a brand new people to start over with after the horrible rebellion that brought God’s judgment just a generation before. We also find that Israel has a brand new leader and the future looks bright. In order to make things clear that the Israelites are starting over, we read of them telling Joshua, “Whatever you have commanded we will do” (1:16) which is reminiscent of the promise their fathers made to Moses in Exodus 24:7 before their rebelliousness flared up. In the first few chapter of the book of Joshua the Israelites are obedient and seem to have turned over a new leaf. Although there are moments of disobedience that punctuate the account of Israel in Joshua, on the whole it as a positive account of God’s people being brought into the promised land and possessing it. At the end of the book the Israelites have a positive outlook on life as we get to witness Joshua renewing God’s Covenant He made with Moses now with this new generation. But it is hard to read this dialogue between Joshua and the people without Moses’ stinging words from Deuteronomy 31 ringing in our ears. Here is part of the dialogue:
Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.”
But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the Lord.”
Then Joshua said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”
“Yes, we are witnesses,” they replied (Joshua 24:19-22).
We are left wondering, “Will they obey the Lord or was Moses right that they will turn their back on God and chase after idols?” The book of Judges leaves us no doubt as to the answer to this question.
Steve Lehrer is the director of biblical counseling for In-Depth Studies.