Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Return Of Israel

Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence Christians (and especially Christadelphians) point to is the re-establishment of the nation of Israel and the return of the Jews to the land.

It is claimed that the events in the middle of the 20th century are direct fulfilments of prophecies made in both the Old and New Testaments in the Bible. These are bold claims, and worthy of some scrutiny.


What does the Bible actually say?

The below is an overview of the Bible quotes commonly used by Christadelphians to show that the Bible predicted the return of the Jews in 1948. If there are any that I missed, please let me know and I will update the article.

At that time a root from Jesse will stand like a signal flag for the nations. Nations will look to him for guidance, and his residence will be majestic. At that time the sovereign master will again lift his hand to reclaim the remnant of his people from Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, and the seacoasts. He will lift a signal flag for the nations; he will gather Israel’s dispersed people and assemble Judah’s scattered people from the four corners of the earth.
Isaiah 11:10-12 NET

Notice the start of the verse, "at that time". At what time? Well, the previous 9 verses offer some context, talking about a root from Jesse who will instigate a time of peace. When read in its wider context, it seems to suggest a rather different sequence of events than what Christadelphians normally portray. Who is the root of Jesse? If that part is still future, how can the later verses be current? I don't think this chapter says what Christadelphians think it says.

There seems to be a general theme among Old Testament prophets that a descendant of David will once again occupy the throne in Jerusalem, and would bring peace to the nation and indeed to the world. If you're Christian, that probably sounds like Jesus, but these prophecies say nothing of a first advent and the prophets who wrote these prophecies knew nothing about a future Jesus. The idea of a crucified Messiah who would go off to heaven and then return to set up God's kingdom is a Christian idea, and it does not come from Judaism. There was no such concept in the Old Testament.

But there's another point I want to make at the outset, because I think it's important with regard to Bible Prophecy generally. If we read on in Isaiah 11 we see verses like this:

Ephraim will no longer be jealous of Judah, and Judah will no longer be hostile toward Ephraim. They will swoop down on the Philistine hills to the west; together they will loot the people of the east. They will take over Edom and Moab, and the Ammonites will be their subjects. The Lord will divide the gulf of the Egyptian Sea; he will wave his hand over the Euphrates River and send a strong wind, he will turn it into seven dried-up streams, and enable them to walk across in their sandals. There will be a highway leading out of Assyria for the remnant of his people, just as there was for Israel, when they went up from the land of Egypt.
Isaiah 11:13-16 NET

I think this provides a lot more context to the preceding verses. Rather than some future prediction for our times, this looks rather more like a prediction that the northern 10 tribes (Ephraim) would return from Assyria, in a miraculous deliverance similar to that described in the exodus (which, amusingly, never actually happened). But that would make this prophecy false...oops.

When a Bible author uses the names of various nations, I tend to think they actually did mean to refer to those specific nations (crazy, right?), and not some future nation that occupied (some of) the same territory. It always seems to make good sense that way. Imagine you're a prophet in ancient Israel and you're writing to your people. Why would they care about predictions of events 2500 years in the future? For that to make any sense we would need to assume that the predictions were divinely inspired and written for a wider audience, but what is the justification for that assumption? If we are just going to assume the Bible was inspired, why bother with prophecy?

Meanwhile, there is a tendency for believers to be extremely liberal with their interpretation of place names, and it seems that geographical location need only be approximate in order to satisfy any desired fulfilment one wishes to see. As far as I am aware, there is not a single prophecy in the Bible where the author specifically mentions that the place names given were intended to be replaced by later nations that occupied the same territory. This is a technique invented by believers in order to escape the conclusion that because some nations no longer exist, any prophecy that refers to those nations has therefore failed. What is the justification given for such manoeuvres? As far as I can tell, there isn't any. It doesn't matter if we're talking about a different nation, perhaps from a completely different ethnic background, or even if a nation's borders no longer line up with the previous ones. As long as it fits, somehow, we're good - or so it seems to me. Perhaps I'm mistaken - and if so I'd be grateful if someone could point out how this works and why it's a reasonable thing to do.

That is probably enough to cover the rest of the prophecies all in one go, but I'll keep going just to spell it out in more detail.

For the Israelites must live many days without a king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred fertility pillar, without ephod or idols. Afterward, the Israelites will turn and seek the Lord their God and their Davidic king. Then they will submit to the Lord in fear and receive his blessings in the future.
Hosea 3:4-5 NET

How many days? It doesn't say. Again, there's a bias in many readers today to assume that "many days" means "a couple thousand years", but there's no justification. It could just as easily mean 20 years. The scope for what would constitute a valid fulfilment is huge. But in any case, this one cannot be used to predict the return of the Jews in the 20th century, because there is no Davidic king. So this one doesn't apply here.

Jeremiah
So I, the Lord, tell you not to be afraid, you descendants of Jacob, my servants. Do not be terrified, people of Israel. For I will rescue you and your descendants from a faraway land where you are captives. The descendants of Jacob will return to their land and enjoy peace. They will be secure and no one will terrify them. For I, the Lord, affirm that I will be with you and will rescue you. I will completely destroy all the nations where I scattered you. But I will not completely destroy you. I will indeed discipline you, but only in due measure. I will not allow you to go entirely unpunished.”
Jeremiah 30:10-11 NET

The context of these verses is that Israel (the northern 10 tribes) is already in captivity, as you can clearly see in the words, "I will rescue you and your descendants from a faraway land where you are captives". Unfortunately, those "descendants of Jacob" never did return to the land. I don't really see any wiggle room here. Read in its wider context, the chapter refers to Israel who is in captivity, Zion who is left desolate (due to conflicts with Egypt and Babylon), and then it goes on to talk about a restoration of Israel and Judah. We will see this same theme in Ezekiel later on. But Israel (the northern 10 tribes) later disappeared, most likely assimilating into surrounding nations. Any hope for Israel and Judah to be reunited would seem to be long gone, as far as I can tell.

Jeremiah 31 continues in much the same vein. This time it includes Judah in the prophecies of return, since some people from Judah were likely already taken captive to Babylon. See the chronology here. Rather than a specific prophecy about a future scattering and then a return 1900 years later, this appears to be a prophecy about Israel and (some of) Judah having been taken into captivity already and later being brought back together again. Again, Israel never returned, so I'm not sure how much one can say about this. It's also worth pointing out that if Judah had not returned either, I doubt very much we'd even be reading these prophecies today. They wouldn't have been preserved.

Jeremiah 32:36-38 makes it pretty clear the author is talking about the current exile to Babylon. This is written in the 10th year of Zedekiah, which puts it right before the third and final deportation to Babylon. Any attempt to make this about a future return in our times simply ignores the context of the chapter.

I have seen Jeremiah 33:7 quoted as well, which says "I will restore Judah and Israel and will rebuild them as they were in days of old." But again earlier verses give the context, and in this case they talk about, "the houses in this city and the royal buildings which have been torn down for defenses against the siege ramps and military incursions of the Babylonians". Current events for Jeremiah, not a future prediction for our times.

I will scatter them among nations that neither they nor their ancestors have known anything about.
Jeremiah 9:16 NET

This sounds interesting until you realise that verse 14 says this was punishment because they "have paid allegiance to the gods called Baal". So once again this is talking about the first exile, during Jeremiah's lifetime.

Some believers point to Jeremiah 3:16 as evidence of a prophecy saying that Israel's population would increase in the land. Here is the full quote, in its context:

I will take one of you from each town and two of you from each family group, and I will bring you back to Zion. I will give you leaders who will be faithful to me. They will lead you with knowledge and insight. In those days, your population will greatly increase in the land. At that time,” says the Lord, “people will no longer talk about having the ark that contains the Lord’s covenant with us. They will not call it to mind, remember it, or miss it. No, that will not be done any more! At that time the city of Jerusalem will be called the Lord’s throne. All nations will gather there in Jerusalem to honor the Lord’s name.
Jeremiah 3:14-17 NET

Where are the leaders that are faithful to God? Who is calling Jerusalem "the Lord's throne"? Still future perhaps?

Ezekiel

I will bring you out from the nations, and will gather you from the lands where you are scattered, with a powerful hand and an outstretched arm and with an outpouring of rage!
Ezekiel 20:34 NET

This one looks pretty good, until we keep reading...

I will bring you into the wilderness of the nations, and there I will enter into judgment with you face to face. Just as I entered into judgment with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so I will enter into judgment with you, declares the sovereign Lord. I will make you pass under the shepherd’s staff, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant. I will eliminate from among you the rebels and those who revolt against me. I will bring them out from the land where they have been residing, but they will not come to the land of Israel.
Ezekiel 20:35-38 NET

According to this prophecy, the Jews would not return directly to Israel, but would meet in the wilderness for divine judgement along the way. It's really difficult to match this up with what happened in 1948, or any time before or since. When and where was this gathering in the wilderness and the filtering of who would enter the land? It's easy to understand why the prediction was made. Judah had already been exiled to Babylon at this point. Ezekiel appears to have drawn inspiration from the Exodus story, hoping to encourage his fellow people that God would deliver them again in similar fashion.

Ezekiel 36 does indeed talk about Israel returning from captivity, but again this is in the context of a return from the captivity that Ezekiel is himself a part of. And just to rule out any modern day fulfilment, verse 8 tells us, "But you, mountains of Israel, will grow your branches, and bear your fruit for my people Israel; for they will arrive soon.". Of course, "soon" is open to some interpretation, but I think 2500 years may be stretching the credulity a little too far.

So perhaps Ezekiel 36 was fulfilled when captives returned from Babylon? Not so fast...

I will lead people, my people Israel, across you; they will possess you and you will become their inheritance. No longer will you bereave them of their children.
Ezekiel 36:12 NET

So now we come to Ezekiel 37, which is often used as the go-to prophecy about Israel's return to the land but in my opinion it is simply misunderstood and quoted incorrectly.

Look, I am about to take the Israelites from among the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from round about and bring them to their land.
Ezekiel 37:21 NET

For some reason, the following verses are not often quoted, but they do follow right on...

I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel, and one king will rule over them all. They will never again be two nations and never again be divided into two kingdoms. They will not defile themselves with their idols, their detestable things, and all their rebellious deeds. I will save them from all their unfaithfulness by which they sinned. I will purify them; they will become my people and I will become their God.
Ezekiel 37:22-23 NET

At best some might argue that this is still partially fulfilled and awaiting Jesus's return for its completion. But that still misses the point of the prophecy. Note that it says "I will make them one nation in the land" and "They will never again be two nations". Who is the "them" being referred to?

For that we need to read the context of the above verses. Ezekiel didn't start this section in verse 21. And when we read the whole section, the meaning changes.

The word of the Lord came to me: “As for you, son of man, take one branch, and write on it, ‘For Judah, and for the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another branch and write on it, ‘For Joseph, the branch of Ephraim and all the house of Israel associated with him.’ Join them as one stick; they will be as one in your hand. When your people say to you, ‘Will you not tell us what these things mean?’ tell them, ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I am about to take the branch of Joseph which is in the hand of Ephraim and the tribes of Israel associated with him, and I will place them on the stick of Judah, and make them into one stick—they will be one in my hand.’ The sticks you write on will be in your hand in front of them.
Ezekiel 37:15-20 NET

This is pretty clear to me. The point of verse 21 is that the two nations, Israel (here called Ephraim) and Judah, would once again be reunited in the land. Yes, it does talk about a return, but the whole point of the prophecy was that just as the two sticks became one, so Ephraim and Judah would also become one. And they would return to the way it used to be, with God as their king. This message is repeated over and over by several different prophets. There is no hint here of any prediction of events in modern times.

The simplest explanation is that what Christadelphians are saying about this prophecy, is not what Ezekiel meant when he wrote it. It's also not what Jeremiah meant, nor what Isaiah meant. Is it really good exegesis to lift these verses out of their original context, and pretend that they are predictions for events in our times? I suggest it is not.

Deutoronomy

I left Deutoronomy until the end because it requires a slightly different explanation than the others. The problem with the "prophecies" in Deutoronomy 28 and 30, is not in what was written, but when Christadelphians think it was written.

Put simply, most scholars believe the book was written and edited over a long period, around the time of King Josiah, with chapter 28 written during the Babylonian captivity, and chapters 1-4 and 29-30 being added after the return from exile. Thus neither chapter actually contains a prediction in the true sense.

New Testament

“But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. Those who are inside the city must depart. Those who are out in the country must not enter it, because these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing their babies in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led away as captives among all nations. Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
Luke 21:24 NET

There is general agreement among scholars that the gospel of Luke was written around 80-85CE, which is obviously after the events of 70CE, in which Jerusalem was besieged and conquered by the Roman army, led by Emperor Titus.

In any case, the prediction that the Jews would be "led away as captives among all nations" did not come to pass. There was no such captivity. Further, although many Jews fled to other nations, many also remained in Palestine.

As for the main quote used to point to a modern day fulfilment, it is basically saying that, "Jerusalem will be dominated by Gentiles, until it isn't". There is no hint that this is talking about events in the 20th century. In fact it could just as easily apply to other events too. The criteria is simply too broad to be meaningful.

Dual fulfilment?

Given the fact that many of the Old Testament prophecies so obviously refer to events in the author's own time period, some believers resort to saying that prophecies have a "dual fulfilment", meaning that there is a second fulfilment that is still in the future. However, as far as I am aware, there is no prophecy in the Bible where the author specifically says it will be fulfilled twice. I also doubt there is any prophecy in the Bible that specifically predicts an event thousands of years in the author's future. I just don't think this kind of prophecy interpretation is valid. It is almost certainly not what the prophecies were written for. The dual fulfilment idea appears to be an invention by believers.

Believers also attempt to substitute later nations for earlier ones, to avoid the conclusion that a prophecy might have failed. There is no justification for this practice either, and in fact it gets quite messy if the modern nation's borders do not line up. These appear to be ad-hoc methods designed to increase the number of ways that a prophecy might match up with world events.

But it fits!

What fits? Were any of the Old Testament predictions actually fulfilled in the 20th century?

Were the northern 10 and southern 2 tribes re-united at any point in history?

Where are the northern 10 tribes? If Israel and Judah were supposed to be re-united, why did only Judah survive?

In this article I have looked at most of the prophecies usually quoted in support of a modern fulfilment, but in every case I found that the prophet was almost certainly referring to his own time.

Where is the prophecy of a return of the Jews 1900-2500 years in the future?

Why would we even expect one? If you have to start with a prior assumption that the Bible was divinely inspired, why bother with prophecy?