Book Review: Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land by Gerald McDermott

Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land by Gerald McDermott, Brazo Press, 2017. 176 pp. 978-1587433955

Towards the end of last year, I reviewed The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land. Therefore, I was eager to read Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land by theologian Gerald McDermott. Israel Matters is not a series of essays by various authors. Instead, this book is a reflection of McDermott’s journey and how he has wrestled with the role of Israel in the Bible and in the world today. It is important to note that this isn’t a book on the debate between Dispensational and Covenantal Theology. When it comes to why this topic is of the utmost importance to McDermott, in the introduction of the book,  he mentions a letter that was written to him:

“Some months back, a young Christian leader wrote to me about Israel. She is an intellectually curious, committed Christian who attended an elite Christian college. “I was raised in a conservative church,” she wrote, “and naively supported whatever Israel did. We were led to believe that God had given the land of Israel to his people, the Jews, and their fight for their land in 1948 was a religious act by a religious people looking to their God. “But then in college I read The Promise by Chaim Potok. As I read the novel, it seemed that Israel reclaimed the land not as a faith-filled people finding their God-given inheritance but as a people who, crushed and disillusioned by the Holocaust, decided they could not and would not wait any longer for a messiah. They felt they had to take the land for themselves, and they did it by violence. “So I have questioned whether that was right. Should the Jews have waited for the Messiah to return them to the land? Was their fight for the land perhaps turning their backs on God?”

This letter shows the overall confusion that plagues many Christians. When a Christian says they believe in the ongoing role of Israel in the Bible and that the land has a role today, they can be labeled as crazy Zionist and they get lumped in with all the prophecy gurus (John Hagee and the The Left Behind Series). The good news is that McDermott and others have identified the need for scholarly resources on this topic.

McDermott has studied the overall theme of the Bible and has come to realize the centrality and importance of Israel in God’s redemptive plan for humanity. In Chapter One, McDermott discusses the consequences of getting the Big Story Wrong. McDermott discusses the terms “Replacement Theology” and “Supersesionism.” He says:

“Supersessionism holds that all the promises that God made to Old Testament Israel are now (since the resurrection of Jesus) applied to the Christian Church. The promises were contingent on obedience to the covenant. Biblical Jews broke the terms of that covenant—both before Jesus came, by breaking God’s laws, and then after Jesus came, by refusing to accept him as their messiah. But since Jesus obeyed all of God’s law, and all believers in him are joined to him, his obedience is credited to them. So by virtue of his obedience and their inclusion in him, Christians receive the blessings of the covenant. They are members of the New Israel, which is his body, the Church. This is also called “replacement theology.” The Church replaced biblical Israel as the apple of God’s eye. God’s covenant with ancient Israel was replaced by Jesus’new covenant, which is made with all those who believe in him. The Church has replaced the Jews as the inheritors of all the biblical promises concerning Israel. When Christians read the Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of the people of Israel to the land of Israel, they should interpret those prophecies as referring to the Christian Church. The true meaning, according to this view, is that the Church will inherit the whole world in the age to come. All of those in the Church will be blessed, not just Jews. There will no longer be a distinction between Jews and gentiles among those who believe in Jesus, and there will be no land of Israel separate from the rest of the world. For the Church has replaced the ethnic people of Israel. And the little land of Israel has been replaced by a whole world. The Jews are no longer God’s people in any special way, and the land of Israel is like the land of any other country in the world—say, Uganda or Thailand.” -Pages 2-3

This chapter spoke to me. I have run into a lot of Christians who now refuse to hold to either “Replacement Theology” and “Supersesionism.” Instead, they now say they believe in what is called “Fulfillment Theology.” Unfortunately, the end result if the same. Jesus ends up fulfilling everything Israel was supposed to do. Hence, there is no role for Israel anymore. But that’s a long topic for another time. Anyway, McDermott goes onto trace the history of supersessionism in church history. This has always been related to a hermeneutical issue.

McDermott goes onto discuss the importance of the land in both Testaments and rightly notes that many have failed to see the ongoing role of the land in the teachings of Jesus and Paul. As he says:

“Jesus, they say, sent his disciples to all the world, not just to Israel. And he promised his disciples that if they would inherit land, it would be the whole world. After all, didn’t he say in his Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5)? Their argument goes like this: The Old Testament was about a particular land and a particular people. But the New Testament is about a savior for the whole world. No longer is God concerned with this tiny people and the little land of Israel. He is a big God who cares about the whole world. If he reserves any land at all for his people, it is the whole earth in the new heaven and new earth to come.” -Pages 55-56

As McDermott God points out, God can use the particular (a particular person or people) to bring blessing to the universal (the world). In the Old Testament, God uses a particular man (Abraham) and his people (the Jews) to bring blessing to their neighbors and to the world (the universal). But just because God uses the particular to bring blessing to the world, it doesn’t mean he then does away with the particular. McDermott rightly points out that Jesus didn’t come to bring a new religion (Christianity) that replaces Judaism. Granted, anyone that has kept up with scholarship that has focused on the Second Temple period (James Dunn, N.T. Wright, and others) have been saying the same thing. The first followers of Jesus were a sect of Judaism and they were one of several “Judaism’s” in the first century. Thus, is you were a Jew or Gentile in the first century and you came to follow Jesus, you were part of the Jewish world. Because of several historical, theological, and sociological factors, today, Christianity is totally separate religion that has very little do with Judaism. Because of this, many Christians view Judaism as about law and legalism, while Christianity is viewed as being about grace and love. But this is inaccurate. McDermott has come to realize this, and he does a fine job of pointing out the misconceptions Christians have about the Torah and the covenants.

McDermott also has a chapter called “What About the Palestinians?” I think this was a very important chapter. After all, many Christians assume if you can provide any scriptural support for the ongoing role of Israel in the Bible, you must not care about issues of justice and you must assume that present day Israel is spotless and can’t be criticized. But this is a strawman argument and as McDermott rightly says:

“What about the Palestinians? When I start talking about a new theology of Zionism, some eyes glaze over. Not that people don’t understand. The problem is that I’m scratching where they don’t itch. They might agree that the Bible promised the land to Abraham and his descendants. They might also agree that the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was little short of miraculous when, just a few years before, European Jews had been nearly eliminated by Hitler. In fact, they might even grant that this was a partial fulfillment of the biblical prophecies that Jews would return to their ancestral land. But they cannot follow the rest of my arguments because I am talking theology rather than justice. They are hung up on what they think is injustice. As the young woman in the introduction put it, what about the Palestinians? How can we think this is God’s doing when the Jews seem to have stolen land that rightly belonged to Palestinians? Over the course of more than twenty years, I have led twelve study trips to Israel for church folks and college students. On one of the first trips I asked a Palestinian attorney to address our group in Jerusalem. He was glad to be asked, and proceeded to stun our group with a series of allegations: that Jews stole the land from the Arabs; that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank violates international law; and that Zionism is basically secular, not religious, and in fact is racist. The worst thing, he said, was that conservative Christians support Israel unconditionally and turn a blind eye to its injustices toward Palestinians. The group was overwhelmed by these charges. Most of the accusations were new at that time (sixteen years ago) for most of the Christians.”- Pages 79-80

McDermott goes onto correct these misunderstandings and in my view, he offers a balanced view on the topic.

I think one of the biggest takeaways for me is when McDermott says the following:

“We Christians also need to be more humble when we talk with our Jewish friends. We gentiles did not have relatives die in the Holocaust. We should not be surprised if our Jewish neighbors fail to be warmed by words such as ‘Christian,’ ‘church,’ or ‘gospel,’ because those words remind them of the people in the most Christianized country in Europe who went to church on Sundays and killed Jews on Mondays. We should not be shocked that they cannot understand why Christians would worship a man, which they have been taught is idolatry. Instead, we should remember that our Savior was and is a Jew, and that according to the New Testament he still has a Jewish body in heaven” (Luke 2:21; Acts 1:9–11)”- Page 121

I am happy to endorse Israel Matters and it my prayer that many Christians will understand why Israel does matter to their theology and practice. To simply say “Well, Jesus has come and all that matters is you have him in your heart” leads to a reductionist view of salvation and ignores the entire Bible narrative.