Israel: Election & Identity
The Hebrew name Yisrael (H3478) means "to strive for/with God" or "God strives." It first appears 32 chapters into Genesis when Jacob son of Isaac literally wrestled with God's messenger and overpowered him. However, Jacob received a permanent injury to his hip. "So he said to him, 'What is your name?' And he said, 'Jacob.' Then the man said, 'You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed" (vv. 32:27-28). Moses further explained, "Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle" (Gen. 32:32). The story of how God renamed Jacob "Israel" was repeated at Gen. 35:
God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and he blessed him. God said to him, "Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name." So he was called Israel. God said to him, "I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you" (vv. 9-12).
Israel in the Old Testament
So, why is this narrative so important? Because it tells how God elected the Hebrews to become the nation of Israel—a nation that strives for God. He rescued them from Egyptian slavery to sojourn into the territory of Canaan, where the Hebrews would live at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and Africa. God wanted the ancient Israelites to be on the world stage, and the modern Israelis still are today. From the land of Israel, the Hebrews would be a "light to the nations" (cf. Isa. 49:6). This was the reason God chose Jacob to be "Israel," whose twelve sons would go on to lead as the twelve tribes of Israel, the nation of God's elect (cf. Gen. 49:28). Nevertheless, Israel is not just the name of some ancient country or the embattled State of Israel today. No, it is more: It is the name of God's chosen people throughout the world, first to the Jew and then to us gentiles (cf. Rom. 1:16). Most of all, the very identity of Israel is Jesus, who epitomizes the human striving for and with God.
Israel in the New Testament
In his letter to the Romans, Paul of Tarsus very much identified with his Jewish heritage:
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but "It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you." This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants (vv. 9:1-8).
Paul also wrote explicitly about the Jews' current standing with God. Notice how Paul, the standard of New Testament biblical theology, used the name "Israel" in the present tense about the Jews:
I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. . . . I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved. . . . As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:1-2a, 25b-26a, 28-29).
Though replacement theology, also known as supersessionism, has been the normative doctrine in modern Christendom, it violates the internal message of the New Testament. Replacement theologians and supersessionists believe the church replaced or superseded the Jewish people as God's chosen people Israel. However, Paul testified that Christian gentiles are simply ingrafted branches into Israel's family tree (cf. Rom. 11:16-24). Their olive tree was never cut down or replaced by another one. The tree of Israel still stands today, populated both by faithful Jews and by gentiles who believe in their Messiah.
Two questions arise when Christians discuss God's election of Israel: 1) Why would God choose one nation over another? 2) Why did God choose the Hebrews, especially when they were unfaithful and denied Jesus as their Messiah? If we recall the prophet Hosea, God never divorced Israel as his chosen. Instead, he looked forward to a time when the Israelites would think about the consequences of their actions, repent, and then reconcile with him (cf. Hos. 2). The prophet Isaiah wrote: "The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (61:1-2a). Jesus himself read this passage in his hometown Nazareth synagogue, which angered his fellow Jews to the point of murder (cf. Luke 4:16-30). Why were these Israelites so offended when they were supposed to be waiting for God's favor? Because they knew Jesus was claiming to be all the one and same Messiah and very identity of Israel himself. We know Jesus as the King of kings and the Lord of lords, but he is also the Jew of all Jews, the Israelite of all Israelites, and the Human Being of all human beings. When God elected Israel to be his chosen nation, he made a sovereign choice knowing that sin enslaves our own free will (cf. Rom. 8:7-8). However, God also intended for Israel to show the entire world how to strive for him. In fact, when he saw the Israelites fail over and over again, he resolved to save the world through Jesus' atonement and resurrection.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, for you manifested your love by sending your only-begotten Son into the world, that all might live through him: Pour out your Spirit on your church, that we may fulfill his command to preach the gospel to all people. Send forth laborers into your harvest; defend them in all dangers and temptations; and hasten the time when the fullness of the gentiles shall be gathered in, and faithful Israel shall be saved; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
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