October 31, 2008

Israel-- fulfillment of Prophecy?

[Warning to readers: This essay is not for the casual reader looking for a little, light-weight entertainment. This one will require some homework-- some Bible reading-- but I promise it will reward you with thought-provoking insights. - JK]

"The establishment of the nation of Israel is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and the very essence of its fulfillment." -- Former US president Jimmy Carter

"The Bible tells us that in the End Times the Jews will have renewed their animal sacrifice." (Common belief of dispensationalists/evangelicals/fundamentalists, etc.)

As the world teeters forward on the rocky track of time, it appears that one small nation manages to consume an inordinate amount of global attention, and exert a disproportionate amount of influence over world affairs. It's indicative that most erudite readers already know what I'm referring to-- the nation of Israel. How has that situation come to be? And what is its significance?

The view that has become entrenched in so-called Christian circles (at least, among a number of 'evangelical' and fundamentalist churches) is that expressed by ex-president Carter, that the Bible predicts the re-establishment of Israel, and as others assert, that a third temple will be built so that animal sacrifices (as described in Leviticus) can resume. There was great furor among those sects after WW-II when a new Jewish homeland was proclaimed in Palestine, and called itself Israel. So, it appears that the first part of 'Biblical prophecy' has been fulfilled, leaving two pieces left (the temple, and animal sacrifices). But the question must be asked: are the fundamentalist claims correct? Are we seeing the fulfillment of Biblical prophecies? My answer (to give you immediate gratification) is 'yes... and no!' Now I will explain this conundrum.

First, we have to go to the scriptures and see if the re-establishment of Israel is, in fact, predicted. By way of background (and to repeat what I've written in numerous other essays) you have to be aware that the people who were the biological descendents of a man called Jacob-- later, renamed Israel-- became a very large 'nation,' divided into twelve tribes, named after Jacob's 12 sons. They split into two separate entities almost 1000 years before Jesus came along, one called Israel (composed of ten tribes), and the other called Judah (two tribes). Around 722 BC, the Assyrians conquered Israel, and carried away the populace, who became dispersed among the nations, and disappeared from history. Centuries went by, until the time when Jesus was born in the land of Judah. He predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the 'desolation' of the temple that Herod had (re)built, and that had become a symbol of the Jewish religion, and rallying point for national cohesion. Jesus' prophecy was fulfilled within the lifespan of many of his contemporaries, in 70 AD, when the Roman general, Titus, took the city, and the temple was destroyed. The Jews who survived the terrible siege and war, were dispersed. This time, they were careful to retain their religio-cultural identity, via their scriptures and customs. But Judah, the nation, disappeared into the abyss of history.

Yet, the prophets of the 'Tenach' (what Christians call the Old Testament) made some predictions that apparently indicate that 'Israel' would one day be restored. (Refer to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, etc.). There are a couple of problems with these prophecies, however. First, most were uttered before the Babylonian captivity of the Jews (ca. 587 BC); thus, the verses actually refer to the restoration of the Jewish nation of Judah, and of its temple, that followed, 70 years later. Second, the promises of God to the children of Israel were phrased in conditional terms; ie. they would gain certain blessings IF they fulfilled the terms specified in their covenant with God, and conversely, would receive great punishments if they failed to live up to the conditions. (See Lev 26, and Deut 28). The fate of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC demonstrated the consequences of disloyalty to God, while the restoration from Babylon might be seen as due to Daniel's fervent confession on behalf of his people's failures (see ch. 9).

So, that is the 'no' part of my response above. If you examine the prophecies that supposedly proclaim the restoration of Israel, you will find that the conditions described by the prophets do not, in fact, prevail. That is, the establishment of 'Israel' in 1948 does not fulfill the prophecies in the Old Testament of a (then) future restoration of Israel. Bear with me-- there is much more to the saga!


And what about the re-institution of animal sacrifices... where do the fundamentalists get this picture? As far as I can determine, there is only one scripture in the Bible's many pages where they draw this inference, and that is from the much-maligned prophecy of Daniel 9, specifically verse 27, which states:

"And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate."

This is the verse that the 'premillennialists' build their whole theology upon, and that I can, I believe, demonstrate clearly to be completely erroneous. However, before I get into exegesis, the thing for the reader to notice is that the 'he' that is referred to in the verse will put a stop to sacrifice. The 'rapturists' speculate that this is 'Antichrist' who will stop sacrifices, and therefore, they reason, there must be a temple in place for these sacrifices to be conducted before 'Mr. A' terminates them! Marvellous logic, this; and the legacy inherited from John Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible built around Darby's novel but unsustainable ideas.

What should be definitive for any true Christian is what Jesus has to say. Jesus clearly predicted the destruction of the great temple... and said absolutely NOTHING concerning a restoration of either Jerusalem or the temple, despite providing a lengthy description of the 'end of the age' (in Matthew 24). Yet the American evangelicals are quite happy to apply reverse logic to one, single, OT prophecy, and build an elaborate (and damaging) far-reaching eschatology around it! What kind of sense does that make?

What I've done is put the exegetical arguments into an appendix, so that the interested reader with some Biblical background can study it, and realize that the evangelicals are completely befuddled in their end-times speculations. To those who are willing to accept my prima facie evidence that the rebuilt temple theory is nonsense, we can proceed with the original enquiry.

Having answered 'no' to the question does the Bible predict a restoration of the temple in Jerusalem, we now have to deal with the reality that (brace yourself) the Bible does predict the restoration of Israel... but not at all in the manner most people blithely assume. Here's where the homework comes in, and where you'll really need to keep an open, unbiased mind. You see, we are finally going to delve into that 'mysterious' book of Revelation, the one that is so abused by the evangelicals and the cheap purveyors of 'dispen-sensational' end-times scenarios replete with 'Antichrist,' '666,' the 'tribulation,' the rapture, and so on. Almost all of that is rubbish! However, your first assignment is to read the book of Revelation, and then to study chapters 13 and 17, in particular. [You can bookmark this essay, do your homework, and then return to this point.]

I'm now advising that after reading the book of Revelation, that you read my 'Revelation Revisited' (Part 1) on chapters 13 and 17, here in this website. After receiving a great deal of rather bizarre imagery, John (the 'Revelator') is finally told in chapter 17 the meanings of the various symbolic characters that populate his visions. You too, cher lecteur, should understand the supplied meanings after you've read (and re-read) the two chapters analyzed in the cited essay. By way of summarizing that article, the two chapters (Rev 13 & 17) describe a nation ('beast') that received a fatal blow at a point in history prior to the supplied revelation (given ca. 90 AD, according to reputable scholars) and that, at some time close to the end of the age, seems to miraculously revive. The text cautions that the restored nation is really in some 'new' form, and exercises the authority of 'the Dragon' (a satanic spirit). My essay demonstrates how this nation that 'once was, is not, and will come again' is none other than modern 'Israel,' since it perfectly fits all the clues encoded in the biblical text.

Conclusions:

So, you can see-- clearly, if you diligently did your homework-- that Israel is, indeed, prophesied to reappear out of the abyss of history onto the end-times, world scene. But, again clearly, not the way that the evangelicals expect! Far from it; modern Israel is a key player in the final rebellion of fallen humanity against the God of creation. This is the 'yes' portion of my bipolar reply to the original question about Israel's re-establishment.

Just as predicted in the book of Daniel (ch. 2) written some 600 years before Christ, the 'Biblical nations' have reappeared on the world political scene, in time for the momentous events of the 'end of the age.' Thus, we have Egypt, Greece, Persia (Iran), Babylon (Iraq), Assyria (Syria), Rome (the European Union), and 'Israel'... all ready to be crushed by the rock cut without hands (vs. 45). Truly, we are living in interesting times!

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Appendix:

Does the Bible support the notion of animal sacrifices in a rebuilt temple?

The first thing the evangelicals must do to fabricate this bizarre theory is find scriptures that state that the temple exists in the 'latter days.' If they can do this, they assume that the sacrificial system will be re-instituted because their Jewish counterparts are busy trying to obtain 'red heifers' as kosher sacrifices... and plotting to destroy the al-Aqsa mosque presently sitting on the 'temple mount.' The problem is that there is no such text in the Bible. Darby (and many others) misread Daniel's famous verses, 9:24-27, and came to a conclusion they seem to have had in mind before their exegesis. Here's how they blow it.

Daniel ch. 9
Text (from NASB)
Paraphrase & Comments
24 "Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. 70 'sevens' (symbolic years) = 490 yrs are prophesied for the Jews & Jerusalem until the spiritual goals listed are achieved... & the given prophetic vision is fulfilled. (And once fulfilled, the vision is 'sealed,' completed.)
25 "So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. 'So you are to understand that from the decree to restore & rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah, God's Prince, there will be 7 sevens and (another) 62 sevens; it (Jerusalem) will be rebuilt during a period of trouble.'
26 "Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and have nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary And its end will come with a flood; even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined. 'Then, after the 62 sevens, the Messiah will be killed leaving nothing tangible, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city & the sanctuary [of the temple]. Its end will come swiftly; right up to the end there will be war, and bleak outcomes are predicted.'
27 "And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate." 'He (Messiah) will make a firm (ultimate) covenant with humanity for 7 years, but in the middle of that time he (Messiah) will put a stop to sacrifices & grain offering. Then (another) one will come who is pagan, and who desecrates (the temple), until a complete destruction that is inevitable, is dispensed on the person who brought this desolation.
Analysis

Now look, it's not a big mystery: the text is clearly talking about two people, two 'princes' here-- Jesus, the Messiah, versus 'the prince who is to come.' The Darby camp argues that the verse is just referring to one person, the Antichrist. All we have to do is check the record of history, because Daniel's vision was to last for 490 years. (The 'sevens' are translated as 'weeks' but are understood by all scholars to stand for periods of years. Thus, 'seventy sevens' equal 490 years). Jerusalem was, indeed, rebuilt over a reported 49 years ('seven weeks', per vs 25) and with much resistance from the surrounding nations, as described in the book of Ezra. It is well known that Jesus appeared right on schedule, at the start of his ministry, 483 years after Daniel's prophetic starting mark. In fact, Jesus began his ministry with the words 'The time is fulfilled' (Mark 1:15). He knew he was fulfilling Daniel's messianic prophecy!

It is widely agreed that the 'issuing of a decree' occurred in 457BC. Now, 49 yrs + [62 X 7 = 434] yrs, giving us 483 years; and - 457 + 483 brings us to the year 27 AD, considered the start of Jesus' ministry. Three and a half years after the completion of the 69 weeks, Jesus was executed, having apparently nothing, not even disciples.

Now, it's in verse 27 that the neo-Darbyites make their fatal error. All Christians should know that Jesus con-firm-ed the 'eternal covenant' which is available to all mankind, and that he was crucified after 3 and a half years of ministry. The book of Acts describes how Stephen was stoned, 3 and a half years after Jesus' death, marking the end of the final (70th) seven year 'week' of verse 27, and the end of the full 490 years. Note that it's Jesus who put a stop to sacrifices, for he provided the perfect sacrifice 'once and for all' (Heb 10:10). A reading of Hebrews (chapters 7-10, especially) demonstrates conclusively that there is no longer any need for any kind of humanly devised sacrifices. It's the other prince, the pagan Roman, who first 'desolated' the temple by barging into the Holy Place, and particularly, the 'Most Holy Place,' where not even Jews, but only their High Priest was allowed to go (and only once per year). Then his troops destroyed the building itself, although as prophesied, he himself later ended up defeated and killed, after becoming Roman emperor. Note that the Roman legions often used a 'wing' symbol on their military 'standards' or flags. And note, too, that Titus was the son of the Emperor Vespasian, thus, a prince. Daniel 9:24 assures us that the vision was going to be fulfilled and sealed within the purview of the three prophetic verses. For anyone to arbitrarily decide to insert a parenthetic interval of some 2,000 years between week 69 and week 70 of the prophecy makes absolutely no sense, especially since all aspects of the verses are fulfilled precisely as recorded!

Conclusions

Not only has a straightforward analysis of the text demolished the notion of renewed sacrifices in a rebuilt temple, but it also does away with the whole fantastic movie plot of a certain 'Antichrist' making an agreement with the Jews, a subsequent rebuilding of the temple, and then his reneging and stopping the renewed sacrifices in the middle of a seven-year period. The seven year period came and went, about 2,000 years ago! Millions of naive church-goers are going to be completely open to confusion and disappointment, and manipulation, when their long-sought scenario never unfolds..

Ogre God vs. Gentle Jesus?

[This essay is based on the idea that Jesus' understanding of the OT must be the key to unraveling the apparent conflict between his teachings and those of the Mosaic era.]

It's a curious thing that when we read the stories of the Torah (the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament) most people see a God of wrath and vengeance, a divine tyrant, not to be trifled with. Yet, in the New Testament, when Jesus taught, he spoke of God as Father (or 'Abba', an even more familiar title) and urged his followers to do likewise. Are we missing something? Did Jesus know something we don't? Is God an ogre, or is there more to the story?

It appears that Jesus was well aware that there were parts of the Judaic scriptures, especially, the Torah, that were misunderstood, even misused, over the centuries up to his day. In numerous places, he corrects the misapprehensions of his Jewish listeners, and, naturally, can only use quotations from their holy writ to illustrate his case.

The most notable occasion was the Sermon on the Mount (Mat 5) in which he explicitly tells his audience, in effect, 'The Law of Moses says this, but now I'm telling you what the actual intent behind the words really is.' In each example he cites, the spiritual intent of the written law goes far beyond the superficial meaning of the words. E.g. It states 'Thou shalt not kill,' but it really means you should not do anything to bring harm of any kind to another person. While some zealots think that what Jesus was doing was simply raising the performance bar for all disciples, the truth is far more transcendent. Jesus was demonstrating that the intent behind all law is so high that in reality, no human can possibly attain to it! Are we to just give up, then? No; by no means! What the neophyte Christian comes to understand is that only one human could ever live up to the holy, divine standard-- and his name is Jesus. And importantly, each one of us can partake, vicariously, in his perfect life (and have it ascribed to our record) by entering into covenant relationship with Christ. We do that by believing in him, and accepting him as our 'Lord and savior,' which is symbolically attested to thru baptism. What most preachers fail to teach from the Sermon on the Mount is how Jesus concluded it, by enunciating the 'Golden Rule,' and openly stating that it encapsulates the 'Law and the Prophets' (see Matt 7:12).

Jesus acknowledged the harshness of the Mosaic Law, for example, when he taught "Moses' Law says 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth;' but I tell you if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other." No scholar advises that this is to be taken literally, but the spiritual intent is not obvious. I think Jesus wants his followers to forget about exacting revenge; instead, look for peaceful ways to defuse the situation. But, it does appear that he is contradicting the scriptures. What Jesus was trying to do is (as we say today) raise the consciousness of his listeners; to move them beyond the old mentality of equal retribution, to a higher road. And there's little doubt, he was in fact indicating that the Mosaic system was intended for that particular time for the Israelites in their particular circumstances of the day. God cut them some slack, in other words; but it was not an eternal or universal covenant.

Daniel's prophecy of 9:24 gives the life-span of the old system, from Daniel's day. ["Seventy 'sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.] As scholars know, it outlines 490 years ('seventy sevens') remaining before a number of spiritual goals were to be accomplished. Other verses disclose that they would be achieved by 'the Anointed One,' the Messiah to come. Precisely on schedule, Jesus appeared, and in his three and a half year ministry, completed the mission prophesied in Dan 9:24. In accomplishing these goals, Jesus fulfilled all the prophecy and foreshadowing of the previous 13 centuries from Moses (see Matt 11:13), and introduced a new system, one based on mature, spiritual relationship, not on legalistic adherence to rules.

Yet, he demonstrated to his listeners, friend and critic alike, that the essence of his new system was, in fact, to be found back in the Torah. For example, when the lawyer challenged Jesus, 'which is the greatest commandment?' (which sure sounds like a childish question typical of the average church member), his answer was drawn right from the books of Moses (Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18). Another time, the Pharisees accused his followers of 'gathering food on the Sabbath,' and he responded with a story from David, where the King and his men ate the 'show-bread' from the temple, against ritual law. Jesus' point (which religionists today would do well to heed) was that in any case of human need or charity, the existence of ritual, prohibiting laws is never to take precedence. The same principle was drilled home when he was accused of healing on the Sabbath, and he pointed out that they don't hesitate to pull an animal out of a ditch on Sabbath, so why can't someone heal a human on Sabbath?

Everywhere, Jesus was trying to get his dull hearers to understand that God is not a tyrant, out to get people by throwing the book at them over any breach of the letter of the law. That is what I call good news! (The gospel). Sadly, most people didn't get it, back then in his day; and neither do they get it even in today's churches. Most people are like the group who approached Jesus (in John 6:28-29) and asked what should we do to do what God wants? That's what we like: just tell us what to do, and we'll do it. Jesus' reply was (too) simple: believe in God and the one He sent! Apparently, In Jesus' mind, he didn't see an angry, vengeful God in the scriptures-- so why should we?

So, the mental picture we have of the God in the OT as a mean-spirited, omnipotent grinch has to be adjusted to accord with the portrait painted by Jesus in the NT. We don't fully understand how God was dealing with His chosen people of those ancient times, when they progressed from an extended family clan living under Egyptian law, to a 'nation' in need of a constitution as they were led toward a homeland. He had to give them a 'package' of civil, health, moral, and spiritual guidelines. We don't know with certainty where God's laws end and where Moses' interpretations and codicils begin. As we see, Jesus doesn't focus at all on the prohibitions listed at length in Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Instead, he finds the little gems that encapsulate the essence of Godly living.

For Christians, it is not productive to focus on the old stories of the Israelites invading and capturing their promised land by the edge of the sword and the spilling of much blood. The original promise of God was that His people would NOT have to fight to take their homeland, because God would drive out the existing inhabitants. But, the Israelites couldn't 'buy it,' and they took matters into their own hands, battling their way into Canaan by force of arms. Rather than abandon these willful rebels, God altered His plan, and went along with the bloody program, that ended up taking 40 years to complete. Some 13 centuries later, Jesus came along to institute a spiritual revolution, a paradigm shift as we'd label it. The whole, 'sub-optimal' program based on the Law of Moses, and specific to the descendents of Jacob/Israel, was to be superceded with the original covenant that was made with (actually, for) Abraham, almost 2,000 years before Christ. That covenant was based not on works, rules, and temple sacrifices, but on simple faith in God. ('Abraham believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.') Abraham, and many after him, enjoyed the benefits of that covenant, but it was only ratified ('confirmed' as per Dan 9:27) when Jesus did the work outlined in Daniel 9:24. Looking at the whole span of existent holy scripture, we can see how stunningly integral it really is. The eternal covenant is inaugurated with Abraham, implied in the Sinai, temple/sacrificial system, prophesied by the prophets, especially Daniel, and then finally confirmed by the Anointed One. It's truly amazing! The full cycle took roughly 2,000 years; and here we are, some 2,000 years after the fulfillment by Christ, awaiting his promised return. And yet, many ostensible Christians are trying to live life by looking in the rear-view mirror, convinced they are bound by the Law of Moses, and hence, still looking over their shoulder for the angry God who's seeking to throw that old book of the law at them. Worse still, those whose understanding ends with the Old Testament books, seem to believe that if Israel of old could get what they want by force, waging war, then it must be expedient today to gain what we want by force. Hence, the American evangelicals are manipulated by fast-talking preachers into supporting US and Israeli aggression in foreign affairs on the basis of 'hastening the hand of God,' or implementing God's promises on His behalf! It boggles the rational, Christian mind. Truly sad.