The Coming Apocalypse and U.S. Foreign Policy on Israel

Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.

March 29, 2023

One section of new book Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says About the End explains some of the socio-political consequences of the belief that “the end is near.  Here’s a consequence that I bet is not widely known:  U.S. Foreign Policy on Israel.

In my book I emphatically state that I am not taking a stand on U.S. policy per se and certainly not on the Israeli-Palestinian issue itself.  I am interested purely in the historical question: why has the U.S. been (and still is) so invested in supporting Israel in particular?

This is how I explain it in the book (this will take two posts).


Modern Israel in Ancient Prophecy?

Many people – possibly most – hold some beliefs without knowing quite why.  Because of our upbringing, environment, and news sources, certain ideas just seem like common sense.  Those raised in families, communities, and churches that believe the United States needs to provide substantial support for Israel usually know some of the reasons: we need to promote stability in the Middle East, protect American oil interests in the region, and help those who have suffered centuries of oppression.  It is important to realize, however, that America’s concerns for Middle Eastern stability and oil are relatively recent.  American support of Israel was originally, and widely still is, in a certain way of reading the Bible, starting with Genesis “In the Beginning” and continuing to Revelation “At the End.”

Readers of the Bible have always seen the beginning and the end of human history as intimately connected.  Unlike historical scholars who see the Bible as sixty-six books written by different authors at different times with different points of view, these readers see the Bible as a single book with many parts that tightly cohere from start to finish.  It is, in effect, a single grand narrative of God’s working with the human race.  And that narrative has Israel at its center.

In the beginning God created Adam, but he and then his descendants were hopelessly disobedient, so God had to destroy them with a flood – all but Noah and his family.  Then humans started anew, but things still went horribly awry, and so God chose one man out of the whole human race, Abraham, and made a pact with him, “an everlasting covenant” – that is, an agreement that would never, ever end:  “I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:18)   Abraham became the father of the Jews, and this “eternal covenant” guaranteed the land of Canaan, today comprising Israel and the Palestinian Territories, to his descendants forever; they would be his chosen people and he would be their God.  Forever means forever.  If God favors Israel, followers of God must do so as well.

In this reading of the biblical narrative, even though God is on the side of the Jews as a people, he is not necessarily on the side of Jews as individuals.  That depends on obedience.  When individuals within Israel disobeyed God’s laws, he punished the nation; eventually the northern part of the kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians (721 BCE) to be followed a century and a half later by the southern part, destroyed by the Babylonians (586 BCE).   But God was faithful and he restored the southern half, Judah, now called “Judea” (home of the “Jews”), with Jerusalem its capital.   Even so, Jews continued to disobey, and when God sent them their messiah to provide salvation, they rejected him. God punished the nation not long after Jesus’ death.  The Romans conquered Jerusalem, burnt the temple, and sent Jews into exile, this time for over eighteen centuries.

But God remained faithful. He had promised the Jewish people the Land, and that promise was fulfilled recent times.  The Balfour Declaration of 1917 set the stage; the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was the fulfillment, predicted repeatedly by prophets over the centuries.  As the great prophet Isaiah declared:

On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.  (Isa. 11:11-12)

When read in its historical context, this passage is predicting a return of Israelites from exile after the Assyrian invasion of 721 BCE.  But for most evangelical readers, it is referring to modern history, to the Jews scattered throughout the nations in the centuries after the Roman destruction of Judea.  It is a prediction fulfilled in 1948.

So too the prophet Ezekiel predicts a return of Jews to the land:

They shall live in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, in which your ancestors lived; they and their children and their children’s children shall live there forever; and my servant David shall be their prince forever.  I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary among them forevermore.  (Ezek 37:25-26)

The patriarch “Jacob” (also known as “Israel”) was the grandson of Abraham; he had twelve sons from whom sprang the “twelve tribes of Israel.”  These tribes conquered the Promised Land centuries later, but they were driven from that land as punishment for their sins. Ezekiel insisted God would restore them.  And importantly, he would “set my sanctuary among them forevermore.”  Ezekiel is referring to things that would transpire in his own day, soon after the Babylonians conquered Judah, destroyed the temple, and sent many Jews into exile (586 BCE).   Ezekiel predicts this exile would end and that the sanctuary (that is, the Jerusalem temple) would be rebuilt.  As it was.   But evangelical readers can point out that Ezekiel indicates the sanctuary will stand “forevermore.”  The second temple built after Jews returned from exile in Babylon was destroyed 500 years later by the Romans.  And so, in the evangelical reading, the prophecy has not been fulfilled.  That must mean that it will be fulfilled in our own future.

Now it has started: the Jews have indeed returned to Israel, in fulfillment of prophecy, and they will remain there forevermore, even if that requires foreign assistance.  Soon the temple will be rebuilt, as Ezekiel clearly indicates.  This belief in the rebuilding of the temple is key to understanding evangelical support of Israel.

I’ll continue here in my next post.

Author: Richard L. Fricks

Former CPA, attorney, and lifelong wanderer. I'm now a full-time skeptic and part-time novelist. The rest of my time I spend biking, gardening, meditating, photographing, reading, writing, and encouraging others to adopt The Pencil Driven Life.

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