The decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again reached a boiling point—with the increasing escalation of violence and aggression between Hamas and Israeli forces.
On Saturday morning the October 7, the last day of the Jewish high holidays, chaos broke out when Hamas—the Islamist terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip—began launching thousands of rockets toward southern Israel. Hamas militants simultaneously broke out of Palestinian territory and began invading Israel using motorcycles, boats, pickup trucks and paragliders, murdering some civilians and taking others hostage. In other words, the conflict began not with Hamas attacking strategic locations of the Israeli military—but with unthinkable war crimes. At 11:30 am, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly announced, “Israel is at war”. Israeli forces retaliated soon after with a counteroffensive named “Operation Iron Swords”. On October 9, the Israeli army blockaded the Gaza Strip from electricity, food and water. At the time of writing, more than 1,200 Israelis and 1,100 militants and citizens in Gaza have died and more than 5,000 have been wounded. Egypt is being pressured to accept Palestinian refugees and establish a safe corridor through which they can leave the Gaza Strip.
The images and videos emerging online are horrifying: a young mother with two little daughters taken as hostages; young people massacred while attending a music festival to celebrate peace; civilians covered in blood with their hands tied behind their backs; terrorists holding up a naked German woman on the back of a pickup truck; and reports of babies and children being slaughtered.
The violence and loss of life here is not only a potentially concerning sign of escalation—it is a tragedy. Unfortunately, this is not a conflict that Christians have consistently worked to resolve. There is a movement known as “Christian Zionism” (or evangelical Zionism) which has worked to promote the sovereignty of the Jewish nation of Israel and their right to the land Palestine contests ownership of. This will no doubt become more of a topic of conversation in the unfolding weeks and months. Already some notable public figures have expressed support for Israel, with others waving the Palestinian flag. Much of the international conflict has come from Israeli soldiers’ treatment of Palestinians, especially those living in the occupied West Bank. The West Bank is administered by Israel today, in an uneasy treaty between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Though, that was not always the case. Annexed by Jordan in 1950 following the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, it remained Jordanian until 1967, when it was occupied by Israel following the Six-Day War. This has led to international sympathy for the Arab States, but particilarly the Palestinian people living in both the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Popularised by the “Free Palestine” protests seen around the world, the global community has had its eyes on the Middle East for some time. The discourse between those who support the nation of Israel and those who see the West Bank as occupied Palestinian territory has not been civil. Fundamentally, the conflict is between Palestinians who have occupied the region for centuries following the dissolution of the nation of Israel, and those who were granted a true Jewish state in 1948 follwing the horrors of World War II. Both Jews and Palestinians recognise the region as their national home and, coupled together with ethnic hostility between both groups, conflict was always an inevitability.
But, setting aside that complicated situation for the moment, let’s focus on how Christian Zionism—particluarly Evangelical Christians in the United States—features in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
Zionism is no longer just an issue for Christians or Jews. Post-doctoral associate at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, Walker Robins, wrote, “As President Trump’s December  announcement on [moving the national embassy to] Jerusalem showed, the American Christian relationship with Israel is more than a matter of idle curiosity—it is a matter of real consequence.” In a similar fashion, Daniel Hummel, Ash Center History and Public Policy Fellow, notes that the Christian Zionist movement is an increasingly global one—no longer tied specifically to American Christianity. Christians all around the world base their support of Israel on a specific interpretation of the Bible. But is this interpretation accurate?
Considering the real consequences currently being experienced in the region, it is more important than ever that our discussion of the matter is based on sound theology and a genuine interpretation of the Bible. In this article, we will examine some of these interpretations to figure out the truth of the matter. What this article will not be doing is serving as a referendum over the status of Israel as a nation, or who rightfully owns the land which is so hotly contested. Nor will it be an endorsement of either the Israeli government, Hamas or the Palestine Liberation Organization. We want to see a peaceful solution to the problem and an end to the escalating violence. However, we also understand that the situation is extremely complicated, with decades of history and no easy path for resolution in the near future. International law will no doubt look unfavourably on both Tel Aviv and Gaza in the future.
God’s Promised Land
Some of the key passages often used in Christian Zionist thought come from early Genesis: when God promises the land that now makes up Israel and Palestine to Abraham and his descendants. One verse is Genesis 12:7 states “The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring [or seed] I will give this land.’” Christians who believe in the divine sovereignty of the Jewish nation point to this verse, claiming a literal interpretation of this promise as gifting that land to Abraham’s offspring all the way to the present. They maintain that even after Jesus came and created a new covenant with mankind that this promise remains. But is this what the verse really means?
No, it isn’t—at least not according to Paul. In Galatians 3:16 Paul writes: “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” If we understand Paul correctly, this promise was never specifically about the promise of land to the Jewish people but to Jesus, who serves as the fulfiller of the promises. It is through Jesus that God’s promises to Abraham a fulfilled and through which Judaism and its followers can attain the promises. In this way, the verse is not about a specific piece of land, but the entirety of the world that is under the domain of Jesus.
Another key aspect of Christian Zionism is the belief that the nation of Israel exists as “God’s Timepiece” and it must be gathered in the promised land before the second coming. Founder of Christians United for Israel John Hagee sums this up like so: “God has a set time to do everything, and Israel is God’s prophetic clock for doing it. Recognize this fact: that God’s clock only moves when the Jewish people are in the land of Israel, and when they are in the land, the clock starts ticking.”
This belief is based on a couple of passages. The first is Romans 11:25–27, which is also from Paul. In it he states, “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins’.” The writing this verse refers to comes from the prophet Jeremiah who wrote “’But I will make a new covenant with the whole nation of Israel after I plant them back in the land,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people’” (Jeremiah 31:33).
When combined, some Christian Zionists state that these verses refer to the current state of Israel as part of these prophecies—the nation of Israel is a fulfilment of the prophecy of Jeremiah, and this nation will be an important part in the second coming of Jesus. This is further supported by Revelation 11 which describes a select number of Jews converting to Christianity at the end times. For believers of this rhetoric, the three verses describe a necessary precondition to Jesus’ return: the nation of Israel will return to the land promised to them which will be followed by the conversion of some of the Jews there—after which Jesus will return.
Not only does this interpretation once again rely on a literal understanding of God’s promise of the land for Israel (which we have established is referencing Jesus), it also runs the risk of misrepresenting the relationship between Israel and Judaism, and Christianity. The verses cited by Zionists paint the Jewish nation as distinct from Christianity with a separate course of salvation. This not only runs the risk of othering Judaism in a potentially antisemitic manner, but it diminishes the importance of Judaism in establishing the Christian faith and the early church. To learn more about finding peace in conflict, check out this article.
(Credit: Taylor Brandon, Unsplash)
A common metaphor for the Jewish people in the Bible is that of a vineyard. In the verses preceding this, Paul uses this metaphor to address the relationship, comparing Christianity to a grafted branch in the vineyard: “Now if the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among them and participated in the richness of the olive root, do not boast over the branches. But if you boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you” (Romans 11:17-18). The message here is clear: Christianity could not exist without Judaism. We must acknowledge and respect the faith of our predecessors, even if some of them have since diverged in faith. Attacks against Judaism or anti-semitic ideas should not be tolerated as Paul explicates later. Instead of viewing Israel as a “timepiece” to accelerate the second coming, we should understand the key role Judaism plays in many aspects of Christian faith.
Finally, there is a danger in attempting to predict prophecy so specifically through modern events. When speaking about the second coming, it is written that Jesus will be “like a thief in the night” and that “nobody knows the day or the hour”. Quite a contrast to the view of Israel as a timepiece to help predict his return. Many of the prophecies in the Bible discuss events hundreds or thousands of years in advance—assuming that we can use them to pinpoint specific events is potentially problematic.
We can see through these examples that the Christian Zionism is not supported by an exegetical reading of the Bible (a reading which critically examines the context and meaning of the verses). That being said, just because this belief is not supported by the bible, does not justify anti-Semitism or persecution of Jewish people. Nor does it validate their claims to ownership of the land in and around Jerusalem.
What it does do however, is highlight the complexity of the situation. As violence and unrest continues to unfold in Israel, it is important to understand that we cannot understand through a simple interpretation of Bible verses. It requires empathy and understanding for those who are struggling. We cannot expect a simple solution to present itself and nor does the Bible provide one. If you’d like to learn more about Bible prophecy and Armageddon, click here.
Ryan Stanton is a PhD student studying media and communications at the University of Sydney.