Israel is a name that was used 2,431 times in the Bible. It is used in 34 of the 39 books of the Old Testament and 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. It’s obviously an important name. Yet who is Israel, or what is it? How is it the most important word in the Bible?
The primary thread of the Bible is the redemption of humanity. The first three chapters of Genesis recount the creation and fall of mankind. The remainder of the Scripture deals mainly with the narrative of our salvation, and Israel is at the core of the narrative.
Those that are associated with that name are the people of God, chosen for a reason. So that’s what Israel really means: God’s people.
MEANING OF ISRAEL
Israel is the Jewish name of Yisra’el, which means that God contends, or one who struggles with God.
God gave this name to Abraham’s grandson Jacob after he spent the night wrestling with God (Genesis 32:28). Later, Israel is the name given to the children of Jacob and the nation that they ultimately form.
SIGNIFICANCE OF ISRAEL: THE PEOPLE OF GOD
Israel is not just an extended family that turned out to be a nation. This didn’t make them different in any way. Many other nations have similar ethnic origins. And many of them could have told similar stories of oppression and prosperity.
What made Israel special is that God used them to advance his redemption plan for the human race. This plan began with a man called Abraham. God did not call Abraham because he was bigger or smarter or wealthier than any other person in his days. What differentiated Abraham from the rest of the people was that he responded to God, trusted him, and was faithful and obedient.
God furthered his redemption plan by calling the people, the descendants of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. When God called Israel, it wasn’t because they were strong people, rich people, or even people who worshiped him. Israel wasn’t even a nation yet, but slaves in the land of Egypt.
But God did have a purpose for Israel. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt; At Mt Sinai, he made a covenant with them. In this covenant, he vowed to be their Father if only they would obey him. God brought them to a land that was already populated and allowed them to claim it. God taught them how to worship, live in a culture, and be holy people.
And God did this, not that they were worthy of it in any way. They were far from honest, as they have proven time and time again.
GOD’S PURPOSE FOR ISRAEL
God had a plan for Israel, then. But what was the plan? What was his intention in taking the people away from slavery and making a country out of them? But they continued in their rebellious nature for hundreds of years
I believe that if you go back to God’s encounter with Israel at Mt Sinai, you will find an answer to that question. In Exodus 19:5-6, we find God’s invitation to Israel to join him: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
God’s plan, if Israel agreed, was to make them a kingdom of priests — a holy nation. They will have the task of representing the nations to God and God to the nations. They were the people that God planned to use to advance his work in the redemption of mankind.
Generally, Israel failed to act as the representative of God to the world. They even failed in keeping the covenant of God. As a result of this, God destroyed them as a nation, sent them into exile, but God in His infinite mercy later brought some of them back to the land, and apparently, they started over. Israel is an explanation that no matter what God does for us, and we chose to rebel against Him, we’re going to be punished duly.
WHAT HAS ISRAEL PROVIDED US?
Although it might be tempting to see Israel as a disaster, God knew beforehand their disobedience to the covenant and his purpose for them. And through it, he worked to make at least two important things out of Israel.
1. Jesus Christ
Most significant of all was Jesus, who, though completely spiritual, was still fully human. He was a Jew, living under the covenant law of Israel. And not only did he live under it. He fulfilled it. After Jesus’ fulfillment of the law, the believers could look back and see that the law referred to Jesus all along.
The whole history of Israel was moving toward the coming of Jesus. The prophets and the law spoke about him (Acts 28:23), and he came to fulfill them (Luke 24:44). Jesus was the fulfillment of the purpose of Israel. Even though Israel seemed to not live up to the expectations of God, God used them to bring Jesus into the world.
2. The Old Testament
Israel has also created what Christians today call the Old Testament. This record of the history of Israel, and God’s dealings with them, is important to our understanding of the history of God and the redemption.
It’s a history with a few bright spots, but it’s mainly a story of human failure. In comparison to the failure of mankind, we see God clearly portrayed as patient, purposeful, and just. Our knowledge of who God is would be poorer if it were not for Israel’s messy history.
GOD’S PURPOSE FOR ISRAEL TODAY
So if Jesus fulfilled the purpose of Israel, does God still have another purpose for them? And where they set aside?
There is a much-heated debate about this subject. Clearly, Israel still exists as a country, and it would seem that God has preserved some of their remnants over the last 2,000 years. The vast majority of the time the New Testament uses the name of Israel is with reference to Jacob’s actual descendants.
But still, I believe there is more to Israel than that. In Ephesians 2:11-22, it is clear that Paul sees more than just the status quo for Israel. Paul refers to the new humanity that Christ created through his death on the cross—created for both the Jews and the Gentiles—not containing both Jews and Gentiles but one where that distinction doesn’t exist.
Most often, we call that new humanity the Church. But in Galatians 6:16, Paul called them “Israel of God.” I am convinced that the Church hasn’t replaced Israel. I am also convinced that God doesn’t have two distinct covenant people. Instead, Israel now contains people of all backgrounds. We were all joined in Christ; Israel fulfilled.
MODERN ISRAEL AT A GLANCE
Israel is a small country, covering some 8,000 square miles and home to 9 million people. But it plays a disproportionately big role on the world stage — depending on its ongoing rivalry with its Arab neighbors, its significant accomplishments in the high-tech field, and its religious importance for the world’s three monotheistic religions. And although the population is predominantly Jewish, it is highly diverse, reflecting a wide variety of religious and ethnic identities.
The modern state of Israel was founded in 1948 by a United Nations resolution. The Jewish connection to Israel’s land goes back to the biblical days, going through the periods of the First and Second Temples. While the Jewish people dispersed all over the world after the demolition of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Israel remained a spiritual and cultural focal point.
The creation of Israel as a modern Jewish state came about as a result of Zionism, a political and cultural movement whose goal was to introduce the Jewish people to the land of Israel, where they could rule themselves and be free from anti-Semitism. In the decades before Israel’s founding, when the country was under Ottoman and then British control, hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated from other countries to settle there.
Seventy-five percent of Israel’s residents are Jews, and 25 percent are non-Jews, most of whom are Arabs. Israel has accepted millions of Jewish immigrants from around the world since its founding, with massive waves of immigration from Europe in the late 1940s, from North Africa and the Middle East in the 1950s, from Ethiopia in the 1980s and 1990s, and from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. All Jews remaining in Israel are entitled to citizenship under the Law of Return.
The official languages in Israel are Hebrew and Arabic. The country boasts a variety of globally translated authors. It has a wide range of cultural institutions, such as orchestras, dance companies, theater companies, and museums — the largest variety of museums per capita in the world. The country’s film and television industries have gained international exposure in recent years, with many TV shows targeted to American audiences or distributed internationally through streaming services such as Netflix. With its mix of cultural influences and the use of fresh Mediterranean ingredients, Israeli food has also become popular in many Western countries. Sports in Israel are dominated by soccer, but basketball, tennis, and other sports are also very common.
- RELIGIOUS PLURALISM
Equality for all Jewish religious denominations has been an elusive target for non-Orthodox Israelis and a source of ongoing tensions in relations between the State of Israel and non-Orthodox Jewish communities abroad. Jewish conversions and marriages conducted in Israel by non-Orthodox rabbis are not approved by the state, which has prompted some non-Orthodox Israelis to go abroad for these services. Jewish converts from abroad regularly question their Jewish status and, as a result, face a variety of related problems. The right of non-Orthodox Jews to worship in their preferred way at the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, has been limited by the police for years despite the rulings of the Supreme Court and the commitment by the Israeli authorities to create a place for non-Orthodox prayer at the ancient pilgrimage site.
- ARAB-ISRAELI CONFLICT
Israel has been in a situation of conflict with its neighbors since its very founding, and most Jewish Israelis have joined the Israel Defense Forces at the age of 18. (Men serve approximately three years, followed by an annual reserve duty, and women serve approximately two years.) Although peace treaties were signed with two neighboring Arab states — Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is among the most intractable in the world. Israel has conducted several military operations aimed at countering rocket fire from the Gaza Strip since it unilaterally withdrew from coastal territories in 2005, destroying 21 Jewish settlements and relocating 8,000 Israeli citizens. The West Bank, where some 400,000 Israelis live among 2,7 million Palestinians, has been the source of less violence directed at Israel in recent years; however, Israel’s 50-year occupation of the territory has led to growing international criticism.
Within Israel’s internationally recognized borders, its Arab citizens — who overwhelmingly attend separate schools and live in separate communities from Jewish citizens — are complaining about discrimination in a wide variety of industries. The rate of poverty among Arabs is approximately double that of Israelis in general.
FIVE FACTS ABOUT ISRAELI CHRISTIANS
Religion plays a vital role in Israeli society. Because so many Christians around the world looked to the country where Jesus lived and died as a source of inspiration, Israel’s small Christian community is of particular interest. Four of the five most recent popes visited Israel; Pope Francis visited Israel in 2014.
Christians currently make up just 2 percent of Israel’s adult population. Nonetheless, as of 2010, Christians make up a small proportion (4 percent) of the population in the Middle East-North Africa region.
Israel’s Pew Research Center survey provides a rare insight into this close-knit group’s religious beliefs and practices. Here are five main takeaways from the survey:
1. The majority of Israelis who say they are Christian always say they are ethnically Arabians. Because of this, they share an ethnicity with the broader Muslim population, which is estimated to make up 14 percent of Israel’s adult population and is almost exclusively Arabians. Most of Israel’s Druze community is classified as ethnically Arab, while Druze is often considered a special ethno-religious group.
2. Politically, Christians agree with Muslims that Israel can’t be a democracy and a Jewish state at the same time. About seven-in-ten Christians (72 percent) and 63 percent of Muslims hold this view. Israeli Christians also have political views close to those of their fellow Arabs on various topics. For example, most Christians (80 percent) and Muslims (72 percent) claim that the Israeli government is not making a serious attempt to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians. The majority of Christians (79 percent) and Muslims (61 percent) in Israel also claim that the continued building of Jewish communities in the West Bank hurts Israel’s security. Both Israel’s Christians (86 percent) and Muslims (75 percent) disproportionately agree that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel.
3. Israeli Christians seem to be less religious than Israeli Muslims, but more religious than Israeli Jews in terms of religious commitment. For example, in Israel, 57 percent of Christians claim that religion is very important to them personally, compared to about two-thirds (68 percent) of Muslims and three-in-ten Jews. Israeli Christians also tend to fall among Muslims and Jews on certain tests of religious devotion. Approximately one-third of Israeli Christians pray regularly (34 percent), and 38 percent say they attend religious services at least weekly. In contrast, 61 percent of Muslims and 21 percent of Jews pray every day. About half of Muslims (49 percent) and one-quarter of Jews (27 percent) record attending religious services at least regularly.
4. Israeli Christians have minimal social and family relations with Jews as well as Arabs from other religious communities. A vast number of Christians say that all (21%) or most (65%) of their close friends are Christian. Christians are often almost exclusively married to other Christians, and they are uncomfortable with the possibility of their child marrying a Muslim or a Jew. Approximately nine-in-ten Christians claim they would be “not too” comfortable (9%) or “not at all” comfortable (79 percent) with their child marrying a Jew, and eight-in-ten (80 percent) claim they would be uncomfortable if a Muslim married a family.
5 Other religious practices are very common among the Christians of Israel. For example, the vast majority (94 percent) of Christians in Israel claim they were baptized. Majorities often state that they have icons of saints or other religious figures in their homes (81 percent) and have been anointed with holy oil (83 percent) – a rite conducted annually or in the event of illness. The majority (60 percent) say they fast during Lent. Tithing – that is, giving a portion of one’s income to the Church – is less common among Christians in Israel; 39% state they give the tithe.