Much of the Bible is about the history of the Jewish people – from their early forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, through the turbulent kingdoms of Israel and Judah, to their exile and return. Even the New Testament, which records the teaching of Jesus and his earliest followers, frequently refers back to the Jews. Jesus was a Jew, his disciples were Jews and many of the first Christians were Jews.
The Bible states that God has chosen the Jewish people for a purpose. Deuteronomy 7:6 says “you are a people holy to the LORD your God. He has chosen you to be his people, prized above all others on the face of the earth”. This was a special blessing of the Jews – a close relationship with God – but it also included special responsibilities. The Jews were to be God’s witnesses (Isa 43:10-12) – witnesses to his existence, witnesses to his greatness and witnesses to his goodness. They were to be witnesses to the Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) so that God’s “salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:6).
The Old Testament is a catalogue of the failures of Israel. Throughout their history they turned away from God. They chose to follow idols and false gods. They chose to reject God’s calls for justice and peace. So God withdrew his protection of Israel and they were overthrown by nations like the Assyrians and the Babylonians. However, God did not end his relationship with the Jews. Through his prophets he said he would bring back the Jewish people from exile and they did return.
According to the Bible that special relationship between God and the Jewish people continues. The Jews are still God’s witnesses, even if they do not all acknowledge him. The Bible says God will “not make a complete end” of the Jews (Jer 30:11). It says he will regather them to their homeland (Jer 31:10; Ezek 37:21-28). These promises still stand. Long before the twentieth century, when the Jews were still without a country of their own, Christian writers were predicting that they would be regathered to their homeland because of the Bible’s promises. From Thomas Brightman’s Shall they return to Jerusalem again? (1615), through Joseph Eyre’s Observations upon the prophecies relating to the restoration of the Jews (1771), and on to John Thomas’s Elpis Israel: an exposition of the Kingdom of God (1850), there was a long line of Christian writers predicting the Jews’ return. In 1948 the modern state of Israel was declared.
Modern Israel is far from perfect. It is a small embattled nation, constantly under threat from its neighbours, and we can understand their desire for security. But we can also sympathise with the plight of the Palestinians, who feel they have been displaced from their homes, who feel bullied by their neighbour and who have legitimate aspirations of their own for security and prosperity.
The existence of the modern state of Israel, reformed after nearly two thousand years of exile, is a reminder of God’s special relationship with the Jewish people. Yet as long as they remain God’s people they have special responsibility to witness to God through justice, compassion and peace.