Israel is a name used 2431 times in the Bible. It is included in 34 out of the 39 books in the Old Testament. And in 13 of the 27 New Testament books as well. Clearly it is an important name. But who, or what, is Israel? How come it is the most significant name in the Bible apart from God?
The primary thread throughout the Bible is the redemption of humanity. The first three chapters recount the creation and fall of humanity. The remainder of the Scripture primarily deals with the story of our restoration. And Israel is at the center of that story.
Introduction to Israel
Israel is the Hebrew name Yisra’el, meaning God contends, or one who struggles with God. God gives this name to Abraham’s grandson Jacob after he spends a night wrestling with God (Gen. 32:28). Later, Israel is the name given to Jacob’s offspring and to the nation that they eventually form.
Israel, the People of God
But Israel is not just an extended family that became a nation. That would not make them special in any way. Many other nations have specific ethnic identity. And many of them could recount similar stories of prosperity and oppression.
What made Israel unique is that God was using them to further his plan of redemption for the human race. This plan started with an individual, with Abraham. God did not call Abraham because he was stronger, or smarter, or richer than other people in his world. What set Abraham apart from other people was that he responded to God; he believed him and was faithful to obey.
God furthered his plan of redemption by calling a people, the descendants of Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. When God called Israel, it was not because they were a strong people, or a wealthy people, or even a people that worshipped him. Israel was not even a nation. They were slaves in Egypt.
But God had a plan for Israel. He delivered them from Egyptian slavery. He made a covenant with them at Mt Sinai. A covenant in which he promised to be their God if they would only obey him. God brought them into a land that was already populated and enabled them to claim it as their own. God instructed them in how to worship, how to live in community, how to be a holy people.
And God did this, not because they were in any way worthy of it. They were far from worthy, as they proved time and time again. But because he had a plan.
God’s Purpose for Israel
So God had a plan for Israel. But what was that plan? What was his purpose in taking this slave people and making a nation out of them? And continuing to put up with 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 is found God’s invitation to Israel to join him: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”
God’s purpose, if Israel agreed, was to make Israel into a kingdom of priests. A holy nation. As a kingdom of priests they would have the task of representing the nations to God. And God to the nations. They were a people that God intended to use to further his work in the redemption of humanity.
In general Israel failed as God’s representative to the world. They even failed in keeping God’s covenant. As a result God destroyed them as a nation, sending them into exile, before bringing some of them back to the land and seemingly starting over. Israel was a demonstration that no matter what God does for people, we will rebel against him.
What Israel Provided Us
While it might be tempting to see Israel as a failure, I do not believe that was the case. God knew their disobedience to the covenant and his purpose for them upfront. And through it all he worked to produce at least two important things out of Israel.
Most important was Jesus, who while fully divine, was also fully human. He was Jewish, and living under the covenant law of Israel. And he not only lived under it. He fulfilled it. After Jesus’ fulfilment of the law, believers could look back and see that the law pointed to Jesus all along.
All of Israel’s history was moving toward the coming of Jesus. The law and the prophets spoke of him (Acts 28:23), and he came to fulfill them (Luke 24:44). Jesus was the fulfilment of Israel’s purpose. Even though Israel as a nation would seem to have failed, God used them to bring Jesus into the world.
Israel also produced what Christians today call the Old Testament. This record of Israel’s history, and God’s dealing with them is important for our understanding of God and redemption history. It is a history with a few bright spots. But mostly it is a story of human failure. And, contrasted with the failure of humanity, we see God clearly portrayed as purposeful, patient, and just. Our understanding of who God is would be poorer if not for the messy history of Israel.
So if Jesus fulfilled Israel’s purpose, does God still have a further purpose for them? Or have they been set aside?
There is much heated debate over this issue. Clearly Israel still exists as a nation, and it would seem that God has been preserving some remnant of them over the past 2,000 years. And the vast majority of the times the New Testament uses the name Israel is in regard to the physical descendants of Jacob.
But I believe there is more to Israel than that today. Looking at Ephesians 2:11-22 it is clear that Paul sees something more than just the status quo for Israel. Paul refers here to a new humanity that Christ has created via his death on the cross. Created out of both Jew and Gentile. Not containing both Jews and Gentiles. But one where that distinction does not exist.
Most commonly we call that new humanity the Church. But in Galatians 6:16 Paul seems to call them the Israel of God. I am convinced that the Church has not replaced Israel. I am also convinced that God does not have two distinct covenant people. Instead, Israel now includes people from all backgrounds. All united together in Christ; Israel fulfilled.
So What Is the Meaning of Israel?
So what does Israel mean in the Bible? It really depends on the context. It could refer to an individual; Abraham’s grandson. It could mean the descendants of Israel; the children of Israel. Frequently it refers to the nation of Israel; either the united kingdom or the northern kingdom. Probably the most common usage is to refer to God’s people; those that he established a covenant with at Sinai and their descendants. And, finally, we see it pointing toward the new humanity created in Christ; citizens of the kingdom of God.
But always the name points back to God and his purposes. Those identified with that name are God’s people, chosen for a purpose. And that is what Israel ultimately means: God’s people.
The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.
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This article first appeared on Christianity.com, June 20, 2019.