Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Lost Tribes of Israel, the Promised Land, and the New Creation

A few weeks ago, one of our (obviously intelligent) readers, David, asked a great question: If Jesus seeks to bring about the restoration of Israel, then what happens to God’s promise to gather the lost tribes of Israel back to the land (cf. Isa 11; Ezek 37; Mic 4, etc.)? Is this promise simply abandoned? Or does the New Testament “over-spiritualize the gospel” (David’s words) it by referring it to the heavenly Jerusalem (e.g., Heb 12)? As he said, “Doesn’t there have to be a bit more to it than that?”

Yes, there is a bit more to it than that.

In the midst of preparing a very lengthy response to David’s question, I realized that the blog would not be the appropriate place to go into the kind of detail I need to on a question of this magnitude. However, I have recently discovered some texts that I think will at least take us further down the path that Michael already started us on by pointing to the fact that the Levites inheritance was not the land of Israel but God himself (see below)—and, as Taylor Marshall has pointed out, the “micro-cosm” of the Tabernacle (see his blog). To add to these points, I would make the following.

First, for ancient Judaism itself—not simply Christianity—the Promised Land is not considered the ultimate “geographical” destiny of Israel. The ultimate destiny of Israel is the new Promised Land of the new Creation: “the new heavens and the new earth” promised by God (cf. Isa 65-66).

Second, Jesus ties his own eschatological hopes not to the earthly Promised Land, but, like other Jews, to this new Creation—the life of “the world to come.”

One does not have to look far to find evidence of this in ancient Judaism. Take, for example, the teaching of the Mishnah:
All Israelites have a share in the world to come, for it is written, “Thy people also shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; the branch of my planting, the work of my hands that I may be glorified (citing Isa 60:21) (m. Sanh. 10:1).
As W. D. Davies points out in his monumental (and monumentally ignored) work, The Gospel and the Land, regarding this text: “here ‘inherting the land’ is equated with having a share in ‘the world to come’” (Heb ha olam habba) (p. 123). This equation is of fundamental significance: even for Rabbinic Judaism, which is often characterized as “this-worldy” in its eschatology, the earthly Promised Land could be considered merely a sign of the new Creation and “the world to come.” And note well that this is no case of “eis-egesis,” for the text cited by the Mishnah—Isaiah 60:21—is a prophecy of the New Jerusalem, which describes a realm where “the sun shall be no more” because “the LORD will be your everlasting light” (Isa 60:19-22). Is this a prophecy of a mere earthly return to Palestine? Or is it about “the new heavens and the new earth” that Isaiah himself will go on to describe (Isa 65-66)?

Should there be any doubt about the strength of this ancient Jewish link between the Promised Land and the new Creation, we need only turn to the Talmudic commentary on the Mishnah. This text—much to my happiness—not only links the Promised Land and the World to Come, but ties both of them to the return of the lost tribes of Israel! Again, in the context of debating whether or not the ten tribes would ever return to the Land—something Rabbi Akiba doubted—the Mishnah reads as follows:
The ten tribes will not return [to Palestine], for it is said, “and cast them into another land,” as is this day: just as the day goes and does not return, so they too went and will not return: this is Rabbi Akiba’s view. Rabbi Eliezer said: as this day—just as the day darkens and then becomes light again, so the ten tribes—even as it went dark for them, so it will become light for them.
The Talmud commentary on this passage reads (and this is where it gets cool!):
Our Rabbis taught: The ten tribes have no portion in the world to come, as it says, “And the Lord rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation.” “And the Lord rooted them out of their land” refers to this world, and cast them into another land—to the world to come; this is Rabbi Akiba’s view. Rabbi Simeon ben Judah… said on Rabbi Simeon’s authority: If their deeds are as this days, they will not return; otherwise, they shall. Rabbi said: They will enter the future world, as it is said: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the great trumpet shall be blow and they shall come which were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the Lord in the holy mount of Jerusalem (b. Sanh. 110b, cited in Davies, p. 124).
Notice the Rabbis commentary: the Promised “Land” is equated both with “the world to come”—as distinct from “this world”—and “the future world.” Notice that this even applies to exile from the Promised Land, which seems to have eternal significance as well. Perhaps most important of all: for the Rabbis, the “return” of the lost tribes of Israel to “the land” is equated with their entry into the “future world” and their ability to “worship” on “the holy mount of Jerusalem”! The significance of this is staggering: the Rabbis themselves are recognizing that the hopes of ancient Israel—including the return of the lost ten tribes—will not be fulfilled in “this world,” but in “the world to come”—the new Creation—and the new Jerusalem that will be part of that new Creation. The return of the lost tribes to the Promised Land, the inauguration of the new Creation, and the restoration of Jerusalem are all bound up with one another. It is important to note again that the Rabbis are rooting these connections is Scripture itself, by alluding to prophecies of the return of the lost tribes from Assyria in Isa 11 and to “the holy mount of Jerusalem” described in Isa 27:13.

But I forget myself. What does all this have to do with Jesus? Well, just like the Rabbis, he too connected the restoration of the twelve tribes with the coming of a new Creation and the “world to come.” I submit only one text here: Peter asks Jesus what he and the disciples will get for giving up this-worldly goods, and Jesus says:
Amen, I say to you, in the new creation (Gk palingenesia), when the Son of Man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my names sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life (Matt 19:28-29)
Here Jesus equates the restoration of creation—the “regenesis”—with the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel and the “inheriting” of “eternal life.” But wait—I thought the Old Testament said Israel was to “inherit” the land? Yes, but not the earthly land of the fallen creation—rather, they will inherit the new Promised Land of the restored creation, which Jesus, like Rabbi Akiba, equated with the new Creation. Should there be doubts about this connection, notice that that in Mark’s version of the saying, Jesus says “in the age to come eternal life”—using the exact Rabbinic expression (Mark 10:30).

There is, of course, much more to say here, but I hope this partially answers David’s question. The early Christian hope was not simply for a new, heavenly Jerusalem, it was for a new Creation. It, like the hope of some Rabbis—and, more importantly, of Isaiah—was a cosmic hope for the restoration of all Israel and all creation.

This is, of course, why at every Sunday Mass, we Catholics profess in the final line of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.”