Unravelling the Evangelical Zionist Ball of String
CORNERSTONE CHURCH OF SAN Antonio, Texas is the deeply conservative home base of America’s most influential advocate for Christian Zionism: Pastor John Hagee. For Hagee, Christian support for the Zionist state is a non-negotiable, doctrinal issue. He even includes a mandate requiring personal support for the state of Israel into his church’s doctrinal statement, linking the defense of Israel with the never-ending fight against antisemitism.22
With a church congregation of over twenty thousand people and an international broadcasting empire, Pastor Hagee has proclaimed his own version of the prosperity gospel for over fifty years—God blesses those who bless Israel.23 Since founding the nine-million member organization, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which claims to be the largest pro-Israel lobbying organization in America, Hagee also claims to have given over fifty million dollars to the country.24 Scanning the roster of Israeli government officials who spoke at Hagee’s annual CUFI Summit in 2020 would appear to endorse Hagee’s claim. How else can one explain the personal presentations provided to Cornerstone Church by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, the Minister of Defense Benjamin Gantz, and other luminaries too numerous to list?
As Hagee Ministries demonstrates, Christian Zionism has become a flamboyant and politically compelling battle standard for conservative Christianity throughout the English-speaking world. Defending the modern state of Israel as God’s chosen nation, providentially reclaiming the promised land in 1948 in fulfilment of biblical prophecy, thereby preparing the way for the second coming of Jesus Christ (including, perhaps, the rapture, the tribulation, and the battle of Armageddon),25 is almost as dear to the heart of many conservative Christians as belief in the resurrection of Jesus and mom’s apple pie. For many adherents of Christian Zionism, to dispute any of these beliefs is to be ranked among the heretics.
Belief in something as complex as Christian Zionism is both easier and much more common than understanding its complexity. The truthfulness of most heartfelt convictions are commonly self-evident only to the true believer. Life teaches us that one person’s self-evident conviction can be another person’s muddled confusion. How can we find mutual understanding with those on the opposite side of the fence? How can a Zionist and someone decidedly unpersuaded by their ideology fruitfully engage each another? Asking questions and listening with an open mind is a good place to start. What is the evidence, for and against, the contending positions?
Learning to understand the mind of those who disagree with me, working to see a question from someone else’s vantage point, is an important step in understanding why we believe the things we do. More importantly, it also helps to clarify whether or not we should maintain our current beliefs or entertain an alternative. Without such honest engagement and reflection on perspectives that challenge our own, we are always in danger of simply repeating ideas passed along to us by others, believing what everyone else believes because we have never been exposed (in an honest, unbiased fashion) to the likely alternatives.
Such a process must always begin with ourselves, and I am talking about my own theological journey. I have already noted that I was born and raised in a fundamentalist branch of American Christianity where Christian Zionism was considered essential to being an orthodox believer. This sort of fundamentalism drew a hard line between genuine Christians and imposters espousing false doctrine, and genuine Christians were Zionists just like me, my parents, and my church. Rejecting the affirmation that Israel was resurrected as a nation in keeping with God’s promises to Abraham, and paving the way for Christ’s return, was tantamount to rejecting belief in Jesus, full stop.
The surety with which I embraced this Zionist form of Christian faith was also my problem.27 Alternative voices were never allowed a hearing. If the odd visitor did manage to raise her voice in defense of a different perspective, her arguments could not be taken seriously, nor honestly.
UNRAVELLING THE FIRST STRAND
Christian Zionism is not the confession of one single thing to believe. Rather, it is a complicated mix of different, interwoven beliefs and influences interacting with one another like some sort of chemical soup. At the root of the matter are theological assertions involving biblical interpretation, which is why there will be some sustained attention to the Bible in this book. However, it is not just a matter of how one reads Bible texts. There are other important strands of thought, especially historical research, that make up Christian Zionism. These must also be addressed. Like an old ball of string plucked from the kitchen junk drawer, this untangling may seem to be a lengthy process, but the untangling is necessary if we are to offer a credible response.28
It is not surprising that all parties to the Christian Zionist debate argue that their way of reading Scripture is the right way. Thus, Christian Zionists typically insist that their reading method (or hermeneutic) is the only acceptable method because it is the only truly objective or literal method of interpretation.29 Literalistic interpretation is the basic keystone to Christian Zionist Bible reading.30 The implication is that alternative, non-Zionist readings, such as those presented in this book, fail the test of literalness and objectivity because they either (a) reject the objective historicity of the events described throughout the Old Testament story line and/or (b) reject the literal meaning of the words inscribed on the pages of Scripture.
The debate over interpretive methods, however, is not actually about whose readings of the Bible are more objective or more literal. The more relevant question is: whose interpretations are most appropriate? That is, whose interpretations are most coherent with the textual cues embedded in the literature? This search for the most appropriate reading is not a subjective quest directed by personal preferences or subjective bias; it is not determined by political correctness or the latest social trend. Rather, the most appropriate reading is always indicated from within the text itself. As we will see, many New Testament uses of the Old will appear to us as unexpected rereadings—some might even say misreadings—of the Old Testament text. Richard Hays, professor emeritus of New Testament at Duke University, has thoroughly examined this aspect of biblical interpretation in his important book, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Hays notes how characteristically the Apostle “Paul repeatedly interprets Scripture in ways that must have startled his first audience.” For instance, Paul’s quotation of Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18 transforms the psalmist’s mediation on creation’s heavenly testimony to the glory of God into a divine indictment against those Jews who reject the gospel. Another example is Paul’s reference to Exodus 17:6 in 1 Corinthians 10:4, where a bruised rock gushing fresh spring water for the Israelites wandering in the wilderness becomes a preview of the new life available to believers in Christ.31
Christian Zionist readings, for all their stress on a literal interpretation, cannot account for the creative and surprising ways that New Testament writers consistently reread the Old Testament in light of Jesus Christ and his earthly ministry. The problem is that Christian Zionist interpreters prejudge what the fulfilment of a biblical promise must look like because “fulfilment” is defined according to their preconceptions of what constitutes objectivity and literalism. However, the interpreter’s responsibility is not to prejudge the acceptable parameters of a text’s possible meanings but to allow the text to speak for itself with its own accent, however foreign that accent may sound to our untutored ears. To borrow again from Professor Hays:
Paul’s citations of Scripture often function not as proofs but as tropes: they generate new meanings by linking the earlier text (Scripture) to the later (Paul’s discourse) in such a way as to produce unexpected correspondences, correspondences that suggest more than they assert.
Recognizing Scripture’s authority as a guide to faith and life, as Christians have done through the centuries, must include recognizing and accepting scripture’s own methods of interpreting itself. Scholars nowadays refer to this as intertextuality, that is, noting how the canonical texts interact with each other. Literal, historical readings provide only the first step toward understanding, creating a platform for the many different, biblical authors to converse among themselves, conducting a canonical conversation that is often unexpectedly creative.
READING SCRIPTURE TWICE
The Old and the New Testaments stand in a symbiotic relationship to each other. The light of biblical interpretation shines in both directions, first directing us from the Old to the New, and then projecting backward from the New onto the Old (as illustrated in the examples below). Learning to read and interpret twice, looking in both directions, is the key to biblical, canonical understanding.
Reading Scripture twice is not an arbitrary methodology but has been the practice of the church since its inception. Please note that I am not giving priority to the New Testament at the expense of the Old, nor do I presuppose the existence of “a canon within the canon.”35 Those approaches would be instances of circular reasoning, that is, highlighting the evidence that best confirms a previously held conviction. What I am proposing, on the other hand, is an inductive approach to interpreting the Bible. An inductive method first observes the evidence at hand, giving close attention to the ways in which parts of Scripture interpret other parts, and then, on the basis of those observations, formulates an appropriate conclusion.
When we examine the original contexts of those Old Testament passages cited by New Testament writers as evidence for Jesus’ Messiahship, we find that the proof of their fulfilment is more apparent in the New Testament eating than it is in the Old Testament pudding. “Fulfillment” for the New Testament writers was defined by their experience of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, his ministry, crucifixion, and his resurrection. Thus, the old covenant narrative arc about God’s faithfulness to Israel is now fully interpreted only by reading backward through the lens of the new covenant realized in Jesus and in his gospel of grace.
Two, brief examples will help to illustrate this point.
Matthew’s Gospel tells a unique story about King Herod’s plan to murder a newborn child in Bethlehem rumored to be the claimant to his throne (Matt 2:13–18). An angel warns Joseph of Herod’s impending plot, instructing him in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus into Egypt where they are to wait for further instructions. Matthew interprets these dramatic events as the fulfilment of Hosea’s words, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hos 11:1).
In their original context, however, Hosea’s words have nothing to do with a coming messiah. Neither do they describe God’s plan for rescuing Israel’s deliverer from a life-or-death situation by sending him to find safe-haven in Egypt. In fact, Hosea 11:1 does not look to the future but to the past. The prophet offers a historical reminiscence assuring Israel that despite their impending punishment at the hands of Assyria, divine judgment is not the last word on God’s attitude toward them. So, the Lord reminds Israel of their miraculous exodus out of Egypt. Israel remains God’s “firstborn son” (Exod 4:22–23), the beloved child rescued from Egyptian bondage (Hos 11:1). In similar fashion, God promises one day to rescue Israel from Assyrian captivity:
“When he roars,
his children will come trembling from the west.
They will come trembling
like birds from Egypt,
like doves from Assyria.
I will settle them in their homes,” declares the Lord.
(Hos 11:10–11 NIV)
Hosea’s words look forward to a time when God will rescue Israel from Assyrian captivity. His words literally have nothing to do with a future messiah; they provide an encouraging, historical reminiscence. Furthermore, in Hosea God’s son (Israel) is miraculously delivered out of Egypt. Whereas, in Matthew God’s son deliberately flees into Egypt. For Hosea, Egyptian slavery was a paradigm of the son’s enslavement. For Matthew, Egypt becomes a safe haven offering protection for God’s son. If Matthew’s intent was to draw a prophetic parallel to Jesus’ eventual return to Israel from Egypt, he could have easily quoted the prophet at that point in his story (Matt 2:19–23). But that is not what he does. Apparently, drawing literal connections was not uppermost in his mind. Matthew was more interested in depicting Jesus as God’s final instantiation of obedient Israel. It is the parallel between ancient Israel and Jesus of Nazareth, both serving as “God’s son,” that leads Matthew to draw from the Old Testament prophet.
It is not hard to understand why, to the best of our knowledge, no pre-Christian interpretive tradition had ever understood Hosea 11:1 as a predictive, messianic text. Discovering an episode from the Messiah’s biography in Hosea 11 was an unprecedented, Matthean innovation made possible by the Evangelist’s gospel-inspired imagination as he reread the Old Testament from back to front, rethinking retrospectively. Whether Matthew’s use of Hosea qualifies for anyone’s definition of literal, objective interpretation is irrelevant. What matters is observing how Matthew actually makes use of Hosea. The Gospel writer shows us that he understood Jesus of Nazareth to be the long anticipated, real-world exemplar of the covenant faithfulness that God had expected from his people, Israel.
Yet, in spite of all this, Christian Zionists such as Barry Horner survey Matthew’s citation of Hosea 11:1 as an example of literal, prophetic fulfilment. Despite the many, noticeable contextual shifts introduced by Matthew’s curious use of Hosea’s words, Horner nevertheless remains faithful to his literalistic bona fides, insisting that “the literal interpretation of Hosea stands . . . Matthew did not reinterpret Hosea; he simply understood Hosea as fulfilled.”39 While it is true that Matthew quotes Hosea as one of his ten “fulfilment citations,”40 what Horner and others fail to recognize is that Hosea’s fulfilment occurs only by way of Matthew’s obvious reinterpretation.
For the Evangelist, who knew Jesus to be Immanuel, the man in whom “God had come to dwell with us” (Matt 1:23) as God had dwelt with Israel in the land of Canaan; who knew Jesus to be the son of David, the son of God (Matt 1:17–25) this constellation of covenantal, redemptive themes recast Hosea’s ancient words into a new frame of reference. A uniquely Christian interpretation emerged in the light of Christ’s accomplishments that made the very real, objective, historical contradictions irrelevant in light of God’s actual fulfilment. Time and again we will see similarly unexpected results due to the New Testament authors’ way of rereading the Old Testament backward, peering through the lens of a gospel-inspired imagination.
My second example is, perhaps, the most surprising. Isaiah 53 provides the classic, Old Testament prediction forecasting the Messiah’s redemptive suffering and death. As the prophet declares:
He was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:5–6 NIV)
However, the traditional Christian reading of Isaiah 53 faces a major problem: to the best of our current knowledge, there were no pre-Christian interpretive traditions that read Isaiah 53 as the description of a suffering, dying messiah whose death held atoning value.42 Finding a crucified savior in the beautifully pathos-laden poetry of Isaiah 53 is a uniquely New Testament discovery. Jesus had literally appeared as the Messiah no one expected.43 In fact, no one had ever noticed a crucified, resurrected messiah anywhere in the Old Testament until certain disciples of Jesus, men like Simon Peter, reexamined those words and interpreted their significance in the light of what they already believed Jesus had accomplished. Because Peter learned to read backward, he was able to explain how Jesus had become Isaiah’s Suffering Servant:
He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. (Isa 53:9)
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. . . . He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. (1 Pet 2:22–24 NIV)
The book of 1 Peter offers a quintessential example of retrospective interpretation par excellence.
WHY IT MATTERS
So, what bearing does this trek through biblical interpretation have on our understanding of Christian Zionism? We have noted already that Zionists insist they are reading the Bible literally and objectively. Unfortunately, however, this illusory standard of objective literalism then precludes the sort of readings I have described because they do not fit into the predetermined, Zionist script.
Tragically, for certain extreme Zionists, loyalty to their preferred method of literalistic interpretation is more important than loyalty to Christ. For instance, Daniel Juster, a leader in the strongly pro-Zionist, Messianic Jewish community, condemns the intertextual approach to Scripture reading that I have demonstrated above. In response to such readings, Juster insists that no one reading these [Old Testament] passages could come up with any anticipation of such a [non-literalistic, retrospective] meaning. Jewish people especially find such interpretations to be perverse and offensive. Were this really the teaching of the New Covenant Scriptures, Jewish people would be duty bound to reject the New Covenant Scriptures as false Scriptures that did not cohere with previous revelation.
Sadly, the more things change, the more they stay the same; especially when it comes to the necessities of spiritual illumination and surrendering to Jesus the Messiah. How ironic it is that, in spite of their insistence on Scripture’s divine authority, many Christian Zionists refuse to accept the New Testament’s own interpretive keys. Mr. Juster goes even further astray by sanctioning the hard-heartedness of those who have yet to believe in Christ. The New Testament demonstrates that God fulfills his promises with unforeseen twists, turns, and surprises. If we can accept the New Testament’s message on its own terms, we will discover, not that God is fickle in surprising us as he does, but that God’s perspective is infinitely more expansive, gracious, and creative than ours will ever be.
Praise for Like Birds in a Cage
“This book is quite unique in the way that it combines a sound grasp of the history of Zionism, careful interpretation of the Bible, and firsthand, recent experience of everyday life for Palestinians living under occupation on the West Bank. David Crump understands Christian Zionists extremely well because he grew up as one, and because he reads and quotes what many Christian Zionist leaders have been writing in recent years. My hope and prayer is that this book will help American Christians of all kinds to wake up to the very significant ways in which Christian Zionism has contributed—and continues to contribute—to this tragic conflict. They might then be more able to challenge their government’s policies.”
—Colin Chapman, author of Whose Promised Land?
“Like Birds in a Cage is destined to become a standard text on Christian Zionism in the USA. With devastating precision, Dave Crump exposes the cancerous nature of this deviant theology. For Evangelicalism to survive with any credibility, it must repudiate the justification of apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Palestine. Crump’s book provides not only the diagnosis but also the cure.”
—Stephen Sizer, Founder and Director, Peacemaker Trust
“This new volume by David Crump may be the most comprehensive critique of Christian Zionism by an evangelical author to date. As a former ‘insider,’ his unique perspective has delivered a tour de force by combining scholarly biblical exegesis of key texts with incisive theological analysis. His solid grasp of the relevant political and historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle adds context and texture to this wonderfully written book. I hope this volume will be widely read and reviewed across the evangelical spectrum by pastors, biblical scholars, students, and perhaps most urgently, evangelical politicians.”
—Don Wagner, author of Anxious for Armageddon
“A keenly reasoned, comprehensive, full-frontal critique of Christian Zionism. Equally at ease interpreting Saint Paul, critiquing ideologies of privilege, deconstructing Israel’s discriminatory legal regime, and narrating scenes of unarmed, tear-gassed villagers, David Crump mounts a formidable case against the troubling logic and deadly deployment of ethnocracy and territorial exceptionalism. This prophetic call to walk not where Jesus walked, but as Jesus walked, is more urgent now than ever.”
—Bruce N. Fisk, Senior Research Fellow, Network of Evangelicals for the Middle East
About the Author
David M. Crump is a former pastor and retired professor of New Testament at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of a number of books, including Knocking on Heaven’s Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer (2006), Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture (2013), and I Pledge Allegiance: A Believer’s Guide to Kingdom Citizenship in 21st Century America (2018).