Israel, the Church and the Palestinians

For many decades, Evangelical support for Israel seemed rock solid. Today, however, many younger Christians in Western churches are hesitant to give Israel the same unconditional support that their parents did. The Church is sensitive to the Palestinian cause but is having a hard time finding balance.

Stories of Palestinian suffering have attracted the sympathy of young Evangelicals in the church. They seem a lot less interested in the struggles and triumphs of Israel. They appear to be motivated by the cause of social justice for the ‘oppressed’ Palestinians than a prophecy-driven backing of the restored Jewish state. Many Christian youngsters have sided with the Palestinians as the perceived underdog.

In any case, Jesus in the Gospels seems to have very little to say about such conflicts. And this generation is known to read far less from the Old Testament than the previous ones. So, this supposed New Testament ‘silence’ makes a big difference in how they view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Today, they simply ask: What would Jesus do?

In other words. Would Jesus affirm the national calling of Israel according to the promises made to the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets? And would He affirm Israel’s right to live in the land? Or would He rather side with the Palestinians as a weak and suppressed minority?

We can actually find a strong guide for answering these questions in the Gospels. Look at how Jesus dealt with the most prominent indigenous minority living in Israel during His time. You will notice that there are many striking parallels between the Samaritan people in the days of Jesus and the Palestinians of today.

Samaritans: A Replaced People

The first time the Bible mentions the Samaritans is in 2 Kings 17:22-41, which gives their historical background. The passage recounts how the northern Kingdom of Israel was “carried away from their own land” (verse 23). Assyria took Israelites into exile in 722 BC.

Assyrian King Sargon II followed a common practice of conquering empires in those days. Which means, he replaced the dislodged Israelites with people from other regions of his empire.

Thus, he took people from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and from Sepharvaim. He “placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities” (verse 24).

These new implants, thereafter called the Samaritans, began intermingling with some of the Israelite remnant left in the land. In result, they quickly adopted some of their religious practices. Besides their own gods and traditions, they also worshipped and “feared” the God of Israel.

Then in 586-582 BC, a second uprooting occurred when the Babylonian Empire also forced into exile the southern Kingdom of Judah. This gave even more room for the Samaritan people to expand and solidify their presence in the Land of Israel.

Resisting the Restoration

Some 70 years later, the Jewish people started to return to the land and to rebuild the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. Yet the Samaritan communities were among the strongest opponents of this Jewish restoration.

They resisted it religiously and politically (Ezra 4; Nehemiah 4:1-3), nevertheless, Jerusalem and the Temple were restored. The Jews re-established their presence again in their promised homeland because the Lord was with them (Haggai 1:13).

Still, the Samaritans continued to oppose the Jewish return and to develop their own rival culture and national identity. Over time, they even cultivated their own form of pseudo-Judaism. They rejected the prophets and other writings of the Tanakh and only the five Books of Moses were binding.

For this reason, they rejected the idea of a promised Messiah from the lineage of David who would restore the Kingdom for Israel. Rather, they expected a messiah figure who would be “a prophet like Moses”, as the book of Deuteronomy foretold. He would usher in a moral and spiritual revival but not a national restoration.

A Tense Israeli-Samaritan Relationship

By the time Jesus came along, the Samaritans had lived in the land for more than 700 years. They developed their own narrative of the region’s history and considered themselves the true Israel. Samaritans wanted to be the rightful heirs of the land, claiming descent from Ephraim and Manasseh.

The Temple in Jerusalem, in the eyes of Samaritans, was an apostate shrine and its worship blasphemous to God. During the time of Alexander the Great, the Samaritans built an alternative temple on their holy mountain of Mt. Gerizim. It was the biblical “Mountain of Blessing” overlooking Shechem.

Meanwhile, the Jews did not recognize the Samaritans as part of their people. Which means, they would not allow them to enter the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet around 6-to-9 AD, Samaritans reportedly forced their way into the Temple during Passover. And they desecrated it by throwing bones into the sanctuary.

Indeed, for centuries it was a relationship characterized by tension and disdain. Jewish writings from 200 BC called Samaritans “the foolish people”.

It is no surprise that during the time of Jesus both Jews and Samaritans refused to mingle (John 4:9). Jewish pilgrims who were on the way to worship in Jerusalem were harassed (Luke 9:51-55). The Jewish historian Josephus reports that in 52 AD, Samaritans even massacred a group of Jews on a pilgrimage.

Jesus Crosses the Border

For Jews, the name “Samaritan” became a curse word (John 8:48). Even the disciples of Jesus were not fond of them and were anxious to call down fire on their heads (Luke 9:54).

Amid this hostile, complex relationship, Jesus sets a refreshingly different tone towards the Samaritan populace. The Gospels surprisingly record that Jesus healed them (Luke 17:16). And He reached out to them individually and as a community (John 4).

In fact, Jesus rarely shared such deep thoughts on worship, His own Messianic identity, and the Spirit of God as He did with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. The encounter eventually led to revival in the entire village. And it was there that Jesus spoke about the fields being white for harvest (John 4:35ff).

Then, there is the legendary parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:30-37). Surely, it was offensive to Jewish listeners. After all, Jesus described the Samaritan and not the Jewish priests as the compassionate neighbor to the man in need.

Jesus would not allow Himself to be drawn in to the negative stereotypes of His time. When His disciples wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village for disobedience, Jesus rebuked them harshly. He said:

“You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” (Luke 9:56)

Jesus and the Samaritan Narrative

Jesus did not consider Samaritans as enemies, but reached out to them with compassion and love. He healed them, ministered to them, used them as examples to his Jewish brethren. He even envisioned them as part of the harvest!

Still, while Jesus may have displayed an unusually kind attitude towards the Samaritans, He did not subscribe to their version of history.

When Jesus healed ten lepers, the only one who returned to thank him was a Samaritan. To that Jesus replied: “Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:18)

Jesus had reached out to him with compassion and healing, yet he still considered him a “foreigner”. The Greek word used here is allogenes, and in the Septuagint translation it meant a stranger who dwelt within the land.

A stranger would have many rights and privileges in the land. But was still excluded from the covenant promises and privileges of Israel. The same Greek word appeared in the inscription around the temple courts allowing access only to Jews but not to allogenes – foreigners.

So, Jesus reached out to the Samaritan people but also maintained a clear distinction between them and the Jews. He once instructed his disciples not to enter a city of the Samaritans, but to focus rather on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6-5).

A Distinction with a Purpose

Finally, when Jesus ministered to the Samaritan woman at the well, she confronted him with her people’s own narrative:

“Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.” (John 4:20)

In other words, she wanted to know whose narrative was correct. And Jesus answered:

“Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth….” (John 4:20–23)

Jesus portends that a new era in salvation history was soon coming when the place of worship would become secondary. Each believer would become a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit. But Jesus did not conclude that Jewish tradition would become irrelevant.

On the contrary, He strongly challenged her Samaritan belief system, saying: “You worship what you do not know.” At the same time, He identifies himself with the Jewish tradition in a manner rarely found in the Gospels: “We know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.”

Jews, Foreigners and Salvation

In a way, Jesus underscores with the Samaritan woman what He also stated to the healed leper. That they were ‘foreigners’ to the covenants of God with Israel. The only way for them to become truly part of the household of God would be through the covenants and revelation given to the Jewish nation.

Note that He did not say that salvation is received by becoming Jewish. But rather that she should reconsider her theological and personal attitude towards the Jews.

Decades later, the Apostle Paul would make the same point:

“What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them were committed the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:1-2; see also Romans 9:4–5)

Jesus thus affirms to the Samaritan woman the ancient Abrahamic calling of Israel. Through them “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). This covenant relationship with Abraham’s natural descendants remains even if they reject Jesus as their Messiah (Romans 11:28).

Are There Samaritans in Israel?

There is still a small Samaritan community living in Israel today, with less than a thousand members. They are mostly located on Mt. Gerizim, near modern-day Nablus. However, they are too small to play a significant role in current affairs.

Instead, the community that more closely mirrors the dynamic between Jews and Samaritans at the time of Jesus is that of the Palestinians.

When the Jews were exiled by the Romans under Titus in 70 AD and later under Hadrian in 120 AD, other people groups moved in. Each successive conqueror seizing control of this crossroads brought their own ethnic mix. That includes the Romans, Byzantines, Arab-Muslim invaders, the Crusaders, the Mameluks or the Ottoman Turks.

The result is an indigenous people with a broad amalgam of ethnic backgrounds. Some Palestinian Christians today may claim to be descendants of the first Messianic Jewish community in Israel. But this would be difficult to prove after all the turbulent history in the region.

Scholars have also documented the changes when Jews started to return and cultivate the Land of Israel in the 1800s. Many Arabs from neighboring countries came to find work created by the Zionist movement.

Identity of the Palestinian Church

Most of these people today would call themselves Palestinians. The vast majority of these Palestinians are Muslims. They not only reject the teachings of the Bible but also maintain that Jews have no right or historic connection to the land.

Supported by the global ummah (body of Muslim believers), they resist by all means the restoration of Israel on the land. Much like the Samaritans in the times of Nehemiah and Ezra.

On the other hand, the small Palestinian Christian community shares a common faith in Christ and the Bible that we do. However, they have developed their own unique twist to history and theology. Many of the Palestinian Christians contest the restoration of a Jewish State, both politically and theologically.

In their own nationalized version of Replacement theology, they not only see the Jewish people as being replaced by the Church. But also, in their eyes Jesus has become a Palestinian Himself – one of the true custodians of the Holy Land.

The promises of God to Israel have elapsed by either being fulfilled in Jesus or are now falling to the Palestinian people. Like in biblical times, both sides rarely mingle. The tense relationship has drawn even more blood than in the times of Nehemiah, Ezra and Jesus.

How can the Church reach Palestinians?

Paul notes that Jesus “has become a servant to the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the fathers” (Romans 15:8). He was sent by God to “remember his holy covenant, which he swore to Abraham” (Luke 1:72ff).

Jesus did not to forget or forfeit that covenant. In His time of earthly ministry, He set a remarkable example for us on how to reach out to the Palestinians. He did so without compromising the divine calling of His own people.

This might be a challenge, as the harsh realities on the ground are often more complex than they appear. For Palestinian Christians to look into the eyes of young Israeli soldiers with love can be close to impossible. And to call them “beloved for the sake of the fathers” is far more difficult than any Christian from abroad.

For many Jewish believers, it can be equally difficult to walk into that relationship with love. How do you call family the people who question their biblical history and voice support for Israel’s worst enemies?

The Church in the nations is called to pray and care for both sides.

Hope and Healing in the Middle East

We are called to uphold God’s promises to Israel. The Bible encourages us to support a nation which after 2000 years has returned to the land of their fathers. Especially as it remains surrounded by implacable foes bent on her destruction.

We are also called to recognize the needs of our Arab brothers and sisters in the land. They are often caught in between their long-time Muslim neighbours and the new Jewish reality.

That means we are called to be peacemakers without compromising truth. May the Lord help us in pursuing these worthy aims.

Over the last few weeks, Israel has dominated global headlines as tensions and violence have escalated across our nation.

Many people are hurting, both in Israel and in Gaza—and while this conflict may not be new, there is a fresh sting every time it resurfaces.

As believers, we’ve been entrusted with the message of reconciliation that can only come through the name of Jesus. We believe that God is calling us to be His hands and feet and bring Hope & Healing to those who are suffering and in the greatest need during this time.

Will you join us? www.firmisrael.org/hope

Dr. Jürgen Bühler is an ordained minister and trained physicist who serves as Executive Director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. His unique scriptural insights into issues relating to Israel, the Church and the nations have placed him in great demand as a speaker all over the world.
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