Prophecy doesn’t justify Trump’s Jerusalem statement

Dec 14, 2017 by

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In a recent broadcast of The 700 Club, the evangelist Pat Robertson welcomed President Trump’s announcement about moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. “It’s absolutely crucial in terms of biblical prophecy,” Robertson said.

While I know firsthand the harsh conditions imposed on Palestinians, my comments here focus on the claim that actions today by and for modern Israel are justified by “biblical prophecy.”

Like many evangelicals, Robertson believes the modern state of Israel fulfills a biblical prediction that was a prerequisite for the second coming of Jesus. The near return of Jesus is then linked, it is believed, to supporting the state of Israel regardless of how it acts and in spite of the political consequences. The question of Jerusalem is a piece of this scenario.

The scenario is based on predictions that describe a shifting collection of entities, including the United States and Russia, the United Nations, a worldwide banking system involving credit cards and the internet, and much more. None of these things were close to coming into existence when the Bible was written.

The predictions use selected verses, taken from Hebrew and Greek scriptures, written 2,000 or more years ago, across a wide span of time by multiple authors addressing a variety of contexts. The claim is that these references, lifted out of their original contexts, form a unified prediction of events happening some 2,000 years in the future.

All writers expect their audiences to be able to understand what is written. But to both authors and early readers, nonexistent nations in a nonexistent United Nations on an unknown continent and a world linked by late 20th-century technology would be mere gibberish.

Proponents of predictions will claim that God can do anything and thus God could have guided the biblical authors to send a message to 21st-century readers. But that claim makes God deceitful, since the authors thought they knew their audience, and the readers assumed it was addressed to them and they could understand.

Besides, Robertson and company are not the first to make such predictions. There is a long history, stretching back to the early Middle Ages, of efforts to use the Bible to identify future events coming true for contemporary readers. Absolutely all — 100 percent — of such predictions have been wrong. For a recent survey of such 20th-century predictions, see When Time Shall Be No More by the late University of Wisconsin professor Paul Boyer. The reason these predictions fail is that the authors were not making predictions: They were addressing readers in their own time.

To understand the biblical materials, we need to take seriously the original audience. When the Hebrew prophets warned about the destruction of the Israelites, it was Assyrian or Babylonian armies that threatened. When a prophet spoke of a return, it concerned return from the Babylonian exile. When the Gospels have warnings, it is about looming devastation if Rome is provoked — which happened with the destruction of the city in 70 CE. The seven seals in Revelation are not seven ages of world history but symbolic references to the emperors who ruled between the time of Jesus and the time of the book’s author.

Since the Bible is not making predictions about things impossible for the original readers to grasp, Bible readers should stop judging actions and policy today on the basis of the failed idea of predictions. Those who want to apply the Bible should consider the many texts from the Hebrew prophets that speak of letting “justice roll down like waters,” and the words of Jesus who quoted one of those prophets when he announced that his mission would “proclaim release to the captives” and “let the oppressed go free.” Following these biblical statements would reorient Middle East policy greatly.

J. Denny Weaver is professor emeritus of religion at Bluffton (Ohio) University. He is a member of Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church. This article was originally published in The Cap Times of Madison.

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  • David Bontrager

    I am truly sorry that the Holy Bible is only to be interpreted by erudite scholars like you. I will stop reading the bible because none of it can be interpreted by ordinary people like me. I pray daily for wisdom from the scriptures and I believe God can provide me with truth which is not filtered by some religious point of view. How is your relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ? You and I need only to pray for truth and he will provide.His is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory. Peace!

    • Bruce Leichty

      Brother Bontrager, one thing that I think we could all agree on, even the erudite scholar J. Denny Weaver, is that we all are capable of finding Jesus and having a committed relationship with him, and with his Father, based on our reading of the Gospels. No letters are needed after our names, and the message of the saving grace and discipline of Jesus is certainly not limited to one audience at one point in history — I would think Brother Weaver, for all his argument about audience, would agree with that. But when it comes to making grand pronouncements about God’s design for our World and for the nations, I’d propose that at the very least we put on the cloak of humility. I would see that lacking in the person who is utterly confident he has the unfiltered truth because of his own prayer, just as I would take issue with some of the caricaturing of his theological adversaries and loaded language that Prof. Weaver uses (i.e. God would be deceitful) which I don’t think is either humble or helpful.

      I certainly agree with Brother Weaver, though, that way too much faith and hope are invested these days in a nation-state “Israel” which Jesus would not have recognized. We should know that by paying close attention to the Lord’s own words. Moreover, we can still believe in a God who acts in history without professing to always see His moving hand. Nor do I sense that Brother Weaver was implying or saying that none of the Scriptures can be interpreted by ordinary people. I’d put it this way: let’s simply be quite conscious of our own limitations and also of those who claim that Jesus was establishing or blessing any particular blueprints for the future instead of showing us an eternal Way for living and honoring God the Father.

    • Harvey Yoder

      In all fairness, it doesn’t require an erudite scholar to agree that we need to take the context of a text seriously, to understand as well as possible the original audience for which it was intended.

  • Rainer Moeller

    Interestingly, it was a climax of critical theological science (as against mere ideology) when Johannes Weiss et alii around 1900 discovered that Jesus and the Jesus movement were deeply eschatological and apocalyptical – that they were not simply intramundane reformers but believed that the end of the world was near (a theological point repeated by John Yoder).
    Now did the Bluffton seminary really make new discoveries about the Biblical text which allow us to return to the standpoint before 1900? I doubt it.

  • Berry Friesen

    David, Bruce and Rainer, ingeneral aren’t we always headed for trouble when we conflate the Jews–one of the peoples of the Earth–with Israel, the nation state? The hope for the Jews was planted in the promises to Abraham and to Moses. The hope for a Jewish nation-state was planted via the various tales we are told (in the Bible and elsewhere) about the David-Solomon dynasty. The two are different; indeed, within the revealing of Messiah Jesus, the former is true and the latter is false, notwithstanding the amont of text the latter contributes to the First Testament.

    As evidence of this, let us consider the role of the Davidic dynasty in the teaching of Jesus, the sermons of Peter, or the letters of Paul. Do we see any of them characterize as “good news” the renewal and re-establishment of a Jewish nation-state (Israel)? All three men lived and spoke during a period of intense Jewish nationalism (just before the crisis of the Jewish rebellion against Rome and the Roman sacking of Jerusalem (including the destruction of the Second Temple). If any of these Christian authorities placed a Jewish nation-state (Israel) at the center of his hope, we can be sure we would see evidence of it in the Second Testament. We do not.

    So how shall we hold the words of the Christian Zionists–those who insist the full salvation of Messiah Jesus is somehow dependent on the triumphant return and re-establishment of a Jewish nation-state (Israel)? They promote an error revealed by Jesus in his confrontations with the religious authorities of his time. It is an error that is causing great harm to the cause of Jesus and to the peoples who live in the lands variously called Canaan, Israel, Palestine. Like Denny, we should cast it aside.

    As Harvey notes, none of this requires great scholarly preparation. It only requires us to read our Bibles carefully and without the idolatry of the nation-state clouding our vision.