Old Testament,  Theology

When did Israel Stop Being God’s People?

Photo of flag of Israel

No one can deny that Israel had a unique role as God’s chosen people in the past. They received a privilege no other nation had ever experienced! They were his firstborn son (Exod 4:22) and his treasured possession (Exod 19:5; Deut 7:6). When Moses was reminding the people of their special role as God’s people, he noted the uniqueness of God speaking to them “out of the midst of the fire” and taking “a nation for himself from the midst of another nation by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war…” (Deut 4:33–34). We read one of the most descriptive statements about Israel’s unique status as God’s people in Deuteronomy 7:6.

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.

Deuteronomy 7:6

Nobody denies Israel’s historical privilege. However, many have argued that due to Israel’s disobedience, Israel lost the privileged status of being God’s chosen people. Because they rejected the Messiah, Israel stopped being God’s people. But, when would this have taken place? And how can we evaluate such an assessment?

I would propose a simple test to ask whether or not the Abrahamic covenant is still in operation today. The Abrahamic covenant is, by its very definition, intrinsically involved in defining the people of Israel. Thus, the Abrahamic covenant holds the key to answering the question of Israel’s status as God’s people.

The Abrahamic Covenant, Israel, and Symmetrical Blessing and Curse

From the beginning of the Abrahamic covenant, God promised He would make Abraham into a great nation (Gen 12:2). In later passages, as God expanded on this principle, He stated, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you” (Gen 17:6). The promises of the Abrahamic covenant were intergenerational. In the words of Genesis 17:7, “between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant.”

One of the integral parts of the Abrahamic covenant was the built-in symmetrical cause and effect directly proportional to one’s relationship with Abraham (or his descendants). Genesis 12:3 explains, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

The emphasis here is on one’s relationship with Abraham and his descendants (Israel), not on Israel’s character. In other words, there is no stipulation in this verse that depends on Israel’s obedience. Therefore, regardless of Abraham’s character or the character of his descendants, those who bless Abraham and his descendants will receive God’s blessing, and those who mistreat them will likewise receive God’s curse.

The Abrahamic Covenant and Israel in Genesis

The above principle plays out throughout Genesis. Take, for example, the following narrative (Gen 12:10–20). It is not randomly placed, but meant as an illustration of God’s covenant in action. The Egyptian Pharaoh mistreats Abraham by taking his wife. Although it was unknowingly (due to Abraham’s deception), God still brings plagues upon Pharaoh and his household (Gen 12:17). “Him who dishonors you, I will curse.”

We read a similar story in Genesis 20, where the king of Gerar, Abimelech, falls prey to the same deception that Abraham committed earlier in Genesis 12. Interestingly, Abimelech tells God he didn’t mean to sin against Abraham but was deceived (Gen 20:5). Yet, God still had brought him under a curse. Abimelech corrects his actions toward Abraham and Sarah, and the Lord heals Abimelech’s family (Gen 20:17-18). “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse.”

We see this principle throughout Genesis beyond Abraham. For example, Jacob travels to Laban, who treats Jacob well initially. Because of Laban’s generous treatment of Jacob, God blesses Laban (Gen 30:27). But Laban mistreats Jacob and begins dishonoring him, changing his wages ten times (Gen 31:7). Thus, God makes Laban poor, transferring the wealth of Laban to Jacob (Gen 31:9, 16).

Similarly, the narratives of Genesis 37–50 show that God takes care of His people by giving them a special place in Egypt. Initially, Egypt becomes very prosperous and receives tremendous blessing due to their favored treatment of Joseph and his family. But, as the book of Exodus shows us, Egypt enslaves Israel and oppresses them (Exod 1:9-11). This oppression of Israel results in God bringing plagues upon Egypt while He delivers His “firstborn son,” Israel (Exod 4:22).

Many scholars have noted the connection between Genesis 12:3 and the following narratives in the rest of Genesis. Genesis continues to develop the idea that those who dishonor Israel receive God’s judgment, and those who bless Israel receive God’s blessing. An objective interpretation indicates this principle is true regardless of Israel’s faithfulness to God.

The Abrahamic Covenant and Israel in Exile

Throughout the Old Testament, the Genesis 12:3 principle continues to affect those who have a relationship with Israel. Although I could mention numerous examples, I want to focus on one—Ammon’s dishonoring Israel in Ezekiel 25.

For context, we need to understand that one of the last kings of Judah, Manasseh, drove Israel to sin in dreadful ways. Under Manasseh, the people sunk into such a level of sin that we read, “Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the LORD destroyed before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:9). In other words, if you thought the Canaanites were terrible, check out the Israelites under Manasseh!

Because of Israel’s sin, God promises exile for His people (2 Kings 21:14–15). The people had sinned, the kings had sinned, and God would justly punish his people. And he does, bringing the Babylonians in and leveling the city of Jerusalem, sending the people of Israel into exile for their disobedience.

In the aftermath of God’s discipline, we read a fascinating prophecy in Ezekiel 25. Ezekiel was prophesying to the people of Ammon after the exile had taken place. Notice Ezekiel’s wording.

Because you said, ‘Aha!’ over my sanctuary when it was profaned, and over the land of Israel when it was made desolate, and over the house of Judah when they went into exile, therefore behold, I am handing you over to the people of the East for a possession.            

Ezekiel 25:3b–4a

In other words, Ammon mocked Israel when they went into exile. That is the reason God is handing them over to their enemies. Ezekiel goes on to give another reason they will be judged.

Because you have clapped your hands and stamped your feet and rejoiced with all the malice within your soul against the land of Israel, therefore, behold, I have stretched out my hand against you, and will hand you over as plunder to the nations. And I will cut you off from the peoples and will make you perish out of the countries; I will destroy you. Then you will know that I am the Lord.

Ezekiel 25:6-7

What was the Ammonites’ great sin which led God to bring judgment upon them? They clapped their hands, stamped their feet, and rejoiced “against the land of Israel.” This was Ammon’s sin.

But let me remind you that Israel justly deserved their judgment. They had sinned and so deserved destruction. Yet, Ammon was not to rejoice over this fact. They should have mourned.

Does Disobedience Nullify the Abrahamic Covenant?

There is an important principle to understand in both Abrahamic and Davidic covenants—unfaithfulness does not nullify the covenant. This is illustrated in the life of Jehoram, who walked in the ways of Ahab, and yet the text says of God’s relationship with Jehoram, “Yet the Lord was not willing to destroy the house of David, because of the covenant that he had made with David, and since he had promised to give a lamp to him and to his sons forever” (2 Chron 21:7). Jehoram certainly received God’s judgment, but the Lord would remain faithful to His promises to the line of David.

Similarly, as we observe in the above texts, the Abrahamic covenant remains operational even when Abraham, or later, Israel, is in disobedience. The Genesis 12:3 principle is true even when Israel is receiving the just chastisement for their sins! Thus, it is rather self-evident that disobedience on behalf of Abraham or his descendants did not nullify the provisions of the covenant.

Does the Abrahamic Covenant Continue Today?

The title of this article is “When did Israel Stop Being God’s People?” When someone asks about whether or not Israel continues to be God’s special people, they are asking a question about the Abrahamic covenant.

The question to ask is whether the Abrahamic covenant remains in operation today? I see nothing in Scripture that says the Abrahamic covenant has changed or that Israel has lost their status as God’s special people. On the contrary, I would argue that Genesis 12:3 remains just as operative today as it did when God initiated the covenant. Of course, Israel is still in sin and remains in exile today. But that does not mean Israel is insignificant or that the Abrahamic covenant is not still in effect. Israel remains God’s “treasured possession.” Those who disagree with this must answer when the Abrahamic covenant changed so that Genesis 12:3 no longer applies?

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

2 Comments

  • Lea

    Those promises to Abraham were that through his seed Jesus Christ would be born. The whole reason that God called and chose Abraham to create the Hebrew lineage was in order to bring about salvation to the whole of mankind. To make himself known to the world, that is why they had those laws and commands to separate themselves from the surrounding pagan nations.

    The seed of Abraham is fulfilled in Jesus Christ in that a new nation was born when Jesus Christ established it as the Kingdom of God on earth. The OT also promised to destroy Israel which happened in 70AD. Why would God want to establish them again? It would mean that Jesus should apologise to them for destroying them in the first place.

    The Genesis verse now belongs to the true Israel of God and that is the Body of Christ. For it is clear that scriptures have always taught that those in the New Covenant are now the descendants of Abraham and Israel of God.

    Israel has not existed for 1900 years. How do you think the Christians have understood this until 1800s when the Pentacostal Charismatics altered the interpretations of the Bible and taught the false doctrine of zionism? Social engineering is not a new thing it seems, not at all.

  • Mark Blackburn

    Wonderful article Peter – very insightful and helpful! Quick question, do you think Gen 12:3 is limited to Abraham, Isaac and Israel? Is there any ongoing application or extension of this promise further than Israel practically speaking? Namely, is there any applicability to believers and, by extension, the church given that we are spiritual children of Abraham?

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