A Response to Steve Lehrer’s "Israel: An Unbelieving People"

by Greg Welty

Steve Lehrer of IDS has written a piece entitled "Israel: An Unbelieving People," in which he tells us that:

"New Covenant Theology teaches that Israel is an unbelieving picture of the people of God and (except for the remnant of Israelites who actually believed) the individuals of that nation received God’s judgment. In the following pages we intend to show that the uniform teaching of Scripture is that the nation of Israel was never a believing people as a whole."

Now, it appears to me that the above thesis is either trivially true, or not well-supported. The main claim here is that "the nation of Israel was never a believing people as a whole… except for the remnant of Israelites who actually believed." On one interpretation, everyone believes this. Everyone believes that Israel had some unbelievers in her midst in each generation of her history. Likewise, everyone believes that only the remnant of Israelites were believers, especially if we define the remnant in terms of those who believe. Thus, the claim is trivially true, and doesn’t mark off NCT from either dispensationalism or classic covenant theology.

However, what Lehrer is really saying is that the majority of Israelites were never believers, taking her history as a whole. But this is a difficult claim to sustain, and I do not see how the biblical evidence he cites actually requires this claim.


OT Evidence

Lehrer cites Heb 3:7-14, but this is about the wilderness generation.

Lehrer cites Dt 31:24-29, but this is about the generation that crossed the Jordan. And Moses’ prediction is about a future generation of Israel, namely those who went away into exile.

Lehrer notes the Joshua generation, but here it is clear that that generation was a spiritual success.

Lehrer draws an analogy between the Christian’s struggle with sin, and the Israelites’ struggle with sin in the days of the judges: "a thoughtful Christian might look at his own life and see the same pattern of rebellion, repentance, and restoration as seen in the book of Judges." I think the analogy undermines his thesis. For just as the Christian is chastised but not forsaken for his sin, so the Israelites in the days of the judges were chastised but not forsaken for their sin. God didn’t kick them out of the land, as Deuteronomy warned. He didn’t make them perish in the desert, as he did with the wilderness generation. Thus, this isn’t a picture of Israel as an unbelieving people of God, but as the people of God struggling with sin. Parallels are not difficult to find in the Christian life. Paul warns against greed, which is idolatry (Col 3:5). It is Christians who are warned to flee from idolatry (1Co 10:14; Ac 15:20, 29; 21:25; 1Jn 5:21). Paul exhorted Christians that they were to marry in the Lord (1Co 7:39; 2Co 6:14). The sad fact of the matter is that Christians struggle with greed and other forms of idolatry, and they often marry non-Christians. This does not make them unbelievers.

Consider Gideon, who repeatedly tested the Lord (Jdg 6:17, 36-40), was too afraid to oppose idolatry publicly (Jdg 6:27), meted out harsh, tortuous punishment on his own countrymen (Jdg 8:7), and actually promoted idolatry in his hometown (Jdg 8:27). Consider Barak, who wouldn’t fight unless a woman was at his side (Jdg 4:8). Consider Samson, who lusted after and demanded a Philistine as his wife (Jdg 14:1-3), violated his Nazirite vow (Jdg 14:8-9), consorted with prostitutes (Jdg 16:1), and caused the Lord to leave him through his own disobedience (Jdg 16:20). Consider Jephthah, who made a rash vow of human sacrifice (like the Ammonites around him, Jdg 11:30-31), and actually fulfilled that vow, devoting to destruction not just the enemies of the Lord but his own daughter as well (v. 39). If we evaluate the lives of these men according to Lehrer’s standards, they would be idolatrous unbelievers. But the book of Hebrews sets forth Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah, by name, as examples of Christian faith that the Hebrew Christians were to emulate in a time of trial (Heb 11:32-40). Perfectionism in evaluating the lives of both Christians and Israelites should be avoided.

Lehrer references 1Sa 8:7-8, but their sin was in asking for a king with wrong motives, and in not asking for a king which God himself chose (God always envisioned a king for the people, Dt 17:14-15). This is not their rejection of everything about God.

Lehrer mentions David and Solomon. But here it is clear that there are at least two generations, under David and Solomon, in which we certainly don’t have the picture of Israel as the unbelieving people of God.

Lehrer notes that God eventually poured out his wrath upon his people by exiling them, first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians. But the very fact that God waited this long until he brought the covenant curses upon his people proves that Israel was qualitatively different at this stage then they were at previous stages. God was faithful to bring his covenant curses upon the people when they were required. He would have been unfaithful to bring them earlier, and unfaithful not to bring them when he did.

To be sure, according to 2Ki 21:10-15, the Israelites had always done evil in God’s eyes (so do Christians) and had always provoked him to anger/displeasure (so do Christians, who can grieve the Spirit, Eph 4:30, and bring his disciplining chastisement, rebuke, and punishment, Heb 12:5-6). But the point is that they weren’t apostate until God brought his final judgement on them in 711 and 586 B.C. Indeed, the reference to God’s chastisement in Heb 12:5-6 is instructive, for there the writer is merely citing Pr 3:11-12, thus explicitly linking the Lord’s chastisement received by his people under the Old Covenant, with what Christians can expect under the New.

Lehrer refers to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. But the fact that they were brought back to the land proves that they had truly repented and returned to the Lord with all their heart and soul, for that was the condition of the promise which brought them back (Dt 30:1-6). And at best, Neh 13:23-27 is only a reference to some of the men of Judah, who intermarried. And even here, that is not evidence that they must have been unbelievers, unless we want to conclude that any Christian who marries an unbeliever is ipso facto an unbeliever.

Thus, in the OT, what Lehrer documents is God’s judgement on the wilderness generation (1600 B.C.) and the exiled generation (711 and 586 B.C.), as well as the scattered sins of the Israelites in between. Certainly this is not sufficient to conclude: "We have seen that the entire history of Israel reveals the nation of Israel as an unfaithful, rebellious and unbelieving people. In each significant historical epoch of the Old Covenant era, Israel turns away from God and is judged accordingly… Israel as a whole is viewed in Scripture as an unbelieving people…"


NT Evidence

Lehrer’s evidence from the gospels in the NT merely reveals that the Israelites were apostate in Jesus’ day. Thus, we have three generations of apostates: the generation of Moses (the wilderness), the generation of Jeremiah (the exile) and the generation of Jesus (the pruning of the olive tree). How do three points on a chart define the whole history of a nation?

With respect to Mt 8:10-12, Lehrer cites D. A. Carson’s commentary, but fails to cite those portions which undermine his thesis. The focus is on Jesus’ own generation, and the contrast is not absolute:

"But this Gentile penetrated more deeply into the nature of Jesus' person and authority than any Jew of his timeThe reversal is not absolute. The patriarchs themselves are Jews, as were the earliest disciples (Rom 11:1-5). But these verses affirm, in a way that could only shock Jesus' hearers, that the locus of the people of God would not always be the Jewish race" (my italics).

Lehrer reads "the majority of Israelites" into this passage, but clearly this overinterprets the hyperbolic language. One might as well conclude from Jesus’ statement that "the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation [ethnos] bearing the fruits of it" (Mt 21:43), that the majority of Gentiles in history will be in heaven.

Lehrer argues from Gal 3 that "the children of Abraham are redefined as being all those who trust in Christ, rather than all those who are physically descended from Abraham." Sure enough. But since nothing is said in this passage about how many of the physical descendants were of faith, it is difficult to see how this passage supports Lehrer’s main thesis.

In short, little exegetical reason has been given to think that believers existed among the Israelites "as the exception rather than the rule," that is, that the Israelites were "primarily unbelievers." At best, it appears that Lehrer’s conclusion is the result of hasty generalisation from the facts.

© 2002 Greg Welty

Last Revised: 3 April 2002