And there came to him the Pharisees and Sadducees tempting: and they asked him to shew them a sign from heaven. But he answered and said to them: When it is evening, you say, It will be fair weather, for the sky is red. And in the morning: Today there will be a storm, for the sky is red and lowering. You know then how to discern the face of the sky: and can you not know the signs of the times? [Matthew 16:1-3]
A concept that may not find easy favor with some Catholics is that the Holy Land belongs to the Jews. This concept, along with the idea that the modern state of Israel is a fulfillment of Old and New Testament prophecies, has become a staple of evangelical Protestant theology, at least in the United States. They have added to the mix the ridiculous idea of a pre-Tribulation “rapture”- a time when Christ will come to remove the “true Christians” from the earth, right before the “time of Jacob’s trouble”, aka the “seven year pact with the Antichrist”. Even when I was reading the books that advanced these ideas, I never for a moment believed that Christians would be raptured before the tribulation, simply because it made no sense. Since when are Christians exempt from troublesome times? If anything we are here specifically to suffer through them. Plus, if Christ comes before the tribulation, He would then need to come back after it, meaning He would have not just a second but also a third Advent. It makes no sense and I won’t waste more time debunking it.
However, there are two things we mustn’t lose sight of. One is that we are told that Christians will meet Christ in the air:
For the Lord himself shall come down from heaven with commandment, and with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead who are in Christ, shall rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet Christ, into the air, and so shall we be always with the Lord. Wherefore, comfort ye one another with these words. [1 Thessalonians 4:15-17]
Two is that there are multiple prophecies that the Jews will return to the land promised them by God.
There are two covenants. Two testaments. The first is a type of the second. The second is the more perfect. The problem with Catholic dispensationalist theology, as it is applied to the Church being the “new Israel”, is that it assumes that Christ's fulfillment of the old covenant means that it is abrogated. I remind the reader of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans which I have quoted elsewhere: “As concerning the gospel, indeed, they are enemies for your sake: but as touching the election, they are most dear for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance.” If this is true, which it must be, St. Paul writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then the Jews still matter. Their return to the Holy Land is a sign of the times. I believe that the modern-day state of Israel, born out of the tragedy of the Holocaust, is going to be held up on Judgment Day as a sign of the times to unbelievers. If I lose you by saying that, so be it. This is what drew me, as a Jew, to Christ in the first place, and I’ve never lost sight of it.
Here is the case I want to make. Starting in Genesis, a man called Abram is given a promise by the Lord, the Creator:
And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot was separated from him: Lift up thy eyes, and look from the place wherein thou now art, to the north and to the south, to the east and to the west. All the land which thou seest, I will give to thee, and to thy seed for ever. And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: if any man be able to number the dust of the earth, he shall be able to number thy seed also. Arise and walk through the land in the length, and in the breadth thereof: for I will give it to thee. So Abram removing his tent came and dwelt by the vale of Mambre, which is in Hebron: and he built there an altar to the Lord. [Genesis 13:14-18]
In Genesis 15, the Lord has Abram sacrifice some animals and divide some of them, placing them on the ground. At the setting of the sun, “a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great and darksome horror seized upon him [verse 12]”, and he is given a foreknowledge of the bondage of his people, albeit with the promise that they will return, after the fullness of the iniquities of the Amorrhites.
That day God made a covenant with Abram, saying: To thy seed will I give this land, from the river of Egypt even to the great river Euphrates. The Cineans and Cenezites, the Cedmonites, And the Hethites, and the Pherezites, the Raphaim also, And the Amorrhites, and the Chanaanites, and the Gergesites, and the Jebusites. [Genesis 15:18-21]
In Genesis 17, between the Lord’s changing of Abram’s name to Abraham, “father of the multitude”, and establishing the covenant of circumcision, He once again promises the land to him:
And I will establish my covenant between me and thee, and between thy seed after thee in their generations, by a perpetual covenant: to be a God to thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give to thee, and to thy seed, the land of thy sojournment, all the land of Chanaan for a perpetual possession, and I will be their God. [Genesis 17:7-8]
Each time the land is promised, it is accompanied by an action. First, Abram is told to walk through the length and the breadth of the land. Second, Abram is told to sacrifice animals and divide them. Third, He is given the establishment of the circumcision covenant.
Who dares to suggest that God abrogated His covenant with Abraham and his seed that the land of Canaan would be “a perpetual possession”? Does perpetuity stop in 70 A.D.? That offends on two levels. It denies that God has the will or the power to fulfill His promise. And it denies the evidence of our own eyes, the return of the Jews to the land of ancient Canaan. This covenant has nothing to do with the Church. The Church has never ruled from the Holy Land. Her rule has been very visibly from Rome.
Abraham is the father of many nations. He is the father of both Ishmael and Isaac. So how do we know which line of his descendants have the promise of the land?
And the Lord appeared to him and said: Go not down into Egypt, but stay in the land that I shall tell thee. And sojourn in it, and I will be with thee, and will bless thee: for to thee and to thy seed I will give all these countries, to fulfill the oath which I swore to Abraham thy father. And I will multiply thy seed like the stars of heaven: and I will give to thy posterity all these countries: and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed. Because Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my precepts and commandments, and observed my ceremonies and laws. So Isaac abode in Gerara. [Genesis 26:2-6]
It is to Isaac that the promise continues, and we know this in the context of the story of Hagar and Ishmael. And of the sons of Isaac, the promise goes to Jacob. It is in the last part of his dream of the ladder standing on the earth with the top reaching to heaven:
And the Lord leaning upon the ladder, saying to him: I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac; the land, wherein thou sleepest, I will give to thee and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth: thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and thy seed all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed. And I will be thy keeper whithersoever thou goest, and will bring thee back into this land: neither will I leave thee, till I shall have accomplished all that I have said. [Genesis 28:13-15]
In an average-sized copy of the Bible, Genesis takes up fewer than 60 pages, but there is an incredible amount of detail packed into those pages. What I’ve always been fascinated by are the choices of detail. As an example, in Genesis 24, we have the narrative of the servant of Abraham who goes to find a wife for Isaac, and he goes and finds Rebecca at the well. Not only does the narrative go on for over 25 verses, but then, when the servant is seated before Rebecca’s brother, Laban, rather than the narrative saying something along the lines of, “and the servant recounted everything that had happened to him”, it has him actually recount all the details again. I find it interesting. Some find it to be evidence that there were multiple redactors, or cause them to question why God would repeat Himself that way and so therefore the Bible can’t be true, etc., etc. Regardless of that, there are times when the details provided serve a very clear purpose. Genesis 23 recounts Abraham’s purchase of a cave at Hebron as a burial place. I would argue that this serves a legal purpose, it is a witness to Abraham’s ownership of this cave. (The King James, following the Masoretic translation, calls the cave “Machpelah” which means “double tombs”, while the Douay refers to it as “the double cave”.) I beg your indulgence as I quote the entire chapter:
And Sara lived a hundred and twenty-seven years. And she died in the city of Arbee which is Hebron, in the land of Chanaan: and Abraham came to mourn and weep for her. And after he rose up from the funeral obsequies, he spoke to the children of Heth, saying: I am a stranger and sojourner among you: give me the right of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead. The children of Heth answered, saying:
My Lord, hear us, thou art a prince of God among us: bury thy dead in our principal sepulchres: and no man shall have power to hinder thee from burying thy dead in his sepulchre. Abraham rose up, and bowed down to the people of the land, to wit the children of Heth: And said to them: If it please your soul that I should bury my dead, hear me, and intercede for me to Ephron the son of Seor. That he may give me the double cave, which he hath in the end of his field: for as much money as it is worth he shall give it me before you, for a possession of a burying place. Now Ephron dwelt in the midst of the children of Heth. And Ephron made answer to Abraham in the hearing of all that went in at the gate of the city, saying:
Let it not be so, my lord, but do thou rather hearken to what I say: The field I deliver to thee, and the cave that is therein, in the presence of the children of my people, bury thy dead. Abraham bowed down before the people of the land, And he spoke to Ephron, in the presence of the people: I beseech thee to hear me: I will give money for the field: take it, and so I will bury my dead in it. And Ephron answered: My lord, hear me. The ground which thou desirest, is worth four hundred sicles of silver: this is the price between me and thee: but what is this? bury thy dead.
And when Abraham had heard this, he weighed out the money that Ephron had asked, in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred sicles of silver of common current money. And the field that before was Ephron's, wherein was the double cave, looking towards Mambre, both it and the cave, and all the trees thereof in all its limits round about, Was made sure to Abraham for a possession, in the sight of the children of Heth, and of all that went in at the gate of his city. And so Abraham buried Sara his wife, in a double cave of the field, that looked towards Mambre, this is Hebron in the land of Chanaan. And the field was made sure to Abraham, and the cave that was in it, for a possession to bury in, by the children of Heth. [Genesis 23:1-20]
Keep in mind, first, that it is very important to the Genesis narrative that Abraham not be seen as accepting anything from the inhabitants of Canaan. When he saves his nephew Lot, he refuses to receive anything from the king of Sodom, “That from the very woof thread unto the shoe latchet, I will not take of any things that are thine, lest thou say I have enriched Abram. [Genesis 14:23]” So, here, the narrative has the purpose of showing that Abraham purchased the cave of his burial, and that of his family. It is interesting, and tragic, how the Cave of the Patriarchs is disputed by the Jews and Muslims to this day.
When Jacob wrestles with the man (identified as an angel in Hosea 12:3-4), he refuses to let him go until he blesses him, and the man tells him his name shall be Israel. In Genesis 35, the name is associated with the promise of the land:
And God appeared again to Jacob, after he returned from Mesopotamia of Syria, and he blessed him, Saying: Thou shalt not be called any more Jacob, but Israel shall be thy name. And he called him Israel. And said to him: I am God Almighty, increase thou and be multiplied. Nations and peoples of nations shall be from thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins. And the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give to thee, and to thy seed after thee. [Genesis 35:9-12]
As Catholics, we know the significance of the Lord’s changing a man’s name, as Simon was called Peter, the Rock, and upon that Rock was built His Church. So when the Lord changed Jacob’s name to Israel, it shouldn’t surprise us as having an equal significance. After Jacob blesses his 12 sons, he tells them to bury him in the burial cave purchased by Abraham, again emphasizing the importance of that purchase:
And he charged them, saying: I am now going to be gathered to my people: bury me with my fathers in the double cave, which is in the field of Ephron the Hethite, Over against Mambre in the land of Chanaan, which Abraham bought together with the field of Ephron the Hethite for a possession to bury in.
There they buried him, and Sara his wife: there was Isaac buried with Rebecca his wife: there also Lia doth lie buried. And when he had ended the commandments, wherewith he instructed his sons, he drew up his feet upon the bed, and died: and he was gathered to his people. [Genesis 49:29-32]
So when the body of Jacob is brought back to Canaan in the next chapter, to be interred in the cave, he and his first wife are there with his parents and grandparents, thus: Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebecca, Israel & Leah. Curiously, Rachel, Jacob's beloved wife, but not his first, is not buried here, but "in the highway leading to Ephrata, this is Bethlehem [Genesis 35:19]". Rachel's name, like Rebecca's, begins with a Resh, equivalent to our letter R. There are not 2 Resh's in "Yisrael":
In the summer of  a Bedouin shepherd boy, pursuing a runaway goat along the cliffs that rim the Dead Sea, accidentally came upon an unknown cave. He threw a stone into the cave and heard the sound of breaking clay. It was thus that Israel was supplied with its most important archeological relic to date--the Dead Sea Scrolls.
For Israelis, the scrolls have since assumed a hallowed air. In the eyes of some, the scrolls are almost titles of real estate, like deeds of possession to a contested country [Elon, Amos, The Israelis: Founders and Sons, 1972 Bantam Books, NY, p 372]