A Biblical Response to Israeli Apartheid: A Reflection based on Isaiah 56

You may also download a pdf of a longer briefing paper on a Biblical Response to Israeli Apartheid as well as a Bible study for personal reflection or group discussion.

Although the term apartheid emerged in the 20th Century, supremacism, and racial prejudice can be traced back to biblical times – and sadly, as prevalent even among God’s people, as it is now. Through the prophet Isaiah, God says,

“Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” …And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants… and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain… for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3, 6-7)

Now think about it, why would foreigners say “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people” if God tells them not to? Why would foreigners feel excluded? Because the Lord’s people were doing the excluding. They thought they could maintain their racial purity by not mixing with Gentiles, by forbidding mixed marriages and by erecting separation barriers. 

Notice why the Lord God forbids this arrogance and prejudice, “for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7). God says this is “my house” not yours. “I decide who is welcome in my house”.

Jesus quotes these words in Mark 11. 

“On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”(Mark 11:15-17)

Why does Jesus quote Isaiah 56? Because the Temple had become segregated by ethnicity. Solomon’s temple was not segregated, but the Temple Herod built centuries later had separate areas for Jews and for Gentiles divided by a Hafrada fence. 

The merchants and money changers were trading in the Court of the Gentiles. This made it difficult, if not impossible, for foreigners to worship. The prices for doves and lambs, and the exchange rates for temple currency, were inflated to exploit the gullible foreign pilgrims. But there is more to it than that.

Traditionally, this story is called? “Jesus cleansing of the Temple”. The more I think about it, the less I am convinced. Sure, Jesus was making a statement. He was giving them a memorable sermon. But was that all? Did his actions change anything?  What happened the moment Jesus left the Temple?  The merchants and money changers would have cleaned up and started trading again. No, Jesus was’nt ‘cleansing’ the temple, he was ‘closing’ the temple. He was serving the scribes and pharisees with their redundancy papers. 

He was posting a demolition order on the building. How do we know that? Within a generation the Temple was completely destroyed. When challenged to prove his authority,   

“Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.” (John 2:19-21)

You see the temple in Jerusalem was a temporary structure. (God hadn’t wanted a temple in the first place, content to dwell in the tabernacle). Temporary because the true temple had arrived. 

Jesus is the Temple of God. In the conversation between Jesus and the woman of Samaria in John 4, she reminds Jesus of the dispute over the location of the temple, since Samaritans were excluded from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus replies,  

 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:22-24)

What happened the moment Jesus died on the cross. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27:51).   

Access to a Holy God was now possible without a temple, without a high priest, without an animal sacrifice because Jesus fulfilled the role of the temple when he died in our place. Not just for the Jews. For all nations. And wonder of wonders, a new and living temple is under construction.

“As you come to him, the living Stone… you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…  you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God” (1 Peter 2:4-6, 9-10)

This is the glorious vision of the people of God, from all nations, united in Jesus Christ.   This is God’s answer to segregationists and Christian apologists for Zionism today. 

God opposed apartheid then. God opposes apartheid now. There is no place for apartheid or ethnic segregation among the people of God. In his death in our place Christ has broken down the ‘Hafrada’ wall of partition. 

That is why in our Sabeel-Kairos UK conference statement we affirm that all people are created equal in the image of God. And that is why we repudiate all forms of racism and discrimination, and we recommit ourselves to working for justice, peace and reconciliation.