Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Population and Prophetic Fulfillment

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses is coming to the conclusion of his address to a new generation of Israelites on the brink of conquering Canaan.

On the one hand, his message is a prophecy of total failure. The curse will come upon Israel. God’s people will be driven out of their land to dwell among the nations of the world for generations. On the other hand, it is also a prophecy of guaranteed success. Repentance will bring restoration and prosperity the like of which Israel has never seen throughout its entire history.

Cursed and Blessed

Here is Moses:

“When all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children ... then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers.”

The single most quantifiable metric by which God’s blessing of repentant Israel may be judged is population growth. “He will make you more numerous than your fathers.”

A Little Brain Twisting

This requires a little brain twisting to fully take in. Moses is speaking about the future, and he is speaking corporately rather than individually. So when he promises a nation yet to receive the land that their future numbers in that place will outstrip those of their “fathers”, he is not talking about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or even the fathers of the twelve tribes, a group which numbered less than 100 going down to Egypt. No, even the “fathers” are still future at the point at which Moses is speaking. The “fathers” will possess the land (v5). They will be the distant descendants of those presently listening.

If I may paraphrase, Moses is saying something like this: “Your children will become prosperous and numerous in the Promised Land. But they will also abandon their God and lose their right to his blessing, and be distributed throughout the world. Long after this, their distant offspring will repent of what their nation has done, and will be restored to the God of their fathers. Their numbers in that future day will exceed those of Israel at its most numerous.”

Assessing the Prophecy

Now, in order to assess how this prophecy has been or stands to be fulfilled, we would have to have some idea of Israel’s population at various points during its history as a nation. There are significant complexities with the actual population at our starting point, the Exodus. Got Questions addresses these in detail here. Nevertheless, because scripture gives us two other sets of population estimates in later years, it seems reasonable to me to use the standard, higher estimate of the number of Israelites who left Egypt rather than the “adjusted numbers”. The years are rough estimates. In all cases, the numbers given in scripture are for men of fighting age (20-50), from which an approximation of the total population of the nation at that point may be projected on the basis of a 1:4 ratio of fighting men to the general population. Estimates at the fall of Jerusalem come from Tacitus and Josephus rather than scripture, which does not tell us much about the average Jew of the first century except that he was “harassed and helpless”.

Historical estimates of Israel’s population (Infogalactic):

Year Men Estimated
Total Pop.
At the Exodus: 1570 BC 611,730 2,400,000
David’s census: 980 BC 1,300,000 5,000,000
Exiles returned from Babylon: 530 BC 42,360 160,000
At the fall of Jerusalem: 70 AD 600,000 -

Replacing Israel

With these estimates in mind, let’s consider the stupendous difficulties this passage and the subsequent history of Israel pose for Replacement Theologians, who consider all God’s people to be one movement throughout history, and are convinced that the church of today has inherited the promises given to Israel.

Note that the promise in view is pointedly and specifically Israelite/Jewish. Israel is being considered nationally, in contrast with the very nations into which they would later be distributed throughout the world, those Gentile nations which today make up the vast majority of the church’s membership. It is not the future children of those nations who are in view, but “your children” and “your outcasts”, the offspring of “your fathers” (where, as mentioned, the “fathers” under consideration are still future, having yet to possess the land). The wording could not be clearer. There are no references to “Abraham’s offspring” or the “one who shares the faith of Abraham” such as we find in Galatians or Romans. Moses is speaking of a subset of the future physical offspring of those Israelites then present and listening to him. The faith of Abraham and his spiritual legacy have no place here.

Abrogation or Historical Fulfillment

But if a spiritual fulfillment of Moses’ words is not conceivable, there remain only two options: (1) abrogation of God’s promise of national restoration for Israel; or (2) a fulfillment in Israel’s historical past.

It is difficult to see how physical, national Israel could find themselves excluded from a promise that so comprehensively anticipates their failure to keep God’s covenant. It is “when these things come upon you”, not “if”. Joshua would later echo the same sad reality: “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.” And if Joshua knew exactly the sort of people he was dealing with, then surely God did when he gave Moses the promise of Israel’s future blessing.

The abrogationist has to say that the rejection of Messiah was the final, fatal crime for which Israel as a nation was forever rejected from the future plans and purposes of God. And if that is the case, then this particular promise has failed. God was unable to keep it. I’m not comfortable with that sort of reading of the passage.

The other interpretive option is a fulfillment in Israel’s historical past, which lay far in the future when Moses spoke. But here is where the population estimates come in. Tacitus estimates 600,000 Jews were killed in the fall of Jerusalem, while Josephus estimates 1,100,000. The latter is often considered an overestimate. But it must be remembered that Jerusalem was besieged during Passover, when Jews from all over the world would have been present for the feast and were caught up in the turmoil. Obviously many Jews escaped the Roman siege, but it is hard to imagine that there were four to eight native Jews who did not attend the feast for every one who did, which is what would have been required in order for the Jews who returned from Babylonian captivity hundreds of years prior to have grown over the ensuing centuries to number anything like the 5,000,000 of David’s day (and which presumably became even more numerous under Solomon, who was a man of peace, though we have no hard population figures for Solomon’s reign). Indeed, the idea that the first century native population of Judea was anything like 5,000,000 is not even entertained by historians.

Again, we have a situation where the Replacement Theologian has to insist that in some respect God’s promises to Israel have failed, or else to fudge the promises so completely as to make nonsense of them.

More Prosperous and Numerous

Christians who believe God has future plans for Israel that do not involve its “Christianization” or subsumption into the church of our present era have no difficulty with Moses’ words. They obviously speak to a future day of blessing for Israel. It is estimated there are as many as 15 million Jews in the world today, and that number does not even begin to take into account the children of the ten “lost” tribes dispersed by Assyria. The Great Tribulation will take a huge toll on Jews in Israel, but it is not the least bit difficult to see how God might choose to make a future, blessed Israel vastly “more prosperous and numerous than your fathers”.

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