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Say no to news-ticker hermeneutics.

Sheep and Goat Nations

Debunking modern Israel’s role in Biblical prophecy.


ecent events have caused some in the Body to lose their heads, not to mention their global New Covenant perspective. As I mentioned in December when President Trump made the original announcement, American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital has no fulfillment or potential fulfillment in any biblical prophecy. Moving the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a political move, not a spiritual one.

Yet one commentator opines:

The sheep and goat nations are aligning. It’s not about the Embassy as a building, it’s about alignment, and protecting JerUSAlem.

Without addressing the subtle interpolation of “USA” in the name there, I admit that interpreting metaphor and symbolism in the Bible is not exactly a trivial task. Especially when one is trying to squint through a pair of the ethnocentric-Manifest Destiny-type spectacles, and not an overarching Messianic Jesus sort of lens.

So what are these sheep and goats?

And all the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the kid goats,* and will set the sheep to his right, but the kid goats to the left.

Let’s get this out of the way: Biblical prophecy was never meant to revolve around modern day nation-states.

The word translated “nations” in the New Testament is really ethnos, from which we get our word “ethnicity.” It is famously used in Jesus’ prophetic discourse on the Mount of Olives, where He is talking about peoples, in the sense of tribes and tongues. This is emphatically not our modern day conception of sovereign political entities.**

I wonder if this one point would not eliminate 90% of the Dispensational end-times market.

Of course, much theological soothsaying and wrangling over terminology has been done over the identities of these things. But in Matthew 25, notice that the sheep and the goats are not separated based on how they support 1948 national Israel. Instead, they are judged according to whether or not they extend charitable acts to the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Those steeped in old racial and Mosaic Covenant thinking may assume He is referring to Israel, but in Matthew 12:50, Jesus is rather explicit about who his kith and kin are:

Whoever does the will of my Father in the heavens, that one is my brother and sister and mother.

Moreover, if you look at the original prophecy which Matthew 25 is alluding to — Ezekiel 34 — it is somewhat doubtful that sheep and goats represent ethnic groups who are corporately being judged anyway.

As for you, my flock, the Lord God says this: Look, I am going to judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and goats.

First of all, note that the sheep here are not merely Gentile, but also of Israelite descent. Plus, the wording used here, taken together with the teachings of Jesus as a whole leads one to believe that the lesson of the sheep and goats is on how every individual treats his or her neighbour. This is also the point of the Good Samaritan, which was controversial to the extreme in the way it rendered ethnicity and social standing of no importance in comparison to simple person-to-person compassion.

Of course, one might argue that “one sheep and another” is referring to one nation at a time. But the idea of sheep and goats being individual persons is further borne out when we see how Jesus went on to relate all kinds of personal, day-to-day acts of kindness:

“When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and give you hospitality, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you ill or in prison and come to you?”
In reply, the King will say to them, “Amen, I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

This is not to say that the foundation of Israel as a modern nation is not a historically unique or remarkable event. It is just not the point of biblical prophecy.

In fact, one fruit of an overemphasized, Israel-centered hermeneutic is that it tends to treat every Israeli governmental decision like a protective parent whose child can do no wrong. The truth is, both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, have a lot to answer for. But, while it is not a biblical issue, neither is it merely a political one. At heart, it is a relational issue between neighbours and human beings. In fact, it is exactly the kind of issue that Jesus came to address.

When the Son of God arrived on earth as Son of Man, the purpose of Adam — including Israel — got sorted.

No longer would geographic location — whether mountain or “holy city” — or physical descent — in blood or genealogy — be necessary for worship. Being a representative of heaven’s view of mankind, Jesus laboured to demonstrate that citizenship in God’s kingdom would be about a family connected in faith. It is a story more ancient than, and transcends the twelve tribes. It is the story of Enoch, Noah, and Abraham. It is the story of Melchizedek, David, and Jesus Himself.

* David Bentley Hart notes that the noun ἔριφος (eriphos), used here in the plural, means specifically “kid” or “kid goat”. Kids intermingle with sheep in a mixed herd.

** To see how this vast conceptual difference played out historically, study the interaction between European settlers and the indigenous tribes of North America, Australia, etc.

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