Sunday, January 18, 2009

Israel, the Land, and God's Promise

A recent issue of The Christian Century featured an essay by Gary Anderson, Professor of Old Testament at Notre Dame University, entitled "Does the Promise Still Hold?: Israel and the Land." Here are some brief excerpts:

What are Christians to make of the promises God made to the Jews? Ever since World War II and the Holocaust, Christians have been anxious about the implications of the strains of anti-Judaism that survived into the 20th century. Time and again, writers have turned to Paul's epistle to the Romans to seek comfort and aid. For what we find in this epistle is a full-throated affirmation of God's promise to the Jews.

The advantage of the Jews, Paul avers, lies in the fact that they "were entrusted with the promises of God." Could their refusal to acknowledge God's Messiah be a sign that those "promises have been annulled? "By no means," Paul declares. "Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true" (Rom. 3:2, 4). Though they have become enemies for a time, "as regards election, they are [still!] beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (11:28-29).

Inspiring words, these. But what do they really mean? ...

Israel's claim to its land is to be distinguished from that of other peoples in another important way. The choice of Abraham and the people he would engender was not an end in itself. Rather, through that choice God sought to bring blessing to a troubled world. Through Abraham, the nature of God's relationship to humanity was to be made known. Thus, when God was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their flagrant wickedness, he decided to bring Abraham into his confidence, and for an important reason. "For I have singled him out that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him" (Gen. 18:19). ...

... Christians must also insist that the promises of scripture are indeed inviolable and that Israel's attachment to this land is underwritten by God's providential decree. The miraculous appearance of the Israeli state just after the darkest moment in Jewish history is hard to interpret outside of a theological framework.

Nevertheless, the acknowledgment of Israel's right to some form of sovereignty in Palestine leaves many pressing moral questions open. How is Israel to view the present moral quandary in which it finds itself? What is the relationship of Israeli Jews to the people with whom they dwell?

Read it all.

The issue also includes insightful responses to Anderson's essay by Walter Brueggemann, Marlin Jeschke, and Donald E. Wagner, followed by Anderson's reply. I strongly suggest reading all of these in addition to Anderson's essay.

The offerings of Anderson, Brueggemann, Jeschke, and Wagner provide important models of reflection and dialogue for Christians across the theological and political spectrum as we grapple with the complexities of what continues to unfold in the Holy Land.


Sally said...

A good dialogue, thanks for posting.

In the end, though, Anderson was disappointing. As Christians we really need to be exploring some more wholesome and less literal ideas if we are to contribute positively to the peoples of the Holy Land.

He simply stretches credulity too far in saying that "The miraculous appearance of the Israeli state just after the darkest moment in Jewish history is hard to interpret outside of a theological framework". Rigorous historians have not been obliged to invoke divine intervention to account for the modern State of Israel, whose emergence, while complex, is no more "miraculous" than the emergence of the USA or my own country, South Africa. There are always moments when the faithful can see the hand of God in human history, which is as it should be, but it's a step too far to make this a definitive truth claim which can be imposed on those who disagree (the Arab world, for instance).

His claim that Jews don't become assimilated is simply not true. Over the centuries, some Jews have completely assimilated - especially in Europe, even at times changing their names. Others retained distinctive Jewishness according to local traditions about that and available space for religious freedom. The debate about what it means to be Jewish, or Zionist for that matter, continues; but in this debate, Christians are concerned, supportive observers rather than participants.

For modern, well off Jews in Western democracies, an expectation of the kind of energy-inefficient, luxurious lifestyle available in their home countries translates with difficulty, and enormous personal and environmental cost, to a water-scarce, resource-poor and overcrowded country such as Israel/Palestine. Do we really think that all Jews could, or should, be persuaded to move there?

The idea of "aliyah" is a spiritual discipline and so it will remain, for the majority of Jews worldwide. I see no great rush from the relative comfort of New York, Cape Town, London or Sydney for a tough life and compulsory military service in Israel.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for offering some important things to think about, Sally. I agree with you that Anderson stretches credulity when it comes to the "miraculous appearance" of the state of Israel. And, in a more general sense, I'm inclined to agree with you that the issues raised by this topic are more complex than Anderson seems to concede.

Nevertheless, I think that Anderson is right to put the issue of Israel's claim to the land at the center of this dialogue. The issue is how to rightly understand that claim. On that score, I'd like to hear more from Brueggemann.