A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

The Bible and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The pope’s comments during his recent visit to Israel spurred a reader of the website to ask me this question:   “Why would the pope support the creation of a Palestinian state, since the Bible claims that God has given the Holy Land to the Jewish people?”

I thought others might be interested in my reply.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?   Since the Bible insists that God promised land to Abraham’s descendants, and since Jews are descendants of Abraham, then obviously Israel always and only belongs to Jews.

But the issue is far more complicated than such a simple formula implies.

The first problem is with the assumption that the modern state of Israel is exactly the same as ancient Israel.   Modern states are political entities, formed for lots of different reasons.  Because the state of Israel is a fairly recent creation, many living today can attest to the complex issues that went into its creation.  Theology wasn’t the only factor,  or maybe even the primary factor, in the creation of the state of Israel.  A different rationale offered for the state has been that the horrors of the Holocaust show that Jews need a safe place to live.   Many early Zionists argued for a Jewish state on non-biblical, often socialist , grounds.   

The second problem is with the assumption that certain passages in the Bible perfectly reveal God’s eternal will.   I value the Bible highly, but I will be honest that I find in it human interests as well.  I understand why many in ancient Israel stressed the divine right to land, but I also see within the OT and NT different perspectives on just how important the land was.  Early Christians did not think that having a state was important to being faithful, and you could make the same case about some of the prophets and the wisdom literature.

Debates about who owned the land first or to whom God gave land don’t seem like the best basis to determine people’s access to livelihood, water, and education.  Decisions about political rights need to honor the humanity of all persons.  That’s biblical, too, at least if you read the prophets.  Moreover, as a dear friend reminds me, modern nation states must subject themselves to international standards of law.  It’s difficult if not impossible to settle arguments about land by appealing to claims of divine favor.  Many Palestinians understand themselves to be the descendants of Abraham as well, and Palestinian Christians understand themselves to be descendants of the first Christian followers.

I hope you can tell from my blog that I care deeply about Jewish-Christian dialogue and I find it important to help Christians appreciate Judaism (see my earlier post on Easter and Holocaust Remembrance Day).  But, for me, being supportive of the Jewish people can’t cut off all debate about Palestinian rights.  Jewish peace activists agree and are making that case within Judaism and in Israel itself.  

Too many Christians support the state of Israel not because they truly care about the Jewish people but because having a Jewish Jerusalem is important to their own beliefs about Jesus’ return.  Many Jews recognize that such “friends” aren’t really very good long-term friends to Israel.

Several popular books are worth reading:  Mitri Raheb, I am a Palestinian Christian; Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers; Jean Zaru, Occupied with Nonviolence.   The academic writing of Marc Ellis has been important to me, especially Unholy Alliance:  Religion and Atrocity in Our Time.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me.   For a quite different point of view, see this issue in the Christian Century.  But be sure to read some letters to the editor in subsequent months.


3 Responses to The Bible and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

  • For a very short but extremely interesting summary of the events leading up to the creation of Israel see pages 595 to page 620 of David McCullogh’s book “Truman”.

  • Thanks for the note. In the version of the book that appears on Google books, the page starts at 729.

  • Why in 2009 isnt it completely obvious that God is not the kind of being who grants any group of people, large and small, ancient and in now-time, the exclusive right to any piece of real estate.

    Nor does God favour or choose any group of people for special favours or privileges. That is their are NO “chosen people”–and never was.

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