A different way to possess land
A biblical perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflictby Marlin Jeschke
The Israel-Palestine problem is like a volcano. It may quiet down for a brief time while other news claims the headlines, but it soon erupts again. The conflict has polarized Christians in North America. Some give unquestioning support to Israel. Others support the Palestinian cause, condemning Israel's "occupation" policies. In this, too many Christians take their cues from the popular media instead of from a genuinely biblical Christian perspective.
That perspective begins with what Christianity has said for 2,000 years, from the New Testament on. Christianity by its very existence claims that the promises and hopes of Israel in the Old Testament are fulfilled in the coming of Messiah Jesus and the establishment at Pentecost of the church, a global community of faith. That’s what the books of the New Testament claim, especially Matthew, the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Let me sketch this claim briefly. From the time of Abraham on—in what we call the salvation story—God is trying to create a new human community, a social order that is an alternative to the fallen, sinful social order that has spoiled God's original intention in creation. The salvation story starts modestly with the family of Abraham but eventually embraces the whole human race. God says already at the outset that through Abraham all people of the world will be blessed.
According to the salvation story, two developments threaten to frustrate God's salvation purposes. One is the temptation of Abraham’s descendents to revert to the ways of fallen humanity, as in their determination, according to 1 Samuel 7, to have a king and become "like the nations" instead of being an alternative to worldly nations.
God overrules this decision by sending Israel into exile. Out of the exile comes Israel's new form of life as a synagogue people. The synagogue, as John Howard Yoder has said, "is the most fundamental sociological innovation in the history of religions." It is the blueprint of the Christian church. In its synagogue form of life, scattered Israel does in fact become a "light to the nations." Many Gentiles convert to Israel's faith, as we see from the book of Acts, becoming "God-fearers," what we today might call "associate members" of synagogues (see Acts 13).
The second development that threatens to frustrate God's salvation purposes is Israel’s inclination to see salvation as its exclusive possession, which they did not need to share with Gentiles unless Gentiles became Jews and observed all the laws of Pharisaic Judaism.
Jesus addresses this issue already in his Nazareth sermon reported in Luke 4 and in the Great Commission in Matthew 28. And Paul argues at length in his letter to the Roman church that Israel’s own Scriptures anticipate the extension of salvation to the Gentiles. In that letter Paul contends that God doesn't show any favoritism, that both Jews and Gentiles will be judged according to their response to God's grace.
What Christianity has said for 2,000 years—that God's purpose from the time of Abraham on has been a global community of faith—is therefore not some novel claim. It is encapsulated already in Isaiah 2 and Micah 4, that in the fullness of time nations will come up to the mountain of the house of the Lord to learn God’s law and as a consequence beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, not learning war anymore.
What does all this have to do with the current Israel-Palestinian conflict? Everything, because the first point in God’s call of Abraham is the gift of land, a break with the way of violent conquest of land that has characterized most worldly societies through most of history (including, alas, the colonialist conquest of this continent). In keeping with this new model of possessing land, the promise to Abraham mentions no boundaries such as Dan to Beer-Sheba or the Mediterranean to the Jordan. "All the land that you see I will give to you," God tells Abraham (Genesis 13:14, 15). And by the time of the New Testament, quite a few Jews read this to mean that God had given Abraham the world ("kosmos"), as Paul writes in Romans 4:13.
It all fits together and makes a coherent picture. In the biblical story from Abraham to Pentecost, God is trying to create a new humanity, a global family of faith among whom violent conflict over territory is left behind because they recognize themselves as God's new global family of faith, thus embracing the vision of Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 not to "learn war any more."
In the light of this biblical picture, modern Israel is selling itself short, first in terms of territory, since God gave Abraham and his descendents the whole world, and second in terms of the privilege of being a model of a new way of possessing land, possessing it the way Abraham did, a way that is an alternative to the worldly way of violent conflict. However, instead of taking it the way that God started in Abraham, Israel is once more resorting to the worldly way of violence to possess land.
What Israel's choice will lead to we must leave to God. As Paul says in Romans, God is not through with ethnic Israel, "Israel after the flesh." We can remain confident that God will remain a God of righteousness and of grace, whatever eventually happens to the modern state of Israel.
Given the biblical picture I have outlined, why are there so many Christians offering such uncritical support of the modern state of Israel? For the same reason that millions of Christians over the centuries offered uncritical support for the Holy Roman Empire, or as state churches offered uncritical support for England, Germany and Russia in their violent conquests or wars over land. And yes, as American Christians in the past or even today have offered uncritical support of the United States of America in its resort to violence over land.
Like ancient Israel at the time of Samuel, too much of the church today has lost its vision to be an alternative to fallen society and instead has copied or joined fallen society. It seems to be only a “remnant” that retains the vision of Isaiah 2 and Micah 4—that going up to the Jerusalem of Jesus the Messiah to learn his law teaches us to identify with the global community of faith and abandon war in sharing space with each other on this planet.
In conclusion, let me restate it. For 2,000 years Christianity has claimed that in the biblical story of salvation from Abraham to Pentecost, God has been seeking to create a human community that is an alternative to fallen humanity, and this global community of faith is called to live by a new ethic in the possession of land, a way other than violence, conflict and bloodshed and all the evils of terror, refugees and death these bring in their wake.
If you are a Christian, it is not just your duty, it is your privilege to embrace and live this vision of Isaiah 2 and Micah 4, the way Jesus also taught.
Marlin Jeschke is a member of College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., and author of Rethinking Holy Land (Herald Press, 2005).
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