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Jesus’ Word Between History and Hope In the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Brandon Rhodes Box # 679 November 21, 2007
"What," the world asks as it points insistently at the Middle East, "do you Christians think is to be done about the mess over there?" The church's answers, this paper insists, have been too bipolar between militant Zionism and an incomplete antiZionism. To find a way forward, the church must begin to untie two theological knots: the place of the promised land in God's plan, and Jesus' attitudes toward his exile-andempire circumstances echoed in the present. Only when both of these knots (and the various smaller entanglements within them) are untied can a fresh word be given to the world's question. This essay will untie both of the above knots before weaving them together into what may be a sincere word for the involved parties. The first section is a survey of the theme of the Promised Land in both testaments, which lays the foundation for what the present relationship is between God, the church, Israel, the world, and the land are. Part two will consider Jesus' agenda within Israel amid similar circumstances. The final section emerges as the first two sections converge to announce fresh hopes to all of Abraham’s children.
Part I - Of Leases Lost and Land Liberated The Promised Land is at the center of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is
important at the cusp of this vast issue to remember what the relationships were between God, that land, and the heirs of that promise in each testament. The following may feel like laborious throat-clearing, but good narrative theology necessarily involves rehearsing the whole story with sensitivity to, in this case, themes of land, promise, love-of-alien, and mission-under-exile.
Old Testament Reflections Signing the Lease1 The scene for Deuteronomy is the Israelites assembled at the boundary of the property as tenants-to-be, and YHWH is the landlord, explaining his lease-agreement by defining what life in His land will be like.2 The land is indeed promised to them,3 but their tenure has stipulations. And, like all leases, failure of the tenant to upkeep their end of the deal may result in eviction. The terms of this contract were quite clear: Israel must take care of the aliens and sojourners among them in that land.4 Dr. Gary Burge notes that the land “would produce a people who were a genuine blessing to their neighbors, who incorporated them into their lives".5 Ancient Palestine would be a land for Israel as God’s exodus-ed people to implement the memory of that exodus to the gentiles around and among them, priestly agents of liberation and compassion for the compassionate God-Who-Liberated-Them.6 Yahweh would bless their faithfulness by upholding the promise; land and righteousness were linked.7 Indeed, the connection between promise, tenancy, and justice is clear: if the land was God’s arena of promise, it was also Israel’s theater of covenant-faithfulness to God expressed through neighbor-love.
Lev. 25.23. Brueggemann, Walter. The Land. 2nd Edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Publishers, 2002, chapter 4. Gen. 15. Lev. 19.10, 33-34; 24.22; 25.47-50; Num. 9.14; 15.14, 29; Deut. 14.29; 24.14, 17, 19-21; 26.12; 27.19. Burge, Gary. Whose Land? Whose Promise?. New York, NY: Pilgrim Press, 2003. 90. Wright, Christopher J.H.. The Mission of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. Chapter 8. Burge, 86.
Israel was clearly warned of eviction. If they repeatedly failed to keep their end of the covenant, Yahweh "will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other".8 Though there may be a lingering promise of restoration in God's plan, Torah makes clear that Israel's claim to the land as promise was contingent upon the purposes (missional theater for covenant-faithfulness) and stipulations (devotion to Yahweh, neighbor-love, justice) of God. Eviction and Contention But Israel was not a good covenant-partner with Yahweh: she denied justice, righteousness, faithfulness, and mission almost ritually. Their failure to keep the
covenant was like a tenant grossly violating the lease of their apartment’s lease. God’s eviction team arrived in 587 B.C. in the form of the Babylonian forces, and his land was purged of Israel’s sin. In exile, God insisted that mission continue,
commanding to Israel live out her unfulfilled calling to seek the shalom of her gentile neighbors – this time not as lords over the gentiles, but as lorded over by gentiles. Jeremiah’s letter makes clear that Yahweh intended that Eden would be restarted in the unlikeliest of places, the heart of the enemy pagan empire.9 As soon as the Lord restarted Eden, he also announced his intentions to redo the Exodus. Seventy years later, He mercifully restored Israel to his land. God’s mission in God’s land would resume. But the exile was not over: pagan empires continued to oppress the Jewish people. In a state of exile within the Promised Land, Israel again opted out of their divine calling to restart Eden through loving their enemies. Inter-testamental literature depicts a Jewish
Deut. 28.64. Jer. 29.4-32. For Eden echoes, comp. Jer. 29.5-7 with Gen. 2.4-25.
culture of hyper-delineated identity.
Devotion to the God-given markers of Jewish
distinctiveness amid violent persecution won out in community praxis over fulfilling their vocation before God to the nations.10 Care for the gentiles, aliens, and sojourners wasn’t on the lists of these second-Temple Jews. No: Jewish life focused on preserving ethnic identity under the assorted assimilation campaigns of occupying empires. The Jews were in a land promised to them, and it was their task to again cleanse it of pagan impurity.
New Testament Promises New Lease, New Land As the Old Covenant promised a land (Canaan) as theater for covenantfaithfulness, so also after the new exodus of Jesus' crucifixion, the New Covenant promised a land (the whole earth) as expanded theater for covenant-faithfulness. Thus the tetrateuchal redemption-conquest narrative was the Messianic redemption-conquest narrative in microcosm.11 These correlations are clear in the Christian canon:
Exodus Redemption (Moses) >> Giving of the Sinaitic Covenant >> Promised Land (Canaan) New Exodus Redemption (Jesus) >> Giving of the New Covenant >> Promised Land Expanded (World)
Language of inheritance, creation-in-wait, conquest, and promise all show the early Christian awareness of this vital expansion of God's arena for covenant-faithfulness. Jesus is the new Joshua, conquering the occupying powers and establishing a kingdom of priests among the nations. Pagan impurity is washed away by the victorious Messiah – accomplishing for the land what Torah-allegiance never could.
But this was done
Wright, N.T.. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992. 167209, 224-241.
Longman, Tremper III, and Daniel G. Reid. “Jesus: New Exodus, New Conquest” in God is a Warrior. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995.
through Jesus’ fulfilling “all righteousness”12 (particularly commandments to neighborlove and justice for the gentile-among-them), emphatically not the program of ethnicdistinctiveness advanced by Jesus’ contemporaries. Indeed, sin was not just cleansed and forgiven within the promised territorial boundaries cherished by the Jews, but was itself exhausted cosmically on the cross – ergo, all of creation was now the arena for promise, the missional theater for covenant-fidelity. Yahweh hadn’t through Jesus liberated from the curse of sin only the Palestinian region, but did so for the whole world. Behold, new creation is new Promised Land!13 The entirety of creation, then, is the arena of promise guaranteed as inheritance to the saints. Christians function within a framework of land-promise which has been neither cancelled (supersessionism) nor postponed (dispensationalism) but fulfilled and radically expanded through Jesus Christ. Contemporary claims by Christians that Israel has a right to this land must be re-imagined through this theology of new inheritance and new creation.
Part 2 - Jesus and Mission-Under-Exile First Century Parallels Jesus lived in a time replete with uncanny echoes of today’s situation. A violent military imposing strict controls on a people with deep roots in the land; human rights abuses; a distant imperial power arming and aiding the regional government’s attempts at suppression; extreme devotion to the land claims by the oppressed peoples; violent
Wright, N.T.. "New Exodus, New Inheritance: The Narrative Structure of Romans 3-8," in Romans and the People of God. (Ed: Soderlund, Sven K., and N.T. Wright). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999. Also: Wright N.T.. "Romans" in New Interpreter's Bible: Volume 10. Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1994.
insurgents resisting the “occupying” force”; a people in exile divided against itself on how to move forward; injustice perpetrated on both sides in the name of a divine. Israel Modern Israel mirrors its first-century ancestors in two ways. First, it justifies its behavior by citing God’s promising of the land to them. It faces a sometimes violent community in their midst, and insists that the land be only for the Jews based on God’s promises, and that end must be arrived at seemingly regardless of how mean the means may be. Second, in both centuries the Jewish people have almost entirely ignored the relationship between their exile and Torah’s insistence on hospitality.14 Thus first-century Jews defied Torah by excluding themselves from Romans, Samaritans, and other nonJews, while modern Israel has gone so far as to erect an apartheid wall between Israeli areas and Palestinian territories. Their mission to reclaim the land for themselves has
replaced God’s missional intentions for them in that land. Israel today usually plays the roles of Rome and Herod. They are both the region’s premiere military presence and command absolute power over the land’s possession. Worse, ancient Rome and modern Israel are exceedingly cruel in their application of power. At the slightest whiff of uprising, Rome would crush and crucify; Israel likewise bombs and bulldozes. Honoring human dignity and the avenues of civil society were secondary to establishing hegemony. As Solomon’s empire became the very empire from which the Hebrews were redeemed, so also modern Israel has become the
In fairness, the Pharisees thought Torah-fidelity was the key to liberation, but only emphasized some of the Law at the expense of “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Mat. 23.23).
occupier which smashed it in 70 A.D. par excellence. The hunted, sadly, has become the hunter. Palestine The bitter irony of Israel playing Rome has Palestinians in the role of the Jews. 15 Palestinians, like the ancient Jews, are oppressed under an in-house exile, desperately searching for solutions to that crisis. Jesus’ contemporaries tried many ways to wrest control of God’s land from the occupiers. Purity, politics, and withdrawal all told the story of ending exile differently, but it was the path of zealot rebellion that won out, and pulled down the might of Rome upon it. The zealot impulse is one soon snuffed out, but is still a driving force among Palestinian exiles today. Headlines of suicide bombers, Hezbollah rockets, hurled stones, and Intifada all attest to the feeling in many exiles that the proper path to liberation is violent resistance. The trajectory of violence between radical Palestinians and radical first-century Jews is as heartbreakingly close to one another as is the likely future horizon of that path: utter desolation by military force.
Jesus’ Way Listening to Jesus means hearing him from this context (and now into these parallels). His teachings were meant to be formative of the people of God in that specific context,16 and must be heard with all the saturations most immediate to his followers – themselves, like today’s Palestinians, a refugee people exiled within their own land.
The convenience of these parallels is not without complication, of course. The parallels aren’t one-forone. When the Palestinians are understood as a tool, agent, or partner of Israel’s surrounding Arab countries, they too may be Rome to today's Israel. 16 Perriman, Andrew. The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church. London, UK: Paternoster, 2005. 18.
How, this section asks, might those teachings ring from that Palestine to this? Land Clinging to family property vibrantly expressed Jewish identity politics, resistance against Rome, and the hope of ensuring one’s share of the inheritance when the exile ends. Deeper than a family’s livelihood, land retention was a core expression of fidelity to their nation and God – or so conventional wisdom and interpretation went. But the land as a mission-inhibiting, justice-evading identity marker was challenged starkly by Jesus. “Sell what you possess” and “Everyone who has left
houses… or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life”, are two potent examples of this, here only eight verses apart!17 Owning land to Jesus was not wrong, but was a symbol inhibiting kingdom-shaped mission by God’s people, and so needed challenging. N.T. Wright says that an end of exile brought about by God “will not reaffirm her [Israel’s] symbolic, and zealously defended, territorial inheritance and possession. On the contrary: the unfaithful tenants will have their
vineyard taken away.”18 Israel was called to be a light to the world, a vocation which would not be fulfilled so long as their allegiance to the symbols of that vocation do not interfere with the actual performing of that vocation within the missional theater of the Promised Land.19 Jesus’ challenge to Jewish land-allegiance without true fidelity to their Torah-derived vocation was as unmistakably scandalous and treasonous to the nation then as it is today. Occupying Forces
Mat. 19.21, 29. Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996. 405. Ibid, 383, 389.
Jesus’ teachings were even clearer on relating with oppressors and despised classes. From the parable of the Good Samaritan, to his hallmark teachings on enemylove and gentile-blessing as core to covenant-fidelity, to his warnings against violent rebellion, the Messiah unequivocally rejected the path of violence against oppressive regimes. True humanity involves subverting oppressors with love, honoring the idea of government by refusing to overthrow it, and joining God on his mission for the nations. And one cannot be for the nations by annihilating them. Even non-oppressing nations like the Samaritans shall be treated with dignity and love, not scorn. The way of violence, for first-century Jews, for modern Israel, and for Palestinians, only leads to ruin. Israel must stop treating Palestinians as modern-day Samaritans; Palestinians must abandon the way of violence; both must choose the way which makes for peace. Exile Jesus also speaks to Palestinian Christians suffering under exile, one rooted in Isaiah and projected through the present suffering of the saints toward the final victory of God. Consider: exilic Israel told stories of how the exile would end through the atoning of their sins, and that that atonement would be accomplished through their own (the Servant’s) suffering. Apropos much of how Jesus and the New Testament’s writers speak of sin is also a way of speaking about exile, and so also with this solution-throughsuffering idea. Suffering itself became strangely redemptive; stories are told by Jesus and early Christians of how victory over suffering only happens through suffering.20 Powers which create and sustain exilic suffering are undone in God’s end through the righteous suffering of the saints. Likewise, the sufferings of Palestinian Christians mark them out
Cf. Rhodes, Brandon. Suffering and Salvation, Submission and Subversion: Grounding Nonviolence in 1 Peter, prepared for Dr. Phil Johnson. Online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/42433/Suffering-and-SalvationSubmission-and-Subversion-Grounding-Nonviolence-in-1-Peter. 2007.
as the being-delivered-from-exile people who will be vindicated over modern Israel, and secures them an eternal inheritance in God’s new world.
Part 3 - Reflections and Directions in a Civil Society The region, like Israel in Deuteronomy, stands at the boundary between history and hope. Involved parties inhale the air of promise, survey the landscape of their shared future, and must now choose how to use it. Will Israelis commit to a future of hospitality or hostility to the alien among them? Where will Palestinian refugees find themselves in the exilic world of the New Testament – along the path of peace or rebellion? While the governing bodies are entrenched in their own priorities to a degree which closes themselves from this vista of hope, are there other options and avenues in a civil society which can stir all of Abraham’s children to cross this Jordan and toward a future of forgiveness? This final section reflects on the above theology to give fresh direction to involved groups. Israelis The idea of Promised Land for the Jewish people alone no longer holds, for the whole world is now that Promised Land. Yet this does not mean that the modern state of Israel is illegitimate, but only that their claims to promise are too small and too skewed. In a civil society, however, the plausibility structures of others must be heard meaningfully. Here, that means granting that within a Jewish worldview, Palestinian lands really are Israel’s by promise. Within that view, though, comes scriptural
stipulations of the terms of their tenancy, and the threat of exile. If the Jewish people have a right to the land, then they are also bound to full Torah-faithfulness – including
most glaringly the pursuit of justice, mercy, and compassion for the aliens among them. Frighteningly, within their worldview looms the real possibility of God’s evicting them once again. If modern Israel wants to be in covenant with Yahweh, they had best remember God’s severity on this issue in their past. Lastly, what kind of stories is modern Israel is telling about itself? The story advocated here has been that Israel exists for God’s purposes, that Israel is established in the Promised Land as a missional-model people, Yahweh’s light to the nations. But modern Israel tells a story of existing and demanding for herself: a perennially suffering people whom God promised the land to, four millennia ago, and only now being replanted in. Contemporary Israelis must prophetically tell new stories about themselves to again reframe their role within God’s unfolding mission, and so help re-imagine their culture’s options and attitudes toward the Palestinians in a more civil society. Palestinians Civil society by definition excludes violence as a means of getting what any party wants. Israelis will continue to be as afraid of Palestinians as Palestinians are of Jews for as long as refugees fail to substantively condemn suicide bombings and rock-throwing as valid forms of resistance politics. Jesus, as it has been shown, taught along these lines: oppressors are subverted by love, not hate. Palestinians can work with Israelis to cross ethnic lines toward mutual understanding; they can pray for Israelis; they can, as Jesus told the Jews, chasten their loyalty to the land and instead seek loving and just relations with their oppressors first; and they can seek ways to publicize their hurt to the world. More to the point, God’s dream for the world is only arrived at through forgiveness: they will have no future in the land without it. Thus, the Palestinians would
do well apply the lessons of South Africa’s struggle to end apartheid, particularly the intercultural dynamics of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.21 America Any conversation about how civil society can route Israel and Palestine from the brink of mutual annihilation must involve Israel’s arms dealer, the United States. Indeed it is unlikely that the military hegemony of the Israeli government would be as certain as it is today were it not for the billions of dollars of military aide given it by the American government. A core step toward fresh engagement in the avenues of civil society must include this regional power-player, and likely in the direction of defunding Israel’s military. The old saying holds true: you cannot prepare for peace by preparing for war. Christians Christians as ambassadors of the true Owner of the land must be about what Jesus was about – pursuing a ministry of reconciliation across ethnic, political, and class lines. The Twelve had zealots and a tax collector brought together under Jesus; can Palestinian Christians be faithful to Jesus’ example by courageously journeying in friendship with Israelis and Palestinians? Perhaps Christians outside the region can, instead of sending military “peacekeepers”, send hundreds of missionaries. For too long of Israel’s renewed history has the church placed its faith in the governments to settle things down; it has failed to place hope that the government of God in Jesus really can make all things new in a land of old hate. But this requires
imagination, humility, and hope, all vital for the Promised Land to become a missional theater for New Covenant faithfulness.
Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1999.
Bibliography Brueggemann, Walter. The Land. 2nd Edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Publishers, 2002. Burge, Gary. Whose Land? Whose Promise?. New York, NY: Pilgrim Press, 2003. Longman, Tremper III, and Daniel G. Reid. “Jesus: New Exodus, New Conquest” in God is a Warrior. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995. Perriman, Andrew. The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church. London, UK: Paternoster, 2005. Rhodes, Brandon. Suffering and Salvation, Submission and Subversion: Grounding Nonviolence in 1 Peter, prepared for Dr. Phil Johnson. Online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/42433/Suffering-and-Salvation-Submission-and-SubversionGrounding-Nonviolence-in-1-Peter. 2007. Tutu, Desmond. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1999. Wright, Christopher J.H.. The Mission of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. Wright, N.T.. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992. ------Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996.
-----"New Exodus, New Inheritance: The Narrative Structure of Romans 3-8," in Romans and the People of God. (Ed: Soderlund, Sven K., and N.T. Wright). Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999. -----"Romans" in New Interpreter's Bible: Volume 10. Nashville, TN: Abington Press, 1994.