May 15th is the commemoration of the Palestinian ‘Al-Nakba’ or Catastrophe that began (officially) in 1948, and in a perverse marriage of political and religious ideology, continues today! This blog has several theological-historical accounts of this particular subject, and below is a book review by a respected New Testament theologian on a book by an esteemed Old Testament theologian.
Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Today we are witnessing a sea change regarding evangelical attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In its cover story for its March 2015 issue, Sojourners Magazine illustrated this change with an article that went viral: “Pro-Israeli, Pro-Palestinian, and Pro-Jesus.” The article shows how many conservative North American evangelicals have always listened to and supported the Israeli narrative. But here’s the change: evangelicals are now discovering the Palestinian narrative. This has led them to go back to their Bibles and to rethink many theological first principles.
This change has been quantified by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which has conducted regular interviews among evangelicals for years (see G. M. Burge, “Are Evangelicals Abandoning Israel?,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 33.7 [October 2014]: 50–51; D. Brog, “The End of Evangelical Support for Israel,” Middle East Quarterly 21.2 [Spring 2014]; S. Bailey, “American Evangelicals’ Support For Israel Is Waning, Reports Say,” Huffington Post, April 9, 2014). The Pew Forum’s October 2010 survey conducted at the Third Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, made one thing clear: younger evangelicals who see social justice as an integral part of their discipleship now see the moral ambiguity of this conflict. While once evangelicals gave exclusive support to Israel, today that support is balanced in that younger evangelicals have sympathies with both sides in this struggle and are rejecting the unilateral commitments held by an older generation.
A number of authors and books have been contributing to these theological shifts. The esteemed OT scholar Walter Brueggemann has long had an interest in this conflict. His well-known book, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002) is the premier study of “land” (as in Holy Land) in biblical theology. And it inevitably drew him into the question of modern claims to possess the Holy Land based on theological commitments. Now Brueggemann has supplied a brief and poignant guide for churches that want to discuss further. Chosen? is his unrelenting Amos-like appeal to Christians to rethink their theological assumptions when looking at the Middle East. This book joins a host of recent volumes that do the same thing, from popular-level works (e.g., R. Dalrymple, These Brothers of Mine: A Biblical Theology of Land and Family [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015]) to heftier theological works (e.g., O. Martin, Bound for the Promised Land, NSBT 34 [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015]), and my own Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). In a word, evangelicals are revisiting this topic and asking if their views are contributing to or rather undermining the peace process.
Brueggemann’s offering is a short, fifty-page study of theological assumptions followed by a Q&A section. The book concludes with an outline complete with questions showing how the book can be used in a study session. In four chapters, he summarizes in easy-to-read style what he thinks are the four essential problems we face:
- Reading the Bible. Brueggemann challenges how we use the Scriptures and draw simplistic connections between ancient Israel and the modern Israeli state. His specialty is the OT Prophets, and at moments throughout the book, the thunder of Jeremiah or Elijah leaps from the page.
- Chosenness. Brueggemann wants us to rethink what election means and how it can be exploited. He warns against any position that produces a theological exceptionalism or privilege due to lineage claims or promises (whose ethical component has been ignored). Above all, he challenges the so-called “unconditional” nature of this status.
- Land. In a handful of pages, he summarizes his major academic theses: the land is a gift and living in it brings enormous moral duties. Moreover, in the New Testament, the land experiences a transformation of identity and purpose.
- Zionism. Here he describes what happens when misdirected theological commitments evolve into political ideology. He illustrates how this happened in biblical times and quickly shows how it is happening today.
This is a passionate book. And readers should be warned: it will upend many of the things we’ve heard in churches most of our lives. Some readers will cheer, some will despair, and others will reject his views out of hand. But perhaps that is why this specialist in the Prophets sounds like a prophet himself. He writes to discomfort the comfortable. And reactions both negative and positive are inevitable.
When a major scholar like Brueggemann writes from the heart—when he writes for the church and its disciples—we would all do well to pause and listen carefully. This is not an amateur we are reading. This is a man so thoroughly steeped in the Hebrew prophets that his heart beats with their rhythm. And he has thought long and hard—a career’s worth—on this utterly timely subject.