In his short but passionate little book, Chosen? Walter Brueggemann addresses some of the important questions regarding God’s purposes for Israel and the Church. For example, are contemporary Israeli citizens the descendants of the Israelites in the Bible whom God called chosen? Was the promise of land to Abraham permanent and irrevocable? What about others living in the promised land? Who are the Zionists, and what do they believe? The subtitle of the book tells us where he intends to look for answers, “Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” His publisher, Westminster John Knox, promises,
“The reader will get answers to their key questions about how to understand God’s promises to the biblical people often called Israel and the conflict between Israel and Palestine today.”
Chosen? comprises 59 pages of scripture commentary in four short chapters, a Q&A with the author, a glossary and 20-page study guide to facilitate group discussion around each of the chapters. The four chapters are:
- Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
- God’s Chosen People, Claim and Problem
- Holy Land?
- Zionism and Israel
The book also contains very helpful guidelines for respectful dialogue first published by the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1992. Significantly, the title includes a question mark. I added a question mark to the titles of two of my own books: Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon? and Zion’s Christian Soldiers? The Bible, Israel and the Church.[i] Walter is recognising, as I did, that views differ on whether the Jews are God’s chosen people, even though, unlike me, he personally concludes that they are.
At the outset, I want to acknowledge my indebtedness to Walter and to his scholarship, especially on the Old Testament prophets (Walter has authored more than 58 books). I will refer to Walter by his first name to acknowledge that he is also a brother in Christ. Indeed, I would like us to imagine Walter is present with us today so that as we engage with his views, we are recognising this is not a debate, but rather a dialogue.
With his help, we will learn how to read the Bible more carefully amid the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Our aim must surely be to help resolve the conflict rather than perpetuate it. As Walter writes,
“The conflict is only `seemingly’ beyond solution, because all historical-political problems have solutions, if there is enough courage, honesty, and steadfastness.” (p. xiii)
Walter acknowledges his indebtedness to three people in particular who have helped him in this regard, Canon Naim Ateek, former US President Jimmy Carter and Dr Mark Braverman. In conversing with members of Sabeel in Jerusalem, I understand that when he initially requested their endorsement, they suggested ways the manuscript could be enhanced.
If Walter should ever read the transcript of this presentation, I hope he will agree that I have portrayed his views accurately, and will accept this critique as it is intended.
I want to suggest ways Walter might enhance the book still further in a revised and perhaps expanded second edition. So that, if I may be so bold, he will, as Paul instructs Timothy, “accurately handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Several theologians and academics have reviewed this book, some positively[ii], most critically, the latter often betraying a political bias in favour of Zionism.[iii]
This presentation will limit itself largely to a commentary on Walter’s use and interpretation of scripture in relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since that is his declared aim. Walter is clearly on a spiritual journey. At times this appears to cause him some discomfort. He acknowledges, for example, the tension between his Jewish roots and the actions of the Zionist state which has led him to revise his views.
“My own convictions concerning this conflict, as those of many other people, have changed considerably over time, a change that I judge responsible in the face of changing political reality.” (p. ix)
I believe Walter’s book also reveals a tension between his liberal theological convictions and the Scriptures themselves. This is evident from the way he chooses to quote some passages of scripture generously while he avoids others that offer an alternative reading completely. I found many of the questions he raises only partially answered, if at all. This left me somewhat frustrated because I believe the Bible has much more to say about race, about land and resolving conflict, and more specifically, refutes a Zionist reading.[iv]
I am sure writing this book has been cathartic for Walter, but I believe his journey, like ours, is unfinished.
In his Introduction, Walter explains his motivation for writing Chosen?
“The seemingly insolvable conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people requires our best thinking, our steadfast courage, and a deep honesty about the politically possible. The conflict is only “seemingly” beyond solution, because all historical- political problems have solutions if there is enough courage, honesty, and steadfastness. The conflict is not a fixed, unchanging situation; rather, it is a dynamic historical reality that is dramatically changing and being redefined over time. As a result, it is imperative that our thinking not be settled in a fixed position but that it be regularly re-evaluated in response to the changed and changing realities on the ground.” (pp. xiii-xiv)
While Walter insists “it is imperative that our thinking not be settled in a fixed position” his presuppositions regarding the Bible, the Jewish people and contemporary Israel are nevertheless, deeply held, if not necessarily fixed:
“In my own thinking, which is much influenced by my work as a Scripture scholar, I begin with a focus on the claim of Israel as God’s chosen people. That conviction is not in doubt in the Bible. It is a theological claim, moreover, that fits with compelling persuasiveness with the reality of Jews in the wake of World War II and the Shoah. Jews were indeed a vulnerable people whose requirement of a homeland was an overriding urgency. Like many Christians, progressive and evangelical, I was grateful (and continue to be so) for the founding and prospering of the state of Israel as an embodiment of God’s chosen people.” (p. xiv)
In this regard, I am glad Walter added a question mark to the title even if for him the matter is settled. I do, however, agree with Walter when he says,
“Thus, it seems to me that the state of Israel, in its present inclination and strategy, cannot expect much “positive play” from its identity as “God’s chosen people.” As a consequence, my own judgment is that important initiatives must be taken to secure the human rights of Palestinians.” (p. xv)
“Positive play” is something of an understatement when one considers the persistent disregard for international humanitarian law, which he acknowledges, finds its inspiration and roots in the Decalogue (pp. 12-13). The more important question is what those “human rights of Palestinians” are, or should look like, in practice. Walter does not specify or elaborate, although significantly, he repeatedly distinguishes between Israel as a state and Palestinians as a people. This suggests parallels with other attempts at colonisation such as the treatment of Native Americans living within reservations in the United States, or Blacks living in Bantustans in former apartheid South Africa. I agree with Walter that,
“It will not do for Christian readers of the Bible to reduce the Bible to an ideological prop for the state of Israel, as though support for Israel were a final outcome of biblical testimony. The dynamism of the Bible, with its complex interactions of the chosen people and other peoples, is fully attested, and we do well to see what is going on in the Bible itself that is complex and cannot be reduced to a simplistic defense of chosenness… It is my hope that the Christian community in the United States will cease to appeal to the Bible as a direct support for the state of Israel and will have the courage to deal with the political realities with- out being cowed by accusations of anti-Semitism. It is my further hope that U.S. Christians will become more vigorous advocates for human rights and will urge the U.S. government to back away from a one-dimensional ideology for the sake of political realism. It seems to many of us that the so-called two-state solution is a dead possibility, as Israel in its present stance will never permit a viable Palestinian state. We are required to do fresh thinking about human rights in the face of the capacity for power coupled with indifference and cynicism in the policies of the state of Israel, which is regularly immune to any concern for human rights.” (pp. xv-xvi)
But if the “two-state solution” is indeed dead, as Walter insists, what is the alternative? He does not, it seems, want to go there. Perhaps this is because, in a defining statement that sums up the entire book, he insists,
“I have not changed my mind an iota about the status of Israel as God’s chosen people or about urgency for the security and well-being of the state of Israel.” (p. xvi)
Herein lies the tension. Walter’s theological convictions lead him to seek the security and well-being, not just of Jewish people generally, but specifically of the state of Israel, without defining its borders or the status of Arab Palestinians whether living in Israel or the Occupied Territories. He acknowledges the need to respect the human rights of the “unchosen” Palestinians, but does not specify what those rights are.
“The matters discussed here are endlessly contested and will continue to be so; if they were not, we would not be struggling with them so. Such contestation, however, does not relieve us of the obligation to bear witness as we are able.” (p. x)
Let us now therefore examine in more detail how Walter reads the Bible, the assumptions he makes and the answers he provides.
Chapter 1: Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Walter clearly states that he has written his book for Christians and believes their reading of scripture should inform and motivate them to fulfil their social responsibilities. In the Introduction, he writes,
“It is my hope that the Christian community in the United States will cease to appeal to the Bible as a direct support for the state of Israel and will have the courage to deal with the political realities without being cowed by accusations of anti-Semitism.” (xvi)
And in the study guide, Walter hopes his book will, “…help Christians grapple with some of the religious arguments made by competing sides.” (p.67). So, we may assume the book is clearly intended for Christians.
It is surprising, therefore, that Walter cites just four short passages of the New Testament in the whole book. And these four passages consist of a mere five verses in total, three of which are only single verses. (Galatians 3:8; Galatians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:9-10; and Revelation 21:2). And from these five verses, Walter quotes just seven words from the entire New Testament, in each case, either neutrally or negatively. In advocating the responsible reading of the Bible, Walter makes no reference to, nor quotes from the gospels or has anything to say about the person, work or teaching of Jesus. I find this disappointing even for someone who is a renowned Old Testament scholar. Indeed, the name “Jesus” appears just once in the whole book (p. 19); the title “Christ”, once (p. 20 – if you ignore two references in the glossary), and “Messiah” appears twice (p. 20 & p. 50). Excluding the glossary, three of the four references appear in the same paragraph (pp. 19-20).
If we have come to recognize Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we will indeed read the Hebrew Scriptures with renewed interest but we will surely take note of the way Jesus and his Apostles interpret them. After his resurrection and before his ascension to heaven, the Apostles were still confused about whether Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to the Jewish people and defeat the Romans (See Acts 1:6-7). On the road to Emmaus, Jesus gently rebuked some of them.
‘How foolish you are, and slow of heart to believe all the prophets have spoken and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27).
It was precisely the failure or unwillingness of the Pharisees to do this that led Jesus to condemn their faulty hermeneutic.
‘You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me’ (John 5:39).
Being rooted in history, God’s revelation in scripture is clearly progressive and points people to Jesus as God’s chosen one. So, for example, the writer to Hebrews says ‘The law is only as shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves.’ (Hebrews 10:1). Paul amplifies this in Galatians.
“Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (Galatians 3:23-25)
The word for ‘put in charge’ was used by the Greeks to describe the role of a household slave or servant who was in some way responsible for a child’s care and upbringing until they reached maturity (see also 1 Corinthians 4:15). So, if in the words of Paul, ‘the law’ does not ‘lead us to Christ’, as intended, then our interpretation of it is likely to be defective.
Laying aside for the moment, the fact that Walter does not engage with the New Testament, let us examine how he interprets the Hebrew scriptures. In the opening sentence Walter writes,
“The ongoing conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people is intense and complex, and it offers no easy or obvious solution. This chapter considers how to read the Bible responsibly in the midst of the conflict and consider what, if any, guidance may be received from it.” (p. 1)
In the first chapter, he examines the tensions between the unconditional promises concerning land made to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis and the conditional clauses added later in Deuteronomy which made obedience to the Torah necessary for continued residence in the land. I find no tension here, simply the progressive revelation of God’s promises and purposes from those made to an individual to an entire nation.
Walter then examines a further tension between, on the one hand, passages that encourage God’s people to welcome the outsider to share the land, and other passages that appear to exclude outsiders to preserve the purity of God’s people.
“The issue of Bible and land is whether to read with a welcome to the other or with an exclusion of the other. Welcome to the other appears to be a romantic dream in the world of real politics, and certainly current Israeli policy would find such openness to the Palestinians to be absurd. But if welcome to the other is considered romanticism, so ultimate exclusion of the other is a suicidal policy, because the other will not go away and cannot simply be wished away or forced away.” (p. 6)
I have a lot of sympathy for Walters argument here although I would not describe the repeated injunction in scripture to welcome people of faith into the people of God irrespective of their race as ‘romantic’, I do however believe the continued denial of Palestinian rights to self-determination as ‘suicidal’ for Israel.
Walter calls “Ezra, the Exclusionist” (p. 5) suggesting in the fifth century BC, the instruction that Jewish husbands should divorce foreign wives was to ensure biological purity and protect the “holy seed” (Ezra 9:2). I find this interpretation unconvincing, when the repeated emphasis of the Prophets was on welcoming people of faith from other nationalities and on maintaining spiritual purity not racial purity (see Isaiah 56:3-7). In the New Testament, Paul takes the analogy of “seed” and shows that it ultimately refers to Jesus and those who acknowledge him.
“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ… There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:16, 28-29)
Walter is actually very cautious when it comes to interpreting scripture,
“Reading the Bible with reference to any contemporary issue is at best tricky and hazardous, and any conclusion drawn from it is not likely to be persuasive to all parties in the dispute.” (p. 1)
He further claims,
“Clearly, it is not simply exegesis that determines how we read the Bible; rather, it is our vested interests, our hopes, and our fears that largely determine our reading.” (p. 10)
I do not share his caution or pessimism. Walter claims,
“The dispute between Palestinians and Israelis is elementally about land and secondarily about security and human rights. Various appeals are made to the Bible, especially concerning the disputed land.” (p. 2)
Respectfully, I disagree. The issue of human rights is primary and land is secondary, dependent on those rights. Again, as Walter knows, the emphasis of God’s Prophets was upon the demand for justice and equity. Here are just a few examples:
“Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
“But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
If human rights are respected and implemented impartially (such as to title and ownership of land), then conflicting claims will be resolved by the community with, or without, the agreement of the parties in dispute. That is the role of law, whether civic or international. In the case of Israel and Palestine, the solution has been self-evident to the entire international community, since as long ago as 22nd November 1967, when the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 242.
The preamble refers to the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war and the need to work for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East in which every State in the area can live in security”. Operative Paragraph One “Affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles:
(i) Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
(ii) Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”[v]
Ironically, Walter goes on to cites the work of Walter Harrelson showing the significance of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) in shaping the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“In his elegant exposition of the Ten Commandments, Walter Harrelson has seen that the Decalogue, the core Torah requirement in Judaism, is a bottom line articulation of indispensable requirements of a viable society… By the end of his exposition, Harrelson proposes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an extension of the vision and creativity of the Decalogue.” (pp.12-13)
In this first chapter, since this book is clearly aimed at Christians, I would have expected Walter to reflect on a wider spectrum of instruction in scripture, observe the progressive revelation in God’s purposes, engage specifically with the teaching of Jesus, and examine in particular, how the New Testament interprets Old Testament paradigms such as chosenness and land in the purposes of God. The failure to engage, Christocentrically, with the teaching of the Old Testament and to almost completely ignore the entire New Testament, I contend, is the fundamental weakness of Walter’s book in its present form. It would perhaps therefore be more accurate to subtitle the book and this chapter, “Reading the Hebrew Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
Chapter 2: God’s Chosen People, Claim and Problem
In chapter 2, Walter explores the covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. He argues that the Jews were and remain God’s chosen people. He examines whether the chosenness is irrevocable and then explores how the status of “chosen people” has been claimed, he believes, inappropriately by three other groups – by what he terms “the “Christian movement”; in the national self-understanding of the United States; and by some Latin American theologians who have designated the poor as God’s chosen. Walter’s strongest criticisms, accuse the Church and indeed the New Testament, of Supercessionism, the belief that the Church has replaced Israel and so usurps the exclusive Jewish claim to be God’s chosen people. He then dwells on the status of those he terms the “unchosen”, that is Gentiles, who may nevertheless be blessed in association with Israel. Let us explore these themes in more detail. We have noted earlier in his Introduction, Walter states,
“I was grateful (and continue to be so) for the founding and prospering of the state of Israel as an embodiment of God’s chosen people. That much is expressed in my earlier book entitled The Land. I took “the holy land” to be the appropriate place for the chosen people of the Bible which anticipates the well-being of Israel that takes land and people together.” (p. xiv)
In chapter 2, Walter conflates the ancient Israel of the Bible with the Jewish people today and with the contemporary state of Israel, even though he insists it is simplistic to draw a ‘straight line’ between ancient texts and modern political Israel (p. 10).
“In the Hebrew Bible, Israel is presented as God’s chosen people. It is a core declaration of the text and surely a continuing claim of Judaism. Indeed, the Bible makes no sense without this claim.” (p. 15).
Walter refers to three strands within the Old Testament that he believes corroborate this: the ancestral tradition of Abraham where God enters into an “everlasting covenant” with his descendants (Genesis 17:7); the Exodus tradition, where God declares Israel to be his “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22) and the Sinai tradition where Israel is described as God’s “treasured possession out of all peoples” (Exodus 19, pp.15-16). Walter cites approvingly, Jon Levenson who argues it is inappropriate to designate the poor as “chosen”, for example, since to do so, is to “usurp the claim from the Jews to that status.” (p. 22). Walter concludes,
“Advocates of the several claims do not bother much to justify how these claims are made in the face of the unambiguous claim of the text for Israel.” (p. 22).
So, Walter believes not only that the Jewish people are God’s chosen people, but Israel as a Jewish state, because of unconditional and everlasting promises God made to Abraham and his descendants.
Before we consider the more serious criticism of Supercessionism, let us consider whether the Old Testament is as unambiguous as Walter would have us believe. Walter concedes that there is a fourth strand of teaching in scripture but which he claims is “on the edge of the Old Testament” allowing,
“an inclusion of other peoples in the sphere of God’s attentiveness, an inclusion that intends to mitigate any exclusionary claim by Israel.” (p. 23)
Walter cites Amos 9:7 and Isaiah 19:24-25 conceding “even Israel’s adversaries, are reckoned to be chosen of God” but insists such texts “are rare” therefore, “likely too much should not be made of them.” (p. 25). Walter also concedes this theme is also, “belatedly taken up by Paul in his contention that the church must be open to Gentiles” (p. 23). This strand of inclusion, however, is far from being “on the edge of the Old Testament” or taken up “belatedly” in the New Testament. Israel as a nation was never narrowly restricted to those who were the physical descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob but has always incorporated people of other races. God’s gracious welcome extended not just to their identity and right of residence but also to their inheritance of land and to worship in the Temple. Moses, for example, warned the Jewish people against a racial exclusivity:
“Do not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you lived as an alien in his country. The third generation of children born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:7-8)
The Edomites, descended from Esau, lived in what is today the Negev and Southern Jordan. King David, similarly, looked forward to the day when other races – Egyptian (Rahab) Persian (Babylon), Palestinian (Philitia), Lebanese (Tyre) and African (Cush) would have the same identity and privileges as native born Israelites:
“I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’”
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her,
and the Most High himself will establish her.”
The Lord will write in the register of the peoples:
“This one was born in Zion.” (Psalm 87:4-6)
Why does God say three times in three verses “This one was born in Zion”? Perhaps because he knew Abraham’s physical descendants would have a hard time accepting it. The only criterion for God lays down for membership of his people is faith. God welcomes all ‘those who acknowledge me’. In the story of Esther, we find a fascinating insight into the diverse racial mix of Israel. After God had delivered his people, they held a celebration which is remembered today in the Feast of Purim. Notice what happened that day:
“In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating. And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.” (Esther 8:17)
In no sense, therefore, can it be argued by the 4th Century BCE at least, that Jewishness was synonymous with racial purity nor ancestry from Abraham. The inclusive nature of God’s people is further developed in the prophecies of Isaiah.
“Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:3, 6-7)
Why would foreigners who had “bound themselves to the Lord” fear that he might exclude them from his people? Presumably because his people were doing the excluding, presumably on ethnic grounds. The Lord Jesus cites this very passage to justify his actions in clearing the money changers and traders out of the Temple. The religious leaders had turned the Court of the Gentiles into a noisy market exploiting foreign worshippers with inflated exchange rates and exorbitant prices for sacrifices.
The inclusive nature of ‘Israel’ in the Old Testament is developed in the New Testament. Those who presumed that ancestry gave them certain exclusive privileges were chastened by John the Baptist. The strong language indicates how seriously God viewed their pride and arrogance.
“John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9)
Jesus gives a similar warning to those who were trying to trap him.
‘Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did.’ (John 8:39).
Jesus goes even further in Matthew 8, when he praises the faith of a Gentile Roman Centurion, ‘I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.’ (Matthew 8:10). Jesus then goes on to make a prediction:
“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12)
Here Jesus is warning his Jewish hearers that unless they recognize him as their Messiah they will be excluded from the Kingdom.
Walter asks, but fails to really answer, the question of whether the claim to chosenness was revocable (p. 17).
“…is that chosen status unconditionally given and therefore assured, or is it conditional and therefore revocable? This is an exceedingly difficult question, and the biblical texts seem to give more than one answer.”
I think here Walter is making his hermeneutical task harder than it needs to be. Put simply, if the Lord later (in the giving of the Law) adds a conditional clause to an unconditional promise previously made to Abraham, his ancestors are being given a conditional promise of blessing dependant on their obedience. This was made clear in Deuteronomy 30.
“Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-20)
I suggest passages such as this remove any ambiguity on whether the promises made to Abraham were irrevocable. Only those who claim the rights without the responsibilities could imagine there remains any ambiguity. The blessings of God were and remain conditional on faith and obedience, and when we fail, as we do, they instruct the necessity of repentance to continue to experience his love, mercy and grace (see 1 John 1:8-10).
But what of the more serious charge Walter makes of Supercessionism? Placing the New Testament Church alongside the exceptionalism of US ‘manifest destiny’ and the designation by some Latin liberation theologians that the poor are ‘chosen’ does not obscure the fact that Walter is cutting off the branch he is sitting on. Here is his assessment in full:
“The notion that Christianity has displaced Judaism as the faith of the chosen is rooted in the idea that Judaism was a preparation for Christianity but that when Jesus came, Judaism no longer functioned. Such a belief is a historical absurdity and a theological scandal, but it has been a popular idea. The formulation of 1 Peter 2:9-10 is a close echo of Sinai and amounts to a claim for the church as the chosen of God. Indeed, in Galatians 6:16, Paul goes so far as to identify the community around Christ as “the Israel of God.” He uses such phrasing to dismiss circumcision, thus challenging the decisive mark of chosenness by Jews that the tradition locates as early as Abraham (Gen. 17:10-14). Much Christian theology and even more hymnody have readily appropriated the claim of chosenness for the church. That claim made by the church derives from the claim made for Jesus as Messiah, so that the people after him are chosen after him.” (pp. 19-20)
“Advocates of the several claims do not bother much to justify how these claims are made in the face of the unambiguous claim of the text for Israel. But that is in the nature of the claim; it is supple enough and readily appropriated and pre-empted for other people and communities.” (p. 20)
In the Q&A chapter, Walter is even more explicit.
“Paul insisted that the early church was “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), and the lyrical articulation of 1 Peter 2:9-10 clearly intends to preempt the claims of ancient Israel from Sinai for the church as the carrier of the covenant. There is something deep at stake theologically for the church to claim that it is “the Israel of God” and so the heir of the covenant of God. I am inclined to think, given the current turmoil about the state of Israel and the always present supercessionism, that we would do well to avoid such usage in the church.” (p. 56)
Notwithstanding the clumsy language, and very limited citations of how the New Testament defines chosenness, Walter does concede that the claim derives from the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. I do agree with Walter that Supersessionism, as he describes it, is an ‘historical absurdity”, for the simple reason that he has constructed a straw man. This is not what the New Testament teaches, nor how the Church Fathers and Councils understood their identity based on their reading of the scriptures. The New Testament never defines Israel exclusively with ethnicity, far from it. The position Walter criticises does nevertheless accurately describe how rabbinic Judaism views Christian orthodoxy. In criticising the teaching of the New Testament, as well as ignoring much else taught there, Walter is siding with rabbinic Judaism. logically, one might also expect the reintroduction of Temple sacrifices as the means of atonement since this too was instituted as an ‘everlasting’ ordinance.
“I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.” (1 Kings 9:3)
But let me respond to Walter’s complaint that “Advocates of the several claims do not bother much to justify how these claims are made in the face of the unambiguous claim of the text for Israel.” The Scriptures are indeed unambiguous in distinguishing between the old and new covenants. In Hebrews, for example, the writer says,
“By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8:13).
There is therefore, from a Christian perspective, no sense in which the old covenant can be viewed as still in force or applicable. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20). When Jesus died on the cross, a new covenant was established with his precious blood that supercedes the basis of the old covenant. The writer to Hebrews continues,
“For this reason, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:15).
Here then is the biblical explanation of Supecessionism. But notice the succession is first from one covenant to another, not from Israel to the Church, but from Israel to Jesus. This is because both covenants were, in their first instance, made with the people of God who at that stage were predominantly Jewish.
“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:31-33).
This is why Jesus initially sent his Apostles only to the Jews.
“These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.’” (Matthew 10:5-6).
But when the religious leaders rejected his ministry, Jesus warned,
“Therefore, I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” (Matthew 21:43).
Jesus here describes the succession that would indeed occur within a generation. The apostle Peter, preaching after Pentecost, cited Moses prophecy about Jesus, warning, “Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from their people.” (Acts 3:23). The Apostle Paul, in Romans elaborates on Jesus’ teaching and defines both Jew and Israel in terms consistent with the Old Testament. Membership of the people of God came by grace through faith not race or works.
“A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29)
“It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” (Romans 9:6-8)
The New Testament consistently emphasizes that there has only ever been one people of God – whether under the old or new covenant – and only one way to God – by grace alone and through faith alone (John 14:6; Ephesians 2:8-9). Both Old Testament Israel and New Testament Church were made up of Jews and Gentiles. Only God knows who is numbered among his faithful remnant. At various times in history it has been clearer than in others – for example when all but the family of Noah perished or when the entire generation who entered the desert of Sinai, perished there apart from Joshua and Caleb. That is Christians should be uncomfortable describing the Church as the ‘New Israel’. The term never appears in the Bible. However, the Apostle Peter does indeed use language associated with Israel and applies it to the followers of Jesus.
“They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:8-10)
We may say emphatically; the Church has not replaced Israel. Rather, in the New Covenant church, God has fulfilled the promises originally made to the Old Covenant church. Put simply, the Church has not replaced Israel because Church and Israel are simply two descriptions of the same people of God at different times historically. So, for example, when Jesus affirms Peter’s declaration of faith and says, “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18), the word translated for ‘church’ in Greek is ‘ekklesia’ – the very word used in the Greek Old Testament to describe God’s people.
The inevitable question that must be asked, which Walter does not address, is this: “Does God have one people or two?” In the imagery of the vine and the branches (John 15) and the wild and natural branches of the olive tree (Romans 11), we see that God has only ever had one inclusive people, identified on the basis of faith not race. If Gentiles “have been grafted in” (Romans 11:17), it begs the question “into what or whom have they been grafted?” In the letter to the Philippians, Paul explicitly identifies the Church as the true ‘circumcision’ (Philippians 3:3). This is entirely consistent with the Old Testament, where, as we have already seen, citizenship of Israel was open to all ‘those who acknowledge me’ (Psalm 87:4). Here also is the clue to understanding Romans 9-11. Of course, God has not rejected the Jewish people. His covenant purpose for them, as with every other race, has always been ‘that they may be saved’ (Romans 10:1), to create one people for himself, made of both Jews and Gentiles (Romans 11:26). God’s covenant purposes are fulfilled only in and through Jesus Christ. This is most fully explained in Ephesians 2.
“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” … remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross.” (Ephesians 2: 11-16)
A chapter later, the oneness of God’s people is described as the “mystery of Christ”
“…the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 3:4-6)
Another weakness of Walter’s argument is that, while emphasizing the ‘status’ (p. 17) of Israel as God’s chosen people, he never elaborates on what they were chosen for. He simply calls upon those who regard themselves as chosen, to act magnanimously.
“The chosen must choose beyond their chosenness. This is difficult, for it is against the grain of entitlement and assurance. But unless difficult choices are made, the present violence can only hold out a future of perpetual violence.” (p. 26)
So why did God choose the Israelites? Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord explains,
“I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
When Simeon meets Mary and Joseph and their baby in the Temple, moved by the Holy Spirit he exclaims,
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
This was further corroborated at the baptism of Jesus. On page 16, Walter acknowledges that in the Exodus tradition, God declares, “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). At the baptism of Jesus, God the Father applies this title to Jesus.
“At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17)
The same affirmation is made at the transfiguration of Jesus,
“While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5)
While Israel was called to be a “light to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 49:6), Jesus understood himself to be fulfilling the role they abdicated,
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
While the prophet Isaiah asserted,
“The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” (Isaiah 5:7)
Jesus insisted, categorically and emphatically, “no” he was the true vine not Israel,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1-5)
Jesus is the vine and his followers, Jews and Gentiles, Israel and the Church, are the branches. The question is not whether one or other warrant the title “chosen”, but rather whether they abide in Him and are bearing fruit or not.
The New Testament writers are unapologetic in recognising that Jesus has fulfilled the role entrusted to Israel. Indeed, Jesus is presented as the one predicted and prefigured in every important Jewish festival and tradition, for example, as the New Adam, Melchizedek, the ransom sacrifice, the atoning sacrifice, the scapegoat, the bronze serpent, the Kinsman Redeemer, the Temple, the High Priest, and supremely, the Passover Lamb. No, the church has not replaced Israel. Jesus is the chosen one. When Jesus died on the cross, he was the faithful remnant. Faithful Israel reduced to one man.
“We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)
In chapter 2, we have seen that Walter has not defined in biblical terms who was chosen, nor explained why they were chosen. He does not engage with how the New Testament reveals how God’s purposes were fulfilled in and through Jesus, nor how the term “chosen” is used exclusively of those who follow Jesus.
Chapter 3: Holy Land?
In chapter 3, Walter describes how “the theme of land (as in “holy land”) permeates the ancient memory of Israel in the Old Testament.” (p. 27). He notes that in Genesis, “The land promised by God to Israel is given without condition or obligation. It is a unilateral commitment on God’s part.” (p. 27), but then in Deuteronomy, “Moses sets forth a set of commandments and ordinances that must be kept if the land of promise is to be retained.” (p. 27). While in chapter 2, Walter seems to make heavy weather of the apparent tension between passages describing the exclusive and inclusive nature of God’s people, in chapter 3 he has no trouble in accepting that the land was a “Gift with strings attached.” (p. 28). “Thus we may conclude that the land is given to Israel unconditionally, but is held by Israel conditionally.” (p. 29), even if in the next verses he acknowledges by implication that those who want to take the gift of land without the conditions “…will be drawn to different texts, as the textual tradition itself yields no single verdict.” (p. 29). This hermeneutic does not recognise the progressive revelation in God’s purposes. The same ‘tension’ could be argued if one compares biblical texts delineating God’s instructions to his people before and after the law had been given through Moses. In Walter’s case, is explained by observing that he believes the Torah and much else in the Hebrew canon, “was formulated in the fifth century during the Persian period.” (p. 30).
“This means that we are required to read the traditions with a double vision. On the one hand, we read it as presented, as an ancient account of promise and wilderness sojourn. On the other hand, we read it through the lens of Persian-period displaced Jews who longed for a return to the long-lost land of Judah.” (pp. 30-31)
Whether one agrees with Walter’s dating of the Torah, his summary reflects the reality of what happened to God’s people. “Thus, the land is given, the land is taken, and the land is losable.” (p. 32). He then observes,
“The emergent prophetic voices insist on exile that the God who has abandoned Israel and caused forfeiture of the land is the God who will reperform the land promise… With this ending, the entire canon is claimed for and focused on the homecoming and re-entry into the land.” (pp. 34-35)
The word “reperform” is rather an unusual one to describe the grounds for restoration to the land when Moses and the prophets insisted that repentance was an essential and non-negotiable precondition rather than believe all that was needed was to ‘reboot’ and claim the original promise. This is how Moses and later Jeremiah laid down the terms for residency in God’s land.
“When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come on you and you take them to heart wherever the Lord your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back.” (Deuteronomy 30:1-4)
“Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29:12-14)
A return to the Lord would necessarily precede a return to the land. This omission weakens the conclusions Walter reaches in answer to the question “Is today’s Israel biblical Israel?” I do agree with Walter when he says,
“…it is simply not credible to make any direct appeal from the ancient promises of land to the state of Israel… Current Israeli leaders (seconded by the settlers) easily and readily appeal to the land tradition as though it were a justification for contemporary political ends. Nothing could be further from reality. Any and every appeal to ancient tradition must allow for immense interpretative slippage between ancient claim and contemporary appeal. To try and deny or collapse that space is illusionary. No one beyond one-dimensional ideologues (Israeli, Palestinian, or American) can work from such a claim.” (pp. 38-39)
The question however, is why? Walter believes this is because,
“The textual tradition continues to sound its powerful claim, but it allows no final reading that would lead inevitably to a clear and lasting solution concerning vulnerable adversaries.” (p. 39)
One is left asking, does scripture not have anything to say that speaks into the contemporary situation? I believe there are sufficient commands in the Torah and Prophets to enable us to see how the present impasse can be resolved. In this regard, it may be helpful to compare and contrast the housing terms ‘freehold’ and ‘leasehold’. The impression Walter gives is that we are talking freehold whereby the land was given, lost and restored because of the unconditional promise made to Abraham. The Old Testament insists the ‘gift’ or title, and thereby residence in the land, was more leasehold than freehold. Through Moses the Lord reminded his people,
“‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” (Leviticus 25:23)
The land, as indeed the whole earth, belongs to God. His promised gift was the right to live in his land, but never to possess it in terms of permanent ownership. This was one of the reasons for the institution of the Year of Jubilee when land had to be returned to the family of those to whom it had originally been assigned. This is perhaps also why so many of Jesus’ parables were about the relationship between a landowner and his tenants (see for example, Luke 20:9-19). In the prophecies of Ezekiel, it seems the Lord anticipated the reasoning of those who would arrogantly claim unconditional right to the land because of the covenant originally made with Abraham.
“Son of man, the people living in those ruins in the land of Israel are saying, ‘Abraham was only one man, yet he possessed the land. But we are many; surely the land has been given to us as our possession.’ Therefore, say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Since you eat meat with the blood still in it and look to your idols and shed blood, should you then possess the land? You rely on your sword, you do detestable things… Should you then possess the land?’ … I will make the land a desolate waste, and her proud strength will come to an end.’ (Ezekiel 33:24-26, 28-29)
Furthermore, residence in God’s land was open to all God’s people which included ‘foreigners’ and not just native-born Israelites. Under Ezekiel, the returning exiles were instructed,
“You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.” (Ezekiel 47:21-23)
Again, why does God have to repeat three times in three verses, “share the land”? Presumably because some who claimed to be God’s people did not want to do so, any more than they do now. If one were looking for a biblical basis for a contemporary solution it would clearly favour the “One State” solution with equal rights for all Israeli citizens.
In the New Testament, the writer to Hebrews goes much further insisting that the land was never the ultimate desire or inheritance of God’s people, but only a temporary residence until the coming of Jesus Christ. Their eternal inheritance, and ours, is heavenly not earthly.
“By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God… These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:9-10; 39-40)
Walter’s chapter on the land has some very helpful insights, especially regarding the futility of exclusive Zionist claims today. Nevertheless there are some omissions. I would like to have seen discussion on the status of God’s people in the land (aliens and strangers), the conditions for their restoration (repentance), and acknowledgement that on their return, God’s land was to be shared.
Chapter 4: Zionism and Israel
In the final chapter, Walter explores the significance of Jerusalem, or Zion, in biblical history.
“Eventually it became a summary for the city, with all political possibilities and theological claims. The poetry does not distinguish between the city, the temple, the monarchy, and the political-military apparatus.”
Walter traces the emphasis on Zion, especially in the Psalms where,
“Zion is celebrated as a source of beauty and wonder… the dwelling place of God… a place imagined as a goal for pilgrimage… The best known of the Songs of Zion is Psalm 46, wherein the city vouches for the presence of God and the solidarity of God with Israel… Zion is a place for exultation of YHWH over the other gods in the temple liturgy (v. 10). It is the venue where the kingship of YHWH is performed and celebrated.” (pp. 42-43)
Although Walter cites references to Zion from Psalms 46, 48, 74, 76, 84, 97 and 137, he omits Psalm 87 with its emphasis on an inclusive Jerusalem, indeed an international city, where God joyfully and repeatedly welcomes into citizenship people of other nations because of their faith in him.
“He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are said of you,
city of God:
“I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’”
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her,
and the Most High himself will establish her.”
The Lord will write in the register of the peoples:
“This one was born in Zion.”
As they make music they will sing,
“All my fountains are in you.” (Psalm 87)
Clearly, the divine acknowledgement that foreigners could become citizens and indeed help “establish” Jerusalem is incompatible with exclusive nationalist claims.
Walter also observes how other Psalms, notably Psalms 74 and 137, lament Jerusalem plundered and destroyed. He then examines how the prophet Isaiah looks forward to the rebuilding and restoration of Jerusalem suggesting,
“The recurring pattern and frequency of this claim to the future of Jerusalem has become nearly an “ism” – that is, “Zionism” – with the conviction that God’s commitment to and resolve for the ancient city of David and temple, finally will prevail, thus ensuring safety and well-being for its restored population.” (p. 47)
Walter then returns once again to the theme of Christian Supercessionism acknowledging that,
“There is no doubt that the Christian tradition has claimed for itself much of the imagery and phrasing that pertains to Zion, to Jerusalem, and to the king who reigns there. Thus, the new Jerusalem is an ultimate hope of the New Testament church (Rev. 21:2).
He illustrates this with references to Christian hymnody and Christmas carols, but not to any of the seven important occasions in the New Testament where the Messianic prophecies of Psalm 2:6; Isaiah 8:14, Isaiah 59:20 and Zechariah 9:9, which specifically refer to Zion, as interpreted as fulfilled in and through Jesus Christ and become the locus of the future hope of his followers.
“Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Matthew 21:5)
“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” (John 12:15)
“and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written: “The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.” (Romans 11:26)
“For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6)
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly.” (Hebrews 12:22)
“Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” (Revelation14:1)
If, as Walter claims, “Such usages are deeply problematic” then his complaint is levelled against the New Testament writers not Christian tradition or, least of all, hymn writers.
“These usages, deeply rooted in Christian piety and hymnody, are part of the large legacy of Christian supercessionism whereby Christians have readily taken over Jewish forms and expressions of faith. Such usages are deeply problematic, but exploring that does not help us with the current issue concerning Zionism as expressed in the state of Israel.” (p. 47)
Ironically, in failing to acknowledge the way the Old Testament promises are seen as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, Walter is unable to appreciate how, as we shall see in more detail this afternoon, the New Testament does indeed help refute the claims of Christian Zionism.[vi]
In Walter’s summary of the development of modern Zionism, he does not mention that Christian restorationism preceded the rise of Jewish Zionism by at least fifty years. The London Jews Society, for example, was founded in 1809. One of their aims was to facilitate the restoration of the Jews to Palestine, albeit as a Christian nation. Few Zionist historians concede the help given by Christians to the leaders of the movement. Ironically, in his own diary, Theodore Herzl acknowledges his indebtedness to Christian friends such as Revd William Hechler. These are two entries for 10th March 1896 and 1897.
The Reverend William Hechler, Chaplain of the English Embassy here, came to see me. A sympathetic, gentle fellow, with the long grey beard of a prophet. He is enthusiastic about my solution of the Jewish Question. He also considers my movement a ‘prophetic turning-point’ – which he had foretold two years before…”[vii]
“He showed me where, according to his calculations, our new Temple must be located: in Bethel! Because that is the centre of the country. He also showed me models of the ancient Temple. ‘We have prepared the ground for you!’ Hechler said triumphantly … I take him for a naive visionary … However, there is something charming about his enthusiasm … He gives me excellent advice, full of unmistakable genuine good will. He is at once clever and mystical, cunning and naive.[viii]
Despite Herzl’s initial scepticism, Hechler kept his word and gained access to the German Kaiser William II, the Grand Duke of Baden as well as the British political establishment for Herzl and his Zionist delegation. Were it not for the active lobbying by influential Christian Zionists, there would probably never have been a Jewish state.
Likewise, Walter’s description of the origins and motive for the Balfour Declaration and subsequent recognition of the state of Israel do not consider the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France, nor the promises to protect the civil and political rights of the vast majority of residents who were Arab Palestinians, nor their legitimate aspirations to a state of their own. On three occasions on page 49, Walter refers to the ‘hardening’ of Zionist agenda after 1967.
“One outcome was a hardened Zionism that combined a desperate aspiration with an uncompromising ideology that supported the state of Israel and its security at all costs against all comers… Like every ideology, Zionism hardened into a non-negotiable cause that to many observers was no longer interested in or informed by the political facts on the ground.” (p. 49)
The impression given is that this ‘hardening’ was a consequence of the 1967 Six Day War when it is clear the plan to expel Palestinians and acquire their land by force was evident much earlier. Walter is incorrect to suggest the issue was ‘fuzzy’.
“At the outset, many matters between the state of Israel and the Palestinian population were unsettled and disputed, and the world powers that supported Israel, principally Britain and the United States, were fuzzy about them.” (p. 49)
Nor does Walter acknowledge the significance of UN Resolutions in condemning Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territory and human rights abuses, based on international law. Indeed, he speculates that they may indeed be justified based on biblical precedent.
“One can argue that the current ideology of Zionism is of a piece with that ancient conquest of the “city of David” so that old memories from the tradition have been readily coopted as claims for the modern state of Israel.” (p. 50)
Walter insists it is important to differentiate between Jewish and Christian Zionism under the heading ‘Multiple Interpretations’. It would have been helpful had he elaborated on the ‘power’ of the Zionist Lobby, and also observed that Christian Zionists dominate the Lobby, probably outnumber Jewish Zionists by at least ten to one.
He describes Jewish Zionism as,
“grounded in what is understood to be the nonnegotiable status of Israel as God’s chosen people and the land as Israel’s land of promise.” (p. 50)
While this may indeed be true of religious Jewish Zionism, his definition would not be accepted by secular Zionists. Furthermore, his characterization of Christian Zionism is weak,
“It includes a general sense of solidarity with Jews that is informed by the long legacy of Christian anti-Semitism. Its more vigorous form, however, is grounded in a theological dispensationalism that regards the state of Israel as an essential prerequisite to the “return of the Messiah.” Either way, Christian Zionism tends to regard the claims of Jewish Zionism as absolute and nonnegotiable.” (p. 50).
The dominant and most popular forms of Christian Zionism, found in Pentecostal and independent churches, readily identify with the Jews as Gods chosen people and the land of Palestine their inheritance. While the roots of Christian Zionism do include an apocalyptic strain within Dispensationalism, most contemporary Christian Zionists have neither heard the word or subscribe to its fatalistic tenets. If there is any fuzziness, it is precisely here where Christian Zionists naively and romantically equate contemporary Israel with biblical Israel demonstrating their lamentable biblical illiteracy. Walter rightly urges critical engagement with the Bible (pp. 10-12). He is right to conclude,
“…a critique of any ideology that co-opts faith for a one-dimensional cause that is taken to be above criticism… Because every uncompromising ideology reduces faith to an idolatry, such critical work in faith continues to be important” (p. 53),
none more so when the word “Chosen” is applied to a people without a question mark.
In the Q&A at the end of the book, Walter acknowledges his position “is not an objective, detached judgment” and that,
“A constant in the conflict is the question of the security of the state of Israel, a concern about which both sides agree. But adjudicating between the well-established, well-funded, pro-Israeli perspective and a more recently emergent awareness pf Palestinian suffering and deprivation at the hands of the Israel is no easy matter.” (p. 55)
Walter’s red line, it seems, is the “continuing vulnerability of the Jews” and the security of the state of Israel which is probably why he urges Christians to reappraise their “long-held commitments” without suggesting what that might look like from his reading of the Bible. Gary Burge in his review writes,
“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.”
I am confident that Walter’s important little book will be enhanced significantly in a future edition if he is more explicit in applying the biblical principles and injunctions that inspired the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as he rightly acknowledges; if as a consequence, he affirms more explicitly the right to Palestinian self-determination; and if he is willing to advocates BDS as a non-violent means to resist the illegal and oppressive military occupation and achieve equal rights for Jews and Palestinians, whether within one truly democratic state, or in two states living side by side in peace. Walter urges us to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than perpetuate it. He has left it to us his readers to work out how to accomplish that.
© Stephen Sizer
A paper delivered at the Sabeel-Kairos Nederlands conference, in Amersfoort, Nederlands, September 2017.
[i] Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon? (IVP, Leicester, 2004); Zion’s Christian Soldiers? The Bible, Israel and the Church (IVP, Leicester, 2007)
[ii] Gary Burge, Themelios, http://themelios.thegospelcoalition.org/review/chosen-reading-the-bible-amid-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict
Jonathan Homrighausen, American Academy of Religion, Reading Religion http://readingreligion.org/books/chosen
[iii] Christopher M Leighton, The Institute for Islamic, Christian & Jewish Studies, Baltimore, Maryland. http://pres-outlook.org/2016/02/chosen-reading-the-bible-amid-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict-2
Gerald R. McDermott, Providence, A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, Spring 2016. https://providencemag.com/2016/10/book-review-walter-brueggemann-chosen
Peter A. Pettit, Studies in Christian Jewish Relations. https://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/scjr/article/view/9173
Bill Plitt, The Presbyterian Outlook, http://pres-outlook.org/2016/02/chosen-reading-the-bible-amid-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict/
Ben Rothke, Times of Israel, June 1, 2016 http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/ben-rothke/
[iv] See www.stephensizer.com/books
[vii] Theodor Herzl, The Diaries of Theodor Herzl (New York, 1956).
[viii] Paul Merkley, The Politics of Christian Zionism (James Cass, London, 2001) pp.16-17.