Burge explores the issue of the promised land to Israel and Christian support for Israel. What was God’s promise to Abraham? Was the promise unconditional? Are Christians expected to support Israel because those who bless Israel will be blessed?
Since the birth of Israel — a moment celebrated by millions of Christians — innumerous people have suffered. Since 1948, over 400 Arab villages have been either destroyed by bulldozers or occupied by Israeli residents despite UN resolutions calling for the rightful return of these homes and lands to their Arab owners. According to UN records in June 1999, about 3.6 million Palestinian refugees are the victims of Israel’s nationhood. Palestinian refugee community is the largest in the world.
In order to understand the issue of ‘the promised land’ in the correct context, it is imperative that we understand the events that lead to the formation of Israel.
The plot to steal Palestinian land started long before the Holocaust of World War 2. In 1895, Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary that the removal of Arabs from Palestine is part of the Zionist plan. Joseph Weitz stated that there is no room for Arabs and Jews in the country. He wanted Israel without Arabs. Ben-Gurion wanted to prevent Arabs who fled from returning. To guarantee that, villages were destroyed and wells were poisoned with typhus and dysentery bacteria. When an entire town became sick, Jewish forces occupied the town and looted Arab homes.
In 1948, Israeli planes dropped leaflets in Palestinian villages warning people to get out or be killed. After they left, Israeli settlers simply moved into Palestinian homes. In some villages, the Israeli forces carried out mass arrest of all males aged 14 to 60. They were taken to detention camps where they were tortured by Shin Bet (the secret police).
Israel was built by conquest and confiscation of other people’s land, which resulted in millions of refugees. Israel confiscates land that are of strategic value — for water, agriculture and military advantage. This is the game played for centuries by who ever that wants to control the land.
Israel also steals water. The average Israeli consumes 348 liters of water a day, but the average Palestinian is only given 70 liters. If Palestinians want more water, they have to pay four times the usual price. A settler receives nine times more water than a West Bank Palestinian. In the summer of 1998, five hundred thousand Palestinians were without water for two months. Palestinians had to watch their children go thirsty while Jewish settlers next door watered their gardens and swam in their pools.
In 2006, when Hamas won the election, Israel imposed a blockade that paralyzes Gaza. In 2009, the US State Department offered scholarships to disadvantaged Gazans to study in the West bank of US. Israel imposed a travel ban so that the students cannot leave Gaza and the scholarships was eventually cancelled. This is one of many quiet persecutions to cultivate toxic levels of despair among Palestinians.
The pertinent question: What was God’s covenant to Abraham? What was the promise? The package deal includes the following:
- Abraham will receive the land as an everlasting possession,
- Abraham posterity will become a great nation,
- An everlasting covenant will bind Abraham and his descendants to God,
- All of the people of the earth will be blessed through Abraham and his people.
However, the promise was conditional. The land is to be an everlasting possession provided Abraham and his descendants remain faithful in their relationship with God. Possessing the land was contingent on Israel’s consistently living by God’s righteous standards. If Israel defy God’s law, the land itself will eject them out. Breaking the law means losing the land.
Who really owns the land? The Bible teaches that the nation of Israel doesn’t own the land, God does (Leviticus 25:23). Israel is a tenant, not the landlord.
The first six books of the Bible never used the phrase ‘the land of Israel’, but called it ‘the land of Canaan’. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, died at Kiriatharba (present day Hebron) in the land of Canaan. Abraham decided to bury Sarah at a certain plot of land and went to see the landowner to offer him a fair price for the land. He didn’t demand that the land was surrendered to him because God gave him the land.
How are Israelites instructed to deal with people who were already living in the land before they arrived? Land and righteousness are linked. Fidelity to covenant righteousness is a prerequisite to enjoying the blessing of the covenant. When any generation neglects the covenant, the land is conquered by foreign power.
The nation built by Saul, David and Solomon was not culturally monolithic — not the Jewish state that present day Israel aims to be. During the time of Saul, David and Solomon, non-Jews were neither marginalized nor expelled. Different cultures were integrated into mainstream national life, e.g., David’s army consists of many men who were not native Israelites.
Keeping the land hinges on obeying the law. The ‘aliens’ who lived along Israelites should not be oppressed or discriminated. Leviticus 19:33-34 remind Israelites that they were once aliens in Egypt. Israel was commanded to create a society that stood the tests of its goodness in how they treat non-Israelites. For example, David paid fair market price for a piece of land he bought. By failing to treat aliens fairly, Israel has forgotten not only its theological history, but also its won suffering in twentieth century Europe.
The Old Testament links justice to the land. Prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah and Ezekiel had little patience for those who ignored righteousness. Kings who destroyed innocent people and their homes soon faced a prophet. For example, Ahab faced Elijah and King David was disqualified from building God’s holy temple because he slaughtered many people.
Prophets warned against aggressive taking of lands or abuse of landowners. Every Old Testament prophet repeats the same theme — covenant land promise is tied to obeying God’s law and Israel’s violation of the law would lead to the necessary judgement. Jeremiah identified many wrongs, among them abuse of resident aliens who live in the land. If orphans, widows and aliens are abused, God will refuse to dwell with Israel in the land.
God sent prophets to warn Israelites when they strayed from God’s law — prophets who warned them that God’s promise of the land is contingent on them being righteous. If they didn’t mend their ways, they were expelled from the land. For example, in 586 B.C., Babylonian armies conquered the land, destroyed Jerusalem and took survivors captive.
Who are the ‘prophets’ of modern day Israel? Many Israeli groups decry the abuses of Palestinians by Israeli government. Among them are ICAHD, B’Tselem, Neturei Karta and Jewish Voice for Peace. Rabbis for Human Rights organise walks along the occupation barrier and read from Isaiah 1:27. Judaism is not the problem; the problem is secular.
Post-Zionists scholars have been challenging fundamental myths about the foundation of Israel, such as ‘a land with no people for a people without land’. Also challenged are stories about ill-equipped Holocaust survivors facing a hostile British government and Arabs who wanted to annihilate them. The truth is the Israel army was superior in every respect.
Jerusalem had a long non-Jewish history before it was captured by King David. It was conquered and destroyed within 700 years — destruction and exile were interpreted as judgement by God. Jesus emphasis this judgement in his vineyard and the tenants parable. After Roman expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem in 135 CE, Jews lost control of the city for over 1800 year.
Looking at the historical cultural dominance in Jerusalem, Israel’s historic claim on Jerusalem is only a small portion of history. Arab claims to Jerusalem are significant. For the last 2000 years, Judaism dominated Jerusalem for only 200 years.
A major concern of Israel is keeping a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. The former mayor admitted that the government wants to limit Arab population to 28%. Many tactics are deployed to achieve this target — limits are placed on Arab housing construction, Arab homes are routinely demolished, residency rights are revoked etc.
In 2012, there are 98 checkpoints in the West Bank and 57 of them are internal. The wall isolates and exclude Palestinian communities that were part of Jerusalem so that they are left with no access to Jerusalem. The separation wall, which can be easily breached, is not about security. Some believe it’s about economic control because these areas are forced to trade with Israel for goods an services. Often, the barrier doesn’t divide Arabs and Jews — it hems in Palestinians so that they cannot contact each other.
Assuming that a continuity exists between the Old Testament and the twenty-first century, how does Israel’s national life compare with the life of God’s people outlined in the Bible? If Israel qualifies prophetically, does Israel also qualify ethically and morally to be God’s people in the land? Israel’s occupation and oppressive policies against Palestinians clearly break the righteousness code required to abide by God’s law.
In 1975, UN declared Zionism should be considered racism. In 1998, Association for Civil Rights in Israel accused the government of race-based discrimination. Allegra Pacheco, a Brooklyn-born Jew, defends Palestinians in Israeli courts because she is deeply offended by Israeli discrimination. She stated that a Jewish state can never be democratic for all its citizens; only for Jews.
Even though “Whose Land? Whose Promise?” was written for a Christian audience, I recommend it for anyone who would like to understand the issue from a Biblical perspective.