Whose Promised Land?

Scripture Readings: Deuteronomy 7:1-6, Matthew 27:27-31


Archeological and historical exhibits at the Israel museum in Jerusalem tell the story of Israel and its land. Led by Joshua, the tribes of Israel fought their way into Canaan where pagan peoples had settled before them. The Israelites conquered the cities of the indigenous peoples, and David captured Jerusalem and made it the new nation's capital. After Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, Israel declined for four centuries and then was subjected to foreign rule for two and a half millennia. In 1948 the people of Israel again conquered the land that God had long ago delivered into their hands.


This is a powerful and compelling story, which most Christians accept at face value. Yet, the tale has a dark side that is rarely acknowledged. In the passage from Deuteronomy 7:1-6, which follows instructions for teaching the Israelite heritage to children, Moses says that God requires the utter destruction of the enemies of Israel. This harsh teaching is repeated in Deuteronomy 20:16-18: "But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them — the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites — just as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God.”


The God of the Israelites, the God of their descendants, the Jews, and the God of the Christians, who read Deuteronomy as scripture — this God, our God, the God of the Bible, here demands "ethnic cleansing" in what we today often call "the holy land.”


This passage, and other texts in the books of Deuteronomy (2:33-34; 7:1-11; 9:1-5; 11:8-9, 23, 31-32), Exodus (23:23-24), Joshua (chapters 2-12), and the Psalms (78:54-55; 80:8; 105:44), ought to shock us. By modern standards of international law, these biblical passages call for "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity.”


Many Christians dismiss these passages as legends that obviously do not represent the will or commandments of God. Moreover, archeological evidence reveals that the Israelite tribes settled the land without exterminating the indigenous population, and thus substantiates the interpretation that the conquest story is just a story told to show that God is on the side of Israel. But few Christians question the right of the Israelites to the land, which the Bible says they took from the indigenous population some three millennia ago. Moreover, most Christians accept the claim of many contemporary Jews that this same land now rightfully belongs only to the nation of Israel.


It is time now to challenge our understanding of a story that is central to the scripture shared by Jews and Christians. The terrible and tragic truth is that our Bible says God sanctioned ethnic cleansing. Jews are not the only people to have used this argument to justify displacing peoples in order to fulfil God's will through conquest. This is also the American story! Settlers in the "New World" referred to these same biblical texts to justify killing the indigenous peoples of America, who resisted the occupation of their land.


Therefore, it is not surprising that the government of the United States supports Israeli land claims. This is not only because the Jewish lobby is strong, but also because the (his)stories of Israel and America are based on the same biblical texts. We believe that God has given this land to us and to our descendants, and so we use the Bible to justify the slaughter and displacement of peoples who lived on this land before we came.


Only a new chapter in this story will end the present tragedy, and Americans as well as Israelis and Palestinians must write this story. The conquerors and their descendants, who have reaped the greatest benefits, must take the initiative. Christian Americans and Jewish Israelis have to affirm that God did not for their sake justify ethnic cleansing. Obviously, neither in America nor in Israel can the land simply be given back to those who once occupied it, but in both countries much more can be done to address the just grievances of the dispossessed.


In the New Testament Jesus announces the presence of the "kingdom of God," but this kingdom is not limited to a land or a nation. God’s reign no longer requires ethnic cleansing, but is present in the suffering and death of a man who is perceived as both divine and human. When the Roman soldiers mock Jesus for claiming to be "the king of the Jews," we know they do not understand. The Roman soldiers are misled by the power of their Caesar, who claims to be God. But the Roman Empire, like other temporal orders before and after it, was ephemeral, not eternal.


In the first century Roman armies cleansed Jerusalem of its Jewish temple, crucifying thousands of Jews outside the city’s gates. In that era the love of God was understood to reject ethnic cleansing in order to create a community of faith open to all the peoples of the earth. Conquest in the name of God is repudiated by the one who peacefully went to his death on a Roman cross. The reign of Caesar is renounced by the one who taught that being faithful means loving our neighbors and forgiving our enemies.


We dare not forget these lessons sealed by the blood of Jesus. We must see the God of power and might through the cross of Christ. We must teach that the Bible is not the literal word of God, but is the witness of those who found themselves called by God. We must proclaim that the God who saves is "blind" to race or ethnicity or nationality or gender or any other status distinction. 


Now, as always, religious humility is needed as much as political courage. American Christians and Jews must reject the reading of our scriptures that justifies conquest and the denial of human rights to those who threaten our security. Palestinian Christians and Muslims must repudiate atrocities committed in the name of God, which cannot in any way be justified by the injustice they have suffered. Jews, Christians, and Muslims — in faith, all children of Abraham — must now put their trust in the God of justice and mercy, the God of all the nations, the God who condemns ethnic cleansing rather than commands it, the God who calls us to be reconciled, the God who inspires us all to be peacemakers.


November 23, 2008

 bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016