Christian Biblical ethicists claim God didn’t promise Israel to Jews

November 18, 2011

(EOZ) In September, David P. Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, two Christian ethicists, wrote “An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists.” The main point of this letter was to dispute the biblical idea that God gave Israel to Jews alone:

Not to put too fine a point on it, we wish to claim here that the prevailing version of American Christian Zionism—that is, your belief system—underwrites theft of Palestinian land and oppression of Palestinian people, helps create the conditions for an explosion of violence, and pushes US policy in a destructive direction that violates our nation’s commitment to universal human rights. In all of these, American Christian Zionism as it currently stands is sinful and produces sin. We write as evangelical Christians committed lifelong to Israel’s security, and we are seriously worried about your support for policies that violate biblical warnings about injustice and may lead to the outcome you most fear—serious harm to or even destruction of Israel.
We write as evangelicals to you, our fellow evangelicals. On the shared basis of biblical authority, we ask you to reconsider your interpretation of Scripture, for the sake of God, humanity, the United States, and, yes, Israel itself, the Land and People we both love.
We acknowledge that your evangelical-fundamentalist American Christian Zionism (henceforth simply “Christian Zionism”) is a product of a Christian community that loves and reads the Bible. This is on its face a good thing–for there appear to be fewer and fewer American Christians whose love of the Bible and whose devotion to reading it can be taken for granted. We commend your love for the scriptures.
Both now and in the past, whenever Christian Zionism emerges its essential origin is simply Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament. Our love of the Bible takes Christians into the pages of the Old Testament; there we cannot help but discover the centrality of a Promised Land for the Jewish people. The trajectory of the canonical Old Testament moves inexorably toward and away from the Promised Land—the patriarchal narratives in which a people and land are promised despite humble origins; enslavement in Egypt; the miraculous Exodus and grim wilderness wanderings under Moses; the conquest of the Promised Land; the establishment, split, and eventual conquest of Israel as a political entity; the Babylonian exile and dispersion of the Jewish people; and a partial return to the land, at which point the OT historical narrative ends.

We suggest to you that contemporary Christian Zionism is well-intentioned but needs correction at some very important points. This requires some careful biblical and theological work—from within the basic framework of evangelical Christianity. This means that the relevant scriptural texts need to be studied in detail, and that Christian theology needs to do its proper work with those texts.
For example, we suggest that Christian Zionists who move from a generalized love of Israel to a specific claim that the contemporary state of Israel has divine title to the entire Holy Land, need to take more seriously the complexity of what the Bible actually says about God’s promises to Abraham.
Genesis 15:18 reads: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” The next verse goes on to name the various peoples to whom the land belonged at the time.
The territory denoted by the space between these two rivers includes modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, half of Iraq, half of Egypt, parts of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the modern state of Israel, as well as the occupied Palestinian territories.
A literal reading of the text that assumes that the descendants of Abram are only the Jewish people faces a problem here. Either God is not very good at keeping his promises, or God’s plan is for contemporary Israel ultimately to conquer all of these other countries and occupy their land. That would result in an Israel ruled by its 90% majority Arabs, or an Israel attempting to subjugate that 90% by force.
But the promise looks very different if we take seriously all of the offspring of Abraham. Genesis 15:4-5 has God taking Abram outside and telling him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars of the heavens. Genesis 17:4, probably the pivotal text, has God saying to Abraham: “This is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” Many nations, a multitude of nations; many offspring, many kings—read Genesis 17 again and see the plural nouns here.
Close readers of Scripture will know that in fact Abraham did become the father of many nations. With Sarah he became the father of Isaac and the ancestor of all in his line, via Jacob and Esau. With Hagar he became the father of Ishmael and all in his line. And with the long-forgotten Keturah (Gen. 25:1) he became the father of Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. The Old Testament clearly positions Abraham as the father/ancestor of not only the Jewish people but of a vast number of other peoples, all scattered through the territories promised in Genesis 15. Abraham becomes the father of dozens of peoples, exactly as the Bible says! It is certainly true that the Old Testament primarily tells the story of the line of Isaac and therefore of what became the Jewish people, but that cannot cancel the significance of the promises to Abraham and the many peoples credited to him in Genesis.
…Perhaps you will respond by saying that God promises the land of Canaan specifically to the Jewish people. You might cite here Genesis 17:8: “I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding.” This interpretation would require restricting the “offspring” in question to Abraham’s offspring through Sarah via Isaac and then on to Jacob and excluding Esau. But the promise to possess the land includes the offspring of Isaac, and the offspring of Isaac includes Esau, with his five Edomite sons and their offspring, as Genesis 36 states, and that includes multitudes of Canaanites, not only Jews. It would also require the assumption that we know what Gen. 17 means territorially with the term “Canaan” and that it corresponds with the Zionist’s version of the proper boundaries of the modern state of Israel.

In a later letter, published November 12, the same two wrote:

The responses that disagreed did not discuss the biblical passages, but shifted the topic to the politics of the present government of Israel and the West Bank, and Hamas, and whether Israel forced Palestinians out of their homes or not.
These are important topics, but we are hoping for biblical discussion.
What we are asking is whether our readers see Genesis 15 and 17 saying that Abraham is the father of many nations, with descendants as many as the stars of the universe. And whether the territory includes all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates, which of course includes many nations, most all Arab. We believe ours is the plain, literal reading. No one has explained a different reading in response.

I have no idea why no Christian Zionist took it upon themselves to answer this letter within the worldview of Christian theology. Honestly, if it is true, it is a bit disappointing.
So, even though I am not a Christian nor a Jewish Biblical scholar by any means, I would like to make a point.
It seems strange that the authors’ arguments that God’s promises apply to all of Abraham’s descendants do not take into account later declarations by God.
For example, God explicitly told Jacob in Genesis 28:13 that “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.”
This happened at Bet El (Bethel). One can argue about the size of the land promised by God at that point, but one cannot argue that the promise was made to anyone but the Jewish people. And Bet El is on the “wrong” side of the Green Line. Would the authors admit that, Biblically, this must remain a part of Israel?
More explicitly, in Exodus 23, God tells the Israelites:

But if thou shalt indeed hearken unto his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For Mine angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Canaanite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; and I will cut them off. …And I will set thy border from the Red Sea even unto the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness unto the River; for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand; and thou shalt drive them out before thee.

And in Deuteronomy chapter 1:

The LORD our God spoke unto us in Horeb, saying: ‘Ye have dwelt long enough in this mountain; turn you, and take your journey, and go to the hill-country of the Amorites and unto all the places nigh thereunto, in the Arabah, in the hill-country, and in the Lowland, and in the South, and by the sea-shore; the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates. Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them.’

The straight translations of these passages are somewhat contradictory and without further study I imagine it is difficult for Christians to know how to reconcile them. But it is extraordinarily dishonest to interpret only one of God’s promises to Abraham and his children in a vacuum without even considering the more explicit promises He made later to Jacob, Moses and the children of Israel. Is it not the same God who made all of these promises? Are not all of them of equal weight? If so, then the issue is not interpreting one of them, but reconciling and interpreting all of them together.
Beyond that, it seems to me that the entire Biblical narrative would be problematic if most of the peoples who were God’s covenental partners simply disappeared from the story or played only bit parts. If the children of Israel were not the main intended recipients of God’s promises, then why would the Bible spend so much time only dealing with them and all but ignoring the Ishmaelites and the Edomites?
The writers make other arguments about whether today’s Jews should still be considered to be within the same covenant, but that is a much bigger topic. And before I spend time on that, I would love to know how they interpret and reconcile the many other Biblical verses tying the Land of Israel with, specifically, the Jews.

(Parenthetically, I think it is not clear at all that you can consider Esau’s progeny to be “Canaanites.” While Gen. 38 says they lived in Canaan, the Canaanites were presumably the descendants of Canaan, Noah’s grandson through Ham. Which means, ironically, that Canaanites are not Semites, but rather “Hamites.” So don’t accuse me of anti-Semitism 🙂 )

I am afraid that this might turn into a very big theological thread, and I am not really comfortable with that here; Christian theology is not a topic that belongs on this blog. Hopefully  it will spark discussion among Christians that will take place elsewhere.