Who Owns the Holy Land? (continued)

Today, Palestinians are forced to live in ghettos on 12 percent of their original land.
Shrinking Palestine.jpg

The figure below is known as the “shrinking Palestine” map series. It shows how Palestinians lost land through the creation of Israel in 1948 and Israel’s later seizure of land by war and military occupation. The first portion shows British Mandate Palestine before 1948. The second image shows the United Nations partition plan, which carved out 54 percent of the land for a “Jewish state.” The land around Jerusalem and Bethlehem (shown in yellow in the second image) was designated by the United Nations as a 'Corpus Separatum,' a separate entity, open fully and equally to the three Abrahamic religions of the land and all other people as well. In the partition plan, the United Nations specified that the new Jewish state be administered for the benefit of all its residents (including Jewish and gentile)—a legal requirement that Israel has ignored. Today the State of Israel has in place more than 50 laws that discriminate against its non-Jewish citizens, including Christian Arab and Muslim Arab citizens of Israel.

The third map shows additional lands captured by Israel during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948–1949 and the boundaries created at the end of that war. The lands shown in green on this third map (what remained of Gaza and the West Bank after the 1948–1949 war) were later captured by Israeli forces in the 1967 war—the “Six Day War.” From 1967 onward, Israel has built settlements and roads in the West Bank. It has systematically stolen land from the rightful Palestinian owners to build Jewish-only colonial settlements. The Jewish-only roads connect the settlements throughout the West Bank.

The fourth map shows what remains today: a set of 70 isolated islands of land—like “bantustans” in the days of South African apartheid. Palestinians are permitted to live in these areas, but they must have permission from the Israeli military to enter and leave. What remains of Gaza is a tiny strip of land—a strip of land under Israeli economic embargo, with strict restrictions on imports and exports and severe limits on who may enter or leave that piece of land.  Today, Palestinians are forced to live in ghettos on 12 percent of their original land.

Israel’s leaders openly proclaim that there will never be a Palestinian state in the Holy Land. One common justification for this assertion is the “divine land grant” claim, which is one interpretation of the scriptures. Those who support this claim believe that God granted exclusive ownership of the Holy Land to Jewish people. Christians are divided on this issue, with some Christians siding with the views of the present Israeli government. Other Christians—including evangelicals and most mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians—hold a different interpretation.


One Interpretation of Holy Scripture: The “Divine Land Grant”

Today, the state of Israel controls all of historic Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Israel has been using the “divine land grant” claim to justify taking land from Palestinian owners in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to build Jewish-only settlements.

What is the so-called divine land grant to the Jewish people? Its Biblical basis lies in one interpretation of select passages in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Certain Biblical passages —namely, Genesis 12:1–3; 13:14–17; 15:18–21; 17:1–9; Deuteronomy 7:1–11; 8:7–10; 11:29–32; 28:8–11—are the primary texts for the land grant idea. Israeli officials, Jewish settlers, and Christian Zionists point to these and similar texts to support their position. They claim that these verses mean Abraham and his descendants will inherit the land forever. Christian Zionist churches and organizations around the globe promote this viewpoint by providing political, religious, and financial support for Israel.

The divine land grant interpretation has encouraged Israel to disregard international law and the United Nations partition plan. Support of the Zionist idea that God gave the land to the Jews has allowed Israel to steal Palestinian land; prevent the creation of a Palestinian state; and maintain a violent military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.


Another Interpretation of Holy Scripture: The Land Is Given with Certain Conditions

Many Christians overlook a second Biblical story within the same scriptures. This story has a different Biblical theme, found primarily in the book of Deuteronomy and the writings of the Hebrew prophets. These texts state that obedience to Torah requirements is essential if ancient Israel is to remain in the Holy Land. One is Leviticus 18:24–28: It states that if Israel violates the Torah, the land “will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you” (verse 28 NIV). These texts warn that if the laws found in the Torah are violated, the land will be lost. They focus on the sin of idolatry. Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his book Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, offers a summary: “The land is given unconditionally but is held conditionally”—meaning, the land is given by God but Israel can lose the land if it violates the Torah.

Indeed, Israel did lose the land to foreign empires on more than one occasion. The first defeat was the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom, Israel, in 722 BC. Next came the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem, when the Babylonians deported the majority of the Jewish population (587–586 BC). Several hundred years later, the Roman general Pompey conquered Judea in 63 BC; in the following century, the Roman forces squelched a Zealot rebellion, destroyed the Second Temple, and razed much of Jerusalem in AD 66–70. In AD 131–134, another Jewish revolt under Bar Kochba led to further destruction of Jerusalem, and the Romans expelled Jews from Jerusalem.

The grief of the Jews after the Babylonians exiled them is captured in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1 NIV). But God did not abandon them, as there was a renewal of the faith—many synagogues were built during this period. In AD 539, when the Persian ruler Cyrus allowed Jews to return to the Holy Land, Ezra and Nehemiah led the people back to Jerusalem. Most Biblical scholars believe that during this period a new understanding of God’s promises emerged. This new interpretation, the “conditional” Biblical narrative, is that the disobedience of the people brought about loss of the land. One example is Moses asking the community to be faithful to the Torah so they can stay: “Be sure to keep the commands of the LORD your God and the stipulations and decrees he has given you. Do what is right and good in the LORD’s sight, so that it may go well with you and you may go in and take over the good land the LORD promised on oath to your ancestors” (Deuteronomy 6:17–18 NIV).

The same theme is found in the book of Joshua, side by side with the various stories that reflect the “divine land grant” narrative. An important text comes near the conclusion of the book of Joshua, when Joshua is at the end of his career and challenges the future leaders on the importance of covenant faithfulness: “If you violate the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you” (Joshua 23:16 NIV). This expresses an entirely different theology from that of the rest of the book of Joshua, but it is an important addition, for it reflects a chastened Israelite community’s experience.

According to this “conditional” Biblical narrative, the land will be lost when the people violate God’s commands in the Torah. Perhaps the most profound lessons are that the land itself must not be worshipped as a false god. Also, the Israelites’ military wins should not make them so proud they become arrogant and start to believe in exceptionalism (the idea that one particular group has exclusive privileges). Land is not the priority in this narrative. Land becomes the means through which the people of God honor God and reflect God’s will for Israel and the nations. They are asked to revere the great commandments: to love God with all their heart, soul, and strength; and to love the neighbor as oneself. Both of these commandments are found in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Leviticus 19:18). As Jesus noted much later, these commandments are two sides of the same coin: love of God and of neighbor (Luke 10:27–28). Jesus illustrates this teaching with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–37). Torah faithfulness means faith in action regardless of ethnicity, race, or religion when someone is in need. This theology is based on obedience and righteousness, not political exceptionalism.


The Deeper Spiritual Lesson: The Land Belongs to God, Whose Essence Is Love

There is another significant lesson in these texts. Both the land grant passages and the conditional passages state clearly or imply that the land belongs to God. The land is a loan from God to people who, in turn, are God’s faithful caretakers of the land (Genesis 2:10). The land is on loan for people to nurture carefully and to honor. In the Genesis 12:1–3 account, God is the initiator and author of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God offers the covenant as a gift of grace and love. The gift of land must be understood in the larger Biblical perspective of gifts and responsibilities—taking care of the environment, building community and relationships, and living faithfully by honoring God and one another.

In this Biblical perspective, land is never an end unto itself, nor can it become the end game. When one people conquer a land, the land becomes an object of idolatry. Land is always an instrument of the covenant relationship, and it is necessary to build communities where God’s sons and daughters learn to love and honor (and never oppress) one another.

We need to learn these lessons over and over because they are easily forgotten. Jesus reminded the religious leaders of his day about the message of Jonah. The well-known story of Jonah commands not only the Jewish people but everyone to avoid exclusiveness and exceptionalism. When Jonah is called to go to the enemy (the Assyrian Empire) with the good news of God, he refuses and runs from God in the opposite direction. Jonah is turned around by a storm at sea and spit out by a whale or large fish, ending up in Nineveh, the capital of the enemy. Jonah reluctantly preaches the message of God and salvation to the Ninevites, who in turn believe, repent, and come to faith in the one true God. Yet, rather than rejoicing for this successful preaching, Jonah is despondent. He wants to keep God exclusively to himself and his Jewish community. The book closes with God chastising Jonah about his selfishness and narrow-minded faith. Jonah’s conception of God was too small. As a result, he missed the richness of a God who loves the world, even the enemy. His understanding was narrow, tribal, and exclusive. It had to change.

The lesson of Jonah speaks to all of us. God is constantly calling us to make room for the neighbor (Luke 10:25–37), including the visitor (Leviticus 18:20 and 19:10) and the poor (Amos 5:10–24). God’s call is good news for everyone, including the enemy, who is perhaps our most difficult challenge. Psalm 87 gives us a glimpse of a Jerusalem where not only the Jewish people but also the Philistines, people from Tyre (Lebanon), Cush (Ethiopia), and Babylon (Iraq), all of whom are gentiles, are counted as God’s people. Jesus’ call to reconcile with our enemies is challenging, but it is not new. Psalm 87, Isaiah 19:24–25, Amos 9:7, and other texts throughout the prophets present this challenge, which Jesus emphasizes in the Gospels.

These are not romantic or liberal ideas. These are Biblical truths to be lived if we are to be faithful to God and our neighbors. Some say the place that is farthest from realizing these issues today is Jerusalem and the Holy Land. However, there are Jews, Christians, and Muslims all around the world who are working toward the day when Jerusalem and all of Israel and Palestine will be shared, from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan. It will be a day when every citizen—Jew, Muslim, and Christian—will be honored, protected, and able to worship and glorify God as each understands and loves God. It may be what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews had in mind for Abraham as an example of the faith journey:

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 NIV)

Quotations from Scripture are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION©. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.