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Gary Burge

Who Owns the Holy Land?

With this article we continue our series on Israel, Palestine, and the biblical understanding of "the land." The first installment in the series, Gerald McDermott's "The Land: Evangelicals and Israel," appeared in the March/April 2003 issue.

A few years ago on a research visit to Jerusalem, I decided to investigate a controversy that continues to simmer today in the Christian quarter of the old walled city. Jewish settlers had worked a scheme to rent a church building under false pretenses. About 150 settlers quickly moved in, hoisted Israeli flags atop the building, covered over Christian symbols on its façade, spray-painted numerous blue stars of David on its walls, and claimed the real estate to be theirs. Soldiers protected them from the protests of Greek Orthodox priests, who argued that no such deal had been made. The frustration of Jerusalem's mayor was matched by that of the Orthodox Patriarch, who led marches around the building in front of TV cameras. It was Holy Week in Jerusalem, and passions were running high.

It wasn't difficult for me to find the building. The flags and the soldiers—unusual in this part of the city—signaled that something irregular had happened. Soon two teenage boys from the settlement rounded the corner and took it as their mission to explain to a visitor what this scene meant. I asked why the Palestinian Christians were so unhappy.

"We have bought what is ours anyway and how we did it doesn't matter," they said.

I asked if it were not true that the Greek Orthodox Church had owned this property for hundreds of years.

"It doesn't matter," they answered. "God has given us this country and this city and Jews can live anywhere."

I reflected aloud on the fact that Arab Christians and Muslims couldn't buy land in the Jewish Quarter just a short walk down the road.

Their response was swift: "We are only taking what is ours by right. These people have no rights to be in this city. God gave this land to Abraham and we are his descendants. Everything that happened in between simply doesn't matter. The Palestinian Christians should just get out."

The conversation struck me as particularly odd because these teenage boys were from New York. They had been in Israel for only a couple of years. And yet here they were using a biblical argument for ejecting an Arab Christian community that could trace its roots in this place to the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:11).

The biblical argument used by these two young zealots will resonate with many Christians who share a deep concern for Israel and its place in the Middle East. Not infrequently, a direct line is drawn between the promise of land to Abraham and his descendents in the modern State of Israel. And in most cases, so the argument goes, a biblical claim to ownership trumps any historic claim to residence. On the road from Bethlehem to Hebron, for instance, the highway takes you through the Palestinian town of Halhoul, an ancient Arab village that is home to over a thousand Palestinians. However, Joshua 15:58 specifically lists "Halhul" as belonging to the tribe of Judah. Would this biblical promise of land justify the Israeli confiscation of Halhoul?

Frequent visitors to Israel and students of biblical theology will confront questions such as this regularly. And many have found sound guidance in Walter Brueggemann's book, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith. The original edition of this book (1977) was immediately recognized as the first exhaustive study of the motif of "land" in the Bible. And it comes as no surprise that now a second, thoroughly revised edition has been released. This volume, together with W.D. Davies' earlier work The Gospel and the Land; Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine,1 offers a comprehensive guide to how biblical thought, Judaism, and the New Testament theologically interpreted the concept of land.

Brueggemann believes that "land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith." On the one hand he recognizes that land is a metaphor that speaks to modern dilemmas of rootlessness and detachment fostered by modern society's mobility and anonymity. And in that respect, it has a vital contemporary message. But he also sees land as a concrete promise throughout the Old Testament. Landlessness was a regular experience among the Israelites: Abraham's wandering, the Egyptian sojourn, and the exile each underscored the profound absence of land, or better, of place and history, of rootedness. These stories represent crises when Israel lived outside the possibilities of covenant, when discontinuity with its history seem acute. And yet at the same time, the promise of landedness was the promise, the gift, which sustained these people. Abraham is offered Canaan, the Egyptian refugees are led to the promised land, and the Babylonian exile concludes with a return and rebuilding of Jerusalem. This sets in motion a theological cycle that becomes the primary plot of the Old Testament: land is offered as gift, land is taken as possession, and land is lost in crisis.

Brueggemann walks us through each segment of Old Testament history—the patriarchs, Egypt and the wilderness, the warnings of Deuteronomy, the conquest of Joshua, the monarchy, exile, and return—and charts this trajectory that follows Israel's relation to the land. Remarkably—and this is perhaps Brueggemann's finest insight—"land loss" marked the most creative, most formative periods in Israel's history. The wilderness—where no one possesses the land—is a place free of the corrupting temptations that appear in the mountains of promise.

Land-as-gift (whether literal reality or metaphor) always comes with temptations. Will Israel forget the history of its land, its origin as gift? That the land has its own history with Yahweh? That it in fact belongs to him? Will possession lead to coveting and greed? And the land also comes with tasks. It must be managed (avoid idols, obey Sabbath regulations), and it must generate a quality of life worthy of God's own goodness. Thus enjoyment of the land is inevitably linked to a faithful life in relationship, in covenant with Yahweh himself. Hence the governing of the land must evoke memories of Yahweh's history here, and it must promote justice for the poor, the sojourner, and the widow, each of whom reminds Israel of its own times of landlessness. In all of this, Israel is to be a model for the nations, for ultimately the whole world is God's gift.

For Brueggemann, possession of this gift of land is entirely contingent on faithfulness to the covenant. Kings who depart from the ideal of covenant faithfulness fulfill the warnings given by Samuel (1 Sam. 8:11-17): the king will become a confiscator of land, Israelites will become slaves, and land will be lost. This loss is exemplified in a variety of ways. In the book of Judges, the tribes of Benjamin and Dan jeopardize their inheritance due to astounding acts of sin. And later Solomon's reign exhibits little of the dependency on God characteristic of his father, and the kingdom falls into chaos. Indeed, deluded rulers imagine that God is at their beck and call: "Yahweh is cornered in the temple. His business is support of the regime, to grant legitimacy to it and to effect forgiveness for it as necessary."

Perhaps the longest and most poignant story of covenant-breaking comes from 1 Kings 21, where Ahab and Jezebel covet and confiscate the vineyards of Naboth. Here corruption has taken hold and we see a "mercantile view" of the land. Jezebel "believes that persons and property are replaceable parts, each component in a grand royal design that can be shuffled at the whim of the managers." This forcible theft of land by those holding power was one of the sharpest themes among the prophets. "Woe to you who join house to house, who add field to field," proclaims Micah (2:1). The arrogant assumption of Israel's leaders that they are immune from judgment inexorably leads to their undoing-their shocking landlessness -in the catastrophic exile to Babylon.

Brueggemann suggests that the terror of land-loss through judgment is exemplified best in Jeremiah, for whom "land and covenant, inheritance and fidelity belong together." However—and this is the revolutionary idea—Jeremiah announces the central scandal of the Bible, that radical loss and discontinuity are the source of new possibilities. Land can and will be lost through disobedience, but on the other side of this judgment, renewal is possible. Ezekiel, for instance, wants Israel to see that God himself was forced out of the land by Israel's unrighteousness—a condition he could not tolerate—and his return to the land will come when they experience a return to him in repentance.

Claiming this promise, the return from exile was fueled by a zeal to commit to covenant righteousness in order to renew faith in God and once again hold on to the land—but it also raised up a bureaucracy that once again controlled distribution of the land and disparaged the poor. The coming of Hellenism, with its urban cosmopolitanism and its inability to grasp the theological history of landedness, once again seduced Israel away from the virtues held aloft in the covenant. In response, the popular Jewish rebellion against this state of affairs grew out of yearning for a violent and permanent reversal of corruption, when land would be restored to its righteous intent under the covenant.

Brueggemann finds in the land a timeless paradigm for our theological understanding of God's participation in history. Two choices confront us: there are those who await the gift and those who grasp. There are those who live with contingency, who embrace faith, and those who seek to seize history aggressively, grasping what they think is theirs. Brueggemann's treatment of the New Testament (perhaps the weakest section of the book) finds Jesus criticizing those who "seize" while he blesses the "meek, who will inherit the land." The New Testament underscores this dramatic reversal: those who grasp will find themselves empty handed. And those who wait in faith, particularly those who are unable to grasp, who only have God as their hope, will receive the gift. Paul saw this choice before Abraham: to wait (Sarah) or to grasp (Hagar). Above all, in the New Testament the land is spiritualized so that Jesus himself becomes the source of all that once was sought in the promise.

Brueggemann would encourage us to return to modern Jerusalem and our zealots in the Old City. To date, Israeli settlers have expanded the Jewish Quarter by expropriating 700 stone buildings elsewhere in the Old City. Sixty-three more buildings have been forcefully occupied by settlers, the largest of which is St. John's Hospice, whose story I told earlier. Within Bruegemann's paradigm, modern Israel has chosen to grasp land faithlessly and so would be subject to the harsh words of the prophets. Land cannot be seized without regard for Yahweh and his covenant; if it is, there can only be judgment and loss. Brueggemann notes,

As I write this, Israel, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon is currently undertaking an aggressive, brutalizing assault on the neighboring Palestinian population. That option for brutality against others in the name of the God of Israel is a powerful evidence of the way in which land traditions from the ancient texts are open to a variety of readings and responses.

While Brueggemann only says it indirectly, such brutality evokes memories of Ahab, of seizing control of history, of grasping—and as such, it can only await the words of a prophet like Elijah.

What Brueggemann does not do is address the commitments of Christian Zionists for whom fulfillment of prophecy outweighs every other interest in biblical theology. But we can consider their stance in the light of study. If there is in fact continuity between biblical Israel and modern Israel, and if Israel today makes a biblical claim to the land, then it must abide by biblical standards of nation-building. Short of this, land-loss will be inevitable. If Bruegemann himself were to take up the question (I speculate), he might also remind us to view these issues through the lens of the New Testament. In its pages new questions are being asked about the identity of the descendents of Abraham, and the vineyard found in the land, the vineyard of God's blessing (Isa. 5), has been replaced with new possibilities. No longer are God's people vines planted in the one vineyard of Israel: now there is one vine. The question is no longer attachment or rootedness to the land, it is attachment to Christ, who alone is attached to the land of promise, the covenant source of blessing.

Gary M. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. In addition to books and articles on the New Testament, he has written Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians, just published by Pilgrim Press.

1. W.D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land; Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Univ. of California Press, 1974; abridged as The Territorial Dimension of Judaism, 1982).

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