Sometimes we carry assumptions so deeply that we simply refuse to let them be challenged, even if we have to ignore obvious evidence to the contrary.
Back in September, Christian ethicists David Gushee and Glenn Stassen released “An Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists,” in hopes of engaging them in honest dialogue about what the Bible does and doesn’t promise to Israel.
Zionists believe that God gave the land to the single branch of Abraham’s descendants who became the Jews as a perpetual inheritance. As a result, they consistently support the modern state of Israel’s confiscation of land from Palestinian residents, as well as the draconian, apartheid-like restrictions under which Palestinians must live. This support encourages further injustice and hinders any hope for a lasting peace.
Gushee and Stassen sought to correct a central misconception of Zionists: the belief that God gave the land to the Jewish people for all time. The authors correctly point out that the promise texts in question, such as Genesis 15:8 and 17:4, speak of “many nations” descending from Abraham, who had eight recorded sons — not just the single line through Isaac that gave rise to the Hebrews. Many Muslims trace their ancestry through Abraham’s oldest son Ishmael, while the six sons of his wife Keturah (Gen. 25:1-6) reportedly gave rise to people groups who are part of the larger Arabic world. Likewise, the descendants of Abraham’s grandson Esau reportedly gave rise to the Edomites, now part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The Bible clearly claims that Abraham did become the ancestor of many nations: and the promise of land was to Abraham’s descendants.
Zionists conveniently overlook this aspect of the promise to Abraham, along with (as Gushee and Stassen point out) the many prophetic warnings (such as Jeremiah 6-7) that Israel lose its claim to the land if it failed to honor its obligations to the poor, the aliens, and the strangers.
The more prominent Zionists who responded to the ethicists’ open letter criticized them — as expected — but missed the biblical point they were making, and declined to enter a productive dialogue about the erroneous assumptions that fuel much of the current conflict in Israel. instead, both the “International Christian Embassy Jerusalem” and a group of conservative “leaders and scholars” including Southern Baptist Convention ethics spokesman Richard Land issued letters accusing Gushee and Stassen of being ignorant of the real problem, which they insist is Palestinian recalcitrance.
Neither of the opposing letters addressed the biblical issues Gushee and Stassen sought to raise, choosing instead to rely on bluster and blame rather than to defend their erroneous interpretation of scripture. So, the two ethicists issued a second letter to again invite dialogue on the biblical evidence for Zionist claims.
I’m grateful to Gushee and Stassen for the stand they’ve taken, and to Associated Baptist Press for its coverage of the interchange, which would otherwise be unknown to most of us.
I’m hopeful that more people will study the scriptures carefully, and realize that the common assumption that God gave permanent title to all of Canaan to the Hebrews alone is simply wrong. Although Gushee and Stassen do not address it, I would argue that it is equally wrong to assume that the modern secular state of Israel should be regarded as equivalent to the people with whom God made covenants during the Old Testament period, or the automatic inheritor of the same promises.
The fact is that Israel continues to defy prospects for peace by blatantly driving Palestinians from their land and building new cities and towns on stolen ground, usually populating them with ideological Zionists who believe the land is theirs by right and thus will fight to never be moved from it. The fallout from these policies extends far beyond the borders of Israel, inciting anger and threatening peace around the globe.
Stealing someone’s land under the pretense of a biblical mandate is just plain wrong, and God will not honor it. Gushee and Stassen have nobly sought to clarify this important point: their work deserves a wider and more careful reading.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.