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Friday, November 13, 2015

"Chosen?" (Walter Brueggemann)

TITLE: Chosen?: Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
AUTHOR: Walter Brueggemann
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, (108 pages).

Whenever people think of the Middle East conflict, they would shake their heads as if there will never be any solution to the conflict. It is one of the most, if not the most, difficult problems in this world. For Christians, it is one huge theological puzzle of disagreement. At the heart of the disputes are the questions surrounding the nation of Israel.
  • Who is Israel?
  • Is Israel still God's chosen people?
  • How should evangelicals see the Israel of today?
  • Is there any theological basis to support Israel with military weapons? 
  • What should we make of the relationships between Israel and the Palestinians?
For scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, far more important than political maneuvers for or against Israel is the plight of human rights for Palestinians. It is not right for US lobbying groups to continue to support Israel's bullying tactics by sending them military weapons and at the same time downplaying the human rights of the Palestinians. Worse, it is bad theology to just interpret the Bible as if it is a command to prop up Israel regardless of what she does to her neighbours. For Brueggemann, the well-being of all must be foremost.

He starts off by showing us a way to read the Bible "responsibly." He cautions us against simplistic reading that equates modern day Israel with the ancient chosen people of God. He does this by comparing and contrasting several things. The first is the issue of land where the biblical version of the land covenant is a conditional one. When the Torah is obeyed, the ancient Israelites will live in peace. From history, it is well known that Israel had lost the land to invaders and their enemies. The second is the issue of how strangers are to be included in the land. It is about immigration policy. One people in one land does not mean all must be Jews living in one place. Any exclusionary claims by any group is downright unbecoming of a society that claims to welcome the stranger. Who do we include? In the West, we need to grapple with the historical ups and downs of how blacks and slaves are being included in the mainstream society. The Old Testament is more nuanced that we may otherwise believe. Straight-line thinking is too simplistic. In fact, the modern version of human rights is an extension of the Ten commandments!

He continues with a study of what it means to be God's chosen people. Looking at the promises to Abraham, to Moses, and to Israel, God's choosing of that nation is completely God's prerogative. Israel was chosen purely because God loved Israel. He then gives three common interpretations of "chosen." First, the supersessionist group insists on Christians replacing Israel as the chosen people of God. In other words, Christians are the new chosen people. Second, the American understanding of them being the chosen one to save the world is an export of the Israelite ancient standing. Third, the Roman Catholic bishops of America had stated that God had chosen the poor! Such appropriations are problematic because it makes us wonder about the rest of us outside of these groups.

The third chapter is about the meaning of 'holy land.' It is a gift from God but with strings attached. It is conditional upon Israel's obedience to God's law, to be benevolent to the nations around them. Modern readers may want to understand this as stewardship of possession that carries with it a heavy responsibility. The theological basis for understanding today's Israel is two fold. First, understand the differences between the ancient covenants and the modern contexts. Second, it is because Israel has opted for military power in order to assert its authority, it no longer has the divine and moral authority to be the people of God as lined out in the conditions attached. In other words, Israel and those who support them politically and militarily simply on the basis of them being "God's chosen people" have misread the theological basis of Israel. Just because God had given them land does not mean they bully and kick others around. Brueggemann summarizes it succinctly as: "Thus, the land is given, the land is taken, and the land is losable." The key to God's promise to Israel in the Old Testament is the execution of justice as well as holiness, instead of presuming one's right to land. The Israel of today seems to be more concerned about 'land' rather than 'holy land.'

The fourth chapter covers a contentious topic with regard to Zionism. While the Old Testament sings about the beauty and glory of Zion, where God is exalted, modern perceptions of Zionism are largely negative. There is a huge divide on how Zion can be understood in present reality. What is the New Jerusalem? Is it about the restoration of the Kingdom of David in modern day society? How then does that play out in the formation of modern day Israel? Brueggemann distinguishes between "Jewish Zionism" and "Christian Zionism." For the former, it is very clear that modern Israel is about the non-negotiable status of Israel being the Zion as described in the Old Testament. For the latter, there are complex interpretations. Some support Israel without questioning abuses on human rights. Others criticize Israel to the point of being labeled "anti-Semitic."

So What?

Anyone expecting Brueggemann to give a direct Yes/No on whether to support the Israel of today will be frustrated on the lack of clarity. He neither supports nor rejects Israel directly. He mainly helps shine light on the complexities surrounding the many facets of Israel, Jewish society, and especially the Old Testament promises made to Israel. Honestly, if the problem of Israel and the Arab neighbours can be easily resolved in one book, it would have been settled long time ago. I am glad Brueggemann makes no promises with regards to settling theological or political disputes. He cannot. However, as an Old Testament scholar, he is able to point readers back to what the Old Testament is saying and what it is NOT saying. Any modern day applications of the Old Testament have to be tested and challenged with biblical scholarship and wise theological understanding. This is what the author has done.

By pointing out the historical contexts of the Old Testament references to Israel, Jewish relations, and Zionism, readers can understand with greater clarity of the original purpose and meaning. The Israel of old is a people of God called to be God's witnesses, God's blessings to all nations, and God's chosen people. Whether it is the land covenant or the ancient promises, we need to understand what is conditional and which is not. Failure to understand the differences can lead to wrong applications. The book is also realistic with regards to the failures of Israel in how they have treated the Palestines and how they have denied basic human rights to refugees and their Arab neighbours. It is all about fear. Sometimes, there is a tinge of simplistic and foolish application of biblical truths. This happens when lobbyists in the West uncritically support Israel on the basis of seeing the new Israel the same as the old Israel. Erroneous theological understanding leads to erroneous political application. Politically, the Middle East controversy is a dispute over land and boundaries. Religiously, it appears like a conflict between the Jews and the Arabs. Theologically, while both people group share the same history from Abraham, they differ immensely in their interpretations of history, their perspectives of faith, and the understanding of what it all means in the eyes of God.

So what is the way forward? Clues can be found in various chapters of the book, especially the question and answer section after the conclusion. My personal feel is that the time lag has not been adequately comprehended. People have not spent enough time trying to understand the original contexts of God's covenant to Israel. There are three reasons why people do that. The first is an overly simplistic reading of Scripture. Just because we see God promising to bless Israel in the past, we cannot just take those words and paste it onto the present. We must consider the contexts and the conditions attached to the promise. We must see the reasons why God said those things then. We will also need to read the New Testament and to bridge both testaments. Second, we need a big picture narrative of the Bible. This means not just settling on some prophetic verses in the Old Testament and the related verses in the New Testament. It means learning to see the gospel of Jesus Christ in all of our reading. When we fail to see the person of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures, how can we call ourselves Christians in the first place? Jesus didn't enter Jerusalem on a high and mighty horse with chariots and all. On Palm Sunday, he entered Jerusalem on a lowly donkey. He didn't order angels to come rescue him when he was tempted. Neither did he send flashes of lightning to electrocute his murderers and executioners. Jesus died as a sacrifice for many. Without a big picture of the entire Word of God, we would be left applying only selected portions of Scripture, leading to a biased state of application and theological knowledge. Third, only the ways of God are reliable. Men may think they know best. They can try to resolve their disputes through military means. The fact is, the more we shoot missiles and fling bombs at others, expect more of the same from them to us. Jesus has said that we need to do to others what we want others to do to us. Will there ever be true peace? Not when humans are full of themselves and filled with pride.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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