Friday, September 05, 2014

The Bible Supports A Two State Solution

This summer’s conflict in the Gaza has brought a lot of questions and debate about Israel’s use of force, but if you worship in the same circles I do, you know that there is one group whose support for Israel has been unwavering: Evangelical Christians. Support for Israel is so absolute that questions about Tel Aviv’s behaviour don’t need to be hushed, because no one is asking any The land belongs to the Jews. God promised it to them. The ‘Promised Land’ is their land and the Palestinians are just Arab interlopers with no rights to it. But what if this isn’t true? Many would be shocked to learn that if we base our support for Israel on Biblical promises, then we have to also recognize that the Palestinians share the same right and the land was also promised to them as well. That’s right: the Bible supports a two state solution.

Okay, where in the Bible does it say this? Let’s start at the beginning. In Genesis (12:1-9) God called Abraham away from his family and into the land of the Canaanites. God promised the land to his descendants. Hence, the Promised Land. Later God narrowed the scope of the promise. Not all of Abraham’s descendants would be heirs to the promise. God chose to continue the promise through Isaac and not through Ishmael, Abraham’s older son (Genesis 21:12, 26:3-5). Isaac also had two sons, Esau and Jacob, and again God chose the younger son to be the heir of the promise (Genesis 28:13-15). Jacob would be called the Prince of God, or Israel, and he would give that name to the children of all twelve of his sons. Collectively the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be the children of Israel. After serving as slaves in Egypt God brought them out and into the land of promise (Exodus 3:7-8, 33:1). Joshua brought them across the Jordan River (Joshua 3) and ever since then the promise has been kept and the land has been theirs.

In popular accounts of this story, however, God broke His promise. Yes, He gave them the land, but then He took it away. Twice. The first time was the seventy year Babylonian Exile. Before this the Israelites had formed a kingdom and then this kingdom split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Both stopped following after the Lord and He sent great empires to destroy them. The northern kingdom, simply called Israel, was destroyed by the Assyrians. Judah, named for its predominant tribe, would later fall to Babylon. While Israel was destroyed (though many of its people found refuge in Judah), Judah was allowed to return home after seventy years in exile. Centuries later it would fall again. This time to Rome. The Romans would destroy the temple in Jerusalem and carry the people off, leaving the land to be refilled by foreigners until the Jews returned and re-established their nation after almost two thousand years. A great story? Maybe. But I have a better one: God promised the land to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s descendants and He kept His promise. Since the time Joshua led the children of Israel across the Jordan down to today, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have inhabited their land of promise.

What about the Babylonian Exile? When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the temple he took many thousands of the people into captivity. These people represented the leaders, the ruling class, and that is only appropriate. Read the Bible. It was always the kings and priests who led the people away from the Lord and into sin and idolatry. The people of the land remained. In fact, the Book of Lamentations was written in Judah during the Babylonian Exile. God gave the land to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to the children of Israel and it remained in their hands, even if they were under the authority of a pagan king.

What of the Roman exile story? In many of the popular histories that I’ve seen the Romans destroy the Temple and carry the Jews off into captivity, just as the Babylonians had before. This idea lends itself to a re-reading of Old Testament prophecies of a return as though they were fulfilled in 1948 and not under Zerubbabel, but in reality the many Jews who lived outside of Judea were not drawn into this conflict at all. And there were enough Jews left free and living in Judea to mobilize two more rebellions against Rome. The last one, the Bar Kokhba Revolt, ended more than 60 years after the destruction of the Temple and had much graver consequences. Emperor Hadrian decided to destroy Judaism altogether and killed about half a million Jews. He might have gone much further if he had not died two years after the revolt. Hadrian renamed Judea Syria Pal├Žstina. However many survivors were sold into slavery, there was no influx of immigration to the newly named province. Its inhabitants were the survivors of the revolt, just as they were after the first and second revolt. That’s right. There was no exile and there is no historical account of such an exile. Thousands were taken as slaves, but the people remained in the land.

Over time those people acculturalized, that is they adopted the language and customs of their conquerors. I don’t know how complete it was under that Romano-Byzantine Empires. The Romans replaced the Jewish Temple with one dedicated to Jupiter. When Rome turned to Christianity a church was built there, but that was replaced by the Dome of the Rock when the Caliph Umar conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century. Except for the brief period of the Crusader Kingdoms and the 66 years since the founding of modern Israel, Arab culture has dominated the area. Arabization has meant that the peoples of the area came to be, culturally and linguistically, Arabs, even if they did not convert to Islam. One might think conversion of Islam would be a necessary part of becoming an Arab, but the millions of Christian Arabs and the cultural life of Jews and other minorities in the Middle East say otherwise. Most of the Jews did convert, whether by coercion or choice. History and DNA tests make it very clear that Jews and Palestinians were originally the same people. Yes, some Palestinians intermarried, with Christians and Muslims, but the same is true of the Jews.

The popular history, where the Romans took the Judeans from the land and left it open to Arab interlopers with no God given right to be there is wrong. From the time Joshua crossed the Jordan until today, God has kept the promise He made to give the land of the Canaanites to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s descendants.

This is a new and unwelcomed idea for many and some obvious objections come to mind. Let’s look at three:

1) Why should the Bible influence modern Israel or Palestine? Why should ancient stories direct modern politics? Certainly the Zionists who founded modern Israel were not looking to the Bible for guidance. They were motivated by their experience with 19th century anti-semitism. As Jews they had faced centuries of persecution and violence, but in the 19th century it took a different form. In the wake of the Napoleonic wars the ghettos were broken up and many of the restrictions they had been forced to live under began to disappear. Jews responded to this freedom by working hard to secure their place in the new Europe and found success in the arts, sciences, business, and politics. One, Benjamin Disraeli, even became the British Prime Minister. It seemed obvious that Jews had as much to offer their countries as any other citizen. Then came the Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus was a French officer accused being a spy for the Germans. It was many years before he would be cleared of the charges and restored as an officer, but the true basis of the charges seemed clear from the beginning: he was a Jew. The very success of the Jews had turned them into an existential threat to the nation states of Europe. It was now clear to many Jews that no matter what role they had or how hard they worked, they would never be safe until they had their own land, their own country. I’ve heard that they considered more than one possible place to colonize, but ultimately there was one goal: a Jewish state in the land of their forefathers. It took half a century to make it a reality, but they did and they came, not as immigrants, but as colonizers intent on creating a Jewish nation state in the land of their forefathers in spite of the people who already inhabited the land. So, yes, you don’t need to tie modern Israel to the stories of the Bible, but the support of the Evangelical community does have its origins in the Bible and the promises made by God to Abraham. In that context secular reasonings really don’t come into play. I doubt many of them are even aware of the secular and socialist leanings of the early Zionists.

2) Aren’t the Jews are descended from Isaac and the Arabs from Ishmael? How can the Palestinians be descended from Isaac if they’re Arabs? The idea that the Arabs are descended from Ishmael isn’t found in the Bible. Rather, it is a claim made by Islam. Some of the northern tribes of the Arabian peninsula considered themselves to be descended from the Ishmaelites of the Bible. The Qurayish tribe claimed descendance from Ishmael’s son Kedar and Mohammed was a member of this tribe. However true this claim may be, it is vital to understand that most Arab peoples today are not descended from the people of the Arabian peninsula. Rather they are the product of fourteen centuries of Arab culturalization. Once their nations came under the control of the Arabs, the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa began to adopt their language and culture. Like the Palestinians they are a product of Arabization and conversion and not descendants of Ishmael.

3) ‘But they aren’t Jews!’ This is a common argument from those who acknowledge the Jewish origins of the Palestinians, including the modern Sanhedrin, but don’t want to consider the implications of that fact. And the Palestinians themselves would be the first to agree that they are not Jews. But it isn’t that simple. The land wasn’t promised to ‘the Jews,’ but to the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and both the Palestinians and the Israelis meet this criteria. The Palestinians didn’t negate their ancestry by embracing Christianity or Islam. Still, the temptation is there to see the Jewish claim as somehow more authentic, because they are seen as a continuation of the religion and culture that existed in the Kingdom of Judah (the word Jew has its origins in the word Judean, the name of a citizen of Judah). But the worlds of modern Israel and first century Judah are not the same. In the first century the language of those in Judah was a form of Aramaic and the Jews throughout the rest of the Roman Empire commonly spoke Greek. In fact, almost all of the Old Testaments surviving from that era are in Greek. Worship revolved around the temple in Jerusalem and its priesthood. Rabbinical Judaism as it exists today is something that developed in the centuries following the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. Christianity actually predates it. I’m not pointing out these facts in order to question Judaism’s authenticity, but many Evangelicals look to modern Jewish practices as though they had stepped directly from the Old Testament. In reality they have a history and have been developing for two thousand years. At the centre, however, is the relationship between God and Abraham and the promises that grew out of that. Promises that were extended to Isaac, then to Jacob, then to all the children of Jacob. That includes both modern Israel and Palestine.

So, if both groups have a valid claim to the Promised Land, then it makes sense to give each of them both a home there. A two state solution has the potential to curb, and in time perhaps even eliminate, the hostilities that have defined much of their relationship. And supporting such a solution is still supporting Israel. ‘Two states’ presupposes there will be an Israel. So why do so many Christian throw their support so strongly, and so exclusively, behind Israel? Ignorance is one reason. Most aren’t aware that the Palestinians share a common ancestry. Media is another reason. The story is typically presented as the Israel defending itself against the Palestinian threat, with little attention to the other side of the story, the Israeli colonization of the Palestinian homeland. Moreover, when it comes to Evangelical Christians questions of prophecy, the end times, and the return of Christ also come into play. Christians support Israel in order to, to paraphrase Lenin, give prophecy a push. It is exciting to watch God’s Word being realized, but having confidence in His Word doesn’t mean putting aside our moral responsibilities and ignoring or rationalizing actions and attitudes that contribute to things that in any other context we would find abhorrent.

When God sought to punish Judah He used Babylon, but the fact that He made use of Babylon’s ambitions in order to further His own aims did not absolve Babylon from the consequences of her actions (Jeremiah 51:7-9). Comparing ourselves to Babylon may seem odd, but we need to consider that ‘God’s will’ is does not mean freedom from consequences. You are still answerable to Him for your actions in this life, even if you act believing you are furthering His will. For every Israeli that dies many more Palestinians also die. The death of three Israeli teenagers led to the deaths of two thousand Palestinians, almost all of them innocent civilians and hundreds of them also children. What part of that do you expect God to be pleased with? No one believes that the Israelis are going to disappear. Some believe that they can deny the Palestinians their own nation state and everything will be fine, but when you consider their current populations and their birthrates, it is obvious that these Greater Israel scenarios would soon lead to an Arab majority. What then? Ethnic cleansing? Apartheid? I suspect many of Israel’s Evangelical ‘friends’ would embrace a world in which Israel is despised, seeing it as another sign of the end times, but what kind of friend is that? Why should Israel stand with Babylon? As friends, if we are friends, we should look to a solution that aids Israel. We shouldn’t race to play at being Babylon. That never ends well.