Walter Brueggemann is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. His new book is titled, “Chosen? — Reading The Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” The goal of the book is to argue that there is no method of interpretation which would allow the promises made to ancient Israel to be applied to modern Israel. Brueggemann states that, “It is my hope that the Christian community in the United States will cease to appeal to the Bible as a direct support for the state of Israel.” But, the problem with achieving this goal is that it requires Brueggemann to argue that the Jewish Bible is opposed to Jewish nationalism. In fact, Brueggemann cherry-picks a handful of verses from the Jewish Bible to argue that the modern State of Israel should not exist. However, when Brueggemann’s argument are examined, it is found to be a gross inversion of the Bible.
- Background: Brueggemann’s theology is a development of a new form of anti-Israel Christianity, which some have called, “Christian Palestinianism.”
The book opens with an endorsement from an organization composed of Palestinian Christians, called, Sabeel, (Arabic for “the way”). The founder of Sabeel is a Palestinian Anglican Priest named Naim Ateek, who is also quoted in the book. Sabeel is leading the way in producing a new form of anti-Israel Christianity, which some have called, “Christian Palestinianism.” The scholar, Bat Ye’or, explained that, “Many Christian Palestinians, like Muslims, do not admit to any historical or theological link between the biblical Israel, the Jewish people, and the modern State of Israel.” And that Christian Palestinian ideology, “presses for the removal of the Gospels from their Judaic matrix and their grafting onto Arab Palestinianism.” Perhaps, the most bizarre example of the removal of the Judaic roots from the New Testament, and the replacement with Palestinian history, is the claim that Jesus was a Palestinian.
Likewise, Sabeel is based on replacement theology, (although Ateek denies it) where national Israel, and the land, are replaced with the spiritual Kingdom of God. Ateek argues that the Hebrew Bible started with a tribal mentality, but then progressed to an inclusive mentality. This transformation continued in The New Testament, which he argues called on Jewish people to move past the belief that they require a specific land, and replaced it with the Kingdom of God. Ateek stated, “in the New Testament, an amazing thing happens, the focus is no more on the land… the focus is on the Kingdom of God,” which is wherever, “God is sovereign.” Ateek argues for a universalist vision of humanity, which calls on people to move past territory and nationalism. (Although, it should be noted, Ateek never calls on American Christians to move past nationalism, or any other country – only Israel.)
- Brueggemann argues that the Bible has contradictory messages, and some verses deny the unique status of the Jewish people as chosen.
Brueggemann belongs to a group of scholars who believe that the Bible is a compilation of texts by different authors who presented conflicting messages. Thus, Brueggemann writes, “the Bible refuses to speak in a single voice.” This view of the Bible is the foundation of Brueggemann’s argument regarding the modern State of Israel and allows Brueggemann to argue that Scripture itself has two conflicting messages; an early tradition, which advocates the idea that Jewish people are chosen, and unconditionally promised the land – and a latter tradition which rejects both concepts.
First, Brueggemann argues that the early books of the Bible depict only Israel as chosen, while the latter prophetic tradition begins to depict many nations as chosen. He writes, “is the chosen status unconditionally given and therefore assured, or it is conditional and therefore revocable? This is exceedingly difficult question, and the biblical texts seem to give more than one answer.” Brueggemann even argues that the latter prophets rebuked Israel for believing they were uniquely chosen by God. He writes, “One can see at the edge of the Old Testament an inclusion of other people in the sphere of God’s attentiveness, an inclusion that intends to mitigate any exclusionary claim by Israel.”
In order to support this view, he cites verses such as, “Blessed be Egypt, my people, and Assyria, the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage” (Isa. 19:24-25). Brueggemann argues that in the latter tradition, “God has now, according to the prophet, scattered these names across the world so that other peoples, even Israel’s adversaries, are reckoned to be chosen of God.” So, there are two interpretations: God has a unique fidelity to Israel as a nation, or, God does not have a unique fidelity to any single nation. Not surprisingly, Brueggemann concludes that the correct reading of Scripture is that God does not express a unique fidelity to any single nation.
- Brueggemann argues that the land of Israel was given by God, but not for the Jews to live on it.
Brueggemann argues that God promised the land unconditionally to Abraham in Genesis. However, he argues that the book of Deuteronomy made a conflicting claim to the unconditional promise in Genesis, which is that the land was given conditionally. He writes, “this conditional if is the long recital of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28, in which obedience to the Torah becomes a prerequisite for holding the land. It is clear that his conditional if challenges the unconditional promise to the ancestors. Thus we can conclude that the land is given to Israel unconditionally, but it is held by Israel conditionally.” However, his conclusion is contradictory in that it doesn’t provide a clear distinction. It is the logical equivalent of arguing that God gave the land conditionally, and unconditionally, at the same time. Perhaps Brueggemann is trying to say that God is holding the land in trust, until they decide to repent. But, the Jewish people have already returned to the land, shouldn’t that mean that God has accepted them? Regardless, what would be the purpose of giving them the land eternally to be held in trust, but not for them to live on it? It seems that his goal is to avoid the conclusion that the land was given for the Jewish people to live on it.
- Brueggemann’s solution to the Palestinian conflict is that “the chosen must choose beyond their chosenness.”
Brueggemann’s solution for how to end the conflict is to be preoccupied with the question of how Jewish people should treat non-Jewish people. More specifically he is concerned with how the Bible deals with the concept of the, “other.” He considers the Bible to have two conflicting traditions, which is that some verses are very inclusive, while others are very exclusive, of the other. He seeks to understand how the Bible can be applied to the Palestinians, since they would be the modern version of the other. He writes, “The Bible is ambiguous about, ‘the other,’ some books and passages welcome the other; some reject the other.” And, “The issue of the Bible and land is whether to read with a welcome to the other or with an exclusion to the other. Welcome to the other appears to be a romantic dream in the world of real politics, and certainly current Israeli policy would find such openness to the Palestinians to be absurd.” He also writes, “One can see at the edge of the Old Testament an inclusion of other people in the sphere of God’s attentiveness, an inclusion that intends to mitigate any exclusionary claim by Israel.” When these claims are combined, it would mean that the latter prophets cancelled the claim that Israel was chosen.
Brueggemann concludes that the only way to end the violence is for Israel to “choose past its chosenness.” He writes, “To cast some as chosen may evoke endless hostility towards others’ lives at the brink of violence. It would seem that in every claim of chosenness…(such as) Israel… the chosen must choose beyond their chosenness. This is difficult, for it goes against the grain of entitlement and assurance. But, unless difficult choices are made, the present violence can only hold out a future of perpetual violence.” Thus, Brueggemann is literally arguing that some of prophetic books called on Israel to reject their status as chosen, and invited other groups of people to possess their land. In addition, he argues that the solution to the conflict is for modern Israel to also implement this prophetic call and abandon any belief that they are chosen, and let other groups take their land. But, the logical outcome of his argument would mean that the prophets left a message, which is that if a modern state of Israel were ever re-created, then it should be rejected.
Essentially, Brueggemann raises three separate questions. First, is modern Israel chosen? Second, were some of the prophets opposed to the existence of ancient Israel? Third, if some of the prophets were opposed to the existence of ancient Israel, then should the same message be applied to modern Israel? Brueggemann answers in the affirmative to all three questions. In effect, Brueggemann is arguing that the Jewish prophets were the first lawyers to rebuke Israel for its corruption, and make case that Israel should not exist. If his argument were true, then it means the Jewish prophets desired the destruction of Israel, so that it could be liberated from the sin of nationalism. However, while it is true, that at times the prophets condemned Israel for pride, the problem with this claim is that all of the prophecies in the Bible prophesy a future restoration. It is absurd for Brueggemann to grant the heaviest weight to a handful of verses, which appear to be in conflict with a central message of the entire Bible.
In the Bible, the prophets wept bitterly over the destruction of Israel. If Brueggemann’s claim were true, then they should have celebrated. If the Prophets wanted to see the end of Jewish nationalism, then the book of, “Lamentations” would not even exist, instead there would be a book celebrating the freeing of Jerusalem from the sin of nationalism. The problem with Brueggemann’s argument is that it is not really an interpretation of Scripture, but rather a complete denial of the message of the Bible. The Jewish prophets did not desire the destruction of Israel, so that it could be liberated from the sin of nationalism. But, it is from this false conclusion that Brueggemann derives his solution to end the violence, which is actually a camouflaged call for the destruction of Israel.
- Brueggemann’s solution to the conflict is a camouflaged call for the destruction of Israel.
How one defines the solution to the conflict is based entirely on how one defines the problem. If the problem is the absence of a Palestinian State, then the solution is the creation of a Palestinian State. However, if the problem is that the Palestinian leadership refuse to accept the existence of a Jewish State, then the solution is the destruction of the Jewish State. So the most important question is what does Brueggemann mean by claiming that the violence will only end when Israelis decide to, “choose beyond their chosenness?” But conveniently, this is a question he does not answer directly in his book. At one point, he seems to argue that it means recognizing the human rights of the Palestinians. But does that mean creating a Palestinian State, or does it mean making them all citizens of Israel?
How can the expression, “choose beyond their chosenness,” be implemented as a concrete political policy? It is extremely morally irresponsible that his supposed solution is so utterly vague. Does this mean that Israel should choose beyond owning specific borders? In the book, Brueggemann explains that it is possible that ancient Israel was chosen to own a specific land, but after a certain point in history, Israel was supposed to move, “beyond a possessed land,” and, “tribalism.” Most likely, his answer is that the land is no longer needed, but that means Israel should not exist. However, if Brueggemann simply means that a Palestinian State should be created, then that claim is also incredibly problematic, because the Palestinian leadership has repeatedly refused to meet the UN requirements for statehood. Also, if a Palestinian State were created, then it would not be up to Israel to give the Palestinians their rights. Rather, that would be up to their own elected leaders, and it is unjust to place that burden on the Israelis.
So then, does it mean making the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza citizens of Israel? But, that would mean the destruction of the Jewish state and its replacement with a single Arab-majority state. At the beginning of the book Brueggemann states, “I have not changed my mind… about the urgency for the security and well- being of the state of Israel.” But Brueggeman makes a self-contradictory statement at the end of the book, where he claims that the solution will most likely be found in making all Palestinians Israeli-citizens, aka, the one-state solution.
The one-state solution calls for the borders, as well as the Jewish character of Israel, to be dissolved, and for Israel to be replaced with an entirely new bi-national country. The one-state solution would mean a single country where Arabs can overwhelm the Jewish population and bring all of the Palestinians into what could only be called the new state of “Palestine.”
The one-state solution would mean destroying Israel by robbing the Jewish people of the right to self-determination. In reality, peace will only come when the Palestinian leaders finally accept non-Arab and non-Muslim neighbors. If Brueggemann really supported Israel, then he would not call for its destruction. If Brueggemann really supported Israel, he could still support Palestinian nationalism without calling for it to supercede Jewish nationalism. Instead, Brueggemann cherry-picks a handful of verses from the Jewish Bible to argue that the modern State of Israel should no longer exist.