Walter Brueggemann’s book, “Chosen” offers a new reason why God has rejected Israel

The Bible is filled with prophecies that God will restore Israel, and that the Messiah will rule from Jerusalem.  Since Israel was re-created in 1948, the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic worlds have all been in a theological revolution trying to answer the question of whether or not modern Israel is the fulfillment of prophecy.  Walter Brueggemann, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, addresses this question in his new book, “Chosen? – Reading The Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”  Unfortunately, he is not consistent in his answer.   Although, he writes, “I begin with a focus on the claim of Israel as God’s Chosen people.  That conviction is not in doubt in the Bible.”  And, “I have not changed my mind an iota about the status of Israel as God’s chosen people.”  However, in the book, he makes many claims which cancel this claim, for example, he argues that many nations are chosen in the Bible.  In addition, he casually speaks for God by declaring that modern Israelis are too immoral to still be considered “chosen.”  In truth, a more accurate statement would be that Brueggemann has not changed his mind that ancient Israel was chosen – but modern Israel is not chosen due to its violations of Palestinian human rights.

Brueggemann argues that either modern Israel is no longer chosen by God, or cannot expect to be recognized as chosen by other people due to their violations of Palestinian human rights.  Brueggemann gives his own personal list of reasons why, “Because the state of Israel, perhaps of necessity, has opted to be a military power engaged in power politics along with other nation-states of the world, it cannot at the same time appeal to an old faith tradition in a persuasive way.”  And, “The state of Israel has evolved into an immense military power… (escalated) its occupation of the West Bank by an aggressive development of new settlements… (and) has exhibited a massive indifference to the human rights of the Palestinians.  Thus, it seems to me (Brueggemann) that the state of Israel, in its present inclination and strategy, cannot expect much ‘positive play’ from its identity as ‘God’s chosen people.’”  But the argument that Israel is no longer chosen is logically the equivalent to the idea that God has rejected Israel.

Since the writing of the early gentile Christians there has only been one theological reason for God rejecting Israel, which is that they rejected the Messiah, and that the promises made to Israel were transferred to the Church.  This means that Brueggemann is possibly one of the first major “Christian” theologians in nearly 1,800 years to argue that God has rejected Israel for a reason besides rejecting the Messiah, and therefore this claim represents a radical historical theological shift.  This issue is why Brueggemann’s book is so revolutionary, because it means the Jewish exile can no longer be used as evidence that God has rejected Israel, and therefore a new reason will be needed as the proof.  In this case, Brueggemann has declared that God has rejected modern Israel because they have violated the human rights of the Palestinians.  This claim demonstrates all the more clearly why ancient theological reasons for condemning the Jewish people are mutating after the restoration of Israel.  This is demonstrated by the fact that violating human rights is the great sin of the modern era, and since (according to Brueggemann) Israel is guilty of this great modern sin, it therefore cannot be chosen by God.

This is the beginning of a new strand of anti-semitism, which is a mixture of the ancient theological concept that God has rejected the Jewish people combined with the modern concept of human-rights violations.  With this accusation, Brueggemann’s book flings open a new door, mixing ancient religious anti-semitism with modern secular anti-semitism.  What will be the limits on the reasons offered for why God has rejected Israel?  Is it possible that others will start to argue that God has rejected Israel because of their failure to combat global warming?  Perhaps, it sounds impossible, but the Jewish people have never been able to escape the Shadow of God, or the long arm of hatred – so there is always the possibility of new combinations.

But, Brueggemann does not stop there.  Brueggemann argues that the reason people still believe that God has a unique fidelity to the Jewish people, and that they are still promised the land, is not because of the Bible itself, but because of Zionism.  In order to do this, Brueggemann uproots the theological concept of God’s fidelity to the Jewish people from the Bible, and he attempts to relocate it in the ideology of Zionism.  Brueggemann writes, “Zionism as a hard-nosed ideology brings with it the danger of reducing the claim of God’s fidelity to God’s people into a one-dimensional possibility.”  He writes, “how central and indispensable are the land and the promise for Judaism’s existence?  The contemporary Zionist movement would have us believe that Judaism is equated with the land, and consequently, with support of the state of Israel as the present embodiment of the land of promise.”  In effect, Brueggemann’s arguments would mean that it is not the Bible which states that God has a unique fidelity to the Jewish people, but that it is simply a creation of the Zionist movement.

The problem with this argument is that it’s based entirely on a revisionist history.  Zionism was a nationalist movement of the Jewish people that started in the late nineteenth century.  Professor Jacob Neusner stated, “Zionism was a secular movement nourished by a religious narrative.”  However, “The political Zionists had a secular state in mind.”  The secular nature of Zionism is why historian, Jacob Klatzkin, stated that Zionism’s, “basic intention, whether consciously or unconsciously, is to deny any conception of Jewish people based on spiritual criteria.”  Thus, Brueggemann’s claim is bizarre, and easily dispelled.  The truth is that the belief that God has eternally promised the land to the Jewish people comes directly from the Bible.

In addition, one of the subtle goals of the book is to introduce the conspiracy theory that Zionism is a threat to world peace.  Brueggemann claims that Zionism is dangerous to the whole world – that Zionism belongs to a category of beliefs that are, “hardened into an ideology,” which, “resist alternative imagination and that seek to disregard sociopolitical facts on the ground for the sake of the ideology in a way that is increasingly dangerous to the world order.”  The argument that Zionism is dangerous is repeated in the study guide questions at the end of the book, which has the following question, “Do you think Zionism is a dangerous ideology?”  This claim is made in only one sentence in the book, and then again in the study questions.

But the claim that Zionism “is increasingly dangerous to the world order” is still made in the book.  Likewise, in radical Islamic propaganda there has been an attempt to demonize Zionism as a form of Jewish supremacism, which seeks to conquer the world.  So what is contained in a seed form in Brueggemann’s book is a standard claim made among radical clerics.  For example, compare Brueggemann’s subtle claim to a more pronounced claim made by a former President of Iran, when he explained, “the problem of Zionist danger.  The Zionists, who constituted a strong political power in Europe, caused much disorder there.  Since, they had a lot of property and controlled an empire of propaganda.  They made the European governments helpless.”  So, either Zionism is simply the belief that the Jewish people should be allowed self-determination, or it is a danger which can bring down Europe, as well as a danger to world peace.  Brueggemann depicts Zionism as one of the enemies of world peace, and it is possible that one of his goals is to spread the idea among the American Church system.

Postscript: Since it is relevant, I would like to include my own perspective regarding the history of the origin of the idea that God has rejected Israel.  Many people believe that the idea originated in the New Testament.  I do not believe that the New Testament teaches that God has rejected the Jewish people permanently, or as a whole, for rejecting the Messiah, and replaced them with the Church.  One of the reasons I hold this view is due to the nature of the role of the Jewish people described in the Bible.  The Israelites are chosen to bring monotheism, the divine law, and the Messiah, and in this way, to become a nation of priests to the world.  Israel is a nation that will bring redemption to the nations, and as a nation, requires a land.  The Jewish Bible is filled with prophecies that God will restore Israel, and that the Messiah will rule from Jerusalem.  So it would seem that if Jesus claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, then he affirmed the mission of the Jewish people.  It would be a contradiction in terms to claim that the New Testament offered a Jewish Messiah to fulfill the national mission of the Jewish people, while at the same time claiming that the New Testament rejected the Jewish people.

In addition, the terms, “Israel” or “Israelite” occur 77 times in the Greek New Testament, and of them 75 are either quotes from the Jewish Bible, or used in a the same manner.  In contrast, only two verses use the term in an unusual manner.  The first unusual usage of the term is, “Israel of God,” which can still be interpreted as a reference to Jewish people, and the second usage is a strange prophetic reference to 144,000 individuals sealed from the twelve tribes of Israel, which has countless interpretations.  And despite widespread misconception, nowhere does the New Testament refer to the Church as “Israel.”  And the terms, “New Israel,” “True Israel,” or “Spiritual Israel,” never appear in the New Testament.  In other words, Israel and the Church consistently remain separate entities throughout the entirety of the New Testament.

Also, The New Testament is divided into two sections of time: the Gospels are an account of the life of Christ, while the book of Acts is a record of the Acts of the Apostles.  The book of Acts begins with the ascension of Christ, and all of the disciples are Jewish.  But the question of whether God has rejected the Jewish people never appears.  Rather, the polar opposite question appears – the first major question is how to accept gentile believers.  Thus, the evidence is overwhelming that the New Testament does not teach that God has rejected Israel.  Instead, the text shows a more complex dynamic where the Messiah appears once, but is rejected by the majority of Jewish people, until he returns to restore Israel.

The historical evidence indicates that the origin of idea that God rejected the Jewish people and replaced them with the Church did not appear until after the completion of the New Testament, introduced instead by some early gentile Christians.  The idea may have been partly influenced by the destruction of the Temple, and the exile.  By about 160 C.E., Justin Martyr appears to argue that the promises made to Israel were transferred to the gentile followers of Jesus, “As therefore from one man Jacob, who was surnamed Israel, all your nation has been called Jacob and Israel; so we from Christ, who begat us unto God, like Jacob, and Israel… are called and are the true sons of God.”  According to Biblical Scholar, Robert Saucy, this statement was, “the capstone of the developing tendency in the church to appropriate to itself the attributes and prerogatives that formerly belonged to the historical Israel.”  After the completion of The New Testament, some early gentile Christians started applying the promises made to Israel to themselves, which led to the belief that God had rejected the national mission of the Jewish people, and fulfilled their mission with an entirely new group of people.  However, this history is being reversed by groups like Christians United for Israel (CUFI).  CUFI is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, and they are guided by the belief that God has not rejected Israel.

About the Author
Daniel Swindell is a Zionist. He has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Missouri, and has studied in Yeshiva.