Christian Zionism and the Genesis promise of land

When Israel and Judah are kingdoms and control territory, the biblical mandate is justice, not the promise of more territory.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” Genesis 12:1-3.

    I have talked with many North American Christians who, when faced with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, will ask in puzzlement, “But didn’t God promise this land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their descendents? Didn’t God give this land to the Jews?” Christian Zionists assume that the answer to these questions is an unqualified yes and that the implications for foreign policy are obvious.

     Christian Zionists are usually evangelicals who begin with a literal reading of the biblical text and a conviction that the Genesis promises are prophecies being fulfi lled in the modern State of Israel. The text quoted above doesn’t specifically mention land, but is generally linked to other Genesis passages that do promise land to Abraham’s descendents (Genesis 13:14-17, 15:18-21 and 17:4-8). Especially influential is Genesis 17:8, in which God promises the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendents “for an everlasting possession.

     ” Since Abraham’s name means “the father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5), one might assume that both Jews, as the descendents of Isaac, and Arabs, as the descendents of Ishmael, have a claim to the land. But when Christian Zionists read the Bible, they find a biblical mandate to endorse the politics of the State of Israel, established by the rightful descendents of Abraham. Such an interpretation frequently leads to a dismissal of Palestinian land rights and an inability to see injustice when Palestinian property is seized and ownership restricted, because “God’s will” privileges any Jewish possession of the land.

     But the “land traditions from the ancients texts are open to a variety of readings and responses, some which make for war and not for peaceable habitation,” theologian Walter Brueggeman says. What are the readings of these Genesis texts that present more life-giving options for both Israelis and Palestinians? What follows are sketches of five recurrent themes:

 1. God is the rightful owner of the land. Psalm 24:1 declares, “The earth is the Lord’s.” The “monotonous regularity” with which the Bible repeats the Torah phrase “the land which the Lord God will give you” makes it clear that God fi nally owns the land and it is a gift, not an entitlement. God’s ownership of the land relativizes all other land claims, and gives primacy to God’s directions about how to live on the land.

2. God’s gift of land is always linked to covenant responsibility. Leviticus 18:24-30 and Deuteronomy 8:17-19 make clear that those who ignore God’s commandments will not enjoy the land, but will “perish” or be “vomited out.” The promise of land is not unconditional, but depends on justice for all its inhabitants (Ezekiel 47:21-23).

3. God promises land to the landless and warns those who control territory to practise justice. The promise of land occurs in a specific context. When Israel and Judah are kingdoms and control territory, the biblical mandate is justice, not the promise of more territory.

4. Interpreting the promise of land is linked to our concept of God. Through the ministry of the prophets and the experience of exile, the people of the Old Testament come to see that God is not narrowly confined to a specific geography or land, but reigns over all nations and loves every land and its peoples. The God who promises land has the wellbeing of the world in mind.

5. God’s purpose in giving the land to Abraham’s descendents is to bless all nations. The land is not an end in itself, but should lead to a blessing of all the nations. These perspectives on the promise of land in Genesis present challenges to a Christian Zionist interpretation of the texts. Rather than an unqualifi ed endorsement of one side’s claim to the land, these themes suggest another conclusion. Says Mitri Raheb in I Am a Palestinian Christian, “The land happens to be the homeland of two peoples. Each of them should understand this land to be a gift of God to be shared with the other. Peace and the blessing on the land and on the two peoples will depend on this sharing. Only then will the biblical promises be fulfi lled.” —Patricia Shelly

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