Review and Response to Walter Brueggemann's book, "Chosen?: Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict"
I say "about Jews" because Brueggemann does not talk about Palestinians, except to say that they are victims of injustice and human rights violations by Israel. His goal is to teach the Christian reader that the Jewish scripture has so many voices and ambivalent views, that a literal reading regarding Jewish chosenness and God's promise of the land cannot be used to give the State of Israel a "blank check" for its abuse of Palestinians, taking all the land for itself, with the goal of excluding all Palestinians.
Before making further comments on the book, and just to be clear, I have several of Brueggemann's books on my shelf, as do many mainline Christian clergy. His writings are popular, insightful, well written, sometimes pastoral, and have informed and influenced many of us on the Hebrew Scriptures. Exactly the point! And his hope! Will the faithful and trusting reader of Brueggemann, be influenced by this latest and perhaps last writing of an eighty-one year old scholar? I think that this is Brueggemann's hope, and the hope of the two mentors he credits for the writing of this book--the anti-Israel, Israeli-Arab citizen and Christian Cleric, Canon Naim Ateek, and American born Jewish anti-Israel activist Mark Braverman. I can see them shaking hands with each other or giving high-fives at their big catch. Convert to their side! Their loud and influential authoritative voice. Brueggemann!
While Brueggemann argues that the Bible can be used to prove any position, he proceeds to use that factor to claim three truths in three chapters that he wants his Christian readers to know: one, that Jews aren't chosen, two that the land is not their land, and three, that modern Israel is not biblical Israel.
To expound further, he begins this brief document by illustrating in chapter one the various and ambivalent voices in the Jewish scripture. He uses the widely accepted historical criticical method to show how editors of the bible rewrote the past to give their meaning to their current reality. He introduces this with respect to the promise of land, its acquisition (by Joshua, which we will see below), loss, and restoration. It was during this restoration period, upon return from exile, that Brueggemann notes, “. . . the great tradition of land promise and land reception was given final biblical form during this critical period,” giving “legitimacy . . .in the moment of restoration” (3). What is troubling, is that Brueggemann intentionally uses the word “legitimacy” and then links it to the return to the land, a highly emotive and loaded term used today to question Israel’s right of return to the land, of its right to exist.
When Brueggemann states in chapter one that, “The appeal of the contemporary state of Israel to the bible concerning the land is direct and simple. It is that the land of promise was given initially and unconditionally to Israel and thus to the ongoing community of Jews,” (2) he implies that Israel believes all the land is theirs exclusively for the Jewish people. He then gives a brief excursion into what he calls the ongoing tension between Ezra’s exclusiveness and Deuteronomy’s inclusiveness regarding the “other” in the land: “In the current state of Israel with its Zionist policies, the exclusion of the other (now the Palestinians) is a dominant motif” (6-7). I will close with remarks concerning this allegation.
Chapter two takes up his first argument against Jewish chosenness. Are the Jews chosen? He answers emphatically yes, but adds that this status is "arbitrary," and without anything “identifiable about Israel that would evoke such a decision and status" (16-17). He claims that the use of "love" by God towards Israel is "rhetoric" to show that "God is smitten with Israel" (17!) Even so, he say, chosenness is also revocable, because it is a conditional status based on Israel's obedience to Torah’s requirements of justice and holiness. He even wants us to know that, "for a moment" even "God had abandoned Israel"(18). He goes on to tell of three other groups of people who have also claimed to be chosen by God: Christians, the United States, and the poor. "It isn't fair," you can hear him say, "Aren't we all special to God?" Then he asks how it feels to be the “not chosen,” and asks how Jewish chosenness must feel to the Palestinians.
With regard to the land, Brueggemann implies that God did not have a chance to give the land he promised to the Hebrews, and that it is significant that the promise was only "anticipated" but not yet given in the five books of the Torah (30). Instead, he says, Joshua took the land by force from another people, and linked "the victory of Israel to the preceding land promises . . . fulfilled, but only through the vigorous action of Israel" (32). This assertion forces the question, of how God's promises, whatever they may be, or how the Kingdom of God in Christian theology, are to become realities? How does Brueggemann envision God giving the land to the Hebrews?
The promise of land is conditioned by adherence to the covenant, states Brueggemann. "Thus, the land is given, the land is taken, the land is losable," and just as the prophets warned, Israel lost the land and was exiled. Brueggemann implies that this pattern, “promised, taken, lost,” is about to be repeated again with Israel. In the study guide he asks a leading question after he reminds his reader that Joshua knew he took the land from another people by force: "How is the modern conflict between Israel and the Palestinians similar to the earlier biblical account" (80)? This is followed by what I believe is an audacious question to Christians, “Is the land and the promise of the land really indispensable for Judaism's existence?” He know that Christians do not believe anything in the physical world is essential in order to worship God, yet he does not teach his Christian reader the meanings or significance of land in Jewish thought, or its connection to their covenantal understanding. What again is his implicit message about Judaism and the State of Israel for his Christian reader?
Very disturbing, Brueggemann then claims that there is no link between ancient Israel and modern Israel because "there is a defining difference between a covenant people and a state that relies on military power without reference to covenant restraints."(48) Again, this statement is not accompanied by the covenantal language of responsibility and duty that is in Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, and again he does not teach his Christian reader the meanings and significance of covenant in Jewish thought. Regarding the concept of covenant, he does not teach the post-Holocaust Christian affirmation that the covenant between God and Israel is still a living and vital covenant (Romans 11:16-18); a claim Christianity did not hold for nineteen hundred centuries. This affirmation should have been accompanied by the humbling realization that God is still working with and through the Jewish people, and thus Israel, in the world today "without first consulting with us Christians."
Another vital and missing part, is that while Brueggemann is talking about Jews, Israel and the Jewish Bible, he never lets his reader know about the unique and binding relationship Christians and Jews have with each other. New research has shown that both faiths are children of the Jewish Bible and Second Temple Judaism (in which the Jewish movement of Jesus was born), and that both grew and developed alongside each other as Jewish movements until they eventually became todays rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.
This is an important omission because any talk by Christians about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would then imply a dual loyalty to both Israel and Palestinian Christians. Yes, the church has a long and deep relationship with Arabs in the Middle East, due to missionary activity, but it also has an eternally binding relationship with Israel. We share belief in the same God, use the same theological language, and much more.
Some mainline congregations claim that they are seeking justice for both Israelis and Palestinians, while at the same time admitting that their primary relationship is with to Palestinian Christians. My denomination, the ELCA states, “Our church’s primary companion church in the Holy Land is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ECLJHL). This Arabic-speaking community of faithful Lutherans is the primary relationship through which the ELCA sees the situation in Palestine and Israel” (Italics mine) (https://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Publicity-Engaged-Church/Peace-Not-Walls). This being acknowledged, how can the church equally say, “The ELCA is working for justice and peace in Palestine and Israel through our campaign.”? Can a one-sided view seek justice?
It isn't enough for Brueggemann to state a sentence or two out of a whole book that he is happy Israel has a state, and that Jews need safeguarding after the Holocaust. He needs to say something about the continuing covenant of God with Israel, and the unique and binding relationship between Christians and Jews
The last item I would like to discuss, is Brueggemann’s use of the phrase “facts on the ground,” as a proof of Israel’s injustice towards Palestinians. This is a term widely used and appropriated by Brueggemann from his mentors Ateek and Braverman.
The truth is that "facts on the ground" don't say anything about their cause. "Come and see" Christian pilgrimages to the West Bank offered by Sabeel (Ateek’s organization) simply let you come and see those facts, while you are asked to believe the stories about what you see from those who invited you. It is unclear if Brueggemann has visited the West Bank himself and seen the facts he refers to, or if he is relying on his mentor’s witness.
In any case, let me share two stories behind two visible “facts” that have caused some Christian clergy to literally “cringe” in accusatory disgust when they hear the word Israel; these “facts” are the security barrier and black water barrels on the roofs of Palestinian homes.
A Jewish Israeli guide from an NGO in Jerusalem, whose organization uses legal means to help Palestinians, took me and others to the concrete part of the security barrier, sometimes referred to as "the wall." He looked at the wall and asked, "Should this wall come down?" He shrugged his shoulders and said, "It saves Jewish lives!" The security barrier resulted after over one thousand Israelis were murdered by suicide bombers in restaurants, buses, discos and elsewhere is Israel, by Palestinians in the second intifada. Then he asked, "Does it make life hard for the Palestinians?" He simply answered, "Yes." Then he added, "So we go to court to get more openings for them and to try to ease their suffering." He went on to tell us about this work.
The second story came as we passed a Palestinian village with black water barrels on their roofs in East Jerusalem. I have repeatedly heard Christian clergy state how these barrels are an indication of Israel’s refusal to give running water to Palestinians. “See these water barrels on the roofs?” he asked. “All they need to do is vote in elections to get representation for themselves. But, they refuse to vote because that would be ‘normalizing’ relations with Israel, which is tantamount to treason according to the Palestinian leadership. They are under a lot of pressure. So, they don’t have benefits they could otherwise have. In addition, they don’t want to pay taxes, which would be necessary to get running water. Unfortunately, in this case, there is nothing our organization can do to help them. This is their choice.” He shrugged his shoulders again, and we drove on.
"Come and see" Christian pilgrimages, meant to show “facts on the ground” of Palestinian suffering, do not necessarily indicate that their suffering is caused by Israel, or by the occupation, which seems to be blamed for everything that is wrong with the Palestinians.
The “facts on the ground” also negate Brueggemann’s claims that Israel wants all the Promised Land and wants all Palestinians expelled from the land. This may be true of a very tiny minority of Jews in Israel. Yet, Israel’s declaration of Independence states clearly that it wanted to live in peace with its neighbors. Israel also accepted the UN partition plan--far less land than all the land mentione in the Bible—willingly divvying up the land between Israel and a Palestinian state. He fails to tell his reader that Israel is a Jewish state and a democracy, with a twenty percent Arab population, who are guaranteed equal rights; they serve as mayors, judges, and hold seats in the Knesset. Discrimination in every democracy is an issue, and just as America struggles to live up to its democratic ideals of equality for all after over two hundred years of existence, so Israel struggles to do the same after over sixty five years of existence. Israel has no intention of expelling its Arab citizens, or of acquiring all the land of the Biblical promise.
One wonders why Brueggemann does not inform his readers that Israel has offered both Arafat (2000) and Abbas (2008) an independent Palestinian state. Both were turned down without counter offers. These were serious offers of a viable independent Palestinian state. He also does not give his readers readily available statistics on the growth of the Palestinian population both inside Israel and in the disputed territories since 1948. These populations have continued to grow, countering accusations of Israeli aspirations to exclusivity over all the land.
One wonders if such unwarranted accusations are not mere projections. Hamas states clearly it does not want a two-state solution, but all the land for Arabs only. Arafat, turned down Ehud Barak’s offer of a state in 2000, by saying, “There never was a Jewish Temple,” knowing that this admission
would mean Israel has a rightful claim to exist in the land. Is it Israel that does not want to live with Arabs as neighbors, or the other way around? Christian readers need to ask questions, and investigate.
In summary, I feel like Brueggemann has been high jacked by his mentors who have indeed influenced him to speak their message about Jews, Judaism, and Israel, to Western Christians.
Brueggemann's writing is seductive to the trusting follower of a biblical scholar "who must know what he is talking about," and to any Christian reader who might be uninformed about the 2000 year history of Christian anti-Judaism that infiltrated every aspect of Christianity, it's teaching, preaching, scriptural interpretation, liturgy, church policies, and so forth. Herein lies the danger for Israel, a danger Ateek and Braverman relish.
So, what is his purpose in writing this book? Whatever else it may be, it also stands in line with the many centuries of Christian biblical theological pieces about Jews and Judaism, (only now adding the state of Israel) by renowned theologians who focus on Jews as the problem, and use Jewish scripture to highlight Jews in an unfavorable light. What good can come of his book? Or is good not the purpose?
One hundred years from now, or whenever "the facts on the ground" in Israel and the disputed territories are really exposed through history, how will Brueggemann be viewed by church historians? That's the legacy he is willing to risk.