This is off the beaten path for me, but the situation in the Holy Land has been an interest of mine since I was privileged to travel to Israel and Palestine in the summer of 1998 in the Christian Clergy Traveling Seminar sponsored by the Chicago Chapter of the American Jewish Committee. I’m grateful that the traveling seminar, jam-packed with presentations, was quite even-handed in the information we received. I became very impressed with the complexity of the situation. I learned to clarify my language and speak of Arabs rather than Palestinians who live in the State of Israel as citizens but Jews rather than Israelis who live in the Palestinian territories as settlers. I was also impressed with the historic Christian presence in the Holy Land. I was surprised to learn that one of the largest private landowners in the State of Israel is the Greek Orthodox Church. The Greek Patriarchate even owns the land the Knesset building occupies. The historic Churches in the Holy Land are large landowners because during the years of Muslim rule in the Ottoman Empire Christians could only pass on their property to family members or to the church; they could not sell it to non-Muslims. We know that there is a significant Lutheran presence in Jerusalem, including the Church of the Redeemer whose tower dominates the Old City (the church was dedicated by Kaiser Wilhelm II on Reformation Day, 1898) and the Augusta Victoria Hospital whose tax-exemption is now being threatened by the Israeli government.
We in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod have been privileged to have regular contact with Palestinian/Arab Lutherans so that we can hear the Christian perspective about the road to peace in that troubled place. Lamentably, more and more Christians are leaving that land in order to make a better living for themselves elsewhere. Those who remain are caught between a rock and a hard place. They could accept living under either an Israeli or Palestinian state as long as basic rights of citizenship were guaranteed. The Christians in the Holy Land need our support, and part of that support requires being a strong counter-voice to the Evangelical Fundamentalists who support the most radical Zionist governments in Israel.
We can provide theological support by rejecting the teaching of premillennial dispensationalism, propounded in the 19th century by the Irish clergyman, John Nelson Darby, and the Scottish evangelist, Edward Irving. Their teachings found receptive hearers in America and are now embraced by millions of Evangelicals. The view emphasizes a futuristic apocalyptic eschatology that maps out the Rapture, the location of the Antichrist, the battle of Armageddon, and the reign of Christ on earth on the basis of a literal (but also somewhat Gnostic) reading of portions of the books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah and Revelation. The restoration of the state of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple played a major role in this scenario as a sign that these last things would begin to take place. The American Evangelicals who believe this have emerged, politically, as Christian Zionists who apply a lot of pressure on the current American Administration and have a lot of support within the Administration.
This view needs to be vigorously countered by the mainline Christian view that the fulfillment of the promise of land to the patriarchs occurred within salvation history when the tribes of Israel took possession of the land of Canaan. The holy wars in which Yahweh led the armies of Israel by his sacramental presence in the Ark to take possession of the land were the only holy wars God has approved since they were God’s wars. Once settled in the land, Israel became a people and the worship of the true God was regulated and regularized. Christians believe that “in the fullness of time” Jesus the Christ extended God’s saving grace to all people. Now we seek not an earthly Jerusalem, but the Jerusalem that comes down from above, the city of God into which all the nations will be gathered. The promise of an eternal throne to David is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3), now ruling eternally at the right hand of God.
If early Christians were prone to the chiliastic eschatology espoused by many American fundamentalists, they did not necessarily identify the location of the thousand-year reign of Christ as the soil of Palestine. The great theologian Origen, who grew up in Alexandria with its large Jewish population and spent time living in Palestine, put an end to any possibility of thinking along those lines. He even spiritualized the promises of God in the Hebrew Scriptures, and generations of Christian teachers have followed him in this kind of exegesis. Whatever we may make of that today, certainly mainline Christians have no theological commitment to the State of Israel, even if we support its existence for moral and political reasons.
For a fine study of the teachings of the church fathers on the Holy Land in conversation with the Jews of their day see Robert L. Wilkens, The Land Called Holy: Palestine in Christian History and Thought (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992).
Judaism as a religion is pluralistic and not necessarily Zionist. Modern Zionists, in fact, were not even religious Jews and Orthodox Jews were the least Zionist among the branches of Judaism. It can be argued that the category of “the People” and “the Torah” were more important to Judaism since the time of the Babylonian exile than the concept of “the Land.” The prophets pointed to the time of wilderness wandering as a more ideal time in Israel’s history over against the lack of faithfulness to the covenant manifested by those living in the Land. According to Jeremiah, Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of the Land and captivity of the People was a punishment for Israel’s disobedience. While the Isaiah tradition promoted a return to the Land after the Babylonian exile (Isa. 40), and even envisioned all nations coming to Zion (Isa. 60), many Jews preferred to remain in Babylon and developed a flourishing Jewish life there. Jews also settled comfortably in other centers of the Diaspora, such as Alexandria, Antioch, and even Rome.
At the time of Jesus not all the parties in Israel were committed to self-rule; most rejected the political extremism of the Zealots. Interestingly, the two Jewish groups that survived intact the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. were the two least committed to ruling the Land: the Pharisees and the Christians. While Jews ever thereafter prayed for a return to Zion (“next year in Jerusalem”), living in the Land was not necessarily tied to ruling the Land (i.e. a state of Israel). This is not surprising since in Pharisaic Judaism possession of the Land was subservient to, even if not always separable from, obedience to the Torah. While contemporary Jews live in the wake of 19th century Zionism and the experience of the Holocaust which made the establishment of a state of Israel almost necessary, forthright dialogue between Christians and Jews needs to consider these features of the history of Jewish thought in which the Land, while important, has not always been as important as the Torah and the People.
I recommend, as a book helpful in thinking about these issues, the following: W. D. Davies, The Territorial Dimension of Judaism, with a Symposium and Further Reflections (Minneapolis: Fortress Press edition, 1991). Participants in the symposium in this book include Kenneth Cragg, David Noel Freedman, Arthur Hertzberg, Jacob Neusner, Krister Stendahl, R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, and J. S. Whale. The dialogue on Judaism and the Land has already begun.
These theological reflections do not resolve the tortured issues of the Holy Land today, but we who have here “no abiding city” can be flexible about the earthly city, even the earthly Jerusalem. We need to support what works best for most of the people in the land without any theological attachment to particular borders. And we need to support our fellow Christians in the Holy Land by countering the political agenda of some of our fellow Christians in this land.