The earth is the Lord’s: Israel-Palestine experts say land issue is one of stewardship, not ownership

Louisville, Ky. (Presbyterian News Service) All land is a gift from God, not a possession, and with that gift comes the responsibility to be good stewards, three Middle East experts told an Oct. 13 symposium sponsored by the Israel-Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Organizers said the symposium, “Bible, Land and our Theological Challenge,” held in Louisville, was intended “to help Presbyterians formulate our position on the knotty issues of interfaith relations raised by the report Christians and Jews: People of God.”

The report, originally submitted to the 219th General Assembly (2010), was referred back to the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship for revision after commissioners complained that it failed to adequately address the issue of “the land” and the role of Muslims in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“Our struggle, said the Rev. Said Ailabouni, who was born in Nazareth, “is to balance improving and sustaining our interfaith relations on the one hand and working for justice and human rights for our brothers and sisters in Palestine on the other.” Ailabouni is an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America pastor in LaGrange, Ill., and former director of the ELCA’s Middle East Office.

Referring to the “Kairos Document” – a 2009 statement by a group of Palestinian Christian leaders appealing for international help to break the impasse in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – Ailabouni said, “The land is God’s land and so must be a land of peace, reconciliation and love.

“God has created both (Jewish and Palestinian) peoples there, so God wants all to live there in peace,” he continued. “This earth is precious – countless have died and their blood poured into this earth. Also the blood of Jesus poured into this earth – for reconciliation to God and each other – breaking down the walls that separate Hebrews and Gentiles.”

The PC(USA) has long supported the “two-state solution,” in which Israel and Palestine both have safe and secure borders along the pre-1967 war’s “Green Line.” Those borders have repeatedly been encroached upon by Israeli settlements, the Separation Barrier and Palestinian attacks.

“While it is convenient to claim a God-given right to land, such a claim is invalid unless it includes the conviction that others have the same God-given right to land,” said the Rev. Eugene March, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, who has been writing about “land theology” for more than 20 years.

The Bible is clear that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” March said. “The Israelites were never more than caretakers. They were not free to do anything they wanted with the land because the land did not belong to them. At the same time, however, the Israelites were never less than caretakers either.

“A grave responsibility, with the expectation that they would deal justly with one another, came with the land entrusted to them.”

The Biblical record, March said, is one of God repeatedly giving and taking land. In Deuteronomy, for instance, the Canaanites are removed by God because of their wicked behavior. “What’s more – and very – important,” he said, “is that Deuteronomy warned that if the Israelites disobeyed the Almighty as had the Canaanites, they too would be punished and expelled from the land.”

The “elephant in the room” in any discussion of “land” or “the land,” March acknowledged, is the modern state of Israel. “Let us be clear,” he said. “The modern state of Israel should not – cannot – simply be equated with the ancient people of Israel. … Just because modern Israel is situated on land once occupied by an ancient biblical people does not mean that they are one and the same.”

Modern Israel “has every right to political autonomy that includes the right of self-defense with secure, internationally recognized borders,” March said. “This ‘right’ is based upon the fact that the United Nations established Israel as a nation …, but some Christians and Jews go further and attribute the establishment of modern Israel directly to God.”

Competing land claims “are normal all over the world,” said the Rev. Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, “but they are a double-bind in Israel/Palestine, because if both the Jews and Palestinians are indigenous there, one or the other is indigenous nowhere.”

Burge pointed out that more Jews have always lived outside the traditional Holy Land – a term that doesn’t occur in the Bible, March said – than in the biblical land of Israel.

From Jesus to Paul, Burge said, New Testament figures placed little importance on the land.

Jesus “subverted the land politics of Judaism,” he said. “Jesus never traveled abroad, refused to get sucked into the political debates, and said ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’ – clearly a response that the Holy Land could not be brought about force but that the land will go to those who trust God, not those who fight for it.”

The idea of a “holy land” was foreign to Paul, Burge said. “Paul is silent about Jewish nationalism, doesn’t have much interest in geography and omits ‘the land’ from his list of important theological principles,” he said. “Places like Jerusalem were places of respect, but weren’t ‘holy’ places. Holy location is not geographical but is in the hearts of believers.”

Wrongful biblical interpretations of “the land” are creating untold suffering for Palestinian Christians, Ailabouni said. “[The Bible] cannot be used to destroy the Palestinian people or deprive Palestinians of their basic human rights,” he said. “This distorts the image of God. We yearn for the other side to see the face of God in us.”

“Many Jews admit that a special land today may not be essential for faithful Jewish living,” March said. “Nonetheless, it is only in (a) place of safety, where the social structure can be arranged to allow a rigorous pursuit of the ordinances, that the full possibilities can be realized.”

The population of Israel-Palestine today is very diverse, “and all rights must be respected,” March said. “Too many Christians have spiritualized the rights and responsibilities established by God. Life before God always involves human community, and human community always involves specific space (land) where community life can be ordered and experienced.”