Advent resources

Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This issue of the Outlook diverges from our normal pattern of two short reviews on different books. Instead, we have included two longer reviews of the same book, “Chosen” by Walter Brueggemann, as well as a response to those reviews by the book’s author. We felt the topic, the range of opinions and the book itself deserved the devotion of this large amount of space. We are grateful to William Plitt and Christopher Leighton for their thoughtful reviews and to Walter Brueggemann for his willingness to write a response to them.

Read William Plitt’s review.

Read Walter Brueggemann’s response.

Chosenby Walter Brueggemann
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky. 108 pages

In this book, Walter Brueggemann has directed his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and exhorted Christian onlookers to jump into the fray. Given Brueggemann’s stature as one of the most accessible and engaging Protestant scholars of the Old Testament, readers are bound to anticipate a challenging and insightful analysis of the dueling allegiances that divide a land and its peoples. From start to finish, Brueggemann trains his gaze on American Christians who are struggling to find a path through a maze of competing claims.

Brueggemann’s book reflects an anguish shared by many Christians who are wrenched by irreconcilable narratives and who are reluctant to choose sides. Brueggemann is exasperated that most American Christians do little more than “pay lip service to Palestinian suffering” and have yielded to a hard-nosed Zionist ideology that “reduces faith to idolatry.”

First, Brueggemann challenges Christian Zionists who invoke the Bible to justify their unconditional support for the State of Israel and who wittingly (or unwittingly) enshrine the unjust treatment of Palestinians. He notes that the contemporary state of Israel advocates for a biblical narrative (referred to in Ezra and Nehemiah) that is exclusionary, aiming at the purity of the land and Israelite society. Brueggemann maintains that this “Zionist perspective” has eclipsed a countervailing trajectory that welcomes the stranger and protects the vulnerable (as is noted in the biblical narratives of Jonah and Ruth). He seeks to discredit the ways in which the contemporary state of Israel and Christian Zionists appeal to “the land promise of the Bible to justify the geopolitical claims of Israel with particular reference to the scope of ‘Greater Israel.’”

Second, Brueggemann challenges “the form of romanticism of some liberals that compresses ancient Israel and the current state of Israel as though they were the same historical entity entitled to the same deference.” He calls out liberal Christians who refuse to confront abusive Israeli policies because they fear antagonizing their Jewish neighbors and being labeled “anti-Semitic.”

Many Christians may turn to Brueggemann’s guide to open up important questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their relations to the Jewish neighbors. Lamentably, this book fails to offer the resources to move this difficult and painful inquiry to a deeper level. Here are just five of the shortcomings that I believe subvert his educational project.

Brueggemann does not engage contemporary theological, historical or political scholarship in this volume. As a consequence, many of the most fundamental questions dangle without the intellectual moorings to grasp the larger context or to anchor the most pressing debates. For example, Brueggemann begins and concludes his book with an assessment that the two-state solution is dead. “For all of the pretense and obfuscation of Israel, it never intends to allow a viable Palestinian state, so two-state negotiations simply buy time for the development and expansion of the state of Israel.”

He provides no historical or political background to understand how this impasse was reached. To speak of Israel as though it is governed by monolithic motivations is nothing less than a regression into tired and polarizing polemics. If Brueggemann is going to dismiss the two-state solution that the U.S. and other governments have long advocated, he needs to place this conflict within the larger regional context and acknowledge the grim prospects of the alternatives. Padraig O’Malley reached similar conclusions in his recent volume “The Two-State Delusion;” in it he gives a thorough historical and political accounting that illuminates the blunders and missteps of both Israelis and Palestinians. In order to evaluate accurately the threats and promises for a peaceful resolution, it is imperative to consider factors that extend beyond and behind Israeli “intransigence.”

Brueggemann acknowledges “the biblical legacy is only a small ingredient in the contemporary debate,” and cautions readers to avoid “simplistic and reductionist readings of the situation.” Yet he repeatedly slips into the one-sided generalizations that he rightly condemns. For example, after noting interpretive patterns that sanction the exclusion of the other, he asserts “it is the same script being performed anew with every issue, and every time it is a difficult life-or-death issue.” The underlying assumption is that an “uncompromising” (if not “idolatrous”) interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures underwrites the “power politics” of the state of Israel. It is certainly a stretch to argue that the Bible provides the current playbook for “a military apparatus that is aimed at the elimination of the other.”

Brueggemann notes the tension between two biblical conceptions of the divine promise of land, but his argument seems one-sided. On one hand, the gift of land is portrayed as “unconditional,” and so remains a covenantal link that anchors the people Israel. On the other hand, the Bible speaks of the conditionality of this bequest and insists that Israel’s claims to the land are contingent on ethical conduct, especially the treatment of the most vulnerable. In his exposition of the “conditional” promise, Brueggemann reanimates an ancient anti-Jewish trope by suggesting that Israel’s latest abuses provide a warrant for divine punishment. This threat looms large and prompts readers to layer theological judgments on top of a political conflict. While Brueggemann decries “ideologues” who invoke the Bible to give legitimacy to the modern state of Israel, his indictment is an inversion of the same sin. He becomes one more exemplar of a religious partisan stoking the fires.

There is no way that people can grasp the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without a deeper understanding of the stakes that Jews, Christians and Muslims have in a land deemed holy by all three traditions. This book does not engage Jewish or Muslim thinkers or even bother to mine varied positions held by Palestinian Christians. As a result, this volume is yet another monologue and does not provide a foundation that will support any serious inter-religious conversation.

Brueggemann’s guide ends up reinforcing the parochialism of the church. Without ongoing encounters with a diverse range of views, readers are confined to a polemical echo chamber and are left ill-equipped to understand, much less adjudicate, competing scriptural, theological and political claims. The deficit is illustrated in his cursory treatment of Zionism and its relationship to Judaism. From its inception, Zionism has remained a contested and variegated movement, and the debates about its content and character provide indispensable access to Jewish sensibilities. If readers juxtapose the position of David Novak in his recent book “Zionism and Judaism” with the views of Judith Butler in “Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism,” they will quickly discover how much is missing from Brueggemann’s narrative.

Brueggemann delivers his foregone conclusions without the underpinnings of rigorous and balanced historical and political analysis. Yet the book’s study guide raises vital questions that demand sustained and systematic attention. His critique of tepid Christian liberals rings true. Christian communities are all too often willfully blind to the plight of Palestinians, and they have far too often avoided any unpleasantness with their Jewish neighbors by sidestepping difficult and probing conversations about Israeli policies. Perceptions of Muslims’ relationship to the Holy Land are filtered through an Islamophobic lens that brings only Hamas and Hezbollah into the picture.

At the Institute for Islamic, Christian & Jewish Studies, we have found that the vast majority of adult learners, including pastors and educators, are unaware of the wide range of positions within — as well as between — our religious communities. After extended study, participants and staff scholars have come to this conviction: Deeper understanding is only attained when people can accurately and fairly represent the views of those with whom they most passionately disagree. It is disappointing that the kind of careful historical and literary study that has characterized so much of Brueggemann’s Old Testament commentary is woefully lacking in this guide. Readers will need to turn elsewhere to acquire the knowledge and to develop the skills to fathom this impasse and to then respond constructively and creatively.

Christopher M. LeightonCHRISTOPHER M. LEIGHTON is the executive director of The Institute for Islamic, Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Maryland.