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 Christopher Leighton’s review.

Read Walter Brueggemann’s response.

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

With great respect and deep appreciation for the work of Walter Brueggemann, theologian and biblical scholar, I respond to his recent work as an activist, a person of faith and a pragmatic realist. “Chosen? Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” is work of love and biblical scholarship.

Love of humankind is reflected by Brueggemann’s challenge to the reader to respond to some of the most critical questions of our times, questions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Who is our neighbor? What is our responsibility, especially as people of faith, to the people in Israel and in the occupied territories?

Simply put, Brueggemann lays out an aria that includes the theme of our faith and the staff lines upon which to build the reader’s own score on the two questions posed above; these provide the bass line for all of us who are concerned about the issue. He doesn’t resolve the melody, but he provides the rhythm and the structure for developing our own response to the call for harmony of land and its people. He posits that the issue is about land, security and human rights.

In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” Robert Persig referred to the idea of “stuckness” around an issue. In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the idea of “chosenness” leaves us stuck because it stymies our ability to bring about a just and peaceful solution. In his novel, Persig invented a fictitious course called Gumptionology 101 to assist students to become “unstuck,” for that is where the learning occurs. It is a study of persistence through the issue, not around it. In this case, Brueggemann calls upon the church to question long-held assumptions and viewpoints that need to be challenged in order to become “unstuck” from history’s hold on what “truth” really is. What is needed here is the will to change.

Biblical scholarship aids us in examining the roots of the struggle — the chosen and the unchosen, the conditionality of the promises, the degree of inclusiveness of the chosen and life either in the tradition of the tribe or in the building of community. In such a disciplined study, there are few answers and many more questions than when the reader began. As the author says up front, there are as many solutions as there are priorities based upon one’s values, vested interests and the hopes and fears of the beholder. We can find support for any of our positions in the questions of who is our neighbor and what might our responsibilities be, and those viewpoints can change over time as new situations arise that challenge those viewpoints. He notes that with the rise of Israel’s military force, its capacity to deliver nuclear warheads and the increasingly restrictive policy towards the human rights and dignity of the Palestinians, his own views have changed. He says that unless the rights of the Palestinians are respected, nothing will change in the region.

Brueggemann says that God’s promise to the Israelites as the chosen and as the people of the land since the ancient days of Abraham is reiterated in Genesis and again to the people of the Exodus. In Deuteronomy and in the prophets, the land is held conditionally based upon their faithfulness to the commands of the Torah and devotion to the Ten Commandments; its claim was that it was losable. It is also possible that it is both unconditional but held conditionally, he says.

In light of the multiplicity of authors and traditions of one Bible, the historical reality is that the land was indeed “losable” as seen in the exilic period; however, Brueggemann also says that the return from exile gave credence, for some, to God’s original promise. Ezra further compounds the identity issue to offer the “holy seed” as a description of the community where exclusion of foreigners was a way of maintaining the purity of the land and the Israelite society (Ezra 9:1-4). As the land of Israel emerges again, and then divides under David’s rule into the north and the south, the status becomes complicated and more diffuse.

The author says the Bible is ambiguous about “the other,” and as is the case with other elements of chosenness, there are multiple sources to choose from, including exclusion and invitation. From Brueggemann’s perspective, though, the (political) Zionist policies of exclusivism continue to claim that all the land belongs to the State of Israel and will be claimed either through legal means or by aggressive acts of annexation.

While I find in Brueggemann’s book a range of biblical sources from which to ponder and provoke thinking, and while I read that he has altered his own positions in a dynamically changing arena, I don’t find the specific words that suggest that ending the occupation is the place to begin. He does clearly say that unless Palestinians are provided the opportunity for human rights and dignity that they deserve, there will be no resolution of the conflict/struggle; it is all about their attempts to attain control over their lives, after all.

I wish there had been more discussion on what it means to love your neighbor and where forgiveness plays a role in the overall conflict/struggle. Perhaps the author leaves it to us, the readers, to further define these concepts through the use of the discussion guide provided at the end of the book. He does make it clear that any “straight line reading of the ancient text to contemporary issues is sure to be suspect.”

If I were to take part in a discussion based on Brueggemann’s guide, I would share my personal journeys to the region over the last nine years. Loving your neighbor and seeking and giving forgiveness are major parts of a peace project called Tent of Nations with which I have become deeply involved. Tent of Nations was founded in 2001 on a 100-acre farm located a few miles southwest of Bethlehem in the West Bank. The Nassar family has owned the land for nearly 100 years, and they are still struggling to have it re-registered in their name through the Israeli courts. Even though this has been a physical, psychological and financial drain on the family, they still live by the philosophy of “we refuse to be enemies.”

I share the following story from Daoud Nassar and let readers draw their own conclusions about what it means to love and forgive:

“A few years ago, after working on the farm late into the evening, my children, mother and I were returning home to Bethlehem on a cold, windy night in our 1972 Volkswagen bus. As we slowly bumped along the road, leading from the barrier installed by the IDF in 2004 near our farm, suddenly Israeli commandos sprung out of nowhere in combat gear with full metal jackets, hidden faces and automatic weapons. The officer of the patrol shouted an order for me to get out of the car and to hand over my Palestinian ID. I could see the laser beams reflected on my chest and felt the terror of the moment. After several pointed questions, the young officer told us to empty the vehicle so that they might search the car.

“I explained that my children were asleep and that they would be traumatized at seeing the guns pointed at them. The officer shouted more loudly for my family to get out of the car and to do so urgently.

“As I bent through the car door windows, I spoke to my children in English so that the soldiers could hear what I was saying to them. I don’t know why these words came to me, but the conversation was a game changer for what happened next. I said, ‘You will wake up and see soldiers with guns. You shouldn’t be frightened because they are good people.’

“A few minutes later, the officer called me over to return my ID and said, ‘Sir, I feel we need to apologize to you and your family, for what we did was not right.’”

Such encounters are not uncommon; neither side goes away unchanged. These kinds of situations can connect one another as human beings, showing the goodness of both sides, and they have the power to move people to new spaces through love and forgiveness. The key is to be open to the opportunities provided and change our points of view accordingly. Opportunities to re-learn what it means to love your neighbor are steps in the right direction, rooted in both the Old and New Testaments.

William PlittBILL PLITT is a ruling elder at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia, and former vice moderator of the PC(USA) Israel Palestine Mission Network. He is the executive director and co-founder of Friends of Tent of Nations North America. He is the vice moderator (elect) for National Capital Presbytery.