Chosen? Reading the Bible in the context of Israel-Palestine

ChosenThis evening I settled down to read this short book, really more of an essay, by the esteemed biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann.

Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Louisville, KJ: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015
ISBN 9780664261542

The endorsements and excerpts promised a thought-provoking new reading of the Bible in light of the conflict around the creation of Israel on land taken from the Palestinians in 1948 and then extended with the annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights after 1967, not to mention the persistent occupation of the West Bank and the ongoing siege of Gaza. Perhaps this would be not only a re-reading of the Bible in the light of that conflict, but also a ‘re-reading’ of the conflict in light of the Bible.

As a leading scholar of the Hebrew Bible, more or less the same as the ‘Old Testament’ in many Christian Bibles, I anticipated Brueggemann would draw on his deep knowledge of those texts sacred to Jews and Christians to offer a critique of concepts such as covenant, chosenness, and the gift of the land. In many respects this is exactly what Brueggemann does, and he does it in classical Brueggemann style.

The book itself turns out to be a set of group study materials, with four short essays followed by a brief transcript of a Q&A session, and then a suggested format for a series of group discussions centred on the material in the essays.

The first two essays and discussion sessions address questions around how we might best read the Bible in the context of this particular conflict, centred as it is in the lands that are ‘ground zero’ for the Bible, and given the self-serving interpretations of the Bible by some Jews and their Christian Zionist allies. Brueggemann correctly highlights the diversity within the Bible itself over the nature of ancient Israel’s relationship to Palestine, and he makes much of the conditional aspect of that relationship. He repeatedly observes that the enjoyment of the land was conditional, and evidently ‘losable’ (his term).

Brueggemann also offers a perceptive analysis of the problem of ‘the other’ when the blessing of chosenness is understood in exclusive terms. The ‘other’ may be a Canaanite, or a Gentile from outside the land, or a slave, or a woman, or someone from another ethnicity, or with a different sexual orientation, or a Palestinian. While we may be tempted to define our chosenness in ways that exclude others and protect our privileged access to divine blessing, the best theological instincts of Jews and Christians over the past 3,000 years have called us to enlarge the definition of chosenness to include all of humanity, and indeed all of creation.

The third essay, along with its companion discussion session, deals with the theme of the land, and especially the idea that this land was given to the Jews by God for their exclusive enjoyment for all time. Brueggemann pursues three major themes in this discussion. First of all, he notes the conditional aspect of the covenant in Deuteronomy, reflecting a time when ancient Judah was already in exile or facing the grim prospect of exile. He also notes that classical Judaism has been developed and mostly practised outside the land, suggesting that occupation of the biblical lands is not central to the covenant traditions at the heart of Judaism. Finally, he challenges any suggestion that the modern nation state of Israel is connected with the biblical societies of ancient Israel and Judah.

While these points are well made and well taken, I was disappointed to see how even Brueggemann continues to reinscribe the traditional and literalistic readings of the Old Testament through his references to Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, etc. His case would have been strengthened by a more direct description of current biblical scholarship on the literary—and non-historical—character of these traditions. I believe he was selling himself and his readers short at this point.

Finally, Brueggemann considers Zionism and the creation of ‘Israel’ as a modern nation state following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the intervention of Christian Zionists with positions of influence in the British Government at the time. While not repeated in this chapter or its discussion notes, Brueggemann makes it clear in the Introduction that his own views on Israel have changed, and that he has revised his previously published views on the theological significance of the land for Judaism. This change has been partly driven by the emergence of Israel as a major military power, and partly due to the abuse of the civil and human rights of the Palestinians by Israel. In light of his own change of heart on these matters, Brueggemann urges both Evangelical and liberal Christians to rethink their own views towards Israel and Palestine, and not simply to stay with previously formulated viewpoints.

This is well-informed and compassionate set of essays, with helpful suggestions for group discussion. No doubt many readers and discussion participants will then want to read the revised edition of Brueggemann’s earlier book, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Overtures to Biblical Theology, 2002).

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Seeking Holy Wisdom

A sermon preached in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at St Francis Theological College, Brisbane on Friday, 4 September 2015.


I especially appreciate the opportunity to preside and preach at this service today. My last regular service was Thursday, 6 August, when we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration—and reflected on the anniversary of the first nuclear bomb. Thankfully there have only been two such nuclear attacks, and we pray that number will never grow.

It was a poignant day for me to preside, but most of the people present were not aware of its significance as my final rostered liturgy in this chapel.

My first service in this chapel was 40 years ago. During the commencement service for the 1975 academic year, I was received into Anglican Church and confirmed by Archbishop Felix Arnott. It happened right here on the same step where I now stand to preach.

Things were a tad more hierarchical then. Despite my lack of familiarity with Anglican liturgies, as a first year student I was assigned to the front row. Behind us first year students sat the second year students, and behind them the (very few) third year students. The Principal had assured me that I would be placed further back in the chapel, but the Sacristan (who ruled the chapel) had other ideas. So there I was in the front row, just here, but with no idea when to kneel, sit or cross myself.

We said Compline every week night at around 9.30pm, even on Fridays. Indeed we had guest preachers at Friday Compline. On special days we sang the service. We used some very old service cards. Some months passed before I found they were folded, and that there were actually two inner pages which I had been missing. No wonder there seemed to be a gap in the service!

I survived, even thrived. In fact, most of my adult life has been connected to this College and to this chapel. SFC has been for me a lifelong community of formation. A community of formation. Shaping holy lives.

A community of formation

A ‘community of formation’ is one way to think about the OT covenant community. Ancient Israel is often imagined as a tribal/national society commissioned by God to conquer and control, to expel the natives of the land, and to claim other people’s land as God’s gift to Israel. But I wonder whether it was perhaps intended as a community of formation? An experiment in holy living?

That seems to have been what Micah had in mind with his classic prophetic speech:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you but
to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8 NRSV)

A community of formation also seems a good way to imagine the disciples gathered around Jesus, just as we see in today’s Gospel reading. They were not attending a church growth seminar. They were being drawn into a new way of seeing God, and themselves, and others. It even seems that they sensed a different formation agenda when gathered around Jesus than the formation program followed in the Baptist’s circle.

Being a community of formation is certainly one of the hallmarks of SFC. Yes, we are an academic community. We strive for good scholarship and pursue research relevant to the needs of the church and the wider community. But first of all we are a community of formation.

This is not limited to those who are candidates for Holy Orders. We are also a community of formation for disciples and ministers, for learners and teachers. All of us are people in formation.

In its better moments—and sometimes in its worst moments—this place can be (and often is) a community of formation.

The quest for holy wisdom

The quest for holy wisdom lies at the heart of this community of formation. Wisdom is so far more important than information, and much more necessary than methodology. It is better even than correct citations!

Holy Wisdom, Sacred Sophia, is both the destination and the journey. Wisdom is not a formula to be mastered and learned by rote. Wisdom is not something to be practised repeatedly until we acquire the skills. Wisdom is evasive and subtle and unpredictable. Whereas we are often all too predictable.

Today’s Gospel makes that delightfully clear.

Metaphor is piled upon metaphor:

  • the friends of the groom are in party mode (but it will not last)
  • new patches on old cloths do not last
  • new wine in old wineskins explode the containers
  • old wine is always better than new wine
  • and the old is always better than the new (really?)

No neat package of answers is offered by Jesus. Rather, the disciples are given a set of puzzles. These seem designed to tease us into the quest, rather than fast-tracking us to the destination.

To be a community of formation is:

  • to embrace the questions
  • to live faithfully with uncertainty, even with doubt
  • to care for one another
  • to be drawn into God’s mission in the world, and often outside the church

Yes, the followers of John may have had a great program, but wisdom’s children will focus on Jesus, Sophia’s child. As followers of Jesus we can get by without the answers to life’s questions, and flourish in a world—and a church—where answers seem rare, and certainty even more so. But we cannot get far without holy Wisdom.


Wisdom has set a table, and she calls us to the feast.

Here is one ancient description of that sacred wisdom to be found at heart of our tradition:

There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God, and prophets; for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom. She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against wisdom evil does not prevail. She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and she orders all things well.
(Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-8:1 NRSV)

That may all sound a bit like the first reading? I certainly hope it does!

For us, Jesus is the child of Sophia, the Wisdom of God in human form.

For us, the task of formation is to become more like Jesus, more like God in human form, so that others may recognise us as children of wisdom herself.

For us, this college is a place where the quest for holy Wisdom is the main agenda, indeed the only assignment that matters in the End.

©2015 Gregory C. Jenks
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Three Days with Paul in Northern Greece


Over three successive mornings this week, it will be my privilege to lead the Anglican clergy from the Province of Queensland in a series of Bible studies during our clergy conference on the Gold Coast.

Rather than select texts with some perceived relevance to the conference theme (“Leading your church into growth”), the Bible studies will simply focus on the readings from Acts that are set in the lectionary cycle for those mornings:

  • Acts 16:11–24
  • Acts 16:25–40
  • Acts 17:1–14

When read within the context of this clergy conference, these lectionary texts invite us to reflect on the significance of Paul’s missionary activities in ancient Greece for us today. As a leader within the emerging Jesus movement in the first generation after Easter, Paul was instrumental in the Gospel finding fresh expressions in new contexts. As we explore these excerpts from Acts 16 and 17 we shall be open to hear what the Spirit might be saying to the church in our time and in our place.

The full text of the three sessions is now available online.

  1. The world behind the Acts of the Apostles (Tuesday morning)

In this first session we note the historical setting of Luke-Acts, and selected key issues shaping the outlook of both the author and his first readers. This will include a date for Acts well into the parting of the ways with Judaism, and a time by which Paul has been embraced as a major interpreter of Jesus. It is also a world of empire, and one aspect of Luke’s agenda seems to be to assist his readers in finding ways to live faithfully in a world system that mostly ignores Christians, but finds little reason to respect them when they come to the attention of the authorities.


2. The world within the Acts of the Apostles (Wednesday morning)

What kind of Paul does Luke offer us in the Acts of the Apostles? What kind of Christianity does he invite us to embrace? What kind of ministry does he promote? How does that resonate with or challenge our assumptions about church life, ministry, and mission? And in what ways does any of this connect with our context?


3. The world in which we read the Acts of the Apostles (Thursday morning)

What kind of a Bible do we desire to have? Do we have a book of answers, or a compendium of practical mission strategies? Or do we have something much less tailored to our natural desires, and yet perhaps far more relevant to the challenges we face as the people of Christ in the twenty-first century? How central is the Bible to our mission and character?

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St George’s College Jerusalem

The Most Reverend Suheil Dawani, Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem and Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East, has announced the appointment of the Reverend Dr Gregory Jenks as Dean of St George’s College in Jerusalem.


St George’s College, Jerusalem is an Anglican community of education, hospitality, pilgrimage, and reconciliation. The College offers continuing education courses to students from around the world, as well as providing professional development resources for Anglican clergy in the Middle East. Dr Jenks comes to the role of Dean at St George’s College after serving as Academic Dean of St Francis Theological College in Brisbane since 2007. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University.

During his time as Academic Dean at SFC, Dr Jenks has been especially responsible for academic administration relating to courses offered at the College. He led the development of an active research culture with the College, including membership of the Consortium for the Bethsaida Excavations Project in Israel where he serves as its Coin Curator.

Dr Jenks will take up his new role, which also includes an appointment as a Canon of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, later this year. His final service at St Francis Theological College is expected to be the Valedictory Eucharist on Sunday, November 1.

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Burial or Cremation in Christian Funerary Rites

Recently I was asked for my opinion on the question of burial or cremation as the more appropriate process for Christians to dispose of the physical remains of our departed.

The question came out of left field as I am not someone who spends a lot of time reflecting on death and addressing my own mortality. It is a given that I am indeed a mortal and that death will be an unavoidable experience sooner or later.

Here is the question:

What is the Anglican Churches position on burial. Should Christians be buried in a cemetery or is cremation of the body ok? My friends who are Catholic Church members are positive that burial is the proper manner. They believe in the resurrection of the actual body. I was just wondering what is your theological position on burial? For example, if one of your parishioners came to you and asked for your advice, what would you tell them?

My response to this question was as follows:

I do not think it makes the slightest difference how one’s remains are disposed of after death.

There is a very simple logic at work in all this.

If someone dies after being attacked and eaten by a wild animal, or in a fire, or is lost at sea (or in outer space), there is no option for either burial or cremation. Our theology of death and resurrection has to be flexible enough to accommodate such realities. In any case, “resurrection of the body” does not mean that a deceased person gets back the same body that they once had. Knowing what we now know about human cell cycles and what we anticipate to be the realities of any afterlife (e.g., no digestive system, no body waste, no sexual activity) then our whole concept of resurrection body needs a total makeover.

The point of 1 Corinthians 15, as I understand it, is that there is some kind of continuity between the body before death and the body after resurrection; but there is also radical change. There is no requirement for physical and chemical continuity between one body and the next body, otherwise those who die without prospect of burial or cremation would be without hope of resurrection. Such an idea would not — in my opinion — be a Christian concept of life after death. Rather, Paul talks about a spiritual body that is from above, and quite different from the physical body from “below”.

I am not sure if these opinions help in any way with the questions you are considering, but it is quite clear that both the Anglican Church and the Roman Church accept cremation as a perfectly acceptable way to dispose of the remains of the deceased person. Some people may prefer one option or another, but those are personal preferences and cultural traits. They are not matters of deep theological significance, and my own pastoral response would be to ascertain the preferences of the deceased and those of the immediate family. Nothing else matters really. (In my view.)

For those may like to think further about the interpretation of Paul’s resurrection tex in 1 Corinthians 15, there is an extended discussion in my Jesus Then and Jesus Now, pp. 135–39.

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A boundary crossing God


A sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany (25 January 2015) at St Luke’s Anglican Church, Haifa


As always it is good to be here with you, and I appreciate the privilege of giving the sermon for our liturgy this morning.

As always we open our hearts to receive the portion of Scripture assigned for this week by the church. It is not always easy to understand the logic of the lectionary editors, but it is a valuable spiritual discipline to accept the set readings so that we pay attention to a wider array of texts than may be the case if the priest simply chose the passages that appealed to him.

As always, as we come to the table of the Word, we are seeking to discern what the Spirit might be saying to the church, here today, here in this place, here in these words.

Our Gospel today comprised two brief stories. One concerned the healing of a leper. The other involved the healing of a centurion’s servant. What has that got to do with us? And what might the Spirit be seeking to say to us through these stories?


We can be sure that the point of these stories is not to offer us health advice. We are not intended to glean information about dealing with skin complaints, or expect a miracle cure every time we feel unwell. Just as the parable of the sower is not designed to teach farming techniques, these stories are not intended to influence how we seek medical help when we need it.

Rather, the stories are celebrating the healing power of God that we experience in and through Jesus, and that is an important theme in these weeks of Epiphany. We can expect to encounter the God who reveals himself in all kinds of everyday situations, and we can expect that God to transform and heal our lives.

Most of all, of course, these stories are about the significance of Jesus for us. As Christians, Jesus is our supreme epiphany or revelation of God. He not only shows us what God is like, but also what we can be like. He reveals God to us, and also reveals ourselves to us.


That epiphany process will most likely happen in the everyday events of daily life, so that gets me thinking about context. Who we are, where we are, what we are, who we are with, and what opportunities are before us????

You will have noticed, I expect, that these are local stories. Maybe this is so routine for you that you do not even notice it all that often. But these are stories about places not far from here. They are set near the lake in Galilee. We could be there in less than an hour!

You are blessed to live in this land, even if living here is not always easy. When you look around the hills, and the valleys, and the lake, and the ocean – you are looking at the same sights that Jesus once viewed. A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same.

As a visitor – even one who comes here often – I find myself asking if Jesus is any more present here than in my own country on the other side of the world? On this Australia Day weekend that is a question that comes to mind for me. Jesus has never walked the hills of my ancient land, but for sure he is no stranger there.

Where ever we are in the world, Jesus calls us to follow him, to be instruments of his grace, and to be agents of God’s kingdom in that place, at this time, and among those people.


So let’s go back to the stories from today’s Gospel and see if we can discern anything the Spirit of Jesus might be seeking to say to us.

When I do that, I notice something about these two stories. They both involve Jesus crossing very clear social boundaries in his own culture and among his own people.

The first story involves a leper. We are not quite sure what illness such a person had, but the consequence of their skin infection was that they were outcasts. It was understood that the infection could go away and the person could be given the OK to return to everyday life in the village. But until they had been checked by the priest, no one one was to go near them. Jesus crossed the boundaries. He accepted the person back into everyday life and then sent him to the priest to get the paperwork completed!

The second story also involves crossing pretty clear social boundaries. An army commander comes to Jesus and asks for his help as his servant is unwell. He may not have been a Roman centurion, as they were not based in Galilee at the time. But he could have been a Greek commander in the army of Herod Antipas. The same Antipas who had killed John the Baptist and had his men looking for Jesus. We often think of this story as being about the trust that the centurion had in Jesus, but it may also be a story about Jesus having great trust in this centurion not to arrest him!


One of the things that Jesus reveals about God this Epiphany is that our God crosses the boundaries that we like to enforce. God escapes our labels and our definitions.

Another of the things that Jesus reveals about us this Epiphany is that God expects us also to be people who cross the boundaries, and act out of compassion. We are not to stay back behind the lines. We are not to worry what people will think about us. We are not to be afraid to take risks with people who we can barely trust.

Imagine if we actually lived like that.

What a different kind of place the world would be!

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The final lectionary notes


The lectionary notes just published for the Feast of Christ the King (23 November 2014) will be the last of my regular weekly lectionary posts.

I have been preparing and distributing these notes since 2002, so it seems time to conclude this weekly task and focus my energies on other projects.

The complete set of archived notes will continue to be accessible on the Jesus Database web site.

Thank you for the privilege of sharing these reflections with you over the past 12 years. No doubt I shall still post the occasional comment on the Sunday readings, as well as other topical matters, but the regular weekly posts have now ended.

Gregory C. Jenks

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