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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  1. Greg, thanks for this. I just read it last week myself. Glad to see Brueggeman speaking out from a changed position. Can you give me suggestions of the new scholarship on the literary and non historical character of the OT traditions? Thanks

    1. Gregory C. Jenks – Executive Director, Centre for Coins Culture and Religious History at St John's Cathedral, Brisbane. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the CCCRH Foundation nor the Cathedral.
      gregoryjenks says:

      Hi Patricia. The irony is that Brueggemann’s own work, such as his monumental volume on OT Introduction do just that. See: An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.
      For a shorter overview, see the early chapters in one of my own books, The Once and Future Bible (2011). The recent major studies would include titles by Phillip Davies, Israel Finkelstein, Niels Lemche, and Thomas L. Thompson.
      Two key titles to read would be (1) Liverani, Mario. Israel’s History and the History of Israel. London: Equinox, 2006 and (2) Silberman, Neil Asher, and Israel Finkelstein. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts New York, NY: Free Press, 2002.
      While there is still some skirmishing around the historicity of David in 10C, few (if any) OT scholars now defend the historicity of the patriarchs, exodus, Moses, or the conquest under Joshua. These are usually seen as later (exilic / Hellenistic) narratives to create a story of origins for the small Temple state centered on Jerusalem. The biblical texts do not record God’s offer of a covenant, etc; but they create a tradition to serve their own political needs at some point on the Persian era, and we have taken it all so literally. With tragic results in so many cases.
      In my view Brueggemann could have been much more forthright in his treatment of the biblical traditions. Of course, fewer people might have then bought his book, and the impact of work would have been less. All things considered. I still think he went soft on the historicity issues, when they could have served his purposes so well.

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