Opening The Old Testament
The Land's Dangerous Gift: Reflections on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
(I assume that the collectors of the lectionary reading left off all of the names of these various peoples due to a certain fear that tongue-tied readers might incur public embarrassment, stumbling helplessly over the ancient names.)
The fact is that we cannot in our time be certain just who some of these peoples are! The Kenites are apparently wandering tribes of metal workers, if 1 Samuel 15 serves as guide. The Hittites are a hugely important people, occupying for a millennium the high plateaus of what is contemporary Turkey and leaving behind significant writing, art, and technology. One of David's generals, the ill-fated Uriah (2 Sam. 11), was of Hittite descent, some 500 years after his ancestors' civilization ceased to exist. "Amorites" is a common designation for those who lived in the land of "Canaan" before the coming of the Israelites, and of course the Canaanites are a similarly designated group. The Jebusites lived in Jerusalem before David captured the city and made it his capital (2 Sam. 6). The other five names in the list are more obscure and the subject of scholarly speculation only.
The basic point of the list seems to be to make clear that all persons and groups who currently dwell in the land YHWH promises to Abram and his seed shall be removed from the land in favor of God's chosen ones. And the boundaries of that land are said to stretch from "the river of Egypt" (not the Nile, but apparently the wadi Arish, a stream that bifurcates the northern section of the Sinai peninsula) to "the great river, the river Euphrates," well known in the ancient and modern world as the southern border of many significant kingdoms, from Old and New Babylonian to the modern Iraq. These borders define the realm of David when it reached its greatest land mass during his 10th-century B.C.E. kingship.
And, tragically, it is this border that has lead modern day Israeli extreme nationalists to demand that no other peoples have any claim to that land "which God gave to Moses and Abram." When Israeli soldiers conclude their basic training for service in the military (all, men and women, save certain very orthodox Jews, must serve for a time), they are sometimes led down the mountain of Masada, King Herod's rocky summer palace, shouting "never again!" Never again will Jews be forced to suicide in the face of external power, as happened in the first century C.E. under the pressure of the Roman siege. Never again will Jews be forced to cede any of the land promised to Abram. Every square inch of the soil promised in Genesis 15 will be Israeli forever!
This literal and fundamental reading of Genesis 15 has contributed significantly to the impasse of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Israel continues to build settlements on land they claim as theirs, while Palestinians, many of whom have lived on the land far longer than the Israelis, lob rockets into Israel in a futile attempt to change Israeli policy. And therein lies the seemingly intransigent tragedy. Certainly, the current ways the problem is being addressed, or not addressed, have been rank failures.
The True Meaning of this Dangerous Gift
We Christians can be very grateful for the remarkable insights of Paul that remind us over and again that we cannot by ourselves work or act or buy our way into a relationship with our God. That God is the loving God, the gifting God, who calls the people to live together in justice and peace. However, the very literal reading of Genesis 15 has not lead to that outcome at all. But let us be very clear about what this does not imply. It does not say that all must become Pauline Christians if one is to live in peace. Not at all!
In the heart of Judaism, there lies the seed of a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors. In Genesis 12:2-3, when first Abram is called by YHWH, God's basic charge is: "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing; in you all the families of the earth will be blessed." Great nations are not defined by their GNP or the size of their armies or the power of their culture. Great nations are defined solely by the fact of their blessing of other nations. Literal readings of Genesis 15 must fall in the face of that initial call of YHWH.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.