Cleaning Up Another Apocalyptic Mess: Israel and the Palestinians

As one Rapture-related mess is being cleaned up, we should not forget another that great minds and national leaders are still struggling with: the tensions in the Middle East and in particular the plight of the Palestinians.

Most readers have probably heard or read President Obama’s speech, as well as Israeli and Palestinian responses to it, and are thus aware of renewed efforts to bring about a settlement to longstanding issues, and hurdles and challenges that may continue to get in the way of peace and justice.

But how is this a “Rapture-related” mess?

The modern state of Israel owes its existence at least in part to the decision of Lord Balfour to grant a homeland to the Jews from the British colonial holdings in that region. Balfour was among those who, like the Rapture-oriented Christians in the United States, believed that Israel would need to be restored in order for other end-times events to occur.

For the record, the basis for this belief is the desire to have the things described in Revelation and other parts of the Bible refer to things in our present and future rather than in the time of and near future of the author and earliest readers of these works. And so the belief emerged that Israel has to become a nation again, the temple rebuilt, and the Roman Empire reconstituted, simply to have the references to those institutions in certain Biblical passages still be in the future – whereas it is much simpler, and more faithful to what these Biblical texts say, to take them as referring to the situation of Christians as it really existed in the first century.

Be that as it may, Lord Balfour believed these things had to happen because the Bible supposedly said so, and he made them happen. And so his interpretation of Scripture can be compared to that of Harold Camping, inasmuch as both are problematic even when considered abstractly, and both have left those who came after with a mess to deal with.

The key to viewing the situation in Israel in a well-informed manner involves recognizing the wider application of something that is often said in reference to the Palestinians by supporters of Israel. It is often emphasized that there was no nation “Palestine” historically. This is true. (The term “Palestine” comes from one geographic designation for the region, used at least since the time of the Greek historian Herodotus) It is also true that there was no nation Israel in the modern sense that we refer to nation states until the middle of the 20th century, either. Prior to very recently, there were simply no nation-states in the modern sense at all, but rather territories, kingdoms and empires.

Historically, there has been, at times, a united kingdom of Israel ruled over by a Jewish king. Throughout most of the history of Israel, however, “Israel” was a designation of the Northern kingdom in distinction from the Southern kingdom Judah ruled by the Davidic line. And throughout most of the history of both of those kingdoms, as well as of the region more generally, the kingdoms and territories in question were vassals of larger empires that controlled the region: Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Arabs, the Ottomans, and the British – to name the most famous ones. During most of the Biblical period, as during most of history, Israel was not a united or an independent kingdom, much less an autonomous nation in the sense in which we use that term today.

The creation of nations in the Middle East is a relatively recent phenomenon.

When the United States emerged from the colonial era a longer time ago, it fought wars externally and internally and struggled with its identity and the rights of its citizens. It is all too easy, when one has had a longer time to work through that process, to wonder why it seems to be taking so long for others to do the same, forgetting that for them the legacy of colonial rule ended much more recently.

Those who know the above might be forgiven for feeling that the Bible (or at least, people willing to selectively quote it for particular ends have) has done more harm than good to the situation. But those whose faith includes a central place for the Bible are not doomed to be uncritical Zionists.

The covenant that some say justifies Israel possessing the land without conditions in fact demands certain things of the people, and threatens them with defeat and exile if they do not observe the covenant stipulations. And among those covenant stipulations one finds the following:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt…Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt…When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them…You are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born (Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:33; 24:22).

The choice is not between being “Biblical” or treating Israel like any other secular democratic nation with human rights issues. The choice is between the profoundly unbiblical, selective use of Scripture by conservative Christian supporters of Israel, a purely secular approach, and an approach that encourages Israel to be true to its religious heritage and its laws regarding the treatment of aliens and foreigners, as indicated for instance in the quotations above.

The territory of Israel has always been multicultural, as far back as archaeology can trace. Different ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups being found there is not something new. And those who think the Bible is important will presumably think that so too is the treatment of minorities, and of everyone, in the region in a manner that is just and fair rather than oppressive.

Obviously there is more that could be said, and some may feel that I have not done justice to the question of who in fact ought to be considered the earlier inhabitants, and who ought to be considered the foreigners and aliens. But my point is precisely to avoid playing that game. Most of us today live on land that at least some of our ancestors did not reside on if you go back millennia. The question of who was here first can almost always be answered with “somebody else” no matter who asks it. And so my point here has been to focus on the resources within the Bible that can be utilized to advocate justice, in a region where some have made use of the Bible for precisely the opposite purpose.


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