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.