Whose Land? Whose Promise?

‘The nation and kingdom that will not serve you [i.e. Israel] shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste’ (Isaiah 60:12).

With texts such as these many evangelical Christians justify an unquestioning support for the state of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians with whom it shares the Holy Land. Gary Burge, a respected evangelical New Testament scholar in the US, challenges this approach in his passionate and compassionate book.

For many of us, part of the difficulty in forming a Christian view about what we see of the Middle East on our TV screens is that we don’t understand the underlying history – we came in half way through the story and can never quite get to grips with it. So Burge shows first how the geography of the Land affects the present situation, and how the history of the last two hundred years has brought it to its present volatile state. Western powers, with their habit of making mutually exclusive promises to Arabs and Jews, come out of the story with little credit.

The major part of the book focuses on the place of the Land in the Old and New Testaments. Did God promise the Land to the Jews? Yes, but not exclusively to them. And it was a gift tied up with his covenant with Israel: if they would not keep covenant by living in obedience to him they would lose the Land. There is no guarantee of a Jewish homeland to those who ignore the prophetic demand for justice towards the poor and the stranger. And in the New Testament Jesus and the apostles refuse to endorse their fellow-Jews’ emphasis on land. Jesus himself becomes the focus of faith and life. So, even though there are Jews who attach huge importance to God’s original promise of the Land to Abraham, Christians who adopt a similar perspective are locked into an Old Testament faith, as though the New Testament had never been written.

Burge argues his case readably and thoroughly, and with many stories based on his own familiarity with Israel and the occupied territories and his friendship with many Jews and Palestinians. The most hopeful part of the book is the chapter in which he tells the stories of several courageous Palestinian Christians who, against enormous odds, are helping their people face suffering and building bridges with their Jewish and Muslim neighbours.

This is a ‘must read’ for all who want to understand the present conflict and to reach some conclusions about why one way of interpreting the Bible on this matter is more true than another.