Book Review: Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Walter Brueggemann

When I first learned that Walter Brueggemann had written a book opposing Zionism and contesting modern Israel’s claim to the land of Israel, I was worried. Brueggemann is an outstanding Christian scholar of the Old Testament and a highly credible voice. After I read the book, though, I was a bit relieved, because it’s really a rather light extended op-ed that evidences unfamiliarity with the whole topic of Israel and the Palestinians. Of course, Brueggemann’s well-deserved reputation will lend weight to the book, so let’s take a look at what it says.

Brueggemann opens with a declaration of “thanks for the founding of the state of Israel and the securing of a Jewish homeland.” But his enthusiasm for Israel has become overshadowed by Israel’s development of military power and its continued “administrative-military control of the Palestinian territories.” [1] He believes that these conditions demand a rethinking of the whole issue of modern Israel and its claim to the land.

Early on the book affirms, “In the Hebrew Bible, Israel is presented as God’s chosen people. It is a core declaration of the text and surely a continuing claim of Judaism. Indeed the Bible makes no sense with this claim.” [2] But prior to that, in his Acknowledgements, Brueggemann says his study has been informed by the work of Naim Ateek and Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem. Ateek denies the relevance not only of the promises to Israel concerning the land, but also of the “core declaration” of Israel as God’s chosen people:

In light of their universal fulfillment in Christ, the narrow Old Testament promises regarding the land take on a very transitory and provisional meaning. They are time bound and, in view of their completion in Christ, become theologically obsolete. . . .

There is plenty of Zionist material in the Old Testament where the land is exclusively claimed and the Jewish people are glorified and set above others, and where non-Jews are despised. The New Testament shatters this exclusivity at every turn.[3]

Brueggemann describes supersessionism or “replacement theology” as “a historical absurdity and a theological scandal,”[4] but doesn’t seem troubled by learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from such an overt supersessionist as Ateek.

One outcome of this influence is that Brueggemann repeatedly portrays a “Zionism” that doesn’t represent the historical reality of the movement as much as a straw man, pieced together and stuffed with some contemporary extreme expressions. So, for example, “the dominant Zionist appeal to land promises continues to hold intransigently to the exclusionary claim that all the land belongs to Israel and the unacceptable other must be excluded, either by law or by coercive violence. . . . And surely Israeli Zionists want Palestinians to go away.”[5]

Brueggemann targets the “dominant” form of Zionism or the Zionist policies of present-day Israel, but he doesn’t seem to be aware of a broader, historic vision of Zionism, which expressly desired to live at peace with its Arab neighbors, including those within the borders of Israel. In fact, the book doesn’t ever mention Arab Israelis, who enjoy rights and opportunities unheard of among other minorities in the Middle East, and among most Arabs in the Middle East even when they’re in the majority. This is not to deny the realities of discrimination and inequity in Israel, but that’s a far cry from the exclusionary violence that Brueggemann portrays as inherent to Zionism.

This distorted view of Zionism leads Brueggemann to describe the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber as “no friend of Zionism,” because he wrote that the goal of salvation history is “a true community of all men.”[6] When I read that, I thought, “Wait a minute! Wasn’t Buber one of the founders of Hebrew University, and didn’t he live in Jerusalem for many years?” And in fact, Buber was a Zionist who believed in the restoration of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Israel, and lived according to this belief, even though he had reservations about a modern, secular Jewish state in Eretz Israel. That’s one kind of Zionist. But Brueggemann has so focused on his straw-man Zionism that he largely ignores any other variety.

Another evidence of Brueggemann’s one-dimensional approach is the absence of references in his critique. For instance, he claims that the war of 1967 produced “a hardened Zionism that combined a desperate aspiration with an uncompromising ideology that supported the state of Israel and its security at all costs against all comers. As a result, the theological roots of the [land] claim were skillfully allied with Israel’s immense and growing military power and with the great degree of international empathy for Israel in the wake of the Shoah.”[7] Now, I’ll admit that the phrase “a hardened Zionism” does imply that there might have been a softer version, like the one Buber espoused. So Brueggemann hints at something beyond his straw man, but his critique here is pretty wild. One would appreciate at least a couple of citations to back up his claims, not to mention some reference to the intransigence of Israel’s Arab enemies with their infamous three Nos after the 1967 defeat: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel.[8] As a Bible scholar, Brueggemann is attuned to context and nuance, but as a political critic he seems superficial.

In reading Chosen?, I felt a bit like I do when I listen to an actor or some other celebrity comment on political affairs. I might respect the actor and even recognize her genius on screen—and still find her (or him) not entitled to pontificate on politics. I respect and admire Brueggemann the Bible scholar, but he doesn’t seem to know that much about modern Israel or the history of Zionism. He provides a sharp critique of supersessionism but seems unaware of the radical supersessionism of  his ideological allies, or of the impact of supersessionism on Christian anti-Zionism.

In Judaism we don’t like to end our texts on a negative note, and besides, I like Brueggemann, so I’ll acknowledge a couple of positive points of the book.

First, he’s right to caution against an ideological, non-critical stance toward Israel. For me the watershed issue is whether one explicitly acknowledges the legitimacy of the current, Jewish state of Israel, warts and all. If you do, you can certainly oppose specifics of Israeli policy, wish Netanyahu had lost the last election, advocate for the rights of religious minorities (like Messianic Jews) in Israel (even though these rights are better in Israel than almost anywhere else), etc. One of the glories of Israel is that you can openly kvetch about such things there, and you should be able to do so here in the USA as well.

Second, Brueggeman makes the important point that “The land is given to Israel unconditionally, but it is held by Israel conditionally.”[9] I’ve made the same point with the alliteration Promise and Possession. The land promise to Israel is unconditional and unbreakable, but Israel’s possession of the land depends on obedience to God’s instructions. Brueggemann sees Deuteronomy 28, with its “long recital of blessings and curses” as the “capstone” of the statement of conditions for possessing the land. I’d add, however, that the real capstone comes in Deuteronomy 30:1-10, which foretells exiled Israel’s return to God and God’s return to Israel. In contrast with Brueggemann and harsher anti-Zionists like Naim Ateek, I believe this promised return remains relevant today, and is a vital factor in the restoration of Israel to the land, which is preparatory to a greater restoration to come.

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann. Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press,2015) ix-x.

[2] Ibid. 15.

[3] Naim Ateek, “The Earth is the Lord’s: Land, Theology, and the Bible,” in The Land Cries Out, edited by Salim J Munayer and Lisa Loden (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012) 178, 179.

[4] Chosen? 19.

[5] Ibid. 7, 12.

[6] Ibid. 37, citing Martin Buber, On the Bible: Eighteen Studies (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 29.

[7] Ibid. 49.

[8] http://www.cfr.org/world/khartoum-resolution/p14841?breadcrumb=%2Fpublication%2Fpublication_list%3Ftype%3Dessential_document%26page%3D69, accessed 1/23/16. This is the website for Council on Foreign Relations.

[9] Ibid. 29.

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1 thought on “Book Review: Chosen? Reading the Bible amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Walter Brueggemann”

  1. Hi Russ,

    I hope Mr. Brueggemann reads and takes to heart your thoughtful review. There is enough damage being done to Israel’s reputation without his help. By the way, you raised one of my pet-peeves: writers who make assertions without citing sources. Thank you for dissecting Bruggemann’s book for us.

    Blessings in Yeshua,

    Pat

    >

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