Yesterday President Trump announced that the United States will definitely be opening an embassy in Jerusalem. This action is sure to arouse protest among Muslim Palestinians who claim that city as sacred to them too. They fear that this action may lend an air of legitimacy to the claim that Jerusalem belongs to Israel since God gave the land exclusively to the Hebrew people. Several years ago I preached to a Christian congregation that theologically this “Zionist” argument is morally suspect. Various scriptures revered by Jews and Christians do indeed support the claim that modern Israel has valid rights to present real estate. But these texts, I argue, must be disputed, according to other revered texts. Read on in my sermon, “Everywhere Lies Holy Ground”.
Everywhere Lies Holy Ground
Preached at Hanover Street Presbyterian Church
On August 24, 2003
By the Rev. Thomas C. Davis, Ph.D.
Deuteronomy 7: 1-6
When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you–the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amonites, the Canaanites, the Perizites, the Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you–and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. The the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he would destroy you with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
Isaiah 61: 1-9
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion–to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
Luke 4: 16-29
When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place were it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
This morning’s sermon is the second in a pair about praying and working for peace in the Middle East.
Last week I noted how the creation of modern Israel, by means of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, gradually provoked a militant Islamic counter-movement. Territorial disputes in Palestine thus have given rise to global terrorism. A “war against terrorism” must therefore address the issue of holy land. We headed in that direction last week when we considered the idea of sacred space–how, according to Hebrew scriptures, God’s spirit was first dramatically experienced on Mount Sinai, and then in a portable shrine, called the ark of the covenant, and then in the temple, and finally, in Jerusalem, where the temple was built. Then we noted how, for a very small minority of Jews and a growing number of Gentiles, sacred space ceased to be very important anymore, because God’s spirit was experienced in a person, Jesus of Nazareth. We noticed that in the fourth chapter of John, Jesus said to the Canaanite woman: a time is coming when people won’t argue anymore about where God must be worshiped, because true worshipers will worship God “in spirit and truth.” Then Jesus told her, “I am the truth.” In other words, after Jesus, the epicenter of God’s spirit isn’t geographical anymore, it’s personal. And a faith that is focused in a person and not a place has the potential of removing an ancient theological justification for holy war, namely, the securing and defending of holy land.
But we cannot take away the theological ammunition that is used to justify making war over holy land without addressing the claim that that land is in fact holy, in other words, blessed and deeded by God to a particular people, excluding all others. Merely embracing a faith that is personal and not geographical cannot settle the ancient and enduring territorial dispute, which is bolstered by numerous Jewish scriptures claiming that God Almighty did give Palestine to the Hebrew people, and also gave them license to use “ethnic cleansing” to take that land away from indigenous peoples. I have noted in other sermons that money is a major topic in the Christian scriptures. In the Hebrew scriptures, it’s land. A renowned Presbyterian, Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann says that land is the best way to organize biblical theology. Land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith, he says. Obviously, we cannot ignore the importance of claims about holy land in the Jewish faith, a faith that historically underlies our own.
What to do, then, with texts like the one we read from Deuteronomy this morning? I used to wonder about that when I would read the Bible to my sons before bed time. We had decided to go more or less through the whole Bible, omitting only the who-begat- whom passages. I didn’t censor the violence, and there’s plenty of it in the Hebrew scriptures, much of it related to fights over territory. At last, after wading through the Hebrew scriptures, we got into the somewhat less violent Christian ones; and my sons said, “Aw, Dad. This is boring. We want more blood and gore! More tent pegs through the head, yeah!” (Don’t ever think that you’ll protect your kids from violence by rationing just their T.V.!)
As I was saying, what do we do with passages like the vicious one we heard from Deuteronomy this morning? Well, I’ll tell you what the church does. The church censors. If you look at our lectionary, the list of suggested readings for Sunday worship, you’ll discover that the nasty side of the exodus stories is consistently left out. I mean the side that tells about how that promised land had to be taken from the people who lived there first, how they had to be ruthlessly slaughtered, all their property and sacred places destroyed–all this, mind you, in the name of Yahweh. No wonder our lectionary omits such passages! What are we to make of them, in light of the gracious, forgiving God we find in the stories of Jesus? Michael Prior writes, in his provocative and insightful book, The Bible and Colonialism:
“A major problem with some of the traditions of the Old Testament, especially those concerned with the promise of land, is its portrayal of God as . . . a racist, militaristic xenophobe, whose views would not be tolerated in any modern democracy.”
The problem, in other words, is that when you read the Bible through the spectacles of universal human rights, God comes across as a bully and a tyrant. How could a loving God countenance such ethnic cleansing as we find in our first reading today ? I am not willing to go the route of Calvin and say: God is almighty. We mustn’t question God’s authority! What God ordains is right! Horse feathers! Such theology is all too convenient. It underwrites claims to absolute authority made by pompous people who want to appear pious in order to cloak their own lust for power in the guise of God’s will.
Such a theology justified the seizure of this land, America, from the peoples who lived here first. In September of 1689 the Puritan preacher, Cotton Mather, delivered a sermon in Boston in which he charged the colonial armed forces of New England to consider themselves to be like Israel in the wilderness, confronted by Amalek. They must cast out the Indians “as dirt in the streets,” he said.
Such a theology underwrote the apartheid system of racial oppression in South Africa. Paul Kruger, the President of the South African Republic leaned heavily on Calvin’s teaching about a covenant people. The success of the Dutch Boers in retaining their territory by warfare in South Africa was proof, he said, of God’s election. Black Africans, he insisted, were not among God’s people, and were destined by God to be kept in perpetual subjugation by their white masters.
Such a theology underwrote the seizure of land from Arabs in Palestine, not just Muslim, but Christian too. At first, Jews’ appetite to repossess their ancient homeland was not much religiously motivated. In fact, many Jews all over the world opposed the formation of a Jewish state, because they said the survival of Judaism had become possible regardless of place. The two thousand year old dispersion of Jews all over the world had taught them to build Jerusalem in their hearts, they said. But gradually, just as in other colonial adventures, a lust for territory found convenient justification in ancient texts. Today, not only Jews but many Christians too, support Israel’s exclusive right to the holy land, because, they claim, the Bible teaches this.
Well, my brothers and sisters in Christ, who abhor the global terrorism that now grips us, the time has come for us to grapple with those ancient texts that have underwritten land grabbing in the name of God ever since the medieval crusades. The problem isn’t that the texts have been misunderstood and misused. The problem is that the texts themselves are morally suspect, and have been from the start. We cannot take them as God’s normative word, because they are morally atrocious. Such a view will raise the hackles of Jewish and Christian fundamentalists alike. So be it. As Michael Prior says, “There are major errors involved in a naive interpretation of the Bible, and every effort must be made to rescue it from being a blunt instrument in the oppression of one people by another.”
To see how we might begin to grapple with the moral challenge of such ancient texts concerning holy land, I invite you to look with me at one such text, a text which Jesus himself interpreted, Isaiah 61: 1-9. This text dates from a time after the Jews were returning to their homeland from exile in Babylon (roughly the territory of modern Iraq). The passage begins:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. . .”
Who are these oppressed, these broken-hearted people, these prisoners? They are the exiled Jews, yearning for reinstatement to their promised land. The passage goes on to say that they shall return, and they shall build up the ancient ruins, repair the ruined cities. And what shall happen to the foreigners in the land which they shall reinhabit? They shall be the servants of the Jews. “Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines,” says the text. And restored Israel shall “enjoy the wealth of the nations”, that is, the goyim, the non-Jews. The rhetoric is moderate here—nothing like the ethnic cleansing language we found in the Deuteronomy passage—but the intent is still quite clear: God will subdue the foreign people who have been living in the promised land during the Jews’ absence. If the foreigners continue to live in that holy land, they shall be Israel’s servants, supporting Israel with the fruit of their labor. Even such a moderate scripture may be cited by Zionists to justify the the economic exploitation of Arab people within “their territory.”
But listen to what Jesus does with this passage. In Luke 4 he quotes from it when he visits his home town and is invited to preach in the synagogue. The attendant brings him the scroll, and he reads from it: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me.” The Luke passage begins with a similar prelude: “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee.” We see see Luke constructing a parallel. (Now, keep in mind that Galilee is the region of the ancient holy land that was most ethnically diverse. “Can anything good come from Galilee?” someone quipped about Jesus. Why? Because many Jews looked down on foreigners, that’s why, and Galilee was rife with them. Galilee was a ritually contaminated place, chock full of ignorant, contemptible goyim. So, Jesus gets up and reads from the scroll, those ancient, comforting words for Jews, words which made them feel free again, but at the expense of foreigners:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Please note that the words Jesus reads aren’t precisely the same as Isaiah wrote. Was he reading a different version of the scripture, or was Luke taking some creative liberty with the text? We shall see.)
Luke says Jesus read the text, rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. Nothing more. Just silence. He kept them in suspense. Well, what about the exegesis, Jesus? Comment on the passage, please! You came here to preach, right? Jesus obliges them by answering with a stinger, but they don’t know it’s a stinger yet, because they don’t realize the scope of what he says, don’t realize that his answer involves not just their own kind, but all those foreign folk they hold in contempt. Jesus says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.”
“How lovely,” everyone says. Well, of course, it’s fulfilled! Here we are, safe and sound in our synagogue, isolated and protected from those wretched goyim outside, who once again, have our land. Jesus is saying we’ll get it back one day, and it sounds like that won’t be long! He said the prophesy is being fulfilled in our very hearing. Our time is coming! We shall be free of the goyim at last. Praise God!
But then Jesus unpacks the stinger. The scope of Isaiah’s prophesy–at least as he sees it– is much, much broader than any of his fellow worshipers have realized, for it includes the contemptible goyim. They too shall be comforted, they too shall be freed. Implication: the Jews shall not be restored to their rightful place as God’s chosen people at the expense of foreigners. As is his wont, Jesus makes this point indirectly and anecdotally, so that they have to sniff out God’s truth with their imaginations. Please note, he adds, that in the day of Elijah, with so many Jews suffering from famine, God helped a foreign widow, a woman from Sidon (that is, a Philistine or Palestinian) not a Jewish widow. Also, when there were so many lepers in Israel, whom did God heal? Naaman, a Syrian (again, a foreigner).
That’s all Jesus said. It was enough. They were fit to be tied. They were ready to kill him. Off the cliff with him! Why? Because Jesus had refused to buy into the conventional understanding of an ancient text that said it was all right in God’s eyes to pay Paul by robbing Peter, it was all right in God’s eyes to give a blessing to a chosen people by taking away from foreigners. By the way, Luke changes the ending of the Isaiah quote in a very significant way. Isaiah says that he has come, anointed by God’s spirit, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” But when Jesus reads Isaiah’s words, he says simply, “I have come to declare the year of the Lord’s favor,” period. Not vengeance, but favor. That says it all. Jesus isn’t fighting battles with anyone anymore over holy ground. In his eyes, everywhere lies holy ground, everywhere, because God’s spirit has been unleashed. The Jews can’t lay exclusive claim to it anymore than they can to holy ground. Everywhere lies holy ground, because the spirit blows where it wills.
Eventually, the people who followed Jesus in this heretical exegesis understood the implications of his vision. So it’s not surprising that the theme of holy land qua real estate disappears in the Christian scriptures. Holy land isn’t important to Jesus’ followers anymore, because everywhere lies holy ground. When Jesus is raised from death, the Spirit tells them: “Stay in the city (Jerusalem) until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24.49). “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Christianity, in Luke’s view, is not tied to any specific land. It’s mission is to the ends of the earth.
I have preached these two sermons about the topic of holy land in our sacred scriptures, because that topic is dreadfully important in current affairs. We live still in a democracy—may God help us to preserve it—where the people have power to make change. We, ordinary citizens have power as agents of good will in this turbulent world, where territorial disputes lie at the center of the maelstrom. But we will not be agents for peace if we remain ignorant of the history that has brought us to this point, and also complacent about the role of our own theology in that history. Therefore, I call you to read, people. I call you to ponder. I call you to grapple with ancient texts and not blindly follow where priests and politicians mislead. I call for you to catch the vision of Jesus, that everywhere lies holy ground. And then advocate and agitate for that vision. Be not luke-warm, but afire with his Holy Spirit, the Spirit that brings good news to the poor, opens the eyes of the blind, and releases captives, everywhere. Everywhere!