I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.
Genesis 12:2–3 (JPS)
by Joshua Vis
Any Christian who works on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows that these verses loom large. Aside from the last two lines, which the JPS (Jewish Publication Society of America Version) translation above renders correctly, they are very clear. God will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel. It is simple to understand and I am not about to set out on some fancy interpretive work that will alter its simple meaning.
A quick aside about the last two lines: they should not be translated, “And all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” That, or something conveying that sense, is the more common translation, but it is not correct. Considering that God is promising to make Abraham a blessing (think literally: “Bless me, Lord, as you blessed your servant Abraham”) and considering that God promises to curse those who curse Abraham, it is simply not true that all the families of the earth shall be blessed through Abraham. Rather, God will make Abraham and the nation that comes from him so great that families or nations will implore God to bless them as God has blessed Abraham and Israel.
Based on this verse, there are Christian people, churches, and organizations that believe all Christians must bless (read: support unconditionally) the modern state of Israel. While that is not my position, I recognize it as a coherent position with biblical backing. The scandal of the majority of the Old Testament is that God loves one people over and above, and sometimes against, all other people of the world.
This is not some minor theme of the Old Testament, but rather an overarching theme of this collection of books. It is articulated or assumed in every book of the Old Testament, save maybe Song of Songs. More difficult yet, Jesus, for most of his ministry, fully accepts this fact. Jesus very rarely interacts with Gentiles and declares multiple times that he has come for the lost sheep of Israel. The best we can say for Jesus is that he envisioned a mission to Gentiles. It took the work of the Holy Spirit, after Jesus’s ascension, to make that a reality.
Some will rightly take issue with equating the modern state of Israel to the biblical nation of Israel. This distinction is important. I want only to acknowledge it, but not expound on it, because, such a distinction does not address the more fundamental issue of the state of God’s promises to Israel.
Does God continue to bless those who bless Abraham’s descendants and curse those who curse Abraham’s descendants? For me, the answer is No. Admittedly, I cannot briefly, or even verbosely, give you an entirely satisfying answer as to why that is no longer the case. Some, following Paul, will say that God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled by (and altered by?) Jesus. Because of Jesus, God is no longer partial, but rather intent on blessing all the nations.
In Romans, Paul valiantly attempts to put it all together. How can the promises to Israel, the giving of the laws to Israel, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the mission to the Gentiles all be part of a single, cohesive plan? That letter is a tough read because it’s a tough task to envision those four things as the working out of a harmonious plan. Toward the end of the argument, Paul says, “As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”
I do not fully understand what Paul means, but let me offer this suggestion. The Greek word usually translated “irrevocable” can also be translated “not to be regretted.” Jews, like all peoples, are beloved by God and God does not regret his complex and special relationship with them. Paul holds out hope that the Jewish people will still be saved, but clearly states that all peoples are saved only through Jesus, including the Jewish people. In other words, God’s special relationship with the Jewish people is over. God is no longer partial.
So what am I arguing for? I want Christians to evaluate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of justice. I want Christians to assert that God loves Israelis and Palestinians equally. In God’s love, both sides are equal. In God’s justice, however, the state of Israel is oppressive to Palestinians. No Christian should tolerate or excuse this oppression simply because the oppressor is Israel. If God indeed is especially preoccupied with those who suffer as some of the prophets assert and as Jesus asserts in the Sermon on the Mount, then God suffers with the Palestinian people and wants justice for them. This does not diminish God’s love for the Jewish people or Israelis. But God’s love for Israelis is not special or greater than God’s love for Palestinians or Americans or Syrians or anyone. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus made God’s concern and love impartial again. The same goes for Christians, and our impartiality should naturally make us peacemakers, agents of reconciliation.
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, being a peacemaker is complex, and often controversial. Let me give you one example. Israel and the U.S. recently finalized a new ten-year agree aid agreement of $38 billion (these are grants, not loans). Israel must spend all $38 billion on military equipment and technology. This equipment and technology is used daily to run the occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank. The U.S. helps finance the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. All Americans, then, are accomplices to the Israeli occupation.
Guess where the $38 billion will be spent? Every penny will be spent buying weapons from weapons manufacturers in the United States. The U.S. is home to six of the top ten weapons manufacturers in the world. You can only imagine how many jobs are tied to this industry. So this $38 billion to Israel provides a huge stimulus to U.S. weapons manufacturers who employ many, probably millions of, Americans.
Like I said, it’s complicated. What is clear, however, is that from a Christian perspective Israel is to be scrutinized and evaluated no differently than any other democratic nation. Israel, like every nation, has no special relationship to God and no theological claim to any piece of land. Thus Christian action on this issue must be guided by what is just and what brings peace.
Guest-blogger Joshua Vis serves as the Church Engagement Facilitator for Israel/Palestine with the Reformed Church in America.