Friday, 29 January 2010

Biblical Scholarship and the State of Israel

Julia O'Brien, teacher at Lancaster Theological Seminary, has posted a short article on The Bible and Interpretation entitled "Biblical Scholarship and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict." Here are some of my thoughts as I try to process this issue, formulated in response to her key conclusions (O'Brien in Bold):


Combating anti-Judaism is necessary, important, and will continue to be part of my mission as a teacher. And yet, this trip has further convinced me that it is also my mission as a theological educator to challenge an uncritical identification of biblical Israel with the policies of the modern Israeli state.


How does she wish to do that? No one claims that modern Israel is simply Ancient Israel transposed into the present. Most people I know of say that the Jews stand in some kind of continuity with Israelites: biological, religious, and now geographical. But that's not the same thing as identifying Biblical and modern Israel. Working out the nature of the continuity is a complex issue that includes Biblical interpretation but also goes beyond it, drawing on the broader theological categories.


>The current situation is the product of empires and post-colonial responses to empire, not simply a divinely-decreed continuation of the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac.


This is a false dichotomy that doesn't exist in the Bible either. Wasn't Cyrus God's anointed?


>Just as my teaching underscores the difference between ancient and modern constructions of gender, sexuality, and economic justice, it also needs to establish a critical distance between past and present in terms of just distribution of land.


Creating "critical distance" , as I stated above, will make the work more irrelevant than relevant. In addition to that, simply highlighting a diversity of witness within the Bible doesn't solve the question of how these witnesses are to be brought into relation to each other nor how they are to function within the broader Jewish religious discourse. Judaism has developed its own categories for doing this, categories grounded in various theological convictions, and these can't be ignored by supposed ideologically neutral scholarship.


>And just as I point out the diversity of voices within the biblical text itself on matters of ritual, the purposes of partnership, and the will of God, I also need to draw greater attention to its diverse perspectives on the importance of land and of community homogeneity.


I should add that I'm not saying that this kind of work is not valuable or potentially enriching for debate about the issue. I'm doing this kind of thing myself! I just don't think that "Biblical scholarship," in its modern non-confessional guise, is sufficient for the task.

One final question: how diverse is the issue of the land in the Bible? It seems as central to OT theology as the covenant, torah, and the divine name.

5 comments:

Chad said...

Hi Philip,

Long time, trust things are well. When you declare...

'No one claims that modern Israel is simply Ancient Israel transposed into the present. Most people I know of say that the Jews stand in some kind of continuity with Israelites: biological, religious, and now geographical. But that's not the same thing as identifying Biblical and modern Israel.'

...I wonder how measured such a claim is meant to be. I realize 'No one' doesn't always mean 'there is not one person in the world to be found who...'. But I know several people who commit precisely the kind of category equation you deny above but which vexes O'Brien and informs her "mission". And my honest sense is that conservative Evangelical Christianity over here in the US is overrun by people who don't think very much about it, and thus who, not least because they have been enculturated by the country in which they live, simply default to a view that equates biblical with modern Israel (which in their view then justifies military involvement on behalf of modern Israel, even when such involvement results in the deaths of Iraqi Christians, a conundrum all on its own even before we get to the conflation of theological demographics).

Any thoughts?

-Chad

Phil Sumpter said...

Hello Chad!

Great to hear from you and sorry for this incredibly late reply. I've managed to get on top of things again and will be able to keep up with dialogues more reliably now.

I agree with you that there are plenty of people who blindly support Israel no matter what out of theological conviction and that a closer analysis of the Biblical image of "Israel" will helpfully subvert many contemporary construals of its relationship to the state. I think we need to do this, and so in one sense I'm with both O'Brien and you. My problem is that I think she construes the nature of the issue in a deficient manner and so proposes an inadequate solution. Perhaps the key idea in her proposal that alerts me to this is her claim that we need to create "critical distance" between the two entities, a process she compares to differentiating ancient and modern concepts of "gender," "sexuality" or "concepts of justice." My problem is that these things belong to a different realm altogether, i.e. they have to do with external contingencies. Of course cultures modify their concepts of gender and justice over time, but what does that have to do with the ontological problem of the identity of the people of God? As far as the Bible is concerned, the fact that the Israelites went from being nomads to farmers to exiles to returnees has no relevance to the question of their being the "people of God." Even on the religious level, the fact that Israel's religious institutions developed from having a portable desert sanctuary to a fixed monarchial temple to a written Torah (to give a few examples!) is irrelevant to the issue of whether the God of the universe is travelling with this people - mysteriously always one and the same. I can't imagine how merely pointing out diversity within the Bible and its difference to modern Jews can question the current "electedness" of this people. Even a Biblical fundamentalist is aware that the people of God has gone through changes in its history. Adding two thousand years of exile and a Talmud (or the Haskala and modern nationalistic concepts) doesn't seem to be particularly relevant to the question. What is needed is a theological analysis of the witness of the Bible and not the mere pointing out of external distinctions that arise over time. I know that doing this is not a simple task, but this is where one ought to start if one wants one's "Biblical scholarship" to be relevant to the current political issue (I should point out that I'm aware one can justify Zionism on various grounds; given O'Brien's statements about "Judaism" I responded on a religiuos tack; in my experience, secular Israelis who don't particularly value the Bible can still be Zionistic and not care about the Bible's historicity).

Does that make sense? Feel free to give me your feedback.

Chad said...

It makes sense, I think. But it seems to stake out an even more robust justification for seeing the grouping 'modern Israelis' as one and the same with biblical Israel on an ontological level, despite their vast differences culturally (though one might not cite 'disinterest' in the scriptures or 'confusion' about identity as points of distinction between the two demographics!).

This of course raises a host of concerns that both of us probably hear very clearly from McConville (e.g., What does the OT mean by the moniker 'Israel' in any case? Sometimes it's the North only, other times it's both North and South, and at times it's only the South. And then of course at numerous times it is commodius, and includes people entirely outside the North and South altogether, as in the 'sojourner'.). On this last example, there is the matter of the 'catholicity' of Israel, and thus the inclusion of those who are not 'Israelite' but who are part of 'Israel' nonetheless by association (similar to the status of the others on the ark as "saved" because they were "with" Noah, or those whose blessing depends on their standing relative to Abraham).

I guess my point is that there might be sophisticated ways to justify either claim: 1) that modern Israelis are to be understood as contiguous with biblical Israel; or 2) that modern Israelis represent a grouping with no clear connection to biblical Israel.

In the case of 1), I think there might be a way to say this without committing oneself to any sense of duty (in terms of military involvement or the use of violence) on behalf of modern Israel, since most scholars outside the fundamentalist pale don't see things developed canonically in this way. At the very least, this side of Easter, the "enemy" (do we have physical enemies?) has as legitimate a claim to our action on their behalf as the friend. So the "Iraqi insurgent" (for a loaded and worn out title) is no less an object of our love than the modern Israeli.

But I've always tended to take up Gordon's tack, that what it means to be 'Israel', canonically defined, was never only or even primarily about physical lineage, but by participation and association.

???

Phil Sumpter said...

But it seems to stake out an even more robust justification for seeing the grouping 'modern Israelis' as one and the same with biblical Israel on an ontological level, despite their vast differences culturally

Sure, that's my point. What I'm saying is that given the nature of the claims made for continuity (whether the claims are true or not is another issue), the fact of cultural difference is totally irrelevant to the argument. If one points out cultural differences, one will be talking past the issue. What "ontological continuity" (to use Childs' term) actually means is something I'm still not entirely sure about (I've studied too much anthropology to take "ethnicity" to be a self-evident term), but it is on another level to these external signs.

My point is not that "modern Jews" are still "Israel" (though to be honest in some sense I do think that ...), I'm just trying to understand that nature of the claim and thus the appropriate arguments that need to be brought in attack or defence of it.

I think that that kind details that McConville raises are important ingredients in the debate, though for me they don't necessarily prove that modern Jews are not "Israel," it just shows the complexity of the use of the term. What needs to happen in to relate these various statements to each other and try to understand them in relation "to their substance" (another favourite phrase of Childs'), a reality that is bigger then the use of the lexeme "Israel." This is no doubt complex. Interestingly enough, I came across a quote relevant to this issue by Brevard Childs, which I've posted here. It seems to take a very different tack to McConville.

I think there might be a way to say this without committing oneself to any sense of duty

I thoroughly agree with that. To be honest this is an issue which both fascinates me and overwhelms me at the moment. One day I'd like to make it an area of proper research!

John Hobbins said...

Hi Phil,

In response to a post on this same topic, a gripping discussion on my blog ensued. It's worth checking out:

http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2010/01/is-there-a-biblical-warrant-for-modern-israel.html?cid=6a00d83454e67969e20120a81af252970b