Genesis 12 and the Abraham-paradigm concerning the Promised Land.
When "Text Becomes Land": Biblical Texts and Political Processes
Dealing with biblical texts in the context of historical or political questions is very tricky. One has to be aware that biblical texts were thought to be presenting not a history but a story. (2) It was only Europe of the 19th century that started to identify the truth of biblical texts as being (modern understood) historically accurate. The methods of biblical historical criticism that identified the various "sources" of the biblical text (3) were sometimes seen to be undermining the basis of belief. When archaeology was extended as a new science, certain famous archaeologists began to dig up sites in Palestine in order to find proof that the Bible true in a modern historical sense. (4) What had been known as textual story up to that date was now reconstructed as real history. The dissertation of Markus Kirchhoff points to this process in "Text zu Land" (text becomes land) (5) and situates it not only with the Zionists, but also in the context of British Christianity.
The identification of the biblical promise of land with Zionist settling in modern Palestine is only part--not the source--of the reason that Jewish immigration into Palestine was and is legitimized in relation to the Torah. The Zionist movement and the first waves of immigration into Palestine were not motivated religiously. The motivations were mainly European anti-Semitism, the pogroms in Russia at the end of the 19th century, and the insight that assimilation of Jews in Europe would not work. The concept of nationalism fostered the idea of a nation for the Jewish people--Jewishness now was thought as ethnic identity. And European/British colonialism was the premise to realize a forced immigration into Palestine. In fact, in the beginning the idea of a Jewish state was not much applauded by the European Jewish community. But the pogroms in Europe, the growing anti-Semitism in Western Europe culminating in the Shoah, and the reality of an ongoing immigration to Palestine transformed the political idea to a real process of gaining not only land but a state in Palestine on all levels. (6) The reference to the Torah and Abraham's promise of a land for his offspring were used to support the political process.
The declaration of the state of Israel 1948 cited the Torah. But the decisive step of using the religious promise of land to Abraham and his offspring in a nationalistic way did not take place until after the Six-Day-War of June 1967. The texts of Abraham as well as other texts on the conquering of the land became relevant for the political conflict. They are now widely used to justify not only the founding of the state of Israel, but far more the conquering and enduring occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The stories of the forefathers and foremothers are located mostly in the region of the West Bank--therefore the nationalistic-religious movement insists on especially this part of the land. The divine promise of the land to Abraham and his offspring is seen as the right of the Jewish people, who envisage themselves as the offspring of Abraham, to come to Palestine, possess it, and live in it. It is understood that now, in a time where this was and is politically possible, the divine promise is fulfilled.
The question arises as to why this religious argumentation strengthened after 1967 rather than 1948. My thesis is that the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 was legitimized through the international community (UN-Resolution 181). Even with the resistance of the Arab countries and the Palestinian population, there was a backing by the UN. By contrast, the war of 1967 and the extension of the occupied regions were delegitimized through the UN (see UN-resolution 242) until today. To cling to the occupied West Bank and Gaza, especially the decision to stay in the land and extend the process of settlements to the West Bank, needed broader argumentation. Religious arguments became prominent--and for a certain time Western Christian communities were hindered in any protest. Not long after the Shoah who would dare to argue against a Jewish religions belief? Furthermore, being in a process of reconsidering the anti-Judaistic traditions of Christian theology after the Shoah and trying to set up a Christian-Jewish dialogue, there was nothing to say against the claiming of the biblical stories for the Jewish and Israeli community. (7)
Similar arguments were used by some Christian groups in proving the truth of the Bible. For the Christian Zionist movement or messianic Christians, the state of Israel was seen as the fulfilment of the heavenly promise and even as the beginning of the messianic time. Protests of Palestinian Christians and any problems they had with justifying the occupation on the basis of the Bible were not recognized. (8) Palestinian Christians only began to be part of the theological and religious leadership of the Christian Churches in Palestine. (9) The Palestinian contextual theology was developed from the 1980s onward.
The longer the occupation dragged on, the more developed became a nationalistic-religious Jewish settler movement and their nationalistic use of the biblical text and the stories of Abraham. Hebron, the grave (and therefore centre) of the forefathers and foremothers, is home to the fiercest settlers and the centre of a veneration of the murderous settler Baruch Goldstein as a martyr. (10) In combination with the texts of Exodus, the Palestinians as well as the neighbouring people are seen as "Amalek" (see Deut. 25:17-19) who has to be destroyed or driven out of Palestine. These arguments are not only used by nationalistic Israeli groups, especially by the settler's movement (11); they are also spread by Christian Zionists or messianic groups politically supporting the settlers for their own purposes. This support, especially for the settlements, is not only given through finances and political influence, but also in building up and nourishing the biblical (fundamentalist) arguments in order to secure the settlement process. As an outcome of this attitude, these people use the Bible to support the building of illegal settlements with all well-known consequences of violence. According to this Christian approach, criticizing the settlements and occupation of the Palestinian regions is akin to criticizing the Bible itself and God's will to fully put the land in the hands of the Israeli state, his own people, as he promised in Genesis 12.
There are several possible reactions toward this theo-political attitude. One is to insist that the Bible is not a handbook for political decisions and that the Bible is not accepted as a common basis for life. In fact, any political organization has to insist on a sound political basis and laws, including human rights standards, international laws, and treaties. The settlements are based on an occupier's law (12) that ignores the IV Geneva Convention (1949), and the settlers are allowed to act even against Israeli law. Nevertheless, if responsible politicians are influenced by a literal understanding of the Bible, it will influence their political stand, as can be seen clearly in the last few years of American policy.
Therefore, one of the most urgent duties for the World Council of Churches (WCC) is to react to these challenges on various levels. Such an attitude cannot be tackled only by separating theology and politics on a theoretical level or by setting up projects on a practical level. It has to be attacked through a differentiated theological stand and the will to challenge this deadly theology. The project of WCC on a practical level, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), seems to be very helpful in documenting and partly supporting Palestinians in conflicts with settlers and military forces of Israel. But another important task is to react to the theological support and grounding of the occupation. We must challenge two sides of Christian theology: (i) The theological tradition of Jewish-Christian dialogue that claims to be on the side of Israel unconditionally in order to take the responsibility for the Shoah and Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism (13); and (ii) the theological tradition of Christian fundamentalism that claims the everlasting promise to Abraham to be fulfilled in fully conquering the West Bank to be part of Israel. These different tasks are taken up in the various activities and theological debates of WCC and other Christian institutions.
This paper will only discuss the biblical arguments of Abraham's promise of the land as being fulfilled through the state of Israel. What can be said from the perspective of biblical theology and exegesis to this biblical approach? In the remarks that follow, I want to give a hermeneutical clue to what we can learn from working with the paradigm of Abraham and what has to be stressed in a theological debate about biblical justification of Israel's use of land.
The Relation of Biblical Text and History: Necessary Differentiations
Differentiating biblical and modern terminology
Whoever talks about Genesis 12 and the Abraham paradigm relating to the "Promised Land" has to clarify the level they are talking about. A similar name is not a guarantee for similar semantics. The gap between biblical times and terminology and modern times and terminology is not easily to bridge. One of the dangers is a continuous use of "Israel" that does not differentiate between Israel in the biblical terminology (which is used in very different ways even within the Bible, requiring a differentiated use even in biblical terms!) and the modern state of Israel or the Israelis as people, or Israel used for the Jewish people as a whole. The same can be said about the terms "land" or "Abraham."
With regard to the many problematic uses of Promised Land, it is less the biblical text than the exegesis of these texts that contributes to a theological legitimization of violent oppression or even expulsion of Palestinians in order to gain land for the state of Israel. There is an urgent need for very meticulous terminology in order to avoid confusing history and story in identifying historical and modern terminology. This should be underlined for the sake of the Christian God-talk as well as for the sake of the Palestinians and Israelis. Constructing other peoples' identity (for Palestinians or Israelis or Jews)--as is done by a Christian Zionist theology or even a Protestant dogmatic theology--is paternalistic and unacceptable. Even if one insists on using biblical terms directly as a political basis, there are some problems with Abraham and the concept of land in Abraham's paradigm. The Bible itself does not back this interpretation.
Abraham's stories as theological (in fact fictional), not historical texts
The stories of Abraham are theological texts, but they use the form of a historical narrative. They are by no means "historical" in the modern sense of telling what (more or less) really happened at the time of narration. The interest to write "history" in a modern sense only started in modern Europe in the era of historism. For the Ancient Near East, the normative time was the past and any changes had to be found in the past or the beginning of creation. This is clearly visible in the setting of the ideal time: It is paradise at the beginning of creation. Texts of the Ancient Near East as well as biblical texts have a very different agenda concerning "history." These are literary stories dealing with problems of their time in the form of stories of the past. In fact, these stories are either new or taken up and retold and reworked through a redactor--and sometimes retold and reworked several times. After the redaction of the Torah was finalized (likely at the beginning of the 4th century), this process was transformed in re-telling the biblical stories within the early Judaistic literature. Texts like the Book of Jubilees, the Testamentum of Abraham, and other texts of early Judaism can be described as re-written Bible. (14) This is the same process of reworking the stories of the past to promote relevant theological positions. Therefore, while the stories of Sarah and Abraham convey historical information, this is not about the narrated time of Abraham, but about the time in which they are written. They portray the forefathers and foremothers acting as models for the problems of their time--and these backgrounds can be reconstructed. Abraham and Sarah, as they are narrated, are figures of a narrative.
Two lines of scientific theories in Old Testament studies support this view:
(i) Archaeology in the Holy Land was begun in order to prove the "historical" basis of the biblical stories. After more than 100 years of archaeology, there is increasing confirmation that the history of Palestine and the peoples living there differs significantly from the story as it is told in the Bible. (15) Together with the ongoing and matching research of the exegesis of the Old Testament, we see evidence of the theological nature of the texts as narratives.
(ii) Today we find a widespread variety of ways to analyze biblical texts: from historical-critical methods to canonical approaches (16) to literary criticism and reader-response-criticism. Most of studies interpret the biblical text as being written after the Exile (586 B.C.), as reflecting these traumatic experiences and trying to implement a theology that still claims JHWH as God of Israel and transforms it to the new conditions of Israel's life in Babylon. This is also true for many of the texts about Abraham and Sarah. Therefore Abraham's starting point for his journey to Palestine reflects the way from Babylon on--just like the people of Israel who hoped to go back the same way. Abraham is narrated as having positive and negative sides, given aspects of identity-building (such as circumcision as part of the covenant), of attitudes toward foreign people (in Egypt Gen. 12:10-20) and toward law (Gen. 15), and of the temple in Jerusalem (Gen. 22). The effect of these long processes of redaction is to create a great diversity and plurality in the narratives of Abraham--in fact there are many fathers Abraham. (17) The plurality within the reception--from Abraham as the true and first observer of the law (Book of Jubilees) to Abraham as a person of belief only (Paul)--proves that the biblical text offers all these various aspects of Abraham that can be identified and elaborated through further interpretation. They bear testimony to the different process of the emergence of the text.
Not only Abraham! The promise to end the barrenness of Sarah
In talking about the Promised Land or "the" Abraham-paradigm," we must identify what belongs to the "Abraham-paradigm" regarding its meaning. What characteristics or what personal qualities or what values are transported with "Abraham"? Gen 12:1-9 is often called "the "Abraham-paradigm because Gen 12:1-9 comprehensively covers the promises Abraham is given throughout the following narratives. Genesis 12:1-9 seems in a way to sum up Genesis 11:27 to Genesis 25. As any summary, it is surveying the various stories and therefore--as any overture--is written at a very late time (see next point). Genesis 12:1-9 outlines Abraham's journey to Canaan on the word of God, his travel through the country, his building of altars and worshipping of Elohim until he comes to Beersheba, the promise from God of a "land, that I will show you" (verse 7), and the promise of being a great nation.
Many scholars see a break between verses 9 and 10. The endangering of Sarah through Abraham Genesis 12:10-20 and the selfish argumentation of Abraham are seen as representing the earlier traditions about Sarah and Abraham. (18) Through this wandering, Abraham and Sarah represent the Egypt part of the history of the exile as well as the Babylon part through their way from Ur and Haran. Egypt is the second Diaspora of the Israelites during and after the Exile. But even if we consider Genesis 12:1-9 alone, with regard to content this summary is not sufficient to be called the "Abraham-paradigm." The tradition of interpretation has singled out this piece of text rather than the text itself, which actually starts from Genesis 11:27 and unfolds itself up to Genesis 25. The topoi "land" and "Abraham" alone do not cover the entire story. Without an heir, there would be nobody to inherit the land. But an heir is only possible through Abraham's wife.
As indicated through the introductory remarks, the patriarchal interpretation highlights this part of the text and ignores the women of Abraham who are necessary for the promise to be fulfilled. Indeed, the starting point of the story of Sarah and Abraham is found in Genesis 11:27. Abraham and Sara are part of his father's journey to Haran. But, "Sarai was barren; she had no child" (Gen. 11:30). This fact is stressed twice. To add "no child" doubles the fact of barrenness. Therefore, the main problem is underlined at the beginning of the story. (19) Once the problem is highlighted, Abraham receives the call of God (Gen. 12:1) to leave the region of his childhood and go to a land that will be shown to him; a land that will be given to his offspring. This call is often interpreted as a test of Abraham's obedience. But it is not leaving home that is the real problem, it is the timing. At this point of the story, Abraham still has several chances to have sons and daughters; Sarah has none. But the call to leave exacerbates the main problem of Sarah being barren. For Abraham, leaving the family cuts down any further possibility of a second marriage within the extended family. He no longer has the chance to remarry within his clan and have children with other wives. Now the barrenness of Sarah is no longer her problem alone, but also the Abraham's. And the totality of barrenness of both creates the starting point for the suspense over how the promise to be a great nation or people in Genesis 12:7 can be realized. This masterly introduction of human hopelessness and divine promise sets the story in motion.
In the end, Abraham has no land on its own (except the cave for Sarah in Genesis 23). (20) He lives in a convivium with other people, which is not seen as a bad situation. But what is fulfilled is the promise of heirs. Three wives and eight sons stand at the very end (Gen. 25:1-6) and they are spread over the whole region. They also are depicted as part of the Abrahamic "nation building," and the brothers are set in a complex relation to each other. Ishmael is part of the covenant (Gen. 17); he also is promised being the father of a blessed great nation (Gen 25). (21) Abraham as father has to be shared with Arabs of the whole region in the east and south who called themselves Ishmaelites since the 4th century B.C. (22) Yes, the problem of the barrenness at the beginning of the story is solved in the end! And his offspring lives in the land and its surrounding regions, as promised in Genesis 12. But what does this mean in terms of property, ownership, or possession?
Abraham and Sarah as model for living in the Exile
The issue of what "land" will mean to Abraham and Sarah unfolds in meaning throughout the whole story. It explicates what people think about land, people, and promise, and how these issues are set into reality. Most of the texts were written during the exile and post-exile period (after 586 B.C.) after the land was lost. The texts discuss this problem through the use of remembered narratives, and in doing so they construct their history as well as their future. This process is necessary in building up a new identity: An identity of how Israel is able to live in Juda/Jerusalem under Babylonian and later Persian rule, how the Diaspora-communities of Babylon and Egypt can relate to the people in Juda, and how the people of Juda are related to the wider region and its inhabitants. How this is constructed depends on the context. The concepts also differ according to social levels, class, gender, and even ethnic affiliation. Not every voice is represented equally; some voices have to be reconstructed; and some voices may have been lost.
Very different answers emerge in the texts about "Abraham" and the "promised land," as there may have been shared answers about how to cope with living in exile and later in the Diaspora in Babylonia/Egypt, and also how to live in the land under foreign rulers. Therefore, the
Abraham-Sarah-texts discuss problems such as how to live in a land under foreign rule; how to worship God without temple; how to settle in an unknown, even possibly hostile, land; how to rely on God's promise for a better future without results at hand; and what this "promise" means after the historical catastrophe of the loss of Jerusalem?
Abraham and Sarah's life is like a mirror-image of the life of the people in exile. Just as Ur (= Babylonia) was the origin of Abraham and Sarah, they went up to a land unknown to them and landed in Canaan. The exiled population went back to the roots of Abraham and Sarah, into Babylonia, a place unknown to them. Abraham went at the call of God, but the exiled people had to go at the call of the Babylonian rulers, seen as a punishment of God. Abraham and Sarah managed to live there their whole lives only on the hope for the fulfilment of the promise of God, even without a sign of this fulfilment. Abraham and Sarah also managed to live in a land with foreign people and foreign rulers, and Abraham worshiped God without a temple in calling his name and in direct contact with God.
At a later time, the narrative about Abraham and Sarah may also have functioned as encouragement for those in the Diaspora: Palestine or Juda may be a forlorn and poor place compared with the living conditions in the Diaspora. (23) The narrative could be understood as a call to overcome the hesitations, to come back to the forefathers and foremothers in order to occupy the land, as Abraham and Sarah did. Occupying is understood in a total different sense than in Deuteronomy.
The numerous and different concepts on land within the Abraham-Sarah-paradigm
If there is a process like "Text zu Land," the problem is how to deal with the conflicting concepts of Land.
Among the different concepts that are interwoven within the stories about Abraham, Sarah and Hagar and their sons the concepts of "promised land" are also very different. Land is understood as a place for the more important people, who will be Abraham and Sarah's offspring and live on the land (Gen. 12); Land will be such a place in the future, after 400 years of exile in Egypt (Gen. 15, late, Pentateuchal redaction). (24) It is possible to live on the land without possessing it (Gen. 23). Land is conceived of with different, other people to live with (Gen. 14; 20); as well as a place that is not sufficient (i.e., Abraham has to leave the land because of hunger Gen. 12; 20). But it is also land that can be shared, because it has enough for all (Abraham-Lot). Land is also defined through very different borders (Gen. 13:14; 15; 25).
Abraham never possesses the land, never kills or expels people from the land in order to take it as a living. He can share the space with Lot and he leaves without hesitation when there is not enough to live on. Abraham's problem is not the land but, again, his failing offspring.
Many promised lands: The question of borders
As I noted at the beginning: the same word often is not identical with the same meaning or semantics. What it means to possess land has to be exemplified through stories. It is not possible to combine these stories into one single concept, seen through the example of the borders of the Promised Land. Borders are a main issue within the present conflict. Anyone attempting to justify any borders on texts related to Abraham is confronted with the contradicting concepts of the extension of "land." Only three concepts may illustrate the problem.
One of the "border-concept" is presented when God leads Abraham on a hill and shows him the land of his not yet born offspring.
The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, "Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you." So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord.(Gen. 13:14-18)
Ernst Axel Knauf identified the hill geologically as "height Nr. 913" and asked: "What would Abraham have seen?" And he reconstructs that the biblical notion of what Abrahams would have seen is far from being a fictional landscape. Indeed, he would see from Beth El in the North to Beth Zur in the South, which is a well-known territory. It was the province "Jehud" during the neo-Babylonian and Persian time. (25) Genesis 13 is directed to the people who live in the province Jehud at that time. They receive the affirmation that indeed this province is the land that was promised to Abraham. It is at the same time an attempt to stop any dreams of a land much bigger than Jehud, of reconquering the north or of a revolt against the Babylonian or Persian rule. This promise strengthens those who stayed back in Jehud. They indeed can claim that they are the offspring of Abraham and that the land is given to them. This is a clear position against the theology of those who are still in Babylon or even those who came back from Babylon and tried to overtake the rule in Jehud. The struggle over the leading positions between those from the exile and those who stayed in the country can be sensed in Nehemiah. The persons coming back from the exile were claiming that the "people of the land" are the ones who caused the catastrophe and are not the ones to lead the country. Genesis 13 is comfort and reinforcement for Judeans on one side, and a challenge on the other side.
Very different is the concept of borders in Genesis 15: Abraham receives the promise of an innumerable offspring and falls asleep. In his dream he divides animals that are eaten up by a fire (predicting the burnt offering of the temple) and is promised that his offspring will live in a country from the Nile to the Euphrates--but in the future, ten generations ahead, and only at the end of exile and Diaspora.
Then the Lord said to Abram, "Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity' of the Amorites is not yet complete."
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants 1 give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites." (Gen. 15:13-21)
Genesis 15 is one of the latest texts and belongs to the redaction of the Torah. It connects Exodus and Genesis through implementing the Exodus-story to the Abraham traditions (especially Gen. 15:14-16). It includes the Diaspora of Egypt and Babylon, naming the Nile and the Euphrates, and enumerating different peoples within these borders. The names of the peoples are mostly Active or did not exist any longer at that time--and some never existed. (26) Genesis 15 is the most far-reaching description of "land" and its borders. At that time, the Persians were rulers over a vast empire and Jehud wasa very small province within, with no possibility at all political self-determination. But the communities had a kind of civil and religious autonomy. Having this context as background, the concept bears an eschatological note and reclaims any landscape with Judeans in it as the inheritance of Abraham. Perhaps the eschatological note conforms to Jes. 19:23-25, as Knauf suggests. (27) But it also can be understood as reflecting the Diaspora. Living there can be interpreted as the beginning of the fulfilment of the divine promise, if the borders of the rivers are not depicted as political borders for an independent country. If the rivers are borders of the spreading Jewish communities, the promise is fulfilled through the Diaspora, where Judeans--beginning to become the Jewish communities--could live all in all an acceptable life.
Genesis 25 belongs to the priestly code and holds a different view of "land." It leaves out Egypt and the Euphrates, but it depicts as "land" the region of Syria, Palestine, and northern Arabia, where all eight sons of Abraham are living. It extends from the south (with Ishmael) to the west (Isaac) and the east (the six sons of Ketura), and covers the wider region of Jordan including the desert regions in the south and north Arabia. Again, there are no concrete borders in a political sense, but a region with people thought of belonging together. Genesis 25 (as well as Genesis 17) builds up a regional identity within the Persian empire. It unites and connects people as belonging together live in between empires, here with Persia as the ruler of the land. It is more a concept of space than of "land," a concept of people within the space who belong together through circumcision, the common father, a covenant with God, and the promise to be a great nation. Genesis 25 binds the people together without possessing a land with borders. It is the same possibility as in Genesis 12: living on the land without ruling or possessing it. This is according to the promise of Genesis 12:1-2. Abraham is called to a land where he will be a great nation and has a great name. Nothing is said about ruling it. But Genesis discusses the relation to other peoples.
Abraham and Sarah in Egypt: Depicting the Diaspora
Genesis 12 names the land to where Abraham is sent as "Canaan": he wanders through it from north to south and then further to Egypt because of hunger (Gen. 12:10-20). Canaan was the name the Egyptians used for Palestine; Abraham is mainly bound to places where he builds an altar or stays. He seems to stay only a short time, then he leaves the land and wanders further south to Egypt. There are not only different concepts of "land" but also different concepts of Egypt, the Pharaoh, and his people. Egypt is depicted as hostile country of oppression in Genesis 15; but Genesis 12 differs strongly in this respect. In the beginning, Abraham fears that the Egyptians are brutal. He has to learn that Egypt is a friendly and nourishing place and that the Egyptians respect the law even for foreigners. Abraham is the one who is full of prejudices and hostility (Gen. 12:10-20). He has to learn through Sarah's fate that this prejudice and hostility will fall back on him and Sarah in a destructive and endangering way. God has to interfere in order to save Sarah and his own promise of heirs. The same line is followed in Genesis 20 with regard to the kings of the south, where Abraham is described as ger, a foreigner. Again, the kings of the land are not as evil as Abraham fears. The only conflict about land and water erupts within his own family: Lot and Abraham have to depart (Gen. 13).
This short overview clarifies that in Genesis the promise of land for the offspring of Abraham is conceptualized in very different ways depending on the theological context of the texts. In sharp contrast with the theological traditions of Genesis are the concepts of the deuteronomistic tradition. There, land obviously is constructed exclusively; possessing it gives the licence to expel those who live there in order to take over the land. Deuteronomy 7:22 asks Israel to comfort itself with the thought that the people around them are meant to be eaten by the not-yet-vanished beasts instead of themselves. The concept unfolds itself along the same lines in the book of Joshua. The book of Joshua describes the total overtaking of the land with no other people left.
However, at first sight these are terrible texts compared to biblical standards such as in Genesis 1:27, where all human beings are created in God's image. Are these passages texts of terror? (28) A closer look enables us to observe that even these texts are written at a time when Israel was defeated and had lost its land. Therefore, many references indicate that these texts are written to explain this loss, even the book of Joshua. Many passages are tying living in the land together with conditions: Everybody has to fulfil the entire law--otherwise the land is lost. Promise and curse very often go together. Deuteronomy and Joshua tell through their stories why Jerusalem was destroyed. The condition (living according to the law) was fulfilled only once and will never be fulfilled again. Joshua is not written to repeat the process. (29)
It is written as a narrative to explain what Israel could have had--and that it is not God who is responsible for the disaster, but the people themselves. Even within the book of Joshua there is an indication that even then not everyone will be able to stick to the law (cf. Jos 7). The absoluteness of defeat has to be explained through the absoluteness of failure of Israel.
What can only be indicated here has been described elsewhere. There is a plurality of concepts of "promised land," even within the stories around Abraham, and even more so within the whole Bible. There is not only one idea of "the land," nor about the borders, nor about how to live on it or the people on it. There is no single concept of "land," of '"promise," of "Abrahams offspring." Habel identified six concepts of land (30) and perhaps there are more to identify. The different biblical texts reflect the plurality of theological positions during the Old Testament times, controversies that can be studied, for example, on the controversies of Jeremiah with other prophets (Jer. 7) or with the women of Judah (Jer. 44). Even if we read one conclusive Abraham-Sarah narrative following redactions and canonization, we must recognize that this redactional process has bundled together texts of different times and opinions, written in very different contexts. The redaction of the Torah binds together the creational stories, the narratives of the forefathers and foremothers, and the Exodus together with the traditions of Sinai and the wandering in the desert, and, last but not least, the traditions of the book of Deuteronomy. Altogether these narratives represent very different theological concepts that stand beneath each other in conflicting ways. In this respect, the Bible represents of what is found later on in the Jewish religious literature. It is the decision to preserve not only one voice, but all or at least most of them to be the basis for a further theological debate. And this debate went on--not within the Torah any longer, but outside the Torah, in prophetic texts, in wisdom texts, in texts that are thought of as "Apocrypha," and in commentaries bound to the Mishnah and later on to the Talmud. The stream of commenting and discussing with arguments started with the Torah and never ceased. This stream of interpretation is the case up to the present, and therefore there is not just one Jewish or Christian interpretation of "promised land."
Whoever opts for one biblical text as a basis or legitimization for political decisions uses a concept of fundamentalism that is bound to the political options. Fundamentalists do not have "the Bible" as agenda, but they have their own political hidden agenda that leads them to use certain biblical texts and interpretations. Therefore, hermeneutical questions have to be considered.
Despite the missing historical background, the biblical text was and is meaningful for religious communities (Jewish and Christians) in building up their identity. (31) In fact, very often a myth or a fictional story is more relevant to identity-building or influencing actions, even on a political level, than the pure facts given. The felt discrimination, for example, or the narrated oppression, even if it is something not relevant in one's own life, can mobilize more constructive or destructive energy than any real history. This is true for modern times (32) as it is true for ancient times. Therefore, the texts of Abraham and the divine promise have a certain impact on identity-building processes. This was and is a historical fact for the times when the texts came into being as well as in the times that followed, when religious communities took the texts as their religious basis through the process of canonization.
In what spirit do we read the texts ourselves?
Reading the Bible is interaction, is discussion of two subjects: the reader and the text. Indeed, no matter how a biblical text is taken into consideration, it is clearly bound to the questions, options, and needs of any reader. This is not meant as a simple confirmation of everybody's feelings. It is the same process as during the emerging of the texts. Choosing between the different concepts means that we must clarify our own options and attitudes about the political basics and the theological basics. We must talk about options and about attitudes with regard to how religious texts are related to modern political concepts.
The question arises: Is it possible to extract whatever you need from the Bible? Is there no authoritative reading? Can anybody legitimize violence in the same way as justice and freedom? If one formulates these alternatives: Yes, it is possible--and it is done! But precisely the fact of that there are conflicting stories within the same Bible turns out to be a limitation for any simple or one-sided confirmation of one's own political position. There are many corrections to the texts of terror, and texts that outperform them in various respects. It seems very plausible that some texts of the Bible are not written to be imitated, but to illustrate the implications of violence, hate, or patriarchalism. Perhaps the commentators themselves were alerted by some traditions. But how is it possible to hinder the use of texts of violence to oppress texts of peace and justice? The question arises: Are there texts that can be prioritized from a certain perspective?
The stories of the Bible offer experiences of human beings with God be it for good or for evil. Some of these texts describe their present situation as dominated by violence but violence has still not ceased up to today. Biblical texts do not shield these realities, neither violence against (and from) women, nor slavery, hunger, nor land ceasing. They tell stories about perpetrators and their victims, but not in order to be imitated: rather, they provide a starting point to recognize ourselves and the violence of our time. And they object to this violence through various literary means. They invite the reader to take part in the narrated world and they lead them to take a stand within the story. Their own world with their own options confronts the fictional world. Through this, our own option or attitude to the text is formed. If we have an option for a just God that stands on the side of oppressed people, then violence against the poor will never be welcomed, even in a fictional story. Narrations of violent acts hope to produce abhorrence. This is the message they want to deliver. It strengthens the attitude that violence is not acceptable between human beings. And a text about God fighting and killing "the other" is questioned by texts about God protecting "the other." Reading these texts leads back to our own options and attitudes. Only those who want to oppress, expel, or kill can find support through such texts--but they have to be challenged by the other texts.
This brings any debate about biblical support back to the options of the persons and their attitude. Do they want justice or are they willing to oppress people and deprive them of human rights? These options determine how biblical texts are understood. The "Abraham-paradigm" of a Promised Land to his offspring offers many possibilities, even if someone tries to read them literally and wants to legitimize political processes. It is not God's promise to Abraham that causes the conflict. It is the conflict about land and a settler's attitude that enables Christian and Jewish groups to refer to Abraham as legitimizing their stand. As shown, a close reading of the texts about Abraham and his wives contradict this view--and therefore lead back to the groups themselves. What has to be questioned is the political option and attitude behind the concept of "promised land." Does a concept of solidarity and justice lie behind it? Or is there an option for a political exclusiveness of rights? Are human rights valid for all, or are they thought to be relative at some time? These attitudes have to be challenged.
What we need is a practical critique of religions (33) so that the impacts and consequences of religious attitudes can be included in such discourses. (34) If theology were not able to find theological answers to this critique of religious texts, it would be in fact necessary to limit such normative basics of religion: here, the Bible. (35)
But where can we get the appropriate priorities and perspectives of biblical texts, and who is able to implement them? Who is the subject that gives priority to grace instead of law, justice instead of retaliation, delegation of vengeance to God instead of violent action? The question of the attitude and option of the community arises. The spirituality of living together coincides with the spirituality of reading and understanding the Bible and can lead to concrete political stands or actions. One example is the history of the United Reformed Church of South Africa, where this certain Christian community reads the Bible in accordance with their political options. The idea of being the chosen people legitimized Apartheid. (36) But the wider community of Christians, namely the WCC, stood against this interpretation. In a way, this "correction" together with actions was part of the end of the Apartheid. There is no real authority to hinder biblical interpretations in order to oppress. But it requires the resistance of all other Christian communities to stand firm against an interpretation that supports oppression and violence in the name of Abraham and God's promise.
Situations like that challenge our picture or notion of God. Is there an option for an inclusive concept of God, who loves everybody unconditionally? Is there an attitude of unlimited solidarity with oppressed and poor people? And concerning the Abraham-paradigm: Is there an option for texts that force pro-existence for others within and outside the "land"? Do we read the texts in an inclusive or exclusive sense? Biblical interpretations that encourage oppression of people seem to have an unholy appeal. In order to restrict these effects it is necessary to strengthen any commitment of people and communities. Already, too many confessions have come too late.
(1) This paper was presented at the International Theological Conference, "Promised Land" and extended for this publication.
(2) Klaus Bieberstein, "Geschichten sind immer fiktiv--mehr oder minder. Warum das Alte Testament fiktional erzahlt und erzahlen muss," Bibel und Liturgie 75 (2002), 4-13.
(3) Only the name Julius Wellhausen may stand for the method, see Erich Zenger, Einleitung in das Alte Testament, (Stuttgart Berlin Koln, 3. neu bearb. u. erw. Aufl., 1998 ), ch. B. (= Kohlhammer-Studienbucher Theologie 1,1)
(4) For the history of archaeology in Palestine, see Ulrich Hubner (ed.), Palaestina explorando: Studien zur Erforschung Palastinas im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert anlasslich des 125 Jahrigen Bestehens des Deutschen Vereins zur Erforschung Palastinas. Abhandlungen des Deutschen Palastina-Vereins 34 (Wiesbaden, 2006).
(5) For details see Markus Kirchhoff, Text zu Land. Palastina im wissenschaftlichen Diskurs 1865-1920 (Gottingen, 2005) (= Schriftenreihe: Schriften des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts Leipzig 5).
(6) The complex process of taking over land in order to gain a state is analyzed by Dan Diner, Israel in Palastina (Uber Tausch und Gewalt im Vorderen Orient, Konigstein /Ts., 1980).
(7) See Ulrike Bechmann, "Palastinensische Christen und Christinnen--die unbequeme Seite des christlichjudischen Dialogs," in Gesellschaft fur christlich-judische Zusammenarbeit in Frankfurt a.M. (ed.), mich erinnern--dich erkennen --uns erleben. 50 Jahre Gesellschaft fur christlich-judische Zusammenarbeit in Frankfurt am Main 1949-1999 (Frankfurt, 1999), 169-79.
(8) For example, Mitri Raheb, I am a Palestinian Christian (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1995); Naim Stifan Ateek, Justice, and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (N.Y.: Maryknoll, 1989); see also Ulrike Bechmann and MitriRaheb (eds), Verwurzelt im Heiligen Land. Eine Einfuhrung in das palastinensische Christentum (Frankfurt, 1995); Viola Raheb, "Mit dem Alten Testament im Konflikt um das Land," in Impuls oder Hindernis? Mit dem Alten Testament in multireligioser Gesellschaft, ed. Joachim Kugler (Munster, 2004), 45-58 (= bayreuther forum TRANSIT 1).
(9) Uwe Grabe, Kontextuelle palastinensische Theologie. Streitbare und umstrittene Beitruge zum okumenischen und interreligiosen Gesprach (Erlangen, 1999).
(10) Ulrike Bechmann, Gestorte Grabesruhe. Idealitat und Realitat des interreligiosen Dialogs am Beispiel von Hebron/al-Khalil (Berlin, 2007) (= AphorismA--Reihe Kleine Texte 24).
(11) Irvine H. Anderson, Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy: The Promised Land, America and Israel, 1917-2002 (Gainesville, Florida, 2005); Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, Die Herren des Tandes. Israel und die Siedlerbewegung seit 1967 (Munchen, 2007); Sebastian Dorsch and Stephan Maul, "Eretz Israel. Judischer Extremismus, religioser Zionismus und die Siedlungsproblematik," in Der israelisch-palastinensische Konflikt. Hintergrunde, Dimensionen und Perspektiven, Historische Mitteilungen, Beih. 48, ed. Dietmar Herz, u.a. (Stuttgart, 2003), 73-95; Tamara Neumann, "Religious Nationalism, Violence, and the Israeli State. Accommodation and Conflict in the Jewish Settlement of Kiryat Arba," in Religion und Nation--Nation und Religion, ed. Michael Geyer and Harmut Lehmann (Gottingen, Beitrage zu einer unbewaltigten Geschichte, 2004), 99-114.
(12) See Rajah Shehade, Occupier's Law: Israel and the West Bank (Washington, 1988).
(13) F. W. Marquardt's theology may exemplify this kind of theology, where he urges the Palestinians to give in into Israel because of God's promise of the land to Israel, see Friedrich Wilhelm Marquardt, Was durfen wir hoffen, wenn wir hoffen dirfen? Eine Eschatologie, Bd.2 (Gutersloh: Kaiser 1994), 275-185; Palestinian theologians reacted to this theological stance, see Viola Raheb, "Mit dem Alten Testament im Konflikt um das Land," in Impuls oder Hindernis? Mit dem Alten Testament in multireligioser Gesellschaft, ed. Joachim Kugler (Munster, 2004), 45-58; Mitri Raheb, "Land, Volker und Identitaten: ein palastinensischer Standpunkt," Concilium 43 (2007), 174-81; see also Ottmar Fuchs, "'Kontextuelle Theologie in Palastina,' Erinnerungen an ein wissenschaftliches Symposium in Bethlehem," in Von Nazareth nach Bethlehem: Hoffnung und Klage. Mit einem Forschungsbereicht von Saleh Srouji, ed. Ulrike Bechmann and Ottmar Fuch (Munster, 2002) (= Tubinger Perspektiven zur Pastoraltheologie und Religionspadagogik), 177-92; Ottmar Fuchs, "Judische Klagepsalmen in Palastina--eine Herausforderung auch fur die praktische Bibelhermeneutik," in Praktische Hermeneutik der Heiligen Schrift (Stuttgart, 2004) 408-37.
(14) See Michael Segal, The Book of Jubilees: Rewritten Bible, Redaction, Ideology, and Theology (Boston, 2007).
(15) Prominent among these is Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman's The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York, 2001).
(16) The canonical approach was founded by Brevard Childs, see for example Brevard Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (London, 1985).
(17) See Ulrike Bechmann, "Die vielen Vater Abraham. Chancen und Grenzen einer dialogorientierten Abrahamsrezeption," in Impuls oder Hindernis? Mit dem Alten Testament in multireligioser Gesellschaft (= bayreuther forum TRANSIT 1), ed. Joachim Kugler (Munster, 2004), 125-50.
(18) See for example, Irmtraud Fischer, Die Erweitern Israels. Feministisch-theologische Studien spt Genesis 12-36 (Berlin, 1994).
(19) See Ulrike Bechmann, Sara. Herrin--Rivalin--Ahnfrau (= Reihe: Kleinschriften, hrsg. v. Kath. Bibelwerk) (Stuttgart, 2006).
(20) Buying the cave often is stressed as a factor of gaining land. This is mixing the concept of land to live on (as in Genesis) with the concept in Deuteronomy of land as exclusively for Israel alone. But a grave is not land to live on, it is a sign for the heirs to venerate their foremothers and forefathers. Abraham lays the ground for the possibility which indeed is accomplished in Genesis 25. Again, the focus in not land, but heirs.
(21) Thomas Naumann, "Die biblische Verheissung fur Ismael als Grundlage fur eine christliche Anerkennung des Islam?," in Lernprozess Christen und Muslime. Gesellschaftliche Kontexte--Theologische Grundlagen--Begegnungsfelder, ed. Stephan Leimgruber and Andreas Renz (Munster, 2002) (= Religionspadagogik interkulturell 3), 152-70; Thomas Naumann, "Ismael--Abrahams verlorener Sohn," in Bekenntnis zu dem einen Gott? Christen und Muslime swischen Mission und Dialog, ed. Rudolf Weth (Neukirchen-Vluyn, 2000), 70-89.
(22) See Ernst A. Knauf, Ismael. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte Palastinas und Nordarabiens am Ende des 1. Jahrtausends v. Chr. (= ADPV7) (Wiesbaden, 1989).
(23) See Klaus Bieberstein, "Erfunden und wahr zugleich. Israels Landnahme? Abrahams Landnahme," Welt und Umwelt der Bibel 49 (2008), 41-45, at 43.
(24) Thomas Romer (ed.), Abraham. Nouvellejeunesse d'un ancetre (Genf, 1997) ; Thomas Romer, "Gen 15 und Gen 17. Beobachtungen und Anfragen zu einem Dogma der "neuern" und "neuesten" Pentateuchkritik," in DBAT26 (1990), 32-47; Thomas Romer, "Genese 15 et les tensions de la communaute juive postexilique dans le cycle d'Abraham," in Transeuphratines 7 (1994), 107-21; Konrad Schmid, Erzvater und Exodus. Untersuchungen zur doppel ten Begrundung der Ursprunge Israels innerhalb der Geschichtsbucher des Alten Testaments (Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1999) (= WMANT 81).
(25) Ernst Axel Knauf, "Der Umfang des verheissenen Landes nach dem Ersten Testament," Bibel und Kirche 55 (2000), 152-55, at 154.
(26) Most of the enumerations of people in Kanaan are Active, see Ulrich Hubner, "Jerusalem und die Jebusiter," in Kein Land fur sich allein. Studien zum Kulturkontakt in Kanaan, Israel/Palastina und Ebrunari fur Manfred Weippert zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. Ulrich Hubner and Axel Knauf (Freiburg/Gottingen, 2002), 37-42 (= Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 186); Christoph Uehlinger, "The 'Canaanites' and Other 'pre-Israelite' Peoples in Story and History (Part 1)," Freiburger Zeitschrift fur Philosophie und Theologe 46 (1999), 546-78; and Christoph Uehlinger, "The 'Canaanites' and Other 'Pre-Israelite' Peoples in Story and History (Part 2)," Freiburger Zeitschrift fur Philosophie und Theologie 47 (2000), 173-98.
(27) See Knauf, "Der Umfang des verheissenen Landes nach dem Ersten Testament," 152.
(28) This tide was used by Phyllis Trible regarding biblical texts that promote violence against women, Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror Uterary-feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia, 1984). (= Overtures to Biblical theology 13).
(29) See Norbert Lohfink, "Landeroberung und Heimkehr. Hermeneutik zum heurigen Umgang mit dem Josuabuch fur Jahrbuch fur Biblische Theologie 12 (1997), 3-24. Discussions about problematic texts of the OT can be found in Joachim Kugler (ed.), Prekare Zeitgenossenschaft. Mit dem Alten Testament in Konflikten derZeit. Internationales Bibel-Symposium Graz 2004 (Berlin, 2006) (= bayreuther forum TRANSIT 6).
(30) Norman C. Habel, The Land Is Mine. Six Biblical Land Ideologies (Minneapolis, 1995).
(31) Dexinger argues that not the historical facts are relevant but the theology that has an impact on identity-building processes; see Ferdinand Dexinger, "Das Land, das ich dir geben werde. Verheissung und religiose Territorialanspruche," in Jahrbuch fur Religionswissenschaft und Theologie der Religionen, Bd. 7/8 (1999/2000), 329-55.
(32) For example the so-called "Dolchstosslegende" (stab-in-the-back-legend) played a role in the rise of Nazism, the myth of Wilhelm Tell is relevant to identity building in Switzerland up to today; the myth of the Jews as those who control the world supports anti-Semitism.
(33) See Bechmann, Gestorte Grabesruhe, 29-36; Ottmar Fuchs, "Religionskritik in praktisch-theologischer Verantwortung," in Biblische Religionskritik. Kritik in, an und mit biblischen Texten, ed. Joachim Kugler and Ulrike Bechmann (Munster, 2009), 47-74 (= bayreuther forum TRANSIT 9).
(34) See Manfred Brocker and Mathias Hildebrandt, (eds.), Friedensstifiende Religionen? Religion und die Deeskalation politischer Konflikte (Wiesbaden, 2008).
(35) Problematic texts of the Old Testament are discussed in Joachim Kugler (ed.), Prekare Zeitgenossenschaft. Mit dem Alten Testament in Konflikten der Zeit. Internationale Bible-Symposium Graz 2004 (Berlin, 2006). (= bayreuther Jorum TRANSIT 6).
(36) F. E.Deist, "Postmodernism and the Use of Scripture in Theological Argument: Footnotes to the Apartheid Theology Debate," Neotestamentica: Journal of the New Testament Society of South Africa 28:3 (1994), 253-63; Ulrich Berner, "Erwahlungsglaube und Rassismus. Das Alte Testament und die Entstehung der Apartheid-Ideologie," in Kugler, Prekare Zeitgenossenschaft, 134-49.
Ulrike Bechmann, a professor of religion in the Roman Catholic theological faculty at the University of Graz, has served since 2007 as the director of the Institut fur Religionswissenschaft.
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|Publication:||The Ecumenical Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2016|
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