Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Judges 1: An Open Memo to the Israeli Settlers

A piece in last Thursday's Times noted the continued proliferation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, even as President Obama and his point man on Israel--George Mitchell--ramp up efforts at Mideast Peace. (A Monday news analysis continues the coverage.)

The first story quotes a settler--a devout one, obviously--petulantly defending the his group's rights to the land: “The Torah says the land of Israel is for the Jewish people. This is just the beginning. We will build 1,000 homes here. The Arabs cannot stay here, not because we hate them, but because this is not their place.”

I can't really quibble with his point. The Torah does suggest that 1) the land that is now Israel belongs to the Hebrews and 2) it is not the Arabs' (read: Canaanites') place. (Other scriptures argue otherwise, but let's keep this discussion Biblical.) However, it only takes a quick read through the opening chapters of Judges to discover that these two statements are only true, well, until they aren't.

Those of you who have never made it to the end of the Torah (the first five books of the bible) might not know that while it reputedly tells how the Israelites' get to the Promised Land, the story ends before the people arrive. It is the book of Joshua, one after the Torah, that gives us their successful invasion and occupation of the land.

Joshua reads like heroic legend--it's a heavily idealized version of events. The Israelite armies conquer with bloody ease. Opposing armies fall beneath their blades like grass before the reaper, and their entrance into Canaan feels divinely mandated, like it's supposed to. Even their route seems inspired by God--a perfect circle of destruction that delivers the Promised Land to the Chosen People.

(As a side note, when I heard of the Promised Land as a child, I always pictured it as uninhabited--as rolling, fertile, unpopulated plains filled with amiable wildlife. A lot like Nebraska, I guess. In fact, it's full of people--people who have to be slaughtered. Perhaps that's why kids only get the Jericho story.)

By contrast, the book of Judges lays out a different version of events--one that doesn't paper over pesky details. Because it turns out that the Israelites' occupation of Israel is neither so simple nor so complete as Joshua would have us believe. The Hebrew armies actually lose a few battles. And some of the Canaanite peoples (read: Arabs) just won't be rooted out.

Take a notable instance in Judges 1: "The Lord was with Judah [the tribe], and he took possession of the hill country, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron" (1:19).

Note a few things here. This moment is supposed to mark a triumphant entry into Promised Land--the place that God sets aside specifically for the Israelites. This is the time when the deity is supposed to cash the covenantal check, no questions asked. Furthermore, "The Lord was with Judah." In plenty of instances, the Bible makes no mention of the Lord's presence or absence, but here the text is specific--God is riding shotgun with the Judahites as they hit the plains.

And despite all this, they lose. With the creator of the universe on their side! With the maker of lightning and the bridger of depths. Because of rattle-trap metal boxes pulled by emaciated quadrupeds! (Sorry, horses ... I'm just trying to make a point here.) So this is just how far the Promise goes: Israel for the Israelites, unless the other side has bigger guns. Said differently, the people of Israel are never, even in these first hours and days, unproblematically in control of the Promised Land. It's always a tough row to hoe.

So I close with a special note to the West Bank settlers: as far as the Torah is concerned, Israel is indeed yours, not the Arabs'. But I'd watch out for guys with chariots if I were you.

1 comment:

  1. Joshua: The questions of the Middle East, settlements, walls, terrorism, invading armies, civilian casualties, and deciding who has the most legitimate claim to land has been argued by the Lutheran Church. Many Lutheran leaders seem to have "pathos for the Palestinians" (could be a name for a song,) and pursue this as a basis for justice. Your look into Judges as a perspective that is more objectively honest is refreshing. I have thought that the Covenant of the Torah with Israel regarding their rights for the promised land extend only to the degree that they fulfill their side of the Covenant. When "the law" is broken, the rights to the land are withdrawn, or, the Hebrews are scattered far and wide with no nation to call their own. Only awareness of this shortfall and a renewed commitment to the Covenant returns them to the land. And, in the end, it seems to me that the idea of God and geography evolves. God can be with the people even without a temple, a nation, a government, or a holy city. All the world becomes a holy place when the Covenant is fulfilled and loving the Lord your God with all heart and mind, and neighbor as self becomes the new/old central focus. This might lead the discussion of rights and responsibilities in a different direction.

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