Is Election the Same as License?

“I will curse those who curse you…” (Gen 12:3)

I anticipated some negative reactions to the most recent blog entry and have gotten them. Generally, objections center around Israel’s status as God’s chosen people and seem to reflect the idea derived from God’s promise of protection to Abraham that Israel enjoys almost untouchable status in God’s eyes. To be “on Israel’s side” is to be on God’s side; to oppose Israel, for whatever reason, is to oppose God. Besides, the Palestinians, my critics have reminded me, do not want peace either, at least not if it means accommodating a Jewish state. I want to reiterate, therefore, a few assertions and expand upon them with a few additional observations – “mostly from the Bible.”

First, the term “anti-Semitism” has become an imprecise term when used in relation to the modern nation-state of Israel. Indeed, its roots are somewhat imprecise, since an “Anti-Arab” stance (Arabs are Semites) would also, technically, be anti-Semitism.  In any case, classically, the term refers to a historical Christian attititude toward Jews, related to Christian supercessionism (the idea that the Christian Church “supercedes” Israel as the “New Israel” or the “True Israel” and that, therefore, God’s covenant with Israel is null and void; contra Jeremiah 34; Isaiah 40; and Romans 1) and involving the incorrect depiction of Jews as “Christ-killers.”  To be critical of Israelite policies and practices is not anti-Semitic, since even someone who loves Judaism and Jews can be critical of specific behaviors.  I am not “anti-son” when I correct my child’s behavior. In fact, wishing for someone, even some nation, to be better than it is is a higher form of loyalty that accepting – even endorsing – misbehavior.

Second, the modern secular state of Israel hardly equates with the people of Israel.  The majority of Jews in Israel are non-observant. Some citizens of Israel are Arab. Incidently, neither does “Arab” equate with Muslim. A significant proportion of Israeli and Palestinian Arabs are Christian. In its current form, the modern state of Israel hardly represents a reconstitution of Israel as God’s chosen people.

Most importantly, and this is the locus of all my criticisms of the modern state of Israel and its current policies and practices, contemporary Israel does behave like God calls the people of God to behave.  Specifically, God called Abraham and his descendants to bring blessing to all the families of the earth (including Arabs; Gen 12:3), to be a light to the nations (including Arabs; Isa 42:6). Through the prophet Jeremiah, God even promised that, “after I have plucked them (Israel’s neighbors) up, I will have mercy on them again and I will bring them to their inheritance again, and to their land, everyone of them. And then, if they will indeed learn the ways of my people…then they shall be built up in the midst of my people” (12:15-16, all translations mine). In a manner highly relevant to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories and even of its Arab citizens, God frequently expresses the commission for Israel to bring blessing to the nations in terms commandments governing its treatment of the marginalized in their midst, especially the “sojourners,” “resident aliens.” I will list only a few of these commandments along with the question, “Is this how the modern state of Israel treats the disenfranchised?”  Incidentally, the argument that the Palestinians might be better treated if they would only accept their diminished circumstances is tantamount to blaming the victim. In fact, these commandments also often include the reminder that Israel should be eager to protect “sojourners” since it knew the life of the oppressed sojourner in Egypt. Moreover, just as God liberated Israel from this oppression, God frequently calls upon Israel to play the role of liberator, too.

“There shall be one law for the native and for the sojourner/resident alien who sojourns among you” (Exod 12:49).

“…you will do no work [on the Sabbath day], neither you…nor the sojourner living within your gates” (Exod 20:10; Deut 5:15 adds a reminder that Israel was once enslaved; cf. Lev 16:29 and passim).

“And you will not afflict or oppress a sojourner/resident alien because you were sojourners/resident aliens in Egypt” (Exod 22:20; cf. Lev 19:33 and passim).

“…you shall leave them [the last gleanings] for the poor and the sojourner” (Lev 19:10).

“The sojourner sojourning with you will be like a native, and you will love him as yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. I am YHWH  your God” (Lev 19:34).

I am not anti-Semitic.  On the other hand, I am unwilling to “choose sides” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If anything, I bemoan the circumstances created by the European powers in the period from the end of WWI to the UN Declaration giving birth to Israel. Giving a homeland to persecuted Jews was a worthy endeavor.  Taking a homeland from the Palestinians was unjust and cruel.  The deed is done now, however. Now, choosing between the Palestinians and the Israelis can only perpetuate the consequences of poor policy. Now, I for one, ask that both sides seek a means to coexist. With regard to Israel, this would mean recognizing the imbalance of power and acknowledging the real human costs of that imbalance.

To assume that God takes sides in this conflict is to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel (cf. Acts 10:34).  I know that bringing peace to the Middle East will be complicated, but I cannot decide for either party.  As an American Christian, however, I must acknowledge that the process is unlikely to make any real progress as long as a power such as the United States, driven largely by evangelical Christian misunderstandings of the Bible, effectively taking sides, treats Israel as though it were untouchable.

A Rebuilt Temple?

One aspect of contemporary apocalyptic doctrine held by many evangelical Christians is the expectation that a “third temple” (counting Herod’s temple as a continuation of the second temple rebuilt in the early Persian period) must and will be built in Jerusalem prior to the apocalypse.  It is but a component of Evangelical Christianity’s theological program that leads to virtually unconditional support of the modern state of Israel. This larger program includes the belief that a restored state of Israel, reuniting the twelve tribes, presages the Second Coming; the claim that the current conflict between Arabs and Israeli’s is but the continuation of strife that traces back to conflict between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau in biblical times, a conflict destined to culminate in Armageddon; and the conviction that, because of God’s promise of protection to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3), anyone who opposes Israel risks getting on God’s enemies list.

This expectation that a revitalized Israel will play a central role in the Second Coming of Jesus also helps to explain the support that conservative American Christians express for the United States’ recognition of Jerusalem, defined as the entirety of the modern city, as the capital of the modern state of Israel (see, for example, https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-10-24/why-american-evangelicals-are-huge-base-support-israel, http://www.cnn.com/2017/12/08/opinions/jerusalem-israel-evangelicals-end-times-butler-bass-opinion/index.html, and ttp://www.gospelherald.com/articles/71691/20171206/5-christian-leaders-reactions-trump-formally-recognizing-jerusalem-israels-capital.htm)  – despite a number of UN resolutions that recognize East Jerusalem (which was countryside in biblical times) as occupied territory. In turn, one can only speculate the Pres. Trump made this decision to recognize Jerusalem and to move the US embassy there, not because of some strategic Middle East policy, but in order to cater to his Evangelical supporters.

In any case, the expectation of a rebuilt temple is dangerous in two significant respects: it excuses, even promotes, injustice toward the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and it is based on faulty biblical interpretation. Before examining these two claims, I should make clear that I do not agree that criticizing the policies of the modern state of Israel or of its major sponsor, the USA, is tantamount to anti-Semitism or lack of patriotism, respectively. Instead, I believe, the call to seek justice knows no restrictions. Amos reminded Israel that responsibility is inherent in election: “Only you have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will visit against you all your perversions” (Amos 3:2, my trans.).

The first claim, namely, that the constellation of expectations that include a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem perpetuates injustice toward Palestinians, is almost self-evident. During the British Mandate for the Levant following WWI, the British essentially promised both the Jews and the Palestinians a homeland in the Levant one day (see the Balfour Declaration). The Holocaust shocked and embarrassed the western world. Indifference and incredulity permitted the West essentially to disregard Hitler’s program for addressing “the Jewish problem.” After WWII, however, when the costs of Western inaction became fully known, the international community acted to make amends, establishing the modern state of Israel. It was almost as if the world said to Jews, “We must make up for our failure. Here, we will give you a country.” Meanwhile, to the Palestinians living in that country, the international community essentially said, “We are going to make amends to the Jews for our shortcomings. It will require sacrifice. We have good news! We are going to let you make that sacrifice! Congratulations!”  In the series of brief “wars” since, Israel has seized the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza strip, among other smaller bits of geography.  Despite international law and contrary to a number of UN resolutions which recognize these properties, including East Jerusalem, as occupied territory, Israel continues to build Jewish settlements, erect fences, destroy structures, and seize ground in these regions. The US advocated war against Saddam Hussein for such violations of UN resolutions; yet, it turns it back on Israeli obstinacy. Meanwhile, the US, in particular, expects Palestinians to be grateful for the opportunity to contribute ancestral estates to the welfare of Jewish immigrants.

Furthermore, the idea that a third temple will be built in Jerusalem as a harbinger of the second coming arises from convoluted readings of texts like Matt 24:15; Dan 9:26-27; 2 Thess 2:3-4; and Ezek 40- 48 in the first place. Such interpretations of scripture violate the principle laid out in the previous entry in this blog, namely that, since even Jesus did not know when the end will come, but that its coming will be a stealth occurrence, Christians ought not to waste energy speculating about it, but should, instead, concentrate on being the church in the world.  Furthermore, typically, these readings rely on the interpreter disregarding the historical settings and historical references of the biblical texts. In other words, these interpretations require one to ignore or manipulate, the “plain reading” of the biblical text. Therefore, it will be helpful to establish a simple timeline of pertinent events.

586 BCE         – Nebuchadnezzer destroy’s Solomon’s Temple

515 BCE         – Returnees (re)build the “Second” Temple

168 BCE         – Antiochus IV Epiphanes erects statue of Zeus in the Temple

20-19 BCE      – Herod expands the “Second” Temple into a magnificent edifice

52-53 CE         – 2 Thessalonians written

Late 60’s CE   – Gospel of Mark written

70 CE              – Titus destroys Herod’s Temple

80’s-90’s CE   – Gospel of Matthew written

130 CE            – Hadrian builds pagan temple in which he installs statues of Jupiter and of himself on the temple mount

132-135 CE     – Bar Kokhba Revolt

Examination of the four texts that typically form the basis of the expectation of a rebuilt temple demonstrates that this expectation testifies more to the ingenuity of the interpreter than to the content of the biblical text.  In historical order, they are Ezekiel 40-48; Daniel 9:26-27; 2 Thess 2:3-4; and Matt 24:15.

Pre-exilic prophetic books, without exception, warn against the coming crisis involving either the Assyrian (Hosea, Amos, parts of Isaiah) or the Babylonian (the rest) Empires. They also contain texts that proclaim the continuation of God’s relationship with Israel, or part of it, through and beyond the crisis. Several of these texts promise some kind of reconstitution of Israel, although the details vary widely. On the very day of the destruction of Solomon’s temple, Ezekiel had a vision of another temple (40:1) that he describes in nine chapters.  As described, this temple is grander than Solomon’s and Herod’s combined. The Judeans did not follow Ezekiel’s description when they constructed the so-called “Second Temple” and Herod did not follow it either, which leads some to speculate that Ezekiel had a vision of the “third” temple, yet to be built. One notices quickly that many elements of Ezekiel’s plan contravene the Torah’s prescriptions and that the description does not suit a temple built to usher in the acocalypse.  In Ezekiel 43:7, for example, God identifies Ezekiel’s temple as God’s eternal residence, one that will never be defiled by Israel’s sin. Later in the vision Ezekiel (47:1-12) saw a river, too wide to cross, that flowed from threshold of this temple to the Dead Sea bringing it to life again. These hyperbolic/mythic elements raise the question of whether Ezekiel’s vision should be understood as a prediction or as the kind of heavenly vision Micaiah ben Imlah (2 Kgs 23) or Isaiah (chapter 6) had, a vision that reveals the heavenly temple and the new Jerusalem, not plans for a future structure in historical Jerusalem.

Daniel 9:26-27 speaks with the obscurity typical of apocalyptic literature about seventy “weeks of years” (= 490 years) beginning with the announcement calling for the reconstruction of Jerusalem (Edict of Cyrus 539 BCE?). This period ends with the abomination of desolation engineered by a certain “prince.” Interpreters who see this text as evidence for the “third temple” must interpolate an indefinite period into the time scheme outlined in the text, otherwise this abomination of desolation will have occurred before the birth of Jesus. Was there such an “abomination” in the period before Jesus’ birth?  Yes. Antiochus IV Epiphanes triggered the Hasmonean Rebellion with just such an act.  There is no need to stop the clock in the 69th week of years and restart it sometime yet to be evident.

Jesus referred to this Daniel text in his prediction/warning concerning the Jewish Wars that culminated with the destruction of Herod’s temple (Matt 24:15). Interpreters who expect a third temple argue that, since Jesus refers to the “holy place” in this description of the signs of the apocalypse for his disciples, there must be a temple in the period before Jesus’ return. They simply fail to recognize that “this” (the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) is not “that” (the end of the world).  See the previous entry in this blog.

Finally, proponents of the notion that a third temple must be built before the parousia appeal to Paul’s reference to the “lawless one” taking his seat in the temple before the coming of the Lord. Noting that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians before both the Jewish Wars and the Bar Kochka Rebellion, the nearest candidates for such a “lawless one” would have been Titus or Hadrian. Presumably, Paul had no more information concerning a detailed sequence of the events to lead up to the Parousia than Jesus himself did.

We do not do the Jews any favors by seeking to hasten the final battle, especially not since such efforts rely on such flimsy biblical evidence. Jesus did not know; we do not know.  Jesus was clear, however, when he called for his disciples to work for peace and justice – for Jew, Samaritan, and Gentile alike.

Are “these” days “those” days?

No! Grammar matters!

“Whenever you hear of wars and reports of wars, do not fear. This must be, but it is not yet the end” (Mark 13:7, my trans.)

I hear and read “end times” talk more lately than I have heard it since the late 1960’s and mid-1970’s. In those days of national (think 1968) and international (think 1968 again) turbulence, the MADD doctrine was still the cornerstone of US strategic planning, no one foresaw the possibility that the Iron Curtain would fall, the United States was awkwardly withdrawing from its misadventure in Indo-China, and, at home, the make-love-not-war, bra-burning, draft card-burning, counter-culture was gaining momentum. Many shared the general sense that, with so many areas of imbalance and contention and with such destructive power waiting to be unleashed, catastrophe was only a slight miscalculation away.

In the part of the church where I grew up, that general sense of fear fueled a rampant apocalyptic expectation. Named the “song of the year” at the inaugural GMA Dove Awards in 1969 as recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys, “Jesus is Coming Soon” warned, or celebrated in the opinion of some, that

Jesus is coming soon, morning or night or noon,/many will meet their doom; trumpets will sound./All of the dead shall rise; righteous meet in the skies;/Going where no one dies; heaven-ward bound.

Incidentally, R.E. Winsett wrote this song in 1942, in the midst of WWII, another time characterized by worldwide turmoil and fear. Also incidentally, next year will be the 50th anniversary of that award and Jesus has not come yet.

There can be little wonder that apocalyptic fervor, fanned by radio and TV preachers like Jack van Impe and mega-church pastors like John Hagee, should resurface now. The Arab-Israeli conflict has escaped its bounds. The end of the Cold War has not brought the international stability everyone expected, but given new impetus to nationalism in the regions of the world formerly part of, or under the influence of, the Soviet Union. In many cases, this nationalism and religious fundamentalism have coalesced in reassertions of regional and cultural identity. Instead of stability, the end of the Cold War stalemate has only brought war – civil and regional conflicts fueled by religious, class, and ethnic differences.

Meanwhile, here in the US, we find ourselves engaged in Culture War II.  As was the case with the armistice that ended WWI, the relative cessation of hostilities in the 1980’s and 1990’s did not resolve any of the issues. Now, some see developments like gay marriage rights and the browning of the population as existential threats and feel that the threats must be met with legal (and sometimes actual) force.

Wars and reports of war.

It seems to me that apocalyptic fervor of the pre-millenialist, Darbian, dispensationalist variety contributes to a number of the theological, ethical, and practical errors that I see at work in the part of the American church I know best. Lately, I have heard echoes of this fervor and seen shadows of those errors in other parts of the church, too. Even mainline and “liberal” Protestants sometimes describe the current state of things in “end times” terms.  I plan to devote several entries to discussions of these effects of apocalyptic fervor. First, however, I want to establish what I think is the most fundamental biblical teaching about apocalypticism, namely that Christians should avoid apocalyptic speculation altogether.

My authority for this claim is Jesus, specifically his response to the four leaders among the disciples’ question about the timing of their teacher’s statement concerning the destruction of the Temple. Some information about historical events in Israel just after Jesus will help to set the backgrounds.  Jesus was probably crucified sometime between 29 and 31CE. Already in Jesus’ day, tensions between the Jews in Israel and their Roman occupiers ran very high. By 66 CE, Jews in the province of Judea had broken out in open rebellion against Rome.  The First Jewish-Roman War that ensued (66-72 CE), during which the Romans did, indeed, destroy the Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE), was but the first of three wars fought between Jews and Rome during the century following Jesus’ death. The suicide pact among the leaders of this rebellion occurred in the famed stronghold at Masada. Many Jews, including Jewish Christians, fled Jerusalem at the time. Bar Kochba, the leader of the third of these rebellions (132-135 CE) claimed to be the Messiah, as had many others around the time of Jesus and shortly thereafter. After Rome defeated this third outbreak, it banned Jews from Jerusalem altogether, refounded the city as Aelia Capitolina, a Roman-Hellenistic center, and appropriated the temple site for the worship of Zeus Olympois.

This information already indicates that when Jesus referred to the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:2), he must have meant the destruction to occur roughly three decades later. Anything Jesus said in the rest of the discourse recorded in what scholars sometimes call the “Markan Apocalypse” in reference to this destruction manifestly does not apply to the apocalypse, therefore, regardless of the nickname scholars give the chapter.

In fact, a careful reader of the Greek text will note quickly that in the discourse Jesus distinguishes between: signs that will presage and accompany “this”/”these” (touto) event(s), for the most part quite carefully (vv 4-23; Jesus uses “those” in vv 17, 19 somewhat imprecisely, it seems, to refer to the “near” event, i.e. the First Jewish War), on the one hand; and characterizations of  “those days, after that tribulation” (v 24, the turning point in the discourse), on the other. In other words, “this” event, the near event that Jesus had in mind was clearly the First Jewish War, when the Romans destroyed the Temple. This war was disastrous, but not the final war to end wars.  Beginning in v 24, Jesus talked about the apocalypse, describing it in terms of cosmic events no one has ever seen.

To summarize, Jesus warned his listeners that their generation (“this generation,” v 30) would live to see the near events – false Messiahs, wars, earthquakes, famines, martyrdoms, betrayals, the desecration of the temple (v 14), false Christs and false prophets – that accompanied the Jewish Wars and preceded the destruction of the Temple. It is important to remember that the question that Jesus answers here has to do with this destruction. As to “that day” and “that hour,” i.e. the apocalyptic end, Jesus asserted, first, that it was not the imminent catastrophe (the Jewish War), and second, that only God the Father knows its date – Jesus did not know, the angels do not know, even Jesus as the apocalyptic Son of Man does not know (v 32). Finally, Jesus insisted, “that day” will dawn without warning – no signs, no indications, no markers.  Thieves in the night seek to surprise; they do not call attention to their approach. Paul, who seems to have known this saying of Jesus, warned, in fact, that, rather than betraying its arrival through signs, the “day of the Lord” will come precisely when least expected, “when they say, ‘peace and security’” (1 Thess 5:3, my trans.).

The signs pointing to the outbreak of the First Jewish War were fulfilled nearly 2,000 years ago. Jesus (and Paul) said that the final day of the Lord will come entirely without warning.

Therefore, my advice to contemporary Christians is the same as Jesus’s to his disciples and Paul’s to the Thessalonians: “Don’t be caught asleep! Get down to the business of living lives of discipleship! Be the church! Harvest because the fields are white!” Take your eyes off the skies and look to the many thirsty who need something to drink! Quit speculating about signs of the end and speak, instead, about the love of God in Jesus Christ that is no speculation.  If Jesus did not know when the end will come, neither do the likes of van Impe and Hagee. (It is good that we no longer stone false prophets, by the way.)

Words that Cut

“Some speak rashly like thrusting with the sword, but the tongue of the wise heals”      (Prov 12:18, my trans.)

Words are groupings of sounds that represent ideas, actions, things, relationships. The aggregate sounds, themselves, have no essential “meaning.” They are conventions whose representations are tacitly agreed upon by native speakers of a given language. A given aggregation of sounds may, therefore, represent entirely different concepts in two distinct Continue reading Words that Cut

Israel’s United Monarchy V

Israel’s United Monarchy 5 – FPC Richmond 10/17

Israel’s United Monarchy IV

Israel’s United Monarchy 4 – FPC Richmond 10/17

Israel’s United Monarchy III

Israel’s United Monarchy 3 – FPC Richmond 10/17

Israel’s United Monarchy II

Israel’s United Monarchy II – FPC Richmond 10/17

Israel’s United Monarchy (I)

I have been swamped recently:  meeting a publication deadline (a translation of the final volume of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, which deals with Biblical Aramaic), attending the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Boston, chairing an editorial board meeting there (with all the preparation entailed), presenting a paper there, holidays, family, and all the rest.  Consequently, I have neglected this blog.  A New Year approaches and I do not intend to wait for its arrival before acting on my resolve to be more attentive.  For the next several weeks, I will be posting a series of lectures given last month at the First Presbyterian Church on the subject of:

The United Monarchy I

A Series of Biblical Vignettes A Propos Pledging Allegiance

“Seek the welfare of the city” (Jer 29:7)

Christian proponents of a variety of doctrinal statements, ethical stances, and public policy positions often proclaim their viewpoints “biblical” either because they assume that the status quo ante must represent the divine will or because their position seems best to reflect a single biblical passage or a small grouping of passages. One could argue that, Continue reading A Series of Biblical Vignettes A Propos Pledging Allegiance