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The Nation of Israel as the People of God

For Sunday August 3, 2014

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Genesis 32:22–31 or Isaiah 55:1–5

Psalm 17:1–7, 15 or Psalm 145:8–9, 14–21

Romans 9:1–5

Matthew 14:13–21

           There's no nation like Israel, writes Ari Shavit, in his critically-acclaimed best seller, My Promised Land (2013). There are many reasons for that claim, but two in particular define his deeply personal narrative about modern Israel — occupation and intimidation. "In the twenty-first century there is no other nation that is occupying another people as we do, and there is no other nation that is intimidated as we are."

           Israel has always lived with existential fear as a "profoundly vulnerable" island of 6 million Jews in a sea of 1.5 billion Muslims. The Jewish imagination, goes the black humor, is "paranoia confirmed by history."

           Israel was also founded by the violent expulsion and subjugation of 700,000 Palestinians, and so it is shadowed with a sense of moral ambiguity. Its ethical idealism struggles with the political realities of raw power. In the documentary film The Gatekeepers (2012), which interviews all six living former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's secretive security agency that's the rough equivalent of the CIA, one of them remarks, "We've become a cruel people."         

Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

           Shavit is a leading Israeli journalist, a columnist for Haaretz (Israel's leading liberal newspaper), a commentator on Israeli public television, and a self-described "peacenik." But his narrative never takes the easy way out of partisan ideology. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, calls Shavit's work "the least tendentious book about Israel I have ever read." Israel's story is full of ambiguity and "core contradictions," writes Shavit. And thus the subtitle of his book, "the triumph and tragedy of Israel."

           The triumph is obvious. After three thousand years of history, after exodus and exile, annihilation and assimilation, the ancient Jews have a modern state. In his five-episode Story of the Jews (2014, PBS-BBC), the historian Simon Schama of Columbia University admits that this feels something like a "miracle." About forty percent of the world's Jews live in Israel. Another forty percent live in the United States.

           The moral tragedy is also obvious. John Kerry recently said that Israel risks becoming an "apartheid state." Shavit describes his experience as a jailer for the IDF in a Gaza detention camp, guarding prisoners in barbed-wire cages.

           So, what is ancient Israel or modern Judaism? Who is a Jew in a putative Israeli democracy? How does one stay Jewish in a non-Jewish world? These questions drive the narratives of Shavit and Schama.

           I was reminded of the different ways to answer these questions a few weeks ago when having lunch with three Jewish neighbors — one was Conservative, another Reformed, and the third was Reconstructionist, which by some interpretations isn't even theistic. And across the street from my house is an Orthodox study center. The Kabbalist mystical tradition is different still.

           Paul, that "Hebrew of Hebrews" who bragged that he was more zealous for Judaism than anyone, never could have imagined how his epistle for this week would resonate with such force two thousand years later. In Romans 9:2 he writes about his "great sorrow and unceasing grief" for his fellow Jews.

           The ancient Bible isn't a blueprint for modern politics. We shouldn't expect Paul to prognosticate about contemporary Israel. And yet Romans 9–11 provokes us to think about what it means for the nation of Israel to be the people of God.

The (Roman Catholic) Church of All Nations in Jerusalem.
The (Roman Catholic) Church of All Nations in Jerusalem.

           In his book In God's Shadow (2012), Michael Walzer of Princeton notes that Israel began with two different but related covenants — one with Abraham based upon kinship, family, and birthright as a chosen people, and another with Moses, based upon a legal covenant, a nation, law, and a people who might be chosen but who also must freely choose.

          In Romans 9–11, Paul redefines both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.

           As for Abrahamic lineage, he writes, "they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel, neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants" (9:6–7). And Paul was famous for his insistence that no person will be justified before God by keeping the Mosaic law.

           To the Galatians and the Colossians Paul wrote that "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." To the Ephesians he wrote that Jesus "made the two groups [Jews and Gentiles] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility."

           Jesus said similar things. "Do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham." Observant Jews complained that Jesus ignored the Mosaic law and welcomed ritually impure Gentiles. And the first and most divisive flash point for the first believers, who were a tiny sect of Judaism, was whether Gentile converts had to observe the Mosaic law.

           Whatever its many theological and political ambiguities, ancient and modern, Paul insists that Israel's election as God's people is "irrevocable" (11:29). And their divine election came with a specific vocation.

           When God called Abraham to form a people for himself, he said that he would bless not only Jews, but "all peoples on earth" (Genesis 12:3, 22:18). When he repeated his covenant to Isaac, he reiterated his inclusive love for all the world: "in you, Isaac, all nations on earth will be blessed" (Genesis 26:5). And when Jacob used a rock for a pillow and dreamed a dream at Bethel, God again repeated verbatim: "In you, Jacob, all peoples on earth will be blessed" (28:14).

The Old Jerusalem Hurva Synagogue.
The Old Jerusalem Hurva Synagogue.

           There's a simultaneous narrowing and expansion of God's action in history, a movement from the particular to the universal. God called a single individual, Abraham, and promised to bless all the world through him. There's a progressive expansion in God's promise. God vowed to make of Abraham a "great nation." Paul described Abraham as a father of "many" nations (Romans 4:17 = Genesis 17:5). We then read that "all peoples on earth will be blessed through" Abraham (12:3). Paul describes Abraham as "the father of us all" (Romans 4:16–17). So, through one particular person God enacted his universal embrace of all humanity.

           The most provocative point of Walzer's book (above) is that while the Hebrew Bible contains a lot about politics, it isn't really interested in politics. Rather, it presents us with a radical anti-politics. Since God is sovereign, caesar is secondary. The prophets, for example, were poets of social justice and the most important form of public speech in Israel, but they weren't political activists with any program. In contrast to Greek philosophers, says Walzer, "the Biblical writers never attach great value to politics as a way of life." Politics is simply "not recognized by the Biblical writers as a centrally important or humanly fulfilling activity."

           In place of radically relativized politics, Walzer says that the people of God are called to a way of life, like Micah 6:8: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. Protect the weak, feed the poor, free the slaves, and welcome the alien. The sovereign God calls each one of us to a larger community that's characterized by what he calls "fellow feeling." That is, we trust ourselves to God alone and are responsible for each other.

           For the Eucharist at my church, we gather around the altar. We begin by inviting the children to join us and singing a short song: "God welcomes all, / strangers and friends. / His love is strong, / And it never ends."

           That was Peter's lesson in Acts 10-11, that Abraham's God of the Jews "shows no favoritism." He "welcomes all." How radical is that divine inclusivity? It's so inclusive that even ritually impure Gentiles and pagan idolaters can become part of the people of God. And it's the vocation of God's people to reflect his character by welcoming all people everywhere.

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