The problem with using the Bible to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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“God gave Israel the land. Unconditional. Everlasting. Period.”

For some evangelicals, that’s the definitive answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. End of discussion. This sentiment was echoed in some of the comments to my recent post on why we shouldn’t equate modern-day Israel with the ancient biblical kingdom.

It’s what came to mind as I listened to the appointed readings in my church last Sunday. (It’s funny how the lectionary is able to speak into real-life events sometimes.) As I heard the words of Romans 9, it was impossible not to think about Israel and Palestine. I thought of the 1,300+ Gazan civilians who were killed in the latest round of fighting—400 of them children—and how their deaths were dismissed by some on account of Israel being God’s “chosen people.”

I thought about the volatile—and lethal—combination of politics and theology, which makes reasonable discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so difficult. I thought about what happens when we miss what it means to be God’s chosen people.

Against this backdrop came the words of the apostle Paul:

I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit—I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.
— Romans 9

The people of Israel occupied a special place in Paul’s heart—not just because he was one of them, but because they occupy a special place in God’s story. Paul left no doubt about this. They were adopted by God, he says. They have the covenants. The law. The temple. (Paul wrote these words about a dozen years before Rome destroyed the Jewish temple.) The people of Israel have the promises and the patriarchs. The Messiah was one of their own.

But isn’t it interesting what Paul doesn’t say they have? The land. Oh, he mentions covenants and promises all right, which some might read as including the land. But he never comes right out and says, “Theirs is the kingdom,” or, “Theirs is the territory.”

Romans 9–11 is the most extensive discourse on the role of Israel to be found in the whole New Testament. This is where Paul deals with the question of Israel’s future in light of the new covenant. If land was part of that future, surely this would have been the place to spell that out.

Yet there is nothing here about territory. Israel has a future, all right. God still cares about them. The fact that many of Paul’s own people chose not to believe in Jesus had opened the door for him to bring the message about Jesus to the Gentiles. As far as Paul was concerned, opening the doors like this was part of God’s plan from the beginning, going all the way back to Genesis 12. But God was not through with Israel. “All Israel will be saved,” Paul insisted.

Still, Paul says nothing about Israel being restored to a particular piece of real estate. Nowhere in this passage does he mention land. Not once.

He’s not alone in choosing not to depict Israel’s restoration in geographic terms, either. In the book of Acts, Luke records the disciples asking Jesus, “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” just as Jesus is about to return to heaven.

In other words: “Are we going to reclaim our land now?”

Jesus dismisses the question out of hand. He’s going to do the opposite, in fact. He’s going to send them out of the land. Luke’s first volume depicts Jesus moving toward Jerusalem as he brings Israel’s story to its culmination. But in his second volume, Acts, the movement is away from Jerusalem. It’s not about one parcel of land anymore. It’s about Samaria*, too. It’s about Asia Minor. It’s about Europe—and even Rome itself. It’s about the whole earth.

This is not a case of God not keeping his promise to Israel. It’s a case of God over-fulfilling his promise. It’s no longer restricted to one particular piece of earth or just one group of people. It’s all nations. All people. That’s why in another letter, Paul declared Gentile Christians to be descendants of Abraham and “heirs according to the promise.”

“Now you,” Paul goes on to say, “like Isaac, are children of promise.”

Like Isaac.

Whose son was Jacob, otherwise known as Israel.

So central to Paul’s message is this idea that God is over-fulfilling his promise to Israel that he keeps returning to it. In Ephesians, a letter addressed to Gentile Christians in Asia Minor, he writes:

You… were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel, foreigners to the covenant of promise… But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
— Ephesians 2

In other words… excluded from citizenship in Israel no longer.

To be clear, classical supersessionism—the idea that the church has replaced Israel—gets some things wrong. The church doesn’t replace Israel as recipients of God’s blessing. Instead, the rest of us are invited to join with Israel in receiving that blessing—a blessing that has grown to encompass the whole earth, which is going to be renewed and restored by God someday.

This is where the biblical drama was heading all along. This was the whole point in God choosing a Mesopotamian nomad named Abram and giving his descendants a home at the juncture of three continents. It wasn’t an end unto itself, but the start of something much bigger. God was making “one new humanity.” The old divisions and identities—and all they carried with them, including territorial claims—would be rendered obsolete. A new identity—and with it, citizenship in a kingdom uniting heaven and earth—is here.

That’s the story of the New Testament. That’s the story of Jesus’ kingdom. This story says nothing about a particular piece of land for a particular group of people, because the story has moved beyond that.

When Christians use Scripture to defend the territorial claims of the modern Israeli state, we miss the story the New Testament is trying to tell us. In fact, you might say we’re moving in the opposite direction of that story.

Of course, this doesn’t settle the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians today. We shouldn’t think we can resolve a dispute like this based on the assumptions of one religion. (Not even that—the assumptions of one subset of one religion.) It should be resolved on nonreligious grounds. For Christians to use Scripture to validate the territorial claims of one side is to misuse the Bible.

*Disclaimer: I’m using the term Samaria as it’s used in the New Testament—i.e. the central part of ancient Palestine, the territory formerly associated with the northern kingdom of Israel. I’m not using it in the way that modern-day Israeli settlers do when trying to claim the West Bank for themselves.

14381016166_cd1e784260_zRelated post: 
Why evangelicals should think twice about equating modern Israel with Israel of the Bible

How “the days are evil” is a lousy excuse

The other day, Joel J. Miller offered some helpful insight into what he calls the “most highlighted verse” in the Bible, Philippians 4:6.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

The problem, he observed, is that highlighting and reading this verse in isolation yields a rather different meaning than the one Paul intended. Arbitrarily placed verse divisions, none of which were original to Paul or the other biblical authors, have conditioned us to ignore the surrounding context. In this case, the immediately preceding statement: “The Lord is near.”

Which, it turns out, was Paul’s whole reason for not being anxious in the first place.

Severed from its original context, Philippians 4:6 sounds more like a self-help guide to stress management than what it truly is: an affirmation that God is presently at work doing away with all cause for anxiety.

But this isn’t the only example of how reading one verse at a time can cause us to hear something different from what Scripture is really trying to say.


We do not experience God in ways that take us out of this world, but we experience him in ways that root us even more deeply in this world.

I came across this quote the other day while reading The Compassion Quest, a great new book by a friend named Trystan Owain Hughes.

This idea, that our relationship with God is rooted in this world, flies in the face of how some of us — especially those of us who grew up in the evangelical subculture — are accustomed to thinking.

This world is not for experiencing God. This world is for “just passing through” on the way to God. This world is overdue for judgment, burning, destruction.

We don’t wait for God to meet us here. We wait for him to evacuate us from here.


After all, “the days are evil.” Just like Paul said in Ephesians 5:16.

I hear this verse (half a verse, actually) quoted a lot. Often with an air of resignation. As a rationale for why the world doesn’t turn the way some Christians wish it did, for why it doesn’t always cater to their expectations.

The days are evil.

So what’s the point in bothering with this world?

None, right?

As it happens, that’s the precise opposite of what Paul argues in the passage we now know as Ephesians 5. Here’s the fuller quote:

Be very careful, then, how you live — not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

“Making the most of every opportunity” can also be translated as “redeeming the time.”

Redeem. As in, buy back. Reclaim. Make good again.

Time. As in, this present age. Otherwise known as “the days.” Yes… the same days that are “evil.”

The days are evil is not an excuse for resignation, abandonment, or escapism. It’s not an invitation to retreat into some religious bubble… or to check out, sit back, and wait for the apocalypse to commence. It’s an invitation to engage, connect, restore, rebuild. The days are evil is why Paul admonished his readers to make themselves useful.

“Sure, the days are evil. So do something about it. Redeem them. Make them good again.”


Near the end of Genesis, there’s a story about a man named Joseph who was sold into slavery by his older brothers. Through a series of unlikely events, Joseph wound up in Egypt, where he was elevated to the rank of second-in-command, just as famine struck the entire region.

Everyone turned to Egypt for food, including Joseph’s brothers. After a somewhat tense reunion, the brothers worried that Joseph would seek his revenge. But Joseph assured them there would be no reprisal. What his brothers meant for evil, Joseph explained, God had used for good.

I think Genesis 50 is a picture of what Paul describes in Ephesians 5. But notice how bringing good from evil isn’t God’s responsibility alone. It’s ours. We have a part to play in the story. We’re meant to be God’s agents for bringing good into this world. We are his best plan for “redeeming the time.”

The days of Joseph’s brothers were evil. They were marked by jealousy, betrayal, oppression, and violence. But with God’s help, Joseph redeemed them, “making the most of every opportunity.” In the end, Joseph redeemed not just “the time” but his own family, rescuing them from starvation and slavery.

We too are called to redeem the time. Checking out early isn’t an option. Writing off this world as a lost cause isn’t an option. To do so is to read only half the verse and miss the whole point.

Taking a second look at the worst verse in the Bible

Theater at Ephesus

When Ship of Fools asked readers to submit nominations for worst verse in the Bible a few years back, there was a clear winner. Beating out passages on genocide, dismemberment, and all manner of inscripturated unpleasantries was this:

I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.
–1 Timothy 2:12, NIV

For many complementarians, 1 Timothy 2 is the Discussion Killer. The Trump Card. It’s the clobber text that beats up all the other clobber texts and takes their lunch money.

Paul couldn’t have put it any more clearly, could he?

Except that the name of Paul’s letter is not “Mandatory Instructions for Churches Everywhere.” Paul set his sights elsewhere in 1 Timothy—namely, he was counseling a young pastor at the end of his rope.

Paul had instructed his protégé Timothy to take charge of the dysfunctional Christian community in Ephesus, a church Paul had planted years earlier. The assignment proved to be too much for the young disciple.

I visited Ephesus in 2005 while studying the spread of early Christianity in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The trip offered another perspective on the “worst verse in the Bible.”

In Paul’s day, Ephesus was home to half a million people. It was a leading city of the Roman Empire. The population swelled for two weeks every year, during a giant festival to honor the city’s patron deity, Artemis.

Artemis was the goddess of fertility (among other things). Her priests were women and, as N.T. Wright observes, “they ruled the show and kept the men in their place.”

Artemis’ temple was said to be founded by the Amazons, a mythical group of female warriors who had little use for men, apart from the occasional need to procreate.

According to the Artemis legend, women were created first. Women were superior. Women called the shots. Artemis was mainly concerned with the welfare of women, which is why she promised to keep them safe in childbearing—no mean feat at a time when as many as 1 in 3 women died giving birth.

Men who wished to serve the goddess were free to do so… well, I say “free.” Actually, the cost could be rather steep. In return for the honor of service, Artemis required their manhood, quite literally.

New Testament scholar Catherine Clark Kroeger once described the initiation process as follows:

Males voluntarily castrated themselves and assumed women’s garments. A relief from Rome shows a high priest of Cybele [a closely related deity]. The castrated priest wears veil, necklaces, earrings and feminine dress. He is considered to have exchanged his sexual identity and to have become a she-priest.

It’s possible female converts in Ephesus came to Christianity straight from the Artemis cult. Can you imagine the difficulty they would’ve had learning to accept men in the church as their equals? Perhaps not unlike like the difficulty some men have accepting women as their equals today.

Before long, tensions might have boiled over. Church gatherings could have descended into chaos as some of the women announced they were created first and ought to call the shots. Timothy would have quickly reached the end of his rope trying to hold this fledgling community together.

So his mentor Paul wrote a letter. Reading that letter almost two thousand years later, we cannot hope to understand Paul’s advice without spending a little time in Ephesus.

Whatever the precise nature of the conflict, Paul was trying to correct a specific situation run amuck. So he prohibited Ephesian women from taking the reins of the Ephesian church, from usurping Timothy’s authority (as Paul’s surrogate), and from lording it over their brothers in Christ.

This interpretation may also help explain Paul’s otherwise bizarre reference to childbearing, which might just be be a direct challenge to Artemis:

But women will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
—1 Timothy 2:15

Don’t trust Artemis to look after you in childbirth, Paul was saying in effect, trust the risen Christ. 

If I’m right, then to conclude from 1 Timothy 2 that women are subordinate to men and therefore unfit to lead is to commit the very error Paul condemned in this passage. Only, this time the shoe is on the other foot.

Paul didn’t want women lording it over men, as Artemis had taught them to do. Nor would he have wanted men lording it over women. Remember, this is the same person who told the Galatians there is no “male and female” in Christ’s church.

If Paul were addressing a complementarian church today, where it was taught that women are inherently and forever subject to men, he may very well have written something like this:

I do not permit a man to teach or have authority over a woman; he must be quiet. For Eve was formed last, the pinnacle of creation. And Eve was not the one told to avoid from the forbidden tree; it was the man who was told and should have known better.

Sometimes harsh words are needed to correct an imbalance of power. That’s what we see in 1 Timothy 2, where Paul provides a short-term solution to a specific problem. In the long run, however, the only real solution is (you guessed it)…


Church of St. Mary the Virgin (5th century), Ephesus

Farewell, complementarianism (pt. 2)

The first crack in the complementarian wall came during seminary. I wasn’t entirely expecting this, since my school was at least nominally complementarian.

But one New Testament professor had an incurable habit of getting on his soapbox whenever he felt someone was “abusing the Bible,” as he called it. And one of his favorite soapboxes had to do with an apparent inconsistency in Paul’s logic concerning women:

  • In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul commands women to “remain silent in the churches.” This is one of a handful of texts often sited in support of the complementarian view, which says women are to be subject to men in the church and at home.
  • Yet in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul basically gives the women of Corinth a dress code to follow when prophesying in church. A prophet was basically someone who gave advice on God’s behalf. Kind of hard to imagine women doing that with their mouths shut.

So we’re forced to entertain a few possibilities:

1. “Silent” doesn’t mean what we think it does. A bit of a stretch, especially for a word (Greek, sigao) that carries a strong sense of telling someone to “shut up.” (See, for example, Luke 18:39.)

2. Paul was being inconsistent — or someone tampered with his letter after the fact. Authorship is a hotly contested issue for many books in the Bible, but 1 Corinthians isn’t one of them. There is, however, some evidence the statement in chapter 14 was added later. But for the sake of argument, let’s say Paul was responsible for the whole letter, including the bit where he tells women to shut up. It’s hard to imagine someone of Paul’s intelligence contradicting himself so badly in the space of a relatively short letter.

3. Paul was being sarcastic. (This was my NT professor’s theory.) One of Paul’s favorite tactics in 1 Corinthians was to quote something his readers were fond of saying to justify their behavior — like, “I have the right to do anything” — and then refute it. What makes it tricky is that Greek manuscripts don’t have any punctuation, so deciding when Paul is quoting something is a matter of interpretation. But if Paul was sarcastically quoting the Corinthians when he said, “Women are to remain silent,” this would go a long way toward making sense of his next statement: “Or did the word of God originate with you?” Which was basically his way of saying, “Who do you think you are?”

4. Paul’s feelings about women in the church are more complex than we realize — more nuanced, depending on the specific context he’s addressing. Which would explain why he can heartily greet female apostles in one letter and prohibit women from teaching altogether in another.

With option #4 in mind, it’s worth considering N.T. Wright’s explanation of 1 Corinthians 14. It was common in many ancient churches for the men and women to sit apart. Women, not having access to formal education in the first century, would be at a disadvantage — especially if the service was conducted in a more formal or classical style of language. So eventually, the women would get bored and start talking among themselves.

Wright imagines the scene like this:

The level of talking from the women’s side would steadily rise in volume, until the minister would have to say loudly, ‘Will the women please be quiet!’, whereupon the talking would die down, but only for a few minutes. Then, at some point, the minister would again have to ask the women to be quiet; and he would often add that if they wanted to know what was being said, they should ask their husbands to explain it to them when they got home.

Whatever we make of 1 Corinthians 14, it’s not a simple matter of saying, “Let’s just go back to what the Bible says about women and the church.” Because the Bible says lots of different things about women and the church. And not everything the Bible has to say on the matter is universally applicable.

Simply put, the Bible didn’t set out to be a book about gender roles. So you should never trust someone who tells you, “It’s quite clear the Bible teaches women should XYZ…”

It’s not.

Part 3 of this series can be found here

Election in the Old Testament, part 3

In the Old Testament, God kicked off his redemptive plan by forming a covenant nation called Israel. The nation as a whole was a chosen instrument, predestined by God.

But each person had a choice to make. If you were born into the covenant, there were dozens of ways you could opt out — that is, be “cut off.” If you were born outside the chosen nation, there was nothing but your own pride to keep you from joining it.

Which leads to another important point about predestination in the Old Testament: it’s always for the benefit of others — i.e. the not-predestined. This idea is woven into the very first promise God made to Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Notice the promised blessing is unlimited in scope. Anyone who blesses God’s people (and by extension, God himself) will be blessed by God in return. And notice that God’s action comes in response to human action.

Yes, God is orchestrating redemptive history. Yes, he alone initiates salvation. But he does so in a way that leaves room for us to play a meaningful part.

The promise ends with “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is the whole reason for God’s covenant with Abraham. God is not raising up a chosen nation for its own sake, as if to carve out a tiny portion of the human race for himself. He intends to use this nation as a vehicle to bring salvation to the entire world.

After the exodus, God established his covenant with the whole nation at Mount Sinai, calling them a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19). A priest is a human conduit for grace. Someone who not only points the way to God, but helps others walk the path.

In other words, the Israelites were not predestined to be “saved” for their own sake. They were predestined to be priests. They were predestined to draw others to God — or as Isaiah puts it, to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42, 49).

In the New Testament, we see the same connection between predestination and priestly proclamation. Paul refers at one point to his “priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God” (Romans 15). Elsewhere, Peter writes to the church:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession [all of which is predestination language], that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Predestination is never an end unto itself. We are not predestined to be members of a club, we are predestined to be ambassadors and priests, proclaiming the good news to others so they in turn can be predestined to do the same.

Calvinism views predestination as a means by which God narrows the scope of his redemptive agenda, applying its benefits to a select few. But in the Old Testament, predestination works in reverse, gradually expanding the circle to include more and more people — with the end goal of blessing “all peoples on earth.”

Thwarting God?

If God orchestrates every detail of history, if he decided in advance all who would and wouldn’t be saved, and if his sovereign will cannot be thwarted under any circumstances — then what should we make of the following statement from Luke’s gospel?

All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.

Members of the Jewish religious establishment are generally depicted as the baddies in the gospel story. With few exceptions (namely, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea), they resist Jesus at every turn. But according to Luke, their resistance wasn’t what God had in mind. God had other plans for them.

You could argue this is a case of “double perspectives,” to borrow a phrase from John Piper. That, on one level, God wants the Pharisees to be saved, much in the same way he wants everyone to be saved. But this desire on God’s part amounts to little more than vague wishing, since it has no impact on the outcome. Meanwhile, on another level, God has sovereignly predestined the Pharisees to be the antagonistic reprobates they are.

But before you appeal to the “double perspectives” argument, take a closer look at the phrase “God’s purpose” (Greek, ten boulen tou theo). In the New Testament, the word boule is used exclusively in reference to God’s sovereign will — what he has decreed or decided should happen.

For example, Peter claims in Acts that Jesus was crucified because God’s “power and will [boule] had decided beforehand” that it should happen. Piper uses this very text to argue for meticulous sovereignty.

In Ephesians 1, Paul writes, “We were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity to the purpose [boule] of his will.”

So it would seem from Luke that God’s sovereign will — which predestines people and orchestrates history — can be resisted in some cases. What should we make of this?