Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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Walter Brueggemann
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , September
     114 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a brief fifty-three pages, noted Hebrew Bible scholar and United Church of Christ minister Walter Brueggemann lays out a nuanced argument for how people of faith can navigate scripture in the light of the Israeli-Palestinan conflict. His essential thesis is that biblical conceptions of the nation of Israel—what he calls “land theology”—are too complex to serve as fodder for any contemporary Zionism. For Brueggemann, reducing the diversity of voices in scripture to a nationalist ideology amounts to idolatry.

In his first chapter, Brueggemann lays out his hermeneutical lens for reading scripture: that the Bible contains diverse traditions of the theology and promise of the land of Israel; that no “straight line” can be drawn between ancient texts and modern political conflict; and that the “question of the other” in the Bible is the interpretive key to examining the Israel-Palestine conflict today. Brueggemann examines biblical passages that focus on the purity of the nation Israel and its people (Ezra), but also finds others that display an openness to the outsider (Jonah, Ruth). For Brueggemann, interpreters choose which biblical tradition to emphasize. Bruegeemann himself chooses to emphasize “the reach of the gracious God…toward the other” (10).

Brueggemann’s second chapter examines the notion of “chosenness” in the Hebrew Bible. He finds that biblical traditions vary as to whether God’s election of the people Israel into the land is irrevocable or not; however, he does not bring out the significance of this point very clearly until the next chapter. He moves on to examine the notion of “chosenness” as it has played out in history: in Christian supersessionist claims, American exceptionalism, and Latin American liberation theology. Here Brueggemann argues that the mantle of “chosenness” is elastic enough to fit many different contexts, for better or for worse, which should make us skeptical of anyone claiming that identity on biblical grounds. Furthermore, he argues that texts such as Isaiah 19:24-25 point to the possibility of God’s concern for all people, not just a chosen people.

The third chapter, “Holy Land?” inquires into the concept of land in the Hebrew Bible. Brueggemann returns to the prophetic critique of the nation of Israel. This critique comes with the idea that the land is a gift “with strings attached”—the strings being obedience to the Torah. The Torah’s land promise itself, he argues, was written from the perspective of an Israelite community in exile in Babylon—indeed, a community that already had lost the land, and for some of whom would never return to the land. All of this again brings us back to the fact that the line between biblical text and contemporary reality is not clear or simple. Brueggemann’s underlying implication seems to be that, just as the biblical text was created out of diverse factions and viewpoints, so too is the way we read it today. This should make us wary of any group who claims that the Bible unambiguously supports their political agenda.

Brueggemann ends his book with a history of Zionism. He reminds his reader that the prophetic tradition in ancient Israel (a tradition which he has written much on elsewhere) also resisted the “[co-opting of] faith for a one-dimensional cause that is taken to be above criticism” (53). After this main text, the book contains an interview with Brueggemann, a glossary, and suggestions on how to lead a small group discussion (e.g., a church group) using this book.

The political situation in Israel/Palestine is often an elephant-in-the-room in any Christian, Jewish, and/or Muslim dialogue; and the layperson in the pew often wants to know how to faithfully navigate that issue. Brueggemann is to be commended for writing a book that guides its readers through the relationship between a diverse biblical tradition, and a painful current situation. One major strength of this book, in my view, is that this author does not fall into the trap of seeing Jesus (or the New Testament) as the solution to his theological problem. He seeks to remedy what he sees as the one-sided Zionist reading of the Hebrew Bible with a more diverse, multifaceted reading of that canon, rather than a simplistic “New Testament supercedes Old” reading of the sort that is found among some progressive Christians who are uncomfortable with the perceived violence of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, he explicitly affirms the continued “chosenness” of the Jews, and the need for a Jewish homeland. But while avoiding the Scylla of Christian supersessionism, Brueggemann also steers clear of the Charybdis of Christian Zionism, and its uncritical support of Israel grounded in apocalyptic belief.

At times Brueggemann’s brevity left some of his deeper assumptions or implications unstated. For example, in his other writings on the prophets, Brueggemann makes the point that ideology is a form of idolatry. This seems to be assumed here, but could have been made clearer. Just as Brueggemann states that the Zionist narrative carries little power to those who do not buy into it, so his reading of the Bible (and his use of the historical-critical method) might not convince the unconvinced. But perhaps this was not his intent. Chosen? seems especially targeted to a popular audience, and in particular, church groups wanting to learn how to navigate a thorny issue through the lens of biblical faith. For that purpose, it is very well-suited, and might be of use to some Jewish readers as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Homrighausen is a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union.

Date of Review: 
September 26, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of dozens of books, including Sabbath as ResistanceIntroduction to the Old Testament, Second EditionMandate to Difference; and From Whom No Secrets Are Hid.


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