The first signs of stormy sailing for my theology appeared as I approached the shores of the Arab world, where I headed after graduating from a dispensationalist seminary. I knew I would have to avoid sensitive topics on which Middle Easterners would not appreciate my theological views.
But it was only a matter of time before the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arose. I had to graciously state that God's position on the matter was plain: Like it or not, the land belonged to God's chosen people, and Arabs just needed to accept reality and "get over it." But they just would not get over it.
This was especially evident in an article in a leading Jordanian Arabic daily. It was titled "Evangelicals Help Prepare to Rebuild the Temple" and it accused Jordanian evangelicals (and the seminary where I taught) of engaging in political blasphemy and religious treason. What surprised me most was that this (false) accusation came not from the poisoned pen of a militant Muslim, but rather from an Arab Christian bishop.
Many Middle Easterners are deeply troubled when U.S. evangelicals zealously support political policies and aggressive expansionist actions of the state of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. And they automatically associate all evangelicalism with Christian Zionism—which they see as an instrument of Western colonialism and American imperialism.
Christian Zionists characteristically anticipate fulfillment of a prophetic scenario that is reflected in popular books such as the Left Behind series. This theological framework understands that despite the creation of the church, the nation of Israel continues to have a distinct role in the redemptive plan of God. Upon Christ's second coming, a regenerate Israel will play a leading role in mediating God's blessing to the nations during the millennial reign.
As a consequence, many give unquestioning allegiance to Israel, concluding that God is on the side of the Jews. Most Arab evangelicals, on the other hand, are pro-PLO, anti-Israel, and deny any unique role for eschatological (end-time) Israel.
Naturally, both camps filter their political and social experiences through their theological grids, with some unhealthy consequences. Arab Christians often seem to justify, or at least "understand," the mentality that sanctifies suicide bombing as martyrdom. Pro-Israeli evangelicals often overlook Israel's abuse of Palestinian rights because their theology says that God is on the side of the Jews.
My personal pilgrimage, including 17 years of ministry in the Middle East, has acquainted me with both of these positions. After four years of seminary study, I became even more convinced that God was not finished with Israel and would fulfill all biblical promises and prophecies concerning his chosen people. The Bible all the more firmly buttressed the political sympathies for Israel I had before entering seminary.
But seeing current events and recent history through Arab-colored glasses revealed to me that the Palestinians (including many Christians) had suffered serious injustices. My ship's eschatological port had sprung some serious leaks, but I could not budge from the biblical teaching that Israel remains God's chosen people. I began thinking how to patch my theology to keep it from sinking.
The result is, I believe, a more balanced theology, one that allows me to take seriously both the biblical teaching about Israel's special place in God's unfolding purpose and the cries of injustice by Palestinians.
Two key teachings
Let me outline just two scriptural teachings that suggest we don't have to always side with Israel against the Palestinians, or vice versa, in order to be biblical.
1. The Abrahamic covenant is both conditional and unconditional. The basis of God's plan for the nation of Israel is his covenant with Abraham. Theologians have hotly debated whether this covenant is conditional (and thereby invalidated by Israel's unfaithfulness) or unconditional (and therefore a permanent promise).
Arab Christians, often influenced by Islam and the plo, normally focus exclusively on the conditional elements. On the other hand, pro-Israeli Western Christians tend to focus solely on the unconditional elements.
It is best to recognize that there are both conditional and unconditional elements in the covenant. The unconditional elements demonstrate God's unmerited grace in electing the participants and his unwavering faithfulness in fulfilling the covenant.
At the same time, certain conditions had to be fulfilled for the covenant to become a reality: Abraham had to leave Ur and most of his family and go to Canaan. Once he had done that, the Lord entered into an unconditional covenant with Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob (with whom God confirmed and expanded the covenant).
But later restatements of the Abrahamic covenant (such as Gen. 22:16ff.) suggest conditionality. Rather than trying to deny this duality, we can harmonize it as follows: The promise of land, seed, and blessing to Abraham's descendants is an irrevocable covenant from God. The experience of these blessings, however, was conditioned by the faith-obedience of each generation of Israel. The purpose of the Mosaic covenant (plainly conditional) was to make clear to Israel the faith-obedience necessary to participate in the blessings of the promises given to Abraham.
Adherence to the Mosaic covenant would enable any generation of Israel to experience the blessings promised by the Abrahamic covenant, while unfaithfulness would result in curses, though the promise of restoration to the land (after repentance) remains in perpetuity.
2. Israel must fulfill the covenant stipulations of righteousness. If Jews today want to make a Scripture-based claim to the land, then all parties can fairly demand that they adhere to the stipulations of their own Scriptures.
- The purpose of God's granting the covenant to Abraham's seed was that they might bring blessing to "all the families of the earth." Possession of the land must bring blessing to non-Israelites and ultimately to the world.
- We must also remember that ownership of the land is ultimately God's. The Israelites are only residing "aliens and tenants" (Lev. 25:23). The Lord warned the Israelites that if they failed to adhere to the covenant, then the land would "vomit them" from it (Lev. 18:24-30; 20:22-26; Deut. 4:25-27, 40; Deut. 8 and 9).
- The Law of Moses forbids murder, theft, and coveting. Obtaining any land by means that violate any of these commands would invalidate alleged claims to such land on biblical bases. The case of Ahab murdering Naboth in order to obtain his land clearly reveals God's intolerance for such conduct (1 Kings 21).
- The conquest of Canaan does not provide a precedent for genocide or confiscation of land. Joshua's mandate applied to a period when Canaanite religion and culture had plummeted to the depths of pagan depravity: it included sorcery, spiritism, and child sacrifice (Deut. 18:9-15). God gave Israel a special assignment to act as an instrument of his judgment on the Canaanites.
"Joshua had a clear and direct commandment from God both to conquer and to kill the inhabitants of the seven Canaanite nations," says David Stern, a messianic Jew who believes in the irrevocable promise of the land to the nation of Israel. "It was a very specific ad hoc commandment, and it did not extend to all living in the Land, only to certain nations that had had 400 years in which to repent of their evil ways (Genesis 15). It cannot be stated rationally that the Palestinian Arabs today are in the category of the Canaanites. … Such an ethnic comparison expresses an unbiblical attitude of racism, nationalism, and hate which cannot be disguised by calling it 'faithfulness to God's promises.' Moreover, the prophetic vision of resettlement of the Land after the exile is not based on violent takeover but on divine intervention (Isa. 60-61, Ezek. 36-37)." We must also remember that the Lord promised to expel the Israelites from the land if they practiced any of these evils (Lev. 18:24-28).
- Neither should the Palestinians be dealt with as Philistines. "There is no relationship whatever between the Philistines of biblical times and the Palestinians of today, even though the names are related," Stern says. "The Philistines were descended from Japheth, while the Palestinians are Arabs descended from Shem." (This does not mean these peoples are so descended in the absolute genetic or ethnic sense. It does reflect their primary identity. Many of the Palestinians are a genetic mixture of other peoples over the millennia).
- Non-Israelites living in the land are not to be abused or oppressed. The Law repeatedly instructs Israel: "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt" (Ex. 22:21). "The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt" (Lev. 19:34). Social welfare programs cared for aliens along with orphans and widows. These included the right to glean from harvest fields (Lev. 19:10; 23:27; Deut. 24:19-21), to receive a part of the distributed tithes (Deut. 14:29; 26:12) and to have protection from permanent slavery (Lev. 25:47-50).
Non-Israelites were to have access to the same legal system as Israelites. No law could bind aliens that did not also bind Israelites (Lev. 24:22; Num. 9:14; 15:16; 15:29). There was to be only one system of justice for all (Deut. 1:16; 24:17), and Israel could not deprive aliens of their rights (Deut. 27:19). Wages had to be fair and never withheld (Deut. 24:14). Aliens were equally entitled to the system of "cities of refuge" to protect the accused from revenge (Num. 35:15; Josh. 20:9).
- The Palestinians as Arabs are not accursed sons of Ishmael destined to be eternal archenemies of Israel. Recent evangelical scholarship reveals the mistake of deriving a stereotype of Ishmael and his descendents from their portrayal in Scripture. To summarize Tony Maalouf's findings in his 1998 dissertation at Dallas Theological Seminary, God promised to bless Ishmael (meaning "God hears," Gen. 17:20), whom he so named after hearing Hagar's affliction. To comfort her and encourage her to return to her mistress, the Lord promised to reverse Hagar's fortunes in the life of her son.
Though Hagar experienced subjection, helplessness, and separation from her people because of her flight from the face of Sarah, the Lord promised to make her son free as a nomad, strong enough never to be subjugated permanently, and given a place in the presence (face) of his brothers (Israel) (Gen. 16:12). God was "with" Ishmael and remained uniquely present in his land of Paran and made him a great nation (Gen. 21:17-21; 25:12-17; Hab. 3:3).
In short, the Law demanded kind and just treatment of non-Israelites living in the land. Generous treatment should all the more be extended toward Arabs and Palestinians—for they are not "bad guys of the Bible," but rather those whom God has determined to bless alongside Israel.
Beginning in Jerusalem
If I had more space, I would discuss the role of national Israel in future fulfillment of biblical prophecy. I would also set out the political and social implications of all the foregoing, including the case against Israel's claim to exclusive possession of the Land in the present age.
For now, I only assert that we can sustain the biblical teaching that Israel remains in some sense God's chosen people, while also taking seriously the claims of non-Israelites who live within her borders.
Establishing peace between Ishmael and Isaac will not be easy, but it is not a hopeless cause—and certainly not precluded by theological necessity. Christians cannot succeed in fulfilling our biblical mandate to be peacemakers, however, unless we take more balanced theological and political positions on this issue.
Though reconciliation may seem to be a distant dream, "all things are possible with God." He has employed the followers of Christ to eliminate slavery from the British Empire and to end apartheid in South Africa.
Certainly there is a time of great tribulation ahead for Israel and the world. But it is not for us "to know epochs and times which the Father has fixed by his own authority." Instead, we are to witness (with our lives of love, as well as our lips) to the transforming power of Christ throughout the world, "beginning in Jerusalem" (Acts 1:7-8).
Mark Harlan has served with Christar since 1984, including eight years as a professor at the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary in Amman.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Relevant articles about the conflict in Israel and Palestine include:
The Peace Regress | What's behind the current outbreak of hostilities in the Holy Land? (Jan. 11, 2001)
Conflict in the Holy Land | A timeline of trials for the most contested piece of real estate in the world. (Jan. 11, 2001)
How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend | (October 5, 1998)
Jerusalem as Jesus Views It (Oct. 5, 1998)
Recent articles about biblical prophecy and the Middle East includes:
'The End is Not Yet' | The president of Dallas Theological Seminary says there will be an increase in wars and rumors of wars before the end times, but date setting should not be a priority for evangelicals. (March 27, 2003)
The Iraq War Has Little Effect on the Rapture Index | The founder of an online end times "speedometer" says that other current events are more connected to biblical prophecy. (March 27, 2003)
Other Christianity Today stories about Israel include:
Israel Deports American Christian Who Helped Sick Palestinian Children | Government says Jonathan Miles was in country illegally, but Light to the Nations founder denies accusation. (July 2, 2002)
Activists well acquainted with terror | "Jerusalem Women Speak" tour gains relevance for audience members struggling with new fears. (September 27, 2001)
Palestine's Christians Persist Despite Pressures | With escalating violence in Israel, ministries face a "sad and scary" situation. (September 19, 2001)
Sleepless and 'Terrified', Orphans, Staff Dare to Hope Truce Will Hold | After three days of fighting in Beit Jala, the Israeli army withdraws but warns it may return. (September 5, 2001)
Despite Israeli Objections, Irineos Is New Greek Orthodox Patriarch | Protesting under a sixth century law, Israeli objections overturned by supreme court. (Aug. 23, 2001)
Amid Fears for Future, Jerusalem's Churches Embark On Prayers for Peace | Week of prayer launched with services held in various congregations. (Aug. 22, 2001)
Strengthen Christian Presence In The Holy Land, Carey Pleads | Middle-East leaders asked to help tone down violence that has killed 650 in 10 months. (August 2, 2001)
Greek Orthodox Priest Falls Victim to Middle East Conflict | Monks worry they may appear as threats to each warring side. (June 21, 2001)
Violence Puts Archaeologists Between Rocks, Hard Places | About half of the planned excavations in the Holy Land this summer have been canceled. (June 27, 2001)
Pilgrimages Drop and Workers Lose Jobs as Middle East Violence Continues | Silence fills places normally crowded with pilgrims, reports British group. (April 11, 2001)
Holy Land Roadblocks | Christian pilgrims learn about Palestinians' everyday indignities. (Apr. 9, 2001)
Christian Zionists Rally for Jewish State | More than 600 Christians from around the world flock to Jerusalem to show solidarity with Israel as peace process collapses. (Apr. 9, 2001)
Between a Rock and a Holy Site | Muslims have stepped up their efforts to take control of places revered by Jews and Christians. (Feb. 13, 2001)
Christmas in Palestine: Hunger and War | Starvation threatens Palestinian villages if U.N. aid continues to be delayed, Vatican official warns. (Dec. 13, 2000)
Between the Temple Mount and a Hard Place | Palestinian Christians want both peace in their villages and justice for their Muslim brothers. (Dec. 5, 2000)
Christmas Plans for Bethlehem Scrapped | Escalating violence cancels millennial celebration in town of Christ's birth. (Dec. 1, 2000)
Lutheran Bishop's Appeal from Jerusalem | Religious leader's letter requests prayer for Christians, Jews, and Palestinians in troubled region. (Nov. 10, 2000)
Latin Patriarch tells Israel to Surrender Lands to Palestinians | Catholic leader says Israel will never have peace unless it "converts all of its neighbors to friends." (Nov. 1, 2000)
Fighting Engulfs a Christian Hospital in Jerusalem | Lutherans call conflict on their hospital grounds "an affront" to humanitarian purposes. (Oct. 16, 2000)
Israelis and Palestinians Pay Tribute to Pope's Pilgrimage to Holy Land | Though some at grassroots remain unappeased, leaders of both groups are full of praise. (March 29, 2000)
Prepared for Pilgrims? | As Christian tourism surges, Holy Land believers brave troubled future. (Feb. 10, 2000)
Preparing for Pilgrims | Religious rivalry complicates millennial planning. (June 14, 1999)
Apology Crusaders to Enter Israel (April 15, 1999)
West Bank Squeezed by Warring Majorities (Nov. 16, 1998)
Temple Mount on Shaky Ground? | (April 6, 1998)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.