One text, with many perspectives
Editor's note: This is the fourth column in a series on Israel.
There might be a continuum between modern Israel and ancient Israel, but they aren't the same thing," says Julia O'Brien, an Old Testament professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary.
A scholar who spends much of her time immersed in teaching the ancient texts to aspiring pastors and educators, O'Brien is keenly aware of the multiple lenses through which Christians view the Bible, the scriptural references to the land of Israel, and Israel, the modern state.
O'Brien points out that within the text of the Hebrew Scripture, scholars have found multiple ways of understanding the concept of the land.
"Biblical perspectives are remarkably diverse," says O'Brien, who has written extensively on the Hebrew prophetic literature.
"The bottom line for me as a scholar and a teacher of biblical interpretation is that people aren't very self-aware in their reading strategy and just not very sympathetic to others," she says. Ideally, she would convene those with different perspectives around a table and address points of view that may conflict with what they believe.
"There's a lot more going on than just you reading what's on the page," she says.
The ways in which Christians read and interpret the Hebrew Scriptures and the promises to Abraham have changed greatly over time, says O'Brien, who traces early churches' emphasis on the patriarchs back to the apostle Paul. Eager to invite the gentiles into the fold of the chosen, Paul claimed that, with Abraham as a model of faith, "anyone who believes in God can share the same spiritual promises."
More recently, O'Brien notes, the ways in which Christians perceive the land and the state of Israel have been shaped in part by two vastly different phenomena: what some believe about the so-called "end times" and the effect of the Holocaust on mainline Christian theology.
In order for some conservative Christians to read the Book of Revelation literally, O'Brien says, there literally has to be Jews living in Jerusalem and present overall in the land of Israel.
"You can see that in some of the popular Christian writers who talk about Jesus' second coming," she says. "For these interpreters, the fact that there are (Jews living in Israel) shows less about the Jewish people than about how it allows them to believe that the end time clock is ticking."
Christians with this perspective tend to invest a lot of money in supporting the state of Israel, she adds.
Mainline Protestants, on the other hand, see the promise made to Abraham in Genesis through the prism of the near-devastation of the Jews in World War II. Some may feel, O'Brien says, that Christians bear some responsibility "for fertilizing the soul in which the Holocaust could flourish.
These believers are "more interested in trying to honor the Jewish people and the Jewish promises of the Old Testament" that there will be a "safe place" for the Jewish people, (than in the end-time theology), she adds.
But the scholar has found herself challenged by the voices of Palestinian Christians, who tell American believers that the way they interpret these scriptures is "threatening our existence."
Although American politicians don't usually articulate their arguments in biblical terms, O'Brien says, "What many Palestinians are saying is that even if the Bible doesn't drive politics, it's always underneath (the debate) somewhere."
Within both Judaism and Christianity, O'Brien asserts, there are voices that suggest that because the state of Israel and Judaism are intertwined, to criticize certain policies of the state of Israel is to be "less than supportive" of it.
On the other hand, the professor adds, there are Jewish activists both here and in Israel who advocate for Palestinian rights.
In a context this complex, she suggests, even those who hold the same position might not hold them for the same reasons.
As she speculates about what it would be like for people with opposing points of view to sit down and discuss these thorny issues, O'Brien suggests that this experience itself could promote more nuanced viewpoints among people who don't always reflect on their positions.
As with other issues, O'Brien says, the most effective way of expanding understanding of the multiple meanings of these foundational texts is to sit across the table from someone who reads them very differently and ask, "How does your interpretation affect my life?"
"People rarely change their position on what the Bible says if they haven't had this experience," she concludes.
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