Sermon from August 2: Promised Land, Holy Land

Promised Land, Holy Land
Pentecost IX (O. T. 18); August 2, 2020
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-21

When I asked you for your preaching requests, I suggested that one possible category is “Things I wish weren’t in the Bible.” One of you said, in response:

When God said to Abraham, while standing on what is now in the West Bank, “I give to you and all your descendants this land.”

How much heartache this phrase has caused for centuries.

Yes, but especially for the last seventy-five years. I’m going to approach the question in two ways: one is to talk specifically about this promise from God, as in the Scripture I read to you, and the other is to talk more generally about the promises of God. But first, a story, and this is for all who think that any conversation about Israel and Palestine has to be partisan, and your position has to be determined by your political party.

Some years ago a Presbyterian elder visited Israel and Palestine. I didn’t know him well, but was acquainted with him through our Presbytery. He was a district judge, a conservative Republican. When he returned from his visit he was on fire, passionate in speaking out against the abuses of the State of Israel, forceful in speaking on behalf of Palestinians living in refugee camps. He was a lawyer, and a judge, and so he had an abiding commitment to justice. Political party or ideology were irrelevant; he saw injustice and he had to speak out. So please, don’t assume that talking about Israel and Palestine has to be a partisan political conversation.

Now, to the promise of God to Abraham. This occurred where Abraham had settled with his household, by an oak at Mamre, near the modern city of Hebron. So yes, it was in the modern West Bank, in territory occupied by the State of Israel but the home of Palestinians for centuries. God states the promise more than once, but I selected this instance because here it is clearest in its scope: the Lord claims that Abraham’s descendants are to hold the land from “the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates;” this would be territory comprising Sinai and the Gaza Strip, the State of Israel, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. The only time in history that Israel came close to encompassing that much territory was during the reign of King Solomon.

The promise of God to Abraham had three parts: I will give you descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky; I will give them this land; through your descendants all the peoples of the world will be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3; 22:15-18). In fulfillment of the first promise, Abraham had children who then had descendants of their own. His oldest son was named Ishmael, and Arab peoples trace their heritage to Ishmael. His son with his wife Sarah was Isaac, and Jewish people trace their lineage to Isaac’s son Jacob. After Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah, who bore him six sons. My first question, then, to those who believe that the promise of God means that Jewish people are to control all the land currently known as Sinai, Gaza, Israel, West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon, is this: what of all the other descendants of Abraham? God said that his descendants would occupy the land; does that include the descendants of Ishmael? And the descendants of the sons of Keturah? Of course, Isaac had two sons; Jacob is the ancestor of Israel, but let’s not forget Esau and his descendants as well. But if we speak only of the descendants of Jacob, known as Israel, then let us acknowledge that the promise was fulfilled with the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah, ruled by Saul, then David, then Solomon.

If, however, you wish to press the point that God meant for Israel to rule all that land forever, then consider this. With promise comes responsibility. The other Scripture for the day (Exodus 23:6-9) is a very small piece of Torah, the instruction of God, that is Israel’s part in the promise. The history of Israel in the Bible is the story of the promises of God, but a story that makes clear that the promises have certain contingencies attached. One of the contingencies is this one in Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

I resist considering Palestinians to be “aliens” in the land that their families have lived in for millennia, but for the sake of argument, let’s imagine so. If Israel is to hold the land promised to Abraham and his descendants, then Israel has the responsibility not to oppress the other peoples who live in that land. Christian people, keep this point in mind, because it applies to us too. The Lord God says clearly: When you have been mistreated, your response is not, “We’re going to do to you what they did to us.” Your response is, “We know what it feels like to be in your position, and so we are going to treat you better than they treated us.”

Remember my acquaintance the district judge. He did not claim that Israel had no right to the land. He was incensed that the State of Israel was being unjust to the Palestinian people who lived in the land. If you are going to contend that Israel should possess the land, then you must also contend that Israel must treat all others who live in the land with justice. And it is worth remembering that they too consider themselves descendants of Abraham.

The third piece of the promise to Abraham was that through him all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. This piece of the promise brings me to the second idea, about the promises of God in general, and with this I will conclude the sermon. The first piece of the promise, numerous descendants, was fulfilled in the growth of his family – through Jacob, or through Jacob, Esau, Ishmael and the others. The second piece of the promise, the land, was fulfilled to the House of David. What of this third piece? How has blessing come to all the peoples of the earth through Abraham?

That has been fulfilled in a descendant of Abraham who was born in Bethlehem some 1,800 years after Abraham’s day, during a census being taken at the orders of the Emperor. This child was raised in a carpenter’s family, but as an adult he became a traveling preacher. His intention was to return people’s attention to living in the ways of God, and to offer them a simple connection to God through prayer and a loving heart. You know the rest of his story: his crucifixion, his resurrection, and the work of his apostles in telling the world about him.

Very quickly, the people of Jesus came to two realizations. One of those was that the promises of God had been fulfilled in Jesus. This was not what they expected. The prophets had predicted a day of gloom, of conflict, when all the world would change and then the Kingdom of God would come. So they were expecting the end of the world. Instead, the day of gloom was the shadows over Calvary, and the Kingdom of God came when Christ rose from the dead. Peter said that explicitly in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36). They began to rethink the promises of God, not as to how they would see something so literal as a lion playing leapfrog with a lamb, or their particular group ruling a large territory, but rather as to what God was doing in Jesus Christ and how the promises of God are fulfilled in him.

The second thing they realized was that they had to rethink the notion of who is a descendant of Abraham. The Apostle Paul wrote about this clearly and passionately: God gave Abraham these promises because of Abraham’s faith, and so those who have faith are the heirs of Abraham. The promises belong not to the genetic descendants of Abraham, but to those who trust in God as Abraham trusted in God. As I read to you, “He believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6) The heirs of the promise are people of faith.

To summarize: I am speaking to Christians, of course, not to Jews nor to Muslims. I am not a Jew nor a Muslim, so I read the Scriptures as a Christian reads them. And so I speak to Christians. Christians who claim that the promise to Abraham means that we should support anything the State of Israel does, no matter to whom they do it: you are not paying attention to the Bible. The Bible tells us, first, that those who govern in the State of Israel are not all of the descendants of Abraham; and the Bible tells us, second, that with promise comes responsibility, including the responsibility to treat everyone within the Promised Land with justice. Third, the Bible tells us that the promises of God are fulfilled not in the ways we might expect, but in Jesus Christ. That is the primary message to Christians: pay attention to the realizations of our ancestors and look to Jesus Christ for the fulfillment of this and for all the promises of God.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska