Israel and “Property Rights”

There meme current among many conservative (and probably some liberal) American Christians regarding Jews and the State of Israel is that God “gave” that land to the Jews, and thus the giving is effectively a deed — Jews have a “property right” to the “land of Israel,” an thus, an entitlement to possess it. Based on what I’ve read online, this also constitutes a majority opinion of conservative religious Jews as well.

So, I never tire of coming across scriptural citations that say otherwise. First, there is the entire history itself. If, as Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook wrote in mid-1967 (after the Six-Day War, when there much to NOT surrender), that scripture forbids God’s people Israel from giving up any of the “land of Israel,” then why does the Deuteronomic history (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) end with the twin kingdoms of Israel and Judah conquered (by Assyria and Babylon respectively) and the last King of Judah, Jehoiachin, in comfortable exile in Babylon? Why does the other official history, Chronicles, end with Cyrus the King of Persia issuing a decree to rebuild the temple (allowing for restored temple worship) but NOT the restoration of Israel’s monarchy? The sovereignty Judah possesses at the end of Chronicles (and in Ezra and Nehemiah) is a very limited sovereignty, as part of the Persian Empire, not as an independent polity. The Tanakh, as well as the Protestant Bible, ends its canon of scripture with these books, and thus the influence of Hellenism (the conquest of Persia by Greece and the switch of tolerant Persian imperial rule for intolerant Greek rule) on the canon is sporadic (parts of Daniel and Zechariah come to mind) at best.

So, I was very pleasantly surprised when I came across this in Ezekiel 33 (vv 21-26, citation from the JPS Tanakh):

In the twelfth year of our exile, on the fifth day of the tenth month, a fugitive came to me from Jerusalem and reported, “the city has fallen.” Now the hand of the Lord had come upon me the evening before the fugitive arrived, and He opened my mouth before he came to me in the morning; thus my mouth was opened and I was no longer speechless.

The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal [son of Adam בֶן–אָדָם, rendered elsewhere as “Son of Man”], those who live in these ruins in the land of Israel argue, “Abraham was but one man, yet he was granted possession of the land. We are many; surely, the land has been given as a possession to us.” Therefore say to them: Thus said the Lord God: You eat with the blood, you raise your eyes to your fetishes, and you shed blood — yet you expect to possess the land! You have relied on your sword, you have committed abominations, you have defiled other men’s wives — yet you expect to possess the land!

Now, these words come after a lengthy warning from God to Ezekiel about the nature of God’s warnings and accountability for human sinfulness, about Ezekiel’s job as a warner to those living in exile in Babylon. And they are followed, in chapter 33 with a warning to those living in the midst of the rubble that they “shall fall by the sword” and be “food to the beasts.” (v.27) Indeed, God is then fairly emphatic that Ezekiel’s countrymen will not listen to him.

And the general narrative of Ezekiel continues with a condemnation of the “shepherds of Israel” and promise from God that Israel will be regathered and a new shepherd — “My servant David” (34:23) — appointed to tend and care for God’s people. This promise is generally used by the church (and by that, I mean the church “catholic and apostolic,” and not the non-denominational nincompoops that call themselves church but worship the United States and Israel) to refer to the regathering and restoring of God’s covenant with God’s people through Jesus Christ.

(There’s more to Ezekiel which I won’t deal with at this point.)

While these words of God in vv23-26 are given specifically to the Israelites who remain in land following the conquest, what’s interesting about what God says to Israel just as easily applies to what is said — “Abraham was but one man, but we are many. If the land was given to Abraham, surely it has been given to us.” What is condemned here is a sense of entitlement, that just because the land was given to one man — Abraham — then is most certainly have been given those who lay claim to it as their patrimony through and from Abraham. God’s condemnation of that sense of entitlement could easily apply to anyone who makes that claim, and not just the remnant of survivors in the ruins.

But there’s also the nature of that condemnation — eating with blood/defiling other men’s wives, raising eyes to fetishes/committing abominations, shedding blood/relying on “your sword.” God’s people have failed to keep their end of the covenant made at Sinai, they have not adhered to God’s teachings. They have also followed after other gods, sacrificed to them. The history and the other prophets are quite clear on both these matters, and God tells Israel in both Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 that failing to keep the covenant will result in suffering, conquest and death. “The Lord will send you back to Egypt in galleys, by a route which I told you you would not see again. There you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but none will buy” (Deut. 29:68)

The shedding of blood and reliance on “your” sword (Israel’s sword) is not as clear as the other two condemnations, but I’m fairly certain it means that part of Israel’s sin is its failure to rely on God for defense and protection, failure to trust in God and instead trust in itself, its own capabilities, to protect itself. Scripture isn’t so insistent on this matter, since the Hebrew Bible is full of war, but the main motif given to Israel by God from the miracle of the Exodus is that God is Israel’s defender, that God will act in history to defende God’s people. That God’s people must first and only look to their God to protect them, to fight and win their battles. Even in Ezekiel 38 and 39, when God gives the vision of war with Gog the prince of Magog, it is God who leads Gog to war, and it is God who defeats Gog and his armies. (Whether this is a “prophesy” of the fall of Babylon at the hands of Persia, or general prophetic metaphor that God will defeat Israel’s enemies and fight Israel’s battles from the time that Israel is regathered, the bones brought back to life, I do not know and won’t guess. I will firmly state this is very likely not a prophesy of a war yet to come.)

What is clear is thart grant of land is not a property right and the Bible is a not a metes-and-bounds title deed (or any other kind of deed), though there are claims made. Scripture does not speak the language of rights, that’s Enlightenment talk and it does not belong to antiquity. Israel’s possession of the land is entirely conditioned on Israel’s good behavior. This is made clear in scripture from the beginning. The prophets add component of (I hate the term) “social justice” to the matter, criticizing the unjust use of power and wealth among Israelites for division of the kingdom, civil war, conquest and exile. Much of scripture is an attempt to figure out what God’s promises to Abraham, and God’s deliverance of Israel at Sinai, with what followed.

Indeed, a case could be made that semi-exile — living in the moment between exile and God’s promise of reconciliation, deliverance and victory — is the condition of God’s people, Israel and the church, on earth right now.