• October 01, 2003
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    "Whose Land? Whose Promise?"
The words of Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, are as strong as the Israeli bullets, if not stronger. Unlike many evangelical Americans, Gary is well informed of the situation in Israel/Palestine. He addresses two of the toughest questions in the Middle East--whose land and whose promise?

With a sharp mind, and a passionate heart, Burge tackles these questions, seeking the mind and heart of God as revealed in the Bible. Burge combines a great spirit of humility, an ability to see the big picture, and an outstanding documented description of the details. Thus, the reader will not be limited to abstract eschatological conceptual frameworks but will enjoy, through powerful stories, an intimate fellowship with the Palestinian Church. The reader will also gain understanding of the intentions of the Zionist movement and many of its leaders.

In the preface, Burge steps forward as an honest seeker and pursuer of truth. He says,
?As an Evangelical I have a theological interest in Israel?s history and future. As a Christian I recognize the ancestral connection between Jews today and Abraham, Moses, and David. And yet I am confused and troubled when I try to interpret the meaning of this small country and I learn about one more village story, one more set of keys to a lost home, one more house being bulldozed, and more refugees being pushed away from their homeland? (xii).

He seeks to resolve one of the questions that Palestinians struggled with for so long: how can the modern state of Israel be the fulfillment of biblical prophecies if it is committing many injustices against the Palestinians? He gives the background of the problem and then moves into an exciting study through the pages of Bible. In the section about the Old Testament, he highlights passages showing that it is God who owns the land and that God welcomed non-Israelite ?aliens? to live alongside Israel. Furthermore, God instructed the Israelites to grant foreigners religious, social, and legal privileges. Burge seeks to understand the relationship of justice to the land via several OT texts such as the story of King David, who purchased the land of the Temple Mount from Ornan the Jebusite, and the story of King Ahab, who stole the land of Naboth. Burge then goes on to compare biblical Israel to modern Israel and to probe the latter according to the principles (justice and treatment of aliens) revealed in the Old Testament.

In the section on the New Testament, Burge examines the teachings of Jesus and the early Christians concerning the land. He believes that the land is ?Christified? in the NT. He studies different texts in the Gospels and concludes:
(1) Land is rejected as the aim of faith
(2) land is spiritualized as meaning something else
(3) the promise is historicized in Jesus, a man who lives in the land
(4) the promise is sacramentalized (p. 177)

The next logical question is: what about fallen Israel? Three points are important to note. First, Burge states that the believing remnant (those who accepted the Messiah) is the true Israel (p. 178). Second, after studying Acts, Hebrews, and some Pauline epistles, he states that it would be wrong to argue that Christians can make a territorial claim (p. 184). Third, fallen Israel is still ?unique, honored, and beloved? (p. 188). Burge concludes by subscribing to a double commitment: Christians are the heirs of Abraham, yet fallen Israel is still ?unique, honored, and beloved?. On this later point, he says, ?Israel?s obstinacy did not end God?s affection for his people. The same is true today? (p. 188).

Burge does not stop at these important theological concepts. He furthers his discussion by presenting a clear picture of the Palestinian Church and the intentions of Zionism. He portrays Palestinian Christians who come from a wide range of denominations such as Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and Evangelical. He also introduces some Zionist leaders and tries to understand their perspective. While I affirm many aspects of this book, I believe that further work must be done in the following areas:

Methodology. Burge?s methodology is different from that of many evangelicals. His theology appropriately integrates the Bible, history, and culture. He rightly discusses eschatology within ecclesiology. Indeed, the church is the center of God?s plan and design. And, in order to understand God?s heart for the Middle East in the 21st century, we must involve the Palestinian Church. Burge does a great job in accomplishing this task. However, further work must be done in ecclesiology in order to clarify the role of Messianic Jews within the Church. It might be helpful to add a couple of positive stories about faithful Messianic Jews who serve God with a spirit of biblical justice and love. Furthermore, it would be helpful to answer the following questions: Are Messianic Jews ?unique, honored, and beloved? differently than any other member of the global church? Why or why not? Last, Burge should work more on justifying his biblical choices. He chooses several narrative passages but overlooks some important pertinent pericopae, such as Ezekiel 33 and the book of the covenant in Jeremiah.

The Relationship between Old and New Testaments. Burge?s description of the relationship between the OT and the NT is troubling. He rightly makes Jesus Christ the center of the NT; however he looks at the OT only through the eyes of the NT. This approach does not appreciate the complexities of the OT, and it minimizes the role of the OT as God?s Word. Burge rightly describes how the NT interprets the OT; however, is this the only way to interpret the OT? If the answer is yes, then what about the OT believers who did not have the NT--how did they understand the Hebrew Scriptures?

View of Israel. Most of all, I am troubled with Burge?s interpretation of Romans 9-11 and his conclusion that fallen Israel is ?unique, honored, and beloved.? What does this status mean? Unfortunately, he does not spell this out.

A few more comments are appropriate. First, he uses the words Israel, Judaism, Modern Israel, and Jews without sufficiently defining these terms or clarifying their differences. Second, he assumes some kind of continuity between biblical Israel and modern Israel without verifying this assumption or clarifying what kind of continuity this is. Many western evangelicals have not paid enough attention to the diachronic meaning of the word ?Israel.? Instead, they use it synchronically and thus fall into the trap of anachronism and equivocation.

It is my opinion that Christians should pay attention to the differences between the following terms Judaism, Jews, Israel, and Hebrews. These differences must be spelled out in order to produce a more accurate eschatology. Granted, there are challenges in defining these pertinent terms. For example, Esther 8:17 tells us that many nations became Jews. Do these nations hold the same uniqueness of those who are related to Jacob genealogically? Do the promises belong to all of Judaism or exclusively to the seed of Jacob? Furthermore, would the children of mixed marriages be part of the genealogical seed of Jacob and would they be part of the promise? (It is interesting that the Jews in modern Israel today consider the mother as the determining factor for recognizing a person as a Jew. Interestingly, this definition does not square with the list of the genealogy of Christ in Matthew 1, where we find four gentile women.)

Assuming an unquestioned continuity in the history of Judaism leads to many problems. The Judaism of the first century is not identical with the Judaism of the twenty-first century. Furthermore, the Jews of the first century are not necessarily the ancestors of the Jews of today. It is wiser academically to first establish this continuity between the Jews of the past and the Jews of today before building an eschatological framework that assumes this continuity as a foundational fact. It is also good to remember that there are many converts to Judaism through out history (for example the Moabite Ruth and those mentioned in Esther 8: 17). There are also many Jews who became either Muslim or Christians (for example, those in Acts 2). What about them?

Election and justice. Burge succeeds in pointing out the importance of justice, especially in the Old Testament. However, in my opinion, he does not adequately define justice in the framework of election and biblical love. It seems to me that Christians must not only uphold biblical justice but also defend biblical election and Christ-like love even towards one?s enemies. How are these foundational elements related in the Scriptures? Clarifying this relationship is indispensable for formulating a firm biblical foundation. Understandably, Burge devotes much attention to biblical justice. However, further work is needed on the relationship between justice and election and agape-love. Is God?s election just and loving? Does God?s love for the Palestinians violate God?s plan? These are just a sample of many questions that demand an answer.

Theology of the aliens. Burge uses the theology of the ?aliens? in the OT and compares it to modern Israel and its relationships to Muslim and Christian Arabs. His study of the theology of the ?aliens? in the OT is admirable and more work should be done in that field. However, he does not clarify the development of the theology of the alien in the Scriptures and he moves too quickly to its application.

Although, ?alien? theology introduces equality in certain fields, it also introduces inequality in other fields. For example, none of the aliens in Bible times would be able to become the high priest. Does this mean that none of the Arab Israelis can become an Israeli president? Furthermore, alien theology does not subscribe to the acceptance of multiple religions but assumes that peoples from multiple ethnic backgrounds become believers in the God of Israel. Ideally, biblical Israel expected the aliens to believe in the God of Israel; otherwise, they were rejected. Taking this into consideration, alien theology has many limitations especially when we consider three monotheistic religions in modern Israel/Palestine.

Last, I confess that I am overjoyed with this book. It is one of the best evangelical books on the subject. It is well documented and deserves to be in the library of every serious student of the Arab-Israeli conflict or of end-times theology.