The Bible and Political Arguments
Last week I was sitting in a coffee shop talking about the politics surrounding the Israeli city of Hebron. One of the people at the table, not a particularly religious individual, spoke up and said something that I felt is representative of a wider problem within the pro-Israel community. In response to something I said, this person immediately shot back “well we have recorded proof in the Torah that thousands of years ago Abraham purchased the city of Hebron from the Hittites.”
Now this is a difficult topic, because as both a pro-Israel advocate and historian I know how important the Bible is for the history of Israel and the Jews. However, we must be extremely careful to parse the theological claims and myths from the historical facts that lie within the pages of the Bible, and this is an extremely tricky thing to do. It is for this reason that I decided to write a short article attempting to delineate exactly how to use the Bible to understand Jewish history and our ancient connect to Israel.
If I had to summarize the entire field of political philosophy on one foot, I would write that in order to have a successful, collaborative and democratic public sphere, individuals and groups need to present reasons for their views that can be understood and accepted by everyone - especially those who differ on any philosophical or epistemological level. While a full implementation of this idea is probably unreachable, our goal is to get as close as humanly possible.
To start with the obvious, any claim to Israel that involves God should be checked at the door. While you can personally believe whatever you want about God and divine covenants, it is simply unreasonable to bring these arguments into the realm of the public. Just like you wouldn’t care if the Quran or New Testament writes that God promises x, y, and z, people who do not believe in the divinity of the Torah probably do not care for its theological claims. Anytime God is brought into a political argument, especially one involving a claim to land, the entire argument quickly loses credibility.
Now using the Bible as a historical source is where things get tough. The Bible is an amalgamation of history, myth, philosophy, and politics and attempting to separate it into its composite sources is extremely difficult. Nevertheless in an age where individuals and even countries can get up with a straight face and deny any Jewish historical connection to Israel and Jerusalem, it is important to understand how the Bible fits in to the equation.
The historicity of the first couple books of the Bible (Genesis-Joshua) are questionable at best. While one may be able to argue that they are based off some sort of historical reality, claiming with certainty that any particularly story actually happened is intellectually dishonest. Our historical claim to Israel simply cannot include any promise made or purchase done by Abraham or his sons. Furthermore, the Joshua led conquest of Israel (for better or worse) probably never happened, and certainly not in scope and magnitude as recorded in the Bible.
Interestingly enough, the majority of scholars actually posit that the early Israelites were actually of string of disparate Canaanite tribes spread around the land of Israel who eventually banded together under a central leadership and temple. The Exodus and subsequent “conquest”, they argue, applied to either a small group of people who later on joined the nascent Israelites or it is simply fiction based on reality of Israel being a vassal state to ancient Egypt. According to this view of history, the book of Judges with its tribal warfare and dearth of leadership, represents the general reality of ancient Israel much better than the later composed books of Deuteronomy or Joshua. What this means is that our Israelite ancestors were probably the Canaanites which makes us indigenous to the land of Israel.
When it comes to King David, the vast majority of scholars accept the fact that he both existed and consecrated Jerusalem. A 9th century stele (inscribed stone) that speaks about the “House of David” was found near Tel Dan and excavations done in Jerusalem match up with many of the early biblical records that discuss Jerusalem. While the scope of his kingdom is the subject of much debate (the biblical details and numbers do not match the archaeological record), it is safe to say that David did exist and his capital was in Jerusalem.
During the time of the split northern and southern Israelite kingdoms (as told in the book of Kings), Jerusalem was the southern capital. For hundreds of years, even after the North was exiled by Assyria, Jerusalem stood strong as the Jewish educational, political, and religious center until finally the Babylonians destroyed the temple and sacked the city around the year 586 BCE. Most (but not all) the Jews left Israel and Jerusalem, only to quickly return and rebuild the temple at the end of the century. The Bible basically ends here, but there are ample sources attesting to the fact that there has been Jewish presence in Israel from that time period until present day.
The questions that are still left on the table are as follows:
Does indignity give a people a right to a land?
Does a continued Jewish presence in Israel and Jerusalem for 3000+ years help our current political claim to the land?
Does the fact that Jews were the ones to consecrate Jerusalem mean that it is primarily a Jewish holy site, as opposed to Christians and Muslims who only came to view it as holy because of our traditions?
These are all difficult questions that must eventually be pondered and discussed, but first is is crucial to understand the history surrounding it. Denying that the Jewish people have a historic connection to Israel or Jerusalem (as we see many do) is ignorant and it requires ignoring history, archaeology, literature, and an array of other relevant subjects. On an intellectual level, I would put it in the same box as people who believe that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old. In other words, unless one has a strong a-priori bias and refuses to accept any evidence to the contrary, there is no reasonable way to conclude that the Jews have no historical connection to the land.
Furthermore, denying a Jewish historical connection to Israel and Jerusalem is not only to be ignorant, but it is anti-semitism at one of the worst levels possible. It is denying our history, memories, and our past - essentially trying to eradicate us from the historical record.
However, at all levels of the religious spectrum, we need to be careful to separate any sort of religious thinking from our political and historical arguments. When it comes to Israeli politics I view the Bible not as sacred scripture but as a critical historical source that can serve as an invaluable source of information regarding our historical connection to Israel and Jerusalem. Used correctly, the Bible can and should be the first source when talking about any sort of historical Jewish connection to the land.
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I truly support Israel, but in this day and age it is difficult to do so, with so much dissent in the news and on the streets. Where in the Torah does it state that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews? Does the Torah delineate borders?
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