The Old Testament Daily Common Lectionary reading for Sat, Oct 31 comes from Nehemiah. I suspect it’s a text that will make most modern people uneasy. Nehemiah is leading the people to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem. The local people, what we might call the native Palestinians, are not happy. This is their land. They were born here and have lived here for generations. Now the Persian king just gives away their land to a group of people who have lived in Persia for generations. The Persian King is essentially forcing them off their land into a sort of local exile so these outsiders can come in and take over.
In Nehemiah 4:7-9, the local reaction is recorded as follows:
But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and the gaps were beginning to be closed, they were very angry, and all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. So we prayed to our God, and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.
The arc of the book is that God is bringing the faithful remnant back to the Promised Land. Nehemiah and his band of settlers have both a divine right and royal authority to seize the city of Jerusalem and, from what the story implies, create settlements all around the city throughout Palestinian land.
On the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and with him the seeming death of the peace process in Israel, this text is powerful evidence (for those who want to read it this way) that Rabin was wrong while hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu is right in allowing ongoing Jewish settlement of Palestinian lands.
It leads to that uncomfortable question of how we (either Christian or Jew) deal with the hard texts of scripture. One way is to do as the Daily Common Lectionary committee has done. Rather than deal with the hard text at all, they offer up an alternative Old Testament reading (Lamentations 5) and give the reader the option of ignoring the problem.
A second alternative — the “What Would Jesus Do?” alternative — is to apply the text directly to modern situation and do the same thing. This might be called the Benjamin Netayahu or Likud Party solution.This alternative saves the person from any nuanced thinking about the ethics of the issue.
I myself would argue for a third option. That option, in a nutshell, is that while God’s ultimate truth does not change, the world has changed a great deal. As a result our perception of the truth has developed and changed over time. Heb. 1:1 says, “In many and various ways God spoke to our fathers …” Revelation wasn’t just a one shot deal dropped out of heaven. Given what they knew in the world that they lived, Nehemiah figured that this was a pretty good option. As the faithful Jewish scribes wrote the incident down they recognized God’s hand in events.
But some of us see things differently now. Running people out of their homes and villages for the sole purpose of creating an ethnically pure place where I can now live instead of them runs counter to the themes that Jesus taught, such as “love your neighbor as yourself” (in the context of “who is your neighbor?”), “turn the other cheek,” etc.
What do we then do with a text like Nehemiah 4? The Fathers believed that these texts were most wisely interpreted in an allegorical manner, just as Paul did with Hagar and Sarah in Romans. Humans are notoriously mixed up. There are certain sentiments that are holy and just, but they live side by side with sentiments and actions that are quite evil. Allegory allows us to harvest the good and cull the bad, like wheat and chaff, and in that manner use the lives of our forebears as examples to spur us on to holiness.
At the outset of the following anecdote let me make it clear that I don’t believe Bibi Netanyahu had anything to do with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. This anecdote is simply part of the sitz im leben that have led to the various conspiracy theories surrounding his death. But in the seconds after Rabin’s death in 1995, the crowd began to chant, “Bibi, Bibi.” When you hear the audio you can’t help but believe that the crowd thought Netanyahu was responsible. My take away from this incident is that the Israelis, even the hardliners who make up the core support of the Likud Party recognize the inherent violence of the cause. If they are willing to displace Palestinians, stealing their homes and means of living … well, assassination is not that far away.
There is a great deal of violence in the Old Testament. As we read and study these texts, do we assume that we too should be violent in the same way? Maybe set up a Christian Caliphate of our own? Or do we believe that the violence we are called upon to do is a violence against sinful self as we seek to overcome sin and death in our own lives (what peaceful Muslims call “spiritual Jihad”). On the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s death, and with it, the demise of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, and on the day when the predecessor story of building settlements in Palestinian land is the Old Testament text in the lectionary, it’s worth struggling with these issues in our own hearts.