The Promise of Land and/or Compassion

This reflection is based on Genesis 28:10-19, Psalm 139 and an experience I had while visiting Palestine and Israel with Christian Peacemaker Teams.

The passage from Genesis begins with the story of Jacob. Jacob has just tricked Esau out of their father Isaac’s blessing and he is being sent away from Canaan to find a wife.

On this journey, there are no hotels, no camp grounds, no B & B’s. Just fields and pasture land and the odd village or camp. At some point on the journey, Jacob stops to sleep. We don’t know where exactly but it was getting dark when he stopped and it was probably isolated.

He finds a stone to use as a pillow and maybe pulls a blanket around him. He lays down to sleep and he dreams. He dreams that there is a ladder with one end on earth and the other end in heaven. Going up and down the ladder are angels. And then God appears and stands beside Jacob and speaks to him. God is identified as the God of Abraham (Jacob’s grandfather), and Isaac (Jacob’s father). This is not a new God but a God who has credibility because of the connection to previous generations. Through his interaction with the God, Jacob continues to be connected with his family history and with their faith.

And this God says to Jacob: “I will give you this land and your children, grandchildren and many more generations will be spread all over the earth and yet they will always come back to this land.”

And here lies a scriptural promise that continues to have ramifications in our own time. When I was in Palestine and Israel with Christian Peacemaker Teams, we visited Sushiya settlement and spoke with a couple of settlers in the community. We had been staying in At-Tuwani where people live in stone homes with dirt floors, the water well is contaminated, the power generator operates on some evenings. The people rely on farming, goats and sheep in the midst of a very dry land experiencing drought. In Sushiya settlement there are trees, flowers, paved streets. It looks like a new suburb. The home we were in was finished with wood imported from Europe and filled with books and a piano.

The settlers talked about this and other similar passages from scripture in which God promises the land. What is often forgotten is that the land already has inhabitants. Even as Jacob is crossing this land on his journey, someone is already using the land to graze their livestock or farm their crops. Throughout history, wherever there is land and people, the land has inhabitants – whether it’s Israel and Palestine, Canada or any other part of the world. Land disputes are messy and carry over many generations. People become attached to the land and build homes and livelihoods in particular places.

It was difficult to have a conversation with the settlers because they took this promise quite literally without seeming to put it in the larger context of scripture. They could see the scripture being fulfilled as the Jewish people, and they themselves, had been spread over the earth and were now returning to Israel, to the land they believed had been promised to them.

So what do we do when God promises land to particular people? Throughout history, the Jewish people have a history of being oppressed and persecuted, pushed from one place to another by various regimes and finally the holocaust. The idea of the Jewish homeland, a place promised by God where they can finally be safe is appealing. I believe that the safety of the Jewish people and all people is absolutely critical. But scripture is larger than this one promise.

Our Psalm reading reminds us that God is constantly present. There is no place any of us can hide from God. There is no place where we can escape—in either life or death. There have been dark times in the collective life of the Jewish people. And all of us have faced dark times when we wonder if God is anywhere present because we can’t see or feel that presence.

And it is in those dark times when we may be tempted to forget that God constantly surrounds us with love, guides our thoughts and our actions and holds us always. When we forget that God creates and holds us, we become afraid and in fear we forget to trust in God’s presence. And that’s when we do things that we may be hurtful. We try to protect ourselves because we don’t believe that God can.

Part of the Psalm seems to come from someone who is tormented and seeking God’s presence.

“O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.”

These verses ask God to do something about those who persecute. There is an expectation that God will punish those perceived as evil. Is there a point where people get tired of waiting for God to act, to punish to set things right? At that point, is it OK to take promises like that made in Genesis into our own hands and set the record right? I wonder if some settlers have reached that point where God no longer seems to be acting in their interests and they don’t feel safe and God can no longer be trusted to protect the people.

And again, scripture is larger than one promise. We are reminded in scripture not to kill. We are reminded to be kind to widows and orphans and foreigners in the land and to share the bounty with all in need. Across the lines of race and religion, people in Palestine and Israel are remembering these teachings as well. In this picture, Israelis are offering condolences to the family of the Palestinian boy who was murdered.

All of us read scripture with particular biases that come from our culture, our place in the world and our life experiences. There is no pure way of reading scripture, nor necessarily, a correct way. But in reading scripture we need to recognize that it is a complex collection of writings which try to make sense of God in the world. We acknowledge that they continue to speak to us. How they continue to speak to us is up for debate. I believe that when we take a few verses of scripture literally and out of context we set ourselves and the world around us up for conflict.

In the Psalm, the NRSV version, closes with these words “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked [or hurtful] way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”

The writer recognizes that it is tempting to want to solve the world’s problems when it seems God is not acting and the writer asks God to make sure that whatever they are thinking or doing will be in God’s way. The writer is asking God for a double check. Is what I am about to do going to hurt someone or does it lead in your way?

We see the violence in Palestine and Israel on the news regularly. I saw firsthand the results of the occupation and yet there are Palestinians and Israelis asking questions similar to the ones I just asked. What can I do that will lead in your way? Will my actions lead to peace or violence? And yes, hating is tempting but it doesn’t solve the problem, nor does it lead in God’s way. At some point readers of scripture need to ask themselves about the priorities of scripture. Which parts are more important? Which teachings take precedent? Do the teachings of love and compassion take precedent over a promise of land?

There are many people choosing love and compassion, even though at times it seems like the promise of land takes priority. These choices, choosing to trust God or trust in our own weapons are complex and emotional. What’s happening in Israel and Palestine is an extreme but the prayer at the end of this psalm offers a word of hesitation in our decision making: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked [or hurtful] way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”

It is a prayer that I offer for each of us to carry into our lives: that God will always lead in ways that lead deeper into life.

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