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Gary Burge: Whose Land? Whose Promise?

Gary M. Burge, Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told About Israel and the Palestinians (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003), xviii+286 pages, ISBN 0829816607.

As the title indicates, this book is concerned with who owns the Holy Land. At the outset, Gary Burge explains how he struggles with rival biblical versus historical claims to the land by both Jews and Arabs, asking if it can really be justifiable to evict Arabs who have lived on the land for centuries on the basis of an ancient promise made in the book of Joshua. He also questions the eschatological zeal driving Christian Zionism which he believes ignores major ethical problems in Israel today. Hence, Burge is keen to provide an alternative view of the situation in the Middle East to Christians he believes are not being told the entire story. Yet despite championing Palestinian self-determination without Israeli interference, nonetheless he also believes Israel’s security and right to exist must be secured if there is to be lasting peace in the region. Moreover, while the Old Testament covenant has been abrogated, this “should not diminish the church’s respect for Judaism nor the rights of the Jewish people to live in the land of Israel” (xviii).

The book begins with a description and historical survey of the land, before moving on to theme of land ownership in the Old Testament. Burge demonstrates how the land is intimately connected to God’s covenant with Abraham and Israel. Yet control of the land was conditional upon Israel’s faithfulness: “Possession of the land is linked to covenant fidelity” (74). Israel does not actually own the land, rather she is a tenant entrusted with it only as long as she is in a covenant relationship with God. Thus, the promise of the land is indeed eternal, but only provided Israel remains faithful to God.

Burge then moves on to explore the theme of the land in the New Testament, noting how, by and large, it is absent there. Focusing on the abrogation of the Old Testament law, he argues that the promises made to Abraham are now spiritualised in and through Jesus, who is a new Moses:

Jesus himself becomes the locus of the holy space … Just as Moses was leading the people of Israel to their promised land, so too, Jesus leads God’s people. But now we learn that Jesus himself is in reality that which the land had offered only in form. To grasp after land is like grasping after bread—when all along we should discover that Jesus is ‘the bread of life’ (175).

Gary M. Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School.

Thus, the book argues, the true descendants of Abraham (that is, Christians rather than simply Jews) will inherit the whole world, rather than simply the tiny strip of land which is modern day Israel. Yet Burge cannot quite bring himself to reject fully the notion that the Jews and Judaism retain some special significance in the divine plan, stating that unbelieving Judaism is still beloved of God and retains an ‘enduring role’. “For the sake of their history, for the sake of the promises made to their ancestors, God will retain a place for Jews in history” (187). But whether Burge is simply suggesting Jewish believers are grafted onto the Church (cf Rom 11:17ff), or else something more substantial, is unclear. The book concludes with a brief survey of Palestinian Christianity, a critique of Christian Zionism (“Many of us within the evangelical church are offended by Christian Zionism”, 246), and highlights Evangelical organisations that reject Christian Zionism.

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2008

About the Author: Calvin L. Smith, Ph.D. (University of Birmingham, England), is College Principal and Tutor in Theology at King's Evangelical Divinity School. He is also Editor of the Evangelical Review of Society and Politics. He is the author of numerous books and articles, editor of Pentecostal Power: Expressions, Impact and Faith of Latin American Pentecostalism (Brill, 2011) and editor of The Jews, Modern Israel and the New Supercessionism: Resources for Christians (King's Evangelical Divinity School, 2009).

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