Gary M. Burge. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993. 207 pages. $9.99, paper.
Reviewed by Jim Eriksen, San Francisco, CA.
Gary Burge wrote this book while on sabbatical from his teaching position as associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. The strength of his presentation lies in his historical overview of what he calls Israel/Palestine,” a term he uses to “be fair” to all parties. Except for the mid-to-latter part of the twentieth century (see comments below), Burge’s synopsis is very helpful. Burge also raises the general issue of human rights violations in the occupied territories. He gives a good analysis of the Old Testament passages addressing the “alien” or “stranger.” He attempts to grapple, in a very abbreviated form, with how the Church should view Israel, both Israel the “People of God” and Israel the political entity. Burge rejects replacement theology and opts for a “middle position.” This position acknowledges what he calls “Paul’s double commitment”: “Israel has fallen and has been utterly disobedient. Christians have been grafted into their place” and, “fallen Israel in its unbelief remains unique, honored, and beloved because of God’s commitment to Israel’s ancestors” (p. 143). Burge argues that this position has implications for the Israeli endeavor to acquire land and forge a nation (for example, modern Israel does not have the same mandate as those Joshua led into the land and is therefore subject to human rights standards, p. 144).
However, it is precisely at this point that Burge’s “People of God” approach to Israel takes him to some rather difficult conclusions. Burge continually gives the reader personal examples, derived from his trips to Israel, of alleged Israeli abuses in the occupied territories. In addition, he attempts to cite human rights studies and international norms that may be applicable to Israel. In doing so, he exposes the weaknesses of his analysis. For example, although Israel is a signatory of various international human rights documents, it has signed with reservations; namely, it has reserved the right to derogate certain rights in times where national security is threatened. This derogation of rights by reservation is not unique to Israel; most nations make a similar reservation to preserve national sovereignty during times of unrest or war. No mention of this is made by Burge, and the reader is left to believe that Israel has refused to abide by agreements it signed.
Burge also gives a rather skewed view of the wars following the creation of the nation/state of Israel in 1948. For example, he describes the “Intifada” as “civilians” using “civil disobedience” to “thwart Israeli control and inspire international sympathy.” No mention is made of the more radical groups, such as Hamas, that entertain the destruction of Israel.
In addition to the historical analysis, Burge makes an impassioned appeal to the reader to recognize that a Christian community exists among the Palestinians. Although it is important to understand that the Palestinian community is not comprised solely of Shiite Muslims but includes Christians as well, Burge overstates the case. In the Middle East, the term “Christian” is used to identify a sociological community. Being a member of the “Christian community” does not necessarily mean one is a Christian. Burge seems to overlook this and accepts everyone who is a member of the “Christian community” as a Christian.
This leads to another glaring problem, namely, the failure to mention the existence of Jewish believers in Israel. In the tenth chapter, “Evangelicals in the Land,” not a word is mentioned about the Jewish followers of Jesus. Although one might argue that this is not a primary concern of the book, it shows how the generalizations made by Burge overlook areas which should be included to give the reader an understanding of the complexity of the issues.
At the end of the work, one wonders whether the author has really made enough trips and had enough “personal experiences” to convey an accurate picture of what is an extremely complex issue. However, in spite of this weakness, the book does provide some excellent analysis and acts as a counter to some other works, such as Peace or Armageddon? by Dan O’Neill and Don Wagner, that have a much weaker theological framework.
Postscript: Between the time I read Who Are God’s People in the Middle East? and the writing of this review, significant events occurred in Israel. With the signing of the Peace Accord between Israel and the PLO, autonomy was granted to the Gaza Strip and Jericho. The events that unfolded both at the signing in Cairo and subsequently underscore the complexity of the issues facing Israel. Only a week after the signing, Arafat announced to his constituents that the jihad (holy war) has not ended with the signing of the accords. This prompted immediate international demands for a retraction. Arafat, who claims he was not using the term in its literal sense (as a holy war to remove all infidels from Pan-Arabia) but in a metaphorical one, demonstrates the difficulties he faces in bringing together the moderate and radical members of his organization. Burge clearly did not anticipate these events in his work, and they partly render some of his conclusions moot. But other important issues that he raises, including how modern Israel should be viewed, merit ongoing consideration in the Christian community.
Jim Eriksen has served as general counsel for Jews for Jesus.