Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Exegetical Smackdown: Robertson vs. Ramsey

When Pat Robertson recently asserted that Ariel Sharon's stroke was God's reaction to Sharon's policy of "dividing" the land of Israel, he was roundly condemned. (Well, maybe not as roundly as one would wish, but there you go).

Here's what Robertson said (you can watch the clip here):
But I think we need to look at the Bible and the Book of Joel. The prophet Joel makes it very clear that God has enmity against those who, quote, "divide my land." God considers this land to be his. You read the Bible, he says, "This is my land." And for any prime minister of Israel who decides he going carve it up and give it away, God says, "No. This is mine."
Now, Robertson is a kook, and it looks like this time, even more so than when he issued a fatwa against Hugo Chavez, he is being regarded as such. But all of the discussion I've seen has been about the "appropriateness" of his remarks. I too, think that what Robertson said was inappropriate, but note that he wasn't interested in asserting that his remarks were socially appropriate. He was saying that the Bible, and not Pat Robertson, in the book of Joel says that God has enmity for those who "divide my land". And so this leads me to ask, does the Bible really say that?

The quick answer is "No".

Here's the text Robertson is citing, in it's broader context - Joel 3:1-3 (4:1-3 Heb):
For then, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jersusalem, I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat, and I will enter into judgment with them there, on account of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations. They have divided my land, and cast lots for my people, and traded boys for prostitutes, and sold girls for wine, and drunk it down. (NRSV)
So in context, what the prophet Joel "makes very clear", to borrow Robertson's phrase, is that one day the Lord will come with power and re-establish his people and pay back the nations for what they did to His people Israel.

This passage in Joel appears to be answering another text in an earlier prophet: Amos 7:17:
Therefore, thus says the Lord: 'Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and daughters shall fall by the sword, and you land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land'.
The translations have obscured it, but the same Hebrew word occurs in both texts, translated "divided" in Joel and "parceled out" in Amos. So it appears that Joel is saying that, one day, the Lord will undo the damage to which Amos looked forward. This is a very common theme in the biblical prophets and rather a nice thing, too. So then, how does one read this as a threat against any leader or nation who is willing to cede land held by the modern nation-state of Israel, land held within the original 1947 borders or through the 1967 war?

Well, first, you have to ignore verb tense. Joel 3:2 (4:2) promises God's judgment against those who "have divided" God's land. This phrase seems to refer to a past event, in all likelihood the division of the land by the Assyrians and Babylonians when the conquered different parts of Israel in the 8th and 6th centuries bce. Notice in Robertson's quote, he claims Joel says "divide" - present tense - a significant difference.

So how does he take this contextually specific phrase and turn it into a blanket statement? Well, a whole lot of "ifs" have to fall together. Here we go:

Robertson is right... if it was God's plan to fulfill the promises of the prophets by re-establishing a modern nation-state called Israel and not to merely roll all of those promises into the Second Coming as the New Testament seems to indicate; ...if one is willing to take the essential eschatological tension of the New Testament, in which some of the things promised in the Old testament are present realities but will not come into ultimate fulfillment until Christ's Second Coming and turn that tension into license to be non-sensical; ...if the current nation-state of Israel is in fact that fulfillment; ...if the promise in Joel can be fulfilled in stages; ...if parts of even the same sentence can be fulfilled in stages, wherein the phrase "I will restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem" is understood to have already happened in 1947, or 1967 or in 1973, but that the rest of the sentence is held back until some later time when all of the other things will come to pass; ...if somehow during that in between period one assumes that being OK with Israel's 1967/1973 boundaries and not the much larger set of boundaries addressed in Deuteronomy and Joshua is not also somehow "dividing the land"; ...if one assumes that only giving up land gained by the wars in 1967 and 1973 is "dividing the land"; ...and if, again, one assumes that one can speak coherently by citing one part of a sentence and not the other, or that one part of sentence may be in force but that the second part will not be in force until some murky time in the future, and one can assume a number of other odd ways of reading the Bible that I am suddenly too tired to go into...

...if all of that is true then yes, Pat Robertson could be right.

But for me, that's too many ifs.


Jeff said...

you lost me at "eschatological," which means I agree. I think your argument really shows how many Christians like Robertson use the method of translation that most conveniently fits their current need. Sometimes literal, sometimes really, really, really figurative. Or in this case they just change it altogether depsite the change in meaning.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for staying awake long enough to put this in writing.


Captain GoBart said...

This was NOT a fair fight from the beginning.

Gregg Koskela said...

Well done, and thank you!

Skybalon said...

I was just talking to Pat and he said he's convinced. But be careful, because I bet he's trying to trick you. When you're in you're tag team match with him against Falwell and Haggard he's probably going to hit you in the head with a chair.

an said...

I knew you'd pull through and explain this. Good exegesis. Hey, that's a big word! ;) A minister friend of mine said that he's a wolf in sheep's clothing & I must agree..

Paul M. Kingery said...

Dear Bob,

Thank you for your thoughts. I look forward to following your interesting blog. I have been studying and writing about Ariel Sharon in relation to the Christian future. Perhaps he is being underestimated with regard to his importance for the future. Are you interested in topics about the apocalypse, end times, the end of the world, eschatology, last days, the horsemen of the apocalypse, the beast, prophesy, prophesies, revelation, 666, bible prophesy, prophets, Canaan, Canaan's land, Land of Canaan, or the Christian future? If so you may enjoy reading " Land of Canaan." This is a free online book. The Link is
Let me know what you think.


Paul M. Kingery, PhD, MPH