Christians and the Return to the Promised Land
Michael J. Pragai
Christianity without the Holy Land is unthinkable. Whether its roots are theological, historical, cultural, moral or geographic, they have one central source the Holy Land, the historic Roman province of Palestine, the biblical land of Canaan, the land of the prophets and of Jesus the Nazarene, the land of the Hebrew patriarchs, the land that today is Israel. It was here, in this small, well-defined spot in the Roman Empire, the semi-autonomous province of Palestine, within the overwhelmingly Jewish population of that country, that the Christian faith had its beginnings.
Three or four hundred years later, in the third and fourth centuries, Christianity had spread beyond what much later was to become known as the Holy Land. But the land of Palestine, and Jerusalem at its centre, were still the geographic and spiritual foci of the entire Christian world. And although Christianity became a world religion with central authority in Rome, the Holy Land and Jerusalem have always maintained a very special place in the heart, mind and emotions of Christians everywhere and at all times.
The concrete link which has maintained that interest and turned it into a deep personal attachment to the Land, is and has always been, the Bible the Holy Scriptures, both the Old and the New Testaments. They are the spiritual and cultural orbit within which Jesus of Nazareth moved and within which he constructed his view of the world around him, just as his contemporaries, Jews all of them, did at the time, and just as Jews have always done, wherever they have lived and whatever have been the circumstances of their clinging to life and to survival.
There has never been an international bestseller like the Bible. No other book in the course of human civilization has ever gone through as many printings let alone hand-copied editions and no other book has been translated into as many languages, idioms and sub-languages. Sometimes the very translation of the Scriptures into a particular language had a decisive effect on the development of that language. Sometimes whole cultures were jolted into new and fast growth by a translation of the Bible into language accessible to the educated public.
Bible stories, parables, prophecies, miracles and songs, heroes and villains, patriarchs, kings, judges and leaders are known all over the world wherever Christianity has a foothold and in those countries where the dominant culture is anchored in Christian tradition. And with these stories, miracles and parables comes the knowledge of places, sites, rivers, valleys and mountains in the Holy Land. The name of Jerusalem is known in the remotest corners of the earth. So also are Bethlehem, Jericho, the River Jordan, Mount Tabor and the Sea of Galilee. These are household names, part of the Judaeo-Christian heritage, a heritage permeated, like no other, with the geography of the land. Places in ancient Palestine were often better known to schoolchildren in Britain, or colonial America, or in Protestant Scandinavian countries, and certainly in some African countries, than names of nearby towns and rivers.
If the attachment to the Holy Land is so important in Christian life, it is, and always has been, still more central in the life of the Jewish people. If there is a single focal point in Jewish life, it is the Land of Israel. With all its universality, the Jewish faith and culture are tied to the land of their origin like a child to the womb of its mother. No matter whether one sees in the Jewish people a religion, a faith, a tradition or a nation, a cultural heritage or merely a spiritual concept as long as there is anything at all Jewish about it, it is inseparably and irreversibly linked to the Land of Israel.
There, a people came into being; there was created its unique moral and legal code; there it produced its thinkers and prophets, judges and kings; and there it struggled to cling to the land God had promised it. In that land, the covenant was contracted, the first covenant ever between God and a people, for a particular spot on the face of the earth, and for a particular way for the people of the covenant to live in that Promised Land. And it was there they embarked on an unprecedented attempt to live according to the covenant with God. They worked the land given to them, and built their new nation. They had their rulers and kings, and often had to fight off intruders and invaders. But they made good their promise and realized to the best of their ability their part of the covenant. Conditions had the upper hand, however, and the people of Israel were carried into exile in Babylon.
It was there, by the rivers of Babylon, in the sixth century before the Christian era, that the idea of the return was born. There is the immortal evidence of the Psalmist:
"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lords song in a foreign land? If I do not remember thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy." (Psalms 137: 1-6).
Over the generations, untold millions of men and women have been familiar with these lines. They have known in mind as well as by instinct that those who sang thus were Jews from the Land of Israel, singing and weeping and dreaming of their return home.
Jesus of Nazareth lived in Judea after the return from that first Babylonian Exile. He lived there before a second, infinitely worse exile would befall the people of Judea. An exile of almost 2,000 years an exile of homeless wanderings from country to country when Jews were persecuted, expelled, segregated, misunderstood, envied, hated, killed individually or in groups, burnt at the stake and murdered by the millions in sophisticated death-factories.
But the Jewish people clung to life and kept their faith alive. For centuries Christians stood aghast and in wonder, not understanding how this people survived the most wretched and horrible conditions. Sometimes they watched, not in wonder but in puzzlement, in disbelief, and in awe. Perhaps this very wonder in its turn stirred the fires not only of awe but of hate and envy.
Volumes have been written about this enigma of Jewish national and spiritual continuity. Many solutions have been offered, some Christian, some Jewish and some secular. Some have approached it from a theological viewpoint, or from a purely spiritual one, while others have approached it historically. But common to them all is the concept of the return. Sometimes as the hope and dream and prayer of return to the Land of Israel to live, once again, as a people and a nation under God; sometimes linked to the days of the Messiah, a pre-condition of the Messianic Age. But always, wherever there are Jews, there is one unique mainspring of life, individual as well as national hope of the return. For this, Jews pray three times every day, and on every Sabbath, on every important family occasion and on every holiday and festival, until the day of death.
From the very beginnings of Christianity there has been a continuous spiritual interchange between Jew and Christian. There have been debates, discussions, and fateful discourses where life itself was at stake for the Jewish interlocuter. Christian theologians, clergy and educated laymen have been aware of Jewish traditions, prayers and aspirations and have often known the scriptures in the Hebrew original, as well as in Greek, Latin and other versions. And Christians have indeed known of the many prophecies about the return of the Jewish people to the land of their forebears, and of their restoration there as a nation on the land originally promised to them and contracted for in Abrahams Covenant, and reaffirmed again and again. They have often pondered the connection between these biblical prophecies and the Jews living in their midst, bearing, often heroically and inexplicably, the fate of outcasts and ever-present targets of incitement to hate, discrimination, plunder, expulsion and outright murder. And some have asked, does Christianity itself have a task to fulfill while acting in self-fulfillment and promoting salvation and the end of time? Does Christianity have a task to fulfill and ensure that the prophecies of the Jewish return are realized, possibly as a pre-condition to the fulfillment of Christian final redemption? Some have asked such questions others have replied, and over the years many Christian theologians, writers, statesmen and practical politicians have replied in the affirmative: Christians do have a stake in the return. The restoration of the Jewish people to their homeland is part of a Christian understanding of Gods purpose in the world.
Long before the emergence of a Jewish movement for the return the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century Christian belief in and support of the idea of the return was clearly evident. Very important early contributions were made, primarily in Britain. Other countries followed, in particular, America. And inspiration for this support and understanding of the return came from the Christian faith itself. When the Jews own modern idea of the return became a political and practical movement, culminating in the State of Israel, there were many Christians who supported it and rendered it vital service on its arduous road. It is perhaps an odd irony that the Jewish return home was achieved partly, but significantly, through the instrumentality of that very faith which they, the Jews, have given the gentiles.
The Jewish state in the Land of Israel has intensified the old and ongoing relationship between Christians and Jews. The dialogue between the two religions had, in the past, often been ignoble and sordid, but two major historical events, which took place towards the end of the first half of this 20th century, were a decisive turning point: the Holocaust, which physically extinguished the life of more than a third of the Jewish people, and the emergence of the Jewish state. From then on, the substance and tenor of the dialogue underwent profound change, strongly underlined by the Second Vatican Councils decision in 1965 to absolve the Jews once and for all from the crime of deicide. And then, there are the hard and visible facts of life itself in Israel and Jerusalem. The city is tranquil; the sacred shrines are freely accessible to all; the Christian communities thrive and every year many thousands of Christian pilgrims see and bear witness to the dawning of a new age.