This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Kraybill: Promised land, with a caveat

Renewed controversy in recent months over the location of Israel’s capital (Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?) takes my imagination to biblical Bethel in the West Bank. At this “thin place” between heaven and earth, Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending, and received promises about the land (Genesis 28).

J. Nelson Kraybill

For my own spiritual prospects, I take comfort from the fact that divine revelation reached even a scoundrel like Jacob. He had cheated his brother Esau and now was fleeing for his life to distant Padan Aram. Northbound on the ridge route later called Way of the Patriarchs, Jacob stopped for the night at Luz (which he renamed Bethel, or “house of God”).

With a stone for a pillow, the fugitive heard these gracious words: “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.”

Similar promises came to his forebears Abraham and Isaac, but in all three cases there also was a moral caveat: “In you all nations will be blessed.” All nations — even today’s Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries. Isaiah echoed the same universal theme in describing God’s intent for the eschatological future of Jerusalem: “All nations shall stream to it. . . . They shall beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:2, 4).

Ruins of a medieval domed structure remain on a hill 12 miles north of Jerusalem at the traditional location of Jacob’s dream. — J. Nelson Kraybill
Ruins of a medieval domed structure remain on a hill 12 miles north of Jerusalem at the traditional location of Jacob’s dream. — J. Nelson Kraybill

How could anyone argue historically or biblically that Jerusalem is not the capital of the Jewish people? But also, how could anyone miss the caveat — the call for justice that pervades the Torah and Prophets? Israel is to conduct itself honorably among the nations, but too often treats Palestinians with contempt and coercion today. They too are children of Abraham and legitimately claim Jerusalem as their capital.

An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon, 2015) shows how my own European forebears did not behave honorably with similar competing claims to territorial sovereignty. Anyone who thinks that scalping was something that nasty indigenous people did to European settlers should know that such brutality often was the reverse. The U.S. government paid a bounty for scalps to encourage the massacre of Indians.

That history gives me pause if I critique Israel’s conduct in the West Bank or critique Israel’s apparent attempt at exclusive control of Jerusalem. But I reject the biblical rationalization and Manifest Destiny arguments that some of my cultural forebears used to run American Indians off their land. I protest today if Israel does the same in the West Bank, or if Palestinians or other nations want to destroy Israel.

I have been blessed by the Jewish people and gladly travel with groups to Israel. In the words of Paul, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah” (Rom. 9:4-5). My spiritual journey as a Gentile Christian is inextricably linked to theirs, and I am grateful. I support Israel. But I also support Palestinians — Christian, Muslim or secular — whose claims to Jerusalem and stewardship of the land run deep.

J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his reflections at

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