For The Someday Book

Book Review: God’s Land on Loan

Posted on: January 5, 2012

God’s Land on Loan: Israel, Palestine and the World by W. Eugene March, Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, 131 pp.

This is another book I am reading as part of the Macedonian Ministries program.

People devote lifetimes to understanding the complex intertwining of present-day living, history, scripture and theology that shape the Holy Land of Israel/Palestine. The conflicts and questions are impossible to unravel and rooted in thousands of years of warfare, conquest, faith, self-understanding, culture and religion. If you don’t know where to begin to sort through it, or if you don’t have a lifetime to devote, W. Eugene March’s book is an introduction that can be read in just a few hours and give a broad-based yet grounded account of the whole picture.

God’s Land on Loan is grounded in the theological perspective evident in the title: that all land belongs to God, and we who “own” it in this world are merely stewards, with responsibilities to work the land for God’s purposes. March begins the story of the land currently called Israel not at the beginning, but in the present. He paints a picture of the people passing through the two main gates to the Old City in Jerusalem, carrying on their daily lives. Then he gives voice to more than a dozen individuals currently residing in Jerusalem, each speaking the truth of their perspective on the centuries-old conflict over the land, and expressing concerns related to their daily lives.

Only after the reader has been saturated with the complicated diversity of contemporary Jerusalem does March venture into the past. Then, in a concise 40 pages, March tells “The Realities of History,” the stories of occupation, displacement and violence over the last 2,000 years. Again, only after this foundation in contemporary life and factual history, March leads the reader into a chapter on the biblical stories related to the land, followed by a chapter on the theological questions surrounding the land. The concluding chapter returns to the theme of the title: how to tend to the earth-keeping responsibilities for this shared space of sacred and political history.

March’s theology and politics seem far more even-handed than most other accounts. He relates to scripture with a scholarly, historical-critical integrity, while honoring the faith and devotional role that the texts and stories play in shaping our lives. For example, he eloquently describes the role the Bible as helping us ask the right questions, rather than providing all the answers:

For people active in faith communities, the issue is not whether to consider the Bible when dealing with the tough questions of life, but how. … The task is not to determine which view is correct, oldest, or most authoritative. Rather, the goal is to listen and reflect upon the events that God’s people have experienced and the reports they have passed along in the hope and with the conviction that God continues to care for and give guidance to those who seek to place God’s agenda foremost in their lives. (66)

March’s chapter on the theological questions about the land is particularly insightful. Piece by piece, yet in succinct form, he deconstructs many of the misconceptions Christians hold, such as the conflation of the nation Israel with the biblical Israel, supercessionism, or understanding chosenness as rights instead of responsibilities. Always, the image of the title comes through: we are keepers of God’s earth, which is only ours to borrow, and whose use is meant to be for God’s purposes alone.

March offers an excellent introduction to the history of Israel/Palestine and the biblical and theological ideas that have played such conflicting roles. It would work well in a church setting, with lay or clergy groups. I commend it to you as readable, accessible, even-handed and faithful.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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