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To the End of the Land by David Grossman, translated by Jessica Cohen, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 577 pp.

This novel is absolutely stunning in its depth, beauty, profound characters, emotional contours, and intricate portrayal of the personal impact of war. It feels almost like a betrayal of its thick interweaving of words and images to even describe it to you. Just read it for yourself. It’s amazing, you won’t regret it.

To the End of the Land centers on Ora, an Israeli mother of two young adult boys. One of the boys, Ofer, is about to complete his military service when he must return to the front. Ora is overcome with panic and runs away to hike in the Galilee. She is estranged from her husband Ilan, so she picks up her old friend Avram along the way. Avram was her best friend and lover as a teenager, but he was tortured as a POW in the Six Day War and returned unable to live and love Ora or life itself. Ilan and Avram were best friends as well, and the three of them shared an intense bond that was broken when Avram’s spirit was broken in the war. Avram has never met their two sons, and refused to know anything about Ilan and Ora’s life after his captivity, even though they remained his friends and caretakers.

Overcome by a mother’s love and magical thinking, Ora believes she must protect her son Ofer by keeping him constantly in her mind. As she and Avram hike outdoors and journey across the terrain of northern Israel, she tells the story of Ofer, of her older son Adam, of her relationship with Ilan, and of her own life since Avram has been absent from it. The novel unpacks this journey across the Galilee, Ora’s tale, Avram’s heart, and the toll the war has taken on their humanity.

In a word, this novel is stunning. The characters and the story captivated me from the very first page. Ora and Avram come to life immediately, and then Ora’s tale gives life to Ilan, Adam and Ofer slowly as the book proceeds. Grossman details the contours of a mother’s love, friendship, passion, loneliness and despair in ways that illuminate and expose the human soul. I found myself wondering how he managed to put words to such deep, intricate emotion.

The land is a profound part of the story. Grossman describes the terrain that Ora and Avram hike in the Galilee with detail and beauty, and a touch of magical realism in the characters they encounter and the dangers they overcome. The ideal of the land of Israel has cost these characters a significant portion of their souls. Always in the background floats the question: how much is too much of a price to pay? In the treatment of the Palestinians, in the disruption of families, in the human lives lost or forever broken, in the souls bruised by acts of violence—the price to maintain Israel as a Jewish state is almost unbearably high. To the End of the Land ponders what ends human beings must go to in order to protect and live in this land.

I have read (and am still reading) many books on the land of Israel, its history and politics. But I know when I journey to the Galilee in a few weeks, Ora and Avram will be foremost in my mind. I will still be remembering and working through the complexities of their story, and the way it explores the dynamics of the land and its people. I will be watching for Ora and Avram to appear around the corner of every Galilean trail.

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.

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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