Ask Andrew 6 (2018): The Meaning of Jerusalem

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Q: Talk about the history of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel: reference to Trump and Evangelical push for this to happen.

There is so much tied up in the symbolism of Jerusalem that it is good to know something of the real history before we try to untangle some of the meaning of this city.

A brief overview of 6000 years of history:

Archaeological evidence suggests that there has been habitation there for about 6000 yrs! The first written reference to the city in Egyptian documents called it Rusalimum about 4000 years ago. The root word for Jerusalem is “SLM”, which refers to Peace (Shalom in Hebrew, Salaam in Arabic). Some have also suggested it might be a reference to Shalim, the Canaanite god of dusk. Personally, I don’t believe the two are incompatible: you have to stop fighting at dusk when you have limited technology: dusk is a natural time for peace to settle.

The Hebrews who escaped from Egypt in the Exodus were not so much farmers as herders: they followed their flocks and had few cities. They had no capital city for the longest time, even under king Saul. It was King David who conquered Jerusalem (the Bible says it was called Jebus then). The Bible calls the inhabitants Jebusites – in contrast to the Archaeological evidence about Rusalimum above.

David’s conquest was in 1000 BCE, about 3000 years ago. David brought in the Ark of the Covenant from Bethel, one of the places of worship out in the countryside, to focus the worship life of Israel in Jerusalem. David was working hard to centralize his nation.

King Solomon, David’s son, built the first temple in Jerusalem, and discouraged the worship centres at Bethel and Shiloh, which served to make the city more and more the heart of the nation’s worship. For both of these kings, this was a political thing: they were making Jerusalem the centre of worship and the nation.

When the kingdom split after Solomon died, the 10 northern tribes, called Israel, declared Sechem to be their capital city. Jerusalem became the capital of Judah, the southern kingdom. This was still a hot political and religious issue in Jesus’ day. Remember the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel? She objected to the way the Jews said that people should worship at Jerusalem. Even today the remaining Samaritan community still worships at Mt. Horeb, as they have been for over 3000 years.

But for the Jews, who take their name from the tribe of Judah, Jerusalem became the focus of dreams and hopes. The promise of return from the Babylonian Captivity was focused on Zion: the other name for Jerusalem. There are many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that focus on this same idea: the return of God’s people to Jerusalem.

The city has been ruled by many empires over the years. By Jesus’ day, the Romans were in charge after a few centuries of Jewish independence. In 70 AD Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome. The temple was demolished except for one wall, now known as the wailing wall. The city walls were pulled down and the inhabitants slaughtered: Jews and Christians alike.

It became illegal for any Jew to live in Jerusalem for centuries. To live there they had to pay the “Jewish tax.” Even Constantine, the Emperor who made Christianity the religion of the Roman empire, kept this law going. Eventually it was Emperor Hadrian who finally rebuilt parts of the ruined city and allowed Jews to return.

Christianity, as an organized religion, didn’t care much about having Jews in Jerusalem. Many Christians felt that we had replaced the Jews as the people of God. Besides, after the destruction of Jerusalem, a symbolic New Jerusalem appeared in the Book of Revelations. This was taken as a symbol of Heaven by many, so the actual city of Jerusalem was left as a wonderful tourist destination with lots of pilgrimage opportunities, but without a divine future.

The rise of Islam changed things. Jerusalem was fought over between Muslim armies and Crusaders repeatedly. There was a Christian kingdom of Jerusalem for a couple of centuries, various Muslim rulers, and even a time when the Benedictine Monks were in charge.

Ultimately it became part of the Ottoman empire, and remained there until the end of WW1. In large part it was neglected: some Muslim holy sites were constructed and revered, but there was not a lot of other investment. The Ottoman Turks encouraged Christians to come as tourists too. Frankly, Muslim rulers throughout history have tended to be more compassionate to Jews in Jerusalem than Christians ever were.

The development of modern Evangelical Christian beliefs about Jerusalem:

About 500 years ago, the Protestant Reformation happened. The Reformers rejected the centuries of tradition that had developed in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, and chose to emphasize the authority of the Bible. In doing so, the Reformers re-discovered all those passages that talk about the return of Jews of Zion, and started to associate that with the idea of the Second Coming of Jesus.

In England, this didn’t go smoothly. The Anglican Hierarchy swung between Reformed and Catholic influences at different periods. Note one of the most popular Anglican hymns is “Jerusalem”, written in 1804 by William Blake. It is practically a second national anthem for England, and it carries with it the image of a New Jerusalem being built in England.

The Puritans, who resisted Anglican understandings of many things, carried that same idea into the New World colonies they established. As Bruce Cockburn remarks wryly in one of his songs:

Let’s give a laugh for the man of the world, who thinks he can make things work: tried to build a New Jerusalem, and ended up with New York”

The Puritans really believed they could build a kind of New Jerusalem: a nation with a strong faith core that would lead the world in morality and establish the Kingdom of God in the world.

Along with that grew the understanding that the Jewish people would have to return to the Old Jerusalem, as declared in the Hebrew Scriptures, for God’s plan to be completed.

At the same time in Europe, for centuries, the existence of the Jews as a nation without a land led to all kinds of challenges, and contributed to serious anti-Semitism. There were even a series of international conferences about how to solve “the Jewish problem.”

Many “solutions” were attempted, sometimes by Jewish leaders acting independently, sometimes at the urging of various colonial governments who had distant lands to offer:

from 1818-48 New York Jewish leaders tried to establish a Jewish homeland on Grand Island

just near Niagara Falls

1903-05 tried to create a settlement in Uasin Gishu, East Africa

1907-14 tried in Angola (Uganda proposed, but no settlement made)

1933-42 tried Madagascar

1940-45 tried Tasmania

1838-45 tried Surinam (South America)

Each of these efforts had at least some Jewish support. Throughout these efforts, though, a group called the Zionists grew stronger. They were demanding return to lands of the Bible, and to Jerusalem itself.

Just before the end of World War 1 the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, supporting the idea of creating a Jewish homeland in the region of Palestine. Just after the war ended Britain was given a mandate by the League of Nations to rule Palestine.

The British had mixed feelings, which slowed down the process. Some took the Evangelical view of wanting the Jews back in Jerusalem as a fulfillment of Biblical prophesy. Others, including most in power, had a more pragmatic view of the politics of the world, and if they had religious views at all, likely preferred the New Jerusalem interpretation that made a modern state of Israel irrelevant (from a religious perspective).

When the Jewish people took matters into their own hands and created the modern state of Israel in 1947, Jerusalem was supposed to become an international City, within the bounds of Jordan and ruled by the United Nations. In 1948, during the Jewish-Arab war, Jerusalem was partitioned between Israel and Jordan. West Jerusalem included the traditional Christian and Jewish Quarters, while East Jerusalem was the traditional Muslim Quarter. In reality lots of people were forcibly removed from both sections.

In 1967 Israel captured East Jerusalem during the 6 day war and has held it ever since.

Evangelical Christianity has embraced the creation of the modern state of Israel as a sign of Christ’s return. One version had Christ returning within a generation of this event, which would have required Jesus to come back by 1988, since the standard Biblical generation is 40 years. Obviously that didn’t happen. Neither did most of the predictions in the book The Late Great Planet Earth, but that didn’t stop the basic ideas from staying popular.

Evangelical Christians support the expansion of Jewish settlements into Palestinian areas, so that modern Israel might re-claim all the ancient biblical lands and so prepare the way for Jesus to return. In addition to raising a great deal of money being raised for this, there is a political agenda: the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Palestine, of course, still wants East Jerusalem as their capital, which is why most countries won’t do it. Joe Clark, elected Canadian Prime Minister in 1979, promised it, and then backed off quickly when his experienced diplomats explained the reality of the situation.

Donald Trump has recognized Jerusalem in this way. I personally don’t think Trump believes anything particularly Christian, Evangelical or otherwise, but he knows his support base, and he has pleased many Evangelicals who think this will speed up the return of Jesus and the end of the world.

The Jewish leadership of Israel, of course, considers this Evangelical Christian interpretation to be nonsense, but they are happy for the support and encourage this connection with American Evangelicals

Their vision is that Israel is a place needed to defend the Jewish people, as we were reminded recently in the hate attack on the Synagogue in Pittsburgh. In that situation, the Israeli Prime Minister dispatched a government minister to go to the Synagogue and offer the support of the nation of Israel.

In Canada, this kind of Evangelical theology exists, but it is a fainter echo of the American version. We don’t start with the same vision of our nation as a fulfillment of prophesy the way many Americans do.

In America, the three churches that are closest to the United Church of Canada: the Presbyterians, the Methodists and the Congregationalists, have all issued criticisms of the theology that claims that modern Israel is predicted in scripture or is a precursor to the second coming of Christ. We haven’t done that. Rather, a few years ago we adopted a pro-Palestinian Justice approach that caused some serious friction, including formal protests from Knox.

What fascinates me is that politics have always been part of Jerusalem, at least since David conquered it 3000 years ago. Its religious status as a holy city has always served someone’s political agenda, and it saddens me that this is still going on today.

David wanted to centralize worship and his fractured nation. The southern kingdom of Judah wanted to be more authentic than Israel, initially, and eventually the Samaritans. The Maccabees wanted a rallying point, and over the centuries it was used that way again by both Christians and Muslims, back and forth. Now there is a religious cooperation between Christian Evangelicals and Israeli hard-liners.

I believe the best we can do is recognize what is going on, and refuse to play the game. We can refuse to treat modern events as the fulfillment of prophesy, whether it be Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

Jerusalem is a place of historical significance to three world religions. Our challenge is to find a way to celebrate that without causing injustice to any of the people who consider it important.

The call to pray for the peace of Jerusalem is ancient, and it is as significant today as it has ever been in the past.

May God grant us all the wisdom to achieve this peace.

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