Divine Land Grants


Imagined painting by Frans Pourbus the Elder (c. 1565–80) depicting the Israelite’s God showing Moses the Promised Land. Photograph Source: Sailko – CC BY 3.0

When Moses the servant of Yahweh was dead, Yahweh spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses adjutant. He said, “Moses my servant is dead; rise—it is time—and cross the Jordan here, you and all this people with you, into the land which I am giving the sons of Israel. Every place you tread with the soles of your feet I shall give you as I declared to Moses that I would. From the wilderness and Lebanon to the great river Euphrates and to the Great Sea westwards, this shall be your territory. As long as you live, no one shall be able to stand in your way: I will be with you as I was with Moses; I will not leave you or desert you.”

– The Book of Joshua, Chapter 1, verses 1-5

The principal deficiency in biblical scholarship currently is its lack of a myth criticism. We have developed historical criticism to a high art, but we have been unable to conceive a critical relation to the stories that undergird our tradition and limit our vision. In the next phase of our work, we must remedy this fundamental deficiency.

– Robert W. Funk, Honest to Jesus, page 309

The disclosure of a myth is deemed academic as long as the myth belongs to somebody else. Recognizing one’s own myth is always much more difficult, if not downright dangerous.

The reason for this is the way myths work their magic. Myths are guardians of cultural identity and work best when taken for granted. Left undisturbed, a myth makes it possible to assume that others agree in advance on the rules that govern the daily round. Should a myth ever be named and questioned, the collective agreements basic to society’s well-being come unglued and people feel unsettled.

– Burton L. Mack, The Lost Gospel, page 237

As a long-time reader of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, I’ve been struck by that magazine’s bewilderment concerning Israel’s influence on American foreign policy. To be sure, it’s not that Israel has created this influence through shrewd political maneuvering, although its leadership has taken advantage of our persistent and pervasive attention. For besides being a political ally, Israel is the recipient and codependent of American Christian mythological conviction.

This religious conviction and its associated journalistic bewilderment reflect a foundational blind spot that sustains related myths that resist rational scrutiny: the Chosen People- Promised Land and the Right of Christian Discovery. We might say that this is an illustration of Robert Funk’s puzzlement over our collective and even scholarly inability to conceive a critical relation to the myths that undergird our tradition. With Burton Mack, we shall make an effort to explore why we feel so unsettled when our myths are named and questioned. Why does that feel dangerous?

In his 2008 book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, Native American scholar Steven Newcomb discloses the religious etiology of the two myths already named and he reveals their pervasive influence on American law and cultural disposition—that is, the qualitative impact on our cultural consciousness and spiritual condition. He sees the historic template in Genesis 12, where Yahweh says He will give Canaan to the descendants of Abram, a narrative Newcomb calls “the origin of the Chosen People-Promised Land cognitive model”; and he shows how this model has served as “part of the cultural and religious background” for a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1823.

In his Foreword to Newcomb’s volume, Peter d’Errico (Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst) deems it “. . . a book to study, not simply to read. It cracks the code that explains the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh, in which ‘Indian occupancy’ and ‘discoverer’s title’ intersected. Newcomb’s analysis of this cornerstone of U.S. law raises the stakes of legal analysis far beyond antiquarian concern for old cases.” And he goes on to say that “Federal Indian law is the lynchpin of property law in the United States,” and that the “religious doctrine in Johnson v. M’Intosh is at the core of federal Indian law and of all property title derived from colonization and ‘discovery.’” In his Preface, Newcomb agrees, saying his book’s main objective is “. . . to focus on and decode the hidden biblical, or, more specifically, Old Testament, background of the Johnson ruling.” Thus, he concludes, “. . . the presumption that the United States has a legitimate right to lay down numerous laws and policies for Indian nations is rooted in an idea expressed by Chief Justice John Marshall in the Johnson ruling: that the . . . first ‘Christian people’ to discover lands inhabited by ‘heathens’ has ultimate dominion over and absolute title to those lands” and that the “presumption that the conqueror has the divine right to seek out and locate ‘new’ lands in order to conquer and subdue them gives rise to the phrase right of discoveryfound in the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling.”

But to trace this presumption not only back to its medieval papal formulations but to its pre-Christian origins is to enter into a religious landscape fraught with mythic icons and political convictions that resist critical scrutiny. It turns out that this myth is holy to us. It’s a crucial element in our religious and legal heritage. It is, we might say, the sacred ground upon which we stand. Israel’s importance in American political and religious discourse not only reflects that heritage; it energizes a shield of protective influence that few people seem willing to analyze or discuss or even make an effort to discern, especially as that protective influence is deemed sacred or holy. Looking critically into the holy is an affront to God. To look boldly and critically into the biography and psychoanalysis of God agitates feelings of disrespect, and disrespect can slide into disparagement, irreverence, and mockery. Not to speak of the intellectual embarrassment for not being spiritually mature enough to recognize or articulate the obvious. But spiritual maturity now demands facing into and overcoming that embarrassment. To have endured centuries of a male-only trinitarian godhead should tell us something about the violent underbelly of the myths under consideration.

Some may argue that Israel’s influence in the Christian West is the product of collective Euro-American guilt for Hitler’s death camps, the systematic expropriation and murder of European Jews, and America’s reluctance to accept Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. While guilt may be a minor factor in the American alliance with Israel, that alliance has deeper roots than guilt. Since America doesn’t wallow in collective guilt for the expropriation, murder, and enslavement of Native Americans, Africans, Hispanics or Asians, it would appear that Christian guilt for the Holocaust cannot explain Israel’s astonishing influence on American foreign policy.

The difficulty in exploring this influence is not so much its intellectual complexity as the sacred moat surrounding its mythology—what Swiss theologian Karl Barth called “Israel as representing God’s sovereignty on earth.” Indeed, orthodox Christian doctrine has for centuries affirmed Israel as God’s Chosen People in the Promised Land; and, since 1948, many Christians have seen Israel’s statehood as a sign of End Times and the Second Coming of Christ. The enormous political consequence of this view is a key mythological dynamic in a widely accepted formulation of Christian eschatology, an influence that helps explain the myth’s psychic impact in political discourse and religious preaching.

But to deconstruct this myth is to risk triggering an explosive reaction from those for whom it is historically true, religiously sacred, mythically revered, and politically foundational. Hence the pervasive silence: better to let sleeping dogs lie than to poke a stick into a hornets’ nest. As Burton Mack suggests, deconstructing foundational myth can cause both denunciation and reprisal. And even if such anger is stonily passive, it may show itself as impenetrable silence and make it impossible to examine the religious roots of this myth without an associated agitation of political convictions. Christians do not enjoy having dialogues with pagans, especially when pagans not only claim equal spiritual footing but have in hand an irrefutable legal brief besides.

At a library-sponsored event in my hometown in northern Wisconsin in early December of 2016, the moderator asked three men—a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim gathered in behalf of ecumenical sharing—whether they believed the three Abrahamic religions worship the same God. To nobody’s surprise, all three men immediately said yes. Of course we worship the same God. Who would think otherwise? Religiously speaking, we’re all of the tribe of Abraham, People of The Book. Since Judaism is by far the oldest of the three Abrahamic religions, Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible must therefore depict this God’s identity, nature, and behavioral characteristics. Such an assumption should help us understand the linkage between Israel and America.

To be sure, some would call this mythic stuff mere intellectual fluff without political consequence; but such dismissal grossly underestimates the deep and enduring power of myth, and certainly this myth. Myth has the capacity to shape human consciousness to the degree that it becomes accepted as historically true and thus shape temporal institutions in crucial ways. And while such shaping may be quite obvious in Christian fundamentalism and more muted in liberal Christianity, myth is foundational to both. While literalists assail God’s deconstruction as blasphemous, liberals tend to replace the God of murder and wrath with one of mercy and universal love. This ethical disposition is admirable; but glossing over the biblical God’s command of genocide, not talking out loud about the God of murder and wrath, helps to perpetuate public acceptance of political evasion and spiritual avoidance. We are loath to confront the raw violence in this religious mythology or to recognize its political manifestations; but it’s time to shake off this moral somnolence.

Calling the United States a “Christian nation” implies that Israel’s God is America’s God and that the Yahweh who led His Chosen People into the Promised Land became Christianity’s God by adoption within the newly Christianized Roman Empire. With the Constantinian accommodation followed by an Augustinian canonization, Western civilization became nominally Christian. Yahweh displaced the “pagan” gods of Rome and was gradually assimilated by the very Empire that had been complicit in the torture and killing of Jesus. The “pagan” Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire. And those spiritual cliches are part of what needs looking into. That is, the attribution of “pagan” is as false as that of “holy.” Empires conquer, kill, dispossess, and exploit those of the pagus—rural communities whose populations have little or no say in control or governance. Empires may have official religions, but those religions are civilized, not pagan. To call the pre-Christian Roman Empire “pagan” is oxymoronic. The native gods of Europe and America may be called pagan by Latin etymology, but those pagans were overpowered by civilized Christianity, and the mercy preached by the church was provided largely to those recovering from their wounds after having been properly chastened and baptized.

The early European explorers, conquistadors, and settlers in the New World justified their aggressive behavior by the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, the God-given right to take land and convert or exterminate people in order to spread Christian righteousness. Newcomb’s Pagans in the Promised Land provides a powerful analysis of the Old Testament sources, papal declarations, and some of the American ramifications of this extraordinary doctrine.

In chapter 3, “The Conqueror Model,” Newcomb explains his chapter’s title:

In the context of the conqueror’s moral system, the “divine right” to conquer and subdue includes the divine right to forcibly convince “new” peoples in “new” lands that they owe the conqueror tribute and obedience. Because the conqueror deems himself to be divine, or else to be imbued by “God” with divine authority, this means that even those peoples he has not yet subdued nevertheless have, from the conqueror’s viewpoint, a duty and an obligation to obey him and pay tribute to him. Those who do not immediately recognize this obligation—by dutifully bowing before the conqueror with an attitude of meekness and submission when he arrives to their country to conquer and subdue them—must be “justly” dealt with in the harshest and most coercive terms. This is because the conqueror’s so-called divine authority includes the responsibility to teach those whom he has destined to conquer and subdue the moral lessons that, from the conqueror’s viewpoint, they are required to learn. . . .

The resulting sense of conqueror morality leads to arguments that automatically justify conquest and the process of conquering . . . . According to the conqueror worldview, it is self-evident that the conqueror is being most virtuous, morally sound, and obedient to God when he uses the tools of coercion, terror, fear, and dread to fulfill “God’s will” by conquering and subduing new lands and new peoples not yet conquered.

Newcomb traces the Doctrine of Christian Discovery back to a series of papal bulls and to the 1514 Spanish Requerimiento, written for King Ferdinand his and daughter Dona Juana:

Addressed to “barbarous” non-Christian nations that were considered destined to be subdued, the Requerimiento declares that . . . “the Lord our God, Living and Eternal, created the Heaven and the Earth” and that he created “one man and one woman, of whom you and we, and all men of the world, were and are descendants, and all those who came after us.” In the five thousand years that the Requerimiento said had transpired since God created the world, “it was necessary that some men should go one way and some another, and that they should be divided into many kingdoms and provinces, for in one alone they could not be sustained.”

Out of all “these nations,” says the document, “God our Lord gave charge to one man, called St. Peter, that he should be Lord and Superior of all the men in the world, that all should obey him, and that he should be the head of the whole human race, wherever men should live, and under whatever law, sect, or belief they should be; and he gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction.” [Thus] the Requerimiento correlates with the point made previously that the Conqueror model posits a central figure, such as monarch (whether king, queen, or pope), who is considered divine or whose power is considered to come from a divine source.

In chapter 4, “Colonizing the Promised Land,” Newcomb argues that it is intellectually accurate to perceive the Lord of the Old Testament in terms of deliberate conquest and that the Old Testament narrative—most explicitly Joshua’s acquiring Canaan by force—is the root of the Chosen People-Promised Land concept:

We might say that the story of the Lord’s promise to the chosen people is the tale of a divine land grant, analogous to a papal bull and to the various royal colonial charters that were issued by Christian European monarchs during the Age of Discovery.

Later in the same chapter, Newcomb summarizes his thesis by noting that:

. . . in the narrative of the Old Testament, the Lord and his chosen people were the conquering colonizers of the land of Canaan, and the Lord assigned the chosen people two colonial tasks . . . to extirpate or “uproot” the non-Hebrew Canaanites from the “promised” land [and] to “replant” (repopulate) the promised land with the seed (offspring) of Abraham.

In like manner, he observes that during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and later centuries, the monarchies of Christendom appropriated the Old Testament narrative of the Chosen People forcing their way into Canaan and applied that construct to the rest of the globe. Indeed the record shows that the claim of Christian potentates to the divine right to take possession of heathen lands was a direct result of their belief that God had previously commanded the Hebrews to take possession of Canaan and that, as Christians, they had become God’s new chosen people. Thus the Old Testament story was, with a stunning twist of religious logic, magnified from “Yahweh’s command to the Hebrews” into God’s command to Christians to take possession of any place on earth that had not yet been vanquished or subdued.

Powerful corroboration of Newcomb’s thesis appears in the final paragraph in chapter 2 of Jesus the Warrior? by W. Michael Slattery, “War & Inter-Group Violence in the Hebrew Scriptures.”

In conclusion, we may observe the following principal tenets on the treatment of war and lethal violence in the Hebrew scriptures. The earlier scriptures of Exodus, Joshua, Judges and I and II Samuel implicitly accept . . . that war is conducted at the behest and direction of YHWH . . . and it is YHWH who is the actual warrior; the Israelites are merely the agents or instruments for enactment of the will of YHWH. That the practice of the brutal ban [the slaughter of all living creatures] was employed by the Israelites at the direction of YHWH cannot be contested [see Joshua 6:21 and 1 Samuel 15:3].

And here’s a corroborating paragraph from “Breaking the Spiral of Violence” of Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be:

The violence of the Old Testament has always been a scandal to Christianity. The church has actually ducked the issue, either by allegorizing the Old Testament or by rejecting it. Biblical scholar Raymund Schwager points out that there are six hundred passages of explicit violence in the Hebrew Bible, one thousand verses where God’s own violent actions of punishment are described, a hundred passages where Yahweh expressly commands others to kill people, and several stories where God irrationally kills or tries to kill for no apparent reason (for example, Exod. 4:24-26). Violence, Schwager concludes, is easily the most often mentioned activity in the Hebrew Bible.

Wink goes on to say that such violence “is in part the residue of false ideas about God,” and that the “actual initiative for killing does not originate with God, but is projected onto God.” But if those stories convey false ideas about God, how is it possible to accept the Jericho genocide as the sacred portal through which the Chosen People entered the Promised Land or to invoke the story of Chosen People-Promised Land to justify the Doctrine of Christian Discovery? How does one respect, revere, or worship a God who authorizes brutal conquest and ruthless extermination?

Conservatives may reply that this God is totally righteous even if His will or motives can’t be understood. Liberals may say we should ignore this God’s unsavory aspects. But neither camp seems spiritually or ethically honest enough to boldly reject this genocidal deity and bluntly disavow His politically convenient commands and authorizations. Do we really need to ask why conservatives and liberals alike have endowed Israel with such powerful influence in American domestic politics and foreign policy? When the Chosen People-Promised Land construct is fully revealed as the mythic monstrosity it represents, exposure of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery will not be far behind. As Steven Newcomb says, “[S]o long as the Old Testament background . . . continues to remain hidden from view, it will . . . be taken for granted and successfully used as a covert weapon against indigenous nations and peoples.”

Rachel Havrelock is associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her 2020 book The Joshua Generation, she documents Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s sponsorship of a 1958 “Joshua study group.” Ben-Gurion, Havrelock says, “invited politicians, justices, generals, archaeologists, and biblical scholars into his home twice a month for biblical study.” What Ben-Gurion hoped to promote was “Israeli national unity and to foster a collective identity based on biblical images. He chose Joshua, the book concerning the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land.” Havrelock goes on to say that “Ben-Gurion saw the biblical war story as constituting an ideal basis for a unifying narrative of national identity. Not only could modern Israelis relate to the processes of conquest and settlement, but through the prism of Joshua they could also understand them as reenactments of the biblical past.”

Havrelock notes that “Ben-Gurion and his study partners . . . sought to include and refashion these [immigrant] Jews as Israelis . . . [and] distance Israelis from their neighboring Arabs . . . in order to obscure the presence of nonnationals and overcome the patchwork nature of a society comprised of different ethnic, religious, ideological, and linguistic groups.” This “enactment of biblical archetypes” became “increasingly important to religious settlers citing the biblical grant of the land as their charter.”

Once we face this mythological guardian of cultural and spiritual identity we can begin to understand Israel’s impact on American foreign policy; for it is our collective refusal to acknowledge and repent of this intellectual muddle (or mythic and emotional addiction) that keeps this destructive paradigm intact, a myth pervading our cultural worldview and poisoning the prevailing politics of both political parties. The time has come to repudiate an outmoded worldview, if “outmoded” is a proper designation. (This myth will not evaporate or disappear with repudiation. Nor is it exactly “outmoded,” as if it were a shoe that no longer fits. It will join other myths in the historic catalogue of human mythologies, some of which of been stunningly cruel. But that means we’ll be able to recognize our myth as a multimillennial picture show produced and sustained as a mass rationalization for violence, conquest, war, and class. To deconstruct this myth, to give that picture show deep historical, psychological, and spiritual scrutiny, is to expose its traumatic institutions and dissolve the justifications for and our veneration of a god of theft and genocide. We are only now discerning the opaque linkage between religious myth and the class-and-war institutions that have dressed themselves in the holy robes of God’s authorizations. But that discernment, difficult as it may be, is also our liberation. We have begun to remedy a fundamental deficiency in myth criticism. Embracing that process will enable us to grow beyond the prevailing boundaries of cultural and spiritual identity.)

This essay was prompted years ago by the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its emphasis on mythological and religious deconstruction deterred a wider dissemination. It just felt too provocative. But the dreadful situation in Gaza and the West Bank, with the threat of ethnic cleansing or even genocide, renders hesitation no longer morally acceptable. It’s hard not to see Palestinians as the archetypal Indigenous, Gaza as the new Warsaw ghetto or Wounded Knee, and Benjamin Netanyahu as the iconic reincarnation of Joshua, Caesar, or any number of ethnic cleansers—including some we regard as American cultural heroes. Biblical archetypes, especially those that valorize murder and provide spiritual supremacy to “chosen” groups, have no place in a crowded world replete with increasing tensions and extinctionary weaponry. If repentance has spiritual meaning, it must activate disavowal of those deadly convictions with mythological foundations, however deeply those convictions are held and even revered, and however strongly their corresponding identities may be internalized. We might even say that there are mythic demons needing our participation in their exorcism, which is a thought shocking to our righteousness. But the world cannot survive more claims of divine right or the supremist mythologies that threaten cultural devastation and global destruction. Our evolutionary circumstance has become that stark. We have to critically examine the interior engines of our enabling myths and greatly mitigate their class and war justifications. There really is no other rational or spiritual choice.

Repenting of archetypal righteousness is the only solution—the only spiritual, cultural, political, and ecological solution—to this dreadful predicament. We have to sweep the “sacred” dust off these self-serving mythic supremist hypocrisies. To be sure, repenting of—and first being morally and ethically strong enough to even want to let go of—authorized righteousness is one of the most difficult of spiritual exercises. Letting go of righteousness is the hardest of moral acts. Many people may be unwilling to face the humiliation and anxiety inherent in that exercise. But if we are to avoid the most catastrophic of the many catastrophes already roiling the planet, such spiritual discipline is no longer optional.

Paul Gilk lives in the woods of northern Wisconsin. His home is a reconstructed nineteenth-century log cabin, without electricity or running water. He is the author of several books including Green Politics is EutopianNature’s Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture, and Picking Fights with the Gods: A Spiritual Psychoanalysis of Civilization’s Superego.