Practical Dreamers

Promised Land and Homeland
History and Myth

Donald Phillips


This sermon was preached at Mornington Church on Aug 6, 2006, and attracted much interest. It is a valuable contribution to the current debate on the rights and wrongs of the Middle East conflict.



'"I gave you the House of Israel and of Judah; and if this were not enough, I would add as much again for you."  2 Samuel 12: 8


The World Watch supplement to the Monday Otago Daily Times is a welcome addition to our diet of news, if only for the publication of the Oliphant cartoon - this week's a particularly irreverent view of God's opinion of George W.Bush

The article that caught my eye, cut from the Observer, was about an Hungarian historian, Krisztian Ungvary, who is seeking to set his country's war-time record straight – to tell what really happened during those horrendous years

Those with longer memories may recall that at the beginning of the 1939-1945 War the then Regent of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, gave his support to the Axis powers during their invasion of Yugoslavia and Russia

It proved no avail for him, in the end, to defy Hitler and seek an armistice -  when the war ceased his country became part of the Communist bloc – his overlords in Moscow plainly regarded his country as part of the defeated enemy

We recall the brave but abortive uprising in 1958, ending with Russia asserting its authority even more violently – we have a friend who escaped from that oppression and has no wish ever to return – his memories are too bitter

Mr Ungvary has been able to work with recently discovered material from both Russia and East Germany, and is setting out to overturn the Communist version of history currently taught in Hungarian schools

He is describing the role of the Hungarian army within the Nazi war machine – and in doing so is revisiting an intensely sensitive chapter in his nation's history

A key sentence in his article described his reasons: 'But against the background of the selective, sometimes mythical, history propagated by the former Communist regime in Budapest, he insists it is time to clear the air between neighbours and to settle down to peace in today's post-Soviet Europe.'

What are we to do with history, of which much the same could be said, but which goes back 3000 years, not just 60 odd

History written by the victors in a long war, determined to justify their actions – history that might equally be described as selective and mythical – history that has to be re-evaluated if there is to be peace in our war-torn world


I think we all know that selective writing of history goes on all the time – today is no different from any age in human history, at least since the recording of history became an important part of the tradition of kings and governments

It has happened in New Zealand's relatively short time as a European society transplanted into the South Pacific – displacing the people of the land, far too often by sheer weight of numbers , or deceit, or broken promises

The history I was taught as a child was seriously defective – justifying, rather than questioning, obviously illegal actions – seeing the supposedly peaceful settlement of the land  almost solely from the point-of-view of the settlers

Mind you, there are increasing signs that among the tangata whenua the same thing is happening – a newly published account of the pre-European history of Nelson-Marlborough questions many traditionally accepted facts of the Maori settlement of Aotearoa

On the world stage there has been the continuing debate sparked by Mr Irvine's contention that there was no such thing as the holocaust and that the story of the concentration camps was deliberately inflated propaganda

And always there are those who simply cannot accept that there is credible historical evidence for the life of Jesus of Nazareth - the recent fuss over the Da Vinci Code is just one example

I have been reading The Pagan Christ by a Canadian journalist/theologian  who categorically claims that the story of the life of Jesus is no more than a repetition of mythical stories already circulating for many centuries in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly in Egypt


It seems that there has always been a problem for historians in the writing of balanced history – history that is fair to both sides when there has been conflict of any sort

My own view of this was profoundly affected by an experience I had some thirty years ago in what was then known as Western Germany

I was staying with friends, and on a Sunday afternoon, with nothing much planned, they asked what I would like to do - but being a total stranger to the district I left it to them to decide

One of their sons wanted to visit the national naval war memorial – his grandfather had been an officer in the German navy in the 1914-1918 War, and had risen to very high rank before he died in 1938

So we made the ferry journey to the memorial - a strikingly impressive structure - a single tall curving tower, beneath which, on the walls of the underground hall, were inscribed the names of every sailor who had died in action

It was full of folk, remembering their dead, and  it quite suddenly struck me that I was the enemy – and that in every war there are both victors and vanquished, and each deserves the truth to be told of them

Justice is not done by means of biased history – for there to be peace there must be a clearing of the air, as Mr Ungvary said – however hard it is to bear, or to hear, it is the truth, only, which can cleanse

If ever there were a need for unbiased history it is now, as an apparently endless battle is fought by Jew and Arab alike over land which both sides claim as their ancient heritage


Obviously I am referring to the history we call the Old Testament, familiar from our childhood through stories like the one just read – Nathan's resounding rebuke of David for his betrayal of Uriah and his seduction of Bathsheba

It might even be said that Nathan's prophecy that 'the sword shall never be far from your House'  is being fulfilled at this very moment

But how difficult it is for us to stand aside from our inherited understanding of scripture – to revisit and reexamine those stories which have been so much a part of our growing up

I imagine that we simply accepted them as true – if only because they are part of the Bible, God's word, and where will it all end if we start to question the veracity of biblical history

But that is the path I suggest we must take, if we are to read scripture as mature adults – because it is a history that centres on the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth it does not mean that we accept it unquestioningly

What, I think, must mark our re-reading of it is that we do so without prejudice – without an axe to grind, as it were – without having any inflexible assumptions – without assuming it must be either totally true or totally untrue

My quarrel with many who have sought to re-write Old Testament history is that they have come to their task with their minds largely made up in advance - or so it seems to me

There is, in fact, a wealth of impressive and impartial writing available to the reader for this essential task – and it is not by any means always hard going, trying to make sense of complicated scholarship

What we do have to remember is that what we read in the Old Testament was, in fact, set down centuries after the events its describes - when ancient oral tradition first became written historical fact

We need also to be reminded that this process was taking place when the kingdom of Israel was in deep trouble – defeated by powerful neighbours, its leadership taken into captivitiy – the land itself desolate and depopulated

The faithful remnant had one dream, and that was to return to what they believed was the land promised them by God through Moses – it was that belief that justified their hope and enabled them to survive

But whether that ancient oral tradition was founded on fact is a matter of conjecture, and I, for one, am sure that our faith in God is in not any way affected if we cast doubts on the tradition of God's gift of the Promised Land

There are too many aspects of the story of the slavery in Egypt, the escape through the sea, the years of wandering in the desert, and the discovery of a God who promises to be theirs in a unique way, that raise questions for me

But the fact is that the eventual conquest of the indigenous tribes in Canaan, the Promised Land, underlies the bitter struggle between the present State of Israel and the neighbouring Arab states

And there are of course, as well, the Hizbollah and the Hamas guerillas, who some call terrorists and others describe as freedom fighters, who passionately believe that history is on their side


This stretch of land along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean has a very ancient history – some of the first signs of urban civilization, going back ten thousand years, have been found there

Any exclusive claim to it, and exclusive to the point of wishing to exclude peoples who have regarded it as their homeland for many many centuries, is fraught with difficulty and division and ultimate disaster

God's sword, to use Nathan's phrase, is indeed not far from the House of contemporary Israel


The point that I am wanting to share with you this morning is that history, real and verifiable, rather than mythical and partial, is important both in today's fearsome struggle and, as well, in our understanding of our Christian tradition


We may well think history just belongs in the past and has no relevance to the present moment – I do not think that is a tenable position


Just as I do not think that our faith as Christians is unaffected by whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was a real historical person – though some writers, like the author of The Pagan Christ would want me to believe that this is unproven

Of course it is difficult to produce the sort of evidence for the historical Jesus that might satisfy a court of law – most of what is available was written some time after his death by people who had a personal interest, one way or the other

Let me make it clear that I am not talking about taking every incident in the Gospels at face value - as Stuart remarked last week, it is difficult enough finding a way to accept at face value the story of the feeding of the 5000

I can, with a clear conscience, set aside the birth stories, and the miracle stories, for example, and not have to regard them in any way as essential to my belief in Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Saviour

But it is the crucifixion, the belief that the crucified Jesus conquered death that is the stumbling-block, as Paul said – an obstacle to Jews, madness to pagans – but the very heart of the faith

If it is not an historical event, if it is not 'true' in that sense – then what is left?

I ask this as a question – I do not, please understand me, demand that you answer it as I might wish to answer it


And that is where I wish to leave the matter I have raised with you

I cannot see an end to the hatred in the Middle East until such deep questions as these have been brought out into the open – it will never be eradicated by military means, whatever the political leaders of the State of Israel may think

Peace comes through honest encounter and respect for the truth – I would love to think that it were possible for the leaders of these countries to come together in order to discover their shared history

John recorded Jesus saying that his word is truth, and that it is the truth that will set us free – that is something I believe and hope with all my heart






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