The Problem(s) With Biblical Nationalism

One of the strange things about our present moment is that long-standing cracks in our political coalitions are beginning to widen, and old divergences are coming to a head. On the political right, one of the expressions of this is the growing acceptance for nationalism, evidenced by the National Conservatism conference this past weekend in DC. Unlike libertarian-minded conservatives, to whom the highest good is liberty, to the national conservatives, the highest political good is national unity.

There are some who consider this return of nationalism dangerous, even quasi-fascist. I don’t necessarily have a problem with nationalism; at least my problem with these nationalists isn’t that they call themselves nationalists. However, I do have a problem with a concept I’m going to call “Biblical Nationalism.”

My questions are particularly directed at an Israeli scholar named Yoram Hazony, one of the nationalist figureheads who literally wrote the book on the virtue of nationalism. He and his acolytes base their argument at least partly on Biblical Nationalism, drawing on the experiences of Ancient Israel in the Old Testament.

The argument goes that God calls Israel as a nation, he gives them a distinct national character and even goes so far as to give Israel its borders. Instead of giving Israel an outwardly focused evangelical mission like “go and make disciples of all nations”, he gives them an inwardly focused one, calling Israel to “be holy, as I (God) is holy.” Throughout Scripture, Israel is judged collectively as a nation – righteousness rewards the nation with prosperity, and impiety punishes the nation as a whole. This God-ordained “nationalism” was so good at binding the Jewish people into a nation that even after thousands of years of exile, the Jewish ethnicity remains district, and they even remain attached to the land given to them millennia ago.

Hazony is a professor of Hebrew Scripture, so it would be wrong to accuse the man of not knowing what he’s talking about. But I have problems with Hazony’s interpretation and his takeaway from the experiences of Ancient Israel. Simply put, I don’t think the Scripture leads to Hazony’s conclusions, nor do I think they offer insight into how we ought to order our politics in the present day.

Hazony is correct in saying that God creates the nation of Israel and sets it apart as a nation through his covenant in Deuteronomy 29. He also gives Israel its borders in Numbers 34. However, the borders of Israel, like all pre-modern borders, were fluid boundaries, the contours of which were constantly in flux. Who had control of Israel’s frontiers was not set in stone. Moreover, Israel was unsuccessful in fully “nationalizing” the Promised Land (Judges 1). And as for the borders in Numbers 34, they set the eastern boundary of Israel along the Jordan River, but in Numbers 32, two-and-a-half of the twelve Israelite tribes claim land conquered on the east side of the Jordan as their own, outside of the borders established two chapters later.

Also, Israel’s political development isn’t particularly nationalistic. It takes several hundred years, until the reign of King David, for any type of centralized government to form in Israel. For the period of the Judges, Israel functions more like a tribal confederation, even going so far as to almost wipe out one of the tribes in Judges 20. And when the people want to centralize power in a king, God and the prophet Samuel express reservations about their request (1 Samuel 8).

These Biblical Nationalists point out that Israel’s mission is not to build an empire or to convert other nations to its way of life, which to them means our politics ought to be centered around our people and our nation. However, it is flatly untrue that Ancient Israel was content within its borders. During the golden days of King Solomon, Israel had conquered Syria to the north, Ammon to the east, and Moab and Edom to the Southeast. The kings of Israel would hold onto Moab for several generations before ultimately losing control of it around 830 BC. Domination of a foreign country for a century doesn’t seem to fit in with the nationalist vision people like Hazony are advocating for.

The point I’m making is that Israel doesn’t function like a nationalist kingdom. It functions in a lot of ways like one would expect a Middle Eastern kingdom at that time to function, only its success hinges on its religious devotion and not its military might or political acumen.

This is the central problem of Biblical nationalism. Israel’s success is not dependant on its “national unity”, it’s dependent on their observance of God’s covenant. When Israel disobeys, the nation, which is secondary to the covenant, suffers. When Solomon turns away from God in 1 Kings 11, God splits the nation in two and tells Rehoboam to go home when he sets out to reunify the country in 1 Kings 12. As they continue to be disobedient, Israel’s borders shrink, and they are ultimately exiled from the Promised Land in 588. In exile, God commands his people to settle down in Babylon and even pray for the nation they find themselves in, the nation who destroyed their homeland (Jeremiah 29).

Hazony is a smart man who knows Scripture, so I can’t imagine he has never dealt with these arguments before. I’m curious to see how he merges his belief in Biblical nationalism with the actual experience of Ancient Israel. Because it looks to me like God is much more concerned about Israel keeping the covenant than the political system they employ to accomplish that.

My last point is that the Jews have a special place as God’s chosen people, which makes it difficult to draw any comparisons between what God called Israel to and how we ought to structure our politics in a modern, pluralist republic. Also, as a Christian, I likely have disagreements with Hazony, who’s Jewish, over the extension of the covenant through Jesus Christ, the place of the Mosaic Law, its usefulness, and whether to consider it “successful.”

If you want to call yourself a nationalist, go ahead. But if you are looking for support for your nationalism, the experience of Ancient Israel is not the best place to look.

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