In you all nations will be blessed

Bethel CRs

This hill with its medieval domed structure 20 kilometers north of Jerusalem probably is Bethel, traditional site of Jacob’s dream. When Israel split into two nations after Solomon’s death, King Jeroboam of the North built a golden calf temple here so Northerners would not go to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh.

Renewed controversy in recent months over the location of Israel’s capital (Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?) takes my imagination to biblical Bethel in the West Bank. At this “thin place” between heaven and earth, Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending, and received promises about the land (Genesis 28).

For my own spiritual prospects, I take comfort from the fact that divine revelation reached even a scoundrel like Jacob. He had cheated his brother Esau, and now was fleeing for his life to distant Padan Aram. Northbound on the ridge route later called Way of the Patriarchs, Jacob stopped for the night at Luz (which he renamed Bethel or “house of God”).

With stone for a pillow, the fugitive heard these gracious words: “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south.”

Similar promises came to his forebears Abraham and Isaac, and in all three cases there also was a moral caveat: “In you all nations will be blessed.” All nations, even today’s Palestinians and neighboring Arab countries. Isaiah echoed the same universal theme in describing God’s intent for the eschatological future of Jerusalem: “All nations shall stream to it. . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2).

How could anyone argue historically or biblically that Jerusalem is not the capital of the Jewish people? But how could anyone miss the caveat, the call for justice that pervades the Torah and Prophets? Israel is to conduct itself honorably among the nations, but sometimes treats Palestinians with contempt and coercion today. They too are children of Abraham, and legitimately claim Jerusalem as their capital.

An Indigenous Peoples History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Beacon, 2015) shows how my own European forebears did not behave honorably with similar competing claims to territorial sovereignty. Anyone who thinks that scalping was something that nasty indigenous people did to European settlers should know that such brutality often was the reverse. The United States government paid a bounty for scalps to encourage the massacre of Indians.

That history gives me, a U.S. American, pause if I critique Israel’s conduct in the West Bank or critique Israel’s apparent attempt at exclusive control of Jerusalem. But I reject the biblical rationalization and Manifest Destiny arguments that some of my forebears used to run American Indians off their land. I protest today if Israel does the same in the West Bank, and if Palestinians or other nations want to destroy Israel.

I have been blessed by the Jewish people, and gladly travel with groups to Israel. In the words of Paul, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah” (Romans 9). My spiritual journey as a Gentile Christian is inextricably linked to theirs, and I am grateful. I support Israel. I also support Palestinians–Christian, Muslim, or secular–whose claims to Jerusalem and stewardship of the land run deep.

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0410 (4)

Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in the Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Note that this tour cannot be a large group, and we are near capacity for registration. Contact TourMagination promptly if you wish to join.   See

Like seeing the face of God

Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. . . Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. . . Jacob said, “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:1-11)

Jabbok River

Jacob had a mysterious nighttime wrestling match with a divine being somewhere in this valley of the Jabbok River (Gen. 32:22-32). The next day, probably on this road, he met and was reconciled to his brother Esau.

Jacob had reason to fear his brother Esau. These twins once struggled within the womb, and their mother Rebekah despaired of life itself upon learning she carried in her body “two peoples who would be divided.” Trouble started early during their youth at Beersheba (in modern Israel). Esau rightfully expected privileges of the firstborn, including a double portion of blessing/inheritance. But Jacob, literally clinging to his brother’s heel at birth, was determined to look out for himself (Gen 25:22-26).

Father Isaac was fond of Esau; mom preferred Jacob. Sensing opportunity once when Esau came home from hunting famished, Jacob persuaded Esau to trade his birthright for a pot of lentil stew. When old Isaac sent Esau to hunt wild game for a feast at which Esau would formally receive the blessing/inheritance, Jacob made his move. Mother Rebekah prepared a dish of goat meat, and Jacob—disguised as Esau—served it to his nearly blind dad. The ruse worked, and Jacob received the irrevocable blessing that belonged to his brother.

Fearing Esau would kill, Jacob fled fifty miles north to Bethel (in modern West Bank). There, in a dream, he saw angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven. God promised Jacob and his descendants possession of the land around him, with this high standard: “All families of the earth shall be blessed in you and your offspring” (Gen. 28:14). All families!

From Bethel Jacob continued another four hundred miles to relatives at Haran (in modern Syria). There he spent twenty years, married, and established a family. He learned what it is to be hoodwinked: uncle Laban switched brides on Jacob at his wedding, and took advantage of him in business dealings. Eventually Jacob decided to move with his wives and children back to the land of his birth.

Jacob meets Esau

Jacob was born in Beersheba. When conflict with Esau became too hot, he fled to Bethel, where he dreamed of angels. From there he continued northeast another four hundred miles, probably along the purple line. For the reconciliation, it is likely that Esau traveled up the Jordan valley (red line) then turned eastward into the Jabbok valley to meet Jacob at Peniel.

Having alerted Esau in Seir (southern modern Jordan) that he was returning, Jacob wrestled with God and his own conscience as he anticipated rendezvous with his alienated twin. In what seemed like a show of force, Esau approached with four hundred men. Jacob dispersed his family and possessions to minimize losses in case of attack. Then he gave lavish gifts of animals to Esau, and the encounter was redemptive. So powerful was reconciliation for Jacob that seeing Esau’s face was “like seeing the face of God.”

Jacob and Esau both had real grievances and legitimate self-interests. They never became pals, and lived far apart after the reconciliation. But they reached a stage in life when nursing a grudge was more costly than reconciliation. They stopped hating, something which we humans apparently need to learn anew every generation.

When reconciliation happens between individuals or between nations divided, it is like seeing the very face of God.

Join me in 2015 for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land! See: Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015

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© 2015 J. Nelson Kraybill ***************************************    IMG_0425