Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., used a text from the biblical book of Genesis at a recent conference sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition to argue that the United States should take a particular political stance in relation to the modern state of Israel.
“I am convinced in my heart and in my mind that if the United States fails to stand with Israel, that is the end of the United States,” she said. “[W]e have to show that we are inextricably entwined, that as a nation we have been blessed because of our relationship with Israel, and if we reject Israel, then there is a curse that comes into play. And my husband and I are both Christians, and we believe very strongly the verse from Genesis, we believe very strongly that nations also receive blessings as they bless Israel. It is a strong and beautiful principle.”
Bachmann was apparently referring to Genesis 12:3, in which God says to Abram, “I will bless the ones blessing you, and the one cursing you I will curse, and in you all the clans of the land will be blessed.”
Interpreting this verse within the context of Genesis 12 involves several difficulties.
First is a discrepancy in the text. The primary Hebrew text presents the two participles in the first half of the verse as I have translated them above: the first one plural (“the ones blessing you”) and the second one singular (“the one cursing you”). Other versions of the Bible, including all available Greek and Latin manuscripts, make both of these words plural. Therefore, it is difficult to tell whether God is threatening a curse on one specific entity, or placing a general curse on anyone who curses Abram.
Second is an interpretive difficulty created by an important aspect of Hebrew grammar. Biblical Hebrew uses singular and plural second-person pronouns that are distinctly different. In this case, the second-person pronouns translated as “you” above are singular. This is complicated, however, by the Bible’s frequent use of singular, second-person pronouns that clearly refer to a group of people. Therefore, it is impossible to say with certainty whether in this statement God is speaking to and about just Abram, Abram’s entire household at the time or all of Abram’s descendants.
Finally, two words in the second half of the verse are difficult to translate. The word I have translated as “clans” is sometimes used in a rather precise manner to refer to extended family groups within ancient Israel’s social structure, but sometimes it is used more generally to refer to people groups outside of Israel.
The word I have translated as “land” is most often used to refer to the ground, or the dirt of which it is composed. It is not typically used to refer to the “earth” in the way that modern English speakers most often use it. This makes it impossible to say for certain whether this statement of blessing and curse applies everywhere or in just one specific area.
These difficulties of text, translation and interpretation make the scope of the statement – in terms of chronology, geography and the persons involved – uncertain. This uncertainty is revealed in the Bible itself when Abraham pleads with God for the other half of his family to be included: “O that Ishmael may live in your sight.” God responds by extending the blessing of Abraham to Ishmael and the 12 nations that will descend from him. (Gen. 17:18-20)
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Outside of the context of Genesis 12, these problems are magnified. Bachmann is arguing that the United States should base its foreign policy in the Middle East on one particular way of reading this ancient text. Even if we could be sure about the meaning of this verse, how could an idea so specific to the sacred text of one religious tradition be made into the foreign policy of a nation with a First Amendment like ours? A statement of blessing and curse is clearly a religious statement. Using such a statement as the basis of our foreign policy would, therefore, be an act of establishing religion, which would violate our Constitution.
There are also logical problems with her argument. For much of U.S. history, there was no Israel. The modern state of Israel was founded in 1948. Had our nation never been blessed before that?
The more serious question, however, goes back to issues in the text. Even if one accepts the broadest reading of Genesis 12:3, equating the modern state of Israel with Abram and his family does not hold up to careful scrutiny. The dispersions, movements and reconstitutions of all the groups of people considering themselves Jewish over the past 2,500 years have been too varied and complex for such an equation.
The modern state of Israel has no formal constitution, but it does have a set of “Basic Laws,” which have taken on the function of a constitution (having been granted constitutional force by a decision of Israel’s Supreme Court in 1995).
In these Basic Laws, Israel makes no claims for itself to be identified with Abram/Abraham or to be treated in a particular way because of such an association. Israel’s government does not claim any authority based on equation with any of the entities called Israel in the Bible. Some modern Jewish groups, particularly those considered to be “ultra-orthodox,” specifically deny the equation of the modern state of Israel with the biblical nation. It is nonsensical for the United States to base its policy toward the nation of Israel on religious claims that Israel does not even make for itself.
There is one final oddity to Bachman’s claim. Its greatest irony is that had the United States and other Allied nations been more proactive about protecting and receiving Jewish refugees before, during and after World War II, there might not be a modern state of Israel that looks anything like the one that exists today. Our country has an ugly history of anti-Semitism. As usual, we seem to be better at liking those who are different from afar than we are at liking them up close.
Undoubtedly, there are some ways in which the United States should support the nation of Israel. Some of Israel’s actions warrant our assistance. But there is no argument – biblical, logical or moral – that can conclude that such support should be absolute and unqualified. Rather, it is just the opposite. All three of these ways of viewing this issue demand that it be subject to consistent, rigorous examination.
Mark McEntire is professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., where he teaches courses in Hebrew language and Old Testament.