Opinion |

Militarizing the Bible: A Warning From Israel's Settlements to Trump’s America

How the Bible, and especially the book of Joshua, has become a handbook for Jewish and Christian nationalists and the state violence they promote

Rachel Havrelock
Rachel Havrelock
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President Donald Trump poses outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House, Bible in hand, after law enforcement moved aggressively to push back protesters from a nearby park. June 1, 2020
President Donald Trump poses outside St. John's Church across from the White House, Bible in hand, after law enforcement moved aggressively to push back protesters from a nearby park. June 1, 2020 Credit: Patrick Semansky,AP
Rachel Havrelock
Rachel Havrelock

Emerging from a weekend that included time in a bunker beneath the White House, Donald Trump decided that he needed to put on a show of strength. He berated the state governors he had abandoned to confront the coronavirus pandemic alone, for demonstrating insufficient force against the accelerating protests over police racism and brutality, encouraging them "to dominate" the streets. He had peaceful protestors demanding an end to systemic violence against African-Americans tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets.

Then he strolled with a coterie of advisors over to St. John’s Episcopal Church and flipped a Bible in his hand like a contestant in one of his pageants.

No verses of reconciliation, inspiration or even a battle cry were uttered. In the hand of a man who has neither read the Bible nor served in the army, the holy book became a singular icon of militarized nationalism.

While we do not know what will happen next in a summer of events unbelievable enough to be cribbed from the biblical prophets, one thing is for sure: Trump’s symbolic gesture marks a declaration of internal war against the people of his country oppressed or enraged by his rollback of laws and lurch toward authoritarianism.

We in America should be wary of following the lead of another country where the Bible has been used to justify militant nationalism, and an unrelenting attack on communities under its control: Israel, an American-funded example of endless war.

The Bible is not an inherently military text. Whether it hits a note of peace or of war depends upon the reader and the interpretation mobilized by religious and political leaders. When Christian leaders promote imperialism or settlers seek divine cover for their seizure of land, they often reach for the book of Joshua. Historically, Jews mostly ignored Joshua.

Rabbinic interpreters largely dismissed the fantasy of holy war and the Jewish apocalyptic movements that embraced it usually met a bitter end. Little of the book is read in synagogue liturgy or cited in Jewish culture. That is, at least until the script of wandering tribes returning to their homeland to clear the Canaanites, seize their territory and set borders around it became politically useful.

Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, was a particular Joshua enthusiast who modeled the Israel Defense Forces on the book and convened a regular study-group in which the young country’s elite created a national culture inspired by its ideas and terms.

Ben-Gurion’s concept was to unify an immigrant population from the corners of the earth through a biblically-infused national military culture. It worked for about two decades until Israel occupied the Palestinian territories in the 1967 war and settlers marched out to expropriate Palestinian land while waving the book of Joshua.

Religious settler leaders Rabbi Moshe Levinger and Hanan Porat celebrate the landmark 1975 government agreement allowing them to remain in Sebastia in the West BankCredit: MOSHE MILNER / Government Press Office

Settlers and their supporters advanced a highly nationalistic interpretation of the Bible, many taking God’s promise to Joshua that "every spot on which your foot treads I give to you" literally. They named West Bank settlements after places in the book of Joshua such as Gilgal, Gibeon, and Ofra.

The biblical Joshua castigates the Israelite tribes for failing to annihilate and thus fully displace the inhabitants of land destined for them; thus, one stream of settler thought maintains that ’achieving’ full Palestinian displacement, by mass transfer, would outdo even the Bible and realize the redemption of the entire Land of Israel. The Jews who oppose that vision figure as internal enemies of the people and of divine will.

The years since 1967 have seen a steady intensification of occupation, surveillance and militarization. Palestinians bear the weight of siege, deprivation and confinement. There are no victors in this Bible-steeped war of stress, violence and battlefronts on every amorphous borderline.

And now, the right-wing government, fueled by religious political parties in Israel and evangelical groups in America, is seeking to concretize even further its ‘divine right’ to the West Bank, through annexation.

Those who actually read the Bible may make it to the second half of the book of Joshua. It turns out that the "natives" aren’t eradicated. They remain as neighbors largely indistinguishable from the People of Israel. Joshua’s army fades into tribes, clans and households that need to inhabit divided cities and share water.

Truthfully, the halcyon conclusion of Joshua is more boring than its pitched battles, but it offers a counter-narrative to the earlier militarism, and even unwittingly subverts its nationalist rage.

In the second half of Joshua, we see a whole spectrum of affiliations – familial, tribal, regional, cosmopolitan – that informed and pulled on ancient peoples and oriented them. That was too messy for the writers of Joshua who wanted to mold these identities into one nation and one army. They pushed a fundamental binary opposition and separation between Israelites and Canaanites, not justified by the lived reality.

With sirens ringing through the night and helicopters overhead in my American city, I’ve felt like I’m back in Israel-Palestine. Sending the military to public squares or civilian neighborhoods permits new levels of violence and surveillance to enter daily life. Once in, violence and surveillance concentrate in marginalized communities, but they do not end there.

The militarization of public space produces fragmented enclaves and promotes a sense of perpetual war in which everyone sees their rights eroded. We should all want a reality resembling the second, not the first, half of Joshua.

Although this fourth year of Trump’s presidency steers the United States toward division, nationalism, militarization, and loss of basic rights, our fate is not scripted, in the Bible or elsewhere. We can still seize the moment to deescalate, elevate just leaders, refuse the weaponization of the Bible, and demonstrate for racial justice and accountability from the police and our government.

Religious leaders have denounced Trump’s performatively violent seizure of biblical authority. Every religious leader who doesn’t push back against a president brandishing a Bible to silence legitimate protest is effectively marching in his formation.

History provides numerous examples of how a Bible can be used to promote war. For Trump, flipping the Good Book played to his supporters’ sense that they, not innocent African-Americans killed by the police or peaceful protestors shot with rubber bullets, are under siege.

This form of politicized, Bible-wielding Christian nationalism pushes a culture war, backed by state violence, where the powerful establishment wallows in misplaced victimization. Israel’s occupation shows how employing such tactics to solidify political power brings war ever closer to everyone’s home.

Rachel Havrelock is associate professor of English and Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of "River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line" (2011) and "The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible" (Princeton University Press, 2020). Twitter: @RachelHavrelock

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