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Fr. Aaron Warwick Reviews Fr. Tarazi's Book, Land and Covenant

From The Word, November, 2010

Fr. Paul Tarazi’s book, Land and Covenant, is a must-read for Orthodox Christians or anyone else who desires to acquire a Scriptural mindset. When I decided to read Land and Covenant I was expecting a technical and academic study of precise biblical terms – land and covenant. Although the book is certainly precise and intellectually deep, it was written in a manner that would make it understandable and appreciated by those with little prior biblical knowledge. In the end, Land and Covenant is a brilliant summary of the entire body of Scripture (from Genesis to Revelation), showing clearly how the message of Jesus Christ to all nations and people had always been God’s will, from the very beginning (Genesis 1). The most disappointing aspect of Land and Covenant is the book’s title: it is so much more than a study of these technical terms!

A consistent theme emerged in my reading of Land and Covenant, one that is present throughout Scripture and is also very much present in the tradition of the Orthodox Desert Fathers: non-possessiveness. Fr. Tarazi indicates that his desire to write Land and Covenant stemmed from the common misreading of the Bible that has led to much bloodshed over who “owns” the Holy Land. By offering a purely Scriptural – as opposed to political or historical – critique of the current situation in the Holy Land, Fr. Tarazi shows that the wrong question is being asked. Scripturally, God is the only “owner” of any land; we humans who were taken from the earth are given the gift of a certain earth/land on which we may subside, but it is never our property – all things belong to God. Likewise, no human society “possesses” God – He is the God of all people and all creation.

Within this overarching theme of non-possessiveness, two main points are present throughout Land and Covenant. The first is God’s concern for (and covenant with) all creation – especially human beings of every nation, tribe, and tongue. The second main point is God’s desire for us to follow His will in any land we may find ourselves. As Fr. Tarazi notes: “Holiness is not spatial, inherent to a piece of real estate or a building. It is behavioral.”

God’s Care for all Humanity

Fr. Tarazi offers dozens of Scriptural examples to show that God’s concern is not only Israel, but all humanity. For example, Fr. Tarazi points out that the biblical story of Israel begins not with Jacob (who was later re-named Israel), but with the creation/genesis of the entire world. In the first 11 chapters of Genesis, God is shown to be dealing with all of humanity. The example par excellence is the story of Noah and the great flood. In this story, God is caring for and makes a covenant with the entire created world – Israel does not yet exist. Only at the end of Chapter 11 is Abram (later re-named Abraham) introduced, with the story of Israel beginning fully in Genesis 12 and lasting throughout the rest of Scripture. As Fr.Tarazi points out, this relatively long introduction of Genesis shows that the story of Israel is within the context of the entire created world. Israel is but one example – albeit the prime example – of God’s dealing with humanity, but the importance of Israel extends beyond itself to all nations. God is not the God of Israel alone, but the God of the entire created world.

As Land and Covenant works its way through the story of Israel, Fr. Tarazi shows God’s concern for all people: Moses the Lawgiver marries an “outsider,” drawing the ire of his siblings, but God sides with Moses. In Deuteronomy God repeatedly tells the Israelites to take care of the foreigner, the sojourner, and the needy, for they were foreigners in Egypt, sojourners in the wilderness, and needy during their exile. Joshua, after his entrance into Canaan, forces the children of Israel to cohabit with Canaan’s other sojourners (for example, Gibeonites, Geshurites, Maacathites). The great prophet Ezekiel delivers his teaching while living among and with the nations (that is, Gentiles), outside of Jerusalem. The Psalms conclude with not only all people and nations, but all creation – both animate and inanimate – praising the Lord.

The New Testament writings take up where the Old Testament Scriptures left off: God being concerned for all nations. Since God’s justice and mercy applies to the nations as well as to the house of Israel, Jesus and his followers must proclaim the Law and the Prophets to all nations. Throughout Land and Covenant Fr. Tarazi shows that the Bible is not intended to be the history of the Jewish people, but the Word of God to all people. The historical figures and events in the Bible are used as examples of how the leaders and people are constantly disobedient to God’s will. And unlike all other histories of peoples and nations, in the Bible the glorious deeds are not done by the people or their heroes; they are God’s work and the people remain stubborn in their disobedience. From this, Fr. Tarazi concludes that the biblical story is not intended to be a historical narrative, but a proposition to put all of our trust in God, without whose continuous mercy humanity would have been swept into oblivion.

The reader of Land and Covenant is left with the same impression one receives from the Bible; namely, God’s people are: (1) those who are in need of Him since they have no other helper; and/or (2) those who are similar to Him in that they help do His work of taking care of the needy and poor.

Following God’s Will in Any Land

Land and Covenant shows how the story of Israel in the Bible is constructed to teach the importance not of dwelling in a certain land, but of following the will of God wherever you may be. Once again, Fr. Tarazi offers dozens of biblical stories to prove his point. For example, the Law, which represents God’s will, is fully delivered to Israel in the wilderness before their return arrival at the “promised land” of Canaan. To remind Israel that God’s will can be delivered and accomplished even in the barren earth of the wilderness, the Law prescribes pilgrimages out of the land and into the wilderness, where God grants true life through care for the needy.

Just as the Law proclaimed God’s will from outside the Promised Land, so does the prophet Ezekiel from Babylon, where the Jewish people were in exile. Ezekiel speaks of God as the God of the “open spot” (in Hebrew biq’ah, which is often translated as “plain” or “valley” in English translations), not tied to any worldly city or temple. In fact, throughout the Prophets the city of God with its temple is not built by the hand of man, but is considered to be any place or land where God’s will is done. Paul often refers to this in the New Testament as the “heavenly Jerusalem.”

Perhaps the supreme example of our ability to follow God’s will in any land is the story of Job. Job begins, lives, and ends his life in Uz of Chaldea, certainly far removed from the Promised Land. In the book named after him, Job is never shown to be yearning for the land of Judah or Israel. Job, who is presented as the correct model for all humanity, delights only in following God’s commandments which lead to blessedness. The story of Job shows that God’s Law is our only protector, regardless of the land in which we live.

In the New Testament, there is no mention of a “return” to Canaan, but only an invitation to the “Jerusalem above.” Throughout the Gospels, only those outside Jerusalem and its influence accept Jesus and understand His correct teaching of the Law and Prophets. Consequently, when Jesus commissions the Apostles, He tells them to preach His message to Jerusalem and Judea, along with multiple other nations. Simply put, Jerusalem and its inhabitants do not have any advantage – they, too, must heed the message of the Law and Prophets, as correctly interpreted by Jesus. 

Based upon these and numerous other stories with similar themes, Fr. Tarazi concludes that the “land of Israel” is any land (Hebrew ‘adamah)  where “any man (Hebrew ‘adam) does not live by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). 

Conclusions 

Land and Covenant offers a unique Scriptural insight into the situation we find today in the Middle East. In so doing, it also helps the reader acquire a Scriptural mindset or worldview. The reader of Land and Covenant cannot help but reflect on his own life and his own attachment to possessions, whether they be worldly possessions, such as land or real estate, or spiritual possessions, such as our belonging to the “true Church.” 

Land and Covenant shows that those entrusted with the Law are to live on God’s wide earth together with the other descendants of Adam and Noah, just as they did in Canaan. The land God gives to His people is not their possession or their blessing; their blessing consists in fully sharing the land and covenant with the other inhabitants and the new sojourners. God’s will for us is not to exclude or separate, but to include and integrate. God’s will for us is to behave “divinely,” by forgiving others as God Himself did throughout the biblical story. Finally, God’s will for us is to care for all of His creation, but especially those who are poor and needy. We can do all of these things in any land we may find ourselves, and can thus make any land a holy land.