Prompted by a heading in the new Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God, the Presbytery of Chicago has asked the 221st General Assembly to distinguish between Biblical terms for Israel and those applied to the modern political state of Israel in Christian liturgy.
Overture 07-01 requests the assembly to:
- “distinguish between the Biblical terms that refer to the ancient land of Israel and the modern political State of Israel;
- “develop educational materials, with the help of our Presbyterian seminaries, for clergy, church musicians, worship leaders and Christian educators regarding the ‘ancient Israel/modern Israel’ distinction; and
- “inform our ecumenical partners of this action, nationally and globally – particularly within Israel and Palestine.”
In its rationale Chicago Presbytery writes that the overture was prompted by the “unfortunate heading: ‘God’s covenant with Israel’” in Glory to God, The Presbyterian Hymnal, which was published in 2013.
“The use of the phrase ‘God’s covenant with Israel,’ is open to interpretation by the reader/singer,” the overture says. It then asks, “Is this ‘Biblical Israel?’ Is it the ‘modern State of Israel?’”
The rationale quotes an open letter from a Palestinian-American Presbyterian to the new hymnal’s publishers:
“Because I am a Palestinian Christian, I am uneasy with the word ‘Israel’ in ‘God’s Covenant with Israel’ – I am always told, however, that what is meant by ‘Israel’ is Biblical Israel and not today’s Israel; but do all Christians know this? With the prevalence of Christian Zionism, which the G.A. repudiated in 2004, I highly doubt it. Even if not intentional, this language is inflammatory, misleading, and hurtful” (Open Letter, October 2, 2013).”
Suggestions were offered to rephrase “God’s Covenant with Israel” with terms like “God’s Covenant with Ancient Israel,” or, “God’s covenant with the Poor,” or “Our Covenant with the Oppressed.
The rationale also quotes Joshua Ralston, who teaches theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va. Ralston writes:
“One way that the recurring challenge of balancing pro-Palestinian advocacy and the rejection of anti-Semitism could be addressed is by avoiding using ancient Israel, Jews and the modern nation-state of Israel largely interchangeably. … The best way for Christians to avoid this bind is to more clearly question the direct correlation between ancient Israel, Jews across space and time, and the modern political state of Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian Territories, even as Christians affirm the importance of land for Judaism.”
“In the early days of identifying and changing sexist language in hymns, words were crossed out and new words were written in. It is not so easy to do that with biblical terms that have come to be associated with the modern political State of Israel,” reads the rationale. “That is why this overture requests the help of our Presbyterian seminaries in clarifying the use of these terms and how to use them appropriately to reference biblical Israel and how to use them appropriately.”
The overture will be debated in the General Assembly Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. The Synod of the Covenant concurred with the overture.