wise womanThe old-world Middle East, in the immortal words of James Brown, was man’s world. Maybe so, but women were noted for their wisdom. The book of Judges (5:29), for instance, mentions a wise [hakam] princess in attendance on Sisera’s mother, who advises her – incorrectly as it turns out – about her son’s whereabouts. But other texts call attention to women with some pretty outstanding wisdom.

In Proverbs, the “wise woman” who builds her house is contrasted with the foolish woman who tears her’s down (14:1). And Proverbs 31:10-31 seems to describe just such a wise woman. Also, significantly, the archetypal silhouette of wisdom in the book of Proverbs is feminine (chapters 1-9, especially chapter 8).

But wise women are also key figures in social and political intrigue. The book of Second Samuel (14:2) describes a “wise [hakam] woman” in the town of Tekoa. There, King David’s decorated general, Joab, needs help from her to pull off his elaborately devised negotiations concerning a particularly sensitive domestic political matter that revolves around the king and one of his sons. And Second Samuel (20:16) mentions another “wise woman.” She lived in the besieged town of Abel Beth Maacah and she negotiated a political settlement with Joab that prevented his army division from destroying the town. Her story, which shows the cooler heads of wisdom prevailing over the hotter councils of war, is reminiscent of “the poor but wise man” of Ecclesiastes who saved his town from war.

It is unlikely that these two female sages were formally educated in the wisdom tradition or that they held privileged status as royal court officials within the formally recognized hakamim. Such political careers seem to have been a bridge too far in the patriarchal structures of old-world Middle East. But I think we are safe to assume it unlikely that Joab would have sought the council of anyone, male or female, who was not widely known for having the kind of outstanding wisdom needed for the diplomatic skills required to resolve a crisis. In fact, the narratives of the wise women of Tekoa and Abel Beth Maach each suggest, in their own ways, that both women were reputed for reliable diplomatic wisdom at a high level of society and politics.

ancient scriptThe Tekoa narrative suggests this in a most fascination way, which elsewhere I have called the art of diplomacy, which is vital to wise negotiations. In the Tekoa narrative, Joab, who, mind you, is a general, shows considerable theatrical talent as a playwright. And the wise woman shows serious acting talent, not to mention great nerve, in the theater of the real. After all, not unlike the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12), she was going to the king with a fiction, in a role in which the king could have had her head off after the performance.

Joab’s script calls for her to perform a dramatic one-act play, a family tragedy, by which Joab hopes to evoke the king’s fatherly instincts and so bring his son Absalom peaceably back home from exile. She agrees to play the part, learns her lines, and appears in mourning before the king. Even her appearance is carefully scripted, right down to a lack of makeup. It was powerful performance art. The king is deeply moved by the drama. His imagination has been opened to new possibilities. This is the power of good art. My son Absalom, the king proclaims, albeit not without some conditions, is to be peaceably returned to the capital.

In the narrative of the wise woman at Abel Beth Maacah (the texts do not name either of these two women), Joab has his memory prompted about the town’s renown. He is reminded that, in the regional lore, Abel Beth Maacah had over the course of time become a celebrated source for those seeking wisdom. This appeals to Joab. It inspires him to keep negotiating with the woman, who is speaking for the whole town (again, reminiscent of the “poor but wise man” of Ecclesiastes).

After the general and the diplomat conclude their negotiations, the narrator explains that “the woman went to all the people” of the town with her “wise advice.” Of this, Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson writes that in the Hebrew the phrase translated “wise advice” appears to be a kind of technical expression which “indicates that she was a recognized leader with professional standing, perhaps like the ‘wise women’ who were found in the Canaanite court, according to the Song of Deborah” (Understanding the Old Testament; p. 492).

In the next post we will consider the desert wisdom Jethro, Moses’ his father-in-law, and the importance of that governing wisdom upon Moses and the exodus community.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Stuck in Customs (permission via Creative Commons)


Moses BridgeCenturies after the Joseph narrative, along come Moses, an Israelite who, soon after birth, becomes the adopted son of a pharaoh’s daughter and is raised and educated in the Egyptian royal court. Commenting on Moses’ schooling in Egypt, the New Testament book of Acts explains that “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). This statement squares with the findings of modern scholarship, that Egypt’s royal court was where gifted and chosen young men were formally educated in Egypt’s  wisdom tradition. And such an educations would have included both religious and political instruction. (See this post and also this post, both about Daniel, for brief descriptions of the wisdom schools of the old-world middle East.)

Decades later, however, Moses has switched national allegiances. He is now a patriotic Israelite and, now also commissioned by Yahweh, he becomes a clear and present danger to Egypt’s national security (Exodus 2-12). In hopes of thwarting the looming existential threat, pharaoh summons his “wise men” [the Hebrew word is hakamim”] to seek advice (Exodus 7:11). You know the outcome. Pharaoh loses the war. Perhaps a million people or more, mostly Israelites but many non-Israelites as well, have been freed from oppression and slavery, while much of Egypt lies devastated and pharaoh’s army has been decimated.

Some months afterward, Moses appoints hakamim from each of the twelve tribes of Israel as advisers and judges to keep order over the roiling multitude, which is now stuck in a hot desert, where temperatures are flaring and arguments and fights are breaking out everywhere. These newly appointed officials, with Moses as the sort of Supreme Court Justice over them, become a defacto governing structure of the nascent society that is now in the process of being formed out of Egypt (Exodus 18; Deuteronomy 1). In a future post I want us to take some time with this absolutely fascinating narrative, but here I am merely continuing what we began in the previous post, which is to briefly acquaint us with some biblical addresses where the role of wisdom in the governments of the old-world Middle East, although clearly evident, has often been unseen by contemporary Christians.

To continue, then. In Persia, King Xerxes, in the delicate matter of deciding Queen Vashti’s fate, sends for his “wise men” [hakamim] for advice on the legal issues he will face when devising a policy to deal with this sensitive matter of the nation’s domestic life (Esther 1:13). The same language, hakamim, is also used in the book of Esther for the officials who advise Haman, King Xerxes treacherous courtier (Esther 6:13).

There are numerous other examples that could be cited of what we may call the diplomatic corps of the Middle East. For anyone seeking wisdom for international affairs and foreign policy, a close reading of these narratives will yield many gems. Women, too, were notable for their wisdom. In the next post we will look at two fascinating stories of women who were diplomatic figures.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by timtom.ch (permission via Creative Commons)


ancient Egypt in Legos (Colin Keigher)The story of Joseph in Egypt is the first place in Scripture where the role of wisdom and foreign policy is clearly apparent in the politics of an old-world Middle East nation. Egypt is in fact a super power with an expanding empire. There, a young man named Joseph, an Israelite, serves as a high-level political and diplomatic official in pharaoh’s government. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this multi-dimensional story, which, as someone has aptly said, reads like a coherent novella, with a subtle a well-crafted plot (Genesis chapters 37; 39-50). Instead, I want to draw attention briefly to the roles of Joseph and wisdom in the Egyptian royal court.

In the Joseph narrative we have a kind of precursor, or Egyptian equivalent, to the stories of Daniel in Babylon and Ezra in Persia. In the book of Daniel we see diplomatic wisdom in the skill whereby Daniel handles, with grace and aplomb, severe personal threats from political enemies. In the book of Ezra we see the role of wisdom in Ezra’s role as a shuttle diplomat implementing a foreign policy of King Artaxerxes of Persia. In the book of Genesis we see Joseph appointed by pharaoh to a very high political office among the hakamim of his royal court.

Now a little wordplay before we continue.

(1) “Hakamim” appears many times in the Hebrew Bible to denote a respected class of high-level officials and advisers to a king. These were usually government officials whom today we would call ambassadors, diplomats, foreign ministers, secretaries of state, international negotiators and mediators, and so forth.

(2) The word “hakam” appears frequently in the Hebrew Bible to denote a wise and very skilled individual, often a high-level official in a royal court.

(3) “Hokma” is the principal Hebrew word for “wisdom.”

Note that these three words derive from the Hebrew root word “hkm,” which has meanings such as: be wise, become wise, act wisely. Vowels are added to hkm to help with pronunciations and to add nuances of meaning. The suffix “īm” is added to hakam to indicate the plural, the class, the group, in contrast to the individual hakam.

The earliest biblical clues about the hakamim and the role of wisdom in ancient Egypt are found in Joseph’s ascension from prison to politics. As described in Genesis 41:8, an unnamed pharaoh summons the “wise men” (hakamim) of Egypt to interpret an ominous dream he has had. But, as with king Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel, pharaoh’s elite court councilors cannot interpret the dream and pharaoh hears rumors of someone who may be able to. In a fit of desperation he summons this unlikely person, a Hebrew slave of his, who, having been framed for a crime he did not commit, is serving a lengthy prison term. Joseph is taken from prison, cleaned up, and brought before pharaoh, who is wasting no time over petty details. Joseph interprets the dream, and, like Daniel standing before Nebuchadnezzar, gives God the credit.

The dream forebodes a long and catastrophic economic period for Egypt that will have both domestic and international ramifications for the empire. In his back-and-forth with pharaoh about this, Joseph suggests that pharaoh find a discerning hakam (41:33) who can create and implement a policy that will preserve Egypt’s national interests during. Joseph even outlines a policy that pharaoh might want to follow.

Detail doorway to chapel of Amun - Temple of HatshepsutBoth pharaoh and his officials approve the policy, and pharaoh goes so far as to attribute the policy to the Spirit of God in Joseph – implying Joseph’s divine wisdom and insight – not unlike Nebuchadnezzar’s testimony about Daniel. Pharaoh then identifies Joseph as a gifted hakam, saying “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise [hkm] as you” (41:39). Pharaoh then caps it all off by appointing Joseph as second-in-command of the nation, giving Joseph carte blanche over the nation’s domestic and international economic policy.

The details of the policy, its implementation, and its domestic and international implications spanned more than a decade but do not concern us here. I only wanted to draw out the overlooked fact of Joseph’s role as a hakam among the hakamim of the Egyptian government. In that role Joseph was at times policy maker, diplomat, foreign minister, and negotiator. In other words, he was a high-level official in the diplomatic corps of the old-world Middle East. The policy was seen as a great success by many, including by Joseph, who implicates God in it and explains that its purpose was to save, or preserve, lives (Genesis 45:7). As we might say today, it was a policy for the common good, both domestically and internationally.

Aside: In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that not all theologians see the policy in a positive light. Walter Brueggmann, for one, is deeply critical of it. He considers pharaoh’s Egypt as “the paradigmatic enemy of the common good.” As such, he sees Joseph as administrating a policy designed to manipulate the Egyptian economy, increase its wealth, and thereby gain greater control over the Egyptians and further expand the tentacles of its empire. You will find this assessment in the early pages of Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good. The argument, however, is based on selected texts. Because of texts that he omits, such as Genesis 45:7, and because a negative view of wisdom in the story informs his comments, I cannot agree with him on this one.

In the next post I want us look briefly at two or three more Old Testament narratives about wisdom and diplomacy.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer


dominoesOne of the great tipping points in the history of ancient Israel was its choice to become a formal nation among nations (a monarchy among monarchies). Israel’s process toward national self-determination, to what today we call statehood, began with the establishing of organized settlements throughout the land of Canaan. The process culminated a few centuries later when Israel the people became Israel the state – that is, they became like the nations around them – a monarchy state – and Saul was made its first king (1 Samuel 8–10).

This historical tipping point affected the entire society, including, and perhaps especially, its domestic and international political life. Books have been written about this. But here I just want to consider an often overlooked fact. On becoming a formal nation, and to be accepted as such by the regional powers, it was necessary for Israel to make the kind of governmental changes whereby it could formally participate in the international system of the old-world Middle East. The newly established monarchy therefore had to enter into that international monarchial system, that is, into the established way that international politics and foreign policy was being conducted – think of how a new state today joins the United Nations.

By becoming a state (I’m using that term in a general political sense), old-world Israel had turned a political corner, one that demanded significant changes to its existing political structure. The new state established the governmental apparatus and bureaucracy necessary to gain an international footing and acceptance like the other nations.

This meant, for instance, enthroning a king, picking a cabinet, establishing a capital, and drafting and institutionalizing new domestic laws, such as for raising an army and the taxes to fund both it and the new and growing government bureaucracy. As William McKane put it: “Israel became a state with a new political structure which demanded the creation of a cadre of royal officials through whom the king governed this people” (Prophets and Wise Men, 42.) But it also entailed political changes whereby the new state could enter formal relations with the other regional powers, such as Egypt.

What needs to be recognized and acknowledged is that Israel the state could not create a foreign policy structure that was, so to speak, completely foreign to the existing international paradigm. Now that existing regional paradigm, of course, was not perfect, and the nations in it were often adversarial due, in no small part, to their conflicting religious-political ideologies.

But that international system was also hugely informed, as we noted in previous posts, by the wisdom tradition and the royal court officials who (prior to becoming government officials) were educated in that tradition’s peaceable way of reasoning. In other words, once Israel rounded the corner, it would be formally participating in an international system that had been in play in the region long before “Israel the state” entered it. We should therefore not be surprised to see many governmental similarities between Israel the state and the other regional powers.

UN meeting (UN Info Centers)Think of the founding of the United States. Although the nation was not established after the order of a European monarchy, but as a republic, it nevertheless had to function within the existing international systems of its period. To put it crudely, the United States could not say, We’re not going to play the game because we’re a republic and not a monarchy. The United States, then, beginning with its first president, George Washington, engaged in diplomatic missions, negotiations, treaty agreements, and so forth. These took place across the Atlantic in European and north African nations and in  islands in the Pacific, including Hawaii, with a view toward engaging with China.

So too with ancient Israel. There is a pretty solid consensus among scholars, for instance, that during the long reigns of Israel’s second and third kings (David and Solomon), “Israel was in the Egyptian … sphere of influence,” and that in the close relations between Solomon and Egypt, “we ought to seek there for the models of Solomon’s bureaucracy” (Ibid., 23.) Citing the period during Solomon’s commercial enterprises with Hiram, king of Tyre, and Solomon’s alliance with Egypt through marriage, McKane concludes that “the Israelite state was modeled on the great states of the ancient Near East and so acquired a structure similar to that of Egypt.” It was a “political structure” in which there was associated with the king “a class of royal officials who had to do with the army, finance, foreign embassies and administration. Such officials were a ‘people of the king’ and had a common interest with him in maintaining the regime and suppressing popular resistance and discontent” (Ibid, 43).

The wisdom tradition played a vitally huge role in all of this, especially internationally. We have already considered the significant point that the wisdom tradition was cross-cultural and transnational in the old-world Middle East. Further, it was taken for granted in the corridors of power throughout the region that royal officials, especially those working internationally, would have been educated in their countries’ wisdom traditions. This seems to have been such an accepted part of international political life that it was unquestioned. It was a given. I want to call attention to two upsides to this.

(1) A ruler such as a Babylonian or a Persian king could feel comfortable and confident to include religious outliers, such as a Daniel or an Ezra, in his government, even as an official at the highest levels. This was an accepted norm in the international system of the region.

(2) A believer in Yahweh, such as a Daniel or an Ezra, could serve in a “pagan” government with a clear conscience.

Neither of these facts may seem a big deal in the context of today’s western nations, in which people of different faiths may serve in their nation’s government. But it is not a universal international norm today. In many Middle East governments, for instance, such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, Jews and Christians need not apply.

In the next post I want us to consider this international norm in the life of Joseph, an Israelite who served as a high-level diplomatic official for many years in Pharaoh’s Egypt.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Great Beyond and UN Info Centres, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)


light at end of tunnellBeginning with this post some months ago, we began looking at the wisdom tradition’s close, albeit the forgotten, relationship to cooperation, peace, and diplomacy in the old-world Middle East. A few weeks later I began to illustrate those ideas, and this surprised people, on the diplomatic roles that were hiding in plain sight in the narratives of  Daniel and Ezra.

Now it is never good procedure to rest a case for the recovery of a lost way of seeing – in this case wisdom and the diplomatic – on one or two narratives – even if they are as impressive and convincing as Daniel and Ezra. Fortunately, the theme of wisdom and diplomacy is not an irregularity in the Scriptures. Daniel and Ezra are merely two narratives of many disclosing political actors, in one way or another in the old-world Middle East, functioning as part of what today we today would a regional foreign policy community.

In these narratives, the two most prominent classes of high-level officials that we see in the diplomatic corps were known in the Hebrew Bible as the hakamim and soperim. In brief, the former served chiefly as what we today would call ambassadors, diplomats, foreign ministers, secretaries of state, international negotiators and mediators, and so forth. The latter included diplomats, royal secretaries, master secretaries (usually professional writers whom English translators usually call scribes), and even, occasionally, high-level ecclesiastical figures and civil servants.

These two classes of high-level officials would have been educated in the wisdom traditions of their royal courts, they worked alongside each other, and their their roles could overlap. Both the hakamim and the soperim, along with other kinds of royal court officials, were indispensable to a nation’s domestic politics and international relations.

One of our difficulties is that we may be so familiar with reading the Bible in certain ways that we don’t see the wisdom-diplomatic connection and the vital insights that this way of seeing Scripture has to offer for today. For instance, if we are reading chiefly for our devotional life and personal moral development, and perhaps for help with our families and our finances, it will probably take a deliberate turning of the head to see wisdom in its diplomatic role.

There is of course nothing wrong with engaging with Scripture in those other ways, and we wouldn’t want to ignore them. But on this blog we are turning to Scripture, “reading” it, in a way that asks different, yet importantly relevant, kinds of questions.

I began getting a buzz on how significant wisdom and the diplomatic corps of the old-world Middle East was many years ago, when I was researching the period when “Israel the people” became “Israel the state.” In other words, when ancient Israel became a nation among the nations (a monarchy among monarchies) and was recognized internationally as such. There are some telling clues about this in the Scriptures, which may help us in furthering our understanding of the diplomacy of wisdom. I want to look at those clues in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Silver Rose (permission via Creative Commons)


blessing the landWe have been dealing with some disturbing questions in recent posts about the theology of Christian Zionism as a foreign policy in sharp contrast to the ethic of Jesus. These questions challenge us at the core of our being, and in utterly practical ways. This post concludes the topic with more questions we may not have considered.

The ethic of Jesus challenges us:

To consider whether we are following the government policies of the state of Israel more than we are following Jesus.

To consider whether we are giving unqualified support to the policies of the modern state of Israel, as if they were always and only and perfectly just. We know from the Scriptures that in ancient times God judged the nation when it habitually followed unjust policies. Has God changed? Do we think that the modern state of Israel is incapable unrighteous behavior?

To consider whether we are endorsing, however unintentionally that may be, a chain reaction of violent events that encourage adversarial relations and conflict leading to the general ruin of the region. Or are we engaged, as individuals, groups, and churches in prayers and practical efforts to ease adversarial relations and stem the flow of violence?

Our ideas about Israel and the Palestinians ultimately serve either the way of war or the peaceable way of Jesus. Many American Christians who are huge supporters of Israel will be shocked to know that, as a theology of war, Christian Zionism favors a military solution as radial as Armageddon. For that is the inviolable direction of its teleology.

Caveat. Because I have been solely focusing in these current posts on the violent potential of Christian Zionism, in hopes of sparing followers of Jesus from going there, I have not had space to declare my opposition to Palestinian violence against Israelis. On the other hand, I understand why it takes place.

“If you’ve been driven from [refugee] camp to [refugee] camp, if you’ve had the living daylights persecuted out of you by your own people – by the Israelis but above all by your brother Arabs – I can understand that you would turn to violence.”

That’s John Le Carré being interviewed about the time he spent in the Middle East researching Little Drummer Girl. Since I began these posts on Christian Zionism with reference to that book, I thought I would close with him. He visited Palestinian camps talking with refugees. He met with Israeli generals and had help from Israeli special forces to speak with their Palestinian prisoners. He spoke to Palestinian commanders and their “fighting kids.” He even met Arafat, who asked, “Why have you come, what do you want?” “Well, Mr. Chairman, I’m trying to put my hand on the Palestinian heart.” Taking Le Carré’s hand and holding it to his own heart, Arafat replied, “Sir, it is here, it is here.”

“Many people,” Le Carré again, “who have [a] clichéd vision of the Palestinians would themselves, if they had been subjected to the same harassment and persecution and humiliation, if they had no passports, no friends, no permanent home, if they’d been bombed out of one place after another all through their lives, from the age of practically nothing – many of those people would have taken the violent path…. If you are a displaced people, and you’ve got to make the world listen, that is the Palestinian argument.”

That was in the early 1980s. But the solution is not a military one. It is a political one that comes through diplomacy. And today we must add this. When we look at the steadily rising and spreading bloody conflicts of the broader Middle East, it is easy to throw up one’s hands and say, “It’s hopeless.”

But hopelessness is not a gift of the Spirit. It does not excuse the followers of Christ from following him into the darkness with olive branches in hand. Jesus traveled that road ahead of us. We are called to follow him. If God had enough grace for Jesus – and God did – God has grace enough for Jesus’ followers to go and do likewise today. The Cross is the great stopping place in the universe that examines and judges all things, good and bad, even our theologies.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by UrbanWanderer (permission via Creative Commons)

“Land for Peace” in the Middle East

attached to the landAs a foreign policy, the theology of Christian Zionism is counterproductive to a negotiated Middle East peace. It is tone deaf to the cries of a large majority of Israelis and Palestinians, who, hoping against hope, continually strive for an equitable peace in the land through a political solution. The land is one of the four recognized keys to a political solution between Israel and the Palestinian government. The others are the settlements, Jerusalem, and the return of the Palestinian refugees. Let’s briefly consider just the land.

Palestinians and Jews have a profound sense of historical and religious attachment to the land. At extreme ends of the spectrum are Jews and Palestinians who claim the land completely for themselves. In between these extremes are the majorities of both peoples who, favoring a political agreement, are willing to share the land in a just and equitable way.

For nearly half a century, UN Security Council Resolution 242, shorthanded as “Land for Peace,” has been a central tenet of negotiations in final status peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors. It was a crucial principle in Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. A “land for peace” formula is also a basic political tenet in Israeli – Palestinian negotiations. I do not want to enter, here, into the critical debate that surrounds this principle in those negotiations. (It will be obvious, however, that a land for peace formula is unacceptable to those who want the land solely for Israel or solely for the Palestinians. Equally obvious is the monkey wrench thrown into the works by that Israel’s ongoing West Bank settlements.)

Instead, I want to point out that insight from the Bible from Israel’s point of view and with Yahweh’s blessing is available for wisdom-based negotiations about the land. I want to stress this for Christian Zionists, for whom the Bible is the ultimate source of authority in this world.

In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet, in the spirit of jubilee, is recorded as speaking Yahweh’s intention for the land. The Israelites are to “allot it [the land] as a heritage for yourselves and for the strangers who reside among you, who have begotten children among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel. You shall give the stranger an allotment within the tribe where he resides – declares the Lord God” (Ezekiel 47:22-23; The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation). (I want to thank Calvin Seerveld for drawing my attention to this passage, but the following thoughts are mine, not his, so any mistakes are my bad.)

blessing the land (wdfi)The significant phrase “treat them as Israelite citizens” – the NIV has “consider them as native-born Israelites” – indicates that allotments of land are to be given – with God’s blessing – to those who reside in the land who cannot meet a requisite qualification of first being an Israelite. The line about the progeny of the non-Israelites is equally significant. (1) It protects them by clarifying and strengthening the thought of settlements in the land held well into the future by “strangers” (Hebrew: gerim). And (2) it precludes land-grabbing by Israelites from the non-Israelites who reside in the land. Today we might call this something of a housing market policy.

In short, the text establishes the principle of permanent settlements in the land by both Israelites and non-Israelites, and with God’s blessing. Aside: Ezekiel may be expanding on Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger (ger) resides with you in the land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers (gerim) in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Note that this text, too, ends with the signature of Yahweh. As a Levitical priest, Ezekiel was certainly skilled in the use and application of Leviticus.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but with some creative thinking from today’s religious and political leaders in the Middle East Israel, would not the acceptance and outworking of this text in the Middle East help to eliminate the psychology of exclusionary othering that hinders the land for peace formula?

Of course, of course. This is not to wave a magic wand over the peace process. I have merely wanted to point out to Christian Zionists just one illustration of how the Bible may be legitimately relied on to support a policy that does not oppose the ethic of Jesus, which is clearly evident in the life of Jesus as a teacher of wisdom in ancient Palestine. In my view it is much wiser to spend one’s time pondering creatively with the Bible in this way, rather than destructively with Christian Zionism as a theology of war.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Books on “the land” that you might want to read: The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, Walter Brueggemann; Whose Land? Whose Promise?: What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians, Gary M. Burge; Whose Promised Land?: The Continuing Crisis over Israel and Palestine, Colin Chapman.

Images by Frank M. Rafik & wdfi, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)


Surprised? Friday night (June 13) on the Charlie Rose television program, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, laid out a case for the United States and Iran to work together to fight back ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in Iraq. Saturday, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani publicly announced that Iran would consider joining forces with the United States to combat ISIS in Iraq. Today (June 16), Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States is open to “any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together.” Despite the core ideological differences between the two governments and their heated polemics toward each other in recent times this should not be happening, right? Frenemies? Iran and America? But this is not the first time in recent years that the two have worked together. Let me tell you a story.

Iran governemt buildingQuietly begun by the UN in 1997, the so-called Six plus Two talks included Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, plus the United States and Russia. The purpose of the talks was to quietly discuss dealing with the Taliban’s solidification of power over Afghanistan and the increasing violence among warring factions in that country. Shiite Iran, in particualr, had a deep stake in these talks. The Taliban movement, not to mention Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network in Afghanistan, were ultrafundamentalist Sunni Muslims who posed a real and present danger to neighboring Iran, with its very long eastern border with Afghanistan. Also,  droves of Afghan refugees were fleeing Taliban rule for Iran.

The Iran – U.S. narrative now begins to sound like a John LeCarré novel. Soon after 9/11, Iran, in definitive way through its considerable resources, began helping the CIA and the U.S. military to oust al Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan. Iran was a major supporter of the Northern Alliance, a motley group of anti-Taliban forces who were already at war with the Taliban and who now became the chief U.S. ally in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban. A tentative partnership that already existed between Iran and the Northern Alliance was helpful to the U.S. in its own partnership with the NA. Iran also agreed to allow any U.S. pilots who were in distress to land on Iranian soil, if necessary, and it agreed to all the U.S. to perform search-and-rescue missions for downed American pilots on its soil. Iran also increased its troop strength along the long Iran – Afghanistan border and, according to Trita Parsi, it sent a dossier to UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan on hundreds of al Qaeda operatives Iran had detained (Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.).

In October or November 2001, the Six plus Two forum had discreetly spun off one on one talks between Tehran and Washington to focus on closer cooperation about Afghanistan. Barbara Slavin writes that more than a dozen secret meetings were held among a small, select group of high-level U.S. and Iranian diplomats until the Bush administration rudely snubbed Iran in May 2003. These secret meetings, she writes, were cordial and professional and alternated between Geneva and Paris, often taking place in a hotel bar where the diplomats would chat over nonalcoholic drinks and potato chips. Parsi notes that the talks were dubbed the Geneva Channel and that the discussions were bilateral and at the highest level between officials of the two countries since the Iran-Contra scandal (Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation). The talks included U.S. ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalizad (both were senior Bush officials) and high-level Iranian diplomats.

Meanwhile, on November 12, 2001, the Six plus Two group happened to be meeting at the UN in New York City when American Airlines flight 587 crashed into a densely populated neighborhood in Queens shortly after taking off from JFK airport. Slavin writes in Bitter Friends that the assembled diplomats at first assumed another terrorist attack. She also reports that Karmal Kharrazi, Iran’s foreign minister, handwrote onto his prepared remarks the following words to a member of the U.S. delegation: “‘The United States should know that the Iranian people and the Iranian government stand with the United States in its time of need and absolutely condemn these violent terrorist attacks’.” Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, in New York City attending the annual UN General Assembly meetings, told reporters that he hoped “this bitter event will be the last we will have, and that terrorism and hate will be replaced by coexistence, empathy, logic, and dialogue.”

Iran then proved to be crucial to the success of the Bonn Conference in December 2001, where, under UN auspices, an international delegation met with prominent Afghan leaders to decide on a plan for governing Afghanistan, which had been without a nationally-agreed upon government since 1979. According to Parsi in Treacherous Alliance, Washington and Tehran had laid the groundwork for the conference weeks in advance, and that at the conference it was the Iranian not the U.S. delegation which pointed out that the draft of the Bonn Declaration, which would create the new government, as yet contained no language on democracy. Slavin agrees that Iran played a very supportive role at the Bonn Conference in the diplomatic area. It was Iran, she writes, that suggested that the draft communiqué call for democracy in Afghanistan and declared that the new government should not harbor terrorists.

Parsi concludes that it was Iran’s influence over the Afghans, not America’s threats and promises, that moved the negotiations forward right up to the end of conference. This was a crucial moment because of a final sticking point with the Northern Alliance about the high number of seats it should hold in the new government. This could not be resolved and nearly scuttled reaching a final agreement, Parsi writes, then noting that it was Iran’s lead negotiator, Javad Zarif, who broke the deadlock, but only by taking the Afghan delegate aside and whispering to him in Persian. A few minutes later they returned to the table, the Northern Alliance inexplicably having agreed to give up two of the seats it wanted in the new government. (Zarif is now Rouhani’s foreign minister.)

the white houseFor Iran, its enemy the Taliban had been defeated. For the United States, its relations with Iran had become less adversarial. Both governments had demonstrated to each other how they could benefit from an improved bilateral better relationship. This historic season of cooperation between the two adversaries, which had been taking place in other ways since 1997, did not go unnoticed at the Powell State Department, where it was hoped that the common interests that both countries had shared in Afghanistan could be expanded to other areas.

Then Secretary of State Colin Powell was arguing for this at the White House, against adamant opposition from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The evening of September 11, 2001, for instance, Powell and a team of close advisors had worked through the night to produce a diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan. It immediately became central to U.S. plans in its war on terrorism. Parsi writes that the plans included initiating the kind of cooperation with Iran that would be used as a platform for persuading Tehran to move beyond its tactical help into a positive strategic relationship with Washington. Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan after 9/11 had made its strategic help at least something worth talking about with Iran.

With Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan paying off, the Powell State Department pushed for a strategic opening with Iran. Powell, Richard Armitage (Powell’s deputy), and Larry Wilkerson (Powell’s chief of staff) had been trying to build a proactive policy toward Iran, but, as Slavin writes, the three faced continual ferocious opposition from Rumsfeld, Vice-president Dick Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. President George W. Bush however, would begin to scotch that possibility in his 2002 State of the Union address, when he included “Iran” in his “axis of evil” (with Iraq and North Korea).

In May 2003, the Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz cabal had succeeded in killing the Powell strategy. President Khatami, despite Bush’s axis of evil speech, was still trying to build better relations with the U.S., and he had persuaded the Iranian regime to take a huge risk in the direction. The regime sent a formal diplomatic letter to the Bush administration seeking the start of direct high-level talks on a wider array of issues crucial to improving the bilateral relations.

The unprecedented offer was immediately rebuffed by the Bush White House, and the ultrafundamentalists in Tehran quickly used the snub to undermine the credibility of Khatami, his team, and other reformist politicians who had been sticking their necks out since 1997 for friendlier relations with the United States. And the rest, as they say, is history, beginning with another surprise election, that of the radical and controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in June 2005.

“This is where things get into the land of the unbelievable,” Haass admitted to Rose.
“We’re going to be on the same side as Iran helping the Iraqi government…. As crazy as this sounds, the moment may have come.” Or, as that great political prophet Mark Twain once said, “History may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme.” The question is, What is the end rhyme?

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Stefan Krasowski and Adam_Inglis, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)