From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 11, Daily Office Year 1 (Pentecost 8, 2015)
1 Samuel 31:8-10 ~ When the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head, stripped off his armor, and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to the houses of their idols and to the people. They put his armor in the temple of Astarte; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.
The Greek historian Herodotus gave us the name “Palestine,” which he adapted from an Egyptian word “pelesset” which named a sea people who may or may not have been the forerunners of the people named “Philistines” in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Roman Empire solidified Palestine’s place in geography by adopting the name for its eastern Mediterranean province which included the ancient lands of Israel and Judah.
So who are today’s Palestinians? Are they the descendants of the Philistine warriors who so brutally butchered Saul’s body (although they had not killed him)? Or are they (as Mitri Raheb argues) the descendants of the am haaretz, the “people of the land” named frequently in the biblical books of Kings, Chronicles, Leviticus, and Ezekiel, and less frequently elsewhere in the Hebrew writings? For that matter, who are the Jews? Are they the am haaretz? Today there are black Jews, asian Jews, and hispanic Jews, in addition to European ashkenazis and Middle Eastern sephardim. There are diaspora Jews and sabras.
Modern Palestine and contemporary Israel are not the nation-states of the Bible, nor are the people who call them “home” the people of the Bible. What they are, both the nation-states (whether recognized or not) and their residents, are entities which look back to myths and histories of the Bible (and the Qur’an and other texts) and lay claim to parts of those stories. What they are, both the nations and the peoples, are people who choose to be enemies of other people who lay claim to other parts of the same stories.
We choose to be who we are, individually and corporately. Both individuals and groups base their present on selective choices of the past and thereby chart their futures. We can make other choices. The ancient Philistines, happening upon the bodies of Saul and his weapon bearer and his sons, none of whom they had killed, chose to claim those deaths as their own responsibility and, thus, charted a course for generations yet unborn. Each generation, each person has the choice whether to be bound by the choices made by those before them.
Can we choose to be different? Must I, descendent of Irish Protestants, continue the enmity in which they chose to hold Irish Catholics? No, I need not. Must Palestinians and Israelis, whatever their ancestry, continue the enmity their forebears chose? I choose to believe otherwise; I pray that others can, as well.