Stones and bread
Genesis 2, Matthew 4
by Isaac Villegas
March 9, 2014
Genesis 2:15, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
Last week I was in a community garden in Palestine, a small plot of land in Beit Ummar, in the West Bank — a 70,000 years old town, they say, an ancient Canaanite village. I was there with a group from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), as people from the village showed us the work of their hands, their tilling and keeping, their gardening. MCC, working with a partner organization, has helped the village develop an irrigation system, so they can feed themselves during droughts, like this year. It has only rained once this growing season.
Two women, Najla and Asmahan, walked us from patch to patch, from rows of cabbage to rows of beans. “Here, in our village,” Najla said to us, “women were the original farmers, and we still are.” Someone in our group asked what the men do, since the women do all the gardening and farming. “They are the martyrs,” Asmahan replied, “they die for us, they are imprisoned for us.” In Beit Ummar, forty percent of the men have served time in prison. It happens like this.
Jews from all over the world want to draw closer to God, which, for some, not all, means drawing closer to the promised land, closer to Jerusalem. I met one such Jewish immigrant, Aryel, in his house, which is part of the settlement of Susiya, which looks like suburban Raleigh. He read from the prophet Jeremiah as his reason for immigrating to Israel from Europe: “Thus saith the Lord,” Aryel quoted from the bible, “I will gather my people out of all the countries, and I will bring them back unto this place, and I will plant them in this land in truth with my whole heart and with my whole soul, and fields shall be bought in this land, this land which is without man or beast” (Jer 32). An empty land, Aryel claimed, which reaches back to the early Zionist myth, as European Jews began migrating to Palestine in the early 20th century: the saying goes, “a land without people for a people without a land.”
Aryel and others immigrate to Israel, to Palestine, because they are fulfilling the words of the prophets, they say. They move to the West Bank, to areas that are supposed to be controlled by the Palestinian Authority, not the state of Israel, and they build houses and live in them, they plant gardens and eat what they produce.
These Jewish communities, established on Palestinian land, are called settlements. Jews from Holland and Russia, from Brooklyn, New York and Phoenix, Arizona, become settlers, sort of like American cowboys, and they live in illegal Jewish communities near Palestinian villages — illegal according to international law, and sometimes illegal even according to Israeli law.
But the Israeli government refuses to enforce the law, which means the Jewish settlers build and build, planting their lives deeper and deeper into Palestinian soil. Currently, half a million Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank, in Palestinian land, near Palestinian villages.
Bat Ayin is a Jewish settlement near Beit Ummar, the village where I met the women farmers who told me that their men are prisoners and martyrs. What happens is that Jewish settlers from Bat Ayin, they invade the village and destroy stuff, sort of like we read about in the Bible during the Israelite conquest of Canaan, of Palestine. They uproot crops and tear down tents and sheds, while hurling rocks at anyone who tries to get close. When the Palestinian men try to defend their village, they are arrested by Israeli soldiers and taken to prison. The settlers, on the other hand, go back home. The soldiers don’t bother them. Over 90 percent of Israeli investigations into settler violence do not lead to indictments. That’s why the women at Beit Ummar told me that their men spend their time in prison, instead of farming, instead of gardening.
“The LORD God put them in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
From the beginning, the bible is about land, about where to live, about where to plant gardens and where to build houses. Our life with the land has been a struggle from the beginning, and we’re still living in that struggle, that conflict with one another over which trees belong to us, which ones we can eat from, and which land belongs to us, which piece of land is ours, and what does it mean to share our land, our property and houses, our gardens and food and water?
It’s hard to capture with words the sight of the massive walls Israel is building, mile after mile, through Palestinian territory, cutting off one community from another, cutting off the people of Gaza from family members in Ramallah, family in Bethlehem from family in Jerusalem. In Bethlehem concrete walls snake through the city, towering over houses, severing the people from their olive groves on the other side. And Gaza — Gaza, they say, is an open-air prison, enclosed by walls and razor wire, monitored by watchtowers and drones.
The Israeli defense firm that is building these walls and surveillance systems just got a $145 million dollar contract to develop the border security system here, in the United States, along the border with Mexico. Israel could be a vision of our future: a system of international apartheid, as the United States protects our land and houses and gardens from unwanted populations, as the United States protects us from threats to our economy and national security.
We have a tendency, it seems, to possess, to guard, to control: Adam and Eve in the garden, taking what is not theirs, the fruit of the forbidden tree; Israel, taking Palestinian land; the United States, building walls like Israel, to guard and control.
In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted with control, the temptation to control the land. As it says in our passage from Matthew, chapter 4: “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to Jesus, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ ”
As we know, Jesus says no. He resists the temptation to control the land and the people. But I almost wish he said yes, because I’m sure Jesus would have been a better ruler of that land than David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist founder of the state of Israel in 1948.
And I wish Jesus turned those stones into bread, because I like the idea of rocks turning into pita in mid air, before they rain down on Palestinian children as they walk home from school, in the city of Hebron, where Christian Peacemaker Teams walk with children, as human shields, trying to protect them from the violence of settlers.
Not only should Jesus turn those stones into bread, but the stun grenades and tear gas canisters, like this one [pass around canister] and all the others I saw in the streets of the Aida Refugee Camp, in Bethlehem, tear gas from a recent invasion by the Israeli Defense Forces. I want Jesus to turn tear gas shells into bread, into pita, with olive oil and za’atar, into lunch instead of another act of violence.
The tempter said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Command this tear gas to become food.
The scandal of Jesus is that he doesn’t save the world the way we would want it to be saved, if we were in charge. Jesus doesn’t save us the way we would want to be saved. Instead, Jesus invites us into a way of life where we learn patience, where we learn to be human, with all of our limitations, all of our vulnerabilities, all of our wounds, to live with them, to endure the violence of this world, to persevere, to survive, and to join together with other survivors, to find life with them, with people who live in a world they do not control, yet nonetheless find hope, people who work for hope — to join them, just as Jesus has joined us and found life with us.
Last week I ate lunch in an olive grove in the village of Beit Jala near Bethlehem, and I heard stories about patient endurance, stories about survival, about hope. Every day, people from throughout the region — Jews, Muslims, and Christians — eat and play in the olive groves of Beit Jala, as an act of nonviolent resistance against the wall, the wall which is supposed to be built through the olive grove, separating the people of village from their farm land, from their agriculture, in order to claim more Palestinian land for two Israeli settlements, Gilo and Har Gilo.
Hope in Beit Jala looks like life, abundant life, people full of life, people on picnic blankets, eating and talking, children running through the trees.
Hope looks like Najla and Asmahan, in Beit Ummar, tilling and keeping their land. “The land makes us stronger,” they told me, “we plant, we eat, we struggle, we hope.”
Hope looks like Jesus, who endures the Roman occupation, and finds life with others — as he eats with people, as heals wounds, as he joins his life to his neighbor’s.
Life with Jesus means life together, clearing a spot in our lives for God’s hope to inhabit us, making room in a world full of rocks and tear gas for God’s life, making time for a meal of pita with oil olive and za’atar in a grove of trees that may or may not be bulldozed next year.