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Book Review: Covenant Brothers

Written by Daniel G. Hummel | Reviewed by Eric Wendorff

In 2020 Daniel Hummel presented a fascinating adult education class on the role American evangelicals have played in U.S. – Israeli relations. If you want to delve deeper into the subject, read his book, Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, and U.S. – Israeli Relations, which is available in Covenant’s library.

Two academic reviewers have characterized Hummel’s book as “deeply researched,” “extraordinary primary research,” “compelling and path-breaking” and “the definitive study of American-Christian Zionism for a long time to come.” Over a thousand footnotes (many with substantive comments) extending over fifty-five pages support this assessment.

But Hummel, the Director for University Engagement at Upper House, a Christian study center on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, and a lecturer in UW’s History Department, has written for those who are not professional historians. His style is clear and engaging. His narrative includes memorable anecdotes. Titled subsections guide the reader step-by-step through each chapter.

“American Christian Zionism,” as portrayed in Hummel’s book, is the evolving organized support since the end of World War II for the state of Israel, by various groups of conservative Protestant Christians, who have been motivated by their faith, a literal interpretation of various Bible texts, the belief that the Jews remain in an eternal covenant with God, and the conviction that God will bless those Christians who support Israel.

Countering popular understandings, Hummel argues that, “While apocalyptic and evangelistic explanations supply rough answers to why evangelicals take an interest in Israel, they fall short of explaining the genesis of joint activism or the many interreligious manifestations of the movement since the 1940s.” The key biblical words for Christian Zionists, according to Hummel, are not prophesies regarding “End Times,” but God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” “Read by Christian Zionists,” Hummel explains, “this verse presents Abraham’s physical descendants, the nation of Israel, as the mediator of God’s blessings to humanity. The verse outlines the covenantal language that is the basis for modern Jewish-evangelical political cooperation. . . . Genesis 12:3 is the organizing principle of the modern Christian Zionist movement.”

The “manifestations of the movement” Hummel describes include: support for Israel as atonement for the Holocaust; a theological movement to reject “supersessionism,” the idea that the church replaced Israel as God’s chosen people; the 1950s idea that “Judeo-Christianity” was “the key ingredient to freedom and democracy, as the principal anti-materialist bulwark against communism”; Southern Baptist missionaries in Israel coming to see their role not as proselytizing Jews but as supporting Jews, culminating in Billy Graham’s proclamation that, “I have not come to proselytize. . . . It was your people who proselytized us, for every Book of the Bible – except one – was written by a Jew”; Biblical archeology -- motivated by the desire to establish the historicity of the Bible in response to biblical criticism -- used to support belief in a Judeo-Christian tradition “from Abraham to the Israelite conquest of Canaan to the spread of Christianity”; dispensationalist reading of the Bible as God’s revelation of future events; after the 1967 war, “Holy Land tourism [becoming] the bedrock of Christian Zionist subculture [that] supplied leaders with the words, images, and metaphors to make sentimental appeals for support”; Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best seller The Late Great Planet Earth, which popularized dispensational theology; Jerry Falwell support of Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor and its policies regarding the West Bank and Lebanon because, as Hummel writes, “in God’s covenantal arrangements, according to Falwell, failing to protect Israel was an existential threat to America”; and since the 1980’s, Pentecostal and other charismatic Christians, who preach the prosperity gospel, embodying a “Spirit-centered Zionism,” which has become international in its scope.

Hummel’s title, Covenant Brothers, points to the thesis of his book: “The most useful metaphor to capture the development and core aims of the modern Christian Zionist movement . . . is reconciliation. . . . Reconciliation highlights the decisive reading of Genesis 12:3 at the center of modern Christian Zionism, and the overriding motif – not of rapture or fire – but of covenant solidarity. The guilt of past silence, pleas for Christians to act on behalf of Israel, hope of covenanted fulfillment in the future – these emotive calls to action, as much as theological doctrines or political positions, as much as hatred and fear, have been the engines of the Christian Zionist movement.” Yet Hummel also acknowledges that there is “the dark underside of reconciliation . . . the erasure of concern for Arab Christians in Israel and the fate of Palestinians in the occupied territories. . . . the identification of the state of Israel with God’s covenanted community and Christian Zionist identification with Israeli state interests.”

I came away from Hummel’s book with an appreciation of the complex interplay of theology, piety and politics in the interactions between Israeli Jews and conservative American Christians that has helped shape U.S. policies toward Israel.

Covenant Brothers leaves me with the question: What if any bearing should the Bible’s account of God’s covenant relationship with Israel have on how Christians think about American-Israeli relations?

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