Earlier this week, as part of his four-day Middle Eastern trip, Vice President Mike Pence addressed Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
On the surface, the main takeaway from Pence’s speech was how he sealed America’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital with a golden braid.
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) January 22, 2018
That move pleased a lot of people, such as Israeli president Reuven Rivlin.
Thank you US @VP @Mike_Pence for an inspiring, important speech in the Knesset. Jerusalem eagerly awaits the US Embassy, & I am looking forward to our meeting tomorrow. As you said from the Knesset podium, we are thankful to God that He preserved us & brought us to this moment. pic.twitter.com/czDhXqlqrH
— Reuven Rivlin (@PresidentRuvi) January 22, 2018
But Amit Gvaryahu, a Ph.D. candidate in Talmud at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, heard something else in that speech. In a column for Haaretz, Israel’s oldest continuously operating newspaper, he suggested that Pence subtly cast Jews as “mere tools for the salvation of Christians.”
Gvaryahu’s spidey senses went off when he heard Pence discuss how Abraham offered to sacrifice Isaac, only to be stopped at the last minute by an angel of the Lord.
“It was here, in Jerusalem, on Mount Moriah, that Abraham offered up his son, Isaac, and was credited with righteousness for his faith in God.”
However, Gvaryahu notes that Genesis 22, which recounts this event, makes no mention of “faith.” He wondered whether there was a method to Pence’s madness.
For the answer, Gvaryahu turned to Genesis 15, in which Abraham was promised as many descendants as there were stars. When he heard this, Abraham had “faith in the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
According to Joshua Blachorsky, a doctoral candidate in Hebrew and Judaic studies at NYU, Genesis 22 had a lot of meaning for the Apostle Paul. In Romans 4, he wrote that Abraham was “righteous” not because of his works, but because of his faith.
“Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”
As most Christians know, Paul never lost an opportunity to drive home the point that only faith can get you saved. Just in case he didn’t make himself clear, Paul went as far as to call the Jews “carnal” in Romans 9.
Gvaryahu saw further echoes of this theme in Hebrews 11, which recounts the heroes of the Old Testament and frames their accomplishments as acts of faith–a point made clear in verses 39 and 40.
“Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
To Gvaryahu’s mind, this meant Pence was saying that it isn’t possible for Jews to be “made perfect” unless they accept Jesus. He believes Pence’s reading of these passages frames the Jewish people as “a tool or a pawn” for Jesus’ return. The Old Testament heroes are recast as heroes of the Christian faith. After all, in Pence’s reading of Hebrews, since the Old Testament heroes “did not receive what was promised,” their acts would have “no spiritual or redemptive meaning” if they are seen as Jewish heroes rather than Christian heroes.
Gvaryahu also recalls that for fundies like Pence, when Jesus died on the cross, “the Church replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people”–a mentality that led to numerous persecutions and pogroms of Jews over the years. While the Holocaust led to “significant soul-searching” about this theology, Gvaryahu believes the current trend among evangelicals of Pence’s ilk is no less worrisome.
“Regardless, per Pence, the tribulations and successes of the Jews are valuable only as pre-figurations and theological models for Christians.”
Gvaryahu adds that Pence and other evangelicals see Israel as a necessary part of their end-times theology, since the return of Jews to Israel is “a critical step toward Christ’s second coming.” To his mind, Pence was displaying “a special kind of hutzpah” by explaining Jewish tradition before a mostly Jewish audience while using language that has been used in the past to render Jews “pathologically redundant to the world” and have long been used to “cast us as a tool for the salvation of Christians.”
Lest you think Gvaryahu was making a mountain out of a molehill, much of this speech was written by the UK’s chief rabbi emeritus, Lord Jonathan Sacks–an Orthodox rabbi. For Gvaryahu, this meant that Pence’s dog whistling was no accident.
“That expose suggests that the Pence speech isn’t just a public display of theological impudence but of Jewish subservience, in which a prominent Orthodox rabbi internalizes Christian supercessionism and parrots it back as politically expedient pablum.”
So it was no accident that, in Gvaryahu’s words, Pence was effectively telling Jews “that Abraham was not their father but that Abraham was his father.” He was effectively telling them that Abraham will only be their father if they become “completed”–that is, if they accept Jesus as the Messiah.
As an evangelical Christian myself, this is disheartening in the least. Pence used that speech to subtly confirm one of the worst stereotypes about evangelicals–that we see those around us not as actual people, but as potential notches in our Bibles.
(featured image courtesy Pence’s Facebook)