We’re more than 2 months into the Israel-Hamas war. What has happened since the start of the war on October 7? What are some of the ways Christians are responding to this war? How should believers think about this war given that there are so many casualties of innocents on both sides? We’ll answer these questions and more with our guest, Dr. Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Dr. Darrell Bock is Executive Director of Cultural Engagement and Senior Research Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 40 books in New Testament and Faith and Culture.

Episode Transcript

Scott: For more than two months into the Israel-Hamas War, what has happened since the start of the war on October the 7th? What are some of the ways that Christians are responding to this war? How should believers think about this war, given that there are so many innocent casualties on both sides? I'm going to answer these questions in more with our special guest, Dr. Darrell Bock, Executive Director for Cultural Engagement at the Hendrix Center at Dallas Theological Center and, full disclosure, of partial Jewish heritage. I'm your host, Scott Ray, and this is ThinkBiblicaly from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.

So, Darrell, thanks so much for being with us. Really appreciate you coming on. I know you've had a lot of conversations on this. You serve on the board of Chosen People Ministries, and so you've had an opportunity to have an inside look at this. So tell us, first of all, you are a fairly internationally known New Testament scholar and have been for some time. Why does a New Testament scholar have such an interest in the Israel-Hamas War?

Darrell Bock: Well, I have an interest in the war because I have an interest both in biblical studies, and then, as you mentioned, I have a Jewish background myself. Both my parents were raised as Jews, and even though they made a decision to leave Judaism before I was born—I didn't know I was Jewish until I was 13—the engagement with Israel and my involvement with chosen people ministries has put me in pretty tight touch with Israel for a long time in ministry. And then when I go to Israel, I end up being on both sides of what became the wall in Israel as I ministered both to Jewish people there and Palestinians. So, it's become almost a personal involvement that also has pulled me in.

Scott: So, what's the biblical studies angle on it?

Darrell: Well, the biblical studies angle, of course, rotates around the debate about whether or not Israel has a right to the land through covenant or not. And that debate, of course, is fueled by a view that says, "Now, this is the gift of the land, was part of the covenant commitment God made to the people of Israel. It remains even when Israel is disobedient, and long term there is an expectation of a time when Israel will come back into faith and Israel being in the land with Jesus returning and ruling from Israel as a part of the biblical portrait." Of course, you have other Christians who think that because Israel has been disobedient and not responded to the Messiah and all the blessings come through Christ that she's disqualified from this covenantal benefit and therefore, for some, has no right to land whatsoever. So two very disparate points of view in some ways. Other people are willing to acknowledge Israel has a right to exist in the land, but secular Israel has no right to make any claims on God and the promises because of her separation from belief in Christ.

Scott: So, you know, recognizing that there's a diversity of views on the place of Israel in God's economy at present and in the future, I'd say you would not hold to something that's been called a replacement theology, that the church has replaced Israel as the people of God and is now the recipient of those promises made to Israel in the Old Testament. Is that fair?

Darrell: Yeah, with regard to the land, I wouldn't hold that idea. In other words, the point here is that all the benefits that come from God come through Christ. So, that's something I wouldn't dispute, but the idea is that God has made a commitment and Romans 9-11 specifies this commitment. I also think some of Jesus' own teaching does as well, that Israel is going to come back to have a prominent role in the program of God tied to Christ in part because of faith in Christ. And so that doesn't disqualify her as a people from the benefits that God had committed Himself to for her. I know that was a long answer for a simple question, but I'm trying to be really careful in how I say this.

Scott: Well, the subject of the podcast is not a course on eschatology. So, summarize briefly what's happened in Israel and in Gaza since the war began on October 7th.

Darrell: Well, the short answer on this one is this is a total mess. So, let me go back around. The attack on Israel on October 7th represented to Israelis the failure of what had been a containment policy up to that point. I'm getting feedback from people in Israel that people, including people who Jewish people trusted as Palestinians who they knew and were friends, et cetera, that that trust has totally eroded as a result of that attack. That led Israel to change its policy, probably for the third time, over the history of this. Initially, people were able to roam around through Israel and engage. And then when the intifadas, et cetera, happened decades ago, a containment policy was initiated that put Palestinians behind walls with checkpoints, et cetera. In one sense, controversial policy from a Palestinian point of view, but very necessary from an Israeli point of view because of the attacks. And October 7th represented to Israel the failure of that policy and the decision was made that Hamas needs to be eliminated. And that's what you're seeing. And then the debate since has been about the manner in which that removal has been undertaken and executed by Israel with all the debates that most people can see as they watch television rotating around it as we go.

Scott: That's helpful. So, I take it that the Christian community is responding to this in a variety of different ways. What are some of the ways that Christians are reacting to the war? And I know you've had a hand in crafting some of the statements that were made by different religious groups, some more leaning toward Israel, some more leaning toward the Palestinians. So, you know, when you talk about the ways that Christians are responding to this, please include some of those behind the scenes, little bits of information that we won't get just by reading the statements.

Darrell: Well, I would say that you have people who are pro-Israel who are comfortbale with almost anything and everything Israel does. You have another group that is pro-Israel in the sense that they understand why Israel is trying to remove Hamas and that Hamas is really a problem. And the fact that Hamas doesn't want to recognize Israel's right to exist, and is doing so for violent reasons, is a problem. The fact that October 7th took place because the UAE and Saudi Arabia were very close to announcing at least a move, if not an outright recognition, of Israel. That's what they were trying to stop in doing this. And so these are people who say Israel has the right to defend herself, but there is some level of concern for how Israel does it. And that's a second group. And then the third group that you have is probably a pro-Palestinian group that says, you know, the way in which so many lives are being disproportionately put at risk, and in some cases the amount of death is disproportional to the chasing of specific terrorists, that this is out of line and out of whack with prescribed ways to prosecute a war. And so some people are going to the extent of even saying, well, there's a genocide going on or war crimes are going on. The statements that I've been involved with have generally been pro-Israel statements. One of them also made a statement about the tragic situation that many Palestinians find themselves in. And then I have refused to sign anything that mentions genocide or war crimes simply because I don't think the embeddedness of the way Hamas has placed itself in Gaza with the use of human shields, including locations like hospitals and schools, just problematizes the charges of war crimes or genocide. It does raise ethical questions about how you prosecute the war, but I don't think it puts us clearly over a line where we can accuse Israel of those two actions. And so, that's probably the spectrum that we're dealing with among Christians.

Scott: Yeah, it seems that Hamas is aware of Israel's sensitivity to the just war criteria of noncombatant immunity and by placing weapons depots in hospitals and storing weapons in civilian neighborhoods and things like that. So, I think that's why it's not to sign statements to that effect. Now, it's really clear that there are a lot of innocent people who have died on both sides of this. How should believers think this through, given that so many innocent people have been killed on both sides?

Darrell: We're actually in what I have referred to as a cul-de-sac of cycle right now, in which attack and response brings innocent people into harms' way, and tragically so. I mean, I don't know anyone who can watch what's going on and not feel empathy for the plight many people have been put in. Many people have lost their homes. Many people have lost family members. Many people have been injured. I mean, it's just the tragedy of war being played out before our eyes. Having said that, how to untangle the cul-de-sac is a challenge because on the one hand you have an entity, Hamas, which does have significant Palestinian support that wants to remove Israel from the land, is willing to do so violently, et cetera, willing to attack civilians, et cetera, to do so, willing, when movements towards peace happen, to disrupt those knowing what the Israeli response will be. And so you've got that to mention the equation.

On the other hand, you know that Israel's response, because she feels an existential threat for her very existence, is going to be full and as comprehensive as she can make it to try and eliminate Hamas, which she stated is her goal in this case. And as a result, many people are being killed in the pursuit of Hamas activists. That this fuels the resentment in Palestine towards Israel. So that's an effect and that's a risk that I think Israel has calculated she's willing to take because in her mind her survival's in view. And so that's a pretty serious cul-de-sac. And I tell people what we have is a threesome, and a threesome doesn't work very well. And my point here is that you've got Israel and you've got Palestinians. If you didn't have an entity around that said Israel shouldn't exist and we're going to try and remove her, I think they could try and work something out. But as long as Hamas is agitating, I think you've got a problem. Now those who are pro-Palestinian, just to be clear, see the continual displacement of people and the continuing civilian harm that comes as a result of the responses as not only agitating the population but in many ways, how can I say that, catalyzing them to want to respond violently. And so when I say a cul-de-sac, I mean it. I mean that's the cycle that's present, that's what we're seeing play out in front of us. And until positions change in one way or another, I don't actually see a way out of this.

Scott: And especially since essentially Hezbollah in the north is the equivalent of Hamas in the south in terms of not wanting, not allowing any place for Israel as a nation to exist. True?

Darrell: Yeah, this reality has existed since 1948. I mean when the UN voted to recognize Israel as a land and they were trying to figure out what to do with the Palestinians, which was a troublesome part of the arrangement because people were displaced. The surrounding countries were not interested in taking in refugees. Now, we've got the Ukrainian situation in which mounds of Ukrainians have moved to Europe and people have taken them in as a humanitarian act. Well, the countries around Israel in 1948 weren't interested in doing this because to do so would have been a tacit admission of the acceptance of Israel's existence. And the important thing here I think is that at that time, every Arab nation was against the recognition of Israel in the land. And so there was no place for the Palestinians to go. The Palestinian displacement problem of 1948 was actually never really solved. And so that's the starting point for this. I mean, think about how far back that goes. You know, we're in, we're 70 plus years now down that road, 75, in fact. So you know, that's where the cycle kind of started and it never got resolved and we've been dealing with it in one sense ever since.

Scott: So, back to 2023, would you consider Israel's response disproportionate to the threat against them?

Darrell: I just think that's a hard question to answer. I mean, I think I would stress it this way. I do have concerns about how it's been done. I have particular concerns, I think, about the way in which the siege was undertaken and the way in which, you know, people being able to get food and just basic human needs, I have concerns at that level as an ethical matter. But the reason I've been slow to sign on to genocide or war crime statements is because the nature of this embeddedness that we're dealing with I think is really a serious problem. And I think tends to be underestimated as a problem in the attempt to actually deal with the removal of Hamas or at least, I actually think what's going to happen is that you aren't going to see Hamas eliminated nor are you going to see the radicalization go away. I think it's with us, but I think the question becomes, can you minimize or neuter it to a degree that they don't have the presence and power and capabilities that they had on October 7th?

Scott: Yeah, I think you could. Yeah, I realize the question is not as straightforward as I asked it because, you know, obviously proportionality is one of the prime tenets of just war theory. That's right. And a disproportionate response clearly creates a cycle of violence and retribution. On the other hand, I think you could defend Israel's response by simply asking the question, what else can they do?

Darrell: Well this is an interesting question, Scott, because I've actually asked this with the pro-Palestinian—I'm in a group that has pro-Palestinian people in it as well as pro-Israeli people. We've been sending emails back and forth as we've looked at this, etc. The question I have been consistently asking is, you tell me how we deal with the embeddedness problem. And I really don't get an answer. I mean, the answer I get is, well, they should just, you know, it's the plea for the ceasefire and those kinds of things. And I'm saying you're going, if you go to a ceasefire, you go back not just perhaps to the situation of containment, but even before that, which the recent events show doesn't work. So what are you going to do then? And so the embeddedness problem is a real problem. Being able to measure—

Scott: Just to be clear about that too, it's the embeddedness of weapons and Hamas military personnel within civilian neighborhoods that make the distinction between—

Darrell: And underneath them.

Scott: Yeah, okay. Right. It makes the distinction between combatants and non-combatants really hard to establish.

Darrell: Exactly right. You know, this tunnel, I got to say community that was created with headquarters, etc., you know, even when I get cited human rights statements that talk about individual combatants and that kind of thing, my response has been, "What do you do if the combatants are multiple?" Or "What do you do if it's a headquarters sitting underneath?” “What do you do if it's a headquarters in the middle of an apartment complex?" You know, those kinds of questions. And, so, I just think people have underestimated the challenge of trying to remove a threatening presence that is constantly taking advantage of other people and using them. And my position has been that the Palestinians are as damaged by the way Hamas uses Palestinians as shields as it is by anything Israel's doing.

And so because it puts these populations at risk, there's another element to this, just to show you how complicated it is. And that is if you talk to people with Hamas about these civilian deaths, they're playing both sides of the story. On the one hand, they like the public relations that these deaths bring to them in terms of sympathy. But on the other hand, they'll talk about the fact that these people are sacrificing themselves and are martyrs for the cause. So it doesn't show much care or concern for the amount of civilians who are being killed on the one side, except for when it generates sympathy for their cause. That's the way. And CNN ran a story, this has been probably a month ago now, quoting Hamas people basically saying this. So, I'm not making this up.

Scott: Yeah. The way they describe the civilians actually suggests that they're much more than civilians and actually might be a little bit closer to combatants.

Darrell: Well, the hard part of this is about 70 percent, the polling shows that about 70 percent of Palestinians favor what Hamas is doing and has done. You know, that they—70 percent of them favored the October 7th attack. So that raises questions as well. So, like I say, it's just an immense mess and a deep cul-de-sac in which the cycle of response is pretty consistent from both sides. And I think we're stuck here unless something changes. Israel's trying to change the equation by removing what they think is the cause of the problem, major cause of the problem. It'd be interesting to see if Hamas is, how do I say this, weakened significantly. What the Palestinians will now say, because some of them operate under pressure. I know about situations where they come and they say, "Can we, you know, store some of our stuff in your house?" And if you refuse, your house gets burned down. So I mean, what do you do then?

Scott: So here's – yeah. I think one of the people, one of the groups of Palestinians we don't hear much about, are the Palestinian Christians. So what do you make of their plight? Because it seems to me that nobody's advocating for them. And maybe it's because there aren't actually that many of them left in Gaza and the West Bank. So what do you make of their plight?

Scott: This is hard because there was, or were, a group, I don't know exactly what's going on now, but there was a group that were meeting like with Messianic Christians, et cetera, there was a very, very set of exceptional meetings that were going on. I will say that everything that I've heard since October 7th says that Israel is not the same country with the same attitude since October 7th. That people who were willing to engage with and try and live alongside Palestinians now have deep doubts about whether they can be trusted or not. So you've got that dimension to the equation. There are a lot of Palestinian Christians who are not happy with Israel because of what they see as an attack. There are people, even some of the Christians I think think this way. I'm well aware of groups that reflect that perspective. So, what you have are factions being created and in some cases it's not the theology that is driving the concern as much as the political situation people are finding themselves in.

Scott: So, over to the reaction in this country a little bit, we hear a lot of discussion about the distinction between being anti-Israel or anti-Zionist and being anti-Semitic. So, first of all, how would you define a Zionist? Maybe we'll start with that.

Darrell: Well, I think a Zionist is a person who believes that Israel has the right to land, that there are kinds of Zionists. Some people believe that a Zionist is a person who only believes that Israel has the right to land, but Israel has a right to all the land. So you get settlements, you get concern that Israel has the right even to some of the areas where the Palestinians are now the majority. And then you get other Zionists who say Israel has the right to land, but we would really like to figure out a way to live at peace with our Palestinian and Arab neighbors. That's a different kind of Zionist. And you see these factions, you saw these factions within Israel before October 7th because you could watch the division in the elections that was almost equally divided. I mean they had four elections, what, in five years? Something like that. And so you've got that situation going on.

So, a Zionist is someone who believes Israel has the right to land in the region to be a country at peace. And then the discussion is about the borders of that land and how widespread it should be and those kinds of questions.

Scott: So, is there any kind of necessary connection between being anti-Zionist or critical of Israel and being anti-Semitic?

Darrell: It's a harder question because I think every person has the right to be critical at a moral level of someone who they think is violating moral standards. I don't think you get moral immunity simply because of your race or national status or whatever. So, I think it is possible to be critical of Israel, even be anti-Zionist in the sense of asking questions about how are we going to live with Palestinians in the land, how is that going to work practically, versus a Zionist who says, "I'm willing to live here and want to be at peace, but I'm also willing to figure out how I'm going to live with Palestinians who are also here." So, I'll make that distinction in making the question. And then the anti-Semitic thing basically moves in the direction of Israel has no right to be here or Israel as a people just is always on the wrong side of the story, that kind of thing. That moves into anti-Semitism, I think.

Scott: Now, one of the charges that I've been reading about on behalf of the, you know, some of the things going on on the campuses and some of the criticism of Israel is that Israel is the last bastion of colonization today. And with colonization being one of the new dirty words today, you know, that's considered a discussion stopper or almost a drop the mic moment. But what do you make of that particular criticism of Israel, that they are the sort of the last stand for the, you know, the old European colonization of the developing world?

Darrell: Yeah, this is the hidden part of the conversation that is also a challenge. And what I mean by that is that the whole notion of colonization, which is a variation of the oppressor and oppressed with Europe and the United States in some cases being the ones who've controlled what's happened in world history for quite some time, I mean, there are elements of that that are true and there are abuses associated with it that are true. But there's also the case that what created the movement from Zionism to the nation of Israel was a recognition on behalf of Europe that the Holocaust was just morally atrocious and that Israel deserved a place where she could live in peace. Most Jews had lived as a minority scattered across other parts of the world. You know, you can think about the amount of Russian Jews that you find when you go to Israel is large because of the history of anti-Jewish activity in Russia for decades, even centuries. And so the challenge here is that there are some elements of colonial history—I mean, the fact is that it was the victory in World War I that removed this part of the world from Turkish control and brought it into the control of the Allied forces, if I can say it that way, and it was the partitioning by these countries that established some of the countries that are in the region, all that took place. But to view Israel as a reflection of colonialism, to me, doesn't understand the Jewish story and doesn't appreciate the wise and wherefores of why in the middle of the 20th century it was seen as prudent at a global level to have Israel have a right to her own land amongst her own people so she could live with her own identity in peace. And of course, the challenge was that that initial response wasn't recognized by a significant amount, a portion of her neighbors, and it took decades—again, sorry to make this so complicated, but it is. It took decades before Egypt recognized Israel as kind of the first step in the 1970s. I mean, we're 30 years removed from the time when Israel was founded, and there's been a creeping recognition since then, and the people who don't want Israel there at all have never been happy with those moves. I tell people, Anwar Sadat made a move towards peace, and what did he get? He got assassinated.

Scott: Yeah, he lost his life.

Darrell: Yeah.

Scott: All right, one final question here, and this may be the most challenging of them all. What if anything are you encouraged about or hopeful about in the future of Israel and the Palestinians?

Darrell: I don't know if I'm encouraged about anything right now, to be honest, because I say I think we're locked in a cul-de-sac, and I think the cul-de-sac is in a cycle in which the forces that created it are continuing to function and persist. So, I'm not sure I'm—the only thing that I can sense that might be an encouragement and that might lead to at least a different scenario is—and then we need to talk about eschatology—is the possibility that everyone recognizes that the only way to change that cul-de-sac is for each side to recognize the right of the other to exist in peace, and then to figure out how that's going to work, and whether that's a two-state solution or however one talks about that.

It's interesting. One of the things that has fascinated me in my conversation with people who are organized on a pro-Palestinian side is many of them don't think a two-state solution is even possible, which to me is going, I don't know how she—if you're going to argue for peace and for a ceasefire and for everyone to kind of lay down their arms, I don't know how you do it without recognizing at some level that people are going to have to recognize each other's right to exist or else we're going to just perpetuate the cycle that we're in.

Scott: All right, that raises one more question I want to ask, and then I'll let you go. A year from now, what do you think the region's going to look like?

Darrell: I have no idea, but I'll tell you what I think is going to happen in the shorter term. I think in the shorter term, the international pressure on Israel will become so great that she will have to change the way she is currently conducting herself in the region. I also think that that happens once Israel makes a judgment that she has damaged Hamas in light of her goals as much as is probably she's capable of doing and thus can change tactics. There's already pressure for this to happen. People are talking about the execution of Israel's efforts needs to change by the beginning of next year, that kind of thing. So, you're seeing those lines being drawn, and I don't see Israel responding until she feels like she's gotten far enough to have made the risk that she's already undertaken in doing this, at least moderately successful in terms of, if not totally dismantling Hamas, certainly significantly diminishing Hamas's ability to rule. And I do think that anything that happens on the other end probably doesn't involve Hamas. The question is what kind of Palestinian presence and authority and political organization will be asked to cooperate in order to make this happen, because the idea of Israel overseeing all this with all this hostility is just, I don't see that can happen.

Scott: Yeah, that's really insightful. Lots of questions, way more questions than we have answers to at this point, but Darrell, I really appreciate your insight, the people you've had a chance to talk to, and the perspectives that you've gained on this. This is super helpful. And I hope our audience appreciates just how nuanced and how complicated this region is, and I think what's happened since October the 7th has just further illustrated what a complicated part of the world this is. So thank you. Thanks so much for your insight and for being with us. Much appreciated.

Darrell: You're very, very welcome.

Scott: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our masters in Christian Apologetics, now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. Just submit comments, ask questions, make suggestions on issues you'd like us to cover or guests you'd like us to consider. You can email us at thinkbiblically@biola.edu. That's thinkbiblically@biola.edu. If you enjoyed today's conversation with Dr. Darrell Bock, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.