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Robert Wright

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The Bible's Vindication of Obama's Middle East Strategy

Posted: 06/08/09 01:17 PM ET

Some West Bank settlers think Barack Obama is defying God's will. Obama wants to stop the growth of the settlements, whereas (according to these settlers) God wants the people of Israel to populate all of the promised land; it says so in the Bible.

I have a different take on what the Bible says. If you read the Bible carefully, and are mindful of its historical context, it offers a kind of support for Obama's position on the settlements and for his approach to the "Muslim world" broadly.

At least, that's one implication of my new book The Evolution of God. In it I follow the changing moods of God, as reflected in ancient scripture, to see what circumstances brought out the best in religion in the past. The hope is that this knowledge can help us bring out the best in religion today.

One thing I found is that some of the most belligerent, vindictive scriptures in the Hebrew Bible were written when Israelites were in roughly the mindset that Palestinians are in today. And some of the most tolerant, benevolent scriptures emerged after a change in Israel's political psychology much like the change Obama is trying to engineer in Palestinian psychology.

For much of its early existence, Israel was a small nation in a tough neighborhood. It got pushed around by such superpowers as Assyria and, most famously, the neo-Babylonian empire, which in 586 BCE destroyed the Jerusalem temple and exiled Israel's elites. Like Palestinians today, Israelites felt humiliated and dispossessed; they weren't in control of their destiny.

The result was a thirst for revenge. Parts of the book of Isaiah thought to have been written during the exile dwell on the payback that Israel's God will someday give to nations that have tormented the Israelites. God says, "I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine." As for the rulers of these nations, "With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust of your feet."

But Israel's God didn't stay in that mood forever. Circumstances changed. The Babylonians were conquered by the Persians. The leader of Persia, Cyrus the Great, returned the exiles to Israel, where they were allowed to govern their own affairs and worship their God.

Now Israel's past tormentors were no longer in a position to dominate. Indeed, many of them, such as the Assyrians, were now fellow members of the Persian empire. Bad neighbors had become good neighbors.

And this made a big difference. Parts of the Bible thought to have been written after the exile strike a warm tone toward past enemies. (In the book of Jonah God shows compassion for residents of the Assyrian city of Nineveh, explaining to Jonah why they should be forgiven for past misdeeds.) These post-exilic passages also feature more internationally communal language than pre-exilic scripture, and mention not just God's covenant with Israel but "an everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth."

The moral of the story is simple: When people see their interests threatened by another group, this perception brings out the most belligerent parts of their religion. Such circumstances are good news for violent extremists and bad news for moderates. What Obama is trying to do--make Palestinians feel less threatened, and make Muslims generally feel more respected--is what may now, as it did in ancient times, bring out the tolerant side of a religion.

This pattern in the Hebrew Bible--the pattern that explains the shifting moods of God--is mirrored in the Koran (as I argued in an essay recently published in Time magazine). Indeed, all three Abrahamic faiths proved in ancient times that the tenor of their religion can adapt to changing facts on the ground. The Abrahamic God has shown the capacity for great moral growth, if also for backsliding, and President Obama is increasing the chances that God will see a burst of growth in the future. It says so--if you read between the lines--in the Bible.

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Nonzero, The Moral Animal, and, most recently, The Evolution of God.