Just say "No!" to oversimplification!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

And What More Is the Bible Saying? Redemption II

For the Israelites to ask for a king was another fall from innocence -- initially relying on God to provide leadership, the elders now want to control the process of choosing leaders. No longer an example to other nations, they become another example of our mistakes, an example which is to acquire immense influence through the sacred books they will someday write.

It is not an example we are meant to emulate, though that's how many people will interpret the story: "God gave them an hereditary monarchy; therefore that's the kind of government God intends us to have." But if you read between the lines, the Israelite monarchy is a disaster from beginning to end. We've already seen the pitfalls of an hereditary priesthood; we've seen that making the role of Judge hereditary also fails with Samuel's sons -- that's why the elders say he should choose them a war leader. They want their leader to be God's choice -- Yet as God tells Samuel, "It is not you they are rejecting, but Me."

If they truly trusted God, they would have the leaders they deserve. So far as they already distrust God, they are getting the leaders they deserve -- Samuel's corrupt sons. We, too, get the government we collectively deserve, yet we, too, imagine that changing a few leaders and improving a few laws will bring us a better government.

Saul chooses Saul -- a strapping, good-looking young man, nobody of any particular rank or prestige -- and once Saul anoints him the Spirit of YHWH 'comes mightily upon him.' Even so, Saul soon reverts to normal consciousness, trusting God in theory but in practice showing anxiety, as if everything depended on his own initiative. When Samuel shows up late to an impending battle, Saul performs a sacrifice to 'entreat God's favor.' To us, this looks like a minor breach of protocol -- Previous war leaders, 'Judges' chosen spontaneously by God, had offered sacrifices. Samuel is the current such Judge, not Saul; so we can understand him feeling personally stepped-upon; but why should God object? Those leaders had been inspired by their faith in God; but Saul's rationale is: "I said, 'Now the Philistines will come down upon me at Gilgal, and I have not entreated the favor of the Lord,' so I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering." Saul does not pray to seek God's will; to sacrifice from that consciousness would have shown faith. He isn't Told to sacrifice, but instead he gets anxious about what might go wrong, wants to control matters personally.

That sort of orientation is one significant interpretation of what it means, for someone 'to know Good from Evil.'

David, the founder of the next Israelite dynasty, gets a very good press; the priestly scribes of his court clearly favor him. Saul is said to have massacred 'the priests of the Lord' because he suspected them of aiding David; and the lone survivor takes refuge with David's band. Unlike Saul, David 'inquires of the Lord' before major decisions. [This does not seem to mean praying for guidance, however, but having this priest perform some kind of divination.] David's rivals typically die under suspicious circumstances; but David has nothing to do with it, except sometimes to summarily execute a perpetrator. He is credited with killing Goliath; the story has it that it happens when David is an unknown boy -- but somehow is already King Saul's armor bearer (a prestigious job for a powerful, trusted professional warrior.) The patchwork story we're given about this simply won't fit together -- and in 2 Samuel 22:18 Goliath is killed again by David's servant Elhanan. It's likely the Psalms attributed to David were likewise written by subordinates. (Although Henry VIII did write a popular drinking song, it's less common for rulers to be poets than for them to take credit for work done on their behalf.)

The one truly rotten act David's scribes do admit is him taking Uriah's wife and having Uriah killed in battle. This is merely an offence against a foreigner, not one against an Israelite -- and it is incidentally crucial for establishing Solomon's right to the throne. Solomon, when he comes to power, kills everyone his father had promised to spare -- and institutes forced labor for all Israelite tribes except Judah. Slavery to a king, years after God freed their ancestors in Moses' time, has once again become a feature of Israelite life.

When Solomon's spoiled son becomes king in Jerusalem, the tribes of northern Israel complain and ask him to reduce their burden. Listening to his cronies' advice, he refuses -- and the country splits into two rival kingdoms. This may seem to be a misfortune -- but what it accomplishes, by creating two Yahwehist Israelite regimes, is to prevent the tyranny a unified rule could impose. The priests of the Temple in Jerusalem attempt to centralize the nation's religious observances there; the regime in Samaria maintains rival shrines at the two ends of its area, removes the family-membership requirements for priests.

In both regions, over time, wealth in land becomes concentrated, the poor are gradually forced into debt and slavery; prophets wax indignant and warn their rulers that God won't let this go on. Jerusalem, a natural fortress, holds out about 100 years more than the northern kingdom, ruled from Samaria. The Judeans later claim that the native Samaritans were taken away by their Assyrian conquerors, who replaced them with foreign heathens; Samaritans have books which claim instead that they're good Israelites who've been there since that upstart David introduced those silly innovations down in Jerusalem.

When the Judean elite return from exile to rule on behalf of their Persian supporters, they've acquired a heavy emphasis on ethnic purity and maintaining the Temple cult, which they re-establish as soon as possible. The hostility which develops almost immediately between this group and the Samaritans is still festering in Jesus' day. The Galileans, conquered and subjected to 'the laws of the Judeans' about 100 years before Jesus, were yet another group of Israelites whose customs and legal interpretations varied significantly from theirs.

None of this seems to have relieved any significant numbers of people from death, alienation from God, or the curse of toil. For a peasant farmer, taxes and tithes and tribute all work much the same, forever threatening you with hunger and the need to borrow. Whatever the Law says, the generous neighbor who helps you out will some day own your sons and your daughters and your ancestral land. Whatever the institutional arrangements, as long as  people are estranged from God, fear corrupts the relations between people.

Neither Christians nor Jews are satisfied with the situation at the end of the Hebrew Bible. As Nehemiah tells his adherents: "Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that Thou gavest to our fathers to enjoy its fruits and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom Thou hast set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our cattle at their pleasure, and we are in great distress."

In Judaism, the Messiah will come and all will be well, when the world is ripe. In Christianity, the world was ripe, and the Messiah already came -- but it still looks like some things could use a little improvement. In both cases, we're still waiting for something. The original Quakers believed that Jesus really had returned, as Christ 'enlightening everyone who comes into the world' [Taking John 1:9 to the max] -- but also warned everyone that "The Day of the Lord will steal upon those who live without restraint upon earth; whose hearts are set to seek after wickedness, as for hidden treasure; and it will come upon them as a thief." They said, probably rightly, that the appearance of the Messiah was to be experienced spiritually rather than observed as a physical event -- but they too expected to see this manifested in a redeemed world, the imminent overthrow of all evil by what God was doing through their new spiritual movement.

We have people who feel that they, as individuals, have been 'redeemed,'  yet the general state of humanity and the world remains downright scary. Jesus says, at the end of 'Matthew', that "All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to me." But -- considering the current condition of the world -- What on Earth can this mean?

No comments:

Post a Comment

I can't promise to like all comments, but I do like getting them.

What do you feel like adding here?