In the following posts I plan to take each of the basic points I wrote about in posts 1 and its addendum and discuss them in light of my general issue, my fear for my country. Some of the first few points I have covered at length in my teaching and in more than one previous post and so I will touch on them lightly.
However, if I leave your questions unanswered, please feel free to question me. David did and I had to rethink my start in the addendum. Your questions and comments are welcome.
1) God created all things in love and because of love.
Because both modern liberal and conservative Christianity sees salvation as a heavenly reward which people only receive in heaven there is little sense of the significance of creation in God’s overall salvation plan. That God intended for people and all created beings to enjoy life together in creation in peace, harmony and joy is usually lost in modern theology, whether right-wing or left.
That God created in love is generally understood but not why. Hence, the importance of what we do all day, every day, in creation has no intrinsic purpose within much of modern Christianity. Whether within the liberal or conservative tradition, creation is seen as the booster stage on a rocket, the material which is sloughed off as the space ship leaves earth’s gravity. It is likely that God will have wonderful things for us, his earthly creatures to do all over the universe once we come into his glory. At first, however, our task is to be faithful in the not-so-little thing of care-fully tending our tiny corner of creation, what we call “earth.” Personally, no-matter how far from earth I someday travel, the earth will always be my home.
2) Human beings misused their power very early on in their life on earth. They rebelled against their creator.
After all, it was on the earth that we rebelled, it is the earth which we have despoiled and it will be to the earth that our savior and lord will return with a shout and a trumpet to make all things new. We will be in his entourage, his clouds of angels and saints.
3) Many millennia ago, empire was developed as a relatively secure but oppressive way of organizing a society by aggregating power in one person or, more rarely, in a group of persons.
It was Walter Brueggemann who first observed that Israel had always lived in the shadow of an empire. Given that, when we read Israel’s law in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, we should not be surprised to discover push-back against many customs and traditions which were typical of the empires of the Egyptians as well as the Canaanites and Hittites. Israel is warned repeatedly in Torah not to go after the ways of the local people when they come into their land nor to return to the ways, the practices of the Egyptians. Ways like sleeping with your sister or mistreating your animals or cutting down all the local trees during times of war. The prohibition against squaring off the shape of one’s beard was a way of calling upon Israel to not even look like the people of the evil empires around them.
The Beginnings of Empire
The empires which Israel was tempted to emulate were aggregate kingdoms. Like the farmer who wanted all the land around his, they had begun as kingdoms which had conquered a nearby kingdom and then another and another, until they had amassed territory which was more than their king could control. It was at that point that such kings-of-kings began to leave the governments of the kingdoms they conquered intact. Rather than absorbing the more distant kingdoms, they subjected their rulers to treaties, oppressive covenants through which they absorbed the wealth of each vassal nation without absorbing the client kingdoms themselves. In this way, empires were always based on violence. The emperor and his community became wealthy at the expense of those they conquered.
Such empires, at least in the second millennium, BC, usually portrayed themselves as the saviors of the nations which they so humbled. Like the language we find in our Old Testament, the emperors wrote treaties in which they explained to the conquered nation all about how they had been liberated and now should gratefully do what their new suzerain king and his gods told them to do.
In the ancient high-king treaties obeying the high king generally meant turning over so many hins of oil and so many ephahs of barley and wheat to the empire every year. Israel’s treaty with its conqueror, Yahweh was unique precisely because Yahweh meant to prosper Israel and make the nation great rather than strip it of its resources. It is in this sense that I mean every run-of-the-mill empire proclaimed a false gospel, bad news disguised as good news. We might say these treaties were rife with ancient propaganda.
What is more, empires always set up political, social and economic structures in the home country and in their conquered territories which sought to impede anything but the most limited forms of self-rule. Again, by contrast, God initiated in Israel a political system in which the people chose their own leaders, not in perpetuity but for a single generation: no hereditary and perpetually growing wealth and power within one family from generation to generation, no king and no aristocracy: that is the way of God.
So why would people prefer living under a king rather than have self-rule? The people of Israel, because of their often inadvertent and but sometimes willful ignorance of the precepts of God’s law, had much trouble from God for many decades after they came into the land of promise. Leviticus 26 and the chapters 28-30 in the covenant renewal document, Deuteronomy, had been given as specific descriptions for how great life would be claimed and maintained if the people adhered to the law. These chapters also laid out in detail how increasingly difficult life would become in the land if they returned to the patterns of life of the empires around them. Yet having endured God’s discipline for generations, the elders of Israel finally came to judge, prophet and Nazarite priest, Samuel to ask him to ask God for a king to rule over them.
Israel had misunderstood. They thought their chaotic and insecure lives for many decades had been because they did not have a strong central government like the other nations rather than because they had failed to follow the clear stipulations of Torah. Israel therefore chose the “security” of a monarchy over the freedom and power of fledgling self-rule. In fact, the kings, first Saul and then David, did subdue the nations around Israel. Yet, rather than bringing those nations into the blessings of their covenant with Israel’s God, they left those nations to the devises of their own wretched gods.
Israel, the Little Empire?
In fact, Israel bled the nations they conquered just like any evil empire always did. Israel, which was conquered by God to be blessed and was “blessed to be a blessing” to all the nations of the earth, did not bless the nations under their authority. Rather, they left those nations under the organized forms of evil which they had known before they were conquered. And then, under King Solomon, the royal tribe of Judah began to treat all the other tribes of Israel and all the foreigners who had come to be a part of Israel as though they too were conquered nations! And then the tribes of Israel rebelled, with God’s approval! Through Israel’s tribes’ rebellion and secession, God broke the power of a powerful, oppressive little empire. Not for very long would God allow those who were called by his name to do injustice by behaving like the nations they were failing to bless!
God’s Vision: Self Rule for Justice’ Sake
Looked at in this way, we can see that it was the intention of God that Israel become a people free of the domination of tyrants. Moreover, it was the plan of God that all nations would be so blessed. And it was to be through Israel’s example that others would “beat their swords into plowshares… and not learn war any more.”
In its long history, Israel was caught up again and again in the very ways of doing things from which they had been raised up by God to turn the nations. Israel was to so influence the nations that they would seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly before Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth. They were to be the evangelists of the good ways of Yahweh for all the earth. Yet Israel had to be broken and scattered because every time they gained power and independence they returned to the practices of empire in their treatment of foreigners as well as of each other.
Post #3: more on Israel and the empires of the second temple period.