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In the last posts I asserted that God, from the beginning had intended human beings to rule themselves through leaders whom they chose themselves, under the sovereignty of God. Yet, Israel squandered self-rule in favor of rule by a king; Israel traded its self-rule birthright for the presumption of security under a strong, central, hereditary monarch. Yet when the king began to do what autocratic leaders usually do and began to oppress the tribes of Israel, the northern tribes broke away and established a separate nation. I believe it was Godʼs will that the power of Israel was broken because God never wants his name identified with a people who systematically do injustice.
I will now look further at my basic beliefs while using Israelʼs history as an illustrative basis for my thinking.
4) Jesus came to save his creation from sin. Not in heaven later; now and forever “on earth as it is in heaven.”
In the second-temple period, from 516 BC to AD 70, Israel continued to imagine itself as a kingdom, ruled by priest-kings, which did violence against its enemies. The decentralized Persian Empire gave way to the Selucid Hellenist empire and Israel was pressured to give up all remaining traditions of Judaism. A “grass-roots” resistance movement began with a country priest, Matthias and his sons when the official leaders of Yehud (Judah) proved hopelessly compromised. Yet, once the Maccabean movement gained popularity it also went the way of imperial hierarchy and centralized power. The Maccabean/Hasmonaean kings of Judah continued the tradition of violent conquest and gave the spoils of their wars to their few favorites. They were no more disposed to return to the Torah wisdom of self-rule and jubilee economics than was the empire from which they wrested Israel by violence.
Two of the most foolish moves made by Hasmon priest-kings were to make a treaty with Rome and then later to rely on Rome to settle a dispute. By the time Rome stepped into a Jewish civil war between two Hasmon cousins it was clear to most of Israel that neither Hasmon prince deserved to rule. What they got instead was Rome! After many thousands of Jews were slaughtered, including 3000 who defended the Temple against the incursion of Roman General Pompey, the Jews found themselves under the rule of the Roman government.
For their part, the Romans found in the Jews the most “un-meltable” ethnic group they had ever encountered. After several years of continual unrest, Julius Caesar found in the Idumaean chieftain Antipater, a perfect candidate for Tetrarch (minor ruler) of Judaea, Samaria and Galilee. He was ruthless, a warrior and a proselyte Jew who knew his way around the strange vagaries of Jewish law and customs, matters over which the clueless Romans were constantly tripping in their ham-handed attempts to win Jewish hearts and minds for Rome.
When Antipater died his sons took up his rule. The elder son was murdered by the Parthians in 27 bc and the younger son fled to Rome where he was made “the king of the Jews” and given the troops he needed to drive out the Parthians. He did both. History knows him as Herod the Great.
Herod was a great student of Roman ways and even before he became king, when he was the governor of Galilee, he imposed classic Roman methods of subjugation upon the entire Jewish country-side. The Jews, for all the inequities of the Hasmon priest-kings, had maintained an unusually healthy middle class comprised of farmers and craftspeople.
Herod put an end to all that (and well he needed to from the Roman point of view). As I suggested in my “basic beliefs,” nothing is more dangerous to the aims of empire than a sizable and confident middle class. Some believe that unrest and revolution begin among the poor. Not at all. Those who are truly poor have been beaten down. They are always busy just trying to get by, to feed their families and find work, day to day.
Resistance to oppression comes from persons within a middle class who see their prerogatives and their numbers shrinking. Such a middle class (call them “The 99%”) has wit, energy and a sense of power. It is the middle class which must be hobbled if empire is to take root in any nation.
So Herod doubled the taxes on Galilean property, then he doubled them again and then again. When the people could no-longer pay the taxes his agents directed them to Herod’s money-lenders. And when they could not pay even the interest on the usurious loans they had taken out to pay their taxes, Herod settled each debt by indenturing the people and putting them to work as share-croppers, often living in what had formerly been their homes and raising crops for him on what had formerly been their land. By these means he humbled the sturdy Jewish middle class of Galilee in just one generation. And he made a lot of enemies and a lot of money.
The money Herod put to use in Jerusalem once the Romans made him king. He did what every king of Israel had been sworn to do; he built up, he magnified Jerusalem’s Temple. Yes, Herod lavished vast sums on renovating of the second temple on a scale never imagined even by Solomon. To make Godʼs temple the most exquisite and beautiful building in the entire world, Herod spent untold sums of money, blood money.
Note what I wrote about empire in the first post:
Empires shape the imaginations of their people to assume and suppose that all the answers to life are to be found within the “wisdom” and resources of the empire and, if it has substantive gods, its gods.
Herod humbled the people of God. He taught them it was natural to fear him and their Roman masters. He taught them he was their better, the one with all power, favored by God. Look at how God had favored him and at how he was honoring God in the Temple!
Were there some who resisted? There were many. Galilee after Herod’s “kind ministrations” became such a hotbed of resistance that the term “Galilean” became almost synonymous with “insurgent.”
Not all empires project their awe as deity; some function implicitly as deity, i.e., “The State” or metaphorically, as in, “the almighty dollar!”.
Herod directly enlisted Israel’s deity! Why, he gave God the glory for his power and put many in awe of him through the majesty of his gold and alabaster transformation of the Temple itself!
Does this fact add some depth for you to Jesusʼ declaration that the Temple had become a den of robbers?
There are many different forms of empire. Most are political but under some circumstances an empire might be economic or even ecclesiastical.
Herod’s empire was a tiny mirror image of Roman power. And like Rome, Herod used the God of Israel to legitimate his brutality and wholesale mayhem.
The trick to empire is to pull all possible societies and all parts of each society under oneʼs influence if not under direct control.
Rome did not need to control Judaea directly. A loyal man like Herod knew the Jews and was doing Rome’s work far better than they could have done it.
Empires naturally collect wealth, power and influence; what those with imperial designs take, they keep.
These words fit Rome and their Jewish puppet Herod to a tee.
As Joseph illustrates in Genesis 47, empires take, they do not buy; empires sell, they do not give away.
Like Joseph, working to subjugate the Egyptian people, probably at the behest of a Semite (Hyksos) Pharaoh, Herod did what the Romans were doing throughout their provinces; he was enslaving the people and reducing the middle class to a manageable number of insecure clients.
Life under empire is the opposite of Godʼs shalom-life, Godʼs open-handed generous life in his good creation.
Herod stripped from the Jews the last vestiges of Godʼs Torah/wisdom life. To be keepers of Godʼs way of good life one must be free, not bound to oneʼs former land by a contractual obligation which could never be satisfied.
Oh, how Israel needed its godly old jubilee bankruptcy law!
The Rule of King Jesus
It was into this situation that Jesus of Nazareth came, ministered, and proclaimed a new covenant, an agreement based on Godʼs rule for the sake of abundant human life. Jesus inaugurated a new creation, a world in which men and women, ruled from their hearts outward by God, would be free to decide their course together in communion with God.
It was with the dawning of such a “new way” that the kingʼs herald, St. Paul could declare neither male nor female ruled, no intrinsic difference existed any longer between Jews and Greeks and the master and slave hierarchy was transformed into a cooperative working relationship for the sake of all people.
Jesusʼ work of salvation began to change the societies of the “new way” people right then and there. That renewal of everything was what Jesus had declared was coming to earth, was “right around the corner,” the kingdom of God.
(A question for us “Modern Westerners” who have long accepted the dualisms of grace and nature, faith vs. reason; private religion vs. public politics: can we imagine the world of Jesusʼ time when no such distinctions existed? Only then can we understand why this way of thinking about salvation feels so strange to us. Only then can our imaginations break out!)
Next post, more on Jesusʼ salvation, the Roman empire and the end of Israel.