Saturday, 27 July 2013

Surviving the Empire

Finkelstein and Silberman suggest that the glories of the Israelite kingdom of David and Solomon are greatly exaggerated.  They say the archaeological evidence points to a small territory with a tiny population of limited literacy, and that the united kingdom of Israel and Judah is unlikely to be historical.

They may or may not be right.  I'm hardly qualified to judge.  However, even if the biblical accounts are scrupulously accurate, they were of little help to the Jews who wrote the books of the Apocrypha.  For them these kingdoms were so long ago, and so far from the realities of their lives, that all they provided was a memory of past greatness and a dream of a possible future.


The big problem they faced in their day was this: How do you survive a dominant and often hostile empire?  For most of Israel's ancient history, including the period of the later kings and prophets and the period of the Apocrypha, the Middle East was dominated by a succession of powerful, aggressive empires - the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians and finally in Jesus' day the Romans.  In the face of these threats, the Davidic kingdom had a precarious foothold on the hills of Judaea and was finally destroyed in the 6th century BCE.  After that the Jews, whether living as foreigners in the great centres of the successive empires or as a small community in Judaea, were part of an empire with very different values to their own.  Even when the Hasmoneans managed to set up a tiny independent Jewish state in the second century it was constantly threatened by more powerful neighbours, and in any case most Jews didn't live there.

The three Apocryphal books I've reviewed so far provide three different strategies for living with the empire - resistance, endurance and creative engagement.  The common bedrock of each of these strategies is that the Jews must remain themselves.  They must continue to be the people of God, and remain faithful to Yahweh whatever pressure is put on them to abandon him.  For all these writers, and for the writers of the Old Testament and Apocrypha in general, assimilation is not an option.  However, simple faithfulness is not enough - they also need a strategy.

The first option, provided by Judith, is that of resistance.  The tiny Israelite nation (perhaps the Hasmonean kingdom in disguise) and the town of Bethuliah (which may stand for Jerusalem) are surrounded by an enemy of overwhelming power, and they seem likely to be crushed.  They cannot hope to win a pitched battle, and they have limited ability to survive a siege.  Judith's answer is that you need to be cunning.  You need to entice and trick your enemy, and then behead him.  You need to find your enemy's weakness - in this case, Holofernes' lust - and exploit it for all it is worth.  If you do this, against a background of faithful worship and with God's help, you may just be victorious.

Alternatively, you may not, as Jewish history shows.  You may fail, or your own sin may find you out, and you may be conquered and dispersed.  This is where the other two strategies come in.  The first, the strategy of Tobit, is simply to endure.  Tobit and his son Tobias do their best to remain faithful to God in the capital of their enemies, but within these bounds they keep their heads down and mind their own business.  They keep faith with each other in money matters, they marry judiciously and have children in order to rebuild their kin group, and they leave the empire to go its way.  With God's help they will survive despite their hardships.

This is a practical ethic for ordinary people.  Not many of us get to influence the course of empire, either to transform it or destroy it.  The best we can manage is to do right in our own sphere and leave the rest to God. 

Yet sometimes these opportunities do come our way, and the author of Esther seems to be suggesting that when they do we should take them and engage creatively with the empire.  Indeed, Esther and Mordecai make some difficult choices along this path.  Mordecai spends his days at the gates of the royal palace, a place of influence where public business was conducted.  The clear implication is that he is a leader of his people, and that he is actively operating within the imperial system.  When he has the choice of saving the emperor or abetting his assassins he chooses the former even though this is not obviously the best choice.

Nor is it obvious that Esther should really make the kind of concerted effort she does to become queen.  After all, what sane woman would want to be wife to Ahasuerus?  Yet both she and Mordecai make the choice in favour of the empire, and soon it becomes clear why.  When Haman succeeds in persuading Ahasuerus into an act of genocide against the Jews, there are two Jews in powerful positions within his court - one to whom he owes a debt, another who is his consort - and between them they are able to intervene at court to prevent the slaughter and save their people. 

This strategy is not without risk.  It is dangerous to be faithful to God in the royal court.  Mordecai's refusal to bow to Haman places not only himself but his whole people at risk.  In order to advocate for her people Esther must break the imperial law and risk her own execution.  The shadow of the gallows Haman has built hangs over both of them.  The risks are real, but if they do not act the faithfulness of God in allowing them influence will be wasted.  With power comes both risk and responsibility.

We also live in an age of empires - both national and corporate.  They often clothe themselves in benevolence and peace, but when it comes down to it they will be ruthless and exploitive.  We have no choice but to live with them, but we must never sell our souls to them. 

At times we must resist them, and do our best to bring them down.  At other times all we can do is endure, do right in our sphere and wait for the times to change.  At times we can influence them, and it is not wrong to seek this influence provided that we use it to protect the innocent, not to facilitate their continued exploitation and destruction.  None of these alternatives is right or wrong in itself - we need to use our own discernment before God to know which is appropriate for our time and place. 

Above all, we must never lose hope.  Despite appearances, God is with us and can act through us, if only we will let him.

2 comments:

Andrew said...

I love your stuff Jon. I often don't agree with your theism, but I appreciate your insights, I always gain a new perspective, and you have an excellent writing style.

Jon Eastgate said...

Thanks Andrew. I like to think an atheist reading of these texts is quite possible - if you removed the references to God you could still learn a lot from these books about how to respond to imperialism.