The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’ – Part Two: Empires and Exiles…   Leave a comment

The Decline and Break-up of Israel:

Under the rule of David and Solomon, Israel was more than simply a united kingdom; the territories amounted to an empire. But, just as it would be a gross anachronistic error to equate an ancient empire, or kingdom, with a modern nation-state, it would also be wrong to confuse the multi-ethnic and multi-faith city of Jerusalem in the tenth century BC with a complex hub of government, administration and communications in the twenty-first century.  Modern capitals, and the ‘temples’ within them, are perhaps less ‘magical’ and ‘mystical’ than were ancient ‘capitals’, in an era in which the ideals of democracy are more important, and the exercise of power far less arbitrary. The idea of a city being ‘eternal’ in religious or cultural terms is not incompatible with it being a modern political capital, provided that both religious and political leaders of all traditions, identities and parties are able to demonstrate their mutual respect and shared loyalty to the city. The Old Testament prophets issued continual warnings to both kings and peoples not to persecute or exclude gentiles from the city and the temple courts. When they were ignored, they warned that what would result would be the destruction of Jerusalem, the desolation of its temple and the disintegration of its peoples.

The political history of Israel in the period 922-587 B.C. is characterised by increasingly rapid decline, punctuated by brief periods of partial recovery but ending in total annihilation. This fate befell not only Israel but all her neighbours as well. The rise of new centres of imperialism in Mesopotamia probably made this probable, but not inevitable. It was a process which was determined and accelerated by the foolish policies frequently pursued by the victims. Rehoboam (922-915), Solomon’s son and successor, chose to ignore the weakness of his position in the northern part of his kingdom, rejecting the demands for reform made by the northern tribes. All at once, the simmering resentment they felt at being ruled by Judaean, which had troubled both David and Solomon, boiled over into a full-scale insurrection. They declared their independence and selected Jeroboam, their former champion who had just returned from exile in Egypt, as their first king (I Kings 12. 1-20).

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The new kingdom took for itself the name of Israel, which had previously been used to designate the whole undivided kingdom. The remnant in the south, remaining loyal to the dynasty of David, became known as Judah. With this division, Jerusalem was no longer the capital of Israel, now divided into two independent kingdoms, bitterly hostile to each other, and so the era of the Israelite empire was over. Of the two kingdoms, Israel was both the larger and the more prosperous. It included most of the larger Canaanite cities, the main trade routes, and the best land on both sides of the Jordan. Judah, by comparison, was a small state in the hills, remote from the main roads and sources of wealth. This remoteness made it strategically and economically less important to the great empires which, in turn, enabled it to survive for more than a century longer than its northern neighbour.

Jeroboam made certain religious changes in an attempt to discourage the annual pilgrimages which his subjects continued to make, in spite of the political schism, to Jerusalem. He established two royal temples of his own at the ancient sanctuaries of Bethel and Dan, where the God of Israel had been worshipped for centuries. Here, as a kind of compensation for the ark, he set up golden bull images, not originally intended to represent pagan deities, but which later became centres of a debased, pagan worship (Hos. 8. 3 f.; 10.5; 13.2). At the beginning of the ninth century,  there were decades of open ‘civil’ war in the rump kingdoms of Palestine and Syria, with first Judah and then Israel allying with the Aramaean kingdom of Damascus to attack the other.

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Both countries were, however, to enjoy one final period of prosperity. Damascus, Israel’s traditional enemy, was destroyed by the Assyrian king in 802, and thereafter Assyria left Syria and Palestine in peace for half a century. During the long reigns of Jeroboam II (786-746) in Israel and Uzziah (783-742) in Judah, both countries made swift recoveries. Jeroboam recovered the whole of his northern and trans-Jordan territories at the expense of Damascus. Judah had already reconquered Edom in the early eighth century and went on to make further conquests (II Chronicles 26. 6-15). Taken together, the two kingdoms were almost as extensive as Solomon’s empire had been, but they remained as separate kingdoms. Later in the century, however, Hoshea, King of Israel, made the mistake of withholding tribute from the Assyrian throne of Shalmaneser (727-722), while at the same time making a treaty with a minor ‘king’ in Egypt. Shalmaneser attacked Israel in 724 and besieged its capital, Samaria. After two years, Samaria fell to Sargon II, succeeding Shalmaneser, and Sargon deported a large number of the inhabitants of Israel to other parts of his empire, replacing them with other ethnicities (II Kings 17. 5 f., 24). Judaean independence continued for more than a century until the defeat and death of Josiah by the Egyptians in 609. Judah again passed under foreign control, this time that of Egypt. With the defeat of the Egyptians by Nebuchadnezzar (605-562), at the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C., Judah fell into the hands of the Babylonians, but continued intrigues with the Egyptians, so that in 597 Nebuchadnezzar arrived in Judah and besieged Jerusalem, which surrendered to him. The young king of Judah was deported to Babylon together with a great number of the upper classes of Judaean society. Fresh intrigues with Egypt led the Babylonians to invade once more in 588, devastating the entire country and destroying its cities. In 587 Jerusalem itself was captured and destroyed, together with the temple. King Zedekiah, a puppet king, was forced to witness the execution of his sons and was taken to Babylonia with many of his people (II Kings 25. 1-21).

So, like the people of Israel following the Assyrian deportations in the previous century, the Judaean people were now also torn in two. It is difficult to say which was in the worse plight; the exiles in Babylonia, deprived, it seemed, of the hope of ever returning to their homes, or the wretched lower classes, left mainly to their own devices in a land devastated, its crops ruined and its houses destroyed, a prey to hunger and disease and to the depredations of wild beasts and of the Edomite tribes from the south who raided their land, anxious to gain revenge on their former oppressors.

God’s ‘Chosen People’ and the Returning ‘Remnant’:

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What so sharply distinguished the Jews from the other peoples of the ancient world was their attitude towards history and in particular towards their own role in history. The Jews were alone in combining an uncompromising monotheism with an unshakable conviction that they themselves were the Chosen People of the one true God. At least since the exodus from Egypt, they had believed that the will of Yahweh was concentrated upon on Israel, that Israel alone was charged with the realisation of that will. At least since the days of the Prophets, they had been convinced that Yahweh was no mere national god, however powerful, but the one and only God, the omnipotent Lord of History who controlled the destinies of all nations. There were many who, like the ‘Second Isaiah’, felt that divine election imposed a special moral responsibility upon them, an obligation to show justice and mercy in their dealings with all men, including the poor of their own nation. In their view, the divinely appointed task of Israel was to enlighten the Gentiles and so carry God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. But alongside this ethical interpretation, there existed another which became ever more attractive as the fervour of an ancient nationalism was subjected to the shock and strain of repeated defeats, deportations and dispersals. Precisely because they were so sure of being the Chosen People, Jews tended to react to peril, oppression and hardship by fantasies of the total triumph and boundless prosperity which Yahweh, out of his omnipotence, would bestow upon his Elect in the fulness of time.

Already in the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament, some of them dating from the eighth century BC, there were passages that foretold how out of an immense cosmic catastrophe, there would arise a Palestine which would be nothing less than a new Eden, Paradise Regained, to borrow from John Milton. Due to their neglect of Yahweh the Chosen People would have to be punished by famine and pestilence, war and captivity, they must indeed be subjected to a shifting judgement so severe that it would effect a clean break with a guilty past. There must indeed be a Day of Wrath when sun and moon and stars would be darkened, the heavens would be rolled together and the earth would be shaken. There must be a Judgement when the disbelievers – those in Israel who have not trusted in the Lord and also Israel’s enemies, the heathen nations, would be judged and cast down, if not utterly destroyed. But this would not be the end, a remnant would return from exile, and through that remnant, the divine purpose would be accomplished.

When the nation would be regenerated and reformed, Yahweh would cease from vengeance and become the Deliverer. The righteous remnant would be assembled once more in Palestine and Yahweh would dwell among them as ruler and judge. He would reign from a rebuilt Jerusalem, a Zion which has become the spiritual capital of the world, where wild and dangerous beasts have become tame and harmless. The moon will rise as the sun and the sun’s light will be increased sevenfold.  Deserts and wastelands will become fertile and beautiful. There will be an abundance of water and provender for the flocks and herds, for men, there will be an abundance of water, corn, water, fish and fruit; men and flocks and herds will multiply exceedingly. Freed from the disease and sorrow of every kind, doing no more iniquity but living according to the law of Yahweh now written in their hearts, the Chosen People will live in joy and gladness.

The dream of a ‘homeland’ in Palestine:

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In the period 312 to 63 BC, the Jewish people were involved in a struggle for a united, independent homeland, a period when the Palestinian Jews attempted to establish their own state and live according to their own religious conscience, while the Jews abroad were forced to work out for themselves how they should live and express their faith in order to bear clear witness to their faith in the alien, dominant Greek, or Hellenic culture around them. In the apocalypses of this period, which were directed to the lower strata of the Jewish population as a form of nationalist propaganda, the tone is cruder and more boastful than in the earlier literature. This was already striking in the earliest apocalypse of the period, the vision or dream which occupies Chapter VII of the Book of Daniel and which was composed about the year 165 BC, at a particularly critical moment in Jewish history. For more than three centuries, since the end of the Babylonian exile, the Jews in exile had enjoyed a measure of peace and security, at first under Persian, later under Ptolemaic rule; but the situation changed when, in the second century BC, Palestine passed into the hands of the Syro-Greek dynasty of the Seleucids.  From 198 BC, Palestine belonged to the Seleucids, taking their name from Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s officers who had established himself as ruler over the eastern part of Alexander’s empire in 312 BC and by 301 had gained most of what is part of Turkey, as well as Antioch in Syria, which he named as his capital. Seleucus’ rival was Ptolemy, who had annexed Palestine following Alexander’s death, starting a struggle between ‘the kings in the north’ and ‘the kings in the south’, as described in chapter 11 of the Book of Daniel.

For nearly a century Palestine had been the battleground between these opposing forces and was frequently conquered and reconquered until the Seleucid Antiochus III took all Palestine, concluding a treaty with Ptolemy V. There had been Jews in Egypt since the time of Jeremiah (Jer. 43, 5ff.), and in 312 BC, Ptolemy I had settled captives in Alexandria, where they were greatly influenced by the Greek way of life. Ptolemy II had had the Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek for the benefit of the new Greek-speaking Jews of the city. Judea itself was also influenced by the Hellenistic way of life, founded on the Greek polis (city), with its urban civilisation and tradition of training young men in athletic prowess and literary skills. The Jews were bitterly divided, for while the worldly upper-classes eagerly adopted Greek manners and customs, the common people clung all the more resolutely to the faith of their forefathers.

In 169 BC, Antiochus IV campaigned in Egypt, aiming to extend and unify his kingdom by including Judaea.  When the Seleucid monarch tried to intervene on behalf of the pro-Greek party and went so far as to forbid all Jewish religious observances, the response was the Maccabean revolt. Antiochus proclaimed himself by title Epiphanes meaning ‘God made manifest’. The Jews could never subscribe to this for their God was Yahweh, who had been their shield and saviour from earliest times. Upon hearing that Judaea was in revolt, Antiochus raided and took control of Jerusalem, plundering houses, desecrating the Holy of Holies in the Temple, rededicating it to Zeus, as well as profaning the fortress by setting up his own citadel overlooking the Temple (Dan. 11. 30). He then instituted a campaign to unify his empire and rid the region of all evidence of the Jewish faith, slaughtering large numbers of Jews in the process, whom he then left under a governor who was more barbarous than the man who appointed him (II Macc. 5. 22).  He also decreed in Palestine (I Macc. 1. 4ff.) that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs. He wrote to the Jews, directing them, on pain of death, …

… to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and feasts, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised.   

In the dream in the Book of Daniel, composed at the height of the revolt, four beasts symbolise four successive world-powers, the Babylonian, the (unhistorical) Median, the Persian and the Greek, the last of which shall be more diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. When this empire, in turn, was overthrown Israel, personified as the ‘Son of Man’,

… came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days… And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away… The greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven was given to the people of the saints of the most High…

This goes much further than any of the Prophets beforehand: for the first time, the glorious future kingdom is imagined as embracing not simply Palestine but the whole world. Already here one can recognise the paradigm of what was to become and to remain the central ‘fantasy’ of revolutionary eschatology. The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness, a power which is imagined not simply as human but as demonic. The tyranny of that power will become more and more outrageous, the sufferings of its victims more and more intolerable, until suddenly the hour will strike when the Saints of God are able to rise up and overthrow it. Then the saints themselves, the holy, chosen people who hitherto have groaned under the oppressor’s heel, will, in their turn, inherit dominion over the whole earth. This will be the culmination of history; the Kingdom of the Saints will not only surpass in glory all other previous kingdoms, it will have no successors.  It was thanks to this dream that Jewish apocalyptic, through its derivatives, held such a fascination for the discontented and frustrated of later ages, and continued to do so long after the Jews themselves had forgotten its very existence.

(to be continued…)

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