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Biblical History in a Nutshell

by Berry Friesen (March 27, 2015)

Early in their recorded history (10th century BCE), an imperial vision captivated the Israelites.  Not all were persuaded by that vision; whoever wrote Exodus was not, for example.  But according to the leading view, Israel was to be an empire in its own right. If YHWH is above all other gods, then YHWH’s people should rule the roost.

The prophet Samuel is said to have objected.  Later on, at great risk to themselves, the prophets Hosea and Micah did too.

But Isaiah, the palace advisor to kings, affirmed the imperial vision.  “On that day,” he prophesied, “Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth” (Isa. 19:24).  It is astonishing to read a biblical text that groups the people of YHWH with the brutal empires of Assyria and Egypt.  But there it is, reflecting a theology that conflates the Creator’s blessings with imperial power.

In what some passages call the “judgment of God,” the imperial vision ended in the defeat and destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and the destruction of southern kingdom’s temple and capital city (Jerusalem) in 586 BCE.  In a way, those events vindicated Hosea and Micah and their anti-imperial theology.

Their successors in the prophetic tradition struggled to articulate a vision for Israel’s new political reality, one that included the scattered Jews of the diaspora as well as those living in rebuilt Jerusalem and across Canaan.

For Ezekiel, it entailed the restoration of what had been lost, albeit with one righteous king and a temple separated from royal manipulation and control.  For others (2nd and 3rd Isaiah, Zechariah, Joel, Daniel), it didn’t look anything like the past.  Chariots, war-horses and arms would not be needed, YHWH’s spirit would be showered on “all flesh,” authority would rest with the people (not the elite) and Israel would be a “light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon” (Isa. 42:6-7).

This Second Temple Era of Israel’s history began in 516 BCE and lasted until 70 CE. Israel had no king, no national borders, no army, but it did have a temple and a strong priestly tradition.  Some leaders (Ezra and Nehemiah are examples) played the imperial power game with great skill and gained powerful roles within the Persian, Greek and Roman empires.

Late in the Second Temple Era, Jesus of Nazareth came on the scene. He was no fan of imperial collaboration and spent his time in the rural countryside, far from Jerusalem and away from nearby towns with a strong Roman presence. He quoted Jewish scripture, sounded a bit like an anarchist and focused his attention on the oppressed and the marginalized.  In his one foray into Jerusalem as an adult, he subverted the legitimacy of the governing structures by creating a public processional around himself riding on a donkey and then briefly closed down temple commerce.

In response, leaders of the temple and the empire collaborated in his execution.

Jesus’ followers focused on urban centers where they created new bodies called “assemblies.” During their meetings, they celebrated the faith of Jesus, rejoiced in his resurrection from the dead, argued about their differences, talked about how to survive in imperial cities without taking part in imperial observances, and supported one another in practical ways.  They also anticipated the time when the empire would self-destruct.

This is the history the Bible recounts.  It reflects arguments we have today.  Along the way, it also reflects a search to understand who YHWH is and how YHWH acts.  By the way it concludes, the Bible subverts empire; affirms a new understanding of power; and endorses compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance to evil as the way to run the world.   This is wisdom and inspiration for a time such as ours.