Saturday, April 17, 2010

Who's Afraid of Old Testament History?

Over the last few months, I've been reading through the historical books of the Old Testament, starting with I Samuel. This is a part of the Bible which many people avoid for two oddly contrasting reasons. First, it seems entirely pointless for Christians to re-hash all the history of Israel thing again. Isn't it just one damned thing after another, complete with interminable lists? Second, they're really offensive to our sensibilities what with the miracles, massacres (sometimes to the point of genocide) and ugly court politics which characterized the days when Israel stood as a kingdom on the earth. Thus, one is faced with books which will either put your to sleep or outrage you, so why would you bother?

So, why am I bothering?

Well, for one thing, I'm an inveterate historian. What's worse, I'm interested not so much in the history as the writing of history. Back in my grad student days, my main field of interest was Roman historiography and its connection with Roman identity. If history serves as a culture's memory, what is remembered and how something is remembered becomes crucial questions in determining how a culture thinks about itself. Like many cultures, history taught the Romans what it meant to be Romans by looking back on what seemed to exemplify the Roman-ness (or lack thereof) of one's ancestors. Thus, what we choose to remember and to value is central to what we seek to replicate and imitate today. This is true of Rome just as it is true of ancient Israel or, appearances to the contrary, even ourselves.

A second reason why I'm bothering is that, these days, what I'm most interested in is what it means to be a Christian historian both today and in the patristic era. There is, of course, no doubt that the Graeco-Roman historiographical tradition is central to understanding the emergence of church history in the fourth century AD., but I can't help but wonder if we're missing something when we restrict our consideration of Christian church historians to this set of influences. How does the historical books of the Bible contribute to the invention of a Christian historiography or, for that matter, the political ideology of Christendom? I don't know if anyone has explored this, but, if one is to start, one has to start with the sources. So, ad fontes, folks, ad fontes! And, here, I mean all the sources, not just those convenient to our sensibilities.

And a last reason is that I'm fascinated by the charting of the history of the kingdom of Israel. It has always intrigued me, for instance, that the establishment of the kingship in Israel was marked by one of the more prescient political analyses of the nature of kingship that I know. God, through Samuel, gives Israel the king it asks for, but not before He warns Israel what kingship really meant.

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take
your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to
run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of
thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to
reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his
chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and
bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive
orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain
and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will
take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle
* and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.
18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have
chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

All of his amounts to 'Fine, you can have a king, but you'll. And so it proves. Even the great kings of Israel, David and Solomon, proved imperfect and their reigns burdensome. David was a 'man of blood' and an adulterer, who knocked off his rival. He dared to have a census of his army, offending God whose help he was supposed to rely on. He was forced to kill his own son, who rebelled against him. And, Solomon. Yes, he was wise and built the Temple, but he was uxorious, idolatrous and the burden of his building projects was so heavy that most of Israel broke into rebellion after his death when his successor refused to ease up. And this sets aside the kings of Israel and Judah who were, on the whole, rather a bad lot, worshipping false gods and oppressing the godly and weak. In the historical books, we find God intervening time and again to point out the corruption of the political process. The ultimate end of this sorry tale is the exile- the eradication of Israel/Judah as a political entity, even as the religious/cultural entity of Israel continued.

All of this makes me wonder if what we are meant to see in the debacle that was the kingdom of Israel is the insufficiency of our efforts at controlling our lives in this world. That is, while I believe that God used the kingdom of Israel for his purposes, I believe that what we are expected to learn is that we aren't good enough to manipulate the world on our efforts alone. Israel did best when it abandoned its own 'wisdom' and 'power' and listened to the power and wisdom of God. God's interventions in favour of Israel are less common than one would think when one remembers Israel's election, but they are not less decisive or surprising. Time and again, Israel routs its enemies with little or no effort when it relies on God alone. Yet, time and again, it refuses to trust God alone. The result is failure and collapse.

Honestly, I don't know what to do this lesson. Yet, there is a a strong warning in these books about relying too much the power politics of the day. Many of the decisions of the kings of Israel really did make sense politically in their day- concessions to the cults of other gods kept those gods and their supporters onside, the oppressive political and economic policies of Israel's kingship were 'necessary evils' to maintain the trappings of Near Eastern kingship without which one just wasn't considered a player or worthy of respect. Yet, what God called Israel to do was radical reliance on God alone which meant an uncompromising faith in God and justice, God help us, justice! If the failure of Israel's political experiment signals the failure of human self-reliance, I can't help but wonder if it doesn't, also, signal the anticipation of the success of God's Kingdom to come. That we have failed, I think, is clear enough. That God won't is central to our hope as Christians.

So, I'm still struggling my way through the historical books. Yet, even as I'm wadding through list upon list of people we can never know anything about past their names and their jobs in the Temple of Solomon, I'm watching for God's footprints. I wonder what would happen if we did the same, when we read our newspapers or watch the evening news. God acted in the life of Israel and, I think, He acts now- just not the way we expect or, necessarily, even want. God's word to those of us who live in the modern-day West today is unlikely to be comforting or comfortable just as it was rarely comfortable for the kings of Israel.


1 comment:

Patrik said...

Have you read O'Donovans book "The Desire of the Nations"? It has a really good chapter on this question. His point is basically that there are two lines of thought on the monarchy woven together in these narratives, that create quite a unique doctrine (if that is the right word) on the kingship of God. I have read far to little on the Old testament, but this is probably on of the best texts on it i have read.