Biblical history from a progressive Christian standpoint.

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This is a Bible my son was given for his baptism, but when we study biblical history we tend to use my much more worn copy.I’ve been trying again to teach my children Biblical history. Our last attempt involved building a lot of block cities while talking about the various tribes that attacked the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the children have long-since forgotten the list, though the whole attempt helped me learn to keep them straight in my mind. We talked about empire and we talked about the idea of whether the people were going to try to form an alliance with one empire or another or whether they were going to have faith in God.

Now I’m getting ready to try again. We started with the patriarchs, telling and retelling their stories to attempt to get them straight, while talking about the way the patriarch’s might have understood the concept of the “God of my father.” Jacob and Laban’s treaty was concluded in the name of two gods – Jacob’s grandfather’s and Laban’s father’s god. At the same time they were doing that, Rachel was hiding the  household gods’ under a camel seat. We don’t know exactly what they meant but god at that time. Were the household god’s some sort of good luck charm or were they family heirlooms of sorts? Were they seen as the key to communicating with deity or as the deity itself?  We note that when others claimed Jacob’s water wells God was experienced as the good that led him to new water, but God was not a power to go in and fight off the enemies. It’s like they experienced God not in the impossible but their improbable success in a dangerous world.

I’m rereading A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period Volume I by Albertz right now. I had read it long, long ago for a religious studies class but now I’m reading it as I think about how I want to teach my children Bible history. I’m drawn to the idea that the pre-state religious experience was one of fierce independence and relative equality. The Biblical laws forbidding the giving up of family land or the joining of field onto field might have had to do with the deurbanization in late Bronze Age Palestine and a deliberate decision to avoid the sort of hierarchies that create empires.

The argument in Albertz is that a small group of people came from Egypt (bringing experiences that would later be written up as the Exodus experience).

In contrast to the state religions of the ancient Near East, which derive themselves from earliest mythical times, Yahweh religion has a historical foundation and did not from the beginning have the function of legitimate rule and stabilizing the existing social order. Rather, as the symbolic world of a social outsider group fighting for its right to life, it serves to provide internal solidarity for this group and to detach it from a social order which was felt to be unjust, in the direction of a future social integration which makes possible a freer and more equitable social life. This starting point explains the bias against domination, transcending present social circumstances, which was to become established time and again in the history of the Israelite religion.

According to Albertz the relatively small Exodus group arrived in Canaan at a time of social upheaval and their religious beliefs in Yahweh were melded with those of a group of local followers of El who had also chosen to abandon an unjust social system and try their hand as small farmers.

Already in its closing phase the highly-developed Canaanite city culture had undergone a certain decline which intensified the social rifts within it. However, the situation only became dramatic towards the end of the thirteenth century when, with the downfall of the Mycenaean world around 1200, Canaan was robbed of its most important trading partner, and the onslaughter of the Sea Peoples, who overran the once powerful Hittite kingdom and devastated Syria, also steadily weakened Egyptian supremacy in Palestine and the Canaanite city states dependent upon it. A large number of Late Bronze Age cities in Palestine were destroyed shortly before or after 1200 BCE in connection with this economic and political destabilization. There were revolts against Egypt in which according to the famous victory stele of Merenptah, dated 1219, not only the Canaanite cities of Ashkelon, Gezer and Jeno’am, but also an entity ‘Israel’, characterized as a people, took part. Merenptah was still able to quell such revolts, and Ramses III succeeded once again bringing Palestine under his control for a short period, but around 1150 the Egyptian supremacy over Palestine finally collapsed. The consequence was that the Canaanite city states with their Late Bronze Age culture could only assert a lesser domination in the coastal plain, the Shephelah and the plain of Jezreel – in places with the sphere of influence of the Philistines, who had entered the land with the Sea Peoples. In the meantime, from about 1250 on a large number of new village settlements came into being, mostly away from the old city centres, in Galilee, the hill country west and east of the Jordan, and in northern Negeb. Their inhabitants tilled the hilltops which had been overgrown with scrub, and constructed terraces and impermeable cisterns; these techniques first made it possible to farm the hill-country.

They did not conquer but joined with the local tribes in Canaan which had chosen to break away from the cities and create a more equal, independent way of life. Military participation was voluntary, based on individuals believing in the cause. Why then does the Bible describe the conquests or that God wanted them to perform mass murder against all the inhabitants of Canaan? Was it, as Norman K. Gottwald describes “as soon as the Canaanite lower classes converted and left the city-state structure with its official Ball religion, they no longer self-identified or viewed by others as Canaanites. The term Canaanite came to refer to city-state hierarchical structures with its concomitant religious dieology of Baalism, that continued in the cities of the plains and tended to creep back into Israel as revolutionary fervor abated.” (Gottwald 275)  Was it partly written in by post-exilic writers struggling with the return to a territory that was not waiting empty for them but filled with those who were left behind? Was it Deuteronomic writers trying to justify the harshness of the Josaihic reforms? Definitely while I rejoice in the glimmers of potential struggles for a just, equitable society in the midst of a world of empires, I remember that they were not all lovey-dovey peaceful either. If they were people trying to find a different way of life they were doing so within the reality of our imperfect world.

Once settled in the land of Canaan the success of a military venture was believed to come from the spirit of Yahweh coming upon a leader giving the leader the charisma to pull the people together to join in defending their tribes and in guiding the leaders towards tricks and strategies to allow them to defeat a more organized technologically advanced opponent (like leading chariots into bogs, or using yelling and shouting to confuse the enemy). Giving credit to Yahweh helped prevent any leader from claiming authority and becoming a power over the others in the tribe.

Since Yahweh … himself occupied the place of ruler, he prevented the misuse of the union of all political and military forces in solidarity to establish a central political authority.

God is ruler, so no other person could claim that role. I’ve read arguments that the term “Jesus is Lord” or even “Jesus is the son of God” played a similar function, denying the title of the most powerful to the Emperor (because the Emperor was ‘son of god’) and claiming it for a symbol of justice and non-empire instead. The monarchy challenged that.

The court theologians made Yahweh, who had once been the symbol of liberation from state opression, the guarantor of a state power which built up new mechanisms of oppression, not only of alien peoples (wars of expansion) but also of its own society (forced labour). Here there was direct opposition to the original impulse, and here Yahweh religion succumbed to the domination of political power and became an ideology in thestrict sense of the word.

If I had the extra hours I wish I had, I would try to gather together some of the different examples of how Christianity is used today to justify either freedom from oppression or oppression itself. I think in Canada and in the United States many of the most vocal Christians are promoting an oppressive ideology, and that’s part of why more moderate Christians are afraid to speak out. While the name of Christ serves oppression we fear saying it will perpetrate that oppression. Is it possible to redeem it?

In the pre-state time most justice was decided by the elders gathered at the gate.

Implementation of the judgement of the court depended upon being accepted by the parties. Casuistic law which developed here as customary law was therefore built up on the idea of legal retribution, of making good; its aim was to restore a balance of interests between the families in dispute which would be acceptable on all sides and thus restore peace in the village.

What would justice be like now if there was no force of coercion? What if justice had to be agreed upon? I think about the anarchist accountability processes I’ve read about for dealing with problems of sexual aggressors within groups. Murder and a few other things were not dealt with ‘by the gate’ but through blood-revenge, with those guilty of homicide but not murder able to seek sanctuary in the scared places.

I like reading about the  possibilities and trying to understand what their viewpoints might of been. I try to guess at how they might have understood the idea of Yahweh or El. There are so many words used today which have great meaning but yet undefined meaning, over which we will fight and into which people put their trust – words like equality, democracy, freedom, curiosity. Could Yahweh have been an ideal like one of those, or did they necessarily see him as an active supernatural being? Nothing so far in the Albertz book really clarifies that.

I’m fascinated by the idea that the story of Moses leading the people out of Egypt might have been partially written in response to king Solomon’s forced labour of his own people, justifying the rebellion of the northern kingdom against his son. To me the Bible loses all depth and meaning if it is taken simply as “the word of God for all time” and it gains so much depth and meaning if one acknowledges that it contains all different viewpoints. No longer is the struggle to reconcile contradictory ideas but to examine the many voices of political/theological thought preserved.

I like also the idea that in times when history was carved out on stone monuments by the victors  a strange group of relatively powerless people managed to preserve some of their teachings, texts that posed alternatives to the dieties of the empires around them. I wish other voices had been kept. What about the texts of the people who revolted against David promoting his son Absalom? I wonder what their texts would have been like. What about all the other tribes whose names are preserved in lists of conquerored people only. What were the voices left out of the Biblical history?

 

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