Doomed to Repeat
Remember the flap in Montclair not too long ago when it came out that the
mayor's wife was secretly a minion of Pat Robertson, a local organizer for
his political action group the Christian Coalition? Gee, wouldn't you have
thought all the enlightened citizens of this fair community would have
rejoiced at the fact of a woman, a wife, being politically active--like
Hillary Clinton? But that wasn't the reaction at all. Instead people were
horrified. They regarded Pat Robertson's followers, as I do, as the Armies
of the Night, an intolerant juggernaut whose pious pro-family rhetoric is
the flip side of intolerance for those who do not conform to a set of
Nineteenth Century moral and social standards and Sixteenth Century
religious beliefs. We may be wrong to think this, but we cannot be blamed.
When Pat Robertson makes radical statements expecting to be taken
seriously by his followers, he cannot expect us, his opponents, not to
take them seriously, too.
One of the most frightening things about the prospect of a Pat Robertson
presidency (or that of anyone like-minded) is his well-known policy of
making his twisted interpretations of Bible prophecy the basis for foreign
policy. But this is quite common in the Anglo-American tradition, thanks
to the widespread influence of Dispensational Premillennialism. I won't
bore you by explaining that doctrine, but the punch line is the belief
that Christ will return soon and that just before he does, there has to be
a Russian invasion of Israel. Maybe a nuclear exchange, depending on who
you ask. And if you think that's God's will, who are you to stand in his
way? Like the framers of the British Balfour Declaration, you might even
try to hasten things along a bit. Get the stage set.
It is a will-o'-the-wisp, and a dangerous one, to set policy by prophecy,
because either the biblical prophecies are specifically aimed at ancient
events long over, and thus obsolete, or like Nostradamus' riddles, they
are completely obscure and can be "interpreted" only by ventriloquism.
It makes far more sense to me, if you want historical-political
understanding from the Bible, to look not to the future but rather to the
past, not to prophecy but to history. And this is because history
becomes prophecy if you don't learn from it. You are, as Santayana
said, doomed to repeat it if you don't learn from it's mistakes. And I
propose to do a bit of learning here, vis a vis the Middle East problem. I
think it's a good illustration as well as providing an interesting
perspective on a baffling issue.
Forget the Abraham business. That's only a historicized legitimation claim
for the real estate in question, already contested in Bible times. Pretty
much like the medieval Donation of Constantine, a back-dated charter on
the basis of which the Vatican claimed ownership of the extensive Papal
States, as if the first Christian Emperor had already awarded them to the
Church. Rennaisance historians showed it was an anachronistic pious fraud.
And the Bible is filled with such things.
And both sides appeal to an Abrahamic land grant anyway, so they cancel
each other out. So instead, let's skip ahead to the Babylonian Exile in
586 BC (or BCE). Who exactly got exiled in this thing? Contrary to what I
learned in Sunday School, a careful, critical scrutiny of the relevant
passages indicates that only the (oppressive) aristocratic royal and
priestly classes were deported to Babylon. Most people stayed put where
they were and continued to meet at the ruins of the Temple to sing the
Lamentations. In fact, they were getting along pretty darn well without
the priests demanding sacrifices and taxes from them. In Ezekiel you can
catch the drift of the priest Ezekiel's burning resentment at local
popular worship, which he roundly damns from the faraway banks of the
The Bible as we read it makes the exiles (the priests and aristocrats)
martyrs and celebrates their return to Jerusalem some fifty years later.
In Isaiah 52-53, they are hymned and eulogized as the righteous remnant
whose shameful exile was an atonement not for their own sins, pious saints
that they were, but rather for those backsliders and idolaters back home.
Of course these texts were penned by members of that group, not by the
folks back home. These last, contemned as "the people of the land" (pretty
much the same as "heathens") did not miss the Exiles and were not eager to
see them return. In the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah we see, albeit through
the filter of the returning elite, just what happened when they did
Zerubabbel, Nehemiah, and Ezra returned to Jerusalem with financial and
political backing from the Persian Empire, which had overthrown the
Babylonians and assumed their territories. So the returning ex-exiles took
control and promptly sacked anybody who got in their way. One of their
policies was an apartheid program. Jews had to divorce their non-Jewish
spouses. Tough luck. The Samaritans who offered to help rebuild the Temple
were told to, ah, go circumcise themselves. The local priestlings and
popular prophets had prophesied a democratizing of the Temple and the
priesthood, but they were silenced under pain of death. Their firebrand
oracles only managed to sneak into the Bible later by posing as oracles of
Isaiah and Zechariah, "safe" prophets of the past and the establishment.
We call them Third Isaiah and Deutero-Zechariah. Instead the priestly
elite took over and instituted both the powerful office of the High Priest
(modeled upon the fictitious Aaron, a figment of self-promoting
priestcraft) and the doctrine of a second, Levitical Messiah.
For centuries afterward the priestly establishment ruled only by collusion
with the foreign empires who controlled the Holy Land, gladly squeezing
imperial taxes from their own people and hiring goon squads to protect
themselves from the anger of their flock. This condition simmered for
centuries until 66 AD (or CE) until peasant messiahs and prophets boiled
over and killed the priests, severing ties with Rome, which promptly
crushed them. Jesus may have been one of their predecessors, as suggested
by his attack upon the Temple and subsequent Roman crucifixion as would-be
King of the Jews.
So what? Don't you see an eerie similarity between these events and those
leading to the establishment of the State of Israel--and no less of her
neighbors? Here's what I mean. At the close of World War One, the Ottoman
Empire succumbed to the Western Alliance. Just as Persia took over
Babylonian holdings, the European Empires dismembered the Ottoman
territories under the fiction of the League of Nations (which in this case
was no more than an imperialistic euphemism like Japan's Greater East Asia
Co-Prosperity Sphere). As with the apocalyptic tribal strife in Africa,
the current trouble in the Middle East stems from the divide-and-conquer
strategy of the European Powers, especially Great Britain. The Holy Land
(if we can use that as a neutral term for the moment) was promised to both
Jews and Palestinians and finally divided implausibly between them,
leading to you know what. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was created ex
nihilo, Lebanon was chopped off of Syria (and you know what happened after
that, when Syria decided they wanted it back), etc. And those Arab
governments prospered who cooperated with the Europeans, such as Saudi
Arabia and Iran.
In short, not having learned the lesson of the return from the Babylonian
Exile, we made sure history would repeat itself. European and Asiatic Jews
naturally regarded the Holy Land as theirs, especially after the
unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. They were just as certain of their
deed of ownership as the returning Exiles had been in the fifth century,
and no wonder they immediately had trouble (again) with "the people of the
land." In Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin we can see the reincarnations of
Ezra and Nehemiah. And that is at best an ambiguous legacy.
But this time the situation was worse, because it was not only Israel who
had erected its rule on the props of foreign imperial (British) patronage.
The rulers of the Arab states, even though enemies of Israel, were no more
representative of their own populace than the Israeli government was of
the vestigial Arab populace in their borders. They, too, owed their
thrones to the West. The oil sheikhs, like those of Saudi Arabia and the
autocrats of Kuwait "liberated" by Desert Storm (again, like the Persians
backing the priestly aristocracy), are exactly analogous to the vampiric
High Priests of Judea who collaborated with Rome, keeping their own people
in grinding poverty.
(Hey, I'm not for a moment minimizing the heroism of Desert Storm or the
evil of that @#$%^&*(+=! Saddam Hussein. There are many different issues
mixed up in that one.)
All this, I think, enables us to make new sense of what we are now seeing
in the Middle East. The Arab governments, friendly to the United States,
their new Imperial patron, have been persuaded to make peace with another
American client state, Israel. Why not? Even Arafat has been persuaded to
come aboard. And it is of course no coincidence that none of this "peace
making" has stopped Palestinian violence and Arab terrorism. As the Arab
governments join Israel in drawing closer to their common American patron,
their resentful subjects are increasingly repudiating their "own"
Otherwise, how explain the fact that Arafat's troops are having the same
problems quelling Palestinian violence as the Israeli authorities did? It
is just what happened when the Jewish revolutionaries, including
terrorists and assassins (the bandit rebels and Sicarii), tried to throw
off the Roman yoke in the first century AD/CE. It is interesting for
Christians to read some of the scholarly works of S.G.F. Brandon, Robert
Eisler, Hyam Maccoby, Robert Eisenman, and Richard Horsley, and to ask
themselves where the sympathies of their Lord Jesus would have been.
hasten to say that none of this justifies terrorism. I do not dignify such
hellish murder as political action. But it sure helps explain
terrorism. It's one of the things you can expect in situations like those
in ancient Judea and modern Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, etc. It's one of
the things that happens when you ignore the lessons of history, including
biblical history: you start repeating it in all its bloody details. That's
why I think history lessons like the one I've given you are important.
Without them we don't really grasp the situation. With the longer
perspective we have on the ancient past we may be able to put today's
analogous crises in focus and decide to try something new, something that
might work for a change.
guess I ought to try and tie this back up with the Pat Robertson business.
Okay, it seems to me that Chairman Pat with his apocalyptic reading of
scripture thinks he's looking to the future when he's really repeating the
past by ignoring it. But I'm suggesting that we can get to the future best
by looking at the past first and then determining to avoid the same
pitfalls we see mapped out there.
Robert M. Price