r m p




 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 River Chebar.

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 return.

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" governments.

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. 

I 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.

I 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


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