God and King, Word and Sword

June 26, 2014

I have been taking Jacob L. Wright’s Coursera MOOC called “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future.” Wright is a professor of religion at Emory University, and I’ve joined thousands of others with widely varying motivations in taking this course.  (I hear these diverse purposes in the course’s on-line discussions and forums.)

Wright uses the course to argue a point of view about the Hebrew Bible: that it was pulled together out of earlier materials at a time of defeat to give identity to a people. Where other nations took shape around kings and their military successes, the Jewish nation was formed through a Book available to all that told a people’s history in its relationship to the One God. It also contained that people’s wisdom, poetry and folk tales; and it prescribed the ways of faithfulness required for belonging to this people. Wright sees the Bible as especially the work of Judean priestly elites who suffered the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE, and who returned to Jerusalem several decades later after the Persians defeated the Babylonians. The Persians allowed the Jewish return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple.  The construction of the Bible was part of this rebuilding.

Wright emphasizes the very different relationship of kings (or other worldly authorities) to priests and prophets in this unusual nation. Where the common practice in the ancient world was for kings to maintain control over priests and prophets, in Israel they rarely did. Prophets lived more on the edge or on the outside, and often condemned the actions of kings. What priests and prophets said and did we have recorded in the Bible. In other ancient nations, what priests and prophets said and did was known only to the king and his elite circle. We have records of their doing only from a few archeological sites.

Thus the Bible, in Wright’s view, is a book written in defeat to stich together a nation in a different way: through a book that all can hear or read. Kings and victories are not essential for the survival of such a nation. What is needed is faithfulness to the Book and its ways.

At the same time I have been reading Simon Schama’s recently published The Story of the Jews, and find that Schama echoes the same idea about the tension between the sword and the book:

“The bulk of the Bible, from generation to generation, was written when the weaknesses of state power were most apparent. The portable scroll-book became the countervailing force to the sword. Once that happened, the idea that Jewish life was Jewish words, and that they would endure beyond the vicissitudes of power, the loss of land, the subjection of people, took off into history. Since other monotheistic book-faiths allied word and sword rather than divorced them, this would turn out to be a uniquely Jewish vision.

In the next paragraph, Schama ties this Hebrew Bible writing project to Jesus’s ministry:

“At this time, when eastern and western civilisations were governed by the truism that without imperial force the sacred realm was of little importance, this Judaic reversal of assumptions represented a radical rearrangement of the priorities of human existence. When it was restated with numinous insistence and clarity by an otherwise obscure Nazareth preacher, the doctrine of the power of the powerless began to draw the allegiance of millions. It could not have been more significant that the most effective creator of the Christian universe, Paul, began as an enthusiastic instrument of the state—enforcer, tax collector, bureaucrat—and then un-stated himself by falling from the high horse of authority in a bolt of prostrating illumination—blinded by the light, overthrown by the gospel truth. But the minute Christianity itself turned imperial, the dilemma first played out by the biblical states—and then more fatefully and dramatically by the Hasmoneans—was laid upon the new church. Could empires ever be holy, much less Roman?”

(Simon Shama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC-1492 AD;                     Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013, pp 127-28.)

These views from Wright and Schama do not deny divine inspiration for the Hebrew Bible but they do focus instead on human purposes in its composition. They make the Bible a project of the people whose identity in forms—or at least a project of its leaders.)

[Also published on QuakerQuaker.]

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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