Sunday, July 20, 2014

strangers in the strange land

This week I've been paying more attention to current events in Israel than I have to studying the events of two thousand years ago, which is what I'd rather be doing. I don't know if there is anything in Matthew's gospel that could illuminate the present state of affairs, but there is much that can obscure it even more.

I was raised on the Bible. My grandfather was an evangelist who believed that the end of the world was at hand. He died fifty eight years ago, when I was two. My father was a minister who also believed and taught that signs of the Last Judgment and Christ's return were evident, and the most important of these signs was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 at a time when it seemed humanity had demonstrated the power to annihilate itself and the insanity to do it. The belief -- or maybe it is the fear? or hope? -- that history has a plot that is about to reach its climactic resolution is at the heart of evangelical experience. One of my aims is to look at the source of that teaching in the New Testament, specifically in Matthew. Another aim is to understand the teaching on righteousness, in terms of both a personal ethic and social justice.

Although I was constantly exposed to the Bible at home and at church, and did OK in "Bible drills"(kids competing to look up a verse), and pretty much internalized the doctrine my family believed and lived by, it wasn't until I was twenty that I had the disconcerting sense that the text was speaking directly to me when I read, "Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee." I was reading the prophet Ezekiel because I was interested in his vision of a "wheel within a wheel," popularly characterized as a UFO, more obscurely seen as an example of a mandala. I had read Memories, Dreams, and Reflections by that minister's son Carl Jung. Jung suggested that UFO sitings were visions of mandalas. Ezekiel's visions are bizarre and hallucinatory, but what impressed me was the direct call from God to speak on God's behalf to Israel. Like all the prophets of the Bible, the message was often so hard it could seem to be "anti-Israel." Some of his messages were delivered in a kind of street theater that reminded me of the performances of Joseph Beuys, whose "I Like America and America Likes Me" performance I read about in art magazines, as well as the guerrilla theater protests of the time. The destruction of the First Temple during the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and the exile of many Jews to Babylon, occurred during Ezekiel's time and are events that form the context of Ezekiel's prophetic criticism. I was impressed by the prophet's poetry and theater of protest and criticism and saw how it inspired the civil rights and anti-imperialism movements in the USA.

In every generation, most likely, there are Christians who try to return to the faith of the first followers of "the Way." The first followers were Jews who thought Jesus was the Messiah, but what did they think that meant? What was this Kingdom of Heaven that both John and Jesus said was at hand? And, like the prophets before them, John and Jesus said things that some regarded as "anti-Israel." The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE happened after Jesus' death, but had been foretold by him, according to the gospels. The crucifiction of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple were events linked somehow in the minds of the first Christians. My understanding is that the region of Galilee, where Jesus' ministry began and mostly took place, was somewhat multicultural and that there was a significant amount of intermarriage among Jews and non-Jews, as well as interest among the  Gentiles in Jewish messianic movements. Leaders of messianic movements in the first century include Judas of Galilee, Menahem ben Judah. Theudas, John of Gischala. At least one of Jesus' disciples was a Zealot, a movement that violently opposed Roman rule and were active in the failed Jewish revolt that ended with the Roman destruction of the Temple.

For Christians the Sacrifice of the Messiah/Destruction of the Temple ended or fulfilled the Law of Moses. Certain requirements, especially the rite of circumcision, were dropped to accommodate Gentile converts and Christianity became a universal religion, separate from Judaism. Judaism also underwent a transformation through which the scriptures were continued to be held holy and Jewish identity was maintained by observance of the Law during the Diaspora.

The word "diaspora" is Greek and comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. It means "scattering" or "dispersion" or "sowing" and has come to refer to the dispersion of any people from their homeland, both or either in the sense of exile and dispersing to spread the culture through colonization. The first instance of its use in scripture is in Deuteronomy -- "thou shalt be a dispersion to all kingdoms of  the earth." The second use is in Psalms -- "The Lord doth build up Jerusalem: he gathereth together the outcasts (diasporas) of Israel."

Jewish history has gone through several diasporas, or perpetual diaspora in stages. which are critical events in the Bible. And note the cycle of diaspora. Dispersal in Deuteronomy, homecoming in the Psalms. The major dispersions were in 740-722 BCE after the Assyrian invasion, 587 BCE after the Babylonian invasion, and finally after the revolt against the Romans. Many were exiled from Israel, but they had their scriptures and the promise or hope of return from exile. Diaspora can also mean a scattering of seeds or ideas, culture, to other lands, new homes.

As we have seen in the gospel of Matthew, passages from scripture can be copied and pasted, and be used to frame the narrative of Jesus' ministry, because Israel was facing another crisis that would lead to a more total diaspora. And people copied and pasted prophecy in every generation since. What is lost in the eagerness (or paranoia) to find signs of an apocalypse is the prophets' teaching on social justice, especially toward the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, and other strangers in the strange land one calls home.


Anonymous G. K. Fowler said...

Yes, Lars! I was thinking the other day of Northrop Frye's chart of a chain of U-shaped typological oppositions, Israel's ups of Creation, Exodus, Temple, Maccabees followed by the downs of Sin, Bondage, Babylon and Hellenism-- (quite sure I don't remember it precisely). In each case the low is worldliness and a really stiff neck. And I was thinking of a new height, "Statehood" inevitably followed by a low, "experience of statehood." This is future theology being made.

12:25 PM  

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