Rehabilitating the Old Testament (3)
Is there colonialism and empire building?
The short answer is “Yes, there is!” It is clear that the Nation and People of Israel were formed from a single family, that of Abraham. Jacob was named Israel after his night of striving with God at Penuel. ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’. Do we pray with that kind of commitment? Do we care enough in our prayers? Do we expect answers? How serious are we in our prayers? Jacob’s example is worth taking to heart. Even Jesus taught persistence in prayer. So did Paul. Israel means ‘God strives’. Jacob had striven with God and man and had prevailed. Thereafter, what became the Nation of Israel traced its roots back to the 12 sons of Jacob. There is an inscription of King Merenptah of Egypt, dated 1230BC – this is about the date of the Exodus - and a much later one from Shalmaneser III of Assyria dated 853BC confirming the existence of the name of the people.
It is the consensus that the forerunners of the Nation of Israel left Canaan perhaps during a terrible food shortage and famine, and settled in Egypt. There they became slaves and might have remained there but for Moses who led them back into the location of their former homes. At Mount Sinai they became the Covenanted People with such a powerful spiritual encounter with God that it marked and identified them ever since. In complete distinction from all the peoples, tribes and nations of the time, they were to live and to witness to God’s righteousness, justice, truth and mercy. That is true of us Christians today and more. And what matters is our faithfulness to our calling.
This was the rudiment of monotheism – belief in one God. Again – very different and distinct from the cultures of the time and place. It was a claim for spiritual supremacy – not for themselves – but for their God. This God was a living communicating acting and saving God unlike those made of wood and stone and precious metals carted around and bowed down to be those who did not know any better. So our God today is a living communicating acting and saving God unlike those made of celluloid, media, material and human tissue and flesh idolised by those who do not know any better.
Of course, the thousands of Israelites who returned to the land flowing with milk and honey were very different from the much smaller number of nomads who had left in hard times, generations before. They did arrive as conquerors and settlers with a divine mandate to do so and a moral and spiritual purpose for their actions. That seems to justify everything. But that is also the logic of so many empires throughout history. To improve things, to civilise, to educate to bring knowledge of God – it is undeniably colonialism and it was the beginnings of empire building. The Israelites made alliances and even merged with some other nomadic tribes but they did not do so with the grain farming Canaanites. This was because they indulged in fertility cults and orgiastic worship. There was no possibility of compromise. For sure, the moral monotheism of the Israelite People would have been destroyed by the accommodation of such practices. Christianity also made a serious and necessary distinction from similar styles of pagan sexually based religion in ancient Greece and Rome. Today – we are told that religion causes people to be repressed. Christianity is blamed for giving people hang-ups about sex. We live in a popular media led culture which is as sexually charged as that of ancient Canaan and ancient Greece and Rome. It is for each of us then to say whether we will serve the Lord our God or not. Christianity will not survive complete assimilation with the kind of public values we have today. It is not doing so. The Church of Scotland is dying from within.
What is now called The Holy land was eventually occupied. It was not a wholesale takeover and there was some sensitivity to various tribes. However the Amorites were crushed and displaced. Jericho of course, was taken with miraculous help – perhaps a convenient earthquake of sorts – and a victorious pitched battle against Canaanites followed at Beth-horon. Jerusalem remained a Canaanite city for a further 200 years. The tribes of the Israelites were thus split up from each other by remaining Canaanite enclaves. They did not often or always unite to defend one another against hostile attacks. Indeed, some assimilated to Canaanite worship and some were defeated in battles with the indigenous peoples. The Book of Judges honours the heroes who managed to garner the Israelite strength and defeat their enemies. Gideon, for example with his 300 elite troops, defeated the Midianites vastly superior numbers.
The Philistines were not people settled in that area of the ancient near east. They were seafarers from the Greek islands who came and settled in that part of the Mediterranean coast. They mixed with the Canaanites in marriage, language and religion. They sought to push the Israelites out. Above all, they sought to extinguish Israel’s distinctive worship. The tribes were separated and it seemed as if the Israelites would be obliterated. It was the prophet Samuel who saved not only the people but the cause of God. He called people back to God and to their true purpose. He became a focus for unity and for victory against the traditional enemy. Saul was partially successful but lost his way and it was King David who finally established the people of God which is why he is revered to this day in Judaism. He was first king of Judah and then of all the tribes of the Israelites. He captured Jerusalem and made it his capital. David conquered and subdued the geographical area from Egypt to upper Babylon – modern Iraq. Solomon squandered this inheritance and on his death the Israelite kingdom split into two, the northern kingdom of Israel which renounced its connection with David and the southern kingdom of Judah over which David’s descendants ruled and into which Jesus was born.
After King David there not only was no more colonialism but in fact, the Israelite Empire shrunk to eventual wholesale defeat and exile. The return from Babylon was never secure and in 70AD as Jesus prophesied the once great empire was gone forever, the People of God scattered throughout the ancient world.
It is an interesting tale and the prophets were the only ones who tried to make sense of it. What we see is that the ideal which was the original cause and purpose of the People of God was messed up with so many aspects of survival and circumstance, that it was often lost. That it did not disappear is a miraculous providence. It was not easy to be a righteous Jew just as it is not easy today to be a good Christian. And yet – righteous Jews have existed since Abraham in all sorts of places and good Christians have existed in the world since the time of Jesus. Jews today do not seek to conquer or colonise. Those of the dispersal seek to be identified as Jews and to worship in peace and freedom in their synagogues and to be successful in business and professions and they contribute significantly to human science and learning.
There was colonialism and empire building in the time of King David about 1000BC and it must be said that only a part of it was for the good purpose of witnessing to the living God. Human interest and ambition was much too involved for the process. Without a champion, the People of God would not have survived in the ancient world. But even David over-reached God’s purposes. It was the moral and spiritual truth of Judaism that was ever more important than colonising and empire-building and the Jews have found out over the last 2000 years that they can still worship God even if they have no home country. It was the prophets who kept the focus where it should be. They kept alive the faith, the truth, the connection with the living God. God is not restricted or limited to any one people or place. The knowledge of the Lord is to reach every corner of the world. As Isaiah wrote:
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Jews carry on their traditions in an inoffensive and non-confrontational way throughout the world today.
Christianity, on the other hand, from its outset, was a missionary faith which sought to convert the whole human population to Jesus Christ. At its best it did so by peace and love and also by caring for and educating people. At its worst, it got caught up with human ambition and became identified with European nations, rulers and countries. Then it became part of the empire building, Spanish, French, British and American.
Spiritually speaking, Christianity is a colonising faith since it seeks to convert non-Christians to Christianity. You could argue that Billy Graham was a spiritual coloniser of people’s souls for Jesus Christ. You could say the same about John Wesley and even John Knox. The parish system is a form of colonialism. But if you accentuate the positive things in Christianity, these are deliverance from sin, spiritual freedom, mental and physical health, high moral and spiritual values, eternal life and salvation, then Christianity comes out of that criticism well. It is giving to the world a lot of good things that the world needs. In return it asks recognition and worship for Jesus Christ.
There is one great colonising and empire building political military and religious machine abroad in the world today and that is Islam. It represents a step back from Christianity and from Jesus Christ into ritual and violence. It concentrates on this world and on carving out one global nation of Islam, rejecting and negating both Christianity and Judaism. That battle is taking place today throughout the world.
We Christians pray for those who are not Christians and we would like to see many come and join us. We are available for them if they seek our help. We should be stronger in declaring our faith and in challenging them to wake up and change their lives. But – we need to be fired with passion for the Gospel. Christianity is not defeated in the world and is growing and expanding in many places. It will always exist and it will always offer its distinct contribution because it is based on Jesus and He is unsurpassed in life and achievement and in being and in resurrection and in eternal life.