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Exodus, Revolution, and Expropriation

In a discussion of neo-secessionism at Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, Kevin Vallier makes the following autobiographical comment:

I grew up on the Gulf Coast in Alabama, and as a white Southern male in that culture, I was not as racially sensitive as I should have been (I’m sure I’m far from perfect now!). The deal was sealed quickly after my conversion to Christianity at the same age. When I came to realize how black Christians deeply and profoundly identified with Old Testament narratives on the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, I was somehow better able to appreciate the horror of it all. When I thought of black slaves crying to the God who is Love for liberation, I found myself especially moved. As I say in my writings, sometimes religious reasons are the ones that really break through for people, helping them to more clearly understand how to understand the flaws of their own culture and its history. I guess that’s true for me.

Fair enough, but it seems to me that the next step in the process of discovery would be the realization that the Hebrew Bible is a manual of conquest, expropriation, and genocide; that the Christian Bible is an appendix to that manual that makes no serious effort to challenge the legitimacy of God’s expropriative-genocidal commands (Jesus came to complete the law, not to overturn it); and that the Qur’an is an attempt to co-opt both the manual and the appendix and present it in a new language to a different constituency. That, at any rate, was the lesson I learned from my own conversion–from Islam, to a generic Abrahamic Judeo-Islamic faith, to deism, to Objectivism. And that, I’m afraid, is part of “the horror of it all” as well.

I’m persistently amazed by readings of the Hebrew Bible–like Michael Walzer‘s in Exodus and Revolution–that focus on the ancient Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, but somehow manage to ignore much of what they did after they got out. Far more of the Hebrew Bible discusses the bloody aftermath of liberation than discusses the act of liberation itself. And the aftermath was such as to raise the question whether the “liberation” was worth the price.  Few still think that the Soviet defeat of the Nazis genuinely “liberated” Eastern Europe. Why should anyone think that Kings David, Solomon, or Saul genuinely “liberated” ancient Palestine? If they didn’t, then how is the Hebrew Bible, on balance, a text of liberation? Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders of the civil rights movement used the rhetoric of the Hebrew Bible in the fight for equal rights. We should be glad that they left its politics by the wayside.

Silwan: contested territory

Silwan: contested territory

In the East Jerusalem slum of Silwan, there stands a ridiculous monument to the “exodus politics” of the Hebrew Bible–the so-called “City of David” national park, where the dramas of archaeological Zionism are played out at the expense of Silwan’s Arab residents. For the Arabs of Silwan (and for Palestinian Arabs generally), the supposedly liberatory narrative of the Hebrew Bible has meant flat-out expropriation (click around some of the links in this paragraph for an idea).  Since 9/11, Americans have found themselves quite free to explain contemporary Islamist politics by way of passages in the Qur’an. I’m the last person to complain about that. But it is just as plausible to suggest that there is a connection between the expropriative character of contemporary Zionism and the frankly supremacist claims of the Hebrew Bible. Forgive me, if having seen the former, I lack any sympathy for the latter. But I lack it.

If the Hebrew Bible is going to be invoked for its narrative of liberation, it behooves us to take a good look at the rest of the text. It also behooves us to consider connections between the text and land-use policy in contemporary Israel/Palestine, policies that invoke the language of freedom, rights, property, privatization, and the free market in the name of some extremely dubious attitudes, laws, policies, and activities. For a good start, I’d recommend Oren Yiftachel’s Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine (Penn, 2006), or Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar’s Lords of the Land. Then re-read God’s commands to the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible (or read this typical defense of Israeli policy in Silwan). Is it really possible to discount the connection between “religious reasons” and perpetual conflict?

Irfan

P.S. Thanks to Issam Nassar for the Yiftachel recommendation.

P.P.S. My use of links here (and elsewhere) should not be taken to involve wholesale endorsement of every claim in any link. Incidentally, some links in the Wikipedia entry on “Silwan” are dead.

 

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7 Comments

  1. Jesus came to complete the law, not to overturn it

    Though there’s controversy over what Jesus meant by “the law.” Certainly his interpretations of it often differed from those of the ecclesiastical authorities (Mark 2:23-28, 3:1-5; Matthew 12:1-14; Matthew 15:11). And on one occasion
    (Mark 10:2-9; Matthew 19:3-9) he explicitly identifies part of the traditional Mosaic law as ,em>not being part of “the law” as he understands it.

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    True enough, but Jesus never repudiates the Israelite conquest of Palestine, or their theocracy, etc. (or ventures anywhere near those topics), and that seems to me too large an omission to justify interpretive charity on the basis of the parts of the traditional law he did repudiate. What he repudiated in the traditional Jewish law was, by comparison, extremely trivial (and not always an improvement, either). I think it’s worth putting in question the moral authority of a teacher–a rabbi–who e.g., insists on prohibiting divorce in contradiction of the Mosaic law, but stays mum for his entire ministry on the legitimacy of theocracy and conquest. I think his silence on something of that scope can justifiably be construed as sanction in the Objectivist sense. If he’d really opposed the conquest, he might have taken the matter up with his father, who had some responsibility in the matter. But he didn’t.

    Irfan

  3. Well, I don’t think they were all trivial. Matthew 5:38-39 seems to repudiate the retributivism of the Torah in favour of pacifism, which is a nontrivial change. Being neither a retributivist nor a pacifist myself, I could just say he’s exchanging one error for another; but the move seems one away from rather than toward a position that would justify genocidal conquest. And the Good Samaritan parable stresses that Jews should regard non-Jews as their neighbours, while Luke 22:25-26 repudiates authoritarian rule. In Matthew 17:25-27 he repudiates the Roman empire’s taxing authority, while his constantly defying the authority of the priests doesn’t seem like an endorsement of their authority either. The overall drift seems to be in a non-conquesty direction.

  4. irfankhawaja says:

    I think all of those Gospel passages can be interpreted in the following way. Suppose we assume that Jesus’s ministry is apocalyptic in the sense that it heralds an imminent (or well, relatively imminent) end of the world. Then Jesus’s teaching is a teaching appropriate to the Apocalypse. It’s not a repudiation of the Jewish law at all, but one that takes for granted the basic legitimacy of that law, reconfiguring it for a radically different context: Roman rule (as opposed to the rule of a Jewish state) in anticipation of the end of days. It repudiates retributivism in favor of pacifism because the communal context for retributivism has been lost: a Jewish state and community. (There is a Jewish community in Palestine, but no Jewish state to order that community in the way that Kings David and Solomon had.) Likewise the parable of the Good Samaritan: it’s a teaching appropriate to a state in which the possibility of authentic Jewish rule is now impossible, and pluralism is an inescapable fact of life. He can defy the taxing authority of the Roman empire without any repudiation of the Jewish law, and he can repudiate the Jewish priests on grounds that they’ve lost any sense of the original purpose of the law.

    All of this allows Jesus to appear to promulgate a radically non-Jewish ethic without ever going back and explicitly repudiating the traditional Jewish law as such, or the Jewish state as such. Nothing about Jesus’s teaching implies the illegitimacy of a Jewish state and Jewish law for Solomon and David, much less the illegitimacy of the law as revealed to Moses, Aaron, etc. Nothing implies the illegitimacy of the historical conquest of the Canaanites, Jebusites, etc. back in the day. (Jesus’s aggressiveness toward the money changers is a dim echo of this original conquest, and I’ve often wondered whether it is a subtle way of underscoring the legitimacy of the original conquest in a new context.) The point is that the original Jewish teachings are rendered obsolete by current events, not that they’re literally invalidated. (By “the point,” I mean that’s my explanation for the structure of Jesus’s teaching. I don’t mean that he self-consciously presents it this way.)

    So that’s what I meant by saying that Jesus’s teaching is relatively trivial. Yes, some of Jesus’s individual teachings mark radical departures from individual provisions of Jewish law (though always with the further proviso that he came to complete rather than overturn the law). But the “overall drift” is not in a non-conquesty direction per se; it’s in a direction appropriate to a post-statist apocalypse where conquest would lack any point. When he says he came to complete rather than overthrow the law, I take him to mean that the earlier (conquesty) function of the law has been completed. Now it’s time for something new, the higher phase of the law in anticipation of The End.

    I find it interesting that liberal Muslims have now started to interpret Islamic law in much the same way. The claim is: Islamic sharia was fine back in the day, but no longer; since the context for it is no longer with us, nowadays, we have to accept a form of pragmatic democratic pluralism that requires revision (sometimes even abrogation) of this or that provision of the law. Well that’s an improvement, in a way, but it’s compatible with regarding the old theocracy as the normative ideal.

    Irfan

  5. I don’t read Jesus’s references to the kingdom of heaven as being about an imminent apocalypse; I think he’s using traditional messianic language to convey a message about individual transformation. In any case, Jesus’ remarks on Moses sound to me like a criticism of Moses’ commandments, suggesting they weren’t appropriate in Moses’ day either.

    The idea of a “true law” of which existing humanmade law is merely an imperfect reflection, disobedience to which is consistent with complete respect for The Law, was commonplace in Jesus’ day, not just among Greeks but among Jews — the forerunners of gnosticism.

  6. irfankhawaja says:

    There’s something prima facie absurd about the very idea of two Randians having a running argument on an Objectivist blog about what Jesus really said and meant. And yet.

    On imminent apocalypse: well, Jesus just comes out and affirms the imminence of the apocalypse, more than once. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). And some of his advice only makes sense on the premise of an imminent apocalypse. “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what he shall drink, not yet for your body…” (Mt 6:24-34). Taken as advice for individual transformation, that says: don’t plan for the future. That seems crazy, and is also incompatible with some of Jesus’s own parables (e.g., the parable of the ten virgins, where the foolish virgins are criticized for their lack of foresight; Mt verse 25). But “take no thought for your life” makes sense if there is no future to plan for. Contrary to much gibberish written about it, I think Mt 24:34 implies that the end will take place after the Crucifixion (obviously) but within the generation of Jesus’s own disciples (“Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled”).

    I think a reading of Jesus as literally repudiating Moses’s commandments is impossible. Jesus makes clear even prior to his ministry (during the temptation) that he affirms the Judaic God: “Get thee hence, Satan, for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God…” (Mt 4:10). It’s written in the Hebrew Bible (Joshua 24:14, in fact). More importantly, the very God Jesus invokes is the one who commanded the Israelites to conquer Canaan. The commandments are not Moses’s commandments, after all, as though he autonomously generated them; he’s receiving and communicating them from God. Jesus can’t quarrel with the commandments, then, except on pain of disputing the authority of God the Father. But even Jesus lacks that authority. To dispute the commandment to conquest would put Jesus in rebellion against God himself. In fact, the suggestion is downright Satanic. Get thee hence, Roderick.

    Typically, when Jesus deviates from the Mosaic law, he makes sure to find a way to re-affirm it somehow. This isn’t true of the Sermon on the Mount, but it’s true, I think, of every (or just about every) dialectical confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish priests. (The Sermon on the Mount is an exception to the general rule because its commandments urge followers to go beyond the law; there is no suggestion that the law be violated.) The priests, however, accuse Jesus of outright violations; in these cases, Jesus admits (not to violation but to) deviation from a given provision. He then asks “Have ye not read…?” (eg Mt 12:3), appealing to some other part of the the Hebrew Bible, and offering a heterodox reading the priests haven’t thought of. The point of the heterodox reading is to show them that while he’s deviating in some respect from the law, he’s affirming it in some more fundamental way.

    I can’t think of a single place where Jesus puts the Israelite conquest into question by this procedure. If anything, he does the opposite:

    Matthew 5:35: he prohibits oaths that invoke Jerusalem, “for it is the city of the great King” (i.e., David). But David couldn’t have been a great King but for the Israelite conquests.

    Matthew 12:1-8: Jesus invokes King David to justify both sabbath breaking and theft on the grounds that David taught us that the claims of need supersede those of existing legal rules (Deut 23:25). That’s the very principle that justifies the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land: the Canaanites’ prior claim to the land by residence is superseded by the Israelites’ need for sanctuary and for a place to set up the tabernacle.

    Matthew 15:21-30: Jesus ventures outside of historic Israel, meets the Canaanite woman, and rejects her pleas for help, telling her explicitly that he is sent “unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and she is not of Israel. He relents only when she likens herself to a dog and describes Jesus as her master, whose crumbs she’s willing to accept. Jesus approves precisely the woman’s subservience, which I take to be her implicit recognition of the legitimacy of Israel’s conquest. It cannot be an accident that the Canaanite woman is the only person Jesus treats this way, and that he does so on his one and only trip outside of historic Israel. Compare his no-questions-asked treatment of the Roman centurion (Mt 8:7). Soon after this, the crowds glorify him as “the God of Israel” (15:31).

    Matthew 22:41-46 affirms that Jesus is the son of David, and Jesus himself has no difficulty affirming (with Psalm 110:1) that the Lord’s enemies are to be made into the Lord’s “footstool.”

    The parable of the marriage feast involves a king who burns down a city (Mt 22:7), and who consigns the non-chosen to outer darkness (22:14). Jesus sees no conflict between this parable and the pacifism he affirms in the Sermon on the Mount. I understand that as follows: ordinarily, a king could justifiably burn down a city to punish its miscreants; but as we approach the end of days, and since Israel lacks a righteous king, we’re to revert to pacifism. The parable of the fig tree suggests that the reign of Israel is over, not that it was unjustified when it existed (Mt 21:19: “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever”; the fig tree is the Hebrew symbol for Israel).

    Finally, when Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees, he bitterly criticizes Israel for its bloody-mindedness, but I think it’s worth noting that he studiously avoids any mention of the most obvious acts of mass murder on the part of the Israelites (Mt 23:34-39)–the conquest. What he laments is righteous blood shed by the Israelites, where righteous blood includes the prophets, the wise men, the scribes, Abel, Zechariah, Barachias, but none of the Canaanites, Jebusites, etc. Surely if Jesus meant to repudiate the Israelite conquests, this would be precisely the time and place–and the audience–for it. But he seems to go out of his way to avoid mentioning it to the very people whose authority depends on the legitimacy of that conquest. Jesus accuses the priests of hypocrisy. He doesn’t accuse them of irredentism or imperialism.

    Bottom line: Jesus appears to have a “pacifist” anti-statist ethos that entails the rejection of statism and conquest. But on closer inspection, what he says is highly equivocal, and perfectly consistent with an affirmation of the Israelite conquests.

  7. irfankhawaja says:

    A small point: having just re-read Matthew a few days ago, I don’t think Mt 17:25 is about the Roman empire’s tax authority. The tax in question is a tax (or a tribute) for the upkeep of the Jewish temple at Capernaum (“the house”), so it’s a religious tax, Jewish rather than Roman. Jesus’s point is that he (or He) doesn’t owe the tax because he owns the temple: ironically put, he’s no stranger to it because the temple ought to be devoted to worship of him. But he pays the tax anyway to avoid offense. The reference to “the kings of the earth” is not a reference to the Romans but either to the practice of kings generally or to the kings of the Jews who first authorized the tax.

    Irfan

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