Tag Archives: Fiddler on the Roof

The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 3a: The Exile, the Crisis of Collapse

James Tissot, The Flight of the Prisoners

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. In the willows there we hung up our harps.For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. 

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said,

 “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”

O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!   Psalm 137 NRSV

In 721 BCE, after roughly 200 years of separation from the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the Northern Kingdom Israel falls to the Assyrian Empire (which has its origins in the Northwestern Part of modern day Iraq) and the Northern Kingdom is effectively absorbed into the Assyrian nation.  Somehow Judah holds on, even though it becomes completely surrounded by the Assyrian Empire.  Empires come and go, and power shifts to the Babylonian Empire (which has its origins in modern day Southern Iraq) without going into the bloody details: Jerusalem falls, the temple is destroyed, the Davidic monarchy effectively ends and the people of Judah are taken into exile or captivity in Babylon.  The loss of king and temple, as well as the land cause a crisis of authority which leads to one of the most constructive and important periods in Judaism.

The loss of home is catastrophic, it leads to a ton of questions about the future and there may not be any good answers at that point.  The closest cinematic example I could come up with was the loss of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof where families try to make the best of their coming exile, belittling what they are leaving behind-and yet families are broken apart, scattered across the world, many will never see each other again.

Something as catastrophic to not only the physical well-being but also to the communal consciousness can lead to several outcomes, many of which do emerge in this time. One response of the conquered is to assimilate with the conqueror, to align oneself with the victor, to adopt their values and practices and to set aside at least a portion of one’s previous identity to become a part of something different.  This is the perceived response of the Northern Kingdom by the Southern Kingdom-they stay on their land, intermarry with the Assyrians, and what emerges will be a hybrid people-no longer really Jewish, already separated from the Davidic monarchy and the temple hundreds of years before they become the other…the Samaritan (yes this is where those Samaritans that Jesus runs into in the New Testament come from).  But to be fair, a large number of the Judeans also assimilate into Babylon, only a small portion of the Judean people will return to their homeland at the end of the exile, most will remain dispersed throughout the nations.

In the lead up to the exile, the prophetic voice becomes very harsh in its critique of the monarchy, temple, the lack of economic justice within the nation, and the perceived idolatry of the shepherds of the nation.  This is the time where the first parts of Isaiah, much of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and many of the Minor Prophets become active in the memory of the people. The prophetic voice leads the way pointing to the ways in which kings and priests, throne and temple have not only failed as sources of authority but are at the very heart of the crisis viewed as a judgment from the LORD.  The prophets announce condemnation for the shepherds (the leaders, the authority in throne and temple) as one example among many:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings: but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you ruled them.  So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd: and scattered wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. Ezekiel 34.1-6 NRSV

 Instead of coming to believe that somehow their God is weaker than the gods of the Assyrians or the Babylonians, something amazing happens in the prophetic imagination (to use Walter Brueggemann’s keen words) and they begin to understand the transitions and the conflict around them as a part of God’s work—that behind Assyrian and Babylonian is the Lord of hosts (literally the Lord of armies-typically we think of this as heavenly armies, but I am beginning to think that in there is something more earthly to this term than often given credit). The coming destruction is a judgment particularly on the leaders, but also within all this death is the chance for something new: a fresh start, a redefinition, a chance to redefine and re-imagine what it means to be the chosen people.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones.  He led me around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.  He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophecy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord. Ezekiel 37.1-6 NRSV

The prophetic voice will help the people re-imagine a new way forward, a way that is so critical to the way we understand things that we need to take some time with it.  Hope will not die, in fact it will be reborn in a new and powerful way and the people will understand themselves as a chosen people, but what that means takes a dramatic turn in the exile.  To that we shall turn next.

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The Place of Authority: A Brief History Part 1: Families, Clans and Tribes

Samson and Lions, Rome 350-400 CE

Samson and Lions, Rome 350-400 CE

For those who despise history, and I know that there are many out there, I will warn you that I am beginning a long engagement with looking back through time at the narrative of where authority has rested at various points in time.  Originally I planned to do this in one, and then a couple, then three, and well I found our as I began wrestling through this I apparently had a lot to say, so to keep it in shorter bites this may be part 1 of many so read what you want, I will try to make it worth your while.

We often think of things in terms of secular and religious authority as if they are nice and discreet things, but that is a recent phenomenon. In reality, authority has rested in a couple key places at any one time but the distinction between secular and religious authority is not as defined as we might expect from our worldview.  Although the breakdown of the time periods is guided by Phyllis Tickle’s breakout in the Great Emergence, what follows are my own thoughts and reflections upon authority at each of these epochs.

Prior to 1,000 BCE, roughly 3,000 years ago authority rested heavily on a family’s ability to influence the course of actions for the realm around them.  For the Abrahamic faiths this is the time of Judges, when the people would rally around a great leader in the time of crisis and these men and at least one woman would provide stability for the rough confederation of tribes and families that would become Israel.  It is a time where these leaders and families would set up a shrine or worship sites but there is relatively little centralized authority.  Family is the central place where authority rests and there is a struggle internally between the tribes and externally with the people of Aram, Moab, Philistia, Cannan, and Ammon for land (the primary source of wealth) and power.  Much as in the song “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof a person’s role within the family and the practices, stories and traditions handed down from one generation to another shaped who they were and what they would become.

There was no centralized religious authority, there was no scripture, certainly there were stories but things were much more fluid than we often imagine.  Even in the remembered story of Israel we see that the memory is that of a chaotic time, even a brief survey of the book of Judges within the Bible points to this:

Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of one hundred and ten years.  So they buried him within the bounds of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephriam, north of Mount Gaash.  Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. Judges 2.8ff(NRSV)

Someone will say, but surely there would be the first five books of the bible and Joshua as scripture, and the short answer is no.  Even if one were to believe that Moses wrote the Penteteuch by himself and handed it on to Joshua and the people of Israel (which you would be hard pressed to find any reputable scholar of the Hebrew Scripture/Old Testament who does) even if that were the case, this was a time of very little literacy, very little true priestly/scribal organization, very little rule of law.  In a very real sense might did make right.  Take for example the story of Samson in Judges 13-16, one of those stories that many people have some acquaintance with, which is set within one of the times of crisis.  When I read the story Samson makes Conan the Barbarian look both ethical and smart, and yet the story tells of a person who judges Israel for 20 years, delivers them from the Philistines.  There is no centralized worship place or practice, families set up their own shrines, construct their own ‘idols’ or representations of who their god, gods, of God (depending on how one looks at it) are and if you need a good demonstration of this (this is one of many) take a look at Judges 17, the story of Micah and the Levite.

In a time of heavily decentralized authority, where family, clan and tribe hold the power and the wealth (i.e. land at this point) there is constant struggle and fighting to gain possession of more wealth, more power and to expand one’s familial authority.  The book of Judges for example does not remember this time fondly, it is a dark time where horrible things happen, where former allies are almost exterminated, where enemies are everywhere and as they looked around them and as they remembered their own story they began to see a different way.  As 1 Samuel remembers it:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations” 1 Samuel 8.4f (NRSV)

And that is where we are heading next…

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