Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Different Kind of Empire

One of the common assertions of writers on "Biblical politics" (a pretty good example here) is that all world history is a struggle between the humble poor of Israel vs. the whore of Babylon, the spiritual Egypt and we (the United States or the industrialized West) are the bad guys in the scenario. And indeed this has a lot of Biblical evidence to make it look pretty plausible. In the Old Testament, the small and weak nation of Israel is oppressed first by the Pharoah of Egypt, then by Assyria, then by Babylon, on into the Greeks and Romans. At the same time, the commercial city-states next to Israel, Tyre and Sidon, are compared to prostitutes corrupting the nations of the earth with their luxuries. See that pattern enough and you start to assume the world power is always setting itself up for well-merited destruction.

The book of Daniel is the locus classicus here. In the book of Daniel, chapters 2 and 7, we see the power of the empires, summed up as four metals and four beasts: gold/a lion (Babylon), silver/a bear (Perso-Median empire; the three ribs are her conquests of Lydia, Babylon, and Egypt; the bear has a hump because the Persians prevailed over the Medes), bronze/a leopard (Greece; the four wings and heads are Ptolemey, Seleucus, Antigonus, and Lysimachus who divided up Alexander’s empire), and iron/a ten-horned beast (Rome). In the book of Revelation, this prophetic denunciation is recapitulated and summed up as the beast from the sea (the Roman empire as the sum of all empires), the beast out of the earth (the priests of the deified Caesar as the sum of all idolatry), and the whore of Babylon (the wealth of Rome as the sum of all commercial wealth). All persecute the church and Israel, but the beast will attack and plunder the whore (the earliest precursor of this being Nebuchadnezzar attacking Tyre in Ezekiel 26-28), before being thrown with the false prophet into the lake of fire at the end of time.

So it is easy enough on Biblical grounds to divide the world into two sorts of states: the weak and poor on the one hand, and the possessors of political and commercial power on the other. The former are the godly good guys, the latter are the idolatrous oppressors. Everything neat and tidy.

However, in the Bible's actual history books, there is another kind of empire in Israel’s history. The Persian empire began with Cyrus being moved by the Lord to proclaim liberty to Israel. This is what Cyrus king of Persia says in his decree:

YHWH, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you -- may YHWH his God be with him and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of YHWH, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 36:23; Ezra 1:2-4).

Cyrus proceeded to return all the articles belonging to the temple and entrust them to Sheshbazzar. It is not surprising that Isaiah prophesied about Cyrus in these words:

He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure: even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid (44:28) . . . Thus saith the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him; and I will loose the loins of kings, to open before him the two leaved gates; and the gates shall not be shut; ‘I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron and I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the LORD, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel. For Jacob my servant's sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me. I am the LORD, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me. I am the LORD, and there is none else. . . . I have raised [Cyrus] up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the LORD of hosts. (45:1-13)

That God works through empires who knew Him not is nothing new; Assyria was God’s rod to punish Israel (Is. 10:5ff.) and Babylon was His agent as well (Jer. 27, among many others). What is striking here is that: 1) God works mercy through a conquering empire, not wrath, and 2) that God gives no sign of any plan to rebuke the instrument of His mercy.

This strongly "pro-Persian" impression is only strengthened in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Yes, the exiles have problems in Ezra 4-6, but the provocateurs are the "peoples of the land," the melange of Levantine neighbors, fooling Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes with false reports about the Jews. Eventually in Artaxerxes’s reign, first Ezra and then Nehemiah are granted high privileges, including rich gifts from the king’s treasury to the "God of heaven," immunity from taxation, and jurisdiction for the Jerusalem priesthood over all Jews (Ezra 7:17-26; 8:25-27) and an armed escort and permission and timbers to rebuild the city wall and gates for Nehemiah (2:7-9). In Nehemiah, the Jewish leader and the Persian king have a particularly close relationship. While Nehemiah is frightened when Artaxerxes accuses him of being sad at court (all those at court were supposed to be have glad faces to cheer up the king), Artaxerxes responds in a kindly and generous manner when Nehemiah tells him that it’s the troubles of Zion that have got him down (Neh. 2: 1-9).

Even more striking is the religious relationship clearly at work between these religious Jews and the Zoroastrian Persian kings. The two sides find common ground in acknowledging the authority of the "God of Heaven", used by Cyrus (Ezra 1:2), Darius (Ezra 6:9-10), Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:12, 21, 23), whose authority the Persian king himself accepts (see esp. Ezra 7:23). When speaking to the Persians, Ezra and Nehemiah and the other Jews themselves used this otherwise not particularly common epithet for their God YHWH (Ezra 5:12, 6:9, Neh. 1:4-5, 2:4, 20; cf. Daniel 2, and Jonah 1:9). Artaxerxes was evidently impressed by Ezra’s confident of the God of Heaven’s protection for the Jews (Ezra 8:22-23), although Nehemiah didn’t take such chances (Neh. 2:9). Darius expected the temple in Jerusalem to offer prayer for the king and his sons (Ezra 6:9-10) and Artaxerxes worried that interrupting this sacrifice might put the kingdom at risk of divine wrath (Ezra 7:23). Knowing as we do, that the Persian monarchy espoused Zoroastrianism and looked to Ahura Mazda as their all-powerful protector, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion not only that the Persian kings identified YHWH with Ahura Mazda, using the neutral term "God of Heaven", but that Ezra and Nehemiah were at any not at pains to disabuse the Persian monarchs of this notion. Receiving Artaxerxes’s edict that he will in fact pay for the daily sacrifices at the temple in exchange for prayers for his kingdom, Ezra exclaims:

Blessed be the LORD God of our fathers, which hath put such a thing as this in the king's heart, to beautify the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem (7:27).

Finally, there is a massive bit of negative evidence. Not a single prophet writing before the fall of the Persian empire announces any doom to Persia. No blessing of those who dash her brats against the wall, no celebratory cry of "fallen, fallen is Persia the Great!", no forcing of the Medes and Persians to drink the wine of God’s wrath, no exultation that even now God’s whistles for Macedonians and summons them from the west and render Susa desolate, a haunt for jackals and owls. Nothing like that at all in Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, the three literary prophets of the Persian era.

If the Jews from 535 to 325 BC loved Persia and her kings so much, why has that made such little impact on searchers for "Biblical politics"? I would submit that it is the effect of the still Greek-centered view of the ancient Near East. In Greece, the Persian kings were the very emblem of despotism, who dragged all of Asia out to attack the Greek city states, who only barely rescued themselves in 480 BC (cf. Daniel 11:2). Readers from the Hellenistic era to today bred on tales of Leonidas heroically dying at Thermopylae for liberty and law as he battles the endless ranks of Persia’s degraded slave soldiers serving the mad whims of a luxurious despot would hardly be receptive to the favorable portrait of Persia seen in Ezra, Nehemiah, and Isaiah. That the Persian empire is, above all others, rightly despised by God's people as an oriental despotism would seem only axiomatic.

But then the Jews had their own issues with the Greeks. Back in the time of the divided kingdom, before the Persians had ever appeared, the Lord spoke through Joel about them, charging the nations:

They have cast lots for my people; and have given a boy for an harlot, and sold a girl for wine, that they might drink. Yea, and what have ye to do with me, O Tyre, and Sidon, and all the coasts of Palestine? will ye render me a recompence? and if ye recompense me, swiftly and speedily will I return your recompence upon your own head; Because ye have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried into your temples my goodly pleasant things: The children also of Judah and the children of Jerusalem have ye sold unto the Greeks, that ye might remove them far from their border.

This accusation of the Greeks as above all slavers trafficking in human flesh continues in Ezekiel 27. Denouncing Tyre, the Lord speaks through him (vv. 13-19):

Greece, Tubal, and Meshech [two peoples in eastern Anatolia], they were thy merchants: they traded the persons of men and vessels of brass in thy market. . . . Dan also and Greece going to and fro occupied in thy fairs: bright iron, cassia, and calamus, were in thy market. (The word translated Greece here, Javan, is the Hebrew form of Ionia, the main sub-ethnic group of Greeks in Anatolia and the islands).

And in the time of the Persian empire, Zechariah made it clear where Judah stood in the emerging Greco-Persian dispute, as he looked forward to a great day (9:13):

When I have bent Judah for me, filled the bow with Ephraim, and raised up thy sons, O Zion, against thy sons, O Greece, and made thee as the sword of a mighty man.

Greek hatred of Persia influences our reading of the Bible to this day. In a Bible study on Esther at our church, the study guide made much of the Persian monarch as a lecherous and despotic tyrant. At key points, the study guide quoted the Greek historian Herodotus’s famous legends about Xerxes, flogging the waters of the Hellespont for daring to make waves that overthrew his pontoon bridge for example. (A Persianist colleague of mine laments how this legend still colors his students' attitude to anything Iranian.) This same effort by Hellenistic Jews to darken his reputation can be seen in comparing the Apocryphal additions to Esther to the original text.

Here is the original description of Esther’s climactic meeting with the Persian monarch (chapter 5:1ff):

On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king's hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter. Then the king asked, "What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you."

Despite all previous her fears that in coming without being summoned she risks the king’s displeasure, the king is instantly kind and affable, willing from the first to give her what she wants. The parallel with Nehemiah 2 is close; the servant's fear of the king's wrath proves groundless. Note too that the description of her appearance is quite restrained; no effort to heighten her erotic attractions is alluded to. She wears the royal robes appropriate to her status and that is all.

Here by contrast is the Greek version, edited by Jews soaked in the Hellenistic environment of contempt for Persia and all things Persian that followed Alexander’s vengeful conquest of the Persian empire (chap. 15):

And upon the third day, when she had ended her prayers, she laid away her mourning garments, and put on her glorious apparel. And being gloriously adorned, after she had called upon God, who is the beholder and saviour of all things, she took two maids with her: And upon the one she leaned, as carrying herself daintily and the other followed, bearing up her train. And she was ruddy through the perfection of her beauty, and her countenance was cheerful and very amiable: but her heart was in anguish for fear. Then having passed through all the doors, she stood before the king, who sat upon his royal throne, and was clothed with all his robes of majesty, all glittering with gold and precious stones; and he was very dreadful. Then lifting up his countenance that shone with majesty, he looked very fiercely upon her: and the queen fell down, and was pale, and fainted, and bowed herself upon the head of the maid that went before her. Then God changed the spirit of the king into mildness, who in a fear leaped from his throne, and took her in his arms, till she came to herself again, and comforted her with loving words and said unto her, "Esther, what is the matter? I am thy brother, be of good cheer: Thou shalt not die, though our our commandment be general: come near. And so be held up his golden sceptre, and laid it upon her neck, And embraced her, and said, Speak unto me. Then said she unto him, I saw thee, my lord, as an angel of God, and my heart was troubled for fear of thy majesty. For wonderful art thou, lord, and thy countenance is full of grace. And as she was speaking, she fell down for faintness. Then the king was troubled, and all his servants comforted her.

Every trope of "oriental despotism" is brought in: the erotic as the only way to the heart of the tyrant ("carrying herself daintily . . . ruddy through perfection of her beauty"), the tyrant’s luxury ("all glittering with gold and precious stones"), his immediate tendency to irrational and capricious anger ("he looked very fiercely upon her"), the degradation of the subjects in court ceremonial ("he laid the sceptre on her neck").

One need not add here the various later and of course completely groundless Midrashic elaborations, such as that Xerxes sought to have Vashti come to his feasting wearing only a crown (cf. Esther 1:11; a version illustrated in this Jewish comic book here; hat tip to Dissonant Bible, whose take on the Persian monarch I obviously disagree with). One can simply say, back at the time when the Jews had to actually live under the Persians they viewed things very differently.

So where does that leave us?

1) Not every world power is an oppressive empire in the Bible. World powers can liberate, as well as enslave. The decrees of world-straddling superpowers can be animated by God’s mercy as well as His wrath.

2) Ezra and Nehemiah, like the prophet Jonah (cf. 1:9 and passim), without falling into universalism, found a way to communicate with men of different religions in a way that acknowledged some common understanding of the "God of the heavens" as the creator, who seats and deposes every monarch and through them shows wrath and mercy in proportion.

3) Tiny little ethnic groups in some dump of a country disliked by all their neighbors for their nutty religious customs can be won over by even small acts of kindness and mercy. And one can never tell exactly which one of those tiny little parochial people with strange food laws will write the books that writers will be commenting on in some unimaginable communication medium two and a half millenia from now.

4) Yet relations between the "little people" and the empire are always three-cornered: the "little people" and their traditional neighbors/enemies competing for the favor of the imperial nation. In this game, every one's ultimate loyalty is to their own people. Yes, affection can subsist, but it is fragile and easily derailed when the "other guys" get the ear of the imperial nation's leaders (cf. Tattenai in Ezra, Sanballat and Tobijah in Nehemiah, and Haman in Esther).

3) Finally, even with all the good done by the Persian kings to the people of God, that good was easily forgotten and their names blackened and slandered once the Persian kings had been overthrown by the new masters of the hour. The evil that men do, or even didn’t do, lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

If America is the new world empire, all of these lessons are worth remembering.

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