The Paganization of Israel and Prophets’ Counter-imagination

Light of truth

The eminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann notes the royal consciousness at work in the kingdom of David and Solomon is “a self-serving achievement with its sole purpose the self-securing of king and dynasty.” He quotes Mendenhall, who described it as ‘the paganization of Israel:” it involved “a steady abandonment of the radicalism of the Mosaic vision,” as well as an eradication of tribal structures and perspectives. It was therefore syncretist in the adjustment of religious, social and ethical standards to mesh with a political scheme. He goes so far as to claim that ‘this new insight is not only revolutionary so far as biblical studies and theology are concerned, it is potentially of crucial importance to the survival of modem civilization and its dense population.’ He argues that there is ‘abundant evidence for a systematic reversion to Bronze Age paganism with the rapid evolution of the Jerusalem kingship, and that reversion took place in less than two generations.’ He sees this as a denial and reversal of the religious ethic of the Mosaic period to a system of the political monopoly of force which was subjected to critique by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. The contrast here, however, is between the essential Israel and a paganization of the Davidic monarchy which denies this essential nature. The more Solomon moved away from these divine gifts, the more he became a king like all the other nations had. Solomon became increasingly of the world over which he had been selected, and Israel had been elected to be an alternative. Solomon and Israel could have walked that fine line between being in but not of the world. Without them, the results were as disastrous as they were predictable. It soon became all but impossible to distinguish between Israel and any other nation. Institutional structures per se were not the issue.

According to Brueggemann, “the heart of the Bible is not the presentation of history but a font of imagination that hosts a world other than the one in front of us. By “imagination” Brueggemann does not mean “irreal” but quite the opposite. He claims that the world we live in, the world where the empires of man rule, is the parody. All empires are acts of imagination: they present a world that lures humanity into its false hopes and lays claim to our hearts and souls as the unquestioned status quo. You take what the world offers –commodities, prejudices, fears, injustices, violence, false gods – and you accept it all as a given. Scripture, in other words, is counter-imagination, a “rival eschatology,” as N. T. Wright puts it, to any system that claims “we have now arrived.” Empires do not like the promise of scripture, because promise implies the present is inadequate. Counter-imagination makes empires nervous.

Scripture itself demonstrates the clash of empires. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt takes the Israelites from a world of slavery to where all they do is never enough and they are enslaved to producing banks where the king of that empire can keep his excess wealth. God delivers Israel to a world where their God is not a task master but a deliverer and where their world is not defined by “commodities” but by “fidelities.” The God of Scripture is not the “omni” god of the Enlightenment (omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient) or of nineteenth century higher criticism, but a God who is embedded as a character in narrative, the subject of active verbs, the God who is on your side and fights for you. Brueggemann finds both the pre-critical (literalistic reading of scripture) and critical (dis-integration of scripture) spiritually unhealthy. The former is naive and the latter is suspicious of scripture. A post-critical attitude is a way forward that retrieves pre-critical devotion in conversation with true critical insights. He argues that the prophetic corpus was assembled to speak to the realities of the exile, which helps us today see the urgency of speaking God’s word into analogous situations. Prophets are truth-tellers and hope-tellers. The role of the biblical prophets is to deconstruct the world of power through poetic rhetoric. Power structures are in a state of denial, meaning they hold on to power at all costs. By his truth-telling poetic critique, the prophet introduces despair to the halls of power and to those who place their hope in them. Once such despair is fully embraced and lamented, the prophet declares a word of hope, envisioning a time when God will bring something utterly new and counterintuitive out of despair. Prophetic ministry does not consist of spectacular acts of social crusading or of abrasive measures of indignation. Prophetic ministry consists of offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and His will for justice.

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