Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Speaking Truth to Power

The Bible, by which out of habit I mean the Old Testament, is a saga or family history, full of difficult births and sibling rivalries. It has obvious importance for the current territorial and political conflicts among Israel and the Palestinians. Israelis and Jews base their claims to the Land of Israel on biblical promises and history. On the other hand, for many Christians and Muslims these claims are moot, because they regard their own religions and books as supersessions of the Old Testament and its god. This adds a theological dimension to the Jewish fear of being expendable or sacrificial. By the way this fear has reappeared in the discourse over the Iran crisis. Some Jewish commentators believe that the United States and Europe will eventually do a deal with Iran at Israel's expense and endangerment. Put another way, most Christians and virtually all Muslems will have no religious objections to the disappearnace of Israel. That is one reason that Israel has so firmly embraced the Christian fundamentalists who think that Israel is a necessary part of a world ordered according to divine inspiration. Never mind that some of them also believe that the return of the Jews to Israel is a prelude to an End Time that would include their conversion or annihilation. The sense of the fragility of the Biblical promise of land might also explain why some Jews so stubbornly insist on settling the entire land, even if Palestinian and other Arab responses to that can make Israel's existence more precarious.

It is unfortunate, perhaps devastating, for Jews that the reenactment of settling the land and cultic practices associated with it have nearly excluded reenactments of any other Biblical messages that have counterparts elsewhere in the universal library. I refer, for example, to the insistence of Hebrew prophets on social welfare and justice. There is also the precept about the same laws and judicial diligence applying to both the Jews and the "strangers" in their midst. Such a standard has been sadly lacking over decades of Israel's dealing with its own Palestinian minority, with the Palestinians in the territories and even with guest workers.

Another Biblical episode is particularly relevant now as the penitential season in the Jewish calendar approaches and Israel also debates what commissions of inquiry could adequately investigate the conduct of the latest war. The story (Samuel 2, 12:1-13) encapsulates the idea of speaking truth to power. The prophet Nathan visits King David after David had engineered the death of his soldier Uriah in order to take Uriah's widow Bathsheva as his wife. Nathan told David about two men living in the city. One was rich and had many sheep. The other was poor and had only a small ewe lamb to provide milk, but the man loved that lamb and raised it as one of the family. A traveler visited the rich man, but the rich man did not kill one of his own flock for the welcoming feast. Instead he stole the poor man's lamb, slaughtered and served it to his guest.
And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, "As the Lord lives, the man that did this thing deserves to die. He shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." And Nathan said to David, "You are the man."

Nathan then explained that God had saved David from being killed by the previous king. God had given David that king's wives and possessions. Nevertheless, David had arranged the death of Uriah so he could take Uriah's only wife Bathsheva. (Note women = chattel was a sign of the times.) David most remarkably for a political and war leader of that period acknowledged his sin.


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