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Out of Babylon
By Walter Brueggemann
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Facts on the Ground ... twice!
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. (Psalm 137:5-6)
These verses from the Psalter voice a passionate Jewish commitment that could not be silenced or nullified by the imperial power of Babylon. These verses succinctly encode the power relationship between the hegemony of Babylon and the defiant, pathos-filled resistance of Jews who continued to hold to their "local tradition" in spite of the power and requirements of the empire. In the discussion that follows, I will trace the defiant, pathos-filled resistance of "local truth" against empire, even as it continues among contemporary Christians who must live agilely in the midst of the deeply problematic power of the U.S. empire.
The great geopolitical fact for ancient Israel in the sixth century BCE was the Babylonian kingdom located in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. To some extent the kingdom of Egypt to the south of Israel functioned in the sixth century, as it often did, as a counterweight to the great northern power. There is no doubt, however, that Babylon was the defining, generative power in international affairs, and so constituted an immediate threat to Israel. Babylon was a very ancient kingdom with advanced cultural and scientific learning. It experienced an important revival in the sixth century with the founding of a new dynasty. In the seventh century Babylon had been subordinated to the powerful kingdom of Assyria. But in 626 BCE Nabopolassar, together with important allies, broke free from Assyria, established an independent kingdom, and in twenty years displaced Assyria as the dominant regional power. In 605 he was succeeded on the throne by his son Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled until 562; the son brought the kingdom of Babylon to the apex of power and influence. The new dynasty presided over by two kings—father and son—had enormous expansionist ambitions, and so pushed relentlessly to the west. The dynasty came quickly to a sorry end through a series of ineffective leaders, culminating in the defeat of the kingdom at the hands of Cyrus, the rising Persian power to the east. Thus this Neo-Babylonian dynasty was only a brief episode in the long history of the ancient Near East.
For the Bible, however, the existence and aggressive military policies of Babylon constituted a defining moment in history—and therefore in faith—for ancient Israel. Babylon's military adventurism under Nebuchadnezzar inevitably led his armies to the Mediterranean Sea and inescapably toward Jerusalem and the state of Judah. Both the Bible and the cuneiform evidence left by the Babylonians indicate that Babylon undertook a series of military incursions into Judah, and three times came against the city of Jerusalem. It was, moreover, a policy of the Babylonians to reduce conquered peoples to acquiescent colonies by the stratagem of deporting the leadership class (who might have mounted resistance to such occupation) and relocating that elite population elsewhere.
The biblical evidence is terse. But it indicates that Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city of Jerusalem in 598 BCE and carried away King Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24:10-12). In 587, moreover, Nebuchadnezzar came again against the city and took away King Zedekiah, uncle of Jehoiachin (2 Kings 25:1-7). The narrative continues in order to report that Nebuzaradan, Nebuchadnezzar's general, carried into exile the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had defected to the king of Babylon—"all the rest of the population" (2 Kings 25:11). The following verse 12 concedes that the land was not left empty, but "some of the poorest people of the land," that is, the ones who could not initiate resistance to the empire, were left in the land (see also v. 14). The narrative of 2 Kings 25 reports that in these incursions the wealth of the temple plus all of the leading officers of the government were carried away, thus reducing the city and its population to impotence (2 Kings 24:13-16; 25:13-20). These several verses trace the demise of Jerusalem's power and the culmination of the large narrative account of Israel in the land that began with the promise to Abraham and the occupation of the land by Joshua. The narrative is shaped in order to make clear that the Babylonian destruction of the city was an immense loss, bespeaking grief and humiliation. It was, moreover, an occurrence that required sustained interpretive attention in order to make sense of the crisis of culture and the crisis of faith. The evidence of the "facts on the ground" concerning the Babylonian destruction is not in doubt and is readily summarized. What remained, however, was an enormous interpretive task, a task that evoked Israel's best imagination that in turn resulted in the production of much of the material that now constitutes the Old Testament.
It is not difficult to summarize these "facts on the ground." What requires careful attention, however, is the additional "fact on the ground" that the story told about these events amounted to a vigorous, sustained interpretation by a determined interpretive community. That community produced an ideological explanation that came to be constitutive for the ongoing community of Judaism. Among those Jews carried off to Babylon, a small, intentional, intense group seized the interpretive initiative and established the governing categories for how the destruction and deportation were to be understood. This cadre of interpreters opined about the causes of the destruction, the way of coping in the displacement, and the prospects for ending the displacement and returning home. All of which is only to say that the dominant narrative account of Jews in the sixth century is not an objective, disinterested report, but rather one that bears the ideological fingerprints of the group that created this particular interpretation of events that is appropriate to those who offer the interpretation. Perhaps inescapably, this account of the crisis of the sixth century draws all of its meaning close to this community of interpreters, that is, close to the deported elites in Babylon who understood and presented themselves as the faithful carriers and embodiment of true Israel into the future. That ideological force concluded:
The destruction and deportation were the will and work of YHWH, whose Torah had been intolerably violated. Thus Nebuchadnezzar can be understood at most as a tool and agent of YHWH; or, as Jeremiah asserts, Nebuchadnezzar is YHWH's "servant" (Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6); the disaster is not simply a sociomilitary one; it is a theological disaster.
It became the tenacious work of the community of Jews in Babylon to maintain this distinct identity as Jews, to practice the kind of Torah obedience that had not been practiced in Jerusalem, and to keep hope alive for the end of displacement and return to the land.
This simple narrative construction made theological sense and coherence out of a deeply incoherent historical experience. The story line offered by these Jews provided a theological case (punishment by YHWH) for Torah obedience, a task to practice Torah in a foreign land in order to maintain a holy people uncontaminated by alien context, and a hope for return home. The sequence of case, task, and hope is reflected in the tenacious insistence of Psalm 137, a song of the deportees that keeps the energy of the community sharply focused on Jerusalem:
By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.... 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. (Psalm 137:1, 5-6)
The song freely acknowledged life in an alien context, but refused to accommodate that life at all. In the end the psalm voices profound hostility against all things Babylonian, the violent rage that is voiced being a function of hope that is lodged in a distinct identity that refused any imperial accommodation:
O daughter 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! (vv. 8-9)
It is this tenacity that gives Judaism such staying power. And it is the deep fissure of this sixth-century disaster that has given Judaism its primary form, so much so that Jacob Neusner can judge that the theme of exile and return has become paradigmatic for all Jews for all time to come:
The vast majority of the nation did not undergo the experiences of exile and return. One part never left, the other never came back. That fact shows us the true character of the Judaism that would predominate: it began by making a selection of facts to be deemed consequential, hence historical, and by ignoring, in the making of that selection, the experience of others who had a quite different appreciation of what had happened—and, for all we know, a different appreciation of the message. For, after all, the Judeans who did not go into exile also did not rebuild the temple, and the ones in Babylonia did not try.
YHWH is the one who willed the deportation; Babylon is the agent who enacted that deportation. This assignment of roles to YHWH and to Babylon was accomplished through a daring interpretive maneuver that imposed a certain logic upon events, a logic rooted in the covenantal nomism of the tradition of Deuteronomy, wherein Torah obedience or disobedience will variously yield blessings and curses. The disaster of the sixth century, so goes the paradigm, was a justly merited curse worked against those who had violated covenantal obedience. This logic both imposed meaning on chaotic events and established the voice of the deported elite as normative for the larger community.
But since we are here concerned with "facts on the ground," we must pause to notice that there is an important dissonance between the facts on the ground and this normative construction of historical reality. Neusner puts it this way:
Because the Mosaic Torah's interpretation of the diverse experiences of the Israelites after the destruction of the Temple in 586 invoked—whether pertinent or not—the categories of exile and return, so constructing as paradigmatic the experience of only a minority of the families of the Jews (most in Babylonia stayed there, many in the Land of Israel never left), through the formation of the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, the events from 586 to 450 B.C., became for all time to come the generative and definitive pattern of meaning. Consequently, whether or not the paradigm precipitated dissonance with their actual circumstance, Jews in diverse settings have constructed their worlds, that is, shaped their identifications, in accord with that one, generative model. They therefore have perpetually rehearsed that human experience imagined by the original priestly authorship of the Torah in the time of Ezra.... To state the matter simply, the paradigm that imparted its imprint on the history of the day did not emerge from, was not generated by, the events of the age. First came the system, its world-view and the way of life formed whole we know not where or by whom. Then came the selection, by the system, of consequential events and their patterning into systemic propositions. And finally, at a third stage (of indeterminate length of time) came the formation and composition of the canon that would express the logic of the system and state those "events" that the system would select or invent for its own expression.
Neusner deduces two historical realities to which we may add a third:
Many in the land of Israel never left. It is now a commonplace of scholarship that the land was never empty; there was a functioning community remaining in the land that the Babylonians did not bother to eliminate. Thus Jeremiah 41:3-5 indicates that worship continued at the temple site in Jerusalem. Most of those deported from Jerusalem to Babylon remained in Babylon. The evidence is that many of the deported Jews came to play a prominent role in the ongoing economic life of Babylon, and managed to sustain Jewish identity while participating in the imperial economy. Only a small number of scribal-priestly fanatics were committed to "return." Babylon continued to be an important, even defining socioeconomic, political force for all in the region, a force that could not be disregarded.
The defining importance of Babylon is made clear enough in the tradition of Jeremiah. In the initial poetry of the book, there is an ominous "foe from the North" anticipated by the poet who remains unnamed, but is surely Babylon (Jeremiah 1:11-14; 5:14-17). More explicitly, the prose of Jeremiah names Nebuchadnezzar as "my servant" (Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6), who is authorized and empowered to enact the devastation of Judaism that is willed by YHWH. In these texts Babylon is viewed as a dangerous and inescapable threat to the city.
The book of Jeremiah gives voice to a small group of figures clustered around the prophet who believed that the royal policies in Jerusalem were quite wrong. The advocacy of this group, surely grounded in political realism, insisted that Jerusalem surrender to Babylon rather than be destroyed. A theological version of this advocacy—that went hand in glove with this political judgment—is that YHWH willed the triumph of Babylon, and that it was senseless and disobedient to resist the empire. The leading advocate in the tradition is Shaphan, whose son is also prominent in the tradition and whose grandson, Gedaliah, is appointed as a trusted governor of the province by the Babylonians after the defeat of the monarchy.
Three texts in Jeremiah in particular counsel accommodation to Babylon, a political realism that is given theological formulation. First and best known, in his famous "letter to the exiles," Jeremiah encourages the deported to "seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7).
More than simply accommodating Babylon, this text urges coming to terms with the empire as the unavoidable matrix for Jewish well-being. Deported Jews must come to terms with Babylon! Second, in Jeremiah 38:17 the tradition exhibits the prophet urging surrender to Babylon as a way to save the city: "If you will only surrender to the officials of the king of Babylon, then your life shall be spared, and this city shall not be burned with fire, and you and your house shall live."
And third, awkwardly, in Jeremiah 42:11-12, the prophet urges reliance on the mercy of Babylon as an expression of YHWH's own mercy:
Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, as you have been; do not be afraid of him, says the LORD, for I am with you, to save you and to rescue you from his hand. I will grant you mercy, and he will have mercy on you and restore you to your native soil.
Here the tradition anticipates "mercy" from the very kingdom that it earlier said would "have no mercy" (Jeremiah 6:23).
Excerpted from Out of Babylon by Walter Brueggemann Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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