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Monday, April 18, 2011

Israel and Revelation

What follows is the text of an email I sent some years ago.  Since it constitutes in many respects the outline of a theory of revelation it seemed appropriate to post a lightly edited version of it.

Sometimes I recommend books more for the ideas and issues that they raise than for the actual solutions that they offer. With regard to Mircea Eliade's work, I see his importance as due to his formulation of what he calls the "ontology" of archaic man (the man of "traditional" cultures), the ontology of archetypes and repetition. Of particular importance, in my view, is that he recognizes that the strand of Western thought known by the Greek term "philosophy" is, in fact, derived from this archaic ontology--as of course is the advanced thought of other cultures as well. This, I believe, provides the indispensable framework for any theoretical understanding of man in history.

On the other hand, Eliade's section on "Hebrew" thought is, to my mind, perhaps the least satisfactory section of The Myth of the Eternal Return, due to its reliance on scholarship that has now been pretty definitively superseded.

Eliade characterizes as "Hebrew" what is now known to modern scholars as the Deuteronomic ideology. According to this ideology, the history of Israel could be very simply read: when Israel followed the commandments as set forth in the Deuteronomic books of the OT, all went well. When Israel failed in some respect, things went to hell. The important thing to recognize is that the Deuteronomic ideology was an attempt to come to grips with the problem of evil. In this respect it is hardly unique. If you recall the Iliad, you'll remember that the early Greeks, too, saw evil in human existence as resulting from the failure to follow divine directions or commands. The essence of tragedy for the Greeks was when humans found themselves in a conflicting situation. In its highest form, as illustrated by Aeschylus' The Suppliants, the citizens find themselves faced with the alternative of either risking divine wrath by defying the divine law of hospitality to strangers--the suppliants who were seeking sanctuary--or facing likely annihilation by the Egyptians, who were demanding the return of the suppliants in accordance with their own (to the Greeks) barbarous laws. The Greeks faced a stark choice: to violate the law of dike/justice will invite divine retribution--for they believed the law to be an embodiment of the just order of the cosmos--yet obedience to the divine law will likely lead to annihilation. The Deuteronomic ideology, on the other hand, recognized fewer such complexities, but the implications were similar: anything bad that happened must be a result of a violation of Torah in some way. The book of Job, of course, is in its own way a protest against this simplistic ideology, just as Greek tragedy was an attempt to come to grips with the problem of evil as it had traditionally been regarded.

So the first thing to recognize is that there is nothing particularly unique about the Deuteronomic ideology--variations of its basic attitude can be found almost universally throughout history, as can attempts to find some escape from its iron logic: since all men sin, we are all doomed to evil and unhappiness. Vanity of vanities. The Hindu doctrine of reincarnation is an example of such an attempt to evade this iron logic. Such doctrines as incarnation are not rational in the strict sense--they are not the expression of a theoretical insight into the nature of reality; rather, they are expressions of human unease with the human condition, in which good does not always triumph. The Christian doctrine of an afterlife is yet another approach to this problem, but one that asserts that it is based on an historical occurrence as well as reasoned insight.

However, the Israelite ideology took on a special urgency, as expressed by the prophets, for two interactive reasons: 1) the development, as part of the Deuteronomic ideology, of the idea of Israel as a Chosen people, chosen to inhabit a specific land; and 2) the increasingly tenuous historical position that the two Israelite kingdoms found themselves in. Certainly the idea that a people has been given a land by a god to inhabit is not unique to Israel. Virtually every culture has expressed some such idea in one form or another. However, when juxtaposed with the iron logic of the Deuteronomic ideology and placed in the context of an unstable Middle Eastern world in which tiny nations such as Israel were at the mercy of powerful neighbors, it was inevitable that a high degree of tension would develop in Israelite thought.  After all, in such an geo-political  context, bad things were—humanly speaking--virtually inevitable. So too was the temptation to succumb to nihilism: perhaps the destruction of the Israelite kingdoms was simply the proof that Israel was not particularly chosen, or no more so than the Edomites, Assyrians or any other nation. Perhaps history is ultimately an arena in which brute force wins out and human existence has no other meaning.

Of course, other peoples had/have faced this dilemma, too. The various attempts to construct cyclical "theories" of history to make sense of history are evidence of the human impulse to legislate meaning into history. The question is, does the Deuteronomic ideology represent a somehow new and sui generis effort? My answer is: not really, when taken on its own terms--which is to say, not unless the history of Israel, including its intellectual and spiritual development, is interpreted as leading to and preparing for the Christian revelation.

We now know that the Deuteronomic ideology was fully developed rather late in the national life of Israel, probably under the pressure of the threat of national extinction. That it was not fully convincing at the time is evident from the response of the Israelites to Jeremiah recorded in Jeremiah 44. Jeremiah rebukes the people for not following his vision of God's will for them--accepting the Deuteronomic reform of traditional Israelite religion, which had been masked as the "rediscovery" of Torah—and they reply, in so many words, Look, Jeremiah, everything was going along just fine as long as we honored the Queen of Heaven as we had traditionally done. It was when you Deuteronomists came along with your new fangled ideas about monotheism that things went to hell. The two claims are a mirror image; the logic is the same: it comes down to competing truth claims regarding which truly represented traditional Israelite religion. Bad things have happened; this situation must result either from the failure to follow the Deuteronomists into monotheism (Jeremiah's contention) or the result of forsaking traditional "polytheistic" religion for the new fangled Deuteronomic interpretation. The Deuteronomist school ultimately won out, leading to a redefinition of Israel as a people. Nevertheless, biblical literature written between the Return from the Babylonian Exile and the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD shows, among the many strands of Jewish thought, a current of uneasiness and sometimes an outright skepticism with regard to this Deuteronomic ideology. The notion of chosenness survived, but the idea of a Davidic kingship was pretty well buried, replaced in some circles by messianic ideologies that broke to the surface in times of crisis in Jewish life--the ill-fated rebellions against Rome, the Zionist ideology of today, as well as other less well known outbreaks in between.

The strain this ideology places on historical interpretation is apparent from even a brief consideration of the Holocaust. A Deuteronomic view of the Holocaust would have to interpret it as divine punishment for sin. This has, with few exceptions, proved to be an intolerable view for most Jews. Thus a strict Deuteronomic view was largely replaced in Jewish thought by a more focused emphasis on the halakhic obligations of chosenness. Nevertheless, no adequate replacement has been found for the Deuteronomic ideology within the tradition of orthodox Jewish religious thought, leading to Jewish involvement in secular ideologies (Marxism, Liberalism, Freudianism) as well as Zionism which purport to provide definitive solutions to the human condition--or, especially in the case of Zionism--the Jewish condition.

In his discussion of "Hebrew" thought Eliade claims that YHWH, as personal, is completely other than "Oriental" deities, who merely provided archetypal gestures to follow. He contends that the development of the Deuteronomic ideology marked an advance or development, by which men now learned God's will from historical events: history was understood to be the epiphany of God, the revelation of God's will. I find this unconvincing, apart from its dubious grasp of Israelite history. Eliade might have a case if there were some variety of interpretations of God's will. The fact is, however, that the manifestation of God's will in historical events is always the same for the Deuteronomists: you were unfaithful as measured by the Torah that the Deuteronomists developed, so now you're being punished. There is really no dialogue or personal interaction here at all. It comes down to: do it or else, with no elaboration or explanation. Left at that, YHWH has at best a pretty threadbare personality. However, we know that that was not the sum and substance of Israelite and (later) Jewish thought and that the Deuteronomic view, while dominant for some centuries, was not unchallenged. Even so, the prophetic assurances of God's love--or of rescue and a future glorious kingdom--provide no real escape from the iron law of Deuteronomic ideology.

On the other hand, I think Eliade is correct to point out that the Israelite/Deuteronomic view that God has been acting in history since the beginning to prepare a people he has chosen, and has gradually revealed himself over centuries, does give a linear quality to the Israelite outlook that is different from, say, the Mesopotamian idea of an eternal conflict between deities and demons. But, again, the question remains: taken in itself, does the Deuteronomic ideology of chosenness and its law of divine retribution for failure to conform to Torah have more inherent explanatory power than the Mesopotamian view. Again, I say: no. Look at Jewish history over the millennia. Is there any evidence of progress or development that draws the Jewish people closer to an end of history, to "final salvation?" I don't see it. It appears to be a history in all essentials like that of any other people that has endured so long: there are ups and downs, high points followed by low points, and it just goes on. So too has the history of Mesopotamia:

among the Mesopotamian peoples individual or collective sufferings were tolerated insofar as they were caused by the conflict between divine and demonic forces, that is, formed a part of the cosmic drama (the Creation being, from time immemorial and ad infinitum, preceded by chaos and tending to be reabsorbed in it; a new birth implying, from time immemorial and ad infinitum, sufferings and passions, etc.), in the Israel of the Messianic prophets, historical events could be tolerated because, on the one hand, they were willed by Yahweh, and, on the other hand, because they were necessary to the final salvation of the chosen people.

As theory, and evaluated by their explanatory power, the two appear equal. One is a cosmic drama, the other represents the will of God--period, no necessary rhyme or reason. Neither can claim support from the historical facts, although the developing Israelite monotheism was undeniably superior in theoretical power from the standpoint of sheer existence. But from an experiential standpoint, as explanations for the problem of evil, both are methods of coping with the perceived absurdity of existence. The fact that for Jews history was no longer seen to be cyclic is not totally satisfactory as a solution, for as theory it was still subject to the withering critique of Qoheleth: vanity of vanities, all is vanity. For those who put their trust in the ideology of a messianic revival of Israel, history was littered with their corpses.

What are we to make, for example of Eliade's implicit claim that the Holocaust, for example, is somehow more tolerable when seen as part of a "terrifying dialogue" with YHWH, rather than the result of "an 'accident' (e.g., a spell) or a 'negligence' (e.g., a ritual fault) that could easily be made good by a sacrifice (even though it were the sacrifice of infants to Moloch)." I see no superior consoling power here.

The situation does dramatically change with the advent of Christ and his Church. Eliade, unfortunately, accepts uncritically the claim that YHWH revealed himself in history to Israel: handed over the stone tablets to Moses on the mountain, then replaced them when Moses smashed them, etc., etc. However, modern scholarship has revealed the narratives of the Pentateuch to be in the nature of foundation myths. The case is otherwise with the revelation of God in Jesus. If Christian faith means anything, it means belief that the testimony of Jesus' disciples is historically factual in a modern critical sense--or that it must be evaluated with a view to determining its historical reliability. Modern scholarship set out with the intent of proving otherwise, with the intent of proving that Christianity, too, is based on myth, on one more attempt by man to render an absurd existence tolerable. I maintain that the further one goes in examining Christian beginnings the more believable it becomes that the claims of Christian faith are indeed based on fact. This is the true difference: not between linear v. cyclical speculations, but between speculation and fact. If Jesus, in person, IS revelation--God's self-revelation--then Christian faith is not a theory or a philosophy or a myth: it is fact and history. (There is a sense, that advanced by Chesterton in The Everlasting Man, in which Christianity is a "true myth," but that is another story.)

Here, too, with regard to "faith" Eliade's analysis is lacking. For Eliade, "faith" is God's demand upon us, with no "rational justification." Eliade, like Kierkegaard, accepts Abraham as the model of "faith" for Israelites (and Jews) as well as for Christians. But even a cursory reading of the NT documents shows that faith is not irrational--rather, it is a reasoned belief and trust in the testimony of Jesus and of the Church. Based on our analysis, it cannot be otherwise, for it is based on "this man Jesus." We inevitably run up against facticity--factual claims. Christian faith is ultimately about facts that each individual must weigh, not about irrational demands nor about promises to be fulfilled in the future. This was definitively expressed by Paul, a relative handful of years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when he writes that if Christ is not risen we are the most pitiable of men.

Nevertheless, the connection of Christianity to Israelite thought should be apparent. Christian faith, based as it is on historical events, is ultimately incompatible with cyclical speculation on history. Christian faith that is true to its origin in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus demands a linear view of history. In this respect (as well as in others) and from the perspective of Christian faith in Jesus, the Pentateuchal narratives are not "just" foundation myths. They are part of the process by which God prepared a people to receive the Good News, a people that would be constituted by faith (reasoned belief) in the historical truth of that good news. The development of an Israelite view of history as linear was part of that preparation for the reception of Jesus. As crucial or more so was the development of monotheism. This preparation made possible the development of the Church, which would not have been possible if Jesus had come out of the blue, so to speak, into China or India. The Jewish people--as well as the Gentiles who had been attracted to Judaism's higher ethical teaching--were the people who were prepared to receive the Good News and to spread the Word in the world.

From this, too, we see the need for a more developed theory of revelation. Rather than a view of OT revelation as a coded message of some sort that needs to be deciphered, revelation--if it is to be true to the history of Israel and of the early Church--must be seen as a preparation of Israel as the vehicle for God's definitive self revelation in Jesus. A close examination shows that this also reflects Jesus' own expressed attitudes toward the OT: his rejection of Deuteronomic ideology (Lord, who sinned that this man was born blind?) and even of Mosaic authority (this commandment was given because of your hardness of heart). This, however, must be developed further at a later stage.

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