Sunday, September 7, 2008

Misfortune and History - Continued

In “Misfortune and History” (from The Myth of the Eternal Return) Mircea Eliade deals at considerable length with “Hebrew” thought. This is, to my mind, perhaps the least satisfactory section of The Myth of the Eternal Return, due in part to its reliance on scholarship that has now been pretty definitively superseded but also due to faulty analysis.

Eliade characterizes as "Hebrew" thought what is now known to modern scholars as the Deuteronomic ideology, accepting the now discredited view that Israelite thought essentially underwent no development from the origins of Israel to the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Modern scholarship has conclusively demonstrated both that the Biblical accounts of Israelite origins (the Exodus and Conquest) are not historical and that Israelite conceptions of divinity as well as religious practice underwent significant development and change. What I have characterized as the Deuteronomic "ideology" attained social effectiveness during the years between the fall of the northern Israelite kingdom (722 BC) and the final fall of the southern kingdom of Judah (586 BC). The so-called Deuteronomic "reform" was politically dominant especially during the reign of Josiah (649-609BC). The Deuteronomic ideology combined a rather advanced development of Israelite religion in the direction of monotheism, away from a more traditional West Semitic pantheon of gods, with a basically conservative "archaic" worldview. Where the "archaic" worldview saw misfortune in history as either a defeat of one set of gods by an opposing set of gods, or as the result of a failure to conform to divine will, the Deuteronomic ideology interpreted misfortune in Israelite history--and the misfortune that threatened in the form of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires--as the result of Israel's failure to conform to the Deuteronomic theology of Yahweh as the sole god of Israel and obedience to Torah. The history of Israel was rewritten to conform with this view. Thus, according to this ideology, the history of Israel could be understood according to a very simply logic: when Israel followed the commandments as set forth in the Deuteronomic books of the OT, all went well. When Israel failed in some respect--as when the Israelites followed their more traditional West Semitic religious traditions--things fell apart.

This all embracing but simplistic explanation of the ups and downs of Israel's historical existence ran into countervailing factual situations, as when the Deuteronomic hero--the perfect reforming king, Josiah--went down to ignominious defeat when he tried to assert Israelite independence from Egyptian overlordship. Thereafter the dilemma for the Deuteronomic ideology was how to explain to its critics why Israel had suffered misfortune even under this perfect Deuteronomic king. The Deuteronomic answer could only be that the nation had "sinned," violated God's law, but the flaws in this logic were easily exploited by traditionalists: by the same token, they could argue, the misfortunes had actually been the result of the abandonment of traditional Israelite religion, such as the cult of the Queen of Heaven. Thus, in Jeremiah 44, we find Jeremiah urging the Israelites to follow the Deuteronomic reforms in spite of the disastrous fall of Jerusalem. Jeremiah urges the Israelites to forsake the worship of the Queen of Heaven, and the people refuse--protesting that in worshipping the Queen of Heaven they were doing what their ancestors had done. As long as they had done so, the people argued, all had been well. Only when they had forsaken their ancient religion for the new-fangled ideas of Jeremiah and the Deuteronomists had things fallen apart--and Jeremiah has no convincing counter-argument to make:

16 'As for the "word" that you [Jeremiah] have spoken to us in the name of Yahweh, we won't pay you any heed. 17 Instead we will certainly perform every word that we have spoken; we will make offering to the Queen of Heaven, and will pour out drink-offerings to her, as we have done--we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem--for then we had plenty of food, and were well, and saw no evil. 18 But since we stopped our offerings to the Queen of Heaven, and stopped pouring out drink-offerings to her, we have been in need, and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.

Clearly, the Israelites are challenging the very legitimacy of Isaiah's "word," rejecting the "new truth" of the Deuteronomic vision that Jeremiah championed: how the divine order of the cosmos was to be understood and how Israel was to acknowledge its dependence on divine law.

Ancient Israel was hardly unique in having to confront the problem of misfortune in history, and the problem of reconciling the divine commands with harsh realities. The Iliad expresses the early Greek view that evil in human existence results from failure to follow divine directions or commands--without exception or deviation. In later Greek life, the essence of tragedy for the Greeks occurred when humans found themselves in a situation to which there appeared to be no satisfactory solution between human disaster and divine law. In its highest form, as illustrated by Aeschylus' The Suppliants, the citizens of Argos find themselves faced with the tragic choice of either honoring the divine law of hospitality by providing refuge to fugitives from Egyptian law or opening their city--to which they owe complete devotion--to annihilation by a powerful Egyptian force that is pursuing the fugitives. If the citizens choose to violate the law then dike/justice--understood as conformity to the divinely instituted cosmic order--will invite divine retribution, yet exposing their city (which is also under divine protection) to the wrath of the Egyptians seems unthinkable. In this conflict of divine laws, are the citizens of Argos to be innocent victims?

Yet at the time when the Deuteronomic ideology took shape, we find little of the soul searching that is characteristic of Greek tragedy. The reason for this, I believe, is that the Deuteronomic ideology was developed at a time of national crisis for Israel as an explanation for past misfortunes and an argument that future misfortunes could be avoided. In point of fact, the looming tragedy for Israel--devastating conquest by the Chaldeans--was not avoided. As a result, the focus shifted to the future: failure to live Torah would undoubtedly lead to further misfortune, but perhaps wholehearted adherence to the Torah would cause Yahweh to relent and lead Israel to the national triumph they longed for.

So the first thing to recognize if we are to come to an adequate appreciation of the Deuteronomic ideology is that there is nothing particularly unique about the Deuteronomic ideology in principle. Variations or analogues of its basic attitude can be found almost universally, as can attempts to find an escape from the iron logic that is implied: if all men sin, as seems to be the case, it follows that men are doomed to evil and unhappiness. Vanity of vanities.

The Hindu doctrine of reincarnation is another example of an attempt to escape the iron logic of a similar ideology: the law of karma. Of course, such doctrines as incarnation are not rational in the strict sense, since there is no basis for them in human experience; rather, such doctrines are expressions of human unease with the human condition of existence in history and they should be evaluated from that standpoint.

However, what makes the Israelite ideology of special interest is its urgency. This sense of urgency arose from two interactive factors: the development, as part of the Deuteronomic ideology, of the idea of being a Chosen people, chosen to inhabit a specific land that had been promised to Israel by God in perpetuity; and the increasingly tenuous historical position that the two Israelite kingdoms found themselves in, which cast grave doubt on the viability of the asserted promise. Certainly the idea that a people has been given a land to inhabit by a god is not unique to Israel. Virtually every culture can point to a similar idea in its foundational myths. 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. The history of Israel (as recounted by the Deuteronomist) demonstrated that, humanly speaking, it was virtually inevitable that the Israelites would sin and incur Yahweh's wrath. And yet the alternative to continual divine punishment (as demanded by the Deuteronomic ideology) was to renounce "chosen" status and accept the essential irrationality of historical existence--including national extinction and absorption into the current dominant world empire.

Of course, other peoples had/have faced similar dilemmas, too, and few if any ever chose to willingly embrace national extinction. The various speculative attempts to construct cyclical patterns to make sense of history are evidence of the human impulse to legislate meaning into history. The question is, does the Deuteronomic ideology with its fierce determination to maintain Israel's national life provide a new and more convincing answer to this common human dilemma? In spite of the theoretical superiority of Israelite monotheism and its linear view of history, the answer can only be: not really. Not when taken on its own terms--which is to say, when not interpreted from a traditional Christian standpoint which interprets the history of Israel as typological "foreshadowing" of Christ. As Voegelin has pointed out, history is simply not an essence that can be known as a whole by man; knowing that history is linear rather than cyclical does not get us any closer to an ultimate understanding of a global meaning of history.

We now know that the Deuteronomic ideology was fully developed rather late in the national life of Israel, 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, as recorded in Jeremiah 44. Jeremiah rebukes the people for not following the Deuteronomic vision of God's will for them, and they reply, in effect, '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 that things fell apart.' The two claims are a mirror image; their logic is the same and neither can be falsified or validated independently. Bad things have happened--that goes without saying. But what caused these misfortunes--was it the failure to follow the Deuteronomists or was it the result of forsaking traditional religion for the new fangled Deuteronomic interpretation? The Deuteronomic theology of god is undoubtedly theoretically superior, but the historical misfortunes that the Deuteronomists claimed could be avoided still continued. The biblical literature written between the return from Exile in Babylon and the catastrophic Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple 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--of this, Job and Qoheleth offer eloquent testimony. The notion of chosenness survived, but the solution for how that ideal could be embodied in history was not apparent: with the demise of the Davidic kingship the response ranged from messianic ideologies (which inevitably failed) to a sort of historical quietism--enduring and waiting for a miracle.

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, since the picture it paints of Yahweh and his sense of justice is grim indeed. For these reasons, as expressed in Job, a strict Deuteronomic view was largely replaced in Jewish thought at a relatively early date--certainly after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and as early as the time that Rabbinic Judaism developed--by a more focused emphasis on the national halakhic obligations of chosenness. Israel would, henceforth, be a holy nation but would (for the most part) tacitly renounce ambitions for a worldly kingdom--until the 20th century. Therefore, from the standpoint of actual history, it appears that the Deuteronomic ideology was a failure because it failed to make the misfortunes of history in any way more tolerable than under other speculative cyclic schemes.

At this point it may be well to address an argument that Eliade raises to distinguish Israelite thought from archaic thought. Eliade makes the claim that Yahweh, as personal, is completely other than "Oriental" deities which merely provided archetypal gestures. He contends that the development of the Deuteronomic ideology marked an advance or development in man's relationship with God, 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. Yet Eliade's argument is far from convincing. Certainly, Jewish history bears out that the logic of the Deuteronomic ideology was found to be wanting. Further, while Eliade might still have a case if there were some variety of interpretations of God's will, the fact is 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 meaningful dialog or personal interaction here at all. It's: my way or the highway, with no elaboration or explanation and no extenuating circumstances. Left at that, Yahweh 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.

On the other hand, Eliade is correct to point out that the Israelite/Deuteronomic narrative of a God who has been acting in history since the beginning to prepare a people he has chosen, does give a linear quality to the Israelite outlook that is different from the Mesopotamian idea of an eternal conflict between deities and demons. But, again, the question is: 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. The answer can only be: No. A review of Jewish history over the millennia leaves little room for any other view. Is there any evidence of progress or development that draws the Jewish people closer to an end of history, to the "final salvation" that Eliade speaks of? Contrary to Eliade's view, Jewish history 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 world views appear equal. One is a cosmic drama, the other represents the will of God--period, with no necessary rhyme or reason. Neither can claim support from the historical facts, although the developing Israelite monotheism was undeniably superior in theoretical power. But from an experiential standpoint, as explanations for the problem of evil, both are methods of coping with the perceived injustice of existence. The fact that for Jews history was no longer seen to be cyclic is hardly totally satisfactory, for as theory it was still subject to the withering critique of Qoheleth: vanity of vanities, all is vanity. History is littered with the corpses of those who put their trust in the ideology of a messianic revival of Israel. Of an end to suffering, there is no end in sight. From this standpoint Eliade's implicit claim that the Holocaust is somehow more tolerable when seen as part of a "terrifying dialog" with Yahweh, 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)" is unconvincing. The dialog, if such there is, is indeed terrifying, but consolation is slight to the vanishing point.

The situation does dramatically change with the advent of Christ and his Church. Eliade, unfortunately, accepts uncritically the claim that Yahweh 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. Modern scholarship has revealed the narratives of the Pentateuch to be in the nature of foundation myths. However, 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, that trust in Jesus' promises is reasonable. Modern critical scholarship set out with the intent of proving otherwise, with the intent of proving that Christianity is based on myth, on one more attempt by man to render an absurd existence tolerable. But 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.

Here, too, with regard to "faith" Eliade's analysis is lacking. For Eliade, "faith" is God's demand upon us, presented with no "rational justification." Eliade, like Kierkegaard, accepts the story of Abraham as the model of "faith" for both Israelites as well as for Christians--Abraham's faith in Yahweh's promise was such that he was willing to sacrifice his son and heir in the belief that Yahweh would yet make good on the promise of a homeland and a multitude of descendants. But even a cursory reading of the early Christian writings shows that faith/trust in Jesus is never presented as irrational--rather, it is a reasoned belief and trust in the testimony of Jesus and of the Church. Again, we run up against the solidity of existence--factual claims, rather than speculation on history. Yes, theology follows upon faith, but faith is ultimately about facts that each individual must weigh; and theology is a reflection upon those facts rather than a speculative justification of ultimately irrational demands. All this is 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 is constituted by faith (reasoned belief) in the historical truth of that good news. From the standpoint of Christian faith, Israelite history with its view of history as linear was part of the preparation for the reception of the good news of Jesus. In itself, a linear view of history offers no more consolation than a cyclic view--if anything less, as Eliade demonstrates with numerous examples of the almost universal tendency to seek consolation in myth. Nevertheless, this preparation of Israel as a vehicle for God's self revelation in Jesus 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 those Gentiles who had been attracted to Judaism's higher ethical teaching--were the people who were prepared to receive the Good News through Jesus and to spread the Word in the world. This was a preparation to transcend worldly nationhood for membership in God's people, a people defined by faith, reasoned belief:, the highest faculty in the creature that is the crown of God's creation. And a people whose kingdom would not be a worldly kingdom.

From this, too, we see the need for a more developed theory of revelation. Rather than viewing the Israelite scriptures as coded messages of some sort that need to be deciphered, they should be seen as the story of God's preparation of Israel as the vehicle for His definitive self revelation in Jesus. A close examination shows that this also reflects Jesus' own expressed attitudes toward the Israelite scriptures: 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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