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The Politics of History

Today I want to review a book I have recently finished reading: The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. Let me introduce my subject with a quote from another recent book by Nachman Ben-Yehuda, the Israeli sociologist, who writes:

“How do we perceive our culture? How do we understand ourselves as beings in need of meaning? We are socialized into and live in complex cultures from which we extract the very essence of our identity, but at the same time, we also construct these cultures. How is this process accomplished? What is the nature of those cultural processes…?
“One interesting way of exploring cultures is to examine some of the myriad contrasts that characteristically make up cultures. These contrasts set boundaries, which in turn define the variety of the symbolic-moral universes of which complex cultures are made. In turn, these symbolic-moral universes give rise to and support both personal and collective identities. There are many such contrasts, some more profound than others. There are physical contrasts, such as black/white, day/night, sea/land, mountain/valley; and there are socially and morally constructed contrasts, such as good/bad, right/wrong, justice/injustice, trust/betrayal. The contrast we shall focus on in this book ( Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada) is a major and significant one: that between truth and falsehood. This contrast cuts across many symbolic-moral universes because it touches a quality to which we attach central importance – that between the genuine and the spurious. …
“[T]he demarcating line between that which is truth and that which is not did not leap into existence overnight, but developed gradually in Western philosophical thought over many years. …
“As scientists we must affirm that there are versions of reality which are inconsistent with, even contradictory to, “facts.” The realities which these false versions create are synthetic and misleading. …
“Adhering to social realities which are based on incorrect empirical facts and false information is – evidently – possible, but carries a heavy price tag in terms of a genuine understanding of the world in which we live. …
“…Nationalism requires the elaboration of a real or invented past…
“…Nationalist archaeology has no choice but to be political. …In cases of disputed pasts it has to become manipulative as well. Manipulating archaeology to legitimize specific pasts – real or invented – is a potent concoction to use when one wants to forge a national identity and create cohesion by fostering a strong sense of a shared past…”

This is exactly the problem that Thomas L. Thompson addresses inThe Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel : the creation of an invented past that was accomplished long ago, for purposes of forging a national identity among refugees. However, at the time it was originally done, the target audience understood that it was not a real “history,” but rather an ideological textbook for the future. The real problems began when another group, some time later, decided to use the same stories (handily already available), for their own imperial ambitions and presented this ideological literature as History. In short, as Thompson and others point out, the “History of Israel” was really created by European elitists seeking to colonize the world and knew a good thing when they saw it.

As Keith W. Whitelam writes in The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History:

“There exists, then, what we might term a discourse of biblical studies which is a powerful, interlocking network of ideas and assertions believed by its practitioners to be the reasonable results of objective scholarship while masking the realities of an exercise of power. […]
“The cult of the individual which dominates all forms of modern politics in the USA, Britain, Europe, and elsewhere with the use of the power of television, video and satellite only confirms the prejudice that it is great men, and a few women, who shape the destiny of humanity. Any attempt to investigate the underlying currents which have helped shape the preconceptions of these individuals or help to explain their success in ‘persuading’ the populace to support them is dismissed as crude materialism or an unsophisticated Marxist reading of history. […]
“The gradual exposure of the interrelationship of the discipline of biblical studies with politics will provide a better understanding of the forces which have helped to shape the imagination of a past that has monopolized the history of the region…. The unspoken or unacknowledged political and religious attitudes of modern scholarship conspire to obscure the ancient politics of the past.”

Essentially, Whitelam and Thompson and others are saying that our history, which is infused with the “transference of the history of Israel to Europe,” is a creation of Eurocentric modes of thought. It is also what has brought our world to the precipice of annihilation today.

So the question of who is in power, how they think, what effect this has on society, is not an inconsequential one; we are living with its consequences today.

John Henrik Clarke, (Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism ), looks at the issue from another perspective which defines the problem, but excludes the cause (people in power “writing history” for their own imperialistic purposes):

“Europeans not only began to colonize most of the world, they also colonized information about the world. They colonized the Bible. They colonized all complimentary images that non-European people held of themselves. The most effective of all of these colonized images was their colonization of the image of God. Through missionaries, adventurers, free-booters and slave traders they began to propagate the concept that God favored them over other people. They were saying, in essence, that all Europeans were the chosen people of God. […]
“The Europeans were now telling their victims that the world waited in darkness for them to bring the light. Where, in actuality, everywhere the European went outside of Europe he put out the light of his victims’ culture, spirituality and cultured way of life. Not only did he not understand their culture, he had no intention of understanding their culture. Europeans declared war on the structure of every society they invaded or were welcomed into as visitors. […]
“In the early years of the nineteenth century, the system of chattel slavery gave way to the colonial system. This was not the end of racism … it was only a radical change in how it would be manifested. The European would now change the system of capturing Africans and other non-white people and enslaving them thousands of miles from their homes. They would enslave them on the spot, within their own countries, and use them as markets for the new goods coming out of the developing European industrial revolution and out of their countries and their labors to produce grist for new European mills. The industrial rise of the West has as its base a form of racism that helped to lay the base of the present economic system we now call capitalism.”

Thompson writes:

“The early history of Palestine is a story of farmers and shepherds; of villages and markets. It is about local patrons and their clients and all the early ways of life that have lasted so long in this corner of the Mediterranean. The history of a richly varied people over an extended period of time…
“Our study of the roots and beginnings of historical developments also focuses on the people who wrote the Bible. How are Palestine’s historical peoples related to those who created literary Israel? This is not an idle question. The new history of Palestine’s peoples and their distant beginnings stems almost entirely from archaeological and linguistic research undertaken over the past fifty years. It presents a picture so radically unfamiliar, and so very different from a biblical view as to be hardly recognizable to the writers of the Bible, so thoroughly has our understanding of the past been forced to change.
“There is no Adam or Eve in this story, nor a Noah, Abraham and Sarah. And there is no place for them. Not even Moses and Joshua have roles in this history about the people who formed the Bible and its world. …
“The conflict surrounding the Bible and history – one that has played a considerable role in Western thought since Napoleon occupied Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century – is essentially a false controversy. It has occurred only because our commitment to myths of origin as part of an historically based modern world has caused us to interpret the biblical perspective as historical, until faced with definitive proof to the contrary. We should not be trying to salvage our origin myths as history. That hides their meaning from us, and ignores the strong anti-intellectual strain of fundamentalismthat underlies so many of the historical interests invested in biblical archaeology.[…]
“Scholars have traditionally talked about the political structures of Bronze Age Palestine as an ‘interlocking system of city-states’. Such terminology is as harmful as it is undiscriminating. Palestine at this early period had no cities, aside from Hazor of the very distant north. It has only villages and small towns. The population of the largest was only a very few thousands at best. … To speak of ‘state’ structures among such towns confuses Bronze Age Palestine with Renaissance Italy! […] Palestine, until the Assyrian period, was a land of stable, autonomous towns ruled by their ‘princes’ and chiefs. … Could any town or coalition of towns have engaged in the kind of political struggle, in the kind of financial and military build-up necessary to successfully field an army sufficient to [do anything of significance]? The prospect is unlikely. The archaeological evidence for the military and political structures of Palestine’s many towns and regions stands wholly against it. … It also stands against historical ideas of a Solomonic empire. […]
“[W]hen one investigates the history of Palestine independently of the biblical view of the past, this periodbetrays little evidence of biblical Israel’s emergence. […]
“There is no evidence of a United Monarchy, no evidence of a capital in Jerusalem or of any coherent, unified political force that dominated western Palestine, let alone an empire of the size the legends describe. We do not have evidence for the existence of kings named Saul, David or Solomon; nor do we have evidence for any temple at Jerusalem in the early period. What we do know of Israel and Judah of the tenth century does not allow us to interpret this lack of evidence as a gap in our knowledge and information about the past, as a result merely of the accidental nature of archaeology. There is neither room nor context, no artifact or archive that points to such historical realities in Palestine’s tenth century. One cannot speak historically of a state without a population. Nor can one speak of a capital without a town.
“An historical state of Israel came into existence and was sustained by the development of an olive industry built with a newly developed and expanded system of terracing in the course of the ninth century BC. This small state was comparable to other states of Palestine such as Ammon, Moab and Edom. It was organized around the settlements in the hill country between Jerusalem and the Jezreel valley… The immediate origins of this population rested in the settlement of the displaced part of the population that had abandoned the lowlands in the wake of the Mycenaean drought…”

It was the basis of its formation – growth of an olive industry that was seen as a financial bonanza – that pretty much brought the nascent “statehood” of Israel to an end. There was money to be made from the olive industry and that almost immediately attracted the interest of the Assyrians who basically came in and took over, defeating each local “patron” or kinglet, one after the other. At this point, we learn something very interesting from Thompson. Tiglath Pileser III, king of Assyria, began a process of subsuming Syrian and Palestinian agriculture to Assyrian interests. Further, the Assyrian king reports (epigraphic evidence exists for this) that he deported people from Israel and replaced its king, Peqah, with a king of his own choice, Hoshea. As an Assyrian vassal, and from the capital of Samaria, Hoshea, under Assyrian patronage, gained control over the Jezreel valley. This control lasted for less than a decade. That’s pretty much the extent of the “kingdom of Israel.”

Now, here’s the key item: The Assyrian army introduced the policy of population transference which involved transporting peoples across the Assyrian empire. The reason for these deportation were simply imperialistic. People were not necessarily deported because of insurrection, but rather to preemptively eliminate rivals for power. The Assyrians resettled many groups of deportees in Assyrian cities and trouble spots elsewhere. In this way, the imperial government could establish groups within the subject population who were entirely dependent upon the imperial authority.

Sometimes whole villages were deported from conquered territories and used to restore and rebuild cities elsewhere. They repopulated abandoned and empty lands and fractured any “ethnic coherence” that might have produced resistance from the local population. Throughout its existence, this seems to have been a standard policy and technique of the Assyrian empire and was adopted by other empires that followed. The Assyrian ideology of “democratic equality” within the provinces was propagandized as a main benefit of being subsumed to the empire. Thompson writes:

“Taking rulers and upper classes captive and deporting them to regions in the heart of the empire was useful. It punished rebels and got rid of potential troublemakers. It enabled the governors of new territories to create terror through hostage-taking. It complicated any local successor’s claim to legitimacy. At the same time, it put the administration of regions into the hands of local interests who were dependent on the empire for their survival and acceptance. Population resettlement did much more than handle the pacification of newly acquired territories. Undermining the local patrons basic to the political structures of the region, it recreated them as dependencies of Assyria’s patronage.
“The population resettlement programme was backed byextensive political propaganda. The conquerors of new territories couch surrender in terms of “liberation”, and “salvation” from former oppressive rulers. Deportation is described as a “reward” for populations who rebelled against their leaders. The people are always “restored to their homelands”. Such returns involve the “restoration” of “lost” and “forgotten” gods, following long periods of exile. […]
“Resettled in the great cities of the empire, or in villages and towns of foreign territories, with their survival dependent on their future support of imperial goals, [the deportees] allegiance to the state was assured. Grateful for the freedom and equality in their new homes, they served as a countervalent force against any local opposition…
“Some early texts present the Assyrian king as the savior of the people, who, after freeing them from enslavement forced upon them by their rulers, returned them and their gods to the homelands from which they had been exiled. Here, the dislocated peoples were encouraged to think of themselves in terms of restoration rather than punitive deportation; as saved from exile by the will of the king. They became returnees to their homelands, reunited with their lost and forgotten gods. …
“The deportees received land and a renewal of prosperity from the Assyrians upon resettlement, they were given support and protection against the indigenous population, who naturally viewed them as intruders and usurpers. … The ultimate purpose was to wipe out regional and national distinctions and create an imperial citizenry… […]
“Under the rule of the Persian kings, a number of groups and families were transferred from Mesopotamia and resettled in southern Palestine. A new colony was established in and around Jerusalem. Those resettled were accompanied by traditional political propaganda.”

I hope that the implication of the above is not lost on the reader. Just WHO “returned to Israel from “exile in Babylon” under the protection of the Persian king?

After dealing with the history and archaeology of the region, Thompson turns his attention to the literary world of the writers of the bible. The subtext of this section leads us straight into the bible’s theological world. Essentially, what Thompson is doing is tracking the ideology, what Georges Dumezil referred to as the “line of force”. When we have taken a particular text apart and have ascertained, as much as possible from what is exposed to us, the approximate legitimacy of each element, there still remains another question that actually constitutes the essence of the matter: What are the main trends of the whole? What are the lines of force running through the ideological field in which the details are placed? This is often where subjective belief enters the picture, acting as the lens through which we view our past and present, and the scale by which we judge the merits of fact vs. faith.

That takes us back to what Nachman Ben-Yehuda wrote, quoted at the beginning:

“As scientists we must affirm that there are versions of reality which are inconsistent with, even contradictory to, “facts.” The realities which these false versions create are synthetic and misleading.”

Thompson’s assessment of the theological reality of Judaism is shocking. He takes the reader there in his circuitous and avuncular manner, building layer upon layer of revelation that, once he points it out to you, you wonder why you didn’t see it yourself long ago! In the end, you realize that there is something very dark and disturbing about Judaism, formulated as it was, upon the model of Assyrian imperialism transferred to the “heavenly realms.”

The narratives of the Bible, (and the New Testament is only a continuation of the same literary tradition), focus on “faithfulness and loyalty” to the patron, the imperial master. Total acceptance of one’s fate is what is counted as “righteous” and wise. It is in this context that the “son of god” – representative of the Imperial master – figures. There are quite a few “sons of god” in the Bible, as it happens, and the definition of such is one who accepts whatever fate God has decreed, and does whatever God tells him to do, no matter how evil it may seem in the eyes of others and even his own eyes. In fact, if he is really a good “son of god,” nothing that god tells him to do will seem evil whether it is annihilating every man, woman and child in an innocent town, or sacrificing one’s own son. Thompson writes:

“That Mark quotes the song of David from Psalm 22:2-3 for Jesus’ dying words calls up the similar scenes of David and Jesus in their despair on the Mount of Olives. The allusion seems intentional, as the larger context of the Psalm suggests and which Mark’s Jesus echoes… […]
“We should also recall to mind the songs of the suffering servant in Isaiah 42-53 and the story of King Ahaz of Isaiah, 7. Both accept their destiny, refusing to question God. Also like David on the Mount of Lives, Jesus has not put God to the test. In his humility he has followed the path of righteousness. He has put his trust in God. He was scorned and despised by men. […]
“Jesus, as humble servant of the tradition, calls on God to be with him. At this scream, the curtain of the temple that closes off the Holy of Holies that separates God from man, tears in two, marking his death. God is with him!
“This nearly bitter, mocking irony of Mark’s gospel finds its climax in the understanding of the Roman centurion as he hears this cry of despair and death. ‘Truly this man was a son of God.’ … Behind the centurion’s remark lies the hidden, dark side of biblical tradition: God abandons his children. It is Jesus’ cry of despair that brings conviction above all doubt. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus plays out his role of son of God. Like Israel his first-born, like Samson, Samuel and Saul, like the prophets Elijah and Jonah, and like Job in his role in this tradition, this role mediates and gives voice to the common human ambivalence about the divine in our lives. One enters the kingdom only in death.”

Thompson then goes on to discuss what it really means to “be with God”, and how the tradition slyly informs us that the real meaning is death and destruction! Repeatedly, throughout the texts, when “Yahweh, god of armies” comes, there is nothing but disaster – Armageddon.

“The days of Yahweh – when Yahweh will be with us – are days of destruction, days to be feared. The imagery calls up war and destruction as a response of divine wrath and judgment. The development of the metaphor of the ‘day of Yahweh’ as the day on which Yahweh will come and judge Israel draws its strength most directly from a view of the past that sees the destruction of Jerusalem and old Israel as well-deserved punishments sent by God.”

Interestingly, it turns out that Yahweh himself is only a “son of god.” One wonders, of course, if that is not just another name for Satan!

At one point, Thompson points out the most interesting paradox:

“The historicism implicit in the biblical theology movement of half a century ago is more modern than it is biblical. What is often referred to as history is not a history, but a tradition. It is interested neither in the past nor indeed in the future. Both are but reflections for reality, and, as such, other than reality. The most disorienting difficulty with such readings of the Bible is that they attempt to transpose a perspective of reality underlying biblical traditions into peculiarly modern terms. They permit reflection on our reality, but not reflection on what was real for the writers of the Bible. … This fundamental assumption (and I would say arrogance) of biblical theology had at its core a belief in the inadequacy of the world-view of the ancients. At the same time, it is maintained that a blind faith in this same primitive world’s religious perception could become a saving perception in our world.”

Finally, the question that must be returned to is “whose history is it?”

“Writing is an exercise of influence and persuasion. This is just as true of history as of any other form of writing. … History itself is created by its writers. … As such, history belongs to those who do the writing.
“The capacity and vulnerability of a tradition for creative reinterpretation is not restricted much by a tradition’s content, nor by how close it may be to the origins of the tradition in the past. It is almost entirely determined by the bearers of the tradition. A text such as those we find in the Bible is at the mercy of those who claim the tradition as their own and interpret is. […]
“When we ask about those who have transmitted the stories and have brought them through the centuries as meaningful, we can hardly avoid the conclusion that the history of Israel is for the most part, European. Whether Jewish or Christian, this history is a product of, and has been central to, Europe’s self-understanding. Europe has written it – and written it for Europe’s own purposes! […]
“A pre-emptive claim on the history of Palestine supports European intellectual and spiritual claims of continuity with the Bible, and with what is asserted as Europe’s past. Europe’s self-identity as Christian has its origin story in the Bible – a story that reaches back to creation.”

And so it is that the history of Palestine, of the Palestinians, has been almost completely erased by a faked, invented, “history of Israel,” an entity that just simply never existed. And in the same way, at the present time, as the history of Palestine – thousands of years of a rich culture – has been erased, the West, via its handmaiden, the invented Israel, are currently erasing the Palestinians.

A word about style: yes, Thompson is circuitous and sometimes a bit dense and repetitive, but that in no way diminishes the value of the book. Academics do not write to entertain, but to convey often complex ideas that must be developed layer by layer. Nevertheless, I do wish that the material in this book could be presented in a more “user friendly” fashion for the more “average” reader since, in my opinion, it should be propagated widely. Perhaps some enterprising soul will undertake to write “The Truth About the Bible For Dummies.”

This book requires patience, concentration, and a good intellect to read and comprehend. But it is well worth it.

Originally Published 2007_07_29

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