Jesus Radicals Blog 2005-2017
By: Frank Cordaro
I have wanted to read this book for many years. It just was not written yet. Now that it is, we Catholic Workers and faith-based-nonviolent-resistance-to-the-USA-Empire type folks owe Wes Howard-Brook a debt of gratitude. Not since reading Ched Myers’s ground-breaking Binding the Strong Man has a book so influenced my reading of the scriptures. What Myers did with the Gospel of Mark, Howard-Brook does for the whole Bible by laying out a template for reading it.
Come Out, My People! addresses two major issues that have plagued my reading of the Bible. The first is the seeming great divide between the New and Old Testaments, or what we Christians have called our “Jewish question.” James Carroll’s book Constantine’s Sword, documents this tragic misreading of the scriptures and the bloody history that has followed. The current political discourse surrounding the State of Israel shows that these issues are still very much with us and not going away anytime soon,
My second issue surrounds the question of violence in the Bible. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s book Jesus Against Christianity highlights this perplexing issue well. Nelson-Pallmeyer asks the question, how are we who believe in the nonviolent Jesus and the unconditionally loving God of unlimited forgiveness with the violent deeds attributed to God and God’s people in the Bible? Nelson-Pallmeyer‘s answer is a bold and liberating one. If we really believe in that Jesus and that God, then where ever God is portrayed as violent in both the New and Old Testaments, the violence is human pathology imposed on the text. I find Nelson-Pallmeyer’s answer very appealing. It rings true in my spiritual guts. Yet it is somehow too convenient, too easy a solution. It does not adequately or systematically deal with the Bible’s violent biblical texts.
Wes Howard-Brook’s book Come Out, My People! addresses both of these issues and then some.
The “Jewish question” is addressed in the introduction, “Is God on Our Side?” Most people believe the Bible to be the book of two religions: Judaism and Christianity. This is not the case according to Howard-Brook. There are indeed two religions embedded in the biblical text, but they are not Judaism and Christianity. They are a religion of Creation and a religion of Empire.
The religion of Creation is “grounded in the experience of and ongoing relationship with the Creator God, leading to a covenantal bond between God and God’s people for the blessing and abundance of all people and all creation.” The religion of Empire, “while sometimes claiming to be grounded in that same God, is actually a human invention used to justify and legitimate attitudes and behaviors that provide blessing and abundance for some at the expense of others.”
These two religions are in direct opposition to each other, with differing ends and means. And despite attempts in the biblical text to reconcile the two, in the end, at the end of the book and in the New Testament, a clean break is made, with the religion of Creation overriding the religion of Empire.
The key to reading the text in the Old Testament is not to start at the beginning of the printed book but with the oldest texts to be written down. A review of what many of us learned about reading the New Testament is helpful here. Even though the first book in the New Testament is the Gospel of Matthew, biblical students know that the oldest texts written in the New Testament are the letters from St Paul. In the same way, even though the first book in the Old Testament is the book of Genesis, the oldest written texts in the Old Testament are the King David and King Solomon stories found in I Samuel 13 through to I Kings 10. They were written sometime during the reign of Solomon in the 10 century BC.
We know this to be true because it was not until the time of David and Solomon that the biblical people had the means to write. Writing and literacy in ancient times were done exclusively by scribes attached to Kings in royal household and priest in temple cults. There were no royal households or temple cults before King David and Solomon in biblical times.
Having determined by whom, when and where a text was written, Howard-Brook tells us, “Key to reading any ancient text is placing it in its original context. This process begins by asking two questions: What is the relationship between the time in the text and the time the text was written? What questions are the biblical texts trying to respond to when they tell stories about the past?” (p13)
The answers to these questions, when asked of the oldest texts found in our scriptures, are rather easy by biblical standards. In I Samuel 13 through to I Kings 10, the relationship is one almost of real time, since these texts were written by the scribes of Solomon’s royal house. The purpose for writing these texts was to legitimize Solomon’s rule by giving it divine importance, which means they were written to support a religion of Empire. Scribes wrote of a God who supported and blessed King Solomon and all his endeavors, including a system like all the political and economic systems of the time, and wrote to legitimize an Imperial model of ruling.
The next set of texts chronologically was written soon after Solomon’s death, with the split between the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah. This is the story of Moses and the Exodus written by the Northern royal scribes in Israel. It was written to legitimize the break-up of the Unified Kingdom and the reign of Jeroboam, the Northern Kingdom’s first King. Over five hundred years separated the authors of these text and the historical characters in the text. This story of Moses and the Exodus is the emblematic biblical liberation story. In these texts there is no King, no temple or priestly cult, no capital city, no land base to protect, no taxes or standing army. God’s people are led directly by God. It is no accident that King Solomon looks a lot like Pharaoh in the Exodus story. Solomon was the template for Pharaoh. And Moses looked a lot like King Jeroboam.
With these two sets of texts, the conflict between a God and Religion of Empire versus a God and Religion of Creation are set in place. The rest of the biblical text could be read as attempts to eliminate one or the other, or to reconcile these two conflicting story lines. This over-arching biblical conflict is not fully resolved until Jesus and the New Testament.
It was not long before the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its Kings succumbed to the dictates of the Religion of Empire with a capital city, royal court, temple and temple cult, standing armies, taxes and rule by force. It was during this time that prophets sprang up in Israel and Judah. First came Elijah and Elisha, followed by Amos, Hosea, First Isaiah and Micah. The prophets are a mixed bag when it comes to the Religion of Empire and the Religion of Creation; some were in one camp or the other and still others were in both. Yet they always spoke to the issue of social justice and its connection with being Faithful to God. Howard-Brook compares, for example, Isaiah’s and Micah’s “swords into plowshares” prophecies, showing the difference between Isaiah’s Religion of Empire perspective and Micah’s Religion of Creation perspective (p.175).
“With the fall of Israel to the Assyrian Empire in the 7th century BC an early form of the book of Deuteronomy was written as a compromise document forged in Judah during the reign of King Josiah by the royal scribes in Jerusalem and the scribal refugees from the north. This effort brought together the central symbols of the Zion and Sinai stories into a unified narrative that legitimizes the monarchy, its priesthood, and its own story of divine covenant with the Davidic dynasty.”
Howard-Brook is at his best in describing political and socio-economic forces that produced these texts. What he can’t tell us, and nobody can, is how well this Deuteronomic compromise worked, if it worked at all. What we do know is that by the time of the Babylonian Captivity, the compromise was a failure. The prophet Jeremiah best documents this failure. Born at the wrong time and in the wrong place, Jeremiah was put into an impossible situation with a flawed hybrid theology of a compromised God who called for Faith in both Creation and Empire. The best that Jeremiah could do was sow the seeds for the resolution to the failed compromise (Jer 33:31-34).
The writings that came from the seventy dark and difficult years of captivity were some of the most profound and significant text in the whole Bible. Ezekiel and Second Isaiah both deal with the grief caused by the loss of king, temple and nation and tried to make sense of it.
Ezekiel, priest of the temple turned prophet in exile, mastered a new form of writing borrowed from the Persians called apocalypse. In it Ezekiel says God did not abandon the biblical people in Babylon but is using these harsh times of captivity to bring them back to their homeland a better and more faithful people. Ezekiel is the first of the biblical writers to prefigure the idea of resurrection in his vision of dry bones. (Ezekiel 37:1-14)
Second Isaiah took the basic universal non-violent “study war no more” themes from First Isaiah and grounded them in the harsh and “bottom up” experience of captivity. From his poetic hand came the whole idea of the Suffering Servant. It was from this Suffering Servant concept that the Gospel writers borrowed so heavily when trying to explain who Jesus was.
Neither Ezekiel nor Second Isaiah make a clean break from a theology of Empire, but their rewriting of the tradition, if put into practice, would change what a king, temple, city and nation would be. Both make social justice, with the people led directly by God, the basis of what it means to be Faithful.
The big surprise for me was how Howard-Brook applied his interpretative model to the book of Genesis. Scripture scholars have known for some time that the book of Genesis was compiled during the Babylonian exile. Central to the Babylonians’ identity was their story of origins, Enuma Elish, that legitimized Babylon‘s King and Empire. The biblical scribal captives, to assert a separate cultural identity, had to write a story of origins equally grand and all-inclusive, to give divine legitimacy instead to their story and their people. Howard-Brook spends the first 90 pages unpacking and interpreting Genesis. It’s breath-taking and worth the price of the book by itself.
The next texts (from the Persian period) that made it into the canon vary between pro- and anti-Empire theologies. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are solidly pro-Empire. Third Isaiah and Leviticus are anti-Empire.
Howard-Brook writes that by the time the Greek Empire came to power in 323 BC, the era of the prophets was over and both canonical and non-canonical texts took three basic forms: the royal, establishment wisdom texts like Proverbs and Sirach, the subversive wisdom texts like I Enoch, and Daniel and the skeptical/ironic wisdom texts like Job, Ecclesiastes and III Maccabees. (p. 288)
The books that did not make it in the canon in this era “were deemed too radical … it was more often the texts unpalatable to the temple elite and their later successors that lie at the roots of the Gospel of Jesus than those deemed acceptable in their collaboration with empire.” (p 289) The non-canonical book that most influenced the New Testament is I Enoch. Written in the apocalyptic style, its 107 chapters can be divided into five sections that took close to 300 years to complete. Howard-Brook presents I Enoch as the apocalyptic bridge text between the books of Ezekiel and Daniel and the apocalyptic texts found in the New Testament. This was all new territory for me, and illuminating.
By the time the disciples began to write the books of the New Testament they relied heavily on the canonical and non-canonical texts that embraced the God and Religion of Creation over the God and Religion of Empire. There is no compromise between the God of Creation and the God of Empire in the New Testament. In the New Testament message, there is no king except the kingship of the Suffering Servant whom Jesus emulated. There is no temple and no high priest and priestly cult to serve a temple. There is no exclusive chosen people, except for each person who embraces the Way of Jesus and who bands together with others of the same Spirit. There is no city, land, or nation that the followers of Jesus claim as their own, except any land and every city where the beloved community of Jesus’ followers live their lives and practice the Way.
The final break with the Religion of Empire that the New Testament makes clear is with the use of violence as a human means to serve God. With no King, city, temple, or land to defend, there is no need or justification of violence. Come Out, My People! allows us to come to the same conclusion about violence in the Bible that Nelson-Pallmeyer did in his bookJesus Against Christianity. In Howard-Brook‘s book we have a systematic interpretive textual explanation to back up Nelson-Pallmeyer‘s claim for the nonviolent God. I cannot overstate the importance of Come Out, My People!. Buy it, read it, discuss it, and put it into practice.
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