Monday, August 20, 2012

The Socio-Historical Background of the Bible: Part 3 (734 BC - 640 BC)

The Fall of Israel

In 745 BC, at the conclusion of a bloody civil war, a young man by the name of Tiglath-Pileser III was crowned king of Assyria. Although the Assyrian state was already the dominant power in the region by this early date, the series of reforms and military conquests soon to be undertaken by this king would transform Assyria into one of the most powerful empires the world had yet seen. The irresistible might of the Assyrian army would forever shift the balance of power in the Levant and exert a huge influence on the development of the cultures that would give rise to the Bible.

As detailed in my previous post, in 734 BC Israel was a dominant power within its region, and particularly in its relationship with Judah. As the Assyrian empire spread, the Israelite king Pekah formed an ill-fated alliance with the king of Damascus to oppose the Assyrian's western advance. As a sign of the Israelite domination over their southern neighbour, Pekah demanded that the Judahite king Ahaz join the coalition too. When he refused, the Israelite army laid siege to Jerusalem with the intention of installing a more sympathetic king on the throne. The (much later) account in 2 Chronicles 28:1-15 describes scenes of slaughter and looting, but whatever the case it seems that Ahaz was somehow able to keep his throne. He appealed to the Assyrians for help, sent them a tribute, and - for all their cultural and religious similarities - this event marks a definitive split between the two kingdoms. They were now enemies at war.

In 734 BC, Tiglath-Pileser III - having just conquered huge swathes of Persia to the east - turned his attention back to the events in the Levant. While his reasons are not entirely clear (did Ahaz's appeals for help give him the pretext for intervention he needed?) it was here that he turned the full might of the Assyrian military machine against Samaria and Damascus. It didn't take long: in the space of two years, he had brought the entire region under his control. Recognising the futility of Pekah's rebellion, the Israelites assassinated him in desperation as the Assyrians laid siege to Samaria. The new king, Hoshea, immediately surrendered and pledged to pay tribute as a vassal state to Assyria. Although this decision staved off the final destruction of Israel for a few years, by 732 BC Israel was nothing more than a rump state, its cities and population ravaged beyond all repair. They wouldn't have to wait long for the final blow.

After the death of King Tiglath-Pileser III in 727 BC, Hoshea sensed the opportunity for liberation. Ancient empires were always weakened and thrown into confusion by the death of a monarch, and the vassal states under their control often used it as an opportunity to push for independence. Hoshea was no different, and shortly after the ascension of king Shalmeneser to the Assyrian throne, he announced that he was withdrawing tribute and forming a new military alliance with Egypt. To call this move ill-advised would be euphemistic in the extreme. Egypt was no longer the powerful military state that it had once been, and even if it had had the will or capacity to help Israel, its path was completely closed by the Assyrian occupation of the southern Levant. Shalmeneser moved against Hoshea swiftly and brutally and by 724 BC most of Israel had been retaken by the Assyrians. Hoshea was captured and taken prisoner. The now monarch-less Samarians defiantly held out for another two years as the Assyrians mounted a prolonged siege against them, but it too fell in 722 BC. And it is here, with the fall of Samaria, that the northern kingdom of Israel disappears forever from the historical record. Our story is now the story of Judah alone.

The Contingency of History and the Creation of the Bible

 It might be worth taking a brief break from our narrative here just to give me an opportunity to spell out my wider purpose in making these series of posts. Up to this point, you may well have noticed that very little discussion of the Biblical texts has taken place and there is a very good reason for this: it wasn't until the collapse of Israel in 722 BC that the penning of the Biblical books in anything resembling the form we presently have them was likely to have begun. There are some scholars who aver that we should place Biblical authorship even further ahead in history - perhaps as recently as the 3rd century BC - but here I will side with the majority view that it is most likely from around this time - the late 8th and the 7th centuries BC - that many of the current books of the Old Testament were first penned. This raises an obvious question: why then? Why not earlier or later? The answer, I think, lies only in a series of accidents of history. Had these events never taken place, the Bible - and the religions it came to inform - would look very different, if we can even presume that they would have come into being at all.

As I suggested in this post, history can be viewed as a series of contingencies that myths are invoked to try and smooth-out into a single, easy to understand narrative. There I argued that mythology can shape (or distort) our understanding of history, but I think that the reverse can be true as well: large events in history can have an uncomfortable habit of imposing themselves indelibly on the consciousness of a people, and must come, in time, to influence the shape of their mythology. In the case of the Bible, it is impossible to understand its mythology (or, more properly, its mythologies) without an appreciation for the historical circumstances that gave rise to them, and continued - over many centuries - to shape them. The fall of Israel, and the events subsequent to it, altered forever the course of Hebrew theology and these shocks can still be felt in the pages of our modern Bibles.

When Israel fell, the culture of the people who would give rise to Judaism came to be concentrated entirely in the hands of the Judahites, or - more specifically - the hands of the tiny number of Judahites who wielded political power. For the first time, their ideology was ascendant and could be asserted and imposed among the local populations with little wider resistance. Had Hoshea not moved against Assyria and had Israel survived to the fall of the Assyrian empire in the 7th century BC, the peculiarities of the Judahite culture might have remained nothing more than a historical curiosity, finding its voice forever drowned-out by the ideology of its more powerful northern neighbour. With the series of political miscalculations of just a few Israelite kings, though, and the political canniness of their southern counterpart, Israel was crushed by the forces of history and Judah was given space to find its own, distinct voice. It is this voice that we find preserved in the earliest texts of the Bible and that would echo all the way down to our own times.

Recognise, though, that none of this was inevitable. The Biblical authors, in their mythologised accounts of their history, would impose on the events a theological teleology that attempted to reduce an endless succession of historical contingencies into a few simple principles (e.g. the perceived faithfulness / faithlessness of the population with regards to YHWH). Inevitably, the principles invoked were those that best served the designs of the ruling elite, as I shall shortly explain (see again this post). For now, though, I only want to emphasise that the theology of the Bible was not thought up by detached theologians, free to ponder the timeless mysteries of existence, but was rather formed by kings and priests who were reacting to the overwhelming power of the contingencies of history among which they had found themselves cast. The Bible is far more a product of worldly forces than many modern theologians would care to admit.

Anyway, it is to these historical processes that we now return.

A Merging of Two Cultures

 The thoroughness of the destruction of Israel cannot be overstated. In addition to the obliteration of cities and other physical structures, the Assyrians sent huge numbers of the Israelite population into exile. Certain regions were almost entirely depopulated. Those who escaped this forced exile had only one option: to flee south to Judah.

This massive influx of refugees had a number of extremely important effects on the Judahite state. The first and most obvious (at least archaeologically) is the rapid growth in city size that we can observe in the region. The majority of those fleeing the wrath of the Assyrian military would likely have been urban in origin, as the agriculturalists and pastoralists were probably not targeted and - in any case - probably lacked the means to upend themselves and relocate. The most remarkable consequence was the growth of Jerusalem, which expanded from a population of perhaps 1,000 people to an estimated 12,000 people during this period. The effects of this population influx will be explored more fully below, but for now we can focus on the less tangible (but still important) cultural shifts took place as a consequence of this movement.

Having been heavily involved in international trade for at least a few hundred years by the time their nation fell, the people of Israel must have had a well-developed scribal system to record all the transactions they were involved with. In the ancient world, literacy was predominantly used for such commercial purposes, and generally the emergence of complex trade and the emergence of literacy go hand-in-hand. Before the 8th century BC, there is little evidence of literary production in the largely rural, backward and forgotten kingdom of Judah. By the 7th century, however, there is clear evidence of a literary flourishing in the region. The assimilation of Israelite scribes is perhaps the best way to account for this sudden shift.

With the literary culture of the Israelite refugees came also their unique religious traditions. Their mythology, although sharing much in common with the mythology of the south, contained many differences that have since been smoothed-over by later editorial redactors, but that can still be identified in the Bible today. The E Source of the Pentateuch is strongly suspected to have been penned in the north, for instance, based on its pre-occupation with northern locations and figures, and its use of the name "El" for God (hence Israel). It had a strong emphasis on the Exodus from Egypt (which may be a reflection of the Assyrian exodus these northerners had just suffered) that hadn't featured at all prominently in the southern mythology up to this point. In contrast, the southern mythology (as preserved in the J Source) is more focussed on Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who are associated more with the Mesopotamian region to the east, and who figure less frequently in the northern accounts. The eventual conflation of the two traditions into a single, continuous narrative (the so-called "J / E Redaction") was an early - and extremely successful - attempt to reconcile the divergent traditions of the north and the south. And, apparently, this question as to how exactly the two cultures might come to be assimilated was a matter of pressing concern for the Judahites of the late 8th century BC.

For the southern prophets, the destruction of Israel was a moment of great vindication for their belief in the monolatrous worship of YHWH. Isaiah, for instance, crows:

Human pride will lower its eyes,
The arrogance of men will be humbled.
Yahweh alone shall be exalted,
On that day.
Yes, that will be the day of Yahweh of armies
Against all pride and arrogance,
Against all that is great to bring it down.

The theological developments here are clear: Israel was punished for its arrogance in worshipping other gods than YHWH. More than that, we are witnessing the growing belief in the universal power of YHWH. No longer was a simply a patron God of a small nation, whose earthly presence was confined to the inner sanctum of the Jerusalem Temple, he is rather becoming a universal force with the power to bring down foreign nations. While it's a little disingenuous to try to identify a clear, linear trend in the universalisation of God throughout history (as certain authors have attempted) the clear contrast between the God of Isaiah and the God of earlier southern traditions (i.e. the God who wrestles with Jacob and loses, or the God who cannot find Adam in his own garden) must be noted.

Although it was apparent to the southern prophets (and a couple of the surviving northern ones as well) that Israel had been punished for its religious plurality, it is not clear that the northerners saw it that way. It seems clear, rather, that they brought their synrectistic faith with them on the journey south, which raised the ire of the prophet Micah:

I am filled with power,  with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare  to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.
  Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!
 Its rulers give judgement for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.’ Therefore because of you Zion shall be ploughed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

There is also evidence to suggest that the Judahite king, Ahaz, did his best to accommodate the refugees to this end. The book of Kings decries his construction of "high places" around the country, which were apparently sites of popular pilgrimage. The denunciation of such "high places" was apparently a later development, reflecting a time when the king and priests were attempting to centralise worship in Jerusalem alone (see below), because the earlier Biblical mythology depicts many of these high places as having been established by the patriarchs (e.g. Abraham's shrine at Hebron), which implies they occupied a venerated position at an earlier date. Having said that, there is every possibility that Ahaz's deference to religious pluralism was widely opposed at the time as well, and the issue quickly came to a head as we will see shortly. Additionally, there was probably some hostility between the refugees and the native Judahite population, which may go some way to explaining the Biblical emphasis on treating foreigners with due respect and hospitality (see also part 6).

In time, the two cultures would come to be skilfully conflated by later Biblical authors who had distinct theological and political reasons to treat the cultures of Israel and Judah as largely conterminous. In practice, however, there are fragmented Biblical passages (such as the ones above) that point to the difficulties and conflicts that must have occurred when cultures that had been gone down largely separate paths for over 200 years were suddenly reunited. The cultural differences must have presented one problem, but perhaps the more immediate problem faced by King Ahaz was that of how to physically accommodate so many thousands of refugees into such an economically backward part of the world. 

Urbanisation and the Growth of Judah

In addition to changing the landscape of culture and religion in Judah, the influx of refugees also produced a number of important economic effects. As mentioned earlier, this can perhaps best be seen in the unprecedented scope of urban development in Judah, as emphasised by the 12-fold growth of Jerusalem over just a few decades. This came to have an important effect not just on those already settled in the cities, but on the rural populations as well, who prior to this were likely able to exist without much direct interference from the nearby cities. The problem stems from the facts that towns or cities beyond a certain size simply become incapable of sustaining themselves: there simply is not enough land in the immediate area to feed everybody. As a consequence, it becomes necessary for the city to feed itself by taking food from the surrounding rural areas. In other words, for certain cities beyond a certain size (e.g. Jerusalem in the late 8th century BC), they cease to become productive and rather become extractive.

This extraction of food from rural agriculturalists (perhaps in the form of a centrally enforced tax or tithe) can understandably draw resentment from those involved in its production. We know that rural-urban tensions had existed in Judah even prior to the fall of Israel. The Queen Athaliah, for instance, appears to have been assassinated in a politically orchestrated move that could only really be described as a popular revolution. Those responsible are identified as "people of the land" ('am ha-aretz) and the Biblical account rather dryly notes that "all the people of the land rejoiced; and the city was quiet after Athaliah had been killed with the sword at the king’s house" (2 Kings 11:20). Elsewhere in the Bible - particularly in later periods - the expression "people of the land" can be used in a pejorative sense to denote backwards and ignorant folk who failed to observe prescribed ritual. The tensions between cities and rural folk have a deep history, then, and it was this tension that would eventually bring King Josiah to the throne, a king who more than any other would come to shape the theology of the Bible. This was all to come in the future, however.

For now, the growing urbanisation of Judah - and the need to arrange the redistribution of food from rural areas to the cities - accelerated the development of literacy in the state. As mentioned earlier, the skills for writing would have been brought south from Israel with the refugees, and its use would have been primarily commercial. With the distribution of vast quantities of food and other goods, an accounting system becomes necessary to keep track of contracts, debts and a myriad of other functions related to commerce. Commercial literacy implies general literacy, and its true that it does seem to be in this period that we witness the first signs of widespread writing in Judah. It is also from around this time that many scholars suggest that Biblical mythology first began to assume its written form.

Another effect of urbanisation can be expressed in terms of a "division of labour", though here the expression might be a little euphemistic. Now that the people of the cities were not required to invest time in growing the food they ate (because they were extracting it from the rural folk), they were free to pursue other activities. This might include, again, learning literacy skills (you can hopefully see just how intertwined literacy and economic development are by now) but also the development of other crafts, such as masonry or pottery. Indeed, this appears to be a time where more elaborate forms of dwelling and pottery begin to emerge in Judah in the archaeological record. In short, despite the protestations of the later Deuteronomist(s), Judah under the rule of King Ahaz appears to have experienced a period of relatively secure growth and development in the shadow of fallen state of Israel. This burgeoning period of peace and prosperity, however, was to be short-lived.

Hezekiah and the Assyrian Invasion

When Hezekiah succeeded his father Ahaz as king in the year 715 BC, he set about almost immediately to destroy the "high places" his father had built. The laudatory account of his reign in the Book of Kings attributes this to his piety and monolatrous devotion to YHWH, but a more cynical explanation immediately presents itself. In the first place, this represents an unambiguous assertion of centralised power that simply would not have been possible without the rapid growth of Jerusalem. In other words, what we're witnessing here is the emergence of a state: a central authority, holding a monopoly on power in the region, with both the will and the ability to enforce its "law" (if that is the appropriate term) over an entire population. It is at this stage of social development that the creation of a religious orthodoxy first becomes possible. While Hezekiah would ultimately fail in this pursuit, it apparently wasn't for want of trying.

In the second place, the centralisation of religious power here derived important benefits to both the king and those closely allied to him (i.e. the Jerusalem priests). Prescribing the conditions under which worship can be properly performed increases the power of these central forces, not just in the abstract sense of being able to enforce their ideology on the people, but also in the more immediate, material sense of economic gain. In the ancient world, temples and places of worship were not merely instrumental in their functions as "holy places", but they also served as important centres of commerce. An analogous situation would be the status of Mecca in the pre-Islamic world, where the situation of a number of pagan idols in the city attracted pilgrims from all over the Arabic peninsula to worship there. Many of these pilgrims were traders and merchants, and they made the periodic Hajj a time of great economic importance for the city. Muhammed understood this, which might go some way to explaining the importance that he and the earliest Muslims placed on the city, and why it would eventually become their seat of power.

Hezekiah's decision to centralise worship at the Temple may have had a similar effect on the economy of Jerusalem. We know in later times that the Temple served an important economic function in the city (providing animals for sacrifice, food storage, money exchanges and other mercantile functions) so there is no reason to think that Hezekiah wasn't attempting something similar at this early date. In any case, the effect must have surely been an increase in both political and economic power within the city. It continued to grow during Hezekiah's rule, and many important building projects in the city (including a large tunnel - truly a great feat of engineering for the time) have been dated to the time of Hezekiah's rule.

In time, though, it all came unstuck. Since the fall of Israel, Judah had been paying the Assyrians tribute as a vassal state. We can presume that the tribute was onerous, but in return the Assyrians granted Judah a scope of political freedom and autonomy which permitted the kind of social developments I've been exploring in this post. This makes Hezekiah's eventual decision to rebel against the Assyrian empire all the more bewildering.

In a move that draws obvious parallels with the ill-fated machinations of the Israelite king Hoshea some 20 years earlier, Hezekiah announced that he would withdraw his tribute to the Assyrian empire upon learning of the death of its King Sargon - sensing the potential power vacuum as an opportunity for freedom - and then promptly signed a military agreement with the Egyptians. In part this may have been a move inspired by advice from his religious advisers, who apparently viewed their existence under the yoke of the Assyrians as an affront to YHWH: Isaiah, for example, apparently counciled Hezekiah with the assurance that YHWH would not permit Jerusalem to fall in the event of a military campaign (2 King 19:20-34). In a sense Isaiah was right, but there is little else to commend the course of action Hezekiah and his religious acolytes came to undertake.

When Sennacherib assumed power in Assyria, he moved immediately against the rebellious Judahites. The military campaign was brutally one-sided. By 701 BC - four years after Hezekiah's withdrawal of tribute - all of Judah and the surrounding lands had been taken by the Assyrians. As had happened to Hoshea twenty years earlier in Israel, when Hezekiah called on the Egyptians for military assistance they simply failed to show up. Most of the major cities in Judah were destroyed, or at best completely ravaged by looting. A surviving inscription made by Sennachrib boasts:

As for Hezekiah of Judah, who did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and to the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered them. . . . I drove out 200,150 people,  young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle, beyond counting and considered them booty.

The account is obviously hyperbolic, but it does give an indication of the severity of the rout. And by this point, the Assyrians were laying siege to Jerusalem itself.

To his credit, the king was apparently well-prepared for this siege. His tunnel, for example, was built to provide the city with access to water in the event of a siege, and he constructed a number of defensive structures as well (including the still surviving Broad Wall). The city held-out admirably for a long period of time and indeed never actually fell to the Assyrians. The reasons for this are not clear: the Biblical account triumphantly attributes the Assyrian withrawal to divine intervention, but a more prosaic explanation will probably suffice here. The Bible notes that Hezekiah offered the Assyrian king a massive indemnity (2 Kings 18:14-16) which was apparently rebuffed, but this may simply reflect a later sheen placed on the event by the ideological disposition of the later Biblical authors. Likely, Hezekiah was able to preserve his city (and his throne) by offering this tribute and by reaffirming his vassalship to the Assyrian king. Isaiah's prophecy was validated, but the king's policy was not. Judah, like Israel before it, had been laid almost entirely to waste by the might of the Assyrian army.

Manasseh and the Rebuilding of Judah

There are few figures in the Bible that are the target of more sustained and unambiguous invective than that of Manasseh. Eighteen verses are devoted to his reign in the Book of Kings (2 Kings 21:1-18) and they positively drip with loathing and resentment. The account here is little more than a laundry list of his alleged "abominable practices" including doing "what was evil in the eyes of the Lord", overseeing the "spilling of much innocent blood" and provoking the Lord and his prophets "to anger". Such was the audacious scope of his evil projects that apparently the authors didn't have enough space to fit them all into this short passage: the reader is instructed to consult a separate text for "the rest of the acts of Manasseh, all that he did, and the sin that he committed" (v. 17). What happened here? What did he do to inspire such vitriol to spill from the pens of the Deuteronomist historians?

Manasseh, in short, inherited a mess. The Biblical chronology is a little confused here, but it's probable that he ascended to the throne just a few years after the Assyrian invasion, while he was still a young man. While Jerusalem had survived the onslaught, little else around it had. Archaeological evidence shows that the rural areas in Judah were thoroughly destroyed and depopulated in the aftermath of the invasion; Jerusalem stood, but it had no-one to feed it. Whatever power Jerusalem claimed to hold in the region was now exerted only over empty and unproductive lands. To make the scope of the economic devastation even more urgent, Judah was also now required to pay a more onerous tribute to the Assyrian king than ever before. Where to begin? What could Manasseh do to rebuild the local economy in the face of such overwhelming desolation?

Manasseh's first and most important act was to set about repopulating the rural areas and to resume agricultural production. In this aim it seems he was roundly successful: the archaeological record indicates a huge growth in the number of agricultural settlements from this time. He not only repopulated older agricultural regions, but forged new frontiers, overseeing agricultural production in previously barren and uncultivated regions. He achieved this by building dams and cisterns that were previously unknown in this part of the world. But could only part of the solution: who would actually man these farms? How to attract people back to these regions that had been so thoroughly depopulated?

The Bible seems to offer an important clue: "[Manasseh] rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he erected altars for Baal, made a sacred pole [asherah], as King Ahab of Israel had done, worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them" (2 Kings 21:3). Now in the polemic of this later Biblical author, these developments are (predictably) decried as unambiguously evil. Manasseh is depicted here as a faithless and depraved man, whose deeds were an affront to YHWH and which defiled the purity of Judah's monolatrous faith. But these, obviously, are the views of later authors who rejected the any policies that might have been directed at fostering religious pluralism. So what were Manasseh's real reasons? Why were these policies ultimately successful in rejuvenating the Judahite state?

As I mentioned earlier, in the ancient world there were frequently deep economic connections between places of worship and the surrounding economy. Places of worship (temples, "high places" etc.) could serve as beacons to attract both settled communities and itinerant merchants, and acted as central points in a landscape where business could be conducted. The cities fortunate enough to host a major place of worship (e.g. Mecca, the Parthenon, the Jerusalem Temple in later years etc.) were also significant hubs of economic activity. Although the relationship could run both ways (i.e. it is undoubtedly common that a place of worship could be made more important by the economic conditions around it) there is a simply undeniable connection between the centralisation of religious worship and economic centralisation. "If you build it they will come": Manasseh understood this well, and I think this the logic behind his erection of "high places", "altars" and "asherah" across the landscape of Judah.

Although the later Biblical authors decried these moves as a deviation from some timeless religious orthodoxy, it seems apparent that even at this late date - the mid-7th century BC - the concept of a YHWH-only religious cult remained a hard sell. Even if we can presume that the elite, literate core of Judahite society had settled definitively on a fixed and inviolable religious system, evidence abounds that those who existed beyond the inner-sanctum still engaged in far more more pluralistic practices. The building of these high-places under Manasseh's rule - and the great alacrity with which people were attracted to them - shows that demand for such religious practices existed, and indeed was capable of wielding an important influence over royal policy.

The Jerusalem priests, who had settled into positions of significant power and influence during the time of Hezekiah, were understandably annoyed by this development. The decentralisation of religious institutions would only serve to undermine their standing and legitimacy in Judahite society. These "high places" could be operated without the mediation of priests, which stands in stark contrast to the highly sanctified, exclusivist rituals of the Jerusalem Temple. It must be remembered here that the priests saw themselves as a social caste that stood both above and outside of normal Judahite society. They were not permitted to own land or engage in menial work, so the decentralisation of religious worship genuinely posed a threat to their only source of livelihood. That is not to say that they were motivated solely by self-interest in their opposition to Manasseh's reforms - perhaps we can take them at their word when they say they had deep theological concerns for the soul of Judah - but the social and economic marginalisation they suffered here must be remembered when we begin to explore the events that transpired after Manasseh's long rule. It must again be stated again: in the longue durée of history, it is generally social and economic forces that shape the trajectory of theology, not the other way around.

And it is now that we can take stock of the social and religious situation in Judah in the middle of the 7th century. By the time of Manasseh's death in 643 BC, he had overseen a period of economic growth that was probably unmatched in the rest of Judahite history. He had taken a land ravaged by war - depopulated and unproductive - and transformed it into a vibrant economy, that came to develop for the first time strong trading links with the empires around it. Although it still existed under the yoke of the Assyrian empire, the archaeological evidence seems to indicate a time of great peace and prosperity in the region. Manasseh achieved this in part, however, by taking power from the priests in Jerusalem and divesting it into rival cults overseen by rival castes. By the end of his reign, trade had permitted those in the cities to amass great material wealth, often at the expense of the comparatively impoverished rural areas which apparently viewed themselves as the victims of exploitation.

It is these two forces - the scorned priesthood and the exploited poor - who would join forces to bring to the throne the most important king in Judahite history. He will be the topic of our next post.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Perfectionism, Myth and Politics

In the evolution of mythology, there is a tendency over time towards what literary critic Kenneth Burke calls "Perfectionism"1. This is not a qualitative judgement, implying that myths become somehow "better" over time, but rather an observation that myths tend towards a kind of absolutism; a perfection of narrative in which particular symbols, themes and structures are given pre-eminence over particular details. Even where myths begin as historical events, their continual telling and re-telling strips them of all historical details, to the point where the purpose of the story can no longer be said to relate the details of a particular event but rather to "give counsel" in some way; that is, to provide a "moral", some "practical advice" or a "proverb or maxim".2 It is this gradual tendency to place the story in an indefinite setting, outside of any known time or place, that constitutes the entelechial drift of the myth towards "Perfectionism".

Partly, this process may be an accidental consequence of human memory. Humans tend to perform relatively poorly when it comes to the recall of brute facts, but are generally much better when asked to recall structured or emotionally salient information. For this reason, many myths involve repetitive elements (the rule of three is particularly pertinent here) or draw on some of the more primal, deep-seated human emotions (which explains why sex and death feature so prominently in all mythologies). One possible test for the historicity of myths concerns the extent to which historical facts - as opposed to some more symbolic "moral" message - are central to the narrative, and the "pedigree" of a literary myth (i.e. how old it is) can be ascertained by examining how faithfully it could have been transmitted orally given the fallibility of human memory. As an example, the highly structured and repetitive parables of Jesus in the synoptic gospels (which were penned at least 40 years after his death) are generally seen as having a pedigree that can be traced back to Jesus himself (as they are memorable in structure, they promote counter-intuitive ethics and so on), where as the long-winded, largely aimless ramblings of John's Jesus are generally seen as unhistorical because they could not have been reliably transmitted via oral means for sixty years without significant deviation.

But in addition to this accidental shift, changes to the fundamental details of a myth may reflect the political inclinations of later authors / editors. This may be through the deliberate addition or omission of pertinent details (for instance, the kind of details the author(s) of Chronicles added to or omitted from of the Book of Kings that he was using as a source) or the deliberate introduction of a radically new hermeneutic, in order to change the way the mythology is understood at a fundamental level (for instance, the way that OT myths were approached by the earliest Christians). It has been suggested that the final form of certain myths - particularly where it has been dependent on literature - have been shaped and controlled by the elite of ancient societies, and that they were often used as tools to legitimise certain political policies to the wider population. In the Bible, the way that the D and P sources of the Pentateuch used older myths to legitimise the particular aspirations of their authors (a unified kingdom and the centrality of the priestly class respectively) serve as a good example of this phenomenon.

What the formation of such mythological legitimation serves to do is to naturalise certain political claims. In this world of myth, the rule of priests and kings is a natural, divinely-ordained state of the universe that simply cannot be resisted. The contingent, ephemeral nature of power is simply subsumed by the intractable timelessness of the mythological claim. To quote Roland Barthes, "[M]yth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology... A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human insignificance... myth is depoliticized speech"3. In other words, myth can be used by the ruling classes to downplay the historical contingency of their political claims and to instead express them in the timeless and teleological language of mythic history.

So, we might observe four basic claims at this stage:

1) Myths have a "perfectionist" tendency, where - over time - specific details (time, place, people etc.) are gradually lost in its retelling, leaving a skeleton narrative structure which renders it suitable for (infinitely pliable) moral messages.

2) This process can be accidental (a natural consequence of human memory and narrative construction) or it can be deliberate.

3) Where the process of change is deliberate, it is normally the social elite who are responsible.

4) Myth is wielded in this way to "naturalise" otherwise contingent political claims.

Now the creation and utilisation of mythology is not something confined to the distant past. It's an ongoing process that continues to shape and inform our understanding of the world we inhabit. As narrative-seeking beings, the pull to explain complex historical events in the form of simple narratives underscored by vivid symbolism is sometimes too strong to resist. Many examples could be marshalled to support this claim - high among them, the importance of mythology to the formation of "imagined communities" in many modern theories of nationalism - but I'll choose to focus on just one for now: the pre-occupation among the American right with the events of the American revolution.

I spoke in a previous post about the "sacralisation" of the American constitution in modern American political thought, and in doing so hoped to highlight the similarities between the constitutional fetishism of American society and the similar textual fetishism inherent to the Abrahamic faiths. Here I want to show the relationship between religious mythology and the blinkered understanding of American history espoused by the American Right.

What distinguishes "religious" mythology from mythology in general is its infallibility and its universality, at least in the minds of those who adhere to this given religious tradition. What do I mean by this?

By "infallibility" I don't simply mean that these myths are perceived as being literally true (though the believer may assert this anyway) but rather that they are placed completely beyond any possibility of reproach. If they appear to be lending support to an idea or impulse that we find repulsive, the fault must lie with our exegesis rather than the moral message of the myth itself. There are many millions of people alive today, for example, who believe that a wholesome moral message can be derived from the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, or who believe that the Koran does not impel holy violence. Placing these texts in their appropriate historical context - a context in which extreme violence was an everyday occurrence - is apparently insufficient: we must assume, rather, that we have simply read the texts wrongly, because the timelessness of sacralised religious mythology permits no other analysis. 

The universality of religious mythology, on the other hand, pertains not simply to their timelessness and "placelessness" but rather the ubiquity with which they can be utilised to explain almost anything. To a sufficiently skilled Abrahamic theologian, there is simply no moral quandary or historical eventuality that cannot be expressed in the mythical language of their chosen text. If we want to assert the (un-)righteousness of an event, the only necessary task is to identify an appropriate passage that can be used to justify the position we wished to assert from the very beginning. If the allegorical relationship between the passage and the event in question is oblique in the extreme, so much the better: a pleiotropy of meaning in religious texts is always to be encouraged. But back to the topic at hand.

Like the mythology of Judeo-Christianity or Ancient Greece, the mythology of the American Right has is both infallible and universal in its scope and application. For the average Republican, there are few events in everyday life in the United States that cannot be explained as part of the mythology of the American story. Even the most anodyne matters - shop clerks wishing "Happy Holidays" or the first lady encouraging healthy eating - are given an almost existential urgency by their placement in a far deeper narrative propelled almost entirely by politically charged symbols and meanings. The American story, according to the Right, is one long history of patriots defending "freedom" (an entirely symbolic word in this usage, denoting nothing of substance) against the creeping forces of "tyranny" (which is also only ever loosely defined). Placed in such an epic narrative, the shop clerk and the First Lady are both antagonistic characters who represent an omnipresent "threat" to the "American way of life". The first undermines Christian hegemony, the second undermines the sovereignty of the individual, both of which are presumed by the American Right to have been enshrined in culture from the very beginning.

Beyond contemporary events, there is also a necessity for the American Right to re-interpret historical events through narrow lens of their mythology. The "Boston Tea Party", for example, was the culmination of a series of disputes between the colonists and the crown over the (perceived) exploitative behaviour of the latter. Read through the lens of the 2012 GOP platform, however, all the complexity and contingency of historical reality is smoothed-out into a simple mythic narrative of rebellion against tyranny and (especially) taxation. The events of the Cold War, to use a more recent example, have similarly been stripped of all their historical complexity and have since been retold by the modern American Right as a simple, dichotomous moral message concerning the triumph of freedom over bondage, capitalism over communism, good over evil. Such an all-encompassing "dualism", by the way, is a common and persistent feature inherent to many mythologies.

Although the creeping lunacy of GOP policy represents a rather recent development - an "historical contingency" in every possible sense - its defenders imagine that it can be traced, in a continuous, uninterrupted line, to the views of the Founding Fathers. Their movement, in other words, represents the only unadulterated, orthodox politics within the nation. Their politics are not simply the contingent consequence of the historical forces into which they happened to be born (the Cold War and opposition to the civil rights movement are obvious places to situate the origin of these politics) but rather the fulfilment and final manifestation of the hopes and wishes of the increasingly deified Founding Fathers. Note how these politics are thus naturalised: laissez-faire capitalism, gun rights and Christianity represent the politics of this original "pristine" state. Any exceptions to this (such as the politics of the Democrats) are therefore wilful corruptions or deviations that must be resisted as heretical. Like any other religious mythology, the capacity for a plurality or heterodoxy of thought is simply denounced as a matter of course.

The maintenance of such a world-view isn't easy though. Recorded history - as opposed to the vague, mythological dreaminess of their remembered history - paints a different picture of the Founding Fathers. They didn't offer a unified view of politics, but were rather deeply divided on many important issues (hence the relatively limited scope of the constitution). They didn't found the US as a Christian nation, but rather as a secular one, and their surviving writings on this issue bear this out. They didn't intend for the US to be a free-market economy, but were rather interested in driving US industry with the involvement of government and the erection of trade protectionism4. Not that this stops right-wing ideologues from arguing otherwise, but it can only be observed that their mythology has been erected against history, not with it.

And it is this observation that should always be remembered: where myth, for all its uses, is in conflict with recorded history, it is the latter that should be given preference, not the former. When someone tries to argue that the US was founded on Christian principles or on principles of untrammelled individualism (as though the two were self-evidently compatible) it is incumbent upon the rest of us to make two observations: firstly, the claims are in error. Secondly, these erroneous claims have been fabricated by certain "elites" - perhaps deliberately in certain cases - to naturalise and legitimise a world-view that could not be adequately justified to the people without resorting to the emotionally-charged symbolism of mythology. Our resistance to having our capacity for rational, independent thought completely subsumed by an all-pervasive mythology is apparently no greater than that of the ancients; our myths are just more secular and more overtly political.


1) Laurence Coupe - Myth, p. 7

2) Walter Benjamin - Illuminations, p. 86

3) Mythologies, p. 142

4) Words such as "capitalism" or even "economy" were not yet in use. In fact, the first true explication of free-market ideology - Wealth of Nations - wasn't published until the same year as the declaration of independence.