Back In My Day . . .
The Bible records two distinct attitudes toward Israel’s monarchy. On the one hand, the kingdom of David stands as the pinnacle of Israel’s history, the touchstone against which all other generations must be measured, and a period for which prophets and people wax nostalgic. When Isaiah describes how Israel will recover from Babylonian exile, he says,
“A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, [King David’s father]
and a branch shall grow out of his roots,” Isaiah 11:1
A few verses later, he envisions a time when the north and the south, Ephraim and Judah, will come back together as they were in the time of David’s reign:
“The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart,
the hostility of Judah shall be cut off;
Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah,
and Judah shall not be hostile towards Ephraim.” Isaiah 11:13
This passage from Isaiah represents a line of thought that we can trace from Old Testament to New, from the heroic tale of David’s defeat of Goliath to the accolades given to Jesus as he approached Jericho (“Son of David!”) Luke 18:38. We find a nostalgia for that brief period from Saul to David to Solomon, ~1000 to 922 B.C., about 78 years, as if those few decades represent the way God intended the world to be. The Kingdom of God and the kingdom of David become interwoven in the first century Jewish and Christian mind.
On the other hand, a strand of thought runs through much of the Old Testament that considers the monarchy a flawed institution, a sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness and susceptibility to idolatry. In the story of Saul’s anointing by the prophet Samuel, the people demand a king “so that we also may be like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:20). In the context of the Old Testament, becoming like other nations sounds like our cliché of children who say to their parents, “Please let me jump off of a cliff–all the other kids in the neighborhood are doing it!”
This line of thought, with a sardonic and satirical tone regarding mortal kings, continues through the David and Bathsheba story and into the ironic tone of John’s Gospel. By that time, the Jews had been ruled by Jewish puppets of Rome, such as Herod. When Pilate writes “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” on Jesus’ cross, and the chief priests tell Pilate, “Do not write, ‘King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews,’” and Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written,” we hear John’s devastating indictment of the monarchy.
Here are some questions this raises for us today: To what extent does the contemporary church indulge in nostalgia for days gone by, such as the nineteen fifties and sixties when, in our memory, or the memory of our parents, the churches were full, the budgets rose each year, and the youth choir sang in perfect harmony? To what extent, if any, do African Americans and other people of color share that nostalgia for the nineteen fifties? What does nostalgia indicate about our theology? If the mainline church continues to lose influence, does that mean that God will be diminished?
Coming Up . . .
The drama of the Bible, from the Exodus to the Resurrection to the spread of the Gospel to Rome, moves across a stage against historical backdrops. This series of blog posts lifts up six of those backdrops as a way of helping us see more clearly the meaning of the events portrayed center stage.
In the last two posts, we looked at Babylonian exile, from ~605 B.C. to 538 B.C. It ended when Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and liberated the exiles, giving them the right of return.
Over the next few posts, we’ll take a look at:
- the conquest of Alexander the Great (336-323) that brought Greek language and culture to Palestine;
- Roman conquest (200–63 B.C.) that brought “peace to the empire but not peace of mind to its peoples” (Howard Clark Kee) through emperors and puppet kings such as Herod;
- the destruction of Herod’s temple (70 A.D.) when Jerusalem was sacked;
- the separation of church and synagogue (late first century).
Today, we reviewed the importance of the rise of the monarchy between ~990 to ~1033 over a united kingdom that included north and south, Israel and Judah.