Israels Eschatological History

The call to Abraham, which begins the story of Israel,1 was not to found a new cult or pursue a pattern of piety or become wise, all possibilities well known in the ancient world, but to perform a historical act with political significance: to lead a migration. And the promise in the call was the creation of a new nation with a specific relation to other nations, namely that it would be their "blessing," that is, the possibility of their flourishing. The actual creation of this nation then occurs as a political conflict within history: the "Exodus," the liberation of an oppressed people from imperial domination.

To be sure, all nations in fact begin historically, but in antiquity they did not acknowledge this in their own cases - nor indeed do they now in practice. Rather, a normal ancient nation told the story of its beginning mythically and so apo-litically, as the account of an always recurring origin, which is identical with the always recurring origin of the universe. Israel, per contra (Jenson 1997: 63-74), knew that its beginning followed the Creation by a significant span of time, and even followed a kind of prenational existence of its own, the period of "the patriarchs," so that there was a time when it was not, so that its origin was itself a temporal, historical event. Indeed, this acknowledgment was an article of its creed: it confessed, "A wandering Aramaean was my father" (Deut. 26: 5), not, for example, "With/from deity I come forth." Israel knew it was contingent, that acts of decision were constitutive in its being - what if Abraham had said, "I won't go?" Thus its self-understanding was communally moral, that is, political, from its root.

Scholarship generally agrees that the one Israel of the twelve tribes was first constituted inside Canaan, after the tribes' entries into the land. Much about its initial polity is disputed. Was it for a time an "amphictiony," a cultically united confederation? How much of the story told in the books of Judges and Samuel is historical? For our purposes, one point is knowable and decisive: in the earliest times, legislation and jurisdiction were supposed to belong directly to "the Lord," the specific God of Israel, who spoke through "men of God," "prophets" in the later terminology: persons so taken over by God that their judgments are his judgments. When Israel eventually wanted to have a normal mid-Eastern monarchy, to "be like other nations," the Lord said to the currently judging prophet, "[T]hey have rejected me from being king over them" (1 Sam. 8: 7-20).

Israel cast a paradigmatic picture of this divine government through prophets in the story of the "40 years" between the Exodus and the entry into Canaan, under the leadership of the prophet, Moses (Deut. 34: 5-12). In the story of the 40 years, the counterpart to legislation and jurisdiction by a prophet is a community on the move, with no "abiding city," a nation that understands itself from the wilderness and from the goal of its trek through that wilderness. For the Word of the Lord is always what it was for Abraham, a summons to "Go . . ." and a promise, "I will. . ." The constitution of this polity was "the covenant," a compact granted by God to Israel, which was based on God's act to make an oppressed populace into a nation, which gave them a fundamental law - in briefest material formulation, "the ten commandments" (Exod. 20) - and which again contained a universal promise, that among the nations, which all belong in one way or another to the Lord, this one should be the "kingdom of priests" for the others (Exod. 19: 5). Israel's polity was thus intrinsically escha-tological from the start, in that the good it was communally to cultivate would, if fully accomplished, unify all nations in worship of the Lord - an event which would of course explode the framework of history as we now live it.

A monarchy was indeed established, under David and Solomon a modest empire. Despite its origin in Israel's desire to be a normal nation, this polity too had its Israelite peculiarities. Even David, the dynastic founder, had to be legitimated in the role by being himself a prophet, whose "last words" began with the announcement of a prophetic seizure: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me" (2 Sam. 23: 1-2). The kings were subject always to harassment by prophets - sometimes from among their own household shamans - who claimed to overrule human counsels with the word of God. Most vitally, the moral content of the covenant with the monarchy was the same as that of the desert covenant: righteousness, the condition in which each member of a community uses his or her position for the benefit of each other member, the solidarity requisite for a people on the move.

Nevertheless, after c. 1000 bce there was a more or less normal monarchy, with a capital city and the usual economic and military powers. The desert's portable sanctuary tent was replaced with a proper temple of the region and period, after the pyramids the most fixed object in the architectural repertoire of humanity; this one, however, lacked that for which such temples were normally built, the boxed-in and thereby itself fixed image of the god. Like the desert community, this polity understood itself as based on covenant, even though this was a covenant with a dynasty and a place.

A pseudo-Hegelian argument can perhaps be constructed, to trace Providence's intention with this second covenant. That the Lord made Israel a monarchy - even as a concession - comports with description of his intention for them as "political." For a people directed exclusively by immediate prophetic utterance would, strictly speaking, have no politics in either of the usages identified at the beginning of this chapter, there being neither a communal forum of decision nor a way to suppress a decision-making that was directly in the hands of God. Thus references above to a prophetical "polity" stretch the word a bit. To be sure, Israel's picture of the desert covenant was at least in part an ideological retrojection - historically, of course, there must have been some sort of clan jurisdiction and assemblies for special purposes - but the point here is the way Israel saw its history. Perhaps we may say that the royal covenant established the eschatological drive of the desert covenant within the history of this age, and so made the community of the Lord and his people be what we more properly may call a polity, something more and less than sheerly "the wandering God-folk."

So we must think of a polity that is placed geographically, trades and makes war, and makes its communal decisions by the usual communal debates and efforts to suppress them, but is legitimated by a word direct from God, knows about its own historical fragility, and is disquieted by at least subliminal feeling that it should always be somehow on the move. While the prophets' interventions had various occasions and matter, they in one way or another always had the performative force explicitly formulated by Isaiah II: "Forget the old things; see, I am about to do something new" (Isa. 43: 18-19). Such a polity will obviously be in permanent unease, torn between the - at least apparent - demands of survival in this world and the demands of eschatological righteousness.

The main event of Israel's history after the establishment of the monarchy was its long-drawn-out undoing, caught as it was between the alternately advancing empires of Mesopotamia and the Nile, and weakened by a tribal split into two states. Babylon finished the process in the early sixth century, punishing Judea's acceptance of Egyptian suzerainty by razing Jerusalem and the temple and deporting the Jewish elites to Babylon. Contrary to what might have been expected, the decades of "the exile" became the occasion of a final radicalizing of prophecy. The "something new" now promised by the exilic and post-exilic prophets is a fulfillment of Israel's mission that is plainly and often explicitly beyond the possibilities of history in its present terms (Jenson 1997: 69-71); in exilic and post-exilic prophecy Israel's political hopes are openly eschatological. "Nation shall not take up the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Mic. 4: 3), which demands nothing less than that God "will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples . . . , he will swallow up death forever" (Isa. 25: 7). Finally, in the "apocalyptic" schemes cast in the last time of Israel's prophecy, the difference between "this age" and "the age to come" is explicit and indeed ontological. The age to come is nonetheless - or rather, all the more - envisioned as a polity (Jenson 1997: 70-1).

Jesus then came preaching, "The Kingdom of heaven has come near" (Mark 1: 15): so near, indeed, that to follow him was to enter into it and to turn away from him was to balk at the gate (Mark 10: 21-7). With that, the eschaton-polity, the universal polity of peace, appeared as a possibility for present citizenship. And when the God of Israel raised this Jesus from the death to which his radicalism had brought him, following him became a continuing possibility within this world, open to Jews and gentiles, and a mission began to bring all into this citizenship. Thus we arrive at the end of the history we have been following: of the eschatological promise that is about politics, and the history of whose making is itself canonical Israel's political history. And thus we arrive also with Augustine, the founding political theorist of at least the Western church.

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