Friday, January 29, 2010

The Pursuit of Respectability—Episode 1

(from Ezra, Nehemiah and Isaiah 56—a story of inauguration)

With the completion of the wall around Israel's capital city, Jerusalem, there arose a wave of national pride. It had only taken fifty-two days of focused effort. The repatriated exiles, the returnees from Babylon, were excited about being recognizable as a nation again, no longer the conquered and displaced people whose gentry had been carried off into bondage and whose peasants had been left to eek out subsistence on the surrounding lands. And as is often the case, as the returning gentry felt better about themselves, they also felt better about how God felt about them. The possibility of God's renewed pride for Israel was exhilarating. Had he not already extended his favor by allowing them to return and restore the temple and the city walls?

Though the total city had not been rebuilt, the 3 most important symbols of a promising future had been. The first was the temple, a symbol of God's abiding presence. Now the walls and gates. Walls and gates are symbols of a nation's self-determination. Like the walls of your bedroom which define the space you call "yours" and the door to your bedroom which limits access (even if it stays open all the time), Israel's walls and gates said, "This is our city, and we decide who gets in." Gates and walls also give a nation the ability protect itself as necessary. And wasn't that what God wanted? Wasn't that why he had allowed them to return: to redefine themselves and to protect that renewed vision?

That is exactly what Nehemiah, former cup-bearer to the king of Persia appointed governor of Israel, and Ezra, former scribe to the king of Persia commissioned as high priest, believed. Once the physical walls that defined who Israel was as a nation were complete, these two men believed it was time to erect by analogy the cultural walls that would help define the restored Israel further. After 70 years in exile, who were they? They were the people of God's favor, were they not? Okay, but what does in mean to be the "people of God's favor"?

What does God favor?

This is a tough question to answer because it is not always the same thing. It's not that we don't have definite clues. It's just that there is always the temptation to trick ourselves into believing that God is in favor of whatever we favor at any particular time.

Our understanding of God seldom exceeds the limits of our own perspective. One way to understand this might be to make an analogy. For example, if I'm looking at a globe, appreciating the particular topographic features of my own country, it would be very easy for me to assume that since the land I love is a certain way, surely other countries that I can't see from where I stand must be quite similar. I may wonder, "If God saw fit to shape my native land in certain ways—to give it certain features and certain natural resources (a certain form of government or a certain religious heritage)—isn't that a sign of what he favors? Isn't that what all land God favors looks like?" But from where I stand, just looking at my own country on my globe, I can't see what other countries look like on the other side of the world, so my appreciation of all the many different ways land (or even people) can be shaped is limited by what little I can see. This is true of anyone.

Nehemiah and Ezra were also limited by what they could see. One such limitation was their preoccupation with respectability. They were respectable people multiple times over. Not only had they both been officials in the court of the most powerful king in that part of the world, which gave them both a great deal of personal respectability, they were both descendents of a long line of respectable Israelites, cultural heroes and heroines immortalized in Israel's stories. To add to that, their families possessed land, title and position in Jewish society that, if they were successful in reestablishing the pre-exile social order, they would be able to reclaim. These were the ways in which they defined respectability: position, possession, parentage. They had grown up seeing this type of respectability rewarded and had learned to value it. So, naturally, when they opened the book of Moses (Torah) to hear how their forebears had understood God's favor, what stood out to them was what sounded like God's shared preoccupation with this same type of respectability.

When they read, "It is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness" (Leviticus 25:44-46). They thought they heard, 'God favors Jews not gentiles,' but they missed, "The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien [stranger, foreigner, gentile] as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19:34). When they read, "The Lord will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you... if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God.... But if you will not obey the Lord your God... cursed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, the increase of your cattle, and the issue of your flock" (Deuteronomy 28:11,13,15,18). They thought they heard, 'God favors the wealthy,' or that 'wealth is a sign of God's favor,' but they missed, "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.... Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought... and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt" (Lev. 15:11,9). When they read, "The equivalent for a male... twenty to sixty years of age... shall be fifty shekels of silver.... If the person is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels," they thought they heard, "God favors men over women." And maybe they did hear it. Maybe some of their ancestors shared the same limitations and preoccupations Ezra and Nehemiah had.

To celebrate the completion of the physical walls and to communicate the need for the building of an analogous wall of respectability, Nehemiah and Ezra called the people of Israel together—all who they believed could understand the message they wanted to communicate—and read to them out of the Torah. Once they were finished reading together, Nehemiah and Ezra commissioned the Levites to lead out in small group discussions of the value of respectability and how they as a people might achieve it and thus truly earn God's favor. When all was done, the people began to weep with guilt. They obviously figured they had done some things wrong. If nothing else, they had not been as respectable as they were now hearing they should be.

Like the sincere people that they were, these elite of Israel who attended the reading began to look for ways to become more respectable (...and therefore retain God's favor). The first thing they thought they could do was to start observing the cultural holidays and feasts that had been forgotten while in exile. They did. It was great! So they began to make all sorts of promises regarding things they would do or remember. Good things. Just things. Particularly ways of demonstrating the Sabbath ethic of enough: appreciating God's provision by resting from work each week, giving the land time to rest every seven years, forgiving debts, routine sharing of their harvest with those in need, those without and those in vocation, participating in the rhythmic communal practices that remind one of this type of justice. Good things. Just things.

But then came a practice that seemed out of place, that seemed off key. The ever more respectable Israelite elites "found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because [years ago] they did not... [help] the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet... God turned the curse into a blessing. When the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent." How odd, how random, to embrace a 1000-year-old grudge as if unto the Lord.

Nehemiah went as far as to record:
"In those days also I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair! And I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, 'You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves....'
"And one of the sons of Jehoiada, son of the high priest Eliashib, was the son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite; I chased him away from me. Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, the covenant of the priests and the Levites.
"Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign.... Remember me, O my God, for good."

How did the respectable Nehemiah and his ever more respectable fellow elites of Israelite society get to where they were assaulting people and asking God to bless it?


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