Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Other Greatest Story Ever Told

In addition to the interesting reading I’m doing for my summer job (which starts next week), I’ve also got two very interesting books going on the side. I’ll write about the first today, and my next post will be about the second.

I’ve decided that it’s time for me to gain at least a working knowledge of the history of the roughly 150 or so generations of Jews before me. The political, religious, economic, and social forces that shaped them as a people.

I started somewhat randomly by going to my terrific little local library, and picking a history that seemed eminently readable. If I turn out to be very interested in the topic, I will turn to heftier tomes later.

I am about 70 pages into Howard Fast’s book, The Jews: Story of a People. It’s enjoyable, and moves relatively quickly. It’s fairly factual, reflecting Fast’s years of research on the topic. That’s not to say it isn’t biased. Any history will be. And Fast has his Leftist background, which bleeds through a bit here and there. If I stay on my toes, I can parse out the ideology.

I could write pages inspired by what I’ve learned so far, but perhaps I’ll just post a couple of early thoughts inspired by the story of the birth and rise of the only thing like a Jewish empire we’ve ever known – in the time of David and Solomon:

1) We did not start in luxury.

The very first members of my family line lived 24/7 in a barren, broiling desert, pushing a few bony goats around and eating nothing but their milk and cheese. They had, basically, nothing to their names. For a stretch of relief every few generations, they volunteered themselves into slavery for neighboring countries, which owned all the lush, perfumed hillsides laden with fruit that Jews could see but not touch.

2) Chosen, maybe. Hawkish, definitely.

Maybe it was the generations of slavery. Maybe it was the endless goat milk. But once Moses actually gathered and identified us as Jews, we rallied round the flag of Yahweh as a full-on standard of war. Oh sure, when all we had was our wooden shepherds’ crooks, we were very accepting of our fate. But the philosophical outlook went out the window the moment we laid eyes on the Hittites’ new horses, chariots and iron swords. We said to ourselves, “Hey, we may be goat drovers, but there’s a boat-load of us, and if we got us some of those serious weapons…”

Next thing you know, we were blasting up the hillside toward the Philistines and Jerusalem and anywhere else we could get our hands on. If you look at David and Solomon through the lens of realpolitik, you see foreshadows of land-grabbing Roman emperors. I mean, Solomon built whole cities just to store the grain needed to feed his armies of mercenaries.

I don’t condemn the empire. Those guys had the memory of utter poverty very recently in mind. I can understand the age-old desire for each generation to do better than the last. Furthermore, there's evidence that, in those days and that place, if you didn’t conquer, you were conquered – period. And, though recent evidence disproves some of Solomon’s vaunted wisdom, I’m sure the two rulers did some good for the people.

It’s just hard to be reminded yet again that things are never as simple as they seem in story-books. Like the Bible.

So, we were hawkish, much like the Israel of today. It's sobering to think that the much more familiar, heart-warming (and longer-lived) identity of Jews as a persecuted people who love justice, scholarship and a really well-turned joke came much later, when, perhaps after too much excess, the kingdom came crashing down around our ears, and the Diaspora was forced upon us.

No comments: