Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"The Reason of Unreason" - José Ortega y Gasset and the Revolt of the Masses

In 1930, as Spain teetered on the cusp of fascism, José Ortega y Gasset penned one of his most famous works, The Revolt of the Masses. In approaching this work, we must be mindful of the historical context in which it was born. Spain, at this stage, was mired in an internal struggle for power that would culminate in civil war and the eventual triumph of fascist General Franco, who - with Nazi support - assumed power in 1939. When Ortega wrote this book, the horrors of Franco's regime still lay in the future, but the seeds of this regime - like all such fascisms, predicated on fear, ignorance and a rank form of nationalism - were already being sowed. The nation was crippled by divisions, with the population split into a wide plurality of irreconcilable factions. There were, on one side, the monarchists and Catholics. On the other, the socialists and communists. Many more were caught somewhere in the middle. I do not know for sure, but I imagine that the work in question was to a large extent a reaction to - and warning against - precisely these divisive, popularly led movements.

Reading the book now, we may be taken aback by the disdain Ortega heaps upon "masses", itself a term that even the most shamelessly haughty of us today would baulk at using. For Ortega, the "mass-man" emerges for the first time in the 20th century as a fulcrum of political power, and - as a consequence of his ignorance and his critical lack of preparedness to govern - threatens the very basis of civilization. This "mass-man" fails to understand the lessons of history - forever facing forwards, as he inevitably must, because he believes himself to be the apex of history - and he rejects the possibility of there existing an authority any higher than himself. The culmination of the mass-man's ascent to power lies in the emergence of what Ortega terms "hyperdemocracy", "in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure". Mass-man, however, lacks the competence to run a state - such a job is presumably best left with the "artisans", as Ortega puts it - and this was the source of Ortega's angst: how could civilization persist in such unworthy hands?

In the largely egalitarian democracies in which we live today ("one man, one vote") such thoughts must strike us as repugnantly conceited, if not outright dangerous. Such open disdain for quotidian folk (I struggle to find a better euphemism for "masses") runs against our modern democratic principles, and one might find it quite easy to draw a direct line from such disdainful views to the eugenic mania of various mid 20th century ideologies. If we start isolating swathes of the population as being somehow below our contempt, then what logical reason do we retain to defend them from persecution or extermination? However, I must defend this work against such charges, since in referring to the "masses" Ortega makes it clear that he has in mind no specific race, class or creed: the overwhelming majority of us comprise this gormless, faceless "mass", so I take Ortega's work predominantly as a warning against "falling in with the herd" (to invoke an unsuitably trite idiom) rather than as the disparaging identification of an inherently defective class of people. To the extent that Ortega has a specific group in mind, it appears to the burgeoning bourgeoisie class, a group - then as now - that scarcely requires our dolorous coddling. 

Nonetheless, we exist in a political environment that - quite rightly, for the most part - discourages the gradation of human being into superior or inferior classes. That way, as the crimes of the 20th century still show us, leads to the greatest realisations of misery. The political zeitgeist of the current age is increasingly one of toleration, mutual respect and individual sovereignty - once again, we can count our blessings that it should be so. However, for all the unquestionable benefits of such politics, it also runs the risk of mistaking equality for crass undifferentiation: that, in a system where all should be granted equal political rights, that all political or social claims - and those who espouse them - deserve to be treated with completely undifferentiated and uncritical respect. Even in America - a supposed meritocracy of almost Darwinian degrees - the idea that every political opinion is as valid as the next one, has led to a kind of intellectual morass where the possibility of an honest, intellectual inquiry into the fitness of a given idea - particularly in the domain of mass media - has completely vanished.

Ortega puts it like this:

"The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: "to be different is to be indecent." The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated."

Now many Americans may baulk at the suggestion that "to be different is to be indecent" in the avowedly individualistic context of American politics, but I believe it rings true. The peculiarities of the US electoral system renders the possibility of a sizeable third-party presence completely moot, with the entire political dialogue in the country consequently entirely confined to that which is most electorally convenient to the two major parties. Issues that do not carry a clear electoral advantage to either of these parties are simply ignored or glossed over. I'm certainly not one to suggest that the two parties lack clear ideological differences as others might, but however unique they may be in constitution, the presence of only two major political voices clearly dilutes the potential for open and honest political dialogue.

In the first place, each party knows that it need only discredit the other party in order to win power - it needn't trouble itself selecting the best policies from a wide plurality of options, for example, which would be necessary if their primary objective were to govern effectively on behalf of the American people. Rather, it need only seek to scandalise the positions of the opposing party: if the other party finds itself discredited, the populace is left, after all, with only one alternative. The result is a ongoing process of acrimonious gainsaying, in which neither side is truly prepared to commit itself to any policies that might benefit the other electorally, completely irrespective of their merits. This process leads not to a confluence of positions between the two parties as many have suggested, but rather an increasing dichotomisation. For the first time, the most conservative Democratic congressman is more liberal than the most liberal Republican congressman, and this makes the possibility of compromise on any number of important issues increasingly low. There are several flow-on effects to this.

The first is that electoral politics is increasingly portrayed as a two-horse race, and that all media narratives must inevitably cohere to such a portrayal. This leads to an endless and evermore tedious cycle of promiscuous politicisation, where literally every event - no matter how insignificant - is pitched as yet another battle waged in the ongoing war between the blue and red teams. This leads us to further polarisation, where the supporters of each side believe quite sincerely that all the nation's woes can be attributed to the glaring sins of the opposite side. For their part, the media - fearful of losing 50% of their market - are increasingly apprehensive about reporting unambiguous facts that may be detrimental to one side, and therefore muddy every issue by unthinkingly - yet somehow meticulously - presenting the deliberately obfuscatory "spin" of both sides on every issue. The public are therefore starved of quality information, and - with the lack of any third party to keep the two major parties honest - the Republicans and Democrats find themselves receding further and further from reality into the safe, hermetically sealed discourse of partisan politics.

The increasing polarisation of American politics presents a second problem. With each party virtually guaranteed around 40% of the vote1, that leaves both with the need to target their message with increasing specificity to the remaining 20%. Now despite what they might like to think about themselves, these unaffiliated 20% are generally not independent-minded people, heroically guarding their vote until a full, rational analysis of the respective party platforms has been completed, but rather low-information dolts who are capable of being swung to one side or the other for the most trivial of reasons. Since these are the people who decide elections one way or another, the level of political discourse is severely downgraded and the micro-targeting strategies of each of the major parties lead us to policies which yield nothing beyond the most asinine, populist pap. Now populism in itself is not necessarily something that should concern us (sometimes the best ideas also happen to be the most popular), but when the entire political process tends inexorably towards rank populism (because neither party can win power without this middling 20%) then we start to have the kind of problems that Ortega has warned us about.

Until now I have spoken as though both of the major parties deserve their share of blame for the current malaise in US political discourse, but I think such a portrayal would be disingenuous and just another example of the insidious need to render US politics as a two-horse race. Rather, when it comes to leading political discourse down into the sewers of rank, unthinking populism, the Republicans must clearly accept the lion's share of the blame. It has long been recognised that conservatives in the US have hitched their wagon to the forces of anti-intellectualism, forgoing open and honest policy debates in favour of the much more poisonous methods of the deliberately eristic and paranoid. Once you have completely abandoned the pretence of "facts" and "reason", your only justification now lies in the realm of the instinctive and the popular. To protect these justifications from the harsh light of reality, it becomes necessary to sacralise instinctive, populist politics by placing them beyond any possibility of rational reproach. This is achieved via the advancement of the notion that to reproach the political opinions of the "common man" on rational or empirical grounds is to engage in "elitism": the views of each man must be considered inherently valid and to dispute this claim is to violate the very basis of democracy. I think such a view - in and of itself - is rather cynical, but not necessarily pernicious. The trouble arises when "the masses" adopt it as a pseudo-religious mantra.

What we have now in the American populace is the idea that to simply have a political opinion carries with it its own justification, and that it needn't be justified any further to anyone. To believe in something, in a principled way, is inherently meritorious and that no-one has the right to disabuse one of that notion. This process culminates with Ortega's notion that "the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will": namely, everyone has the obligation to respect the intrusion of my "commonplace" opinion, no matter how ignorant or inapt it may be. All views are inherently valid, every man a qualified authority on that which he happens to be passionate.

Yet, to the extent he believes himself to lie beyond any possibility of reproach (what politician, after all, has ever won votes by telling him otherwise?), the "mass-man" can accept the authority of no-one beyond himself. The rejection of scientific and political authorities - under the banner of "freedom" - is a particular feature of modern Republicanism, though it happens to be one presaged by Ortega in the "mass-man" some 80 years ago:

"...the modern mass finds complete freedom as its natural, established condition, without any special cause for it. Nothing from outside incites it to recognise limits to itself and, consequently, to refer at all times to other authorities higher than itself... He is satisfied with himself exactly as he is. Ingenuously, without any need of being vain, as the most natural thing in the world, he will tend to consider and affirm as good everything he finds within himself: opinions, appetites, preferences, tastes. Why not, if, as we have seen, nothing and nobody force him to realise that he is... subject to many limitations..."

This arrogance, obdurate certainty and complete disdain for authority beyond himself leads the "mass-man" to a sickening degree of self-congratulatory selfishness. To the extent that he has found himself born into a comfortable position, he sees no need to protect and maintain the kind of structures - including strong government - that allowed him to be born into such privilege in the first place. The plight of future generations - or present generations born into quite different circumstances - should be left entirely to chance. The government - or any other organisation which challenges the quite gratuitous autonomy of the "mass-man" - must be challenged and rejected at every step. Consequently, the "mass-man" is "incapable of creating or conserving that very organisation [namely, the civilised state] which gives his life the fullness and contentedness on which he bases this assertion of his personality". Ortega continues:

"...the new masses find themselves in the presence of a prospect full of possibilities, and furthermore, quite secure, with everything ready to their hands, independent of any previous efforts on their part, just as we find the sun in the heavens without our hoisting it up on our shoulders. No human being thanks another for the air he breathes, for no one has produced the air for him; it belongs to the sum-total of what "is there," of which we say "it is natural," because it never fails. And these spoiled masses are unintelligent enough to believe that the material and social organisation, placed at their disposition like the air, is of the same origin., since apparently it never fails them, and is almost as perfect as the natural scheme of things."

It is for this reason - the complete lack of respect for or appreciation of social structures that took centuries to erect - that Ortega feels the "mass-man" threatens civilisation. The Republicans would be his modern-day equivalent. The demure capitulation of at least one of the major US political parties to this new "mass-man" and his abhorrent politics has left the entire political system impoverished, with all discourse now conducted in thrall of the lowest common denominator. The possibility of sensible, rational debate has been completely exhausted by a climate in which the populace have been pandered to and indulged to such a degree that they no longer have the capacity to recognise the limits of their wisdom. A child who is not used to being told "no" will not grow-up into a mature, thoughtful and considerate adult and that is the dilemma facing us today. The genie of simply untethered freedom (i.e. that which has been granted without any corresponding responsibilities) and entitlement has been taken from the bottle, and we may find it difficult to replace him. How can a child who has grown up to respect no authority beyond itself ever be told otherwise?

 So, what to do? What lessons can we draw from Ortega? I think that the most sage advice we can take from  Revolt of the Masses is the idea that there are such things as legitimate authority, and that we shouldn't be so hasty in sacrificing the need for such authority on the altar of democratic liberalism and tolerance. The events of the mid-20th century rightly made us wary of the dangers of unchecked political authority, but that doesn't mean we should race as far as possible in the other direction. There are people who understand the world far better than we, and we should have no qualms about ceding them at least some power to do what is right for us. If they are unsuccessful to this end, we retain the hard-won right to vote them out.

 Ultimately, mass populist movements, who respect no perspective beyond their own, need to be challenged, no matter how electorally inconvenient this might be. We need to abandon the idea that all opinions are equally valid and that all deserve to be listened to. We already do this when we marginalise those at the fringes of political discourse (the 9/11 Truthers, the Birthers etc.), we just need to be a little more discriminating. As far as the Republican Party is concerned, we can take some solace from the fact that the unthinking and unfeeling crassness of its electoral strategy is teetering, and has been rejected at the last two presidential elections. The reports of its impending death are surely exaggerated, though it is clear that they must start listening to the voices of a much more diverse electorate if they are to enjoy any future success. Perhaps they might start by reading this book, and recognising the inherent dangers of their current strategy of populist pandering and reactionary anti-statism.


1) This partly has to do with brand recognition, and partly has to do with tribal politics. The "brand recognition" of the parties means, for instance, that the GOP is forever seen as the party of small government, despite all evidence to the contrary. So people will vote for the GOP as the small government party despite the massive debts run up by recent GOP administrations, their appalling records on civil liberties and so on. Petty tribalism is also a factor now. There are many people who will never vote for one of the parties - regardless of what policies they espouse - simply because they have been conditioned to hate that party in the current electoral climate. It is here that US politics, as much as anywhere else, begins to resemble a sport.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Socio-Historical Background of the Bible: Part 5 (609 BC - 538 BC)

The Babylonian Invasion

After the death of King Josiah, Judah was thrown into a period of political chaos which culminated in its invasion at the hands of the Babylonians. At least as far as the Biblical record can be trusted, Josiah was able to oversee the complete centralisation of power in Judah, to institute the formation of a monolithic religion and to apparently unite the nation and its surrounding territories - violently, if necessary - under a single nationalist ideology. Upon his death, his immediate political project seems to have been undone in a hurry and the nation began to be torn apart, both from within and without.

The spark for all these difficulties can be identified with the decline of Assyrian Empire and the resulting power vacuum it created. Initially, this spurred an assertion of independence in Judah: free from the Assyrian yoke, Josiah was able to implement his political program in Judah without interference and Judah stood - for perhaps the first time in its history - as a strong, dominant power in the region. In the shadows of the Assyrian empire, however, emerged two more empires: those of Babylonia (who delivered the final blow to the Assyrian empire in 605 BC) and Egypt (who had allied themselves with Assyria). Judah found itself trapped between these two powers - both geographically and politically - and the competing forces would eventually tear the nation apart. Like a planet passing between two suns, Judah found itself pulled towards two powerful spheres of influence simultaneously, and the internal strain generated would prove too much.

Josiah, as we saw in the last post, allied himself with the Babylonians against the Assyrians and their Egyptian allies. After he was killed in battle by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II, his son, Jehoahaz, was installed on the throne by "the people of the land" (i.e. the same coalition that had installed Josiah). The Egyptian military presence, which by this time had stretched its influence far into the Levant, ensured that a king without sympathies to the Egyptian empire would not last long. Indeed, Jehoahaz was deposed just three months into his reign by the Egyptian Pharaoh and sent into exile in Egypt. He was replaced by king Jehoiakim, who agreed to make Judah a vassal state and to pay an onerous tribute to the Egyptians. In order to do this, he "exacted the silver and the gold from the people of the land" (2 Kings 24:35), another indication of the hardship placed on rural communities by imperial conquest. Signs of reprieve would fleetingly arrive in short time, though.

In 605 BC, the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians decisively in a battle at Carchemish, and Jehoiakim used the opportunity to transfer allegiance to the Babylonians in return for their protection. Babylon agreed, and for the next three years Judah was a Babylonian vassal state. Here, though, his allegiance began flip-flopping periodically between the Egyptians and the Assyrians, which should give some indication of the confused political state in the region during his reign. With the war between the Egyptians and Babylonians continuing apace, he transferred his allegiance back to the Egyptians and ceased paying tribute to Babylon sometime shortly before 600 BC. The reasons behind his equivocation are not easy to elucidate with any certainty, but his switching of allegiances may reflect his judgement on the state of the war (i.e. which side appeared more likely to claim victory in the region) or - perhaps more likely - the divided loyalties that existed within Judah itself. As I shall explain in more detail below, there was apparently a genuine rift that existed in Judah at the time about where it's loyalties should be placed: with Egypt, with Babylon or with neither. Jehoiakim's dithering on the issue may simply be a reflection of the irreconcilable rifts that existed within his court.

In any case, the Babylonian reaction to this transference of loyalty was predictably swift and harsh, and by 598 BC the Babylonians had come to occupy the majority of the land of Judah and were knocking on the gates of Jerusalem. It was in this year that Jehoiakim died without explanation. Some have averred that the Biblical text implies that he was killed by marauding bands of foreign warriors (cf. 2 Kings 24:2) but the Bible doesn't say so specifically, noting simply that Jehoiakim "slept with his ancestors" (v. 6). In any case, it's difficult to see how he might have been exposed directly to the presence of such foreign warriors when Jerusalem apparently stood strong for several more months after his death. The possibility of a domestic plot to end his life cannot be discounted, as there is Biblical precedent for the assassination of kings in siege situations: for instance, the murder of King Pekah in the Kingdom of Israel in the face of the Assyrian advance in 734 BC (see part 3). Jehoiakim had also apparently angered religious figures in the nation during his reign through his persecution of prophets (Uriah was killed, and Jeremiah put on trial for his life at the hands of the king), and the religious figures in Jerusalem must have held considerable political clout in the city since the reforms of Josiah. Whatever the case, the final defence of Jerusalem was left to Jehoiakim's son Jehoiachin, but he was capable of resisting the Babylonians for only 3 months. The fortified walls of Jerusalem were finally breached, and the Babylonian forces spilled into the city in 598 BC.

Jehoiachin submitted voluntarily to the Babylonians, and was taken immediately into forced exile to live within the city of Babylon. He was joined by many other members of the Jerusalem elite, including Ezekiel (who we will discuss below) and other members of the Jerusalem priesthood. Jehoiachin's story shall be resumed shortly. For now, though, we will focus on the events within Judah following the first Babylonian invasion and the deposition of their king.

Rebellion and Exile

 After sending King Jehoiachin into exile, the Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar II installed a man by the name of Zedekiah onto the throne in his place. Predictably, Zedekiah was to act as a puppet-king to Nebuchadrezzar II and would be required to pay onerous tributes to the Babylonian empire. As was an all too common in the history of Israel and Judah, however, Zedekiah decided after just three years to turn away from the obligations he had towards his conquerors and to sow the seeds of rebellion.

In 594 BC he hosted an international conference in Jerusalem, where leaders were summoned from the nearby regions to discuss (presumably) their relationship with the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonian king naturally viewed this activity as subversive, and requested that Zedekiah visit him in Babylon to explain his actions and to reaffirm his loyalty to the king. This apparently patched things up for a while, but the decisive break came when Zedekiah rebelled against the Babylonians and allied himself with the Egyptians in the year 589 BC. The Babylonians invaded Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem for a second time, though this siege proved to be more gruesome and prolonged. In 587/586 BC, the Babylonians forces camped outside the walls of Jerusalem for months, preventing anyone (or anything) from entering or leaving. The horrors of such a city siege in the ancient world are difficult to overstate. Cities were so dependant on rural areas to supply it with provisions, that when such avenues of supply were cut-off the city was usually only able to sustain itself for a matter of weeks before starvation and disease began to run rampant. It is worth quoting the Biblical account of this siege (Lamentations 4) at length to convey the abject misery it entailed:

How the gold has grown dim,
   how the pure gold is changed!
The sacred stones lie scattered
   at the head of every street.

The precious children of Zion,
   worth their weight in fine gold—
how they are reckoned as earthen pots,
   the work of a potter’s hands!

Even the jackals offer the breast
   and nurse their young,
but my people has become cruel,
   like the ostriches in the wilderness.

The tongue of the infant sticks
   to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
   but no one gives them anything.

Those who feasted on delicacies
   perish in the streets;
those who were brought up in purple
   cling to ash heaps.


 Happier were those pierced by the sword
   than those pierced by hunger,
whose life drains away, deprived
   of the produce of the field.

The hands of compassionate women
   have boiled their own children;
they became their food
   in the destruction of my people.

The Lord gave full vent to his wrath;
   he poured out his hot anger,
and kindled a fire in Zion
   that consumed its foundations.

The will of the king and his immediate entourage were soon broken by the conditions that had left such an indelible imprint on the mind of the author of Lamentations, and they attempted to flee the city through a hole that they had made in the wall. The Babylonians had the city completely surrounded, however, and Zedekiah was soon apprehended. For his role in the rebellion, he watched as his sons were" slaughtered... before his eyes", had these same eyes "put out" by the soldiers and was then carried away - blind, childless and "in fetters" - to Babylon (2 Kings 25:7). His subsequent fate is not recorded, but he would prove to be the last ever king of Judah.

The fate of those left behind in the city, however, was no less grim. The Babylonians immediately sacked the Temple - the last holy place remaining in Judah, and quite literally the earthly house of YHWH - breaking its "bronze pillars", taking away "the pots, the shovels, the snuffers, the dishes for incense, and all the bronze vessels used in the temple service" as well as all "the gold, and what was made of silver" (v. 13-15). The Temple - along with the kings house and much of the rest of the city - were "burnt down" (v. 9) and the great walls around the city were also destroyed (v. 10). Much of the population - certainly all of the remaining elite - were carried away into exile in Babylon. According to the Biblical account, the only people who were left in Judah were "the poorest people of the land, to be vine-dressers and tillers of the soil" (v. 12). While some of these accounts might be viewed as somewhat embellished, the archaeological record does paint a picture of widespread destruction and a precipitous decline in population within Judah during the period of Babylonian exile. The economic aftermath of the exile will be explored more fully in part 6, but for now we need only note that Judah had been lain to waste and the last embers of its independence had been extinguished. Judah was now just another Babylonian province.

The Resistance

With the Temple and the king's residence destroyed, and with all the elite members of Jerusalem now deported, the royal Davidic lineage was at an end. In its place, the Babylonians elected a governor named Gedeliah, who was a member of a prominent Jerusalem family at the time. At this point, the society of Judah (or what remained of it) was divided between professing loyalty to Egypt, professing loyalty to Babylon and those who rejected loyalty to both. Those who believed that the loyalties of the Judahites should lie with Babylon could mostly be found among the exiled populations, and I'll address them in the next section. Here, though, it's important to demonstrate the political ambivalence that divided those who remained behind.

We learn from the Book of Jeremiah (a prophet active at the time of the Babylonian exile, though we cannot be sure how much of the material in this book can be traced directly back to him) that immediately after assuming power, Gedeliah was viewed as a target for assassination by certain revolutionary Judahite groups (Jer 40:13-16). This is one crucial difference between the Babylonian occupation and the earlier Assyrian occupation: in this instance, the occupation does seem to have been met by an organised resistance, as compared with some hundred years of relative stability in the Assyrian case. According the the account in Jeremiah 41, one "Ishmael son of Nethaniah son of Elishama" went to eat bread with Gedeliah along with ten of his men in the year 582 BC - under what pretext, we cannot be sure. In any case, Ishmael and his men used the opportunity to "[strike] down Gedaliah son of Ahikam son of Shaphan with the sword and [kill] him" (41:2), before laying waste to all the guards and the Judahite consort present as well. We must be clear what this act represents: a political assassination in protest against imperial designs. This kind of reactionary militarism was to become a regular occurrence in the history of Judah and Israel, and we shall explore similar instances in future posts.

In the Biblical account, though, the actions of the assassin are rather unequivocally denounced. In order to emphasise the mindlessly violent disposition of the perpetrator, we get gory details about his future movements. In addition to murdering all the Judahites present in Gedeliah's court, Ishmael during his escape enconounters some eighty pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem to leave offerings at the Temple. For seemingly no reason, he simply slaughters seventy of them, before crudely disposing of their bodies in a well (itself an unthinkably hostile gesture, given the rules which govern burial of the dead in Judaism). The remaining ten men are then kept as hostages, and remain with Ishmael as he attempts to flee. The polemical subtext of this account is rather clear: Ishmael (and presumably other would-be resisters) weren't really acting in the best interests of Judah, and were in fact little better than common thugs who did not hesitate to slaughter their own people. This appears to be the Biblical view, but it stands to reason that from an alternative perspective, these groups who violently opposed the Babylonian occupation probably saw themselves as freedom fighters, who would have deeply resented the pro-imperial overtures emanating from the exiled community in Babylon (and preserved in Biblical books like Ezekiel and Jeremiah). What we really have here, then, is yet another manifestation of the moral ambiguities inherent to political violence: one man's terrorist is always another man's freedom fighter.

At this point Ishmael decides to flee for "the Ammonites" with his hostages, but is stopped on the way by a Judean militia headed by one "Johanan son of Kareah". Given that the king of Judah was in exile at this time - along with virtually all the other people of power in the region - it seems likely that this militia must have been a private, self-assembled one which operated with relative autonomy - though towards what aims we cannot be certain. The historicity of this specific scene needn't concern us especially, but what it does appear to show is a state of lawlessness and violence, where the normal structures of society had completely broken down, and competing militia groups had risen up to fill the power vacuum. This is partly speculation on my part, but it does seem to be borne out by the Biblical account.

In any case, Johanan is unable to contain Ishmael at this encounter, and the latter flees. This leaves Johanan with a quandary: he knew that there would soon be a Babylonian reprisal for the assassination of their puppet leader and he knew that the Judahite people (including himself) would be left to bear the consequences. As a result, he attempts to organise for his group to flee to Egypt at the first opportunity. At this point, Jeremiah is depicted as delivering them (and other would-be runaways) a prophecy from God, an order to remain in the land of Judah. The prophet is rebuffed, though, and taken with the aspiring refugees into the land of Egypt. In the meantime, the Babylonians invade the land of Judah for a third and final time, quashing definitively whatever little resistance there remained to meet them.

This account of the travails of Johanan and Jeremiah in the Bible may not have much basis in historical fact, but they almost certainly reflect the kind of situation the Judahites were faced with in their first decade and a half under Babylonian occupation. Firstly, the fact that the governor of Judah was assassinated and the fact that the Babylonians still had at least some militia forces to mop up in their final invasion in 582 BC indicates that there was violent resistance to their imperial designs within Judah that - in the absence of any government - must have been spontaneously organised. The reasons why the Babylonians may have been met with a degree of opposition that the Assyrians never seem to have faced are worth exploring briefly.

Now it is certainly plausible enough that there was popular resistance to the Assyrian occupation as well - the available historical sources documenting this earlier period are far more sparse than those detailing the Babylonian occupation - but the reaction in the Babylonian case does seem to have been markedly more vehement and more sustained (the Assyrians, for example, were never required to seize the territory in three separate waves of military campaigning). In part, this may have been a reaction to two different modes of empire. In the Assyrian case, much time and effort was expended in its vassal states investing in "nation-building" (to use the modern terminology), particularly so far as governance and economic growth were concerned. It may have been borne of a rather paternalistic chauvanism, but the Assyrians took pride in exporting their systems of writing, account-keeping and governance, and the consequence was a rapid growth in urbanisation in many of the regions under the Assyrian yoke (including Judah). Where their vassal states experienced genuine economic growth, the benefit to Assyria came in the form of increased tribute. In other words, the Assyrian model of empire building had the capacity to benefit both the empire and the vassal state economically (much in the same vein as the later Roman empire), which - at least in the case of Judah - may have dampened popular resistance towards the empire.

The Babylonians, on the other hand, appear to have had a rather different modus operandi, at least in the Judahite case. Here, the ruling city of Jerusalem was looted for everything it was worth in the first invasion, and presumably little was left that might have been used for restimulating economic growth and international trade. In the second invasion, the power structure at the centre of the state was completely dismantled, and most of those capable of wielding political power over the territory (including most of the scribes, priests and statesmen) were sent into exile. The loss of such experience and skill from the centre of the Judahite society rendered any possibility of an ordered, productive society ever re-emerging from the glowing embers of the conquered state far less likely. Finally, after the third invasion, the Babylonians seem to have abandoned any pretence of governing the land of Judah at all. What happened in the 44 years between the final Babylonian invasion of 582 BC and the eventual liberation of Judah in 538 BC is almost completely unknown, but there is there is little evidence for the implementation of any kind of strong, centralised political structure. The "capital" of the state had been officially moved from Jerusalem to the northern city of Mizpah, but it is unclear what kind of government presided there. The fact that virtually no writings survive from Judah during this period - in addition to an archaeological record which evidences a precipitous population decline in the region - tells the story of a land laid almost completely to waste, one which the Babylonians never had any interest in ever developing economically. The exploitative nature of the Babylonian occupation may go some way to explaining the degree of resistance it faced - at least initially - within Judah during the early stages of the 6th century BC.

The Exile

As we noted in the previous section, it seems that many Judahites fled the region in the aftermath of Gedeliah's assassination and in the lead-up to the final Babylonian invasion. The subsequent depressed economic state of the region probably led to further waves of emigration, as people left the stagnant region in search of better opportunities. Based on archaeological evidence (and the Biblical account itself) it seems that many of these refugees ended up in Egypt, which experienced a flourishing of Semitic communities at this time. The expulsion of the Hebrew people from their land (whether forced or voluntary) marks the first stages of the Jewish diaspora, which (as we shall see in future posts) would continue for many centuries to come. Some of the Jewish communities established in Egypt would remain there, as future Jewish communities continued to be established all around the Mediterranean in reaction to a seemingly endless succession of imperial occupations.

The other half of the Babylonian enforced diaspora, however, found themselves living as captives in Babylon. It is this community that we know the most about, because their experiences are the virtually the only ones to have achieved a written expression that has survived to the modern day. As has already been noted, many - probably most - of these exiled Judahites were drawn from the "elite" segments of their society. Among them we find scribes, priests and even King Jehoiachin. The preservation of their culture - particularly its religious aspects - was taken seriously, and we can reasonably postulate that many of the Old Testament texts must have taken on a somewhat recognisable form during this time, or at least the period shortly succeeding it. This implies that the exiled Judahite community retained a degree of autonomy in their land of exile, and the Biblical material that can be most reliably dated to this period exhibits a conspicuous lack of anti-Babylonian sentiment. The question immediately presents itself: why should this be?

Before answering this question, we must first concede that the experience of the exile was scarcely a pleasant one for those who found themselves in Babylon. Perhaps the most famous expression of this is Psalm 137, which expresses a genuine longing for the now distant land of Zion. The final verse - where the author fantasises about dashing the children of the Babylonians against rocks - is an indication of genuine anger and resentment, one often overlooked when scholars try to downplay the degree of suffering experienced by those in Babylonian exile. Similarly, the prophetic texts from this time (most notably Ezekiel and Jeremiah) do not attempt to downplay the misery of the Babylonian invasion, they merely couch it in theological terms which absolve the Babylonians from moral culpability (see next section). But perhaps that only makes the question more perplexing: if there was an undeniable degree of suffering involved in the exile, why do the Babylonians get off so lightly in the Biblical texts?

Part of the answer surely lies with the on-going influence of King Jehoiachin. We know from the Bible and independent archaeological evidence that Jehoiachin was treated comparatively well by his Babylonian captors. In addition to being afforded (along with the other exiles) the relative luxury of continuing to practice his religion and to speak in his native tongue, he was also given relatively generous rations as compared to other captives. The production and preservation of sacred literature during this time also points to a degree of freedom which belies the language of "bonds" and "fetters" sometimes used in the Bible in connection with the exile. Given that he had surrendered to the Babylonians willingly (2 Kings 24:12), that he was treated favourably by them and that he was (presumably) involved in the literature penned at this time, can there be any surprise that the literature penned in and around this time was comparatively gentle in its depiction of the Babylonians?

Ezekiel in this respect is particularly noteworthy: in forty-eight chapters, scarcely a single bad word is spoken against the Babylonians. In fact, the Babylonians are depicted as acting with YHWH's explicit help and support (e.g. 26:7-14). Perhaps even more noteworthy is Ezekiel's attitude towards Zedekiah, the man named king by the Babylonians in Jehoiachin's absence. Ezekiel denounces him as the "evil prince of Israel" (21:25) and condemns him for his rebellion against Babylon (2:3). Similar sentiments can be found in Jeremiah, who likens those who remained in Judah (including Zedekiah) to "bad figs" (24:16-17), councils those in exile to "seek the welfare of" (i.e. assist) Babylon (29:7) and to serve its king (27:17). What this all points to is the fact that the exiled community had gathered round Jehoiachin as the only legitimate king of Judah, and - at his instigation, or at least under his watchful eye - penned a whole host of texts that justified the legitimacy of his rule and denounced the illegitimacy of those who had stayed behind in Judah after the first wave of exile. The surprisingly pro-Babylonian tone of these texts can be seen as a way of strengthening the continuing political legitimacy of those in exile, over and against those who had fled to Egypt (which remained an enemy of Babylon at the time) and those unlucky few who remained in Judah. The full force of this argument, however, requires an understanding of the theology of the period, particularly in how it was influenced by the circumstances of the Babylonian invasion.

The Theology of the Exile

If it is true - as the exiled authors claimed - that Jehoiachin was a good and legitimate king, then why was it that YHWH had decided to move against Israel? More to the point, why should he have moved against Israel so soon after the reforms of Josiah, which finally saw all the aberrant religious practices removed from the land of Israel? Disasters can provoke theological soul-searching at the best of times, but the issue facing the exiled Judahites seems to have been particularly pronounced. Given all that they had done to placate YHWH, why had he still seen fit to visit his wrath so vehemently against them? If the previous inequities which faced them were the consequence of wicked kings and an unfaithful population, why had the rectification of these facts done nothing to curb God's anger?

The texts from this period exhibit a great deal of doubt and uncertainty, and clearly demonstrate to us that the theology crystalised during Josiah's time was not necessarily of any help or comfort. The author of Lamentations (2:20-22) almost appears to directly rebuke YHWH for what he had done to Judah:

Look, O Lord, and consider!
   To whom have you done this?
Should women eat their offspring,
   the children they have borne?
Should priest and prophet be killed
   in the sanctuary of the Lord?

 The young and the old are lying
   on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men
   have fallen by the sword;
on the day of your anger you have killed them,
   slaughtering without mercy.

 You invited my enemies from all around
   as if for a day of festival;
and on the day of the anger of the Lord
   no one escaped or survived;
those whom I bore and reared
   my enemy has destroyed.

From this, the author goes on to conclude his work by asking YHWH "Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?" (5:20) and then speculating that "you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure" (5:22). These are not the confident ruminations of an individual who felt he understood his god with any confidence, but the mournful cries of a man whose theology that had been cast into a morass of utter confusion and despair.

Nonetheless, the authors of this time clearly set themselves the task of providing an explanation for the events that wouldn't require the entire theological edifice they had created to be torn down. The first theological solution to the problem was to identify that the Babylonian invasion was indeed a sign of YHWH's strength rather than a sign of his weakness. In the ancient world, it was often assumed that a nation's strength was directly proportional to the strength of its god(s), which goes some way to explaining why the gods of powerful nations were worshipped with such alacrity in the region (including in Israel and Judah prior to Josiah's religious reforms). These gods could be absorbed into the polytheistic pantheon of a given nation without the need for much theological teeth-gnashing: many gods inhabited the world, so there was little sense in forgoing the opportunity to worship just one more who had already proven the efficacy of his powers. For the Judahites who lived in the shadow of Josiah, however, such hedging of ones theistic bets had ceased to be an option. The religion of Judah had become entirely centralised under a single god, whose power and pre-eminence (in the land of Judah at least) had been enforced by fiat with the destruction of the places of worship devoted to all the other gods. If Judah had been destroyed by foreign forces who worshipped foreign gods, this could have only been possible with the direct complicity of YHWH. And if YHWH had seen fit to inflict such violence on the people of Judah, then it stands to reason that they must have done something to anger him.

But, again, why would YHWH have been so angry if the Judahites had finally turned away from centuries of polytheistic worship towards the monolatrous worship of YHWH? The theology of the Book of Kings made it quite clear that God's punishment (for instance the destruction of Israel and the Assyrian annexation of Judah) was a response to the "evil" of the people and the kings who oversaw them. So, if Josiah had truly "turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might" (2 Kings 23:25) then what could have possibly driven YHWH to such anger? The solution to this problem first consisted of absolving Josiah and (to a lesser extent) subsequent kings for direct responsibility for what had happened. The text added to the Book of 2 Kings after the death of Josiah attempts to make it plain that YHWH still held a grudge for the gross "provocations" of king Manasseh (23:26-27; cf. Jer 15:4):

Still the Lord did not turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. The Lord said, ‘I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel; and I will reject this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.’

In other words, the theology of the Book of Kings (and therefore of the centralised Judahite religion) was not challenged by the Babylonian invasion: it was merely a sign that a generation could be punished for the iniquities of their forebears (not so coincidentally a major theme in the Torah, which was likely completed in more or less its present form shortly after the period of exile). But a second problem arises: if YHWH, in a very literal sense, occupied the Jerusalem Temple, and if this temple was to be the central focus of all worship, what was to be done pursuant to its destruction? It's not entirely clear how the exiled Judahites responded to this problem, or what form their religious worship took (only that it persisted and that it remained entirely separate from the Babylonian religion), but we can perhaps piece together some speculations based on the fragmentary evidence we have in the Bible.

Firstly we should note that many of the the hymns that were used in the Temple (in a liturgical context) prior to its destruction were collated and - if they weren't already - expressed in a written form. These would contribute to the Book of Psalms we have today, and we can presume that they continued to be sung (albeit mournfully) by the exiles in Babylon (Ps 137) outside of the Temple context. Secondly, the importance of God's law (i.e. the Torah, or the elements of it which had been penned by this time) was strongly emphasised in the writings from this nime. Notions here of sacrifices and other ritual forms of worship that would have been performed at the Temple are largely ignored, and the adherence to God's laws are now taken to be the central duty of the Judahites. This deviation from the law is also cited as a central reason for the wrath that has just been visited upon them (e.g. Jer 9:13; 32:23 etc.). Additionally, this notion of adherence to God's law is tied in with the Egyptian Exodus (and God's covenant with the Hebrews via the mediation of Moses), and explicit parallels are drawn between this event and the plight of the Judahites exiled in Babylon (e.g. Isaiah 40:3-5; 55:12–13). Although we can be relatively confident that the Exodus was an important event in the mythology of the Northern Kingdom, the Babylonian exile appears to have been the event that secured its place as one of the most defining events in the history of the Hebrew people as a whole.

But perhaps the most important theological development here - particularly as it impacts on our modern world - is that by the end of the exile we find the very first unambiguous declaration of monotheism in the history of Israel and Judah. In the book of Deutero-Isaiah (i.e. Isa 40-55), penned at the very end of the exile period, are the words: "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god" (44:6). In response to the trauma of being conquered, being thrown into exile and watching as the house of their God was destroyed by marauding foreigners, the exiled community developed a theory of their God which placed his reign of influence not merely beyond the Temple of the land of Israel and Judah, but as a universal and (perhaps?) all-powerful being who had literally no equal. The religion of Josiah, far from being destroyed by the conquering Babylonians, was taken and built into something far grander, and far more universal as a seemingly inevitable reaction to suffering they had undergone. I've been saying throughout these posts that the content of theology can often be explained as a reaction to the forces of history, and the development of monotheism in the religion of the Judahites serves as a perfect example.