Yielding or Navigating Empire in the Pentateuch; Or Church as Secondary State

This post continues an exploratory question that ended up asking about the extent to which the Old Testament development of priesthood can be used as a contemporary theological resource.

My basic orientation for reading the priestly literature of the Pentateuch comes from the work of Samuel Balentine.  His book The Torah’s Vision of Worship explores the priestly theme of worship from sociological, anthropological, and rhetorical perspectives which are ultimately in the service of theology (I may address the methodological issues in this approach later).  This is a departure from the standard historical-critical approach that dominated the subject until the last few decades.  Balentine is not interested in re-constructing what the possible priestly cult looked like but rather uses his method to understand how the literary corpus we received was developed within its historical context.  His work then is “a study of worship in the Hebrew Bible not of Israelite religion” (33).  This is a study of the final form of the text, as it was developed in its social context, with an eye on “the larger reality that is encoded in the Torah’s vision” (35).

Balentine’s basic premise is that the final form of the Pentateuch was as much at the initiative of external forces as it was from the Jewish people’s own internal motivations.  The external force being referred to is the Persian empire in its various permutations over the period of 539-333 BCE.  The Persian empire maintained its presence through the development of ‘secondary states’ that maintained a level of autonomy so long as certain tributes and allegiances were upheld.  The biblical text is quite unambiguous that Persian influence (ordained by God!) was the decisive factor in the return from exile and the construction of the second Temple.  Ezra, Nehemiah and others were direct appointees of the empire.  Yehud (the site of second Temple Judaism) was established as a ‘secondary state.’  In keeping with Persian policy Yehud then would have been required to codify their laws and submit to the empire and as well as construct a temple for the purpose of civic administration.  Both the canonization of the Pentateuch and the building of the second temple would have been viewed from Persian eyes as a standard protocol in maintaining the presence of the empire beyond its military and economic centres.

In addition to a basic military presence Persia also used symbolic structures (religion) as a basic means to entrench the empire’s rule.  One of the methods was to conceptualize life in a larger cosmic order through creation narratives.  In creation accounts the world is ordered, divinely ordered, with humans at the top of the hierarchy.  To the extent that God was revered and obeyed the empire could be nestled within that reverence as it was by their authority and means that religious life was possible.  Balentine goes so far as to say that even the Sabbath had political motivation in that when people set aside a day to worship God they were reminded of their indebtedness to Persia.  The creation account cultivated a good, obedient, industrious servants from a Persian perspective.

Balentine summarizes his historical overview,

Behind the final form of the Pentateuch is the reality of Persian hegemony.  In this respect, the sociological data available to us suggests that the catalyst for Yehud’s self-definition was as much the Persian imposition of social and political directives as it was the internal convictions of a fervent faith.  The biblical vision of the Pentateuch, therefore, for all its theological merit, was to a significant degree the result of Yehud’s willingness to concede its limitations and adjust its religious ideals to the realities of life in the Persian Empire (57).

In re-reading this section I was coming close to a sense of despair.  So, this resource that I thought could help navigate the dangers of ’empire’ was actually developed in the service of empire! But as I reflected on one of my initial motivations for returning to this resource I realized that perhaps it may yet be better suited than I thought.  I believe we are still plagued with the fantasy of an alternative immune to modern empire.  Or to put in Yoderian terms that we can construct a complete non-Constantinian ethic or ecclesiology.  However, as I was reminded by the opening quote of Yoder in Peter Blum’s chapter in The Gift of Difference, “The question is not whether one can have clean hands but which kind of complicity in which kind of inevitable evil is preferable.”  It is easy to see why ‘radical’ church forms will always opt for a ‘prophetic’ stance because it can be maintained individually and then (at least in implicitly) stand above reproach and out of the condemnation of the world’s power.  But I wonder if the priestly literature remains much more true to the sort of radically provisional nature that a Yoderian theology develops.  To posture yourself outside the fallen destructive forces of the world is to assume a position ‘above reproach,’ (whether in theory or practice) one that also tends to be maintained in opposition as opposed to a substantive orientation.  I understand that these are not thoroughgoing criticisms of those appropriating Yoder’s theology and can be countered appropriately (and I invite opposition as this is exploratory for me not declarative).  However, I do think the priestly literature and its development poses a strong question to the church as to the extent that it constitutes a true alternative.  The priestly mode does not seem to flinch in encountering powers outside the ‘chosen people,’ for God is out there at work.  It remains responsible for a totality, a universal that is never limited even in its limitations.  The church is neither empire nor exile, perhaps the church can actually be best described now as a ‘secondary state.’


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