May 15, 2018

Ok, so… Why Jerusalem? (Hint: It has a lot to do with a book you may have heard of.)


Last month, GQ set off a tempest in an evangelical teacup. The magazine published a feature titled “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read,” in which twenty-one different authors and GQ staffers each picked a book to replace in the canon with something more exciting. It was fun, in the way that having Claire Messud tell you to read Willa Cather instead of J.D. Salinger can be fun, and not especially serious. But for his entry, Jesse Ball cooked up a modest proposal that some found intolerable: he absolved readers of their obligation to read the Bible.

Predictably, a horde of both well-meaning people of faith and fancy-collared nincompoops were quickly incensedCPAC darling, sometime VeggieTales scriptwriter, bestselling Bonhoeffer biographer, and all-around thirstmeister Eric Metaxas responded characteristically : “If there is a person on the planet who cares what has to say about literature, I’d love to meet that person. And pray for him.” Have fun, bud.

Still, to say the fuss was absurd is not necessarily to agree with Ball, whose reasoning in the piece could be stronger (though his recommendation to instead read Agota Kristof’s The Notebook is most excellent). He complains that the Bible is “repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned,” ignoring the fact that these are all often good and occasionally excellent qualities in a piece of literature. (Well, all except sententiousness, which blows.) And he doesn’t mention that the Bible has, through various interpretive screens, animated so much of our earthly history that it can’t help adding richness to how we see much of our culture: art, music, film, and a whole lot more — not least of all, history.

In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about the wretched and infamous history we’re watching unfold this week, as Donald Trump, acting illegally and against the wishes of his own advisors, relocates America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, while the Israeli military massacres Palestinian civilians in Gaza and East Jerusalem. Recent figures have more than 1,350 Palestinians shot, at least 2,700 injured, and fifty-eight dead so far, as diplomatic consequences continue to accrue. The violence is horrific, devastating, and hard to understand.

Why is Trump so hell-bent on relocating America’s embassy to Jerusalem? The short answer is that the president, who is stupid, claims the move will be “a long-overdue step to advance the peace process” — an assertion made manifestly absurd by the current welter of blood. The move would seem more logically an attempt at pandering to Jewish voters — but according to the American Jewish Committee, only sixteen percent of American Jews support it. So what gives?

Jean Miélot’s 1455 drawing of Jerusalem.

In fact, there’s plenty of pandering here, but it’s not to mainstream American Jews. It’s to two groups: the rightmost fringe of American Zionism (that’s the sixteen percent), and evangelical Christians, who’ve been making common cause with the hardest-core elements in American Zionism for years, for no less daffy a reason than that they consider Israel the pre-selected stage on which the early events of the apocalypse will unfold, and consider the apocalypse to be an extremely excellent thing. Actually. This may help explain why a dude who seems to hate Jews (in addition to lots of other folks) was delivering the opening prayer at the new embassy yesterday.

All of this raises the question: But why Jerusalem? Why the enduring Zionist preoccupation with Jerusalem in particular?

For an answer, we need to take a step back. The Bible says, and modern scholarship agrees, that by early in the first millennium BCE, the ancient Hebrews—who were, as most of the Israeli state’s architects and founders agreed, and as contemporary science suggests, among the direct ancestors of today’s Palestinians—were living in two kingdoms that uneasily shared a border: a northern kingdom, called Israel, with its capital in the city of Samaria, and a southern kingdom, today conventionally called Judah, with its capital at Jerusalem. Israelites weren’t autochthonous to Jerusalem; the city had been conquered generations earlier by a warlord from Hebron named David. (Judah (in the original, closer to “Yehuda”), today used as a name for the entire kingdom, was originally the name of David’s tribe, and has ultimately given nearly every modern language its word for Jews, from the Chinese yóutài to the Albanian çifut.)

In 722 BCE, one of the routine cataclysms of ancient life befell residents of the northern kingdom: an army under the command of the Assyrian king Sargon II conquered the land and dispersed its population to the winds of history. (These unlucky folks are known as the “lost tribes of Israel.”) This left the southern kingdom in an uneasy situation — vassals to the Assyrian king, they had limited autonomy and paid heavy tribute.

Fast forward an increasingly restive century or so, and the looming military threat from Assyria looks direr than ever. Fearing for the defense of his royal city, the king in Jerusalem, Josiah (David’s fourteen-greats-grandson), reports that his high priest has, ahem, found a long-lost parchment in the city’s great temple, containing a list of hefty emendations to the religious laws. A great many of them are designed to bolster the centrality and importance of Jerusalem in the lives of all Israelites.

In a burst of official activity, Josiah enacts these new laws. There are plenty of various specifics, but the gist is relatively straightforward. First, he ends the worship of all gods besides the primary god of the Israelites, often executing the priests who officiate over offerings to them. In an age when paganism remains the primary devotional orientation of many of his subjects, this is an extreme restriction on sacrificial practice. Then, he forbids worship of that Israelite god at any of the lay altars—the Bible calls them “high places”—that have become common throughout his kingdom, centralizing all religious practice at the temple that abuts his palace in Jerusalem. Lastly, he emphasizes the celebration of Passover, the one religious festival that consolidates the entire Israelite population under a central myth: a mass exodus, centuries earlier, from Egypt. The thrust of these reforms is clear: the people are reminded of their Israelite identity, and Jerusalem is established as the unrivaled touchstone of that identity, the seat of all sacral and political power. And with Jerusalem under increasing threat, the urgency of defending the city is robustly emphasized — which, presumably, was the point.

When Josiah dies in combat against an Egyptian king (at a place, incidentally, called Megiddo, sometimes “the hill (in Hebrew, har) of Megiddo,” from which the Greek toponym Armageddon), a series of weak kings succeed him for short reigns. Meanwhile, a warrior in the Mesopotamian city of Babylon crowns himself king, conquers Assyria, and begins a series of raids on Jerusalem. About twenty years after Josiah’s death, that Babylonian king’s son, Nebuchadnezzar II, conquers Jerusalem totally, looting the temple, burning houses, and deporting the city’s elites.

In the period that follows, known in Jewish history as the Babylonian Exile, those elites, living as refugees in Mesopotamia and Egypt, will fashion the unruly texts they’ve brought with them—sometimes repetitive, often contradictory, occasionally sententious, periodically foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned—into the Jewish Bible, giving it more or less the form it retains today. Josiah’s reforms will live as the core of what is now the book of Deuteronomy.

While Jerusalem would undoubtedly, after centuries as the seat of an Israelite kingdom, have held a place of prestige in Hebrew scriptures, the freshness of Josiah’s protectionist reforms branded the books with an especial fervor for the sanctity and importance of that city. After all, Samaria had been an Israelite capital, too, and today it’s all but forgotten. Even more obscure are ancient polities like Shechem, an earlier Israelite capital located near modern-day Nablus, or Shiloh, the pre-eminent place of Israelite worship and pilgrimmage—and, according to the Bible, the home of the Ark of the Covenant—before Jerusalem’s conquest and ascendancy. In the end, it’s Jerusalem that has seared itself into our conceptions of transcendence; the millennia Josiah’s anxieties have spent encased in the amber of ink and parchment have helped impart a special resonance to that city’s name.

It’s hard to say how we might today best read this most improbable book, funhouse-mirrored as it’s been by the interceding centuries. But we can say a few things. That it’s preposterous, and an insult to the intellectual labor that produced the thing, to read it in a mindset that little diverges from the ancient, tribal perspectives that produced it — we owe the millennia better. And that there’s a difference between reading it and not reading it, between remembering and repeating. One might hope that retreading the Bible could grant us some sense of the mutability at the heart of historical happenstance, that revisiting the endless violences tabulated in that book might at least embolden us to resist the kinds of horrific violence being played out in the name of a battered city today. That, for people of faith, there might be a Jerusalem of faith, an ideational commons in our shared imagination that’s anyone’s to enter, without resort to unspeakable brutality. That we might, in other words, have understood something.

The violence on display this week profanes the place utterly, staining thousands of years of faith and moral aspiration in blood and what Gabriel García Márquez called “the exquisite shit of glory.” Historian (and Six Day War vet) Shlomo Sand has written that, after the Roman emperor Titus’s final destruction of the temple in Jerusalem made the observance of the Bible’s Jerusalem-focused rituals impossible, “The geo-physical Jerusalem faded in the consciousness of the faithful and the heavenly Jerusalem came forth.” In its pursuit of geo-physical dominance, at what point does the Israeli state abandon its claim to the higher phenomena Jerusalem has come to represent? Human lives should be what matters here, and they’ve been reduced to collateral. To say it differently, that heavenly Jerusalem is what Israeli forces have shamefully emptied from fifty-eight Palestinian bodies this week — a loss no future will forgive.



Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.