Friday 27 January 2012

Peter J. Leithart on Imperialism in the Bible

Peter J. Leithart, ‘A Tale of Two Imperialisms’, First Things (27 January 2012).

Peter Leithart has what I think is a great short piece in First Things, reflecting on imperialism in Scripture.

He begins by noting how common it is these days ‘to read the Bible as an anti-imperial epic, the story of God and Israel, then (for Christians) God and Jesus, against empire’, and then goes on to say:

‘It’s a hard sell for all sorts of reasons. Jeremiah urges the people of Judah to enter not exit Babylon (Jeremiah 27, 29). Isaiah invests Cyrus the Persian conqueror with Davidic titles – he is the Lord’s “servant” and “shepherd” and “anointed one” (Isaiah 44-45). Heroes like Joseph, Daniel, and Mordecai end up as chief advisors to emperors. In Scripture, there is no such thing as “empire” but only empires, and they are not all the same. Some are Babels, some beasts; some are rods of discipline, some provide refuge for the people of God.’

He goes on to reflect on the Babel incident in Genesis 11:1-9, which then moves in to Yahweh’s ‘counter-Babel program’ in Genesis 12:1-3.

‘Israel has an imperial vocation to realize in truth what Babel sought in rebellion – unity among peoples, a link to heaven, a great name, righteousness and peace and security. Abrahamic empire is not a Babel imposing its will but the center of “a unified world community under God’s rule” (Oliver O’Donovan). Israel’s hope, and the church’s, is not “peace in isolation” but “a peaceful international community” gathered around Zion (O’Donovan).’

His conclusion:

‘The Bible is not a story of Israel in opposition to empire. It is a tale of two empires, written to assure believers that all Babels will crumble and that Abram’s empire will shine forever.’

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