Thursday, May 12, 2005

Where Do Empires Come From? Israel, Assyria, and the Question of U.S. Imperialism

Why is God supposed to be a universal political ruler, and why do people think America wants to conquer the world? The two questions are related, and perhaps they're also inseparable from what we study as Biblicists: what the Israelites learned from Assyria.

One of the most interesting recent doctoral theses I've heard about is Cyntha Chapman's The Gendered Language of Warfare in the Israelite-Assyrian Encounter, which was done at Harvard with Peter Machinist and is now published. She makes clear that those famous Assyrian royal inscriptions and reliefs, showing the king as a decisive and utterly dominating force, whose enemies are described as soiling themselves in fear and depicted as cringing, kowtowing or mounted on stakes, is what you'd call a performance of masculinity. That is, he didn't just kill lots of people, he did it in style, and talked about it relentlessly. Her second point is that, in Biblical literature of the 7th century B.C.E. and later, Jerusalem is depicted overwhelmingly as a woman, the violated and forlorn "daughter Zion" of Lamentations. But if the Assyrian king is a masculine dominator and Jerusalem is a female victim, what does that make God? Chapman's book works out the prophetic answer.

The consequences of this go far beyond poetry: Israelite writers thought a lot about empire, comparing Israel to the succession of men who, in trampling through their small country, claimed to be carrying a mission to rule the world. They thought about how they were and weren't like their imperial rulers. Empire was imprinted on their consciousness.

Though its core is older, Psalm 89 became an icon of this:

21) I found David my servant, with my holy oil I anoint him.
22) Who my hand shall accompany and make firm,
indeed my arm will make him strong
23) No enemy shall oppose him, no lowly one afflict him.
24) And I crush his enemies before him,
I will strike down his haters
25) And my faithfulness and steadfastness will be with him,
and in my name shall his horn be raised.
26) And I place his hand on the sea, and his right on the rivers.
27) He shall declare to me,
“You are my father, my God and the Rock of my victory!”
28) Indeed, I will appoint him firstborn,
highest of the kings of the world
29) I will maintain my steadfastness with him forever,
and my covenant will faithfully endure…

But the rest of the prayer reverses this triumph, mourning how God has let David's dominance be shattered--God's covenant, it seems, did not faithfully endure. The psalm is almost an incantation, summoning God to pony up, demonstrate his vaunted faith, and restore his side of the bargain. The prayer dares God to be a real imperial ruler.

I would argue that what we see here, in the precise imprint left by an empire on a subject people, is nothing less than the secret of empire itself: that people learn from it, imitate it, and use these lessons to form new empires. The Bible carries the marks of Assyria and Persia and was used as a model for new empires after Rome.

This point was originally made by Sheldon Pollock, a scholar of Sanskrit, who pointed out that since imperialism is not a natural phenomenon, but must be learned in every detail from others, we would do well to think about how this learning takes place. He first made it at this soon-to-be-published conference on the Lessons of Empire, along with John Kelly, who asked if the U.S. is really an empire today (if it is, how are corporations that can take money and deploy military force not? or is the term blinding us to what's really going on?) and Iraq scholar and Jonah Goldberg golf buddy Juan Cole. The book should be a doozy.

Pollock and Kelly first asked these questions of the Ancient Near East at our conference in February, and I'm editing their contributions right now. This book should be a doozy too.