* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

1 Kings 14-16: Using God as an Explanation Rarely Leads to Wisdom

John the Baptist was certainly not the first prophetic individual to operate outside the organized Jewish church. The Jewish scriptures reflect an evolution of people (mostly men) who boldly proclaimed truth as they saw it, under the auspices of being chosen by God as special messengers. Often, these men were spiritual advisers to kings, as was the case with Nathan, who served as David's voice of conscience. In the historical interpretations of Kings and Chronicles, other prophets begin to appear, speaking for God. For whatever reason, Yahweh seems only to select certain people as his messengers, and this special honor is rarely bestowed upon people who have positions of power and authority. The historians themselves were acting as self-appointed prophets, speaking for and defending God in a way, since they interpreted the events they recorded through the lens of God's presumed intentions. Eventually, many of the prophets who figured into Jewish history would have books dedicated to them, perhaps even written by these holy spokesmen, and these writings are best understood in light of the historical context within which they were conceived.

Some of the stories recorded as historical accounts are clearly folklore, such as the tale in 1 Kings 14 in which the prophet Ahijah predicts the death of everyone in Jeroboam's family because of God's anger. Obviously, transitions of rulership of Israel were more conflict-ridden than the passing on of the hereditary crown in Judah, but to claim that God decided certain people had to die is to miss the very human motivations for events. In fact, Baasha (whose ascension to Israel's throne is mentioned in 1 Kings 15:25-31) had all of Jeroboam's family murdered when he usurped the throne after killing Jeroboam's son, Nadab. It was an understandable decision, since it eliminated any people who could be perceived as legitimate heirs and it drastically reduced the likelihood of someone seeking vengeance for the death of a family member. Murdering Jeroboam's family was a very human act that didn't require God's involvement at all, but looking back at historical events, the writers of Kings apparently felt the need to elaborate above and beyond actual data and create a prophecy to foreshadow the murders.

This literary technique accomplishes a few things, not all of them desirable. It places accountability for all events on an untouchable deity. People are not ultimately responsible for who lives and who dies if God is the one who decides such things. Even if a man murders his next door neighbor, who can really fault him if God had already decided that his neighbor needed to die? If a general loses a battle, it is because God determined that course of events. If a foreign king invades a land, it is because God prompted him to do so. Except that the Israelites are constantly doing the very things that God does not want them to do, not in the rampant violence and warmongering, but rather in the worship of other spiritual forces. The spiritual lives of his chosen people are apparently outside of God's purview, but a large number of military and political decisions are squarely under his control.

Except when things turn out badly, as they did for Asa, king of Judah. The writer(s) of Kings look a bit more favorably upon Asa, because he was a descendant of David, and there is an obvious favoritism toward Judah in the book of Kings. The writer(s) of Chronicles also favor Judah, since the kingdom of Israel is barely mentioned, but Asa is described much less favorably. After a promising beginning, Asa is chastised for relying on a foreign government for aid rather than relying solely on God (even though God is said to be able to influence the decisions of foreign governments and the actions of their armies). At the end of his life, it is implied that Asa died from a foot condition because he sought the aid of doctors rather than the aid of God. Incidentally, his obituary in Kings is less judgmental.

It is certainly understandable that the ancient Israelites understood very little about the fallacy of false cause. When something happened in their lives, they looked for an explanation, and if an explanation was not readily apparent, the easy answer was God. Their God could be manipulated into doing good things for them if the general populace worshiped him properly, but this was historically a tough row to hoe for the Israelite people. Thus, bad things were always happening because enough people just would not fall in step with the whole monotheistic organized religion policy. In reality, religion most likely had very little to do with the things that happened to the Israelite people. It is far more probable that poor decisions, greed, and fear on the part of the Israelite leaders were largely to blame for the challenges they faced. On top of that, there were some serious empire builders emerging at the time. While the Israelites never seemed interested in widespread military conquest, the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and eventually the Greeks and the Romans all took an interest in adding the Israelites and their lands to a larger imperial body. That wasn't any sort of god at work; it was people.

The Israelites wrote their histories from their own limited perspectives, just as we interpret the events of our lives in our own very limited ways. Two things which have been said before bear repeating: First, we are responsible for who we are in the circumstances of our lives. Second, we are prone to inventing supernatural causes when logical, rational causes escape us. While there may be very straightforward causes for the events and circumstances of our lives, nothing is ever as it is because a supernatural entity decided that it should be so. We cannot control everything around us, but we can have some measure of control over our responses to everything around us. When we are willing to dismiss the easy dismissive answers like, "God must want things to be this way," we can look deeper for real, meaningful answers. While those answers are not always easy to discern, we can safely start from the assumption that rational answers exist. Nothing is magic, even the things we don't understand. Our lack of knowledge or understanding does not constitute evidence of the supernatural. Said another way, our not knowing does not make something unknowable.

When we look back at history, we can invent some hidden conspiracy theory tying events together if we like. We can assume a hidden supernatural agenda at work and connect imaginary dots to form a picture we invent. Human beings are by nature creative creatures, and our propensity for creativity can sometimes lead us to some strange and irrational conclusions. When we embrace the notion that there is no supernatural hand guiding decisions and events, but rather very real, natural, logical causes for the effects we observe, we will not be disappointed. There are no events in history that cannot be explained through rational means, and there are no events in our lives that require a supernatural explanation. The challenge is one of proximity. Sometimes we are too close to the events in our lives to engage in detached inquiry. We need a starting premise that can guide us toward realistic meaningful assessment of the decisions and events of our lives without being tempted toward the easy and unprovable supernatural. One possible starting point is our own personal responsibility for who we are in the midst of our circumstances.   

Very few of us will ever be in a position to murder people and take their positions of authority, just like we do not have the occasion or need to personally send a nation's supply of gold and silver to foreign powers for protection. Still, we know the kind of people we most want to be, if we take a little time and really think about it. We know when our actions are out of sync with that vision we have of our potential. Inventing a supernatural justification or excuse will not get us any closer to being the people we most want to be. At a certain level, we have to get real about our personal responsibility in our lives. By claiming our personal responsibility, we gain the power to change the things we most want to change -- in ourselves and in the world around us.

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