Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective
By Peter J. Leithart
A Book Published in 2012 by Cascade Books (Theopolitical Visions)
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Because of the call of Abram, the nations were organized around Israel. Israel formed "the land" at the center of the world, like the land that emerged from the watery chaos during the creation week (Gen. 1:2). All other nations were part of the turbulent sea that threatened to overwhelm the land and turn the world back to confusion. The new creation that took place in Abram divided sea and land, but simultaneously established a necessary connection between the two. Israel alone was the land, but the nations became "the ends of the land" (Deut 33:17; 1 Sam 2:10; Pss 2:10; 22:27; 59:13; 67:7; Isa 45:22; 52:10; Jer 16:19; Mic 5:4; Zech 9:10) and "the islands" (Isa 40:15; 41:5; 42:4). Gentiles formed the boundary of Israel's land, and as such they were incorporated as the frontier of Yahweh's empire that had Zion as its capital. The Gentile sea thus belonged to the land of the children of Abraham, and this implied that the Gentile would eventually share in their redemption as light and life spread from Zion to the frontier, from Jew to Greek. (p. 11)
Elsewhere, the Bible provides another perspective on the Assyrian empire. In Jonah, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh repented, like the sailors on Jonah's ship, when Israel's prophet preached to them (Jonah 3). Instead of judgment, Jonah mediated salvation and grace to the Assyrians. Jonah also depicted Assyria as a guardian of Israel. The great fish that swallowed the prophet is analogous to the "sea monster" Assyria that swims in the ocean of nations devouring smaller nations. Jonah is an allegory of exile (swallowing) and return (vomiting), and the allegory suggests that the fish of Assyria will swallow but not digest Israel. Nahum is a companion book to Jonah and denounces the Assyrians for their mistreatment of Israel and their cruelty. Though once penitent, Nineveh had become a "blood city" (Nah 3:1), like Jerusalem later (Ezek 24:6, 8). At one time, the rising city-state of Nineveh heard the voice of God through Jonah; at one time, Nineveh was like a protecting vine overshadowing the people of God. Perhaps at one point Assyria was Yahweh's willing rod. They did not remain so, and so were judged for their arrogance and apostasy. (pp. 18-19)
Because of Yahweh's gift of dominion to Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah advised that the Jews of Jerusalem surrender to Nebuchadnezzar. "Come out of her" is a biblical exhortation to exiles in Babylon (Rev 18:4), but Jeremiah urged the opposite: He did not call Judah to "come out" of Babylon, but to "go in" voluntarily. False prophets were the ones who counseled resistance to Nebuchadnezzar and assured Judah that their exile would be brief (Jer 28:1). The ones who surrendered to the empire survived into exile, whereas those who resisted were summarily executed. Some who surrendered rose to high positions within the empire, as Joseph had in Egypt. Jeremiah insisted that the people should expect to be in Babylon for some time. The exile would not be brief, so the Jews were to make themselves at home: "Build houses and live in them; and plant gardens, and eat their produce. Take wives and become the fathers of sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there and do not decrease. And seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to Yahweh on its behalf; for in its peace you will have peace" (Jer 29:5-7). Yahweh laid a Deuteronomic choice before Judah, a way of life and a way of death; submission to Nebuchadnezzar was the way of life because it was, at the time, the form of submission to Yahweh (Jer 21:1-7). A new Jeremian political stance, consistent with an imperial phase of history, thus replaced the political ethic of Israel's monarchical period. (p. 21)
Echoing Jeremiah, Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that he was the head of gold "to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the strength, and the glory" (Dan 2:37-38). The materials of the statue are temple materials. Solomon's temple had an inner sanctuary of gold, silver in the outer sanctuary, and a bronze altar, sea, and water chariots in the courtyard. The movement from "top" (Most Holy Place) to "bottom" (courtyard) was from gold to silver to bronze, just like the sequence of metals in the statue of Nebuchadnezzar. The statue represented a sanctuary for Israel, an imperial temple in which Israel, God's imperium, would find asylum during the period from Nebuchadnezzar to the coming of the kingdom, the whole period of the "end of days." (p. 23)
Israel looked ahead to a series of empires that would rule over the known world. Rather than try to subvert these empires, they were to seek the good and prosperity and become good citizens within the empire, all the while refraining from eating the food and worshipping the gods of the empires. (p. 24)
Eventually, Daniel saw a heavenly courtroom, where the Ancient of Days passed judgment on the beasts and in favor of one like the Son of Man, who ascended to receive the dominion of all the beasts (7:9-14). The Son of Man is the new Adam, the beast tamer. He will be a new Nebuchadnezzar, a king of kings into whose hands the Lord gives even the wild beasts. (p. 32)
First century Rome was the last of the four beasts of Daniel's visions, the fourth empire of the Israel-in-Empire [oikoumenes]. ( p. 34).
Yet Jesus was a prophet in the mold of Jeremiah and Daniel. His stance toward Rome was the stance of the faithful exiles in Babylon. He had cordial conversations with Roman soldiers unimaginable to many Jews, and complimented one Roman centurian on his faith (Matt 8:10-13). He associated with hybrid imperial patsies like tax collectors. He instructed His disciples to cheerfully over-accept the abuse of Roman soldiers who requisitioned them to carry luggage or demanded their cloaks. (p. 36)
Rome was not yet saved, but for much of the first century, Rome served as an agent for the spread of the gospel, a station on the gospel's progress toward the "ends of the earth," the Gentile sea that it has always been God's purpose to pacify and unify. (p. 37)
Daniel 7 is a key passage in the background, a classic passage of counter-imperial imperialism. After the beastial empires are tamed, the dominion, power, glory and riches of those empires are handed over to the Son of Man and the saints (Dan 7:13-14, 23-28). One of the few Old Testament passages that speak of the kingdom of God, Daniel 7 identifies the kingdom of the "Highest One" with the dominion of the saints 9 (v. 27). Daniel 7 pervades Jesus' self-consciousness and preaching. Every time Jesus spoke of Himself as "Son of Man," He claimed to be the heir of imperial authority, the Emporer who fulfills God's original anti-Babel imperial promise to Abraham. When Jesus announced "the kingdom of God is near," He meant the kingdom of Daniel 7 (with, of course, all its rich Zion context). By adopting the role of the Son of Man, Jesus fulfilled the hopes of Zion's prophets, because through Him Zion's light would spread out to the borders of the Gentile sea. (p. 37)
The imperium Paul preached fulfilled Yahweh's promise to David, a promise held in trust by Gentile emporers during the post-exilic period. (p. 38)
Thus, Paul's theology and preaching had a sharp "apocalyptic" element. Wrath is poured out already against the [oikoumenes], and neither Gentiles nor disobedient Jews will escape the coming day of wrath (Rom 1:18-32; 2:1-16). Paul's gospel would be vindicated when God demonstrated through some historical catastrophe that He is as superior to the emperor and gods of Rome as He is to Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt (Exod 12:12). Directly or indirectly, Paul learned from Jesus that such a catastrophe was just over the horizon. Jesus predicted that the world would collapse within "this generation" (Matt 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32). Jesus' prophecy included a warning about the unraveling of the heavens (Matt 24:29), an allusion to Isaiah's prophecy about the collapse of the political universe of neo-Babylon (Isaiah 13). Rome would fall from the circle of heaven as surely as the king of Babylon did (Isaiah 14). Neither Jesus nor Paul was wrong. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70, and the Julio-Claudian line of Roman emperors ended at the same time. That conflagration was the end of the world of the [oikoumenes]. Though Rome retained political power for centuries, Rome ceased to play its special divine role as a refuge of the people of God. By the end of the first generation, the old Israel-in-Empire world was gone for good... That is the core not only of Paul's political theology but very near the core of his gospel. (p. 39)
Paul's gospel challenged Rome at a fundamental level, yet Paul adopted the same Jeremian stance toward Rome that Jesus did.  Romans 13 contains Paul's "defense of Roman government," and Romans 12-16 is characterized by one scholar as Paul's program for "upholding the Roman Empire and making it last." Paul's political thought was consistent with the Hellenistic political thinking of his time in his exhortation to obey the powers, and the theology basis for this exhortation - the fact that God establishes the powers that be - is the "very framework for his political vision." The apostle "understood the advantages of Christianity and used them to strengthen the Roman political system, which he admired and endorsed." Bruno Blumenfeld, whom I have quoted here, overstates the case, but there is no getting around Romans 13 and similar Jeremian exhortations to seek the peace of Rome's imperial city. (p. 40)
During the church's first generation, Rome still functioned as a protector, sponsor, and patron of the people of God. If Rome was a beast, it was still a cherubic beast. Instead of sponsoring the Jewish community and its temple project, as Cyrus the annointed did, the Romans became providential protectors of the Christian community. (p. 42)
During the first generation, persecution arose mainly from fellow Jews... Roman officials meanwhile protected Paul and the apostles from their attackers... (p. 42)
The Roman officials before whom Paul testified gave him a fair hearing that the Jews typically denied. ... In Acts, Romans have better moral discernment than the Jews. Festus recognized Paul's innocence and passed him up the Roman judicial ladder only because he had already appealed to Caesar (25:6-12). (p. 42)
The Mediterranean world began the first century AD organized by an Israel-in-Empire structure. Through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and the witness and martyrdom of His saints, that system was brought to a crashing end in the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies and the collapse of the Julian line. Though the apostles shared the prophetic hope that Gentile nations and kings would acknowledge the God of Israel as God, they did not envision that another empire or series of empires would fulfill the role played by Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, Alexander, or the early Roman emperors. The statue of Daniel 2 is demolished; there are only four beasts in Daniel 7. The statue is replaced by a mountain that grows to encompass the earth, the imperial mountain that is the kingdom and empire of God. Augustine was right to "secularize" Roman imperial order. After the first century, the Roman empire plays no essential, sacred role in the history of the church, nor does any other empire... What replaced the ancient system was not a new church-in-empire system, but simply the church, the fulfilled Abrahamic empire. Beast and harlot are cleared away to make room for the Bride. Kings and empires are no longer chosen to shelter the church. Instead, the church as the fifth empire keeps its doors open day and night so that kings from across the sea will be able to enter and pay homage to the Son who reigns from Zion. (p. 51)
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