Over the last week, I’ve caught up on some reading, delving into biblical history and Near East archaeology. It’s a field that inspires an immense amount of literature and controversy due to the passions it evokes, so it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, but the good stuff is some of the best of its genre.
One book I’ve been reading is called Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth Of Israel. The title was designed to drum up controversy, and the author, Thomas L. Thompson of the Copenhagen School, has long been in the habit of provoking the powers that be, largely by challenging the historical accuracy of the Bible. When studying at a Catholic university in the 1960s, his doctoral dissertation was rejected by the recently retired Benedict XVI himself (then known as Joseph Ratzinger). It was not, according to the former pope, a proper Catholic work.
Thompson has drawn the ire of others as well, including Israelis, American Evangelical Christians and some conservative biblical scholars, such as William Dever. Over time, though, some of his ideas, which were considered heresy back in the 60s and 70s, have been accepted by the academic establishment. After wandering in the wilderness for years, academia finally called him back again in the late 80s, and by the 90s he was a professor at the University of Copenhagen.
However, I’m not as interested in Thompson’s arguments concerning the historicity of the Bible as I am in the regional history he uses to make those arguments. Although I am curious, whether or not King David existed is not my most pressing concern. What is most interesting about the book – to me at least – is Thompson’s description of the chaotic situation in what is now known as Israel in the 1st millenium BC.
Caught between multiple competing empires, the people of the region were battered by successive invasions and land grabs. As an economically and strategically important location, it couldn’t escape the armies of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Egyptians, Macedonians and Romans. Every century or so a rising power would sweep in and overrun the land. This is the context in which the Bible was compiled, so it’s no wonder that there’s such a preoccupation with war and exile in the world’s preeminent holy book.
Each new conqueror came with the intent to consolidate rule. To press his advantage, he would enact policies to crush resistance and, when possible, to garner support from various factions. Typically, the new ruler would accuse the vanquished power of having neglected tradition, of desecrating religion, and oppressing the people. It was imperial propaganda that was not all that different from the 20th century equivalent.
In addition to propaganda, however, population transfer and forced labor were widely used to control natives. Residents of cities such as Jerusalem and Samaria were rounded up and shipped off to other regions, Babylon being one of them. People from far-flung regions were then imported to take their place. The Elamites, for example, were transplants from Afghanistan, which is a long, long way from Israel (could this be why Aristotle thought the Jews were originally from India?).
These displaced peoples were dependent on the ruler for their very lives, and could be counted on to support him against disgruntled native populations. Furthermore, having been removed from their land and kin, they were atomized individuals without a family network to rely upon.
To justify this, imperial powers would preach a form of democracy, and practice redistribution. The idea was that although people had been uprooted and reduced to dependence, and in some cases outright slavery, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, or whoever happened to be the overlord of the time, was their savior. He and he alone could protect these hapless people from vicious, xenophobic enemies, ready to cut their throats at any moment. Only he could enforce equality between his subjects. It’s exactly the same reason partisan Democrats are so enamored with illegal aliens (well, at least with the idea if not the actual people) — they constitute an essentially captive, dependent population that can be counted on for rock-solid political support.
From this history of the ancient Near East, it becomes clear that fostering dependence is a very old political trick. And the easiest way to do that is to break up independent support networks. First, you subjugate the community by force of arms. Then, you drive people out of their homes. Finally, you destroy family ties through conscription, forced labor and slavery. Sometimes, as in the East German regime, you might even do it by encouraging family members to denounce each other.
The goal is to prevent people from living independently, because such people are strong and might resist. They are a headache; they are defiant and cause trouble.
Does any of this sound familiar?
When looking at our family law regime from such a perspective, it is hard to see it as anything other than a systematic program of forced dependence. Single mothers rely on government largesse, divorced fathers play the role of conscripts or forced laborers, and children belong, for all intents and purposes, to the state. Men are turned out of their homes by decrees that are enforced by armed henchmen, their pay is seized without a hearing and turned over to the state for disbursement. And all in the name of equality.
Family law in the US is an expression of the logic of power. Feminism is merely a convenient tool. The goal is not to empower women – single mothers are amongst the most miserable of all our citizens, after all – but to shatter the power of the people in general by breaking the family. It may not be a conscious decision, but it doesn’t have to be. If bureaucrats can figure out how to squeeze another one percent of revenue out of men by enacting this or that policy, they do it. If a politician can more effectively create a base of support by fostering dependence, he’ll happily do so. The consequences to the people don’t matter — what’s important is that the people on the make keep the system working for them.
Given the biblical context, perhaps fathers who have been through the system will recognize the sentiment behind the following passage from Psalm 123, which is from the exile period:
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.