For the past few months, I’ve been reading the Bible, book by book, and writing reports on what I’m learning. Lately, I’ve been reading the prophetic books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, which were written during the time of Israel’s defeat at the hands of the great Assyrian and Babylonian empires (722-587 B.C.E.). While these books contain beautiful and poetic passages, there is a disturbing undercurrent that actually runs throughout much of the Bible so far, which I would like to address.
The prophecies of Jeremiah, for example, like many of the prophets, present a rather disturbing interpretation of history. Rather than seeing history (particularly wars and conquests of Israel) as complex political power struggles between nations, the prophets see them in stark black and white—Israel’s defeat at the hands of Assyria and Babylon, for example, is the result of the Israelites’ sin.
From a modern historian’s perspective, Israel’s defeat can be explained rather differently—it was because Assyria and Babylon were much more powerful empires. This is why they defeated Israel. But the prophets cannot see it this way. Seeing history through the lens of theology, they add insult to the peoples’ injury. Not only were the people physically defeated, this defeat was somehow their fault. They did a bad job following religious laws, and were therefore punished. While this view preserves a certain idea of God as powerful, it does so at the expense of human dignity.
It would be like telling the victims of any national tragedy, “You deserved this.” Or telling a survivor of rape, “You brought this on yourself.” The prophets were so interested in preserving their idea of God, that they debased their idea of humanity. This view of history can, and does, have dangerous consequences, both psychologically and socially. Blaming the victim is, in my view, nefarious and cruel. And the prophets in the Bible do it all the time.