Lesson 45: “If I Perish, I Perish”–The Superheroes of Non-Assimilation #BCCSundaySchool2016

Daniel 1, 3, 5; Esther 3-5, 7-8

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Let’s start with Superman.

America’s quintessential cultural hero is an icon of assimilation. He is a refugee whose home has been destroyed by an environmental disaster. He immigrates, not only to the United States, but to the American Heartland and grows up on a farm in Kansas, moves to the big city, and becomes a metaphor for the way that America saw itself in the 20th century. He is amazingly powerful, eternally good, and completely assimilated. So assimilated, in fact, that the only thing that can hurt him is a piece of the world he left behind. A small pebble from the Old World reduces America’s greatest hero to a simpering weenie. To be powerful, Superman must leave his old life behind.

The Superman story is classic example of how a culture articulates its values through its heroes–individuals who distill, not the most important things about a culture, but the most important things that a culture thinks about itself. Americans like to think that they are powerful, that they are good, and that they are a “melting pot” that merges every culture it encounters into something uniquely American. We are aggressive assimilationists. No big surprise. Major powers usually are.

You don’t meet a lot of Lydians or Medes these days. They got absorbed into Persia by Cyrus the Great and stopped existing as themselves. Same for Akkadians, Chaldeans, Scythians, and Cimmerians. These cultures–along with their folkways, cultic practices, and languages–all got assimilated into the Empire of Babylon. That was the thing about great Empires like Persia and Babylon: once you got assimilated, you stayed assimilated.

Except for the Jews. After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed its people, they were supposed to become Babylonians. Everybody else did. And even if there were a few pockets of resistance during the first century, the conquest of Babylon by the Persians should have taken care of them. Or the Seleucids. Or the Romans. Or the Christians. Or the Muslims.

Between 587 BCE and 1948 CE–more than 2500 years–the Jews did something that nobody else from the ancient world ever did: they survived the loss of their homeland with their culture and religion intact. And then they survived for thousands of years, in the face of the most assimilationist cultures that have ever existed, without a homeland. There was simply no way that they could have done this, and yet they did it.

And they did it by telling stories.

The stories in Daniel 1, 3, and 5 are parables of Kryptonite in reverse–stories of how holding on to one’s culture can heal and protect you.

  • In Daniel 1, Nebuchadnezzar seeks to assimilate the Hebrews by bringing Daniel and other young men to the Court to be trained as leaders. Think of it as a very early Rhodes Scholarship. He wanted to show them what a great place Babylon was, and he literally wined and dined them. But instead of the steak and wine, the young Hebrews chose to eat granola–and, of course, they were the healthiest and the strongest ones in the room. This is clearly an argument for Hebrew dietary laws, but also a warning to avoid the luxuries of Babylon. That’s how they get you.
  • In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar replaces the carrot with the stick and demands that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego worship a Babylonian idol. This would have been standard practice. Once you were conquered, you gave up your local gods and worshiped the gods of your conquerors–whom, you were supposed to understand, were better gods anyway or you wouldn’t have been conquered. Nothing was more crucial to Jewish identity than continuing to worship YHWH, but to do so, they had to place themselves at great personal risk, as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego do when they refuse to worship an idol and are condemned to the furnace. The Lord watches over them, and they survive–which was perhaps the most important lesson for the post-exilic Jews to learn.
  • Daniel 5 is basically the same story except with the Persians and with Lions. But the most important difference is that it shows a Jewish person, Daniel, in a position of great power–much as Joseph was in Egypt at the beginning of Jewish history. The story of Daniel suggests that believers could be part of the empires in which they lived. They could occupy positions of importance and, by doing so, protect their fellow countrypersons. God can watch over people in a palace as easily as he can in a manger, so the Chosen People don’t have to separate themselves from a society in order to preserve their culture.

But the greatest hero of post-exilic Jewish culture is not Daniel. It is Esther, the Persian Queen who saves her people by acknowledging her culture. For thousands of years, Purimspielers around the world have donned the costumes of Vashti, Mordecai, Haman, Ahasuereus, and Esther, the superhero queen.

The story of Esther distills the two greatest threats that the Jews faced: assimilation by intermarriage and annihilation by pogrom. In Esther, both of these threats come from the same source, which is the denial of their identity in an attempt to fit in. When Esther first marries Ahasuereus, her cousin Mordecai tells her to keep her heritage a secret. But this secretiveness doesn’t work, and when Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, it almost becomes a disaster.

Mordecai’s refusal to bow comes from the same impulse as Daniel’s insistence on praying and on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego’s refusal to worship the idol. The most essential element of Jewish identity was the unique worship of YHWH. It is not the insistence on worshiping their god that made Jews a threat; it was their refusal to worship anybody else’s god–including the gods of the state.

The ancient world was chock full of gods, and most people who worshiped one god saw no reason not to worship another from time to time. State gods had to be worshiped, people believed, or the state would not prosper. But worshiping YHWH, and only YHWH, was non-negotiable. This lead to Haman making the same charge against the Jews that would be made for the next 2500 years in nearly every nation where Jews settled:

And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. (Esther 3:8)

There was no way that the Jews–actually or metaphorically–could do what Haman (or Babylon, or Persia, or Rome) wanted them to do without ceasing to be Jews. They could not worship other gods. They could not bow to Haman. Esther, however, could save her people by acknowledging to the King that she was Jewish.

And this is the key to the puzzle. At great peril to herself, Esther acknowledged who she was. Much like Daniel (who, one supposes, could have just closed his eyes in his bed and prayed silently), she is proudly and openly Jewish. But in Esther’s story, it is not God who intervenes; it is the King himself, who had no way to evaluate the loyalty of his Jewish subjects until somebody that he knew and loved made him aware that she was one of them.

The most wonderful and remarkable thing about these stories is that they worked. They did what they were supposed to do. Let’s not even waste a second on the historical questions. No, we can’t place Esther’s King Ahasuerus at the head of the Persian Empire. Was he Xerxes? Artaxerxes? It doesn’t matter. How about Daniel’s King Darius? Same thing. He wasn’t there and it doesn’t matter.

These were not stories created to do something as dull and unimportant as record the histories of kings. They were stories created to preserve a culture. They created superheroes and taught the children that they could be like Esther, who saved her people–or like Daniel, who prayed to God, was thrown to the lions, and lived. These tales taught Jews that they could still be Jews, even without a homeland. They taught them that God was still their God and would take care of them. They taught the truths that mattered, and they created a culture that survived. This is what stories are supposed to do.

Comments

  1. Mark Brown says:

    This is really excellent, Michael.

    Thank you for your effort on these lessons.

  2. Stephen Hardy says:

    Why oh why can we not have someone like Michael Austin write our curriculum?

  3. “It’s just a story!” rankles me. “This is what stories are supposed to do” is the answer.
    Thank you.

  4. I love this so much.

  5. Great work, Mike!

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Wonderful stuff; thanks.

  7. So will we be assimilated when we give up being called Mormon?

  8. Good stuff, Michael. Chris, your question is a mic drop. The Book of Mormon has to be our version of these stories, distinguishing us and uniting us across countries and cultures.

  9. It’s interesting comparing the Judaic conception of identity in America through the creation of Superman with the later generation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby doing it in Marvel. So you have say The Thing of the Fantastic Four being explicitly Jewish and living on a slightly transfigured New York City street that was known to be Jewish. Superman is in a sense the quest to have a degree of assimilation. Later Lee and Kirby push a certain diversity and self-identity. Further the civil rights battles, including Jews, comes through in the early years of comics such as X-Men. Even Xavier and Magneto fit into this. (Although Magneto isn’t made Jewish until quite late in the 90’s and is more a Malcom X figure in the 60’s and 70’s with Xavier being more of a Martin Luther King figure – although both deal with issues of identity and assimilation as well)

  10. Not a Cougar says:

    Micahel, great article. Any comment on the archaeological evidence that pre-exhile Israelites (Northern and Southern Kingdoms) appear to have been highly polytheistic? The Jews who were taken as part of the Exhile appear to have been primarily upper class with closer ties to the temple and perhaps more likely to be monotheistic, but I presume there must have been some adjustment period as the exhiles became solidly monotheistic. Any thoughts?

  11. Not a Cougar says:

    And sorry about spelling. Typing on phones and haste are a poor mix.

  12. Michael Austin says:

    Not A Cougar,

    Lots of guesswork here. There is only so much one can tease out of a few bone fragments and a shard of pottery. But here is my best guess about how it unfolded, based on what I know of the archaeology and how I read the text.

    The Jews who went into exile were probably not monotheistic in the way that we would understand the term. They were henotheistic. They believed that lots of gods existed, but they believed that it was only appropriate for them to worship one god, Yahweh, who demanded their exclusive attention.

    Henotheistic Yahwist cultic practices probably emerged spontaneously in the Canaanite kingdoms of Judah and Israel (there is no archaeological evidence for an Exodus, a Conquest, or a United Kingdom). Worship of Yahweh went in and out of favor in the Southern Kingdom, where the Temple was the cultic center, but was always officially discouraged in the Northern Kingdom because most kings have a hard time with their people following a religion that is headquartered in another kingdom.

    The great moment for Yahweh worship in the Southern Kingdom was the conversion of King Josiah to a particularly robust strain of Yahweh worship. Josiah reigned for 30 years in the generation before the Babylonian captivity. He instituted major reforms, compiled scriptures, elevated priests, executed priests of rival gods, and restored the temple. So the Jews who headed into the Babylonian captivity just 20 years or so after Josiah died were at a sort of all-time Yahweh high. The tail wind of the Josianic reforms carried them through the captivity, where they refined their henotheism into a genuine monotheism and emerged with an actual religion instead of a national cult of Yahweh.

    It is ironic, and it kind of works against my argument in the OP, that Jewish monotheism appears to have borrowed heavily from the Zoroastrian religious practices of the Persians. Specifically, the character of Satan–a wholly evil figure who serves as a counterpoint to the one true God–never really existed in Judaism before they came in contact with the Persians, with their dualistic belief in a single creator-god (Ahuramazda) perpetually at war with an incarnation of evil (Ahriman).

    But, as I said, these are little better than guesses about what a group of intensely alien people believed 2500 years ago. But its the best I’ve got.

  13. Not a Cougar says:

    Michael thanks as well for the follow up. Post-exhile Judaism is nowhere near my field of expertise, but, studying it in my own amateurish way has been enlightening to say the least. It certainly casts Zerubabbel’s rejection of help from the “enemies of Judah and Benjamin” in a different light.

  14. This is really great, Mike. Thanks!

  15. Oh no, did we skip lesson 44? That’s what I’m teaching this week!

  16. This is great.

  17. Geoff - Aus says:

    Where is lesson 44. Will it appear? My wife is teaching it next week

  18. Timothy Robinson says:

    For those who are looking for comments on Lesson 44, here are a couple of key points to consider. In Ezekiel’s earlier visions of cherubim and wheels with eyes and a man dressed in linen with an inkhorn (the Lord’s scribe), the temple (the “house”) is frequently mentioned in passing. If you follow the movement of the “glory of the Lord” (which is a euphemism for the Lord himself, so as not to mention his sacred name) in the following scriptures, you will note the the Lord goes from persisting in the temple, to leaving by the East Gate: Ezekiel 8:4-5, 9:2-3, 10:18-19, 11:22-23. Then, suddenly, the Lord reenters his newly rebuilt temple by the same East Gate: Ezekiel 43:4. In Chapter 40:1-5, the Lord tells Ezekiel to tell the people what he sees and in 43:10-12 (more clear in the NRSV) the Lord makes is even clearer that central the the Lord’s plan and ordinances for the people is the rebuilding and sanctification of his holy temple. Couple of questions: What does it mean that the highly symbolic language of Ezekiel’s early visions gives way to an incredibly practical vision of the dimensions of a temple, cubit by cubit? What is it about their current circumstance that makes this vision on a mountain top (see 40:2) of a rebuilt temple on the 25th anniversary of Ezekiel’s captivity (see 40:1) so poignant? Ezekiel’s vision of the rebuilt Jerusalem Temple is not the floor plan that Zerubbabel and later Herod actually build. It has yet to be built. What of this? What of the exaggerated walls and imposing gates in Ezekiel’s vision? In Ezekiel 47, he moves on to describing the kind of worship that will take place inside this new temple. What do make of the deep waters described in Ezekiel 47:5? Hope that helps at all!

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