Unreached Network

Sitting in Athens thinking about history

Sitting in Athens thinking about history.

Anthony Sattin’s book Nomads: The Wanderers who Shaped our World is therapeutic and persuasive in its argument that the modernist telling of history represents ‘an invisible line’ through to civilisation and progress as defined in the West, to ‘people like us.’ In this idea, settledness, dominion over nature, and cities represent inevitable civilisation/ development/ progress. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto described history as ‘a path picked among ruins;’

Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen, please just follow the line and you will be transported gloriously, reassuringly and seamlessly from the pyramids and tombs of ancient Egypt, to the temples and theatres of Greece, from the glory of Imperial Rome, to Byzantium, towards the consummate beauty of the Renaissance and onwards to today… Please stick to the main path and you will find, somewhat inevitably, that it will lead you to the triumph of the Christian West.[1]

I am thinking about Old Testament history. I believe that the biblical authors look at the monarchical period exactly in the opposite way. That when Israel was living lightly, nomadic, remembering their origins; ‘My Father was a wandering Aramean’[2] as wilderness people, in the footsteps of the landless patriarchs, they knew God – his wildness, his largeness, his power. They were more horizontal, clan-shaped, tribal, nomadic, close to the seasons, close to nature. More cyclical. The annual feast of booths was supposed to preserve this memory. ‘It is as if God was giving his people liturgical reminders to safeguard them against the arrogance and presumption that settled prosperity would surely bring.’[3]

The downturn in Israel’s story came in the settled phase – with Solomon, the first city-born king. As I argue in my Bethlehem Story, David was close to God as a wilderness-dwelling, transhumance-attuned, Bethlehem-born shepherd, and Solomon moved away from God as an empire-building, civilising King. The more settled Israel became, the more rotten. I have defined this as margins versus power – power corrupts. Perhaps Sattin would describe it as nomadic versus settled.

Solomon’s exploits – which the Western modernist worldview-imbued commentators celebrate – such as his botany, science,[4] building projects,[5] imperial expansion are viewed by indigenous scholarship as negative developments, as functions of dominon over nature rather than closeness to nature, of subduing surrounding nations rather than living in harmony with surrounding nations. Israel’s ‘civilisation’ led to her downfall – in historical terms very close to Ibn Khaldun’s view of the cyclical history of empires, and completely antithetical to an industrial, evolutionary, march-of-progress view of history.

Eventually, the Assyrian and Babylonian dispersions put the people back into dislocated circulation. The people of Israel became a diaspora, carrying their possessions, spreading out around the world. And in this moment God was working. The Old Testament canon was edited and refined, the synagogue was invented, God was sought.

In establishing the synagogue, Judaism created one of the greatest revolutions in the history of religion and society, for the synagogue was an entirely new environment for divine service, of a type unknown anywhere before.[6]

It is the ultimate revelation of monotheism: that God is present anywhere in the world amongst his people.

This then leads to the New Testament narrative that Pentecost is a judgement of settled religion and a re-scattering, re-heterogenising, de-Zionising of faith. Jesus’ judgement of Jerusalem and the temple cult seeks to liberate people from the stagnancy of settled religion. Jesus himself, lest we forget (!) was itinerant. No place to lay his head. Not settled. Even his carpenter years – we assume that he was a settled village carpenter in Nazareth with a shop and a routine – but it seems likely that the available work was on Herod’s massive installations, that the workforce was mobile, going where the work was, as the multitudes of Israel’s impoverished working classes journeyed to seek whatever opportunities were available.

Dr. Keller has made famous the idea that the Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city, again espousing a modernist development idea… but for most of the world’s history most people have been more nomadic than settled, and would see this not as a picture of heaven, but of a hell. It seems impolitic to disagree with so eminent a scholar or so established a narrative, but the Bible is not the American dream, is not civilisation-centric, and the implications of reading development and progress into the Bible are ethically of monstrous significance.

To the civilised, the ‘uncivilised’ are inferior, or worse – invisible. That’s why Captain Cook and his onboard scientist Joseph Banks, on landing in Botany Bay, even though they met local Dharawal Aborigines, wrote of Australia as

a vast and empty land, empty even though at night he had seen the coastline glitter with a galaxy of small fires that were tended by people whose success lay in their ability to tread lightly, to live on the move and whose extensive knowledge lay not in libraries but in the ancestor stories they passed on through their dreamings. To Banks, Australia was perhaps empty of civilised people.[7]

Modern Zionism is an expression of religiously-sanctioned settler colonialism where King Solomon’s expansion and building projects are templated – but what about the people who have been living in those spaces for generations who are dispossessed by an idea? The premise of Zionism, “A land without a people for a people without a land,” is faulty – because the land is not without people. This is no different than the British in Australia, or the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the name of God.

This is a plea to continue to decolonise your reading of Scripture. I know it’s hard, when so many of the scholars whom you read were party to such a worldview. But what a sad, one-dimensional, dull view of the world you have if history is one universal invisible line; the march of progress and science, upon which some nations are more developed and others ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing,’ some peoples more civilised and others less. Cains have always been killing Abels, but the line of Messiah comes through neither Cain nor Abel, but through the third and unexpected son and Adam and Eve – Seth.


[1] Sattin, Nomads, 24.

[2] Deut 26:5.

[3] Mccullough, The Bethlehem Story.

[4] I Kings 4:33.

[5] Eccl 2:4-6.

[6] Professor Stern, A History of the Jewish People.

[7] Sattin, Nomads, 258.