I suppose that in every generation folks have worried about what their world was coming to. Certainly in our time it seems to me there are good reasons to worry about it. Aren’t terrifying prospects ahead worthy of serious consideration? I know that to put into words the implications of some of the trends of our times can be disconcerting, especially when we see our leaders deliberately avoiding it, or worse, distorting what information is available so as to resist the kinds of changes necessary to avoid a potential train wreck ahead.
Consider a development in our times whose implications are difficult to assess but must be faced by our world leaders, those of the industrial powers more than any others, if disaster is to be escaped: global warming. I use this term deliberately rather than the less terrifying term, “climate change,” in order to stress what seems to me a matter of urgency. Isn’t this a reality that must be addressed forthrightly? Let us try to examine the information available to us as we best can, laying aside the various ways that politicians – who necessarily must voice the claims of those to whom they are indebted – have chosen the confuse the issue.
Here is the dangerous reality as we best know it:
Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester (UK) reported last November (summarized in the Guardian, November 29, 2010) that
- “the so-called safe limit of [a rise of 2 degrees centigrade] [is] impossible to keep. A 4C rise in the planet’s temperature would see severe droughts across the world and millions of migrants seeking refuge as their food supplies collapse.” In fact,”There is now little to no chance of maintaining [i.e. limiting] the rise in global surface temperature at below 2C, despite repeated high-level statements to the contrary,”
- “Moreover, the impacts associated with 2C have been revised upwards so that [a rise of] 2C now represents the threshold [of] extremely dangerous climate change.”
The Guardian says that “The scientists’ modelling is based on actual tonnes of emissions, not percentage reductions, and separates the predicted emissions of rich and fast-industrialising nations such as China. [The year] ‘2010 represents a political tipping point,’ said Anderson, but added in the report: ‘This paper is not intended as a message of futility, but rather a bare and perhaps brutal assessment of where our ‘rose-tinted’ and well-intentioned approach to climate change has brought us. Real hope and opportunity, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a raw and dispassionate assessment of the scale of the challenge faced by the global community.’” [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/nov/29/climate-change-scientists-4c-temperature]
So, bluntly, Anderson and Bows are saying that unless more aggressive measures are taken the world economy as we know it will reach a kind of practical impasse; the implications are too horrific to put into words.
All of this we have been hearing for years. That politicians, and other interested groups threatened by this talk, claim that this is contested: Right now Rick Santorum is mouthing this claim for reasons that seem too obvious to state. Of course the future is always uncertain, but the scientific evidence is such that the leaders of our world are foolhardy to ignore it.
So along with this danger of our times is the prospect that our politicians cannot bear to face it squarely for what it is. Yes, denial is being promoted by wealthy interests – I have read that the Koch brothers are behind the Cato institute which has for years persisitently denied that global warming is a reality. There is no danger, no need to cut back on CO2 emissions, they keep saying.
The problem with planning in the public sphere is that it is essentially a political process, for defining the nature of the situation always risks taking decisions that will offend someone’s interests, and the more powerful those interests are the more difficult it is to act against their interests, even if the decision would be best for the society as a whole. This situation opens possibilities for misreading and misrepresenting situations so grossly that serious dangers ahead could be ignored, with disastrous consequences. This is the general point of Jared Diamond’s Collapse which recounts several cases in which dangers ahead were not avoided because the societies involved could not adjust their ways of life sufficiently to evade a disaster.
I have been studying another case, one that should be familiar to the Judeo-Christian community since it appears in the Bible, but as far as I can tell, it has been generally ignored. I describe the case in some length below because it seems to me so telling for the situation of our times. The final collapse of the society involved took place in 586 B.C. even though it was eminently predictable — and was predicted over and over again — and yet was denied by those in a position to avoid it until there was no escape: As a consequence, a great city was looted of its treasures, burned to the ground, and left as a desert waste.
In 609 B.C. the King of Judah, Josiah, who had spent most of his reign correcting affairs within his domains, became alarmed by the political scene around him, for a major confrontation of powers was brewing in Syria. An upstart force of Babylonians and Medians had attacked the army of Assyria, the hegemon of Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine, and forced them to flee even their capital city, Nineveh. As the Assyrians were regrouping in Syria to prepare for a decisive re-engagement, Pharaoh Neco II, who had pretentions of own in the region, began leading an Egyptian force from their outpost in Meggido, Palestine, northward into Syria. But King Josiah took offense to their movements through his domains and even though his capital was more than a day’s march away he assembled an army to interrupt the Egyptians. Despite Neco’s assurances that he had no designs on Judah Josiah led his troops into battle. Josiah’s fateful mistake, for he lost his life in the ensuing battle, would allow his kingdom to fall under the control of the outside powers now contesting for dominance in the region, and eventually to suffer a crushing wreckage of the whole kingdom, a collapse that would forever become iconic in the imagination of the survivors and their descendants.
Josiah was replaced by his son Jehoahaz, chosen by the elders of the kingdom who for some reason passed over an older brother. It would be the last time for many generations that Judah’s elders would choose their own leader. Jehoahaz was scarcely enthroned when Neco, now the master of Judah, deposed Jehoahaz and shipped him back to Egypt. And he exacted a severe penalty for Judah’s costly and unnecessary interruption to his military plans: “a hundred talents” [7500 pounds] of silver and “a talent” [75 pounds] of gold [II Chron 36:1; II Kgs 23:31-36].
He also replaced Jehoahaz with the older brother, Eliakim, giving him a new name, Jehoiakim, to identify him as a vassal of Egypt. But Judah’s alliance with Egypt vanished four years later when the Babylonians prevailed over the Assyrians and Egyptians in a decisive battle at Carchemish (605 B.C.). As the Babylonians began to exercise their claims over all of Syria-Palestine Jehoiakim resisted. Within the year, however, Nebuchadnezzar, crown prince of Babylon, sacked the city of Ashkelon in Philistia nearby, and Jahoiakim, now under siege, agreed to swear fealty to Babylon. Hegemony was still contested in the region, though, as was became clear when the Babylonians failed to invade Egypt in 600 B.C. Jehoiakim took the opportunity to break his commitment to Nebuchadnezzar and re-ally himself with Pharaoh Neco. As it happened Neco was no help in protecting his subjects when they were harassed by Chaldean, Syrian, Moabite, and Ammonite nomads allied with Babylon [II Kgs 24:2]. Nebuchadnezzar was during this time distracted by the sudden death of his father: he had to race home to claim the throne from his rivals. But once ensconced in power he was ready to deal with the perfidious King of Judah. In spring 597 B.C. he brought a large force into Judah and deposed Jahoiakim, clasping him in chains “to take him to Babylon” [according to II Chron 36:6], although it appears that Jahoiakim died before he got there [II Kg 24:6]. Now he also exacted a price for his trouble, appropriating for himself some of the ceremonial objects from the sacred Jewish temple of Solomon [II Chron 36:5-7].
Nebuchadnezzar placed Jehoiakim’s son Jehoiachin (also known as Coniah), still a young man, on the throne in Jerusalem, but Coniah was scarcely in office when the emperor changed his mind (according to Josephus) and came back to replace him. He was not however, received warmly, and in order to get into the city he had to besiege it. The writer of the Book of Kings described the event: “At that time the servants of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it, and Jehoiachin [Coniah] the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself and his mother and his servants and his officials and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign …” [II Kgs 24:10-12].
This was an occasion for Nebuchadnezzar to make off with more of the wealth of the city. He “carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, …” [II Kgs 24:13] Moreover, he “carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land.” [II Kings 24:14]. This deportation of the elite, perhaps including the young man Ezekiel, may have benefited the Jews in the long run, as it preserved the learned class, whose descendants would lead the return and reconstruction of the city a few generations later.
The person Nebuchadnezzar chose to rule the city as his vassal was Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, whom he renamed Zedekiah. This time he obliged the new King to swear fealty to him in the name of his own God, Yahweh. He put him “under oath … that the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up, and keep his covenant that it might stand” [Ezek 17:13b,-14].
But Zedekiah and his advisers in Jerusalem failed to grasp their actual plight. Enamored with Judah’s former greatness, they had every intention of reestablishing its storied eminence. The king and his advisors in the city connived to throw off the yoke of their new masters. There was, however, a small contingent of Jews led by the prophet Jeremiah who warned against rebellion. They advised the King to consent to Nebuchadnezzar’s authority. For the time being, the prophet urged, they should accept their vassal status under the Babylonians. They should live as good citizens until a time when their god Yahweh would restore the fortunes of their people. It was Yahweh’s decree, he said, that they would have to live under foreign domination for seventy years, a claim that appeared to be unthinkable to the nationalist Jews.
In Zedekiah’s eleventh year the nationalists got their way: The king sent “ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and a large army” [Ezk 17:15]. And thus he outraged his master. Once again Nebuchadnezzar led his army back into Judah, this time to settle the matter. The Babylonians surrounded Jerusalem, depriving it of food and water from the outside. Briefly distracted by a failed attempt of the Egyptians to dislodge them, they intensified their stranglehold on the city. The siege lasted for a year and a half, with horrifying consequences. The writer of II Kings [25:3-7] describes the scene. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. This may have been the situation described in the book of Lamentations, a funeral dirge written somewhat later: the children “faint for hunger at the head of every street.” And: The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people. [Lam 4:10]. The author asks, “Should women eat the fruit of their womb, the children of their tender care?” [Lam 2:20]
In desperation the king and his army tried to flee. “Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, though the Chaldeans were around the city. And they went in the direction of the Arabah. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho, and all his army was scattered from him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, and they passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains and took him to Babylon” [II Kg 25:3-7].
The Babylonians were not yet finished with this perfidious and incorrigible city. “Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen” [II Kg 25:8-12].
Now the city lay open to pillage. “What was of gold the captain of the guard took away as gold, and what was of silver, as silver.” Whatever could be melted down for weapons was carried off, even the contents of the temple, which for the writer of Kings were sacred objects. “And the pillars of bronze that were in the house of the Lord, and the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the Lord, the Chaldeans broke in pieces and carried the bronze to Babylon. And they took away the pots and the shovels and the snuffers and the dishes for incense and all the vessels of bronze used in the temple service, the fire pans also and the bowls.” The huge works of fine craftsmanship in the temple were likewise carted away. “As for the two pillars, the one sea, and the stands that Solomon had made for the house of the Lord, the bronze of all these vessels was beyond weight. The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and on it was a capital of bronze. The height of the capital was three cubits. A latticework and pomegranates, all of bronze, were all around the capital. And the second pillar had the same, with the latticework” [II Kg 25:13-17]. All these were carried away.
As a final measure, Nebuchadnezzar executed a number of the leading men: “And the captain of the guard took Seraiah the chief priest and Zephaniah the second priest and the three keepers of the threshold, and from the city he took an officer who had been in command of the men of war, and five men of the king’s council who were found in the city, and the secretary of the commander of the army who mustered the people of the land, and sixty men of the people of the land who were found in the city. And Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took them and brought them to the king of Babylon at Riblah. And the king of Babylon struck them down and put them to death at Riblah in the land of Hamath. So Judah was taken into exile out of its land” [II Kg 25:18-21].
The Experience of Desolation
The emasculation and impoverishment of Judah was total. Along with the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the Holocaust during World War II, this event, the burning of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. was among the most shattering moments in Jewish history. And yet little has been remarked on how powerfully it affected the moral sensibility of the Jews during the subsequent period of exile. Even some people who read the Bible, our main source for what is known about the event, have only a vague sense of what happened and what it meant to the Jews of the succeeding generations, even though their writings expose clearly how deeply affected they were by the experience.
The writings of later generations describe the event in emotional terms:
· A Psalmist writes as if he had actually seen the destruction of the city and the temple. “[T]he enemy has destroyed everything in the sanctuary! 4 Your foes [O God] have roared in the midst of your meeting place; they set up their own signs for signs. 5 They were like those who swing axes in a forest of trees. 6 And all its carved wood they broke down with hatchets and hammers. 7 They set your sanctuary on fire; they profaned the dwelling place of your name, bringing it down to the ground. 8 They said to themselves, “We will utterly subdue them”; they burned all the meeting places of God in the land” [Ps 74:3 b-8].
· Another Psalmist similarly writes as if present to see the temple’s defilement: “O God, the nations [=heathens] have come into your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the heavens for food, the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there was no one to bury them. We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those around us” [Ps 79:1-4].
· The writer of Lamentations, in poetic dirges about these times, described the wreckage after the Babylonians were finished. [Chapter 1:1] “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.  She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies.  Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. …. [4b] all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly. …  The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation.  All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength.
· Also, [Chapter 2:9] Her gates have sunk into the ground; he has ruined and broken her bars; her king and princes are among the nations; the law is no more, and her prophets find no vision from the Lord.  The elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.  My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out to the ground because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, because infants and babies faint in the streets of the city.  They cry to their mothers, “Where is bread and wine?” as they faint like a wounded man in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers’ bosom. …  In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword….
· [Chatper 4:8] Now their face is blacker than soot; they are not recognized in the streets; their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become as dry as wood.  Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field. …
· The latter part of Isaiah (“Second Isaiah”) similarly describes the country in ruins, as if it were written during this time: [ Isa 64:10] Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.12 After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?
Does this tale have any significance for our present time? Certainly in the city of Jerusalem there was a failure of foresight. But the political forces within the city of Jerusalem were so powerful that the true nature of the scene could scarcely be put into words. Political interests clouded insight. So those in a position to divert the course of events were unable or unwilling to acknowledge what they might have seen ahead.
Is this the world we live in? Could the earth burn like Jerusalem? Is there not a failure of leadership in our time? How might we force those in power to confront the course of affairs before the options are too narrow to avoid a disastrous collapse of the social order?