"It was almost sixty years ago that our family came to this new city. It wasn't by choice, to be sure, but, after such a long time, it feels pretty much like home. In fact, there's hardly anyone alive who remembers the old country. Over the years, we've assimilated, I suppose. We've developed a new alphabet. Most of us have become native speakers, our old tongue reserved for special occasions or worship. Life isn't quite like what we heard it was in the old country, but it's not too bad here."
"Now, however, we're getting word that our city's defense systems are weakening. The current regime hasn't been able to maintain its superiority any more, and there's a threat on the horizon . . . literally! We can see the dust of an approaching army. We've also heard that the army is led by a very capable general. We don't want to see our way of life destroyed, our city taken, our warriors beaten. For crying out loud, I was born here! What can we do, but come to the aid of the city!"
I was reading a portion of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah earlier this week and the above scenario occurred to me. In chapters 40-45 of that book, an exiled people--the Jews in Babylon--are told through the prophet that they should take comfort (40.1) because they are about to be set free from their Babylonian captors and restored to their homeland.* And Cyrus the Persian has been chosen as the instrument to accomplish this. Indeed, in Isaiah 45, The prophet reports: "Thus says the Lord to his anointed**, to Cyrus whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him . . . For the sake of my servant Jacob and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me. . . " (vss 1 & 4).
And I had to wonder whether the people to whom Isaiah was speaking/writing would have heard it the same way that it has been read since. I am NOT being skeptical of prophecy (well, maybe a bit), but in retrospect prophecy can be seen to be quite accurate, especially with the right spin. But, in the moment??? And I got to wondering about our tendency to see threat as a negative. I can only imagine that the Jews in Babylon weren't necessarily thrilled to see Cyrus' armies approaching, regardless of what some guy named Isaiah might be saying. How might they have seen Cyrus as God's "anointed"? Could we have done so?
Looking back over the last few weeks and months, through the bitter political struggle we've just endured, simply recall all of the hand-wringing engaged in by both sides: "If so-and-so-wins, our way of life will be over!" (and both sides said essentially the same thing, although about different issues). And now, with the acrimonious gun-control debate, the squabbling is just as intense. But it's not just corporate or communal threats that we perceive negatively. Who wants to see a bill-collector at the front door? Or someone chasing us on the street with a clenched fist?
Yet, according to the biblical witness, Cyrus' victory over Babylon did set the stage for the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild. What (I suspect) they feared, turned to their ultimate advantage. And that is consistent with much of biblical message: God surprises both friend and foe with unusual interventions, despite what "true believers" of any stripe might think. The lesson from the bill collector may be the final teaching in achieving a more frugal, sensible, life style. The clenched fist may contain some treasure we dropped.
So I need to think long and hard before I blurt out, when faced by an adversary, "Who anointed YOU?!" The answer I hear may not be one I want, but it may be one I most need to hear. And, instead of acrimonious debate, maybe seeing the issue as a spark for a little civil conversation might be just the ticket to move us all to a new "Jerusalem".
*The captivity began under Nebuchadnezzar in 597 and lasted, at least, until Cyrus' arrival in 538 BCE.
**"Anointed" = messiah (Hebrew) = christ (Greek).