First scene: Imagine the native tribes living in North America. They hunted and fished for food and lived on what nature provided. They stayed with their own people and clans, they traded with the neighboring tribes and sometimes went on the war path against them. War mostly involved surprising their enemies at dawn, killing and scalping a few men and running off with some captives (none of their villages were fortified). Authority and power were held by the tribal elders and the chief, who was patriarch of the tribe. They patriarch could be stern but he could not be an absolute tyrant: his power only went so far before his people stopped listening to him. This is a snapshot of human civilization in the stone age.
Second scene: The middle east in Biblical times, which includes the bronze age up through the iron age. People are keeping herds of goats, sheep and cattle, and are growing their own crops. Better agriculture allowed people to settle in cities. Writing was invented, and people begin to be able to pass knowledge on from one generation to the next. As people learned and their work became more specialized, not everyone needed to be farmers and herders. The surplus food allowed some people to devote themselves to learning and study, and culture developed. The food also allowed some people to focus on administration and government. Much of the surplus food was collected by the kings, who used it to feed their administrators, servants, and soldiers, and to wage war against other kings.
A smoothly run empire placed a huge amount of wealth in the hands of the king: armies would march at his command, and great palaces and pyramids could be built by the wealth gleaned from the work of the common people. Empires formed: the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians. The Incas and the Aztecs formed empires, as did the Chinese. These empires marched across the earth, laid siege to cities and enslaved the people, forcing them to pay tributes and taxes. They also spent time building walls around their own cities, to protect them from the armies of other kings. The power to do evil was much greater than it ever had been before. Kings could reward those who were faithful to them and torture and kill their enemies. The king began to hold absolute power over life and death, able to do whatever he pleased. Most of these empires, sooner or later, gave their king even more power by claiming that he was a god. Even when the leader was not a god, he was often the supreme high priest of the religion. This meant that all spiritual and physical power was collected into his hands, giving him absolute authority.
Ancient people really did not distinguish between their religious obligations and their civil obligations; honor to the gods and honor to the king was pretty much the same thing. All of them had power over you, they could make you prosper, and they could make you die. The kings were obviously gods because they had godlike power and wealth. A few brave souls, such as Socrates, entertained the idea that fidelity to what the gods demanded might mean standing against the laws, but people generally tried to avoid that conflict as much as possible. Declaring that your emperor was divine was an easy way to avoid the conflict; what he demanded was what the gods demanded. Civil duties and religious duties were the same thing.
As in every generation, people worried most about security and stability. They might grumble about taxes but as long as they had bread to eat and a place to sleep most people were content not to challenge the gods or the government, or even to distinguish between them.
Third scene: The Jewish nation had a sense of how real God was, and that God’s demands were not the same as the demands of kings. God’s blessing, however, did not remove them from the political world in which they lived. They were forced into slavery in Egypt, a very powerful and stable empire which prospered and was politically dominant from 1580 – 1350 BC. The Sphinx, the pyramids, and the gold coffins of the god-like pharaohs are lasting testimony of their power and wealth.
God did not destroy the power of the pharaohs, He only brought the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, and gave them a land to live in. While they prospered and became a kingdom, they did not become a dominant empire. Instead the Assyrians did, and their empire reached its highest point of power in the 1100’s BC. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and it was Sennacherib (705 to 681 B.C.), king of the Assyrians, who invaded Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem when it had rebelled against him (2 Kings 18,19). The history of these empires is a nearly endless list of wars won and lost, cities subjected, cities rebelling, cities being destroyed, all in the search of greater power and wealth.
The rival to Assyria was the city of Babylon and the empire that it anchored, which became the dominant power in the region after the Assyrian empire. The King of Judah joined Egypt and others in a coalition against Babylon, which resulted in the Babylonian army invading and laying siege to Jerusalem. The city fell in 586 BC, and the Jewish king, Zedekiah, was captured. The king of Babylon had the sons of Zedekiah slain in front of him, then blinded him and took him in chains to Babylon. Politics was nasty, brutal, and violent, as the strong dominated the weak.
To ensure that Jerusalem would not rebel again the army of Babylon broke down the walls surrounding the city of Jerusalem and then eradicated the Jewish nation from the earth. The artisans, nobles, and anyone who was educated were all deported to Babylonian cities, leaving only the poorest peasants. At this point the nation of Israel ceased to exist. As the Hebrew people intermarried and adopted the culture of the empire, their own culture and religion would cease to exist……