Guns Germs and Steel and Absalom

I mentioned last week I finished up Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s a book well worth reading. NG did a series on it a number of years ago that you can find pirated on YouTube.

The premise of the book is that the world is dramatically unequal because the circumstances into which people are born, time geography, climate, the relatively small groups of domesticatable plants and animals on the planet were unequally distributed which prompted the great chain of history to produce winners and losers.

If you listen long enough to Jordan Peterson he’ll run it back further to human genetic origins in prey animals developing mechanisms for survival, play and morality which continues on through Jared Diamond’s observations into history. It can all be summarized into the old adage your mother probably told you when you as a child complained to her about some injustice “life isn’t fair”. It is dramatically unfair and no amount of screaming will resolve this.

The market is our attempt at civilizing evolutionary development. We want to rationalize it into a sort of meritocracy.

Cutting across all of this, however, is of course the values of Christianity growing out of the story of the Jews broadened by Jesus and the disciples into a global story. In it other cross pressures are brought to bear. The Jews were of course on one hand dramatically unpowerful. Apart from a few brief flourishings as second tier empire when the far larger, more powerful empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt were having internal dysfunctions so they couldn’t dominate, the Jews were the slaves and clients of the people Jared Diamond instructs us in.

The most important of these periods was of course David and after his (which dominates 1 Samuel) we find this king a man of sorrows who is deeply flawed and his reign one of “cargo” but also severe dysfunction.

As Christians we are perpetually oriented on the desire of God, as we should be, but that desire is terribly difficult to suss out. The reason the Book of Samuel is such a masterpiece (within the collection we call the Bible filled with masterpieces) is that authors don’t dumb down the complexity yet at the same time shed light in ways that informs and forms us.

Simplistic hashes abound around us and dominate because they are simple.

1. God doesn’t exist or cares not or is uninvolved, leaving us at the will of the evolutionary forces and market powers.

2. There are simply moral formulas or tribal allegiances that govern these things. All we need to do is get our own wills in line and we will reap the fruits of knowing the secret or having a personal relationship with the power and we will overcome.

For many #2 is quickly dismissed and #1 is thought wise and for good reason. Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, England, USSR, America etc. can be seen as having leveraged their advantages to advantage themselves in the competition. Lots of moral, “good people” are ground under the wheels of history.

Looking at history however, doesn’t always let us dispel #2 so quickly. How did the Jews survive despite repeated attempts to destroy them? How has their book and the heirs of their book done so well? To what can we account that?

This is partly behind what drives someone like Peterson, who is not a Christian that I have found a reason to look back at this book through his own filters.

CS Lewis too in some ways was drawn to the puzzle of the people of God and their endurance given his point of reference.

Jared Diamond in his book might warn that at many points in history those placing wagers in any given civilization might make wrong bets. Perhaps we too are limited and overly influenced by how things look today. One might say “you can only tell who wins at the end of the story” but that just adds more to the puzzle because we don’t see that we are at the end and if we were we wouldn’t know it. So how to judge?

If you try to judge, let’s say as a person in the middle of Israel’s Absalom Civil War you’d have a similar difficulty. It’s quite clear by reading Samuel that a good many Israelites were tired of David and willing to go with his young, charismatic son who righted the wrong of Tamar’s rape and promised better justice and to make Israel great again. In a Civil wars folks need to quickly pick sides and the old Saul factions saw the opportunity for reprisals after the Saul Civil War a few decades before. Isn’t this exactly how the world works?

What is dramatic about David, who is not a shining star in this episode by any means, so often simply leaves it up to God. He doesn’t take the ark with him, resisting the temptation to turn it into an idol. He doesn’t kill the Benjamite for pelting him with stones on his humiliating retreat from Jerusalem. He is wobbly about Absalom while Absalom isn’t wobbly about sleeping with the concubines to go down a path of no return. In the end, however, David wins. The text clearly wants to tell us that this was God’s will. He was God’s choice.

But then we are haunted. Why the Absalom saga then? Why the rape, the murder, the betrayal, the killing of the civil war?

Why the white people have so much cargo and those in New Guinea so little? Why why why?

David’s story might tempt us to quickly grab onto #2 and say “yep, we win if we…”

David’s story also suggests we can’t keep our end of the bargain. Absalom’s rebellion was prophesied by Nathan in the light of the murder of Uriah.

Jesus waltzes into that culture war and manages to alienate everyone setting the stage for his unjust execution. He is raised from the dead and we naturally wish that he’d prance up the steps of the Antonia Fortress and say to Pilate and Herod “how do you like me now?!”.

We fantasize about this despite he was fully capable of amazing and humiliating their power before his resurrection which was precisely the nature of the temptations.

Instead he gathers with his people and they are supposed to be his witnesses. Now anyone paying attention should say “um do you mean the no place to lay your head, hunted down by Romans and crucified bit?”

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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