In the Service of Empire

Ancient Israel often suffered at the hands of the major imperial powers of its day. It’s amazing, then, Israel’s sacred texts portray the descendants of Jacob serving in positions of some authority and influence within these ancient empires. Among the faithful Israelites are Joseph, Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah Nehemiah, Ezra, Mordecai and Esther. Each of the empires in which they served ultimately fell under God’s perfect judgment. The Biblical narrative, however, also tells us how these children of Abraham served the cause of good in the service of empire.

Joseph in Genesis and Exodus

Sold into slavery by his brothers and unjustly imprisoned by his Egyptian masters, Joseph eventually became a senior administrator in Pharaoh’s government. He enabled his master’s household to prosper and later supervised Egypt’s entire agricultural industry. His efforts as an officer of Pharaoh saved countless lives in during a severe famine. His work in Pharaoh’s court also enabled the entire family of Jacob to endure the famine, insuring the continued existence of God’s chosen family.

But Genesis and Exodus are two volumes in the same literary stream. In Exodus we find that “a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt.” (Exodus 1:8) The same Egyptian empire in which Joseph served – and which saved the Israelites from extinction – now enslaved and mistreated God’s people. Egypt earned God’s judgment. The plagues which Egypt suffered revealed the LORD’s verdict on Egyptian gods. In the destruction of the Egyptian army, God executed his righteous sentence on the empire that had kept Israel in bondage.

The Book of Daniel

The first part of the Book of Daniel tells the stories of four Judean exiles living first in Babylon, and then in Persia. The four Judeans were  from royal families and exceptionally well qualified to serve in the Babylonian court. Their names were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. For three years they studied Chaldean (i.e. Babylonian) writings and language. They even received new Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Then they served as advisers to the king of Babylon and administrators of the province. When Babylon fell to Persia, Daniel then served the king of the Persian Empire in a similar fashion. “O king, live forever,” Daniel said to Darius. (Daniel 6:21)

Overall, these four faithful Judeans refused to violate the dietary laws given through Moses, to worship idols or neglect the worship of Israel’s God. Otherwise, they sought the well-being and success of the empires they served.

Both the Babylonian and Persian empires, however, threw deadly challenges at those who were determined to remain faithful to God. The story of the fiery furnace (in Babylon) and the story of the lion’s den (in Persia) are parallels:

  • The king requires idolatry or prohibits the proper worship of YHWH
  • The faithful Judeans’ enemies use the occasion to cause them harm
  • God’s people remain faithful to the point of death
  • God delivers his faithful ones from the empire’s threats
  • The king is so impressed that he gives praise to God and honors to God’s faithful people

In Daniel, it is idolatry and contempt for Israel’s God that brings God’s judgment on the Babylonian empire. After King Nebuchadnezzar set up the giant golden idol (and threw Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the fiery furnace), he apparently went mad and was unable to govern. In the narrative of Daniel, this is God’s judgment on his attempt to force God’s people into idolatry. It was also idolatry that led to the famous writing on the wall (MENE-MENE-TEKEL-PARSIN) for King Belshazzar. Belshazzar used the sacred vessels from the temple at Jerusalem to throw a drinking party and honor the Babylonian gods. Daniel interpreted the writing on the wall for the king: the power of the Babylonian empire was coming to an end. “And Darius the Mede received the kingdom.”

Later in Daniel, we find that the Persian and subsequent human empires also stand under God’s judgment. The second part of the book of Daniel consists of a series of apocalyptic visions which portray the Babylonian, Median, Persian and Greek empires symbolically as having the characteristics of wild beasts. The beasts are destroyed or rendered impotent before the throne of God; only the kingdom that is like “a son of man” and comes with the clouds of heaven will stand forever.

Ezra and Nehemiah

After the end of the Babylonian exile, Nehemiah served as a cupbearer in the court of the Persian emperor at Susa. Like Daniel, Nehemiah said, “May the king live forever.” Nehemiah sought and received the emperor’s commission to return to Jerusalem and supervise (under the king’s authority) its reconstruction. The emperor provided Nehemiah with the proper authorization documents and resourced the project from the royal forests. Nehemiah used his position to rebuild the city and defend its citizens by armed force. The king appointed Nehemiah governor of Judah, but Nehemiah and his staff did not use their position to burden or exploit the people, as did earlier governors. Nehemiah’s enemies spread rumors that he intended to claim the throne for himself and lead Judah in a rebellion against Persia, but Nehemiah denied it. He continued to serve as King Artaxerxes’ governing official throughout the Biblical narrative.

Although he was a priest and scholar, Ezra also served as an agent of empire in rebuilding and reopening Jerusalem’s temple. He also acted with the king’s authority in appointing magistrates and judges. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem,” Ezra exclaimed (Ezra 7:27)

Yet in the text of Nehemiah, Ezra lamented the results of Israel’s persistent disobedience. “Here we are, slaves to this day – slaves in the land you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruits and its good gifts. Its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress” (Nehemiah 9:36-37). The empire that provided Israel with a measure of restoration also stood in the way of Israel’s full redemption.

Esther and Mordecai

The little book of Esther tells the story a beautiful Jewish girl who became the queen of Persia and saved her people. Her cousin Mordecai served as an official in the Persian government and once even saved the king from assassination. Enemies of the Jewish people attempted to use the power of the Persian empire to exterminate the Jews. Esther and Mordecai used the power of the empire to save the Jews and destroy their enemies. There’s not a lot of explicit theology in Esther, except for these words from Mordecai: “It may very well be that you have achieved royal status for such a time as this!” (Esther 4:14)

The Big View

As we consider these texts, does it matter that in many cases contemporary scholars look at them more as literature than as history.

The first books of the Bible took their current narrative form somewhere around the time of the Babylonian exile. The Book of Daniel is a piece of literature that belongs to the apocalyptic genre and probably dates from the time following the break up of Alexander’s empire. The Book of Esther is a little novel set in the court of the Persian king, but its provenance is uncertain.  Of all these texts, that of Ezra-Nehemiah may be closest to a historical report on near-contemporary events.

There may be earlier traditions – maybe even strongly historical traditions – behind some or all these texts.That’s a matter for historians to investigate. Whatever the historical judgment, however, the presence of these stories in the canonical text is due to the decisions made by authors in different historical eras.  To the degree that these stories represent actual history, the stories constitute a double witness: that of the actual Joseph, Ezra, Nehemiah, etc. – and that of the later authors who wrote about them.

During the time of Babylonian hegemony, then, the final author of Genesis and Exodus thought that the Joseph story had an important message for his generation. A later Jewish seer believed that the story of Daniel and his friends spoke to those living under Seleucid rule.

Each of the referenced documents has a different theological perspective. Although there are similarities between the Joseph story and the Daniel story, they don’t share the same outlook or the same purpose. Both are quite far removed from the story of Esther. It’s quite remarkable to me, then, that these documents – from different eras and with quit different points of view – all portray God’s people in the service of empire in a relatively positive light. Each shows God’s faithful people living in tension with the political structures that surrounded them, but fulfilling God’s purpose in and through those structures.

Within these stories, we find an attitude much like that we find in Jeremiah the prophet. Jeremiah wrote to his people in exile: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7) In addition, Joseph’s story recalls God’s promise to Abraham: “In you,” God said, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Joseph’s efforts benefit both his brothers and all the people of the Egyptian empire. The Book of Daniel, however, calls God’s people to remain faithful even when they live and serve within the political structures of an idolatrous world.

That’s something to think about for Christians who live in still another political and religious environment, and who believe that God has brought the story of his people to a climax in Jesus.