The custody of the first name

Prophecy is history/28 – The ancient (and current) habit of "masters" to change the name of their subjects

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 15/12/2019

"Between the last word spoken and the first new one to be said, that is where we reside"

Pierluigi Cappello, Flight attitude (Assetto di volo)

The reciprocity of a pact is a very serious thing indeed, which also includes the consequences of breaking that reciprocity. The story of the fall of Jerusalem reminds us of this with rare effectiveness and beauty.  

Being a minority is not enough to be an actual prophetic minority. Being part of a last group of survivors does note make you the rest mentioned in the Bible. In the Babylonian conquest, some Jews were deported and others remained at home. In each of these two communities - the one in exile and the one at home - there were those who gave themselves the status of the "remainder" or "rest" announced by Isaiah. Ezekiel and Jeremiah tell us, in beautiful pages, of these "conflicts between rests or remains", of the controversies among the children for the ideal heritage of the fathers. A crisis, especially a large and decisive one, generates many "remains" and "rests", various groups that claim to be the true guardians of the first pact, the guarantors of the first covenant, the heirs of the first will. In these identity conflicts, it is probable that each group possesses some authentic elements of the true "rest"; but as soon as a minority begins to claim a birthright against other groups, the good seeds begin to spoil.

During and after a crisis, the ability to not claim the monopoly of inheritance, to know how to live with others who rely on the same heritage, is fundamental. Because an important virtue of those who honestly feel part of the faithful "rest" lies in knowing how to live with others who say very different things in the name of the same inheritance - including cheaters and false prophets, who always tend to follow in the wake of true prophets. Because when one single group feels the rightful ownership of the promise and is recognized by everyone as such, it is almost certain that that group is the wrong one. The spirit loves excess and waste. Spiritual heritage, like truth, is symphonic. Only time and history can separate the wheat from the weed, and no wheat can be absolutely sure of not being weed until the very last moment. We exist between spoken words and words yet to be said without being masters of the truth of either. Having doubts about the authenticity of one's vocation and election are, paradoxically, the first sign of authenticity. The human repertoire also includes this good kind of ignorance.

We have reached the culmination of the Book of Kings and of biblical history, and here we have a name that says a multitude of things all on its own, almost everything really: Nebuchadnezzar. «During Jehoiakim’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon invaded the land, and Jehoiakim became his vassal for three years. But then he turned against Nebuchadnezzar and rebelled. The Lord sent Babylonian, Aramean, Moabite and Ammonite raiders against him to destroy Judah, in accordance with the word of the Lord proclaimed by his servants the prophets» (2 Kings 24,1-2). He sent them to Judah to destroy him ... We immediately get the interpretation of what the text is narrating. The siege of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, the exile in Babylon, the end of the kingdom of Judah, are all wanted by God, because they are the consequence of the violation of the Covenant. He had said it through the prophets, and now that word is being fulfilled, to let us know the full seriousness of the word, the absolute value of a promise, the radical truth of the covenant. If a pact is true, if the word that creates it by saying it is not smoke and mere vanitas, then all that essential reciprocity must be true. A pact is a relational good, it is therefore made up of reciprocity, but will immediately die if that reciprocity fails. Then the destruction of the temple and the end of the kingdom are inherent in the truth of the Covenant with Abraham and Moses. And this is something of great importance.

The Book of Kings tell us that the feints had already begun when Solomon began importing foreign gods to Jerusalem. With that in mind the scene of the devastation of the temple is very suggestive and strong indeed: «At that time the officers of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon advanced on Jerusalem and laid siege to it,  and Nebuchadnezzar himself came up to the city while his officers were besieging it. Jehoiachin king of Judah, his mother, his attendants, his nobles and his officials all surrendered to him. In the eighth year of the reign of the king of Babylon, he took Jehoiachin prisoner. As the Lord had declared, Nebuchadnezzar removed the treasures from the temple of the Lord and from the royal palace, and cut up the gold articles that Solomon king of Israel had made for the temple of the Lord» (2 Kings 24,10-13). As the Lord had declared: still the same thesis. With the the treasures of the temple and the palace (perhaps an anachronistic fact, since this episode probably took place ten years later, with the second deportation during the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple), a very long cycle lasting centuries ended. The corruption of the heart of Solomon and of the many kings who followed him now reaches its peak, with the removal of that treasure and "tearing up" the objects.

The word that leads Nebuchadnezzar to Jerusalem is the same one used in the deceived and irrevocable blessing of Isaac for Jacob, the same word that created the light and Adam. If Adam is true, if the ten words are true, if Bethlehem is true, then Nebuchadnezzar must also be true. This is the tremendous, dramatic and stupendous truth of the biblical word, a word that is true because it is faithful to the extreme consequences of the word: «and the Lord was not willing to forgive» (2 Kings 24,4). This is also the biblical word, here too is its uniqueness, this is also its message addressed to our words.

Hence, the scribes who composed these chapters wanted to tell us that this destruction contained the same truth as in the Covenant and Sinai. In the Bible the Covenant and the pacts are something of immense significance, of infinite value that we readers of the 21st century cannot really understand anymore. In biblical humanism, human pacts have their foundation in a wonderful and unthinkable pact with God. A religion of the covenant was able to establish a culture of the covenant that, although it suffers, continues to support Western culture to this day. It was also for the value of that founding pact that we have been able to give life to marriages, businesses, cooperatives, cities and then national states and the European Union. The religion of the covenant is the possibility that our "forever" may be true as we pronounce them while still being ignorant of the future; but this covenant is also the source of the infinite value of the reciprocity in all pacts. When I go out through the front door for the last time, I will tell you that the pact of reciprocity we made years ago was true, that it wasn't mere smoke and wind. As I go away, I will tell you and myself the truth of that first covenant and of the time that I stayed. Of course, I could also forgive you and stay at home - many, many do it every day, and raise many pacts from their tombs - but this does not take away any truth from that act of leaving. Even if the Bible itself tells us that leaving, although true, is not the last word because "a rest will return".

The interpretation that that community of editors gave of the destruction of Jerusalem is therefore something extraordinary and essential. In the face of tragedy, those scribes could have shouted abandonment, complained to YHWH for having denied the covenant. Instead they chose to read that terrible reality in faith, clinging to the rope-fides that kept them tied to heaven, to their past, to the possible future and to the "rest" that would continue the story. That interpretation was the only one able to save their faith and their different people, because the only other alternative they had was to affirm that their God was just an idol, a vanitas like all the others. Instead, they saved faith, saved the word and the Covenant, they saved God. Just like Job. This is why the destruction of Jerusalem is truly the heart of the Bible, the gravitational center of its faith and humanism. In all likelihood, we would not have the Bible, or we would have it but in a completely different shape and form, if that community of scribes, priests and prophets, crushed by exile, had chosen to save themselves by condemning God. The "rest" will be able to return and continue the story, if we keep the truth of that first pact and covenant alive while taking on all the consequences.

The Babylonian exile produced one of the greatest religious and ethical revolutions in the history of humanity. There, in that foreign and idolatrous land, worship without access to a temple was born, God was no longer a prisoner of his own territory. And above all, the era of identifying truth with victory ended, because it was understood that YHWH could remain true even if defeated, that our truths can be true even if they do not win, that a life can be true while it dies. A decisive anthropological and theological innovation, possible because that community of writers-interpreters chose its own religious condemnation to save the truth of the God of the Covenant and of the promise, in order to then give it to us as inheritance. Together with the gold of the temple and the palace, in this first deportation (dated 598-597), the Babylonians also took away the military, technical and intellectual elites: «He carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans—a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left. Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin captive to Babylon» (2 Kings 24,14-15). Only the poorest people of the land were left... the controversy of the "rest" re-emerges in this tragic story as well. The person who wrote or completed this verse was a hand that belonged to that group (golà of deportees in Babylon who considered themselves the one true faithful rest. Thus he or she defines the "poor" as the ones left at home, who because they were poor could not therefore claim any kind of status as heirs to the Promise - as if being poor was not compatible with inhabiting the Kingdom, with being called "blessed".

Finally, within these tragic pages there is a detail that can go unnoticed: «The King of Babylon made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, king in his place and changed his name to Zedekiah» (2 Kings 24,17). The new sovereign hence changed the name of the new king he appointed. The same thing had been done by the Egyptians a few years earlier with the father of King Ioiachìn: « Pharaoh Necho made Eliakim son of Josiah king in place of his father Josiah and changed Eliakim’s name to Jehoiakim» (2 Kings 23,34). It is an ancient and ever-present habit of masters to change the name of their subjects. When a man or a woman changes our name, that new name is a seal of private property. The God of the Bible does not change our name. He leaves us with our own names, loves it, reads in it our calling, and it is with that first name that he calls to us: Samuel, Hagar, Mary. And the few times that he changes it (to Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Simon), is to show us a horizon or a calling that is even freer and wider in scope.

It is difficult to go through the world and end the journey with the name with which we first arrived. All the encounters and wounds, while they show us the names of other, they also seek to the end not only to hurt ours (something actually necessary and generally good), but to change it, to put the seal on it and as children turn us into slaves. May we be able to keep the name of our first day to hear it being pronounced in our last one.

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