During my English state school education, I heard many versions of the story of George and the dragon, all abridged; I grew up thinking that George came from somewhere like Canterbury, not Cappadocia. I didn’t take the story seriously, and I seriously did not understand why a man who killed a dragon to marry a princess was the Patron Saint of England.
But a few months ago, in preparation for Cambridge University’s annual Yerushah Lecture (this post is adapted from that lecture), I read George and the Dragon in the Middle East, a lot closer as the crow flies, and in other ways, to Libya. For the first time, I understood the story’s deep appeal to traditional English religious and political sensibilities.
Saint George was a knight and born in Cappadocia. One time he came to the city of Silene in the province of Libya. Near this city was a pond, wherein there was a dragon which was poisoning all the country. Whenever he approached the city he poisoned the people with his breath, and therefore the people of the city gave to him every day two sheep to eat, so that he would do no harm to the people. When they ran out of sheep, he was given a man and a sheep. Then an ordinance was made that the children and young people of the town should be chosen by lottery to feed the dragon. Whoever the lot fell upon, wealthy or poor, he or she was delivered to the dragon. One time the lot fell upon the king’s daughter, and the sorrowful king said to his people, “For the love of the gods take gold and silver and all that I have, but let me have my daughter.” They said, “Sir, you have made the law, and our children are now dead, but you would do the contrary. Your daughter shall be given, or else we shall burn you and your house.” Seeing that he could do no more, the king began to weep, and said to his daughter, “Now I shall never see you married.” … Then the king had his daughter dressed like a bride, embraced and kissed her, gave her his blessing, then led her to the place where the dragon was. When she was there Saint George passed by, and seeing the lady, he asked her what she was doing there… While they were thus talking together the dragon appeared and came running toward them. Saint George, who was on his horse, drew his sword, made the sign of the cross, then rode swiftly toward the dragon. He struck him with his spear, injuring him severely. Then he said to the maid, “Tie your belt around the dragon’s neck, and be not afraid.” When she had done so the dragon followed her meekly. She led him into the city, and the people fled in fear. Saint George said to them, “Doubt not. Believe in God and Jesus Christ, and be baptized, and I shall slay the dragon.” Then the king and all his people were baptized, whereupon Saint George killed the dragon and cut off his head. It took four ox-carts to remove his body from the city. At that time fifteen thousand men were baptized, not counting women and children. The king established a church there in honor of Our Lady and of Saint George, in which there flows to this day a fountain of living water that heals sick people who drink from it.
You’re travelling in an off-the-beaten-path foreign country. Its people are divided and demoralized. The economy’s in terrible shape; their leader is exploiting the poor for the benefit of the wealthy elite. But luckily that’s not the problem you have to fix. Your problem is one single, easily identifiable, completely external and unambiguous force of evil. Remove that, and you’ll save the country. They’ll love you. So, you deploy military force, and you succeed! The entire population, including the leader, are so grateful that they turn their country into a democracy, just like yours, and they let you exploit its natural resources and develop its tourist industry.
It’s all so simple. You need minimal understanding of the local culture. There are no confusing tribes, factions, sects or warring clans. The enemy is well and truly ‘without’ – no connections to members of the surviving population or to business men or politicians in surrounding countries – and universally hated. Once you dispense with him, there’ll be no heirs or successors to deal with. And – the icing on the cake – or perhaps it’s the cake – the people agree to abandon their form of governance and adopt yours, so it still doesn’t matter that you don’t have a clue how they ran their country. Their history won’t disturb you. And their future won’t keep you up at nights.
But, as another George and the somewhat George-like Tony Blair found out to our incalculable cost, the real world isn’t like George and the Dragon, especially in the Middle East. Removing a problem – however deplorable and destructive – is usually much less than half the battle. It’s the aftermath that counts. If you don’t know exactly what you’ll do the morning after you’ve slayed the dragon – if you don’t have a plan – you should probably get out of the dragon-slaying business. As King Lear’s Edgar said in the guise of poor mad Tom, ‘The worst is not So long as we can say “This is the worst”.’
For all sorts of reasons, it’s hard to come up with plans. Planning entails a challenging combination of commitment, uncertainty and contention. The future we’re planning for is unknown. We could be wrong. We could be right, but fail to convince others. We could destroy each other in the process of figuring out who’s wrong and who’s right. No wonder we are tempted to be vague about the future, postponing the tricky details until the dragon’s dead. No wonder we keep pointing to the dragon, magnifying all the while the threat it poses and distracting attention from what will happen when it’s gone, what we will do when it’s gone. But unless the dragon is a burning building, so to speak, we shouldn’t kill it until we know. We can’t assume it can’t get worse.
It’s no accident that talking about the future so often involves religion, or religious language and ideas. George and the Dragon in the version I just read is an example of that. Have faith and all will be well. Here’s another example. The ideal of the Hareidi, ultra-Orthodox Jewish world is that men should dedicate their lives to full-time Torah learning. But how will they make a living? A young Hareidi woman enters shidduchim – the process by which she’ll find a husband. A suitable match is found, they hit it off, and the young man goes to speak to her father. What are your plans, the father asks? With God’s help, I’ll have a large family and learn full-time, the young man says. Where will you live, the father asks. With God’s help, we’ll find a large apartment near the yeshiva, the young man replies. How will you support yourselves, the father asks? With God’s help we’ll thrive, the young man replies. How will you afford to educate your children, the father asks? With God’s help, they’ll learn Torah and good-deeds from great teachers, the young man replies. The chatan, the prospective groom, leaves and the father goes to consult his wife. Nu, how was it, she asks? Well, says the father, the good news is that he thinks I’m God.
Like all the best jokes, it has the ring of truth. The Hareidi world doesn’t have a plan for its own sustainability; it doesn’t want one — God will provide. At first glance, this seems to be the apex of religious commitment, but plans, it turns out, are also pretty central to Jewish continuity.
A few years ago, I heard former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks give a public lecture on behalf of the Israel Free Loan Association, an inspiring charitable organization that gives interest-free loans to individuals, families and small businesses struck by crises they could not have predicted. (It speaks volumes that the repayment rate is 99%.) Among the many sparks Lord Sacks sent flying during his lecture was a statistic about the extremely high percentage of Jews among the winners of Nobel Prize winners in Economics, the discipline closest to prognostication. In fact, Rabbi Sacks went on, the world’s first economist was probably a Jew. He was speaking about Joseph.
The land of Egypt was set to suffer from seven devastating years of famine. Fortunately, God revealed this information to Pharaoh, though not in a format that he could understand:
Genesis 41:1 After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile, 2 and there came up out of the Nile seven sleek and fat cows, and they grazed in the reed grass. 3 Then seven other cows, ugly and thin, came up out of the Nile after them, and stood by the other cows on the bank of the Nile. 4 The ugly and thin cows ate up the seven sleek and fat cows. And Pharaoh awoke. 5 Then he fell asleep and dreamed a second time; seven ears of grain, plump and good, were growing on one stalk. 6 Then seven ears, thin and blighted by the east wind, sprouted after them. 7 The thin ears swallowed up the seven plump and full ears. Pharaoh awoke, and it was a dream.
Not one of the dream interpreters in all Egypt, the world capital of dream interpretation, could interpret Pharaoh’s dream. But Joseph, the first economist, understood the data. He set out a detailed plan for how Egypt could survive the famine:
Genesis 41:33 Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man who is discerning and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt. 34 Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land, and take one-fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven plenteous years. 35 Let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and lay up grain under the authority of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. 36 That food shall be a reserve for the land against the seven years of famine that are to befall the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish through the famine.”
It’s not clear if Joseph anticipated that he would be the wise and discerning man, or if he knew from the outset that the Egyptians would pay a very heavy price for his plan. (There was something of the George about Joseph!) But before the seven years of famine were up, Egypt would be transformed into a feudal system, with all property transferred to Pharaoh, and all citizens other than the priests enslaved. Joseph was not giving grain away but selling it, and when people had nothing left to barter, they would sell him their land and their bodies in exchange for food:
Genesis 47:13 Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe. The land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished because of the famine. 14 Joseph collected all the money to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought; and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. 15 When the money from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan was spent, all the Egyptians came to Joseph, and said, “Give us food! Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” 16 And Joseph answered, “Give me your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” 17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph; and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. That year he supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock. 18 When that year was ended, they came to him the following year, and said to him, “We cannot hide from my lord that our money is all spent; and the herds of cattle are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our lands. 19 Shall we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh; just give us seed, so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate.” 20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s. 21 As for the people, he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.
But thanks to Joseph, no-one starved to death in Egypt, and the populations of neighboring countries received aid into the bargain. Joseph became wealthy and powerful, and he was perfectly positioned to save his entire family from the famine’s devastation. All because he saw the future and made a long-term plan. In this respect, Joseph was nothing like George. He looked far into the future – though not far enough, perhaps, to see that his own family would one day be Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt… And, unlike George, he didn’t convert Egypt or even once tell the Egyptians to pray to his God. Access to Joseph’s data was restricted.
Was it from Joseph that Jews learned the art of planning? Certainly, he was an excellent professional role model, but the real inspiration comes from God. I don’t mean by this that the plans themselves come from God, but that God himself taught through His own example that planning is all; Joseph was His first star student.
This reminds me of another joke. God announces that in yet three weeks he’s going to flood the world. The Archbishop of Canterbury urges Christians throughout the country to pray. The Imam of Regents Park Mosque instructs Muslims throughout the country to fast. And the Chief Rabbi tells the Jews to sign up for swimming lessons. Once again, like all good jokes, it captures something of the truth, if only about Jewish self-perception.
The first hard evidence that God is a Planner comes with the call of Abraham. Until then, he’s seemed more spontaneous (He creates the world one day at a time) and reactive (He seems to change direction in response to unexpected events, like the forbidden fruit and the tower of Babel). But with Abraham, he makes it clear that he has a plan and Abraham is part of it:
Genesis 12:12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
As Abraham finds out when he goes to Egypt a few verses later, this is a long-term vision. There will be serious detours ahead before all the families of the earth will be blessed in him. He’ll find out about another of those detours, also (not coincidentally) in Egypt, three chapters later, when he’s wondering how he can become a great nation without a single son.
Genesis 15:12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
Since God foretold the end as well as the beginning of the period of slavery in Egypt, it was clear that nothing could be done to shorten it (except perhaps prayer and intercession – over to the Imam and the Archbishop!). But once that period came to an end, an exit plan was required, and God himself provided it.
Towards the end of the period of slavery, Israel’s situation in Egypt rapidly deteriorated. Pharaoh felt threatened by Israel’s population growth, and responded by raising production targets and making them impossible to fulfill.
Exodus 2:23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
It’s not the case that God was moved by Israel’s cries of pain and decided, impulsively, to do something about it. Rather, a plan came to mind that He’d announced hundreds of years earlier to the patriarchs. God makes it crystal clear that, unlike many human kings, he doesn’t respond to the last person who gives him advice. He has a plan, and even the detours – the 400 years of slavery in Egypt – are part it. And, of course, He’s not just seeing the future. He’s managing it.
When God appears to Moses and the burning bush, He tells him to deliver this message to the people:
Exodus 3:16 ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’
True, the plan is short on details, but it tells the Israelites what they need to know. God has a long-standing relationship with them; they are familiar with him. He’s not planning to help them stage a revolution in Egypt and start a new regime. He’s planning to take them to another land. It’s agriculturally rich – flowing with milk and honey. But unfortunately – I can’t utter that word with pain enough to match what’s in my heart – it’s not an empty land.
But an internal challenge remains. Regardless of how much people suffer, they resist dramatic change. Only when the choice is clearly life and death – as in Syria today – will the average person pick up and move to another country. And even when – as in the Shoah – the choice is life and death, it’s often possible to see that only in hindsight.
What happens next in Egypt sounds a lot like Leninism; create an intolerable situation, the people will rebel, and there’ll be a revolution. God demands that Pharaoh gives Israel days off for the Jewish Holydays. Now there’s a ‘servant-with-two-masters’ problem in the mix. Pharaoh resists and increases the pressure. God sends plagues. But this wasn’t Leninism. God had a plan. Next time He addresses Israel, it’s with detailed instructions about what they should do the night before they leave Egypt. They should perform a ritual, for which, as we will see, they themselves must do some amount of planning. Slaves can almost never think ahead; it’s not worth it. But now they are in training.
This is not Israel’s last night in Egypt, but – literally – the first day of the rest of their lives. Henceforth, they will not live under the calendar of another nation (a powerful kind of subjugation), but will have a calendar of their own. They’ll be autonomous
Exodus 12:1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.
The Pesach ritual requires forward planning by every individual (every single person must eat) and family (a lamb for each household):
Exodus 12:3 Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4 If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5 Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6 You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month …
The people will henceforth act collectively:
Exodus 12:6 … then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.
They will be required to differentiate themselves from other people:
Exodus 12:7 They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.
They will have to get used to following rules, especially in the kitchen.
Exodus 12:8 They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9 Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10 You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.
Since they won’t have time or presence of mind on the day to record the event for posterity, they should arrange the ancient equivalent of pre-wedding photos. They are told to eat the Pesach lamb the night before, when there’s no reason to dress for the road and eat in a hurry, as if they are already in flight.
Exodus 12:11 This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.
These are the very instructions we read in the Haggadah to this day, exactly as commanded in the book of Exodus:
Exodus 12:11 It is the Passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
And this is not a passing moment, or just about the people who happened to be there on the day. All their descendants are implicated – it’s forever:
Exodus 12:15 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day shall be cut off from Israel. 16 On the first day you shall hold a solemn assembly, and on the seventh day a solemn assembly; no work shall be done on those days; only what everyone must eat, that alone may be prepared by you. 17 You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your companies out of the land of Egypt: you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a perpetual ordinance.
Even before they left Egypt, the Israelites knew precisely how their descendants – not just their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but all their descendants – would memorialize their escape. (Well, maybe they didn’t know about designated Pesach kitchens…). This means, of course, that they knew that they would survive, and most likely thrive and prosper in their own land, where, unlike Egypt, they’d have autonomy to execute all this. It’s telling that the only real leap of faith in the Exodus story is not in the Bible itself. It was taken by the biblical figure Nachshon ben Amminadav who, according to a rabbinic midrash, was the first Israelite to jump into Yam Suf, the Reed Sea, and by that means caused it to part.
The exodus from Egypt is only the beginning. When the Israelites reach Sinai, God hands them a constitution for the land. Long before they enter it, with years of wandering in the desert still ahead of them, they know the agricultural laws that will apply in the land they’ll eventually inhabit, from shmitta, the sabbatical year, to gleaning and leaving grain in the corners of fields. They know how they’ll conduct themselves with strangers in their land; under what circumstances slaves can be permitted to stay in their service after the statutory seven years have expired; and who’s responsible for a goring ox. And through these social laws, a vivid picture emerges of the day-to-day lives they can expect to live in the Promised Land. Laws shape a society, but they also do an excellent job of describing it.
In addition to the laws, God gives the Israelites a vast amount of information about the organization of the priesthood and the sacrificial cult, and a plan of a different kind – an architectural plan – for exactly how the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the precursor of the Temple, will be built.
Exodus 25:1 The Lord said to Moses: 2 Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. 3 This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, 4 blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats’ hair, 5 tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood, 6 oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 7 onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. 8 And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. 9 In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it.
God even tells them, while they are still wandering in the desert, how the land will be divided up between the tribes when they enter the land, and what factors affect that division.
A political party running for office that gave this level of detailed information in advance would never get elected. Politicians need to be as vague as possible about their plans, to maximize the range of their supporters. And if voters demand to have some sense of what their future holds (which seems to be happening less and less), but there is no plan, or there is a plan but one that would be divisive or unpopular, political leaders often substitute something that looks like a plan but isn’t: a call for a return to the past.
Planning is a central preoccupation of Isaiah 40-55. Among several critical distinctions Isaiah makes between idols and God – idols are made by humans, God made humans; idols are helpless; God helps and saves – the knock-down difference is prognostication. Idols can’t see the future, and God can. And how do we know that God can see the future? He predicts it.
Isaiah 48:3Long ago, I foretold things that happened, they went out from my mouth and I made them known; then suddenly I acted and they came to pass. 4 Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, 5 I declared them to you from long ago, before they came to pass I announced them to you, so that you would not say, “My idol did them, my carved image and my cast image commanded them.”
Babylonians study the stars to predict the future, but that has limits, God warns:
Isaiah 47:11 But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing.
Other than a few ‘new things’ – notably God’s special relationship with a foreign king, Cyrus – God has predicted in and through the past what he plans to do in the future.
Isaiah 46:8 Remember this and consider, recall it to mind, you transgressors, 9 remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention,” 11 calling a bird of prey from the east, the man for my purpose from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have planned, and I will do it.
Isaiah’s challenge was to convince settled, probably assimilated Jews in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. That seems easy enough from a distance, but was it so different from telling third generation immigrants to the UK, now Cambridge undergraduates or even the parents of Cambridge undergraduates, that it’s time to go back to Karachi or Lagos or wherever? Even immigrants who maintain strong emotional and practical links to the countries from which they or their families came usually prefer to stay where they are. In the words of British Somali poet Warsan Shire, ‘No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark’.
Isaiah deploys a combination of geographic and temporal ambiguity to persuade the reluctant returnees. He calls the place to which he hoped they would return Zion, a location that’s hard to pin down in space or time. He doesn’t explicitly criticize any specific groups, such as priests or kings, as other prophets did. Reading between the lines, though, it’s hard to reconcile the Temple cult or the monarchy with his image of a God of all the world who has no shape or form. And as for the information he gave about the journey … let’s just say he didn’t give out maps and itineraries, but minimized the challenges ahead:
Isaiah 40:3 A voice rings out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
The return required of the exiles in Babylon was geographic, but a temporal element seeps in. For many migrants, the passage of time since they left their native land is a deterrent to return. Along with being asked to go back to a place where they once lived, they’re asked to turn back the clock; to erase the intervening years and the myriad changes that occurred in them; to unlearn what they learned in a new country; to return to old ways they may not even remember first-hand. But the passage of time can also function as an incentive for geographic return, hinting at the possibility of a return to youth, or a chance to live life anew without the mistakes. It seems to be remarkably easy to convince people that they can step in the same river twice. The plan is a return to an idealized past: Brexit… Make America Great Again…
A benefit of evoking the past as a plan is the certain kind of magical thinking it entails. A serious obstacle for effective planning is our inability to imagine ourselves in uncharted territory, a space and time we’ve never visited. Thinking about the past is helpful in this respect. If the future looks like the past, we have a reasonable idea of what to expect. Isaiah used this strategy for convincing people to make what could otherwise have looked like a leap of faith, but looking at the past to imagine the future can be helpful in other spheres, such as the very different realm of disaster control.
Our capacity to imagine the future can be essential to our well-being. In Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination, Lee Clarke argues that although the red herring of statistical (im)probability distracts us from anticipating a ‘freak’ disaster, natural or man-made, we must nevertheless force ourselves to imagine the worst. Sometimes, imagining the worst helps us to avoid a disaster in the first place, and sometimes it helps us to deal with avoidable consequences. For example, if you don’t think about what can happen after a major earthquake, you won’t anticipate that roads may be closed and you won’t be able to use them to transport the injured to hospitals.
One way of anticipating future disasters and their consequences is to look at accounts of past disasters. I read Clarke’s book as preparation for teaching a course on the book of Lamentations which, with its graphic, step by step description of the complete breakdown of social order, can be read as a kind of disaster control.
Lamentations1:4 The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. 5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
If you turn away from God, enemies will invade your city, your Temple will be desecrated and then destroyed, pilgrims will stop coming and your economy will suffer, there will be food-shortages from which even the wealthy will not be cushioned, there will be no celebrations of any kind, your leaders will go into exile, and mothers will eat their children. Be prepared.
Yet ‘back to the future’ is not much in evidence in the Bible as a substitute for a plan. Evidence for this is its insistence on presenting the land of Canaan as the land promised to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the land in which they themselves once lived, and from which they came to Egypt. Leaving Egypt is always a forward movement. It’s not for a minute, not anywhere (I think…), going back. But this leaves the problem of how to make the imaginative leap required to see yourself in the future.
God provides Moses with a solution for this problem, not in the Bible but the Babylonian Talmud Menahot 29b, the well-known story of Moses and the Torah crowns, in which Moses travels through to discover what will happen to his Torah in the Beit Midrash, the house of learning, of his rabbinic successor, Rabbi Akiva.
Rav Judah said in the name of Rav, At the time when Moses ascended on high, he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in tying crowns to the letters. Said Moses, ‘Lord of the Universe, Who stays Your hand?’ He answered, ‘A man will arise, at the end of many generations, Akiba ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws’. ‘Lord of the Universe’, said Moses, ‘show him to me’. He replied, ‘Turn backwards’. Moses went and sat down at the end of eight rows. Not being able to follow their arguments, he was ill at ease. But when they came to a certain matter and the disciples said to the master, ‘From where do you know it?’ and the latter replied, ‘It is a law given to Moses at Sinai’, he was comforted. Thereupon he returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, ‘Lord of the Universe, You have a man like this and You give the Torah through me?’ He replied, ‘Silence! For this is what has come before me in the plan’. Then Moses said, ‘Lord of the Universe, You have shown me his Torah, show me his reward’. ‘Turn backwards’, said He. And Moses turned round and saw them weighing out his [Akiba’s] flesh at the market-stalls. ‘Lord of the Universe’, cried Moses, ‘such Torah, and such a reward!’ ‘Silence!’ He replied, ‘For this is what has come before me in the plan’.
This story can, and has been, be read in a thousand ways, but one important focus is God’s ‘plan’. Something strange and disturbing occurs at the end: what does God mean when He tells Moses, this is what has come up before me in the plan? Which plan? Some commentators argue that God is referring to His own thoughts. Others, more plausibly, I think, see God as consulting a document of some kind in which all history is written, and it’s clear what that is: the Torah, the plan God consults according to other rabbinic texts when he’s creating the world. Just as the Torah predicts Moses’ own death — though Moses presumably doesn’t know that yet – it predicts Rabbi Akiba’s. God has a plan, he gave it to Moses, who delivered it for all the world to scrutinize.
A striking feature of the past few years is that we’ve stopped expecting our leaders to provide plans. The proponents of Brexit didn’t have a plan, which is a reason why they vanished once they’d slayed the dragon we call the EU. True, they talked a lot about Britain’s former greatness, but even if it is possible for that to be restored, they had no clue how to do it. Donald Trump didn’t – and still doesn’t – have a plan, and in his case, it’s pointless to look to the past; he has no relevant experience or history. We can’t even look to the Republican party’s history for a clue to what the US government will do next; Trump was not Republican before he decided to run for President.
How did this happen? I don’t know, but I want to make one small point. We’re living in a time when a typical application for an academic grant would typically require a detailed time-line for the period the grant will cover. Where will we go, what will we do there, who will we meet, what will we read, what will we write, how much time will we spend drinking coffee … But when it comes to the people who can make or break millions of lives, even destroy the world, we’re silent. Worse than that, we clamor for dramatic change – the overthrow of regimes and the undermining of the status quo – in our own countries and, worse still, other people’s countries, with no clue about will happen next, and no shred of credible evidence about the long-term costs and consequences. We cast our ourselves and leaders and our dragon-slayers, ‘above’ the tedious details required for serious planning. But the biblical lesson is that no-one’s above careful planning, not even God, whose enduring legacy, the Torah, was also His plan.