When I was growing up we attended church regularly. And as we listened to sermons and/or attended “Sunday school” one thing became clear: the Israelites (ancient Jews) “just didn’t get it!”
I mean, they might cross the Red Sea, miraculously rescued from the Egyptians by the hand of God, then turn around and grumble and complain about the manna they were given to help them survive in the desert.
Or Moses would go up Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, and by the time he came back down (40 days) they would be worshiping a golden calf in the valley below.
As Christians we would read these stories, always perplexed at how clueless the Jewish people were; they would be delivered from harm by their Deity, and then (in the words of Isaiah 57:5) they would turn and “burn with lust among the oaks and under every spreading tree.”
They were recalcitrant, rebellious, incorrigible and ungrateful (see Psalm 106 for a more comprehensive indictment)!
Sometimes we would look at how they treated Jesus, and how their leaders were able to turn them into an unruly and riotous crowd shouting “Crucify him.” And we would be aghast at their callous, uninformed, peer-pressured actions. We felt we were so much wiser, had so much more character and loyalty about us.
Then . . . on occasion . . . someone might refer to the phrase, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12)
But falling is what we had done. We had fallen victim to (among other things) what I would coin “anachronistic morality,” i.e. imposing our modern morality (which we had assumed was on a higher plain) upon people of the past. In other words:
we thought they knew better, but wouldn’t do better.
And in a similar pattern we are now living in a time when the heroes of past generations are being judged by current moral ideals. We must avoid promoting illegitimate historical revisionism.
It is nearly impossible to put oneself accurately in the place of someone living in another time period, and fairly judge his/her point of view, mindset, prejudices, motives and contradictions. And obviously, the further away that person is from our own time period and culture, the difficulty increases.
Honor is awarded at specific moments in time; the specific moments may not be celebrated for all time. Monuments are created to commemorate the work or sacrifice of persons engaged in what is deemed valiant, worthy, and courageous in a given time.
Clearly, there are always parameters kept in mind. But those parameters are determined by the collective moral compass of the individuals giving the honor. Around the world there are commemorative monuments and plaques, and you would be hard-pressed to find one that either honors someone/something never embroiled in controversy, or was created by someone whose personal moral compass does not match your own.
We seem not to be disturbed by this when we honor celebrities: entertainers, scientists, writers, etc. But outside that realm our tone and tolerance changes.
Over fifteen years ago I visited Mauthausen with a group of home school teenagers. It was an unforgettable reminder of the horrors of the holocaust. I am not glad so many died there (their pictures covering the wall where the ovens were). But I am glad that it still stands, today, and that it can be visited by tourists. Because it makes the fact of the atrocities more of a reality to people in current generations.
I do not know the answers to all the social questions that are inundating us in America, today. We seem to be floating in turmoil right now, our heads barely above the surface. But I don’t think our current struggles are helped much by reaching into the past and trying to find new ways to denigrate the heroes of our past. We need them now more than ever. They are our life preservers.
And so, ancient Israelites . . . I will let up on you a bit. I may be as unpliable as you were. Maybe more so.