John Bennison Words and Ways | 2012 | October

A TALE OF TWO CITIES: Jerusalem, Now and When?

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Model of a city, detail on an altarpiece, Milan, 15th century. Artist: Carlo Crivelli. Comparisons of actual towns and a “heavenly” Jerusalem were once popular themes. What about now?

 

A Tale of Two Cities:

Jerusalem, Now and When?

 

I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself —
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem …
Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers.

from Psalm 122

 

The story is told of an old man who’d been visiting the Western Wall (otherwise known as the Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem for many years. Turning his face to this last remaining ruin of the ancient Jewish temple in the Old City, he would nod his head repeatedly, while reciting the same silent prayer over and over again.

One day a reporter approached the man and asked how he felt, given the current state of affairs. “How does it feel?” the old man replied. “It feels like I’ve been knocking my head against a brick wall.”

We know all too well the ongoing dispute between Israelis and Palestinians in the divided city of Jerusalem; where a 26’ high security barrier made of solid concrete partitions the city, as part of a 430-mile long physical barrier being constructed along the West Bank.

But it is not simply a global hotspot of international tension and conflict. In the context of a shared biblical tradition and the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) both the old Western Wall and the new concrete barrier stand as powerful and sobering symbols for the hope, struggle and failure of humankind to build the kind of city where all can not only dwell, but abide one another, as well.

Both the old Western Wall and the new concrete barrier stand as powerful and sobering symbols for the hope, struggle and failure of humankind to build the kind of city where all can not only dwell, but abide one another, as well.

Above: Guard towers along the 26′ high concrete security barrier. Right: the ancient Wailing Wall of the old temple in Jerusalem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both the old Western Wall and the new concrete barrier stand as powerful and sobering symbols for the hope, struggle and failure of humankind to build the kind of city where all can not only dwell, but abide one another, as well.

Historically, by one calculation, the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured then recaptured 44 times. Since this is the repeated past and present reality, one might well ask when and how might things ever be any different?

 

Biblically-speaking, it’s déjà-vu, all over again

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you murder the prophets and stone those sent to you! How often I wanted to gather your children as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. Can’t you see your house is being abandoned as a ruin? … Yes take a good look at all this! I swear to you, you may be sure not one stone will be left on top of another! Every last one will certainly be knocked down!” [Matthew 23:37-24:2]

 The Jesus character in Matthew’s gospel reportedly once wept over Jerusalem, but such weeping was hardly new. The Wailing Wall has a long, repeated history. Composed after the fact, this gospel passage retrospectively foretells the destruction (once again) of Jerusalem; this time by the Romans in 70 CE. The historical Jesus, of course, was executed by the Romans decades earlier.

This is why it is essential to read the canonical gospels — written decades after Jesus’ life and death – in the light of the geo-political-religious framework of the “earthly” Jerusalem that had once again just been laid waste; followed by this subsequent era of apocalyptic/messianic expectation amongst the Jewish peasant class.

Consequently, in addition to the prediction of the temple’s destruction, Matthew’s Jesus does not simply predict his own demise. He recites, as well, what would have been recognized by his listeners as that literary motif commonly known as an oracle of lament. It is representative of a much, much earlier collection of sayings, which can be found in the Book of Lamentations in the Jewish scriptures. Those ancient oracles expressed the very same sorrow. Except in that case, it was over the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians nearly six hundred years before the time of Jesus.

If anything was different this time around, it was an attempt within the early gospel traditions to not only comprehend what could have once again be razed to the ground; but what could also somehow be raised up again, once and for all. For early first-century believers of an emerging Christian faith, Isaiah’s ancient prophecy could be appropriated, and finally realized:

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