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Sunday, December 27, 2015

Nationhood and Angelic Representation

A state is a political and geopolitical entity, while a nation is a cultural and ethnic one. Or at least so says Wikipedia.

Bear this distinction in mind.

What follows is more of an intellectual exercise and a conversation provoker than a specific meditation, but I throw it out there for those who, like me, are intrigued by the details of scripture.

You may be familiar with the concept of the angelic representation of people groups, which is plainly stated for us in the book of Daniel.

Here Are the Players

We should probably lay out the very few verses we have to work with so that our thinking is grounded in the words of scripture. So here are the players, if you will:

 Michael

Daniel makes reference to “Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people”. He is also called “one of the chief princes” and “your prince”. The words “your people” can only refer to the Jews, since Daniel was Jewish.

In the New Testament, Jude refers to Michael as an “archangel” and tells us he disputed with the devil about the body of Moses (logical, since Michael represents Israel). John the apostle further reveals that at some point Michael and his angels fought (or will fight) against “the dragon”, who we are told is called “the devil and Satan”. It was (or will be) war in heaven, a spectacle beyond human imagination. (The specific point in prophetic history at which this battle occurs need not concern us for the purpose of this study.)

So we are speaking about an immensely powerful created being in the service of God whose role involves the protection of the earthly people of God. He is their “prince”. The words “has charge” in the ESV are also translated “protects”, “stands guard”, “stands for”, “stands watch over” and “watches over”. There are shades of meaning here but the general idea is quite clear.

Michael is not only Israels prince, but “one of the chief princes”, which means there must be others. And if there exists more than one such angelic prince, it is not a stretch to suggest that these play similar roles with respect to other peoples.

 The Princes of Persia and Greece

And in fact this is precisely what is implied by the man who speaks to Daniel in chapter 10. He refers to the “prince of Persia” and the “prince of Greece”. He has come from fighting against the prince of Persia and is on his way to do so again. He says only Michael, “your prince”, stands with him against his enemies.

There is much more than could be said about angelic beings generally, but it is really the role of archangels with respect to the peoples of the earth that concerns us at the moment. We are not told that every people group in the world has such a representative contending for them, but might not be an unreasonable inference to draw from the book of Daniel.

 The Prince of Egypt?

On the basis of the events around the Red Sea crossing, R’B from Ashrei believes there is a prince of Egypt:
“There are a couple of sentences in the Red Sea passage that don’t seem strange in English, but they look downright odd in Hebrew. First, before the sea was split: ‘... the children of Israel lifted their eyes, and behold! Egypt was journeying after them, and they were very frightened; and the children of Israel cried out to the L-RD.’

The wording in Hebrew is singular, not plural, and Hebrew is very specific about these kinds of things. The text literally says that the people saw some individual thing called ‘Egypt’ coming after them.

The Jewish rabbis puzzled over this wording, knowing that since G-d referred to ‘Egypt’ as an individual, there must be some individual representative, someone who was like the embodiment of Egypt. Based upon other places in the Bible, the rabbis believe that each and every nation on earth has a spiritual representative, an angel (or demon) who stands for that nation and is known as its ‘prince’.

Thus, they reasoned, Israel ‘lifted up their eyes’ and saw the spiritual being which is Egypt, the demonic ‘prince of Egypt’ coming after them.
Interesting. I am learning not to be dismissive of the characteristic rabbinical hyper-attention to detail in the wording in the original Hebrew. So is there a “prince of Egypt”? It’s not as obvious as the references to princes of Persia or Greece, but the idea itself is quite consistent with what we read in Daniel.

Angelic Proxies

In any case, it seems there is ample evidence for the representation of earthly people groups by angelic proxies engaged in heavenly conflicts that affect our world in ways we are ill-equipped to discern. How exactly this works is not spelled out for us, but Paul reminds us that:
“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
So nothing significant has changed about that since Daniel’s day.

Has Charge Over What Exactly?

But back to Michael for a second: Daniel is told that Michael has charge over “your people”. The word “people” in Hebrew is `am, which is translated into English as both “people” and “nation”, but also bears the meaning “countrymen” and “kindred”. It would seem that angelic guardians are assigned not to political entities or states but to ethnically and culturally homogeneous people groups.

This should not surprise us. Today, many use “nation” to mean a political entity comprised of multiple ethnic groups. That is not the way the word is generally used in the Bible, nor even the way it is still defined in most dictionaries. In scripture, `am refers to a distinct ethnic group with a common culture and common language such as that which God disrupted at Babel.

Note that being `am (and therefore having a heavenly watcher) does not seem to be related to wielding political power or controlling territory. Daniel 12 (where we find the “your people” reference) was written in the third year of Cyrus king of Persia, by which time the city of Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed and its people taken into captivity on four separate occasions and dispersed throughout the Babylonian (and later, the Medo-Persian) empires. Those few who were not deported had fled to Egypt. There was no political entity called “Israel” to speak of: most of its former citizens were 1,000 miles away from home.

So Michael is associated with the Jewish people, not the state of Israel. It is people that matter to God, not borders, boundaries and nation-states.

Our Place and Our “Nation”

This is borne out by the use of the word “nation” in the New Testament. The fear of the Jewish authorities in the time of Christ was this:
“The Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.
At the time, the “nation” they refer to was nothing more than a pair of Roman provinces separated by neutral Hellenic territory and bearing official names different than the ones used by the Jews who lived there. They had no “nation” in the political sense some use the word today. There was no “Israel”. The Jewish authorities were using the word “nation” in this context to refer specifically to their own ethnic people group, not any generally recognized political entity.

Empires. Nations and Peoples

Now it may well be argued that, as world powers of their day, Persia and Greece (and later, Rome) were all multicultural empires comprised of numerous ethnic groups, and this is certainly true. None of these world powers could be said to be ethnically homogeneous. However, in each empire there was a recognizable, dominant people group; a ruling class that set the course of the empire and gave it its name. After each of those empires had absorbed and conquered sufficient numbers from other people groups, they eventually lost their cohesiveness and fell from power. While there are always many other contributing causes to the fall of great world powers, J. Rufus Fears and other historians argue that empires that absorbed large numbers of ethnically diverse groups disintegrated faster than those empires that curtailed their expansionist aspirations.

The Persian empire is long gone from world dominance, but there remains a distinct and identifiable Persian people. Again, the angelic powers seem to be associated in scripture with `am, or peoples, not with nation-states and empires, which seem to have much briefer existences.

Multiculturalism and Angels

You can see where I’m going here. I’m not against the concept of a multicultural state such as may be seen in Europe and North America today. I don’t see a moral or spiritual obligation in scripture to pursue such a thing, and neither do I see spelled out clearly in the pages of the Bible any solid reason to reject it. Scripture is silent on the subject, to my knowledge.

But for Christians who advocate multiculturalism, this practical difficulty asserts itself: to be a “people” in the biblical sense (or in any lasting sense) requires a common language and culture, something very difficult to bring about without large-scale intermarriage and willingness on the part of significant numbers of people within the would-be multicultural society to abandon their own ethnic heritage, languages and cultural preferences.

In a multi-ethnic “mosaic” such as the one in which we live, if we are to avoid large scale conflicts, the question is who will blink first: who will be most willing to concede their language, traditions and heritage in the interest of larger political considerations? How exactly will that work out for them, I wonder.

Will it be you? Will it be me? Or will it be war?

The Holy Nation

The Christian is a citizen of a spiritual society that exists outside of all this, of course. We must never forget that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”. That’s a wonderful thought for believers in what may soon become dark days. We don’t need angelic powers to watch over us like the peoples of the world. Our representative in the heavens is the Son of God himself.

Still, until the Lord returns for us, we live in a physical world with its own political conceits, some of which are starting to look like nothing more than delusions and vanity.

In my own lifetime, borders have been drawn and redrawn, numerous countries have changed their names, and millions are currently migrating from continent to continent. The geography looks the same, but many other things about the world have changed radically in only half a century. Multiply that by the years of human history and the level of complexity becomes that much greater.

So do multicultural societies even have angelic representatives? Who knows.

One wonders what the view from heaven looks like.

4 comments :

  1. It is one of the distinct glories given to the Church by God that in her there is “neither Jew nor Gentile”. This is a glory because in this world’s terms, multiculturalism is never possible, biblically speaking. Ever since Babel it has been quite impossible to fuse multiple nations without the expedient of submerging the many in a single national identity, set of customs, language, religion, politics, etc. The Roman empire was, as you point out, well, “Roman”. Everybody else could become a citizen, but their citizenship was second-class if they lacked the customs, language, practices and so forth of the Romans. “When in Rome”, as the saying goes ...

    Not so the Church. Having the ultimate loyalty and citizenship in Heaven frees up the national person to love across all other barriers, even that intransigent language barrier.

    So multiculturalism is actually a Christian possibility taken over into a secular desire. And the secular desire is absolutely unfulfillable, since it lacks the transcendent point that relativizes human national identities. Like the dream of flying by flapping our arms, it would be a good dream in circumstance in which we could actually do it; it’s just a bad one if we can’t, but insist on trying anyway.

    Especially if we insist on using high buildings as launch points.

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    1. So, basically you are implying that multiculturalism remains a dream and can never (even partially?) succeed without the single underlying and unifying spiritual Christian perspective, which, in order to work, must obviously be applied in a practical and concrete manner by all cultures.

      Now, secular adherents of multiculturalism will point out something that they would see as wrong here. Namely, that this Christian perspective is of course claimed by every other religious group (Islam, ISIS, Hindu, ... and so on) not to forget the many protestant variations on Christianity. As a result this workable multiculturalism may uncannily actually be less feasible for the religious adherent because they would be the least willing to compromise.

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  2. IC's currently on the road, Q, so you might not get a response for a few days.

    But I think he might say that you seem to have identified religious convictions as one aspect of what makes multicultural societies ultimately unworkable. Religion is certainly part of it, though I highly doubt eliminating it (even if that were possible) would remove all sources of tension between ethnic groups. History (and IC, in this previous post) have shown pretty clearly that most wars between people groups are over causes very much unrelated to religious belief, despite the well-known Dawkins meme.

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  3. IC:
    Here I am.

    We must not confuse religious relativism for multiculturalism. Multiculturalism has to do with one's culture, not one's religion. So above, I'm saying that culture is not a greater barrier than inclusion in the Kingdom of God can overcome. But nothing less than entry into the Kingdom of God can overcome something so profound.

    Regarding religion, of course, things are quite different. There is no possibility of multi-religious peace: the world's best counterfeit of such a thing is religious relativism, in which indifference to or ignorance about other religions is permitted to lure one into the naïve hope that one is in some kind of unity with all religions because one cares about none of them but one's own. However, as John Locke proved, and as you note above, Q, multi-religious *tolerance* is a temporal possibility -- indeed, a rational necessity -- within a Protestant worldview. Protestantism requires us to allow people the right to be wrong, and because it focuses on the necessity of belief for salvation, it is always rationally self-defeating, from that perspective, to use force or compulsion to convert anyone.

    So multiculturalism? It can exist by God's grace in the realm of those who are His. Multi-religion? It is a saccharine delusion only, one launched from a liberal secular perspective -- but really bespeaks an intolerance so complete it wants to know nothing about any religion's particulars and to take none of any religion's truth claims seriously. And from a Christian perspective, multi-religion exists only in the form of a responsibility to tolerate -- provided there is added no pretext to agree with -- the other religions in question.

    And that makes sense, doesn't it? After all, if, as we believe, faith is the essential means of salvation, then it would make no sense at all for us to (to use your word) compromise on the question of faith itself. That would just amount to saying to people, "Be happy: imagine yourself as the same as us, but go to Hell." And that would hardly be tolerant -- indeed, not even moral -- from a Christian perspective.

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