A couple of days ago I innocently picked up a 2011 book entitled The Miracle of Freedom: 7 Tipping Points that Saved the World. A quick look at the book flap told me the authors (two men who have the same last name! Chris and Ted Stewart) point to seven decisive moments in history that allowed both the idea and the fact of individual freedom to survive. Being an enthusiastic history buff who agrees that freedom is a good thing, I checked it out. But I quickly discovered this wasn’t real history, but a perplexing chimera with parts both light and dark. Starting from the unarguable position that individual freedom has been rare throughout history, and is something to cherish, it quickly devolves into propaganda for the worldview of the Fox News-Tea Party Axis.
I faced a fork in the road; a turning, if not a tipping, point. One choice was to return the book from whence it came. The other, read the damn thing and review it. I chose the latter, because this book is a good opportunity for me to confront the heart of darkness that troubles the American psyche on just who can take credit for American freedom. What fateful impact my choice will have on history, only time will tell!
Chapter One: Two Gods At War
One of these gods is Jehovah, of the ancient kingdom of Judah. The other is Anu, the Assyrian king of the gods. And this first key turning point in the history of human freedom is the Assyrians’ decision not to destroy the capital city of Jerusalem in about 700 BC. But I should mention that neither god makes an appearance in the story.
No, the two main characters in this chapter are the brutal Assyrian general Rabshakeh, and his stern master, King Sennacherib. Both of them star in a blood soaked epic of war, cruelty, and barbaric splendor straight out of Cecil B. DeMille. Rabshakeh is, and I quote from the book here:
“…a large man: tall, straight, strong as the ironwood trees in Mesopotamia, with a tightly curled beard and hair that hung below his shoulders, also tightly braided. He had a broad face and strong arms, with metal bands around his enormous biceps that were designed to show them off… and the general was as handsome as he was cruel. And he had not become captain of an army by being stupid, weak, or kind.”
An accurate historical reconstruction of what general Rabshakeh looked like.
Things stay hot and heavy as Rabshakeh sacks Judah’s second city, Lachish, complete with detailed and bloodcurdling descriptions of all the horrible things the Assyrians did to their defeated enemies. Then it’s off to the imperial splendor of the Assyrian capital Nineveh, where he is to report to his king. We are treated to a tour of the great city that climaxes at Sennacherib’s fabulous palace, which is described by the authors thus:
“1,650 feet long, almost 800 feet wide. More than 160 million bricks had been used in the palace foundation alone…Atop the deep foundations were eighty rooms, most of them guarded by magnificent rock figures, thirty-ton sculptures of winged lions and bulls with human heads. Throughout the mighty palace, the stone walls were inscribed with the stories of various military campaigns.”
The splendor of Sennacherib’s mighty palace!
Proud and arrogant though he is, the general is troubled because he must report that Jerusalem is still holding out. It is lead by a charismatic young king named Hezekiah who sounds a bit like David Koresh of the Branch Davidians:
“He believes he has spent his entire reign preparing for this moment. He has purged heresy from his people, bringing them back to their true religion. He believes that he is called of their god, Jehovah. This has given him moral power, which brings him foolish courage.” (Here I would like to compliment the authors’ dramatic restraint, as they do not have a peal of thunder rumble mysteriously from a clear blue sky when Rabshakeh intones the name of the Hebrew god.)
This report does not go down well with Sennacherib, who flares his nostrils and barks:
“Have I ever undertaken to destroy a city, then changed my mind and let it be? Never have I, general. Not once! You understand? And I certainly don’t intend to start such a habit now, especially with such a weak and insolent people as the Jews. You will destroy them. You will kill them. You will scatter their people to the far corners of the world. Then the memory of their religion will die with them, the world forgetting the God of Israel before my son is old enough [to] sit upon this throne.”
OK, so after this tremendous buildup we’re ready to meet Hezekiah and his brave band of freedom loving, God-fearing warriors, right? Wrong. In fact, Hezekiah doesn’t even have a speaking part, he’s always off stage! We get no vivid evocation of Jerusalem. No colorful dramatization of its king and the fateful choices he must make, and no discussion of the role that freedom plays in the religion of the Hebrews. Instead, steam leaks out of the narrative as we follow a pointless history of the tawdry conflicts between the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah before the Assyrian invasion. This includes such useful information as:
“Both Judah and Israel possessed certain strengths. Judah controlled copper and iron resources. Israel had better rainfall and more fertile land, especially in the Jordan and Jezreel valleys.”
Copper mines and farmland where just two of the advantages enjoyed by either Israel or Judah.
What this has to do with the history of freedom is your guess as well as mine. When we finally return to the siege of Jerusalem, it’s over, and Rabshakeh is riding home in a mood of deep frustration because Sennacherib has called the whole thing off. Which is amazing after that big speech that the authors imagined he made in his palace, right? What could the reason be?
The authors have a theory, which they float in the title of a chapter heading, “The Sword of an Angel?” That sword would be an outbreak of plague, which the Bible says decimated the Assyrian forces as they laid siege to Jerusalem. Noting that the Assyrian records mention no such thing, the authors show some one-sided skepticism by explaining that Assyrian records are prejudiced in favor of the, ah, Assyrians. Good point!
The authors also note that many historians see evidence that Sennachirab struck a political deal with Hezekiah, but they dismiss this as unlikely – didn’t they proved in that dramatic palace scene that both rulers were religious fanatics? Then these two men, who would like to consider themselves historians, wrap up their brief for Jehovah with this astounding summation:
“Why Jerusalem and the culture of Judaism survived was because of either a mysterious plague or the softened heart of a brutal Assyrian king. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Both were miraculous and unexplainable events. And as we will explain in subsequent chapters, without the foundation of Christianity, the freedom and democracy that we enjoy in this golden age would not be possible today.” (Emphasis is mine.)
WTF!?! A plague in the ancient world is miraculous? A king changes strategy and this is “unexplainable?” The reason doesn’t matter??? All of this sorry nonsense is grim proof that they cannot prove their assertions, but refuse to admit it. As to their bold claim that freedom and democracy rest on a foundation of Christianity, we’ll get to that later. But before we leave Chapter One, I want to note another astounding thing: the authors approvingly quote a historian who contradicts their central thesis about this historical “tipping point.”
He is Robert Cowley, and the quote comes from a book he edited called What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. It regards the Babylonian captivity, which happened in 586 BC when the Babylonians conquered and destroyed Jerusalem. (No miraculous plague or unexplainable softening of a foreign king’s heart this time – which proves nothing!) Whereas the Assyrians uprooted and scattered everyone when they conquered Israel, the Babylonians left the farmers of Judah where they were, and only dragged off the city folk. What’s more, they let the Judeans retain their own culture while in captivity. In fact…
“(The exiles) flourished by the waters of Babylon, and reorganized their scriptures to create an unambiguously monotheistic, congregational religion, independent of place and emancipated from the rites of Solomon’s destroyed temple in Jerusalem.”
So while Judah’s narrow escape from the Assyrians is historically important, the actual turning point, the thing that ensured the survival of Jehovah in human memory is, ironically, the Babylonian captivity. Because it was there that the people of Judah created a new kind of religion; what we know today as Judaism. In so doing they made something that has endured for over 2000 years, which is extraordinary. But not a “miracle.”
Next up is Chapter Two: How The Greeks Saved The West!