The Gentrification of Judah

by admin on

gen·tri·fi·ca·tion (jèn´tre-fî-kâ¹shen) noun The restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by the middle classes, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people. Clouds of dust lifted from the plains of Ono, stirred by hundreds of thousands of hooves and sandals. For months this meandering river of humanity and livestock had snaked its way southward along the trade routes from Babylon, loaded down with everything of value that could be carried from their homes and businesses. The massive convoy, broken up into dozens of "communities," traveled under the protection of King Cyrus, benevolent ruler of the Persian empire who had decreed that exiled Jews could return home. Tons of household goods and personal belongings were stacked and roped aboard oxen-drawn wagons, and pack animals, laden with bulky bundles of food and water jugs accessible for roadside consumption, were tethered together in a single-file. A detachment of armed cavalrymen flanked a delegation of priests and Levites, carefully guarding released treasures that generations earlier had been looted from Solomon's temple. Though dust-covered and road-weary, these children of Abraham were high in spirits for their destination lay at long last within sight: Jerusalem!

These returning exiles brought with them far more than household goods. They brought expertise. They knew how cities ran. In their years of captivity many had emerged into positions of responsibility and leadership in the urban centers to which their forefathers had been disbursed. They understood commerce, not simply the bartering of a goat for so many bushels of wheat, but money that could be flexibly and safely exchanged for any commodity in any amount. They understood banking and legal contracts and titles - the tools of a civilized society. And they certainly had well-discussed opinions about how Jerusalem should be run once the Jewish leadership returned from exile and the Law of God was re-established in the land.

They were also, perhaps surprisingly, people of the Word. The destruction of Solomon's temple, the sacking of sacred artifacts, and the enslavement in foreign lands was designed by Nebuchadnezzar to sever forever the Jews from their heritage and their God. How could the tyrant have known that it would do just the opposite? In their bondage they clung tenaciously to their religious practices and reconstructed from memory, as well as from copies of smuggled scripture passages, a remarkably complete version of the Torah. A network of under-cover synagogues sprung up across the Babylonian empire - house churches at first and eventually larger gathering places where the law of God was taught and the sacred rituals faithfully observed. Someday, every exiled Jew believed, they would return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and Yahweh would once again reign supreme in Judah.

And now they were arriving, just as the prophets had foretold. This would be the first and the largest of many organized migrations, fifty thousand strong, they were, and under the leadership of prince Sheshbazzar whom King Cyrus appointed as governor of Judah. Other caravans would accompany the entourages of later governors appointed by subsequent kings. Still others would come on their own initiative. And with each infusion of new residents, the impoverished land of Judah became the richer, beneficiary of the wealth and education and culture that prosperous Jews from the empire brought home.

These homecomings, always times of great jubilation, were rich with religious symbolism. Every returning Jew understood himself to be the living fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophesy:

"This is what the LORD says: You say, 'this land has been ravaged, and the people and animals have all disappeared.' Yet in the empty streets of Jerusalem and Judah's other towns, there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and laughter. The joyful voices of bridegrooms and brides will be heard again, along with the joyous songs of people bringing thanksgiving offerings to the LORD." (Jer 33:10-11 NLT)

And when they assembled at the temple site with their best lambs, eager for the first time to offer sacrifices at the very spot where their forefathers worshipped, their hearts nearly burst with joy. "They will sing," the priests would quote from Jeremiah's words, "'Give thanks to the LORD Almighty, for the LORD is good. His faithful love endures forever!' For I will restore the prosperity of this land to what it was in the past, says the LORD." (Jer 33:11 NLT)

Unfortunately the euphoria was always short-lived. Locals, "the people of the land" as they were referred to by returnees, were not quite so enthusiastic. These who Nebuchadnezzar left behind in Judah following his bloody siege of Jerusalem were peasant shepherds and poor farmers, discarded like so much worthless baggage when Babylonian troops led the citizenry off into captivity. They had survived off the land, moving their meager flocks and herds from one poor grazing patch to the next, hiding in remote canyons from marauding bands of thieves, making lop-sided alliances with the stronger tribes around them. Over time, however, these ragged remnants grew in numbers and strength, spread out over much of the Judean countryside, and re-occupied many of the sacked towns, including Jerusalem. By the time Cyrus defeated Babylon some fifty years later, a Jewish homeland society had re-formed - nothing to parallel the former glory days when the proud fortress city of Jerusalem ruled supreme in the region, but a functioning society none-the-less.

Now exiles were returning with their splendid clothes and educated children and priestly orthodoxy. They came in triumph, not humility. They called themselves "the people of Judah." Heirs of Jewish aristocracy, they marched into Judah to assume their rightful place as leaders of the homeland society. Little wonder that the "people of the land" did not share their excitement. By the time Ezra and Nehemiah returned from exile to assume their respective governorships, the feuding had been going on for generations. Bitter disputes still raged over historic land rights. The temple, that had taken more than twenty agonizing years to rebuild due to vicious infighting, was still a deeply fractured institution. Indigenous priests had accommodated the gods of Israel's historic enemies which was viewed by the returning "purist" clerics, disciplined by their exile, as religious whoring.

It would ultimately be a losing battle for the "people of the land" - losing, that is, if you viewed it from their perspective. They would lose much of their land at the hands of skillful title lawyers armed with ancient documents, and to speculators poised with ready cash to "help" at a moment of financial hardship. They would also lose most of their power. Their tribal leadership style and agrarian bartering system were no match for the sophisticated leadership methods and economic muscle of the returnees. Besides, the exiles arrived with the blessing of the king and with full authority to take charge of Judah. Their royal mandate extended even to the practice of religion. What chance did the locals really have to compete with such overwhelming might?

"But why must this be cast as a win-lose conflict?" the new-coming "people of Judah" argued. Was not the infusion of wealth and education, the capable leadership and well-schooled priesthood in the very best interests of Israel? Indeed, was this not the fulfillment of a divine promise? The temple could now be rebuilt, the city walls and gates could rise again from their rubble, the land could once again yield her abundance, and prosperity could return to bless all the people. If the locals could only see the larger picture, then they might be able to understand why change was necessary, disruptive though it may be.

But the change that the exiles brought - imposed, as the locals viewed it - was hardly a minor or temporary "discomfort." It was cataclysmic! Their grazing and farmland was confiscated, their priests were discredited, and their families were broken apart - all in the name of Yahweh. The pain inflicted by these "necessary" changes and the venom that poisoned the Jewish community would endure long after the smoke of sacrifices rose from a new temple, long after Jerusalem sat proudly once again as the citadel of Judah.

The above is an excerpt from my new book Renewing the City. The historic account of the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem by the layman Nehemiah is filled with drama and intrigue, and is remarkably instructive for the reclaiming of our contemporary cities.

No Comments