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Politics of Scripture

A Politics of Producing American History and Ancient Sacred Memory

Who produces American history textbooks? Beyond historians’ work, this question demands a reckoning with political partisanship that creeps into the publication process of history textbooks. A comparable phenomenon can be traceable in ancient textualization of sacred memory. Acknowledging political forces in knowledge production helps renegotiate one’s perspectives on sanctioned discourses of historical memory in modern and ancient worlds.

To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
1 Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
   you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
2   before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
   and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.
4 O Lord God of hosts,
   how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears,
   and given them tears to drink in full measure.
6 You make us the scorn of our neighbours;
   our enemies laugh among themselves.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.
8 You brought a vine out of Egypt;
   you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
   it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
   the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
   and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
   so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
   and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
   look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15   the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
   may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
   the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
   give us life, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
   let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Psalm 80

Producing knowledge is not only historically contingent but also politically managed by those who select, arrange, archive, and protect information. The political process of knowledge production presses us to ponder, “Who controls this process and for what purpose?” This question is particularly salient in the case of discourses of historical memory and their impact on constructing collective identities. Barry Schwartz who has long studied American collective memory noted, “Collective memory reflects reality by interpreting the past in terms of images appropriate and relevant to the present; it shapes reality by providing people with a program in terms of which their present lines of conduct can be formulated and enacted; it frames reality through standards in terms of which the effectiveness and moral qualities of their conduct can be discerned” (18).Acknowledging the complex workings of collective memory that shape and frame the present reality behooves us to consider those who hold the power to condition, construct, and re-present what is called history or historical truth. These political interventions can be comparably detectable between modern and ancient discourses of historical memory.

A modern example of politics of memory manifests in the production processes of American history textbooks. In her New York Times article (published on Jan 12, 2020), Dana Goldstein shows how the different editions of American history textbooks between California and Texas tacitly impact the ways that students learn about American history. Although California and Texas work with the same publishers (e.g., McGraw-Hill, Pearson, HMH) in producing history textbooks, the details of their state editions diverge on topics, such as race, gender, immigration, and climate change. When it comes to an immigration history, for example, the California edition more extensively includes stories of immigrant families, whereas the Texas edition pays more attention to crimes and security on the border.

Goldstein finds these differences in production of state history textbooks to be a political process. After historians write and submit a draft of a textbook to a publisher, political partisans who govern the State Board of Education appoint textbook review panels who are agreeable to agendas of state politicians. The panels then review and request changes to the publisher, eventually determining what to include or highlight and what to exclude or minimize. The publishers are usually inclined to satisfy state lawmakers by reflecting the panels’ requests for change in specific state editions, and they do so in order to increase their sale of textbooks in a precarious market that is transitioning to a digital era. This political production of American history textbooks maneuvers students in different parts of the country into certain kinds of national memory and identity.

Acknowledging political agents and their maneuvering capabilities behind the production of history textbooks unfolds how knowledge of American history is conditioned by social location and how educational materials are bound up with certain political agendas. This politico-educational context provides an intercultural parallel for readers of biblical texts as they learn a similar phenomenon in the ancient politics of textualizing sacred history. During the postexilic period, ancient scribes consisted of a socially endorsed group of literati, who owned highly specialized and technical knowledge about divine words. Through a variety of scribal activities, such as studying, composing, and revising sacred texts, they enjoyed the privilege of preserving and appropriating social memory.

Psalm 80 can be a heuristic example of an ancient appropriation of historical memory. Biblical psalms apparently differ from modern history textbooks in language, genre, and style. Despite the differences, it is worth noting a similar intersection at which this psalm sits between a didactic framework of collective memories and political partisanship in charge of sanctioned memories. The Hebrew word, eduth in the superscription of the psalm provides a subtle yet significant clue for the psalm’s didactic framework. The English translation “covenant” is often suggested for eduth (e.g., NRSV, NIV), but an alternative rendering, “testimony” can be equally proper given a similar attestation in the context of recounting ancestral pasts in Psalm 78. In the introduction of this testimonial psalm (verses 5–8 ), the same term is used to teach subsequent generations about a particular witness to historical memory and the law that God gives to the ancestors. Therefore, the translated word, “testimony” aims to provide readers with a sanctioned account of collective history that a Jewish community established and normalized across generations.

Who sanctioned this particular piece of testimony? The superscription not only reveals a didactic framework of Psalm 80 but also shares information about a primary patron of the psalm by ascribing this prayer to Asaph. The Asaphites are a group of temple musicians and scribes who most likely went into the Babylonian exile and continued to serve temple worship in Jerusalem after their return from the exile. The Asaph collection (Psalms 73–83) embodies the Asaphites’ historical perspectives and theological tenets. Most provocative is this collection’s tendency to privilege a heritage of the Southern Kingdom of Judah (hereafter, Judah), while denigrating a historical memory of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (hereafter, Israel). The conclusion of a grand history of Judah and Israel in Psalm 78 crystalizes this tendency by highlighting God’s election of David king of Judah right next to the reference to God’s outspoken rejection of Israel (verses 67–70). The Asaphites’ pejorative account of Israel’s history inculcates the belief that Judah is more worthy of remembrance than Israel for postexilic Jews.

Psalm 80 falls under the influence of the Asaphites’ depreciative appropriation of Israel’s traumatic memory. The way that this psalm accommodates this appropriation, however, is more oblique than the case of Psalm 78. The psalm’s theological tension between non-penitential and penitential expression of faith bears the mark of a cunning appropriation. This tension is largely predicated on the Asaphites’ didactic framework of penitential faith, as will be shown below.

At one level, Psalm 80 is frequently identified as non-penitential psalm of communal lament due to the clear mode of complaint and protest, characterized by the accusative questions posed to God (“how long?” and “why?) and the ample use of petition to God in this prayer. This non-penitential language conveys the cumulative layers of pathos that stem from the longstanding, enigmatic experience of divine anger and its perennial impact on succeeding generations. The majority of non-penitential psalms of communal lament (Psalms 44; 60; 74; 80; 83; 89) commonly perceive divine anger as the unfathomable force that causes collective disasters. By transmitting these non-penitential psalms, postexilic Jews inherit their ancestors’ unresolved trauma and their complex relationship to divine anger. Psalm 80 represents one of these trauma-laden prayers. Despite the psalm’s transmission history and its lack of historical specificity, the beginning of the psalm clearly harks back to a tragic event of Israel’s ancestors (verses 1–2 NRSV) and their non-penitential response to the wrathful God that caused such atrocity (verse 4).

At another level, Psalm 80 also gestures toward a penitential faith. During the postexilic period, the increasing adoption of the penitential elements, such as a confession of sin, eclipses the language of protest against God. This theological shift largely alters the way that postexilic Jews remember and recount traumatic pasts, as they begin to re-conceptualize divine anger as a punishment of their ancestors’ iniquities rather than an incomprehensible catastrophe. The Asaph collection already shows a mark of this theological development in the penitential language that appears in Psalms 78:17, 32; 79:8–9.

Unlike the straightforward penitential rhetoric in Psalms 78 and 79, Psalm 80 takes an indirect approach through an iterative refrain (verses 3, 7, 19). The refrain consists of two parts: (1) “Make us turn back, O God (of hosts); and (2) “Let your face shine that we may be delivered.” The second part of the refrain (“Let your face shine!”) urges divine intervention similar to other petitions in non-penitential psalms. Yet the stylistic shift toward a penitential faith comes into view in the first part—often translated “Restore us!” but literally meaning “Make us turn back!”—which can read as a call for a human part of action to return to God. The indirect exhortation for humans does not precisely demand a confession of sin but rhetorically, through the three times of its use at the junctures of the psalm, moves in the direction of penitence.

The penitential tendency in the refrain corresponds to a broader framework of the Asaph collection. According to Erich Zenger (Psalms 2, 307), the editorial arrangement of Psalms 79–82 guides readers to perceive the theological sequence that God’s answer (Psalms 81–82) follows people’s lament (Psalms 79–80). This sequence serves the didactic purpose of solving people’s baffling perception of God (aka. theodicy), namely, the God who was considered absent or indifferent to people’s struggle with the reality of evil and injustice. To redeem this problematic image of God, the Asaph collection arranges the psalms in a didactic way that divine answer follows human lament. By ascertaining divine answer, this arrangement legitimizes divine righteousness. This theological legitimization, however, also instills the idea that God is silent to people’s distress because they fail to win God’s favor, not because of God’s neglect. This kind of faith effectively circumvents divine responsibility for people’s suffering and consequently promotes self-blame when people face tragic events.

Routinizing self-blame can simultaneously serve as an efficient tool for political domination. Cultivating a self-denigrating faith for postexilic Jews may have been a way to sublimate their resistance into penitential forms of introspection. This cultural imposition may have allowed the powerful to justify social control and evade responsibility for oppression. The Asaphites’ penitential rhetoric largely falls under the influence of this cultural hegemony. The rhetoric of self-blame ultimately renders Israel’s sacred memory of ancestral protest ungrievable.

Concordant with this religio-political implication of penitential didacticism, the Asaphites may have craftily added the refrain to Psalm 80, and this psalm in turn plays a nuanced role. It serves as a human lament in anticipation of divine answer within the arrangement of Psalms 79–82 yet without undermining the Asaphites’ advocacy of divine righteousness.

Psalm 80’s theological contour subtly yet decisively slants readers’ understanding of Israel’s historical memory. Without the refrain, the psalm would expose readers more to the language of protest and Israel’s ancestral trauma than the didactic exhortation to turn back to God. A shift toward penitential language counterbalances (rather than venerates) Israel’s well-deserved pathos of ancestors’ protest against the wrathful God and reorients Israel’s historical memory as if ancestors contritely asked for their return to God in hopes of God’s deliverance. This appropriation may hardly be an unbiased testimony of Israel’s history. It rather facilitates a cultural constraint that undercuts the full-fledged memory of Israel’s ancestral protest in catastrophic events and an intergenerational pathos that is attached to this memory.

The present reading of Psalm 80 comparatively reflects on an ancient politics of memory inscribed in biblical psalms vis-à-vis a contemporary politics of American history discourse. Both cultural discourses commonly exhibit an organized appropriation of historical memory. Just as the Asaphites ably foreclose Israel’s historical memory by framing it within their theological tenets, the contemporary process of making American history textbooks, as Goldstein observes, hinges on political partisans who invisibly exercise sociopolitical power to determine what counts as people’s collective memory in the U.S. The comparable politics of producing modern and ancient historical memories suggests that remembering the past requires the task of identifying who is entitled to claim, authorize, and promulgate historical memory. Being mindful of these political mediations and their cumulative impact on shaping collective identities of generations helps modern readers avoid a blind reception of sanctioned discourses of history. This political sensitivity may be a vital form of cultural literacy to discern privileged agencies operating behind the production of history and to build empathy toward socially marginalized groups whose historical memories await more recognition as an integral part of American identities.

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