God’s People: Toward a New Tribalism


From Psalm 94:

How long shall the wicked exult,
shall they utter insolent speech,
shall all evildoers vaunt themselves?
They crush your people, O Lord,
they afflict Your very own;
they kill the widow and the stranger;
they murder the fatherless,
thinking, “The Lord does not see it,
the God of Jacob does not pay heed.

Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna comments:

The specification of the oppressed shows that those described as God’s “people” are the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable segments of society…God’s “people” are the ordinary, common folk, and the evil oppressors are the corrupt, privileged upper classes in Israel, those whom the prophets denounced repeatedly from the eighth century BCE on.

I love this. The concept of “God’s people” is not defined in strictly tribal terms. No one people or nation can ultimately lay claim to this title. God’s people are the oppressed, the vulnerable, the downtrodden – and all who devote their lives to their liberation.

So are we ready for a new kind of tribalism? Not one determined by a specific religious persuasion or by national boundaries, but a “tribe” that includes all who share cherish justice and seek liberation from tyranny?

8 thoughts on “God’s People: Toward a New Tribalism

  1. The same TANACH (Bible) that contains the Psalm 94 above, and which has the exhortations against oppression, which indeed apply to all people, regardless of race, creed, color or national original ALSO describes in elaborate detail how Avraham Avinu (Patriarch Abraham) purchased the Tomb of the Partriarchs in Hevron and then handed it on to his decedents, Yitzhak and Yaakov, but not Ishmael nor his sons through Keturah. It also gives lengthy descriptions of the military conquest of the Land of Canaan by Joshua, the Judges and later Kings of Israel and Judah. The promise of Eretz Israel, with EXPLICIT dilineation of its borders, to the Benei Israel is also described repeatedly.

    It seems, then, that the TANACH is a package that includes both a universal message-the 7 laws of the Benei Noach, AND what one might call a “tribalistic” message granting Eretz Israel to the Benei Israel.

  2. Sign me up for Nahum Sarna’s tribe of justice-seekers and liberators from tyranny please:)

    And just to add, though not a Bible expert by any means, that though G-d did grant Canaan to the people of Israel, I believe he also delineated specific guidelines regarding treating the conquered humanely and with dignity.

  3. I wonder what the practical implications are of the above and how this translates into action. So according to the universalist element, I as a non-Jew could consider myself as a member of ‘God’s people’. However, the tribalist elements seem to exclude me. Which of these elements has more weight? Or is this not the right way of looking at it? Any suggestions for further reading?

    • Which of these elements has more weight? I would say that is up to us. Those of us who share this universal vision need to advocate for it and act upon it unabashedly and unreservedly. We need to build new coalitions, new religious relationships and movements that are based not on particularist religious dogma, but upon the shared conviction that God stands with those of any faith who disavow oppression and seek justice for all people.

      • I bet it is not an easy exercise though for many people to leave the realm of the particularist religious dogma with which we are so familiar, which dominated our way of thinking for thousands of years and upon which countries and nations have been built and destroyed. In that sense I very much appreciate the way the US functions – this exercise appears to be easier conducted there than in Europe or indeed the Middle East. But if we keep advocating we can bring about change also there.

  4. I have mixed feelings about this, Brant. Not because of the universalism / tribalism tension. You know where I stand on that. Rather, I’m troubled by the frame around these lines in the psalm.

    Psalm 94 begins by invoking the “God of retribution,” who will “give the arrogant their deserts!” It ends with an affirmation that God will “make their evil recoil upon them, annihilate them through their own wickedness; the LORD our God will annihilate them.”

    Does the imagination that singles out ANY group as “God’s people”–even the oppressed–lead inevitably to this fantasy of retribution? Pharaoh and his cavalry, too, were God’s children, as the midrash insists.

    Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address comes to mind as well, reminding me that the psalm’s vision is a tragic one, in practice:

    “If God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    • I hear you, Eric. The God of vengeance and retribution has terrifying implications. On the other hand, underneath the desperate anger of the Psalm is a desire for justice and accountability in the world. Even if we don’t literally believe in a supernatural God that intervenes vengefully in human history, I think this desire is something with which we all can identify.

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