Last week I led a tour of the Beit Shemesh area. We visited the tomb of Dan (son of Jacob), Mony Winery, Tel Beit Shemesh and Tel Azeka. The particular issue that was the center of the tour was the relationship and interaction between the Children of Israel and the “other” in the past and in the present.
It seems to be human nature to distance ourselves from the other. In the early days of humanity, this was a survival instinct. Loyalty within clans was necessary for interdependence within the clan. Other clans were a rival for collecting fields, hunting grounds, and water sources. Thus, those who were wary of the “other” did better and survived longer than those who did not protect their resources.
In today’s world, xenophobia is seen as a negative. We are raised to be open to others, to try to see their viewpoint and to “not judge another until you have walked a mile in their shoes”. Especially in the light of the modern world and world-wide markets, xenophobia is seen as a throwback to those who are less sophisticated. Success today seems to depend on our abilities to interact with the other.
And yet, our ability to differentiate ourselves, whether that means protecting something as concrete as our own wealth or as abstract as our own culture, is still a very deep-seated need. Thus, the tension. How much do we open up and how much do we hold close?
These themes are echoed in the biblical text. The tribe of Dan, son of Jacob, is not successful in conquering his assigned territory. They cannot overcome the powerful Philistines who live on the coast. Some of the members of the tribe of Dan stay where they are, in the area of Beit Shemesh, and some move North, to the far northern border of today’s State of Israel. Interestingly enough, half of the tribe lives next to the Philistines; half live far, far away – showing two very different approaches to living with the “other”.
Dan’s descendent, Shimshon (Sampson) lived in the area of Beit Shemesh at the time of the Judges, a time when every man did what was right in his own eyes. He took a wife from the Philistines and spent his life in a battle of wits and strength against them. He fought the battle against them from the inside, with some successes but mostly tragic failures. He does succeed in destroying some cities and temples, but is ultimately stripped of his strength and is tortured by the Philistine people. (Check out the picture of me dressed up as a Philistine!)
The next biblical character who battles the Philistines is David. David comes to visit his brothers who are in King Saul’s army. King Saul, a king like all the other nations’ kings, is in a standoff with the Philistines. The taunter, Goliath, calls for a singular battle with someone from King’s Saul’s army. King Saul, following well-defined rules of warfare, looks to send someone to battle with Goliath in hand-to-hand combat.
David’s reaction to the Philistine Goliath is to refuse to play his game. He refuses King Saul’s armor and by doing so has refused to play by the rules – the Philistine rules. David has his own game, that of a slinger; and it is as a slinger that he has the upper hand on Goliath. It is an interesting example of David retaining his uniqueness and his shepherding outlook even in the battleground. He does not fit into the shoes of the “other” neither by King Saul’s cajoling nor by Goliath’s taunting. This is something that David continues into his kingship. King David is beloved and respected because he is not “kingly”. He realizes that he can do wrong and apologizes for his misdeeds. This is a revolution in the ancient world where the king was considered at the very least above the law, if not an actual godly being who could do no wrong.
Now we get to modern Israeli society. How would a researcher today decode the complex relationship between Israeli culture and the dominant power, the United States? I decided to gauge influence based on the index of how many McDonald’s there are per population and on obesity statistics.
In the United States, there are 22,000 people for every McDonald’s branch. Discounting countries with less than 200,000 population, Israel comes in tied with Austria for 6th place, with 45,000 residents per McDonald’s. (Canada-24K, Australia-25K, New Zealand-27K, Puerto Rico-34K) Although I realize that there are many other factors which go into how many McDonald’s there are in any given country, it gives a sense of the interaction that Israel feels with the wider world.
Yet, despite Israel’s relatively high density of McDonald’s, according to the World Health Organization, Israel is 30th when those same countries (over 200,000 population) are ranked by the percentage of overweight or obeseness within her populace while the United States is 1st on this list. Israel has managed to maintain some sort of unique lifestyle which counters our McDonald’s ranking. We are at one and the same time trying to maintain our unique character while fitting into the wider world.
These somewhat silly statistics show the complex relationship between Israel and the outside world which continues until today – an extension of the tension played out on this same soil in the times of the Bible. Is Israel today more of a Sampson or more of a David? All-Beef Patties or Special Sauce? Maybe both.