I’ve always been struck by the nature of the place that was given to the Hebrews as their “promised land.” And first-time visitors are often taken aback by it.
Arid, hilly, rocky, caught between two major and mutually hostile riverine civilizations (of varying names but largely consistent international purposes) along the Nile and between the Tigris and the Euphrates, the land of Israel has always been vulnerable, even inviting, to attack, and has never been what many people, living in far easier and more pleasant places, would call “a land flowing with milk and honey.” (The quoted description reminds me a bit uncomfortably of a real estate salesman’s puff piece for a rather humble and run-down home that she wants to sell.)
And yet, and yet . . . Think of what the people living in this land have bequeathed to the world — ethical monotheism, some of its greatest literature and most formative stories, perhaps even (some reputable historians of science argue) the kind of worldview that made modern science possible. And, of course, infinitely more beyond those things, especially for believers in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Perhaps living in difficult circumstances is essential for such creativity, such contributions. Orson Welles is supposed to have quipped (though I can’t recall whether the line actually made it into The Third Man), that, out of centuries of strife, Italy has given us the civil law, great drama, fabulous architecture, the Renaissance, and so forth, while, following centuries of peace, Switzerland has given us . . . the cuckoo clock.
That statement is profoundly unfair to my beloved Switzerland on many levels. And, anyway, my understanding is that cuckoo clocks come from the Black Forest of Germany.
But it does point to something, I think. As does the fact that, in order for us to grow, says the Bible, we had to leave the Garden of Eden and work and learn in a fallen, resistant, and often mournfully unpleasant world.
There’s no reason for us to like diseases, financial setbacks, wars, betrayals by friends, interpersonal hostilities, misunderstandings, physical injuries, injustice, unmerited humiliations, and the like. It must needs be that offenses come, but woe unto him by whom those offenses come. They hurt. They’re painful. And their costs are, many times, very high and quite permanent. However, they do serve to school us, to train us, to smooth and polish us (as Joseph said of the persecutions that afflicted him throughout his life) as we, stone-like, roll down the hills of our lives.
Posted from Jerusalem, Israel.