NPR ran a story today marking the 20th anniversary of the Branch Davidian standoff and tragic fire that resulted in 80 deaths, including women and children.
I was in the throes of my doctoral dissertation in 1993, which means I was out of touch with the normal everyday habits of most humans–like keeping up with the news, eating, showering, marking the passing of the seasons.
But now, 20 years hence, this story has a familiar ring to it.
This is no deep insight, but at several points I felt the story could just as well have been about the experiences of 1st century Jews, or the Qumran sectarians specifically.
The Branch Davidians’ leader, David Koresh, was their messiah–their anointed spiritual and military leader, the one to lead the faithful to victory against the oppressor. Jewish messianic expectations also included a spiritual/warrior leader who would defeat the Romans and lead the faithful in obedience to God.
As with other 1st century messiahs (leaving the Christian messiah out of it), Koresh’s reign ended in death for him and some of his followers, but a small faithful core of survivors have kept the movement alive.
The survivors are waiting for the resurrection of the slain faithful so they could be vindicated. As one survivor put it, now in “exile” in San Diego, ”I would like to see some divine intervention, for God to vindicate his people…all those that have suffered over the years for truth, who’ve been misunderstood, have been mocked, ridiculed [and] thrown in prison.” Vindication of the faithful dead by resurrection was also a 1st century Jewish hope.
Another survivor claims to be Koresh’s successor, the new anointed leader, calling himself the “teacher of righteousness”: ”I came back here after the slaughter and I feel that the Lord has anointed me and appointed me to be the leader. I don’t claim to be a prophet. I’m a teacher of righteousness, that’s the only thing I claim.” ”Teacher of Righteousness” is the title of the anointed leader of the Qumran sect that retreated into the Judean desert in the 2nd century BC (which is where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found).
The anointed leader keeps the sect’s teachings alive, while the survivors hold out hope for an apocalyptic end, where the enemies of God (i.e., their enemies) will be defeated and the world will see the sect was right all along: ”The United States has to fall in order for the One World Order to be set up….Especially if there’s war in the Middle East, that’s when they’re going to see Branch Davidians start scrambling to find out what the truth is, and where they need to be.” A popular Jewish hope, expressed in apocalyptic imagery, was for the violent overthrow of Rome and the establishment of the reign of God.
Like I said, nothing terribly profound here, at least for those who know their way around 1st century Judaism. The parallels between then and now just caught my eye.
Of course, the difference between the groups is that Judaism had hundreds of years of history behind it by the 1st century, and the oppressors were actually occupying their land. The Branch Davidians were a small anti-establishment cult lead by an ill man living in tin shacks in Texas. So, please, no cards and letters telling me I am equating the two. (If there is any singular event from Jewish antiquity that might bear a slightly stronger resemblance to the Branch Dividians, it would be the siege of Masada.)
The persistence of the apocalyptic mindset over the millennia, with similar ways of thinking and speaking, struck me.