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We all seem to be desperately searching for roots. From the fussy private pastime of, to the loud public toppling of statues and debunking of old pedigrees of valor, we thirst for a history that will justify our passions. Frantic as this archaeology of desire’s genesis may be, it is fruitless. The past is mostly lost. We are here.

Still, the past is not completely lost. Indeed, it is fully held by God. “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” and this in spite of the fact that their “destruction” seems “utter” (Wisd. 3:1, 3).Our “times” are held in his fingers (Ps. 31:16). To find our roots we must delve into God’s strange grasp. His divine hand is defined in terms of scriptural Israel, the “root” of all nations and identities. We so often look in the wrong places to find out who we are. The politically rootless of today should just read the Bible.

Much of what we want from the past seems deliberately swept aside by God. We can speak of providence, and we should. But it operates through the obscurity of the piles of events that make up the mound of the world’s passage. God is at work in history’s bits and pieces, and the pieces themselves are beyond our sifting. Providence covers up as much as it reveals. This is a lesson for those seeking to redress the sins of yesteryear.

The long literary tradition that speaks to crumbled and forgotten empires underlines the intuition that time erodes and obscures. In Shelley’s famous lines, a broken memorial, protruding from the “lone and level sands” of the desert, proclaims the exhausted arrogance of transient power: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing beside remains.” But the active agency of God in such forgetting is too often overlooked. It is for him to judge, not us. Nor do we wish to hear that God limits memory in an era like ours, determined as we are to find every shred of purportedly suppressed experience, unearthed from the trenches and gutters that line history’s myriad roads—the poor, the enslaved, the marginalized, women and children, driven into the ditches and buried away, but now, we futilely insist, brought into the light and given socially transforming voices.

Instead of mobilizing a cacophony demanding redress, God seems to will the silence of our ancestors and distant neighbors. Long before Shelley’s wistful imperial regrets, Christopher Marlowe offered the London stage Tamburlaine the Great, a bloated but influentially innovative two-part play loosely based on the life of a Central Asian emperor. It’s a cracked window onto a bit of “history” seemingly better known to Marlowe’s sixteenth-century audiences than to us—a difference worth pondering. The two parts put on display the military exploits of “Timur Lang” (lame), or simply “Timur,” as he is known today (1336–1405). A distant relative of Genghis Khan, 150 years after the Mongol Empire was established and had then begun to split and totter, Timur gathered his Central Asian tribesmen together and set about on one of the most ruthless, extensive, and politically consequential campaigns of conquest in human history—as far as we know. The seventeen million dead attributed to his exploits may be but a fraction of the forty million slaughtered by his ancestor Genghis. Still, the destruction of the American Civil War pales in comparison. And if we consider how deeply scarred our nation remains from that conflict, can we even begin to measure the wounds inflicted on Central Asia? We cannot. We never will.

Despite its torrent of remarkable English verse, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine mostly presents a numbing succession of boasting, battles, and brutality. Modern audiences don’t know what to make of this material; the play is rarely performed. Marlowe’s hearers, however, were entranced and clamored for more. Perhaps they were better attuned to the instigating motive for the story, which Marlowe culled from Thomas Fortescue’s popular collection of moral historical tales. Fortescue’s lesson is indeed one of providence. Tamburlaine, Fortescue asserts, is a mighty hero, and though hardly known to Europeans, he should be because of his brilliance and import. That import is not so much one of moral example—how could it be?—as one of crushing effectiveness. Tamburlaine was God’s instrument. He “never took matter in hand, that he brought not to the wished effect.”

The hidden power of the past interests Fortescue (and Marlowe): God is at work, even where we cannot see or hear. Marlowe’s favorite epithet for Tamburlaine is “scourge,” as in “scourge of God,” a self-description the emperor revels in. Just as the biblical Assyrians were God’s “rod of anger” (Isa. 10:5), Tamburlaine takes up the cruel divine baton and lowers it upon Assyria in turn. The play’s bloodied delight in the conquest of Babylon is vivid and concrete: Thousands are impaled, burnt, and slaughtered, the once mighty dragged to the dust.

Villains, these terrors, and these tyrannies . . .
I execute, enjoin’d me from above,
To scourge the pride of such as Heaven abhors . . .
(Part II, Act IV.1)

We actually have little contemporary documentation of Timur’s razing of the Asian continent. Most accounts come later. These rely on the emperor’s officially requisitioned chronicles, which he apparently checked for accuracy. He cared deeply about numbers: a thousand killed here, 20,000 there, 100,000 on the way to Delhi, one million in Delhi itself. “Their orders were to plunder and destroy, and to kill everyone they met,” a subsequent chronicler summarizes. Later histories of Timur remain limited within the perspectives and interests of these chronicles. So it always goes. The vanquished have little to say; the dead are mute, apart from the shadowy remnants of their faded traces. The voiceless remain voiceless. They speak only in their numbers and fate, and both Timur and Marlowe insist that we should stand in awe.

A century later, a direct descendent of Timur, Zahīr ud-dīn Muhammad (or “Babur”), wrote memoirs with unique self-revelatory flashes that have motivated comparisons to Augustine’s Confessions. The topics could not be more different. Babur is credited with founding the Mughal Empire in India. His refined tastes and perceptions coincide with his brutal massacres of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslim “heretics.” He delights in retaliatory torture, and describes, with the same detail he showers on flowers, the common slaughter of his troops. Retaking the city of Samarkand, he notes with satisfaction how townspeople took revenge on their previous oppressors: “They killed the Uzbeks in the lanes and gullies with clubs and stones like mad dogs; four or five hundred were killed in this fashion.” Whether it is 15,000 or 50,000 dead, Babur is careful, like his ancestor, to offer reliable figures.

In history, we have no record of the peoples oppressed, wiped out, forcibly assimilated by Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, the Hittites, let alone by the Mongols, Tartars, the Golden Horde, and on and on. What are we left with? It is no surprise that ecclesiology, imperialism, liberalism, and now postcolonial theory are the children of Christianity, the child of Israel. Only Israel gives us the missing voice, the “voice of the voiceless,” a phrase Ella Wheeler Wilcox popularized to promote animal rights, but which now embraces an entire morally anguished historiography.

Israel: chosen, prospering, driven out, enslaved, colonizing, colonized, decolonized, redeemed. Where Timur’s victims—and the rest of the world’s—simply disappear, Israel gives us the words of Judges, Esther, Isaiah, Lamentations, Joel, and psalm after psalm, finally uttered by the tongue of Jesus. A strange voice it is, one that opens up the depths of the human heart in all its hopes and perfidies, there for all to see. Israel: laboratory, newspaper, seminar room, union hall, revolutionary cell, the steppes and cities of the nations. Yet it is a voice, a set of names, a people “engraved” on the very palms of God (Isa. 49:16). There we find the roots of the world. I enjoy learning about my family’s past. I deploy, for my advantage and catharsis, genealogies of victimhood and responsibility as readily as others. But to actually know myself and know my world? My roots are in the Israel of God. That is all the Master of the Universe has left me. It is more than enough.

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

Image by PxHere via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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