The failure of man’s repeated attempts to control the future should come as no surprise to us when we see they are rarely able to agree on the past. So many people today start with a distrust of establishment power that conspiracy thinking is not limited to major events, but now includes relatively routine ones. Often such ideas gain a foothold before anyone really knows any facts. If an airliner is lost over the ocean, then a grand conspiracy is thought to be underway to supply terrorists with a plane. If the price of crude oil drops we soon lose track of the theories on who manipulated it and for what purpose. The restructuring of our thoughts about the more distant past is also prevalent. It is called revisionism.
One can take either a positive or negative approach to revisionism. The positive spin is that our historical narrative must be reviewed for accuracy, rethought with a fresh perspective to discern significance previously missed or intentionally avoided. On the other hand, revisionism can be seen in a very negative sense by those who adhere to the conventional narrative. They see any new perspective as a rewriting of what really happened, as a propaganda tool used by those who have ulterior motives.
Even one’s terminology tends to convey either a positive or negative connotation to revisionism. The term “historical revisionism” emphasizes history and can connote a change in our understanding of that which did, in fact, occur in history. If one wishes to emphasize that a minority opinion is being proposed, the term “revisionist history” stresses the change to prevailing thought being attempted.
Why are very divergent views of history possible and now so very prevalent? People have a widespread distrust of “official explanations” and press releases. Facts go through a filter before they reach us. One of the complicating factors in the death of John F. Kennedy is that the government concealed information it considered sensitive and, in some cases, gave out falsified data as factual to divert attention away from these areas. False witness is a sin because lies are such a powerful tool of evil. When evidence is falsified, lost, concealed, or destroyed, we have a hard time knowing what is true. Criminal convictions are frequently based, not on hard evidence, but on expert witnesses, many of whom are paid or who, like the police, have an interest in their actions being sanctioned by conviction.
Ethics and Revisionism
Much history is lost to us. Whole cultures are forgotten, entire ruined cities a mystery without any human conscious effort for that to happen, so it’s no wonder we can miss the importance of facts readily available to us. Then, too, much of our historical knowledge is written by victors whose purpose is vindication, and whose moral outrage is often selective. We condemn Hitler for the bombing of London, but seldom the Allies for the far more devastating and unnecessary bombing of Dresden, Germany. We still note the evil of Saddam Hussein’s murder of hundreds of Kurds and Iraqis, but not the death of the unknown tens of thousands killed by the U.S. military campaign against him.
Assessing the meaning of history presupposes a standard of moral judgment. We must not forget the first revisionist history was by Satan, who gave a falsified view of God’s decree and the consequences for rebellion, not to mention God’s motives. Man acts in terms of both his faith (and hence ethics) and understanding. Lies subvert both.
Reason is regulated by ethics. When we read the Bible in faith, we naturally assume God’s perspective because this is given to us in the context. It is easy for us to read the Bible’s account of the foolishness of ancient sinners and say, “They were certainly foolish,” and assume we would not have been.
When we read the Bible in faith, we are thinking God’s thoughts after Him, and His perspectives becomes ours. When the sinner hears God’s Word, he wants to reject the lesson because he will not admit to the moral order it presupposes.
Revisionist History in the Sixth Century B.C.
An example of revisionism occurs late in the life of the prophet Jeremiah. His was one of the longest ministries of any prophet and may have seen the least success. He helped Josiah rid Jerusalem of its idols only to see them return after that king’s death in battle. Jeremiah spent years warning the people of Judah that their apostasy was leading to the fall of Jerusalem, all to no avail. Jerusalem fell in 586 B.C. Not long thereafter the murder of the governor appointed by the conquering Babylonians caused the people to fear a bloody reprisal. Though warned by Jeremiah that God would only protect them if they stayed in Judah, the people decided in favor of migrating to Egypt where there were already many Jews who had fled from the deteriorating situation in Palestine.
The last recorded historical narrative of Jeremiah is in chapter 44. There we have an account of Jeremiah speaking to Jews from many parts of Egypt and once again relating the history of God’s judgment on Judah.
The fall of Judah and Jerusalem was for a reason: the idolatry that Josiah had tried, some twenty-five years earlier, to eliminate. It quickly returned after his death in battle and the people and the last kings of Judah had treated Jeremiah badly. He was in prison when Jerusalem fell and was only freed by the Babylonians.
Now Jeremiah reminded them of their sin and asked the people how they could continue their idolatry after all God’s judgments. The people were offering incense to the Queen of Heaven, whom the Hebrews had previously worshiped in Palestine under the name Astarte. This was a female deity, variously worshipped throughout the region, but generally considered the consort of a male deity. Sometimes the Hebrews had connected her to a baal, at other times, unbelievably, to Jehovah. The horrific history was in Jeremiah’s mind when he asked, in effect, “How can you continue to do this, and only bring God’s judgment on you here in Egypt?”
The response of the people to Jeremiah was collective. It was blunt—“As for the word of the Lord, we will not hearken unto thee” (v.16).
Seeing Judah’s History as the Failure of God
Their reasoning used an historical argument. In looking back on recent decades, they saw, not God’s judgment on their sin, but God’s failure to prosper them:
But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and pour out drink offerings unto her … for then we had plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil.
But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine. (vv.17–18)
Jeremiah had given them the historical facts and their moral interpretation—that they had failed God. The people’s response was that their prosperity was a better gauge of success. They had, under Josiah, formally ended idolatry. Though they quickly returned to it, they saw this as a true reform, one which obligated Jehovah to reward them.
Much paganism and particularly idolatry is geared, not to worship and submission, but to the satiation of the gods. Make them happy and they will leave you alone. These Jews felt they had given a great deal to make Jehovah happy and that He had not reciprocated with good things. Their assessment was that it was time again to please their old idols. Jeremiah had given his evaluation of recent history and the Jews in Egypt had given an alternative historical narrative. Both were ethical and religious. Jeremiah repeated his historical synopsis (vv. 20–23) before he pronounced God’s judgment.
Twice Jeremiah pronounced a universal judgment of death on that generation (vv. 14a; 27) only to then add a qualification that a “small number” (v. 28, compare 14b) would survive. The purpose of this small mercy was so the last survivors would “know whose words shall stand, mine or theirs” (v. 28).
It is not easy to understand history without such words by God’s inspired prophet. Our own historical, political, and cultural views are often little more than “whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth.” We frequently write history in order to impose on it our own perverse moral judgments. History writing is often little more than the construction of memes: political history almost always falls into this trap of self-justification.
Baalism was the worship of various lords or powers in some way connected with fertility. You could say baalism (there were many different baals, or powers, worshipped) was the prosperity cult of the ancient world. You appeased the powers in the expectation that they would allow you to have descendants, crops, rain, fair winds, and freedom from disease and plague. In their fertility cult mindset, the people who lived through the last reformation under Josiah expected God to do His part and give them prosperity. When He did not, they reckoned Him a failure unworthy of their efforts.
History is evaluation. Names, dates, battles, and places are only a chronology of events. Real history is the meaning of these things, their cause and direction. History thus is a succeeding generation’s morality tale and is always, at heart, religious and ethical.
When men see themselves as gods, they see no reason not to be lords over history. As a nation changes religiously, its historical narrative, its evaluation of itself, will be altered. This necessitates, at times, inverting the moral order of the old narrative. This is what the Jews in Egypt did with Jeremiah’s historical perspective. They were revisionist historians because they could not accept what Jeremiah had “spoken unto us in the name of the Lord” (v.16). They countered with “whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth” (v.17).
History is important because it is our “big picture” view of life. Christians think in such terms, so they are more likely to self-consciously speak of a “worldview,” but most nonbelievers refuse to believe they have religious or philosophical prejudices that dictate their understanding of truth and reality. They readily reject the religious or philosophical assumptions of others, but act as if they themselves are above such behavior. We must remember they can write all they want about history, but they do not control it, or it the future. History is an ethical view of human events, a religious perspective about what they mean, and an eschatological faith about where they are going.