The False Lure of the Good Old Days

JON MARGOLIS

April 28, 1993|By JON MARGOLIS

Mizpe Ramon, Israel. -- The view from the cliff at the southern edge of town is compelling, but not inviting.

As far as the eye can see there is nothing but sand and rock, swirled into hills and depressions, rising into dark and foreboding mountains. Looking carefully, it is possible to see a little scruffy vegetation. But for the most part this area of the Negev makes Arizona's Sonora Desert seem downright fertile by comparison.

This city is new, but there is nothing new about human activity in these parts. It's possible, in fact, that one of history's first major events took place right nearby.

If they were anywhere at all, the thousands of refugees fleeing Egyptian bondage some 3,200 years ago may have been right here, looking for some water for their flocks and whispering to each other about whether they should continue to let this Moses fellow lead them around the desert.

Their concern would be no surprise. Even if you could find a spot that provided enough water for people and beasts to survive, this looks like a good place to have left behind. For a day-trip to the desert, it's great. If it's what you have to wander through to get where you're going, fine. But living here would be no picnic, and who'd want to get nostalgic about the place?

Well, the prophets would. According to the writings of Eliahu Auerbach, one of the major scholars in the field, biblical prophecy was ''closely bound up with the philosophy and ideals of the nomadic desert people.'' Those good old days back in the desert with Moses, when people lived simpler lives with fewer possessions, that was a ''golden age'' in the minds of the prophets. When Jeremiah said ''all your days you shall dwell in tents,'' he was prescribing the good life.

How modern. Just last year, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, there were all those books about how pre-Columbian America was an Eden in which people lived in simple harmony with nature until Europeans came and messed it all up.

Those books were wrong. A host of scientific evidence proves that long before 1492 Native Americans engaged in practices harmful to nature, and if they were less harmful than what came later, that was only because their technology was more primitive.

And the prophets were wrong, too. Some golden age. All that murmuring, the rebels who got swallowed up by the earth, the wars. More than once the people wanted to go back to Egypt, where they may have been slaves, but at least they had fleshpots.

So perhaps the prophets are to blame for starting the delusion that things used to be better. Mr. Auerbach said they were motivated by a tension ''between the present and the past, between life and tradition.'' Well, who isn't? There is always a tension between life and tradition. What is life today will be tradition tomorrow, when some people will proclaim it better than the present. Like the prophets, they'll be wrong.

Still, some 2,500 years later, people are still reading the prophets, which just proves that if you're a good enough poet you need not get all your facts straight.

But if the prophets overstated their case (don't all poets?) they did have one. By their time, people had settled into towns and cities, and some of them had gotten rich. Possessions are tempting. No sooner do some folks get worldly goods than they ''lie upon beds of ivory and stretch themselves upon their couches.'' To get more couches and ivory beds, they started to shortchange their employees and to ''grind the faces of the poor.''

From there it was but a short step to the leveraged buyout.

So it's easy to see why the prophets thought life was better back when the best a guy could do was to have enough sheep and goats to provide food for the family and a tent over their heads. Longing for fleshpots is one thing; having them right at hand is quite another.

Besides, the prophets were, according to Mr. Auerbach, the first people to come up with the idea that ''morality [is] a primal human instinct.'' They were sure that human nature included not just the desire but the need to be good. If people were not being good, then they must have strayed from their natural state (desert nomad) to some artificial situation (beds of ivory) which perverted their innate goodness.

From a modern perspective, this is most disquieting. If just a few beds of ivory were sufficient perversion, think where today's luxuries are driving us.

But don't worry. Only the fact that people still read the prophets provides any indication at all that their view of human nature may have been correct. All the other evidence points in the opposite direction. Anyone who would long for life in a barren landscape such as this one was probably just confused.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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