From Iraq came the revolting photos. Barbarians in Falluja had strung up the burnt bodies of American civilians on a bridge over the River Euphrates. Apart from the sheer horror of it — the teenagers merrily dancing as the blackened corpses swung in the background — Jews in particular may have been struck by the eerie resonance with the festival week now upon us.
Americans may be tempted to wonder why our forces are in Iraq in the first place, but Passover reminds us of what is at stake in the struggle to free Iraq from the rule of chaos and wickedness.
Passover is a time for reflecting on the spiritual meaning of places: Egypt, from which our ancestors were liberated; Israel, their destination, but also Iraq, or rather Babylon, or Mesopotamia, as the land was called in ancient times.
“Mesopotamia” literally means “Between Rivers” — the area between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. It is referred to early on in the text of the Haggada:
The Haggada speaks of how God took Abraham from a land of false gods on the other side of the River Euphrates. Once he crossed the river, leaving Mesopotamia, he either was on his way to a very different land — a land of truth: Israel — or he was already there. There are some passages in the Bible that suggest Israel’s true eastern frontier is not the Jordan but the Euphrates (Joshua 1:4). Abraham was called the first “Hebrew” — or Ivri, from the Hebrew root meaning “the other side” — because his most decisive gesture was to cross to the other side of the Euphrates, leaving behind the lies of the idolatrous religion of his youth.
The importance of the land of Mesopotamia is stressed throughout the Bible. The story of mankind starts there: Adam and Eve were created in the vicinity of the Tigris and Euphrates (Genesis 2:14). And the historical narrative section of the Hebrew Scriptures ends there, when the kingdom of Judah has been conquered by Babylon, its citizens dragged back to the despised old country of our ancestors, to sit “by the rivers of Babylon” and weep “when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1).
What was there to despise about Babylon? In the Bible, nations and peoples can represent spiritual concepts. The Philistines are associated with cynicism, the Egyptians with sexual immorality. The essential meaning of Mesopotamia has to do with falsehood.
That’s what Abraham was leaving behind when he crossed the Euphrates — the religion of false gods. Freeing others from their own false spiritual consciousness became his life’s work. In this way, Judaism got its start as a most aggressive missionary religion.
Does this start to ring a bell? Since America invaded Iraq a year ago, we’ve learned a lot about Iraqi culture under Saddam. Among other things, it was pervaded by lies. When U.S. forces, streaming up the Euphrates, had already entered the suburbs of Baghdad, Saddam’s information ministry was still pumping out the pathetic assertion that the American aggressors were hundreds of miles away, being mercilessly pounded by the fearless Republican Guard.
Today the legacy of lies remains. The Iraqi capital is so flooded with incredible gossip and insane rumors that a new newspaper was launched, the Baghdad Mosquito, devoted exclusively to sorting the lies from the truth. Another Baghdad paper had to be shut down for trafficking relentlessly in squalid lies about the occupation. When the American civilians were strung up from that bridge at Falluja, their evilly grinning killers propounded the lie that they were really CIA agents — total nonsense. And so on.
I don’t mean to set up a simplistic causal relationship between the Bible’s idea of Mesopotamia and the fact that Saddam’s regime made the place a land of lies. Yet the coincidence is surely meaningful, illustrating a pair of basic principles.
First, where you find evil, you find lies. Second, there is a bright, clear demarcation between truth and falsehood, as evident and obvious as the banks of the Euphrates. The biblical imagery serves as a rebuke to those who insist that often truth can’t be distinguished from falsehood, that it’s all a gray area.
America must not lose heart in this conflict, for our involvement in Iraq, critically important, is about nothing less than the struggle of truth against lies. May truth prevail.
David Klinghoffer is the author, most recently, of “The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism” (Doubleday, 2003). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.