Sunday, 9 December 2012

Government and the Bible - Part 1

When Gideon is offered the monarchy, he replies, "You have no king but Yahweh."

If we look at the Old Testament, the early form of government took the form of "judges" who provided a degree of judicial and legislative control over the tribes of Israel, and also provided military leadership in battles against invading peoples. In that respect, the society is very like that of the druids in Gaul, who appear (from Caesar's accounts) to have exercised a very similar role. Of course, the Jewish model also had the Judges upholding monotheism against the polytheistic nations, although it appears this was not so widespread among the Jewish peoples themselves.

The crisis appears to have come with the last great prophet, Samuel, whose sons would have inherited his role. The text indicates that his sons were corrupt: "they did not follow their father's example; they were interested only in making money, so they accepted bribes and did not decide cases honestly. "

The Israelites decided to abandon the oversight of the Judges, and requested from Samuel a King, following the practices of surrounding countries, and thinking that would be a better model of government for them:

The Hebrews, however, began to desire more permanent solutions to their political and military troubles. Looking to the Egyptian and Mesopotamian models of monarchy, particularly among their neighbors the Canaanites, Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites, the Hebrew tribes began agitating for a king. As recounted in the I Samuel and II Samuel, the Hebrews approached Samuel, the "judge" of Israel, and demanded a king. (1)

The text makes it clear that Samuel was not pleased, and puts the request as a mistake, part of many

Samuel was displeased with their request for a king; so he prayed to the LORD, and the LORD said, "Listen to everything the people say to you. You are not the one they have rejected; I am the one they have rejected as their king. Ever since I brought them out of Egypt, they have turned away from me and worshiped other gods; and now they are doing to you what they have always done to me. So then, listen to them, but give them strict warnings and explain how their kings will treat them." (1 Samuel 8:6-8)

The narrative then has Samuel telling the people what having a King will mean to them, how a more rigid form of central government, with tighter control will effect them. This text may be reflecting what happened in other neighbouring states, but it may have also been coloured retrospectively by the experience of rule by Kingship, especially the rule of Solomon, who was from the Southern tribe of Judah, and notably discriminated against the Northern tribes:

Samuel told the people who were asking him for a king everything that the LORD had said to him. "This is how your king will treat you," Samuel explained. "He will make soldiers of your sons; some of them will serve in his war chariots, others in his cavalry, and others will run before his chariots. He will make some of them officers in charge of a thousand men, and others in charge of fifty men. Your sons will have to plow his fields, harvest his crops, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. Your daughters will have to make perfumes for him and work as his cooks and his bakers. He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his officials. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your grapes for his court officers and other officials. He will take your servants and your best cattle and donkeys, and make them work for him. He will take a tenth of your flocks. And you yourselves will become his slaves. When that time comes, you will complain bitterly because of your king, whom you yourselves chose, but the LORD will not listen to your complaints." The people paid no attention to Samuel, but said, "No! We want a king, so that we will be like other nations, with our own king to rule us and to lead us out to war and to fight our battles." Samuel listened to everything they said and then went and told it to the LORD. The LORD answered, "Do what they want and give them a king." Then Samuel told all the men of Israel to go back home. (1 Samuel 8:9-22)

And the effect of the Kingship of Solomon was to lead to a revolt. While there is evidence of propaganda in the text - the so-called "wisdom of Solomon", this is underscored by a very different and more critical narrative in which he is a tyrant:

The most far-reaching, however, of the innovations of the monarchy was the centralization of government in Jerusalem, which had been unimportant up until that point. Under Solomon, Jerusalem would become the cultic center of the Yahweh religion; sacrifice to Yahweh would now only be possible in Jerusalem's temple and no-where else.

What emerges from the portrait of Solomon is that he desired to be a king along the model of Mesopotamian kings. He built a fabulously wealthy capital in Jerusalem with a magnificent palace and an enormous temple attached to that palace (this would become the temple of Jerusalem). He took 700 wives and over 300 concubines, most of whom were non-Hebrew... All of this building and wealth involved imported products: gold, copper, and cedar, which were unavailable in Israel. So Solomon taxed his people heavily, and what he couldn't pay for in taxes, he paid for in land and people. He gave twenty towns to foreign powers, and he paid Phoenicia in slave labor: every three months, 30,000 Hebrews had to perform slave labor for the King of Tyre. This, it would seem, is what Samuel meant when he said the people would pay dearly for having a king. (1)

After the time of Solomon, the 11 Northern tribes rebelled and set up their own Kingdom in the North. So monarchy is seem in a very critical light in the narratives, something which was much worse than the looser structure which existed before. The prophets appear on the scene, and they "speak truth to power", continually criticising the rule of kingship, and its corruption.

These warnings are extremely forceful, as for example we see in the prophet Amos. They are condemnations of the ills in society, and they come with a warning - change, or be destroyed.

The LORD says, "The people of Israel have sinned again and again, and for this I will certainly punish them. They sell into slavery honest people who cannot pay their debts, the poor who cannot repay even the price of a pair of sandals. They trample down the weak and helpless and push the poor out of the way. A man and his father have intercourse with the same slave woman, and so profane my holy name. At every place of worship people sleep on clothing that they have taken from the poor as security for debts. In the temple of their God they drink wine which they have taken from those who owe them money. (Amos 2:6-8)

The Sovereign LORD says, "People of Israel, go to the holy place in Bethel and sin, if you must! Go to Gilgal and sin with all your might! Go ahead and bring animals to be sacrificed morning after morning, and bring your tithes every third day. Go on and offer your bread in thanksgiving to God, and brag about the extra offerings you bring! This is the kind of thing you love to do. (Amos 4:4-5)

You say to yourselves, "We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers. We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We'll find someone poor who can't pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we'll buy him as a slave." (Amos 8:5-6)

We see here also respecting holy days, because holy days, let us not forget became holidays because they gave the ordinary people time off, not the people making the money, but the workers. Of course nowadays, holidays are not bound up with religious practice, but it is still worth asking the question, for instance, about shops not opening on Christmas day - one day of 365 - who does it benefit. The workers, or those who can "hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain"?

And the prophet Hosea compares Israel with a harlot, strong words indeed:

The LORD has an accusation to bring against the people who live in this land. Listen, Israel, to what he says: "There is no faithfulness or love in the land, and the people do not acknowledge me as God. They make promises and break them; they lie, murder, steal, and commit adultery. Crimes increase, and there is one murder after another. And so the land will dry up, and everything that lives on it will die. All the animals and birds, and even the fish, will die." The LORD says, "Let no one accuse the people or reprimand them---my complaint is against you priests. Night and day you blunder on, and the prophets do no better than you. I am going to destroy Israel, your mother. (Hosea 4:1-5)

But let's be clear. The prophets are not calling for no government, or a different kind of government like a democracy. They are calling for a government to govern properly, and that means in a sense turning back to the past, or at any rate, an imagined past, in which the dominant narrative is the escape from Egypt. From that story stems much - respect for the stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt, freedom for slaves after seven years, because you were slaves in Egypt. Don't take everything, leave something - the gleanings at the edge of the field - for the poor, the widow, the orphan.

A proper government, for the prophets, also means a government turning back to God. It is not and cannot be a purely political agenda for them. The worship of God is bound up with ethical commandments; the two, for the prophets, are indissoluble. If you just have the empty form of sacrifices and prayer, but that is somehow kept apart in a private space, and does not effect how you behave, then it is just so much mummery, and it makes matters worse because it suggests everything is all right, when it manifestly is not.

Jerusalem, your rulers and your people are like those of Sodom and Gomorrah. Listen to what the LORD is saying to you. Pay attention to what our God is teaching you. He says, "Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me? I have had more than enough of the sheep you burn as sacrifices and of the fat of your fine animals. I am tired of the blood of bulls and sheep and goats. (Isaiah 1:10-11)

"When you lift your hands in prayer, I will not look at you. No matter how much you pray, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with blood. Wash yourselves clean. Stop all this evil that I see you doing. Yes, stop doing evil and learn to do right. See that justice is done---help those who are oppressed, give orphans their rights, and defend widows." The LORD says, "Now, let's settle the matter. You are stained red with sin, but I will wash you as clean as snow. Although your stains are deep red, you will be as white as wool. If you will only obey me, you will eat the good things the land produces. But if you defy me, you are doomed to die. I, the LORD, have spoken." (Isaiah 1:15-20)

Jerusalem, you were once like silver, but now you are worthless; you were like good wine, but now you are only water. Your leaders are rebels and friends of thieves; they are always accepting gifts and bribes. They never defend orphans in court or listen when widows present their case. (Isaiah 1:22-23)

This is the opposite of the trend of the enlightenment, which was the banish religion to private places, so that religion must be kept out of politics at all costs. That has its merits - the abuse of theocratic government makes it clear why playing the God card in government is a bad thing. We have only to look at history to see oppressive theocratic rule, or even today, how it can be used to justify (for instance) the Taliban, as ruling in God's way.

But the prophetic approach was not like that. The prophets stood apart from government. They didn't clamour to be part of it, but rather they were its "critical friends", pointing out abuses, corruption, etc. They didn't aim to reform, they called others to do that, those who could do so..
Some of that was certainly not against the laws, because the rulers could change laws to suit themselves, but there was a conflict between the ethical and the legal, and the prophets directed the vision of the people towards the roots of the law in the justice and mercy of God.

And part of that root is the rejection of kingship by Gideon: You have no king but Yahweh." All government is seen by the prophets as under the dominion of God, and ultimately having to be answerable to him, not in the sense of theocratic rule (because the prophets criticised the priests as much as the king), but in answering the call of God's justice.

That also explains why so much is bound up with following the gods of other lands, because of course, worship those gods did not make the same demands; on the contrary, that often condoned the status quo and confirmed it. It was an early spiritual marketplace, seeking to shop where there would be no direct challenges to the way people lived their lives, when there manifestly was something rotten at the core of their society.

When you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; I will not accept the animals you have fattened to bring me as offerings. Stop your noisy songs; I do not want to listen to your harps. Instead, let justice flow like a stream, and righteousness like a river that never goes dry. "People of Israel, I did not demand sacrifices and offerings during those forty years that I led you through the desert. But now, because you have worshiped images of Sakkuth, your king god, and of Kaiwan, your star god, you will have to carry those images when I take you into exile in a land beyond Damascus," says the LORD, whose name is Almighty God. (Amos 5:22-27)

It is interesting to see that what concerned the prophets - and I'll return to that in a later look at the New Testament - was not the form that a government took, how it was elected by popular mandate, but how it conducted itself in power, and in particular how far it "let justice flow like a stream", and how far it did not. I'm not saying that voting is a bad thing, as it helps to hold governments accountable, but it is not the whole picture. How governments behave when elected, and how much they ignore the marginal peoples of a society is just as important, and any government will be a compromise of many different lobby groups, and also the need to face external circumstances, the effect and relations with the world outside, other governments etc.

In this medley of voices, it is the prophet's task not to gain power and become part of the government, but to stand aside, and remind government of its obligations to the lesser members of society when they are in danger of forgetting, and give them a voice.


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