by Jay Johansen | Aug 22, 2022
What sort of government does God want people to have?
Is that even a valid question? Does God care? I often hear people say, "God is not a Republican" or "God is not a Democrat". I certainly don't suppose that God is beholden to any political party. But that doesn't mean that God doesn't have an opinion on the subject. Someone once asked Abraham Lincoln if he thought that God was on the side of the Republican Party. Lincoln replied, "My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right."
In fact, God did establish a government at least once: he created the government that ruled Israel beginning with the time of Moses.
Jews and Christians call that time the "period of the judges". This lasted from about 1400 BC to 1050 BC. Christian scholars and preachers often refer to it as the "dark ages of Israelite history, when there was no central government". (See, for example, Judges: The Dark Ages of Israel, Israel's Dark Ages (Judges), and many others.)
In the book of Judges in the Bible we are told, "In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did as was right in his own eyes." Judges 17:6 and again in 21:25. Commentators routinely interpret this as meaning that the people didn't want to follow any moral laws, everyone insisted on the right to engage in any sort of immorality he pleased. They point to the cycle found in the book of Judges: the people would fall into sin, this would lead to disaster, God would send a leader (traditionally translated "judge" in English) who would save the nation from disaster and get them back on track, the people would return to God ... and then the leader would die or retire and the people would fall back into sin and start the cycle over again.
Until, finally, in 1050 BC the people selected a king to rule over them, King Saul. And then the nation was reformed and remained true to God forever. Wait, no, that's not what happened. The nation got a king, and things got much, much worse. The nation was soon torn in half by a civil war. The northern half, which kept the name Israel, never had a good king, according to the Biblical account. Never. Not one. The southern kingdom, Judah, went through a litany of good and bad kings. They had 19 kings, of whom 8 were basically good and 11 were mostly or entirely bad.
Indeed, when the people decided they wanted a king (we'll get back to why in a moment), God was against it. God spoke to the prophet Samuel:
And the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day — with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods — so they are doing to you also. Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.”
And what exactly did God warn them a king would be like?
This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day.”
He warned that the king would take the best of their land and other property for himself and his friends. The king would impose taxes to support himself in grand style while the people live in poverty. And the king would force them to work for him, to work on his plantations or serve in his army. The people would be reduced to being his servants. Wow, sound familiar?
So let's take a step back. Just what sort of government did Israel have under the judges?
There was no permanent central government.
The priestly tribe performed some welfare functions. They collected money and goods and used them to help the poor.
They had a set of laws that were given to them by God through Moses on Mount Sinai. Or if you doubt the Biblical account, at least the people believed these laws were given to them by God. You probably have at least heard of the Ten Commandments. But that was just the summary, there were many more detailed laws. The laws covered things we think of intuitively as crimes: Murder, stealing, kidnapping, rape, etc. It also covered things like building safety, liability for accidental injury and other more "economic" things.
Laws were mostly enforced by vigilante justice. If someone murdered or stole or whatever, the community would rise up and punish him. There was a provision that if you believed you were being unjustly persecuted, you could flee to one of certain designated "Cities of Refuge" run by the priests. There the priests would give you a trial. If you were found innocent, you could remain in the City of Refuge and be protected.
It is, perhaps, an interesting side note that penalties for crime did not include imprisonment. For murder, the penalty was death. For violent crimes, there was corporal punishment. For property crimes, like stealing, the penalty was restitution: you had to pay back several times the value of what you stole or otherwise misappropriated.
When there was a crisis, they would seek out a charismatic leader. These leaders were neither hereditary like a king, nor elected. They just came forward and announced that they had a plan, and people who wanted to follow them would follow them and those who didn't want to follow them didn't. The crises discussed in detail in the Bible are all wars or political oppression. There's no discussion of a leader coming to the fore to deal with economic problems or crime or whatever. But then maybe that's just because stories about wars are more dramatic. It mentions a number of leaders with no detail about what they did, just this leader came forward, led the country for so many years, and then he died. Maybe those leaders dealt with more "mundane" problems.
In other words, they had a cross between a theocracy and libertarianism. "Every man did as was right in his own eyes." People made decisions for themselves. They were not controlled by the government. They had a set of basic laws believed to have been given them by God, so it was at least generally respected and there was no need for amendment. The priests provided some welfare and judicial functions.
So why did the people want a king? See 1 Samuel 8:19-20. "No, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles." That is, they had two reasons: 1. They wanted to be like all the other nations that had a king. And 2. They wanted a king to fight their battles for them.
The "we want to be like all the other nations" reason sounds silly to me, but political activists today often use the same argument. "We should do X because all the other major nations do X." Personally I've always thought this a weak argument. If every other nation was a fascist dictatorship, would that be good reason for us to become a fascist dictatorship? But apparently peer pressure works just as well among nations as it does among teenagers, so this is a very common argument. "All the other kids have government-run health care, so we should have government-run health care." "All the other kids have gun control, so we should have gun control." Etc.
The part about fighting wars makes at least some sense. Without a central government, Israel had no standing army. Relying on a leader to rise up was all well and good, but it often took years for someone to come to the fore. Even if someone stood up promptly, raising and equipping an army takes time. In the meantime invading armies just walked in and took what they wanted. There was no government to raise taxes to maintain a stock of weapons, so the soldiers had to supply their own weapons. Of course invading armies didn't just stand by and do nothing while they made weapons. At one point there's a discussion of how the conquerers forbade the people from owning weapons, so that when they finally rose up to fight only two people in the entire Israeli army had swords -- the rest went into battle with farm tools or whatever makeshift weapons they could find. There was no government to draft people into the army or even operate recruiting centers, so they routinely found that most of the country contributed nothing to a military effort. One small group did all the work and took all the risks.
If there's one thing that governments have demonstrated they can do well, it's fight wars. So Israel wanted a king to maintain an army to protect them from invaders. And by the way, note how they word it. They wanted a king to "fight out battles". Not even "to lead us in battle". It's like they thought a king would fight off the nation's enemies all by himself. But again, this sort of thinking is common in political debate. "We want the government to pay off our student loans for us." Where will the government get the money? Where could it possibly get the money except from taxes. But people will talk as if "the president" will do some great job all by himself, like he'll do all the work himself and pay for it out of his own pocket.
If the time of the judges was the dark ages of Israelite history and getting a king was the solution, why was God against the nation having a king? Did God want to keep the people in a dark age?
I don't think this was Israel's "dark age" at all. It was the high point of Israeli history. "There was no king in Israel, but every man did what was right in his own eyes." Is that a description of rebellious people who refuse to follow any moral or ethical standard? Or is that a description of free people who are not controlled by a tyrant? Either or both could be true. Both could be true at the same time: when people are free, some could use that freedom to try and build a society of peace and prosperity, while others use it to enable them to cheat and exploit their fellow human beings.
© 2022 by Jay Johansen
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