Samuel in the Face of Saul: The Hebrew Bible Paradigm for Politics

John C. Rankin (2007)

How do we, who claim biblical fidelity as Jews or Christians, best and most faithfully interpret the Bible as to its political implications today? Writing as a Christian, I include Jews naturally, in honoring the rootedness of my faith in “our father Abraham” – at the merge and overlap of physical and spiritual lineages. Namely, the only theoretical difference between a biblically committed Jew and a biblically committed Christian is the question of the Messiah’s identity. Apart from that, it should be the same biblical ethics we both claim.

So, for example, there is a tradition within the Christian church of citing the Hebrew prophets when it comes to a just social order. A well known example is the quoting of the prophet Amos: “But let justice roll like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream” (5:24). Amen. This is a beautiful and powerful metaphor, magnified in the parallelistic structure of the Hebrew sentence, and it easily captures the imagination of heart and mind.

There are those who see human government as the necessary remedy to the lack of justice and righteousness. It is assumed that human government should deliver justice through some form of fiat, top-down authority, the passing of laws, and imposition of greater taxes on the prosperous, and thus, the channeling of those taxes for the sake of the needy.

But is this the nature of the biblical text? The prophet Amos is exhorting ancient Israel in the mid-eighth century B.C. for disobeying the Law of Moses, for the trampling of the poor and needy. Amos promises exile and judgment for an unrepentant nation.

What is the Law of Moses? And how does it address the basis for justice and righteousness in the social order? What is the proper form of government ordained by Yahweh for the exodus community coming out of slavery in Egypt? Here is a brief summation.

  1. In the biblical order of creation, a covenant of freedom is given to Adam and Eve – the freedom to choose between good and evil, between life and death, between freedom and slavery, and thus, to reap the fruit of such choices made. True freedom is the power to do the good.
  1. In the brokenness of this covenant that follows, the Messianic purpose is to restore such freedom through the power of “redemption,” a word that means to “buy back out of slavery.”
  1. The central reality of Hebrew identity is the exodus from slavery in Egypt through the ministry and Law of Moses. So, for example, in the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, it begins with the words: “I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” It begins with redemption, with freedom and serves the means to protect freedom.
  1. The Ten Commandments that follow prove to be the summation of a just and righteous and social order. The Law is meant to be chosen, not imposed, as Moses and Joshua both make clear (e.g. Joshua 24:14ff where the de facto reality of the “consent of the governed” is first defined in the history of national laws).
  1. After Moses, leadership of the covenant nation is given to “judges” or “leaders,” starting with Joshua, ordained by Yahweh as King to govern the 12 federated tribes of Israel according to the Law of Moses.
  1. But by the time of the last judge, Samuel, the nation craves a pagan styled king, and Samuel warns them of the dire consequences – a top-down government that enslaves and imposes unilateral taxes to pay for the god-state.
  1. In the era of the judges, Israel has no national capital, no national shrine (the Ark of the Covenant was not fixed geographically), no national taxes and no standing army. The 12 tribes are united by the Law of Moses under King Yahweh, and they give collectively to support the Levites and priests in their religious duties.
  1. Checks and balances among the tribes define the political economy, and as highlighted in the Jubilee economic ethics of Leviticus 25 and 27 and its provisions to minister to the poor.
  1. Thus, for justice and righteousness to flow like a river, the means is not a centralized national government with top-down fiat powers, but it is through the checks and balances on power under the Law of Moses through the local tribes.
  1. The contrast is then between Samuel and Saul. After Saul’s disobedience and descent into the resort to witchcraft to hold onto political power, David is raised up as a king who submits to the true King Yahweh. And through David’s faithfulness, and in spite of his sins for which he repents, we come to understand the claim of Jesus to be the Son of David who, as Messiah and Redeemer, is the true King as the incarnate Yahweh.
  1. The ethics of the founding of the United States follow the model of the judges in the Law of Moses quite remarkably – 13 colonies federating into one national union, under the rubric of unalienable rights given by the one true Creator, where checks and balances on power – through the consent of the governed – keeps us free from concentrated top-down, ego-centric, pagan styled political power.

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