Mar 15, 2009

Limited Government, part 3: The Old Testament view

Up until now, I have been primarily dependent upon a particular interpretation of the New Testament and Christian theological resources. The reason for this is because I believe the strongest and most explicit religious case AGAINST any brand of socialism or form of strong interventionist federal government or executive branch rest in a majority of the Old Testament texts.
The Law
One of the most spiritually edifying and enjoyable courses I have taken at Brite Divinity School was The Jewish and Black Interpretation of Exodus. It was both a biblical studies and social ethics course co-taught by two of my favorite professors. For one of our assignments, we had to discuss the moral implications of the Exodus. My interpretation was actually pretty anti-imperial, if not in fact post-colonial in my comparison of Moses and Pharaoh. I contended that just as Pharaoh the oppressor, declared himself a god, so did Jesus himself warn us that not everyone who comes in the name of the LORD does not come from him (Matthew 24). I included with Pharaoh and the false prophets who claimed to be from God the European colonizers who arrived in Africa to redeem the pagans from the idolatry. The story of Moses (at one point an Egyptian prince) and the story of Pharaoh has political implications. The Exodus narrative can be seen as one where a man who fully relies on the power of the Almighty alone overcomes a false man-god who has the most complex scheme of tyranny to date.
Right before the judge Samuel dismissed the people from Saul’s ordination as king, he read them the regulations regarding (read: warnings against) the kingship. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 tells the Israelites not to go back to the ways of Egypt, the days where they were under the oppressive reign of Pharaoh. Constantly throughout the Law, they are warned against wanting to be like the other nations, who have monarchs who claim to be divine. The king of Israel is actually supposed to be submissive the authority of divine law; for a similar idea, the president of the United States of America are not above the U.S. Constitution. Long ago, God had approved of the rule of law, which had a judicial system, a select few representatives of the people (priests, in this case, for God) and a very limited executive. There are very close parallels in OT vision of public policy and the ideals of America’s founders, but not exact.
A short word on my interpretation of the book of Judges. The phrase, “and in those days, there was not a king" appears several times. I do not interpret that as a cry for a Davidic king, but rather, King YHWH Godself. It makes sense in light of the anti-kingship parable given in Judges 9 and the fall of Gideon’s son, Abimelech, whose name means, my father is king (a play on words). Gideon became arrogant, and his character was passed on to his son, who became even more boisterous and died and tragic death.
The Writings
On the surface, the days of King Solomon are filled with glory and joy and peace and prosperity. OT scholar Walter Brueggeman would offer a different suggestion. The question we should be asking is exactly, “who is doing the prospering?” and “at whose expense?” Maybe because we are so caught up in the glory of empire and the past histories of such royalty such as Queen Elizabeth and King Louis XVI that we both not try to understand the more ambivalent stance that the Bible’s historians take towards Solomon’s kingship. 1st Kings 4:20-28 describes how Solomon broke the law and had manual labor and gathered up war chariots for himself, and levied heavy taxes on the people, all contrary to the law! But yet, the text says, from East to West, each person lived safely under her/his own vine and fig tree. At this point, it is crucial to note Brueggeman’s contention about this passage, and later, how the prophets use the vine/fig tree blessing tradition: “[We] cannot know if 1st Kings 4:20-28 is a serious statement of state policy or if it is heavy handed propaganda, or if it is a subtle, critical irony. What is clear is that by such shrewd manipulation, the propaganda of the state promises the very thing it cannot give because it is in principle opposed to it. And the remainder of the Solomonic narrative makes the point: it cannot secure personal vines and fig trees for its citizenry because it is fundamentally devoted to rapacious use of those very products” (Brueggemann and Miller 1994) . In other words, the text given to us in 1st Kings 4 does not give us the whole story; we need knowledge of the Torah, specifically the warnings against Ancient Near Eastern Empire building in Deuteronomy and Judges, in order to comprehend the implication of Solomon’s actions as well as God’s rebuke of him in 1st Kings 11.
The Prophets
The formula of “every person under her/his own vine and under his/her own fig tree” appears also in Isaiah 36:16, Micah 4:4, and Zechariah 3:10. The first of these instances, in Isaiah, it is used as the rhetoric of Sennecharib, the emperor of Assyria. He tells the Israelites and Judeans to not listen to King Hezekiah, therefore, not the prophecies of Isaiah via YHWH. Sennecharib is promising a false peace where the God of Israel is placed at the margins of their life; this is a bogus promise that no true Torah-believing Judean or Israelite could take seriously. Zechariah 3:10 offers a messianic vision of the world where a priestly savior-figure takes away all of the guilt of Israel from the world and leads them into a land where each person not only has their own vine and fig tree, but that they also invite their neighbors to join them. It is a vision of justice and hospitality that excludes any notion of a monarch. Micah promises that no one will have any fear under their vine and fig tree. The messages of Zechariah, Micah, Isaiah, and the Chronicler (especially 1st Samuel 10:17-19), when read together, provide us with a vision of God’s dominion, which looks nothing like the statist policies of social democracies, communist or fascist regimes for that matter. The norms of God’s dominion are self-government, hospitality, justice, and peaceableness where expansion of the LORD’s empire results in an endless peace, with justice and righteousness at its very foundation (Isaiah 9:7)

Works Cited
Brueggemann, Walter and Patrick D. Miller. 1994. A social reading of the old testament : Prophetic approaches to israel's communal life. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

No comments: