Chapter 7: Nation, Society, and Politics
The Israelites thought of themselves as a nation centered about a fusion of the ideas of their common ancestry and of the covenant with their God. Neither of these is as simple as it might appear. According to the tradition, God had called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldees, had led him to Palestine, and there had promised him a numerous offspring who should become a mighty nation and possess the land in which he was then a foreigner. The promise was renewed on various occasions, notably in the great experience at Sinai, and its character as a covenant with dual responsibilities became clear. In simplest terms, Israel was to be the people of Yahweh, and he was to be their God. Their allegiance implied rejection of all other gods and service of him alone in ritual and in national and social obedience. On the other hand, he, as their God, was responsible to fulfil the promise to give them the land, to make them a great people, and to bestow upon them material bounty, physical well being, and spiritual content.
But difficulty arises when one seeks to trace these ideas back into the nation’s early history. Once more exploring the evidence of the old sources in the Book of Judges, to our astonishment we find neither of these supposedly basic notions of Israel’s common life. Unquestionably there was some unifying bond among the clans and tribes of that time; equally it had resemblances to both these ideas; yet it was far short of either. Israel’s sense of a common interest by which various groups united in face of danger was evidently a conviction of essential unity such as would imply, especially for that time and region, a common ancestry. But nowhere is it mentioned, even in vague terms. It may be that the omission is due to circumstances which rob it of significance, yet the fact that the older sources in Samuel manifest the same oversight and that one goes on as far as the prophetic histories and then to the writing prophets for indubitable evidence of belief in a common ancestry strengthens the suspicion that things were not what later writers would have us believe. Further, although the names “Israel” and “Jacob” are familiar designations for the nation and descent from Jacob is spoken of, mention of Abraham outside the Pentateuch is astonishingly rare until a quite late time. Since the old narrative documents incorporated in the Pentateuch, commonly designated J and E, according to orthodox criticism were already in existence before the age of the prophets, it is strange that these writers should pass over the impressive account of Abraham’s call and the promise to him. References to the nation’s history commonly reach back to the oppression in Egypt and the Exodus, in some cases to the career of Jacob; but back of that all is blank. The meaning of this situation is difficult to appraise. One solution might be that the J-E stories of Abraham represent a little-known tradition which only through the growing prestige of the proto-Pentateuch won general acceptance about the time of the Exile, but familiarity with the story of Jacob was somewhat old.
However this may be, it is apparent that descent from Jacob could have been just as satisfactory as a basis of national coherence as an Abrahamic theory. Even accepting this presumably lesser view, complications are not yet at an end; for it was freely recognized by Hebrew writers that this theory was threadbare; we are told in no uncertain terms that the nation was not of common ancestry. A great mixed multitude went with the Hebrews out of Egypt and clearly amalgamated with them. In the conquest large numbers of Canaanites were not exterminated — not even conquered; but the Canaanites dwelt with the various tribes to the day of the historian (Judg. 1:21 ff.). Eventually Solomon enslaved the last of them, but in the meantime the result of their living side by side was frequent intermarriage, as the laws make clear. Yet such mixing of the blood of Israel was not in defiance of public conscience; it was condoned and legalized. The story of Ruth the Moabitess is symbolic of a free intercourse which the ancient writer finds no basis for criticizing. The prohibition of admission of Ammonites and Moabites into the assembly of the Lord unto the tenth generation (Dent. 23:3) carries clear implication that they were acceptable after this long probation and that others came in more freely, as indeed is stated of Egyptians and Edomites in the sequel to this passage (vs. 8). Even the relatively late Priestly document provided that the sojourner who consented to be circumcised would be permitted to eat the Passover and would be accepted as of the status of the native-born. The doors were thus thrown wide open to proselytizing, and its prevalence in the centuries about the beginning of the Christian Era is well known.
The implication is apparent. The Israelites recognized, just as modern historians also, that as a nation they were highly composite; lineal descent from Abraham or from Jacob was a pleasant fiction to which some central reality was attached, but it was in no sense the test of membership in the commonwealth of Israel. This depended rather on personal faith and conduct. The foreigner who submitted to circumcision and who manifested loyalty to Israel’s faith and institutions became a good Israelite; to employ a famous phrase of a later writer, he was grafted into the stock of Abraham. Paul was once again expounding the best thought of his people when he distinguished between Israel after the flesh and after the spirit. In final essence, membership in the nation Israel was a spiritual matter; it was a question of loyalty. A phrase in the Song of Deborah expresses the final essence of Israelite nationality: Israel was “the people of Yahweh.”
The problem of the covenant is similar. It became so popular in later literature of the Old Testament that even critical scholars indorse the delusion that Israel from the first shaped its thought on the basis of a covenant with Yahweh. Yet the fact is that the idea is absent from early sources. The Song of Deborah speaks, at the most, in the phrase just now quoted, of “the people of Yahweh” (Judg. 5:11). The word brith (“covenant”) occurs, it is true, in an unquestionably early source in the Book of Judges; but it is in the name, or title, of the Shechemite god, Baal Berith (Judg. 8:33; 9:4). Still this may not be invoked as collateral support of the idea of Israel’s religious covenant, for the title may mean no more than that this god was patron and guardian of agreements. More to the point is the occurrence of the word in connection with Israel’s sacred ark in the account of the capture of this by the Philistines (I Sam. 4:3-5) and of its transfer to Jerusalem in David’s reign (II Sam. 6:17). It is, however, meager and questionable evidence for the theological idea commonly postulated. Specific mention of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh occurs first in the Book of Hosea, two of which allusions are evidently genuine (Hos. 6:7; 8:1). The idea is absent from Isaiah and Micah but is referred to a number of times in the utterances of Jeremiah; then, as is well known, it becomes one of the great emphases of Deuteronomy. When we recall that Hosea lived not long after the ascribed dates of composition of the J and E documents, the situation becomes relatively clear. The notion of a covenant between God and Israel was introduced by these ”prophetic histories”; it was indorsed by Hosea, adopted by Jeremiah, and in Deuteronomy became an essential element of Israel’s theology.
But the objection obtrudes itself that specific mention is not the whole story, for the covenant is implicit in much of the early thought: in the rallying of the tribes in Yahweh’s name in the time of the Judges, in their consciousness as “the people of Yahweh,” and much else of the sort. To this one can but give hearty assent. Certainly the J and E writers and their successors who made so much of the idea did not create it out of pure imagination. The concept was implicit from a very early period. But such implication sets the whole notion on a very different basis from that usually ascribed. For it destroys the uniqueness of Israel’s claim and makes the notion of divine covenant a normal feature of contemporary religious thought. The relation of Yahweh to the scattered tribes of the Judges’ time was, so far as we can see, purely that of the national god. There is no reason to postulate any essential difference at this time between the attitude of Israel to her God and that of Moab or Ammon or Edom or any other nation to Chemosh, Milcom, or whatever other appropriate deity. The idea of a national god carried in it the concept of a covenant between the god and his people. It was Israel’s uniqueness to develop this into the notable form and religious worth of her doctrine of the divine covenant. This became in turn a very powerful motivation; nonetheless, the covenant was secondary in Israel’s religious and ethical evolution.
Somewhere along this line of development of the pagan national-god idea into the ethical doctrine of the covenant there entered the concept of the divine choice of Israel that was destined to become the distinctive feature of the nation’s thought of itself. Again we are to see it as implicit ever since the origin of the simplest forms of the belief in a national god; but, like the covenant idea itself, it attained an exaltation such as to make of it a new thing. The simplest statement, and perhaps the original, of the doctrine is the story of the divine call of Abraham (Genesis, chap. 12); but altogether its greatest formulation is in the Book of Deuteronomy, where it is presented as an act of God’s free grace. Because of his love for Israel he chose them when they were few and were the smallest nation of the earth — they possessed no merit, they had no claim upon God: of his free will he bestowed upon them his love and chose them as his own people (Dent. 7:6-8). It must be recognized that in this, not less than in the concept of the covenant, there was profound ethical content which religious leaders were not slow to apply for the vitalizing of the religion of nation and individual, several of them commenting on the astonishing fact that Israel was a peculiar treasure of God.
Here was the essence and being of Israel’s sense of uniqueness. Her God had chosen her out of all the nations of the world and had entered into an intimate relation with her, such as no other people enjoyed. It was the reality of the historic faith, as distinct from a nature-faith, of which we have spoken. Such consciousness of peculiarity pervades the Old Testament. One cannot but be impressed with its clear expression in a document so relatively early as one of the Balaam oracles: “Lo it is a people that dwelleth alone and is not reckoned among the nations” (Num. 23:9). It voices precisely that sense of difference in which anti-Semitism through its whole long course has found its real origin and provocation and which to this day continues, among the ignorant or bigoted, to make the Jewish people an object of suspicion and persecution.
But all nations to some extent consider themselves unique. Some of the most notable expressions of this in all history have been manifest in the tragic events of recent times. But, too, these exaggerations have sufficed to reveal similar arrogance in our own thought. Israel’s faith in herself was basically but a manifestation of this universal human trait. She, too, believed in a unique character and a glorious destiny; she clung to hopes of world leadership, if not actually political or military domination. Yet we understand the Hebrew doctrine of “the peculiar people” in terms not of its identity but of its distinctive feature, and this is not far to seek. The vital root, as well as the essence of the Hebrew sense of difference, was the uniqueness of Israel’s God. One of the poets well expressed this, remarking of the hostile gentile nations: “For their rock is not as our rock, even our enemies themselves being judges” (Deut. 32:31). It was a profound insight. Whatever hypercriticism may say of the arrogance of the dogma of the divine choice and the peculiar people, it cannot be denied that at this point we touch solid reality. Israel’s God was vastly different from the deities of all other nations, and Israel was, as a fact of history, the people of God. It was Israel’s proper realization of this superiority and of her own uniqueness in her faith and worship of this God that constituted her separateness. No other course was possible but that Israel should “come out from among” the nations and be separate unless she would be recreant to her spiritual heritage and apostate from her best self.
Nevertheless, in spite of the interpretations offered by liberal thought, ancient or modern, the doctrine of divine choice did in actuality work out as a prolific source of national arrogance. How could it have done otherwise, the Hebrews being of a human fallibility such as our own? Yet there were not lacking thinkers who pointed out the more profound meaning of their special relationship as a special responsibility. A writer in the Book of Amos has the Lord warn Israel:
You only have I known
of all the clans of the earth;
therefore will I visit upon you
all your iniquities (Amos 3:2).
The meaning of the divine choice of Israel as better minds came to understand it was revealed in the call of Isaiah. In his great initial experience as a prophet he heard the voice of the Lord, not in a personal call to himself, but in a general appeal: “Whom shall send and who will go for us?” And Isaiah’s call lay in the fact that, having heard, he responded: “Here am I; send me.” The Lord’s work waited to be done; who was able and willing to undertake it? That was the essence of Isaiah’s call — and of the call of Israel as well. The divine election was not for privilege or arrogant separateness, but to service. The Lord’s work waited to be done!
The greatness of the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah in this regard is so well known that exposition is unnecessary. Israel’s divinely appointed destiny was that she should be “a light to the Gentiles.” The same thought is vividly enforced in the story of the recalcitrant prophet Jonah. And numerous other passages cherish this vision of Israel’s high call and responsibility. In her knowledge of God she had a treasure of such serene exaltation that she might not, at peril of her soul, retain it as hers alone. The greatness of her experience compelled that Israel share her best with all.
The place of foreign nations in Hebrew thought is the counterpart of the doctrine of the peculiar people. The bitter hatreds, the imprecations, the ruthless slaughters that are recorded in many a page of the Old Testament, call for no recapitulation but only understanding of the brutal world of which Israel was a part. Even the Psalter, the voice as it is of Israel’s deepest spiritual experiences and aspirations, has many a passage less in intensity but of similar mood to the terrible curse:
O daughter of Babylon who art to be
happy shall he be that taketh and
thy little ones against the rock (Ps.137:8, 9).
Yet better things are apparent even from the days of the conquest, when Joshua spared the Gibeonites. The kings readily and frequently entered into friendly relations with neighbor nations. However, the function which religion strangely has very often served of creating divisions and animosities was manifest as early as the time of Elijah, when the prophets denounced and threatened Ahab for leniency toward the defeated Ben-Hadad. But our interest is in the attitudes of the religious group after doctrines of the covenant, the divine election, and the peculiar people had taken firm hold of their thought.
The separatism induced by the religion of even some of the best thinkers in the time of the kingdoms is apparent in the attitude of Isaiah, for example, who definitely feared contamination of the religion of Yahweh by close relations with foreign nations. The high emphasis given this warning by the Deuteronomic school is familiar to every student of the Old Testament. Still, a more liberal mood existed even in that time, as evidenced by Amos’ famous pronouncement as to the equality of Philistines and Syrians with the Hebrews in the sight of God (Amos 9:7).
Both these attitudes found yet more pronounced expression in the later time. The separation of Judah was a prime policy of Nehemiah and Ezra and became an aspect of the thought of the following centuries. Yet a full understanding of the situation qualifies in a marked degree the obloquy which the modern temper has been prone to offer all these. Certainly Nehemiah and Ezra, and presumably the leaders of the ritual movement likewise, took their course through an apprehension as well based as that which had functioned in the days of the prophets. The paganism of the Jewish group at Elephantine, a fair index as it probably is of the religion of most Palestinian Jews of the fifth century B.C. — and certainly we cannot postulate a better attainment of the neighboring Samaritans — constitutes vivid commentary on the work of the Jewish reformers. It was against such conditions that they set up their stringent restraints. And, to be fair to them, what other course was practical? A genial affability would have resulted, beyond a doubt, in that contamination and dissipation of Jewish religion which they feared. And Judaism through the remaining pre-Christian centuries, even when the state became strong in Palestine, lived in immediate contact with self-confident heathenism. The reality and persistence of its problem are apparent to one who will read with insight the restrictions in the tractate, Aboda Zara. Yet, as symptomatic of the mood of Jewish religion when its very existence was not imperiled, it is to be noted that the Priestly document is in some regards the most liberal strand in the Pentateuch. Its provision for admission of loyal sojourners into Judaism has already been noted.
We have mentioned the universalism of Second Isaiah. Dreamer as this poet was, he could well picture glowing ideals which the practical men of affairs might struggle toward only as time and circumstance would permit. The truth of his vision and the greatness of his achievement are not disparaged when it is recognized that his dreams were impossible of realization in that time. They were the seed of the future, which in fact did produce bounteous harvest. But their time of fruitage was not in his day. Still, initiated by his utterances, there ensued, as Doctor Morgenstern of Hebrew Union College has pointed out, a notable mood of universalism in Jewish thought from which there are numerous passages of broad humanitarianism in the latter chapters of the Book of Isaiah and in the Minor Prophets. The length to which these thinkers went may well surprise us. They seem frankly to have abandoned all claims of Jewish privilege, holding only for a faithful loyalty to Israel’s God. In every nation, they believed, there were those who served the Lord, and his name was honored throughout the world. The foreigner, also, who joined himself to the Lord to minister to him and to love his name would come to the Temple in Jerusalem with all the rights of native-born Jews and there would rejoice in worship in the house that would be called a house of prayer for all peoples. This movement seems to have been most powerful in the sixth and fifth centuries. Then the success of the reform of Ezra changed the aspect of Jewish thought; but not its essence, for the ideals of this expansive period lived on to moderate the stringency of ritual particularism and to offer promise of wider vision when the destined moment should arrive.
Discussion of this topic would be incomplete without mention of the work of the wise men. They were characteristically international in their attitude. They were the scholars of the ancient world, and scholarship is always larger than nationalism. The theism of the Hebrew Wisdom Movement has already been described. Like the scholars of the Renaissance, these religious men saw no contradiction in being at the same time humanists. Their work in reinterpreting the dogmas of orthodoxy and in mitigating its rigidity will come to mind with the mere mention of Ecelesiasticus, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the work of Philo.
But while these questions were demanding solution, other aspects of Hebrew corporate life likewise posed acute issues. The nation, in its internal aspect, that is, as society, underwent profound changes which precipitated problems for the Hebrew thinkers.
We do not know the cultural background and ethnic origins of the tribes that took part in the movement which we know best as Joshua’s conquest of Palestine, yet the influence of the Arabian Desert was strong upon them, if we may judge from such information as we possess of their social life in the immediately following period. And certainly nomadic influence continued a potent force in Israel’s life, reinforced by the steady infiltration of desert wanderers who entered and lived much as Abraham had done many centuries before. The process has continued to the present; the black tents of the nomads pitched in convenient spots as far west as the shoulder of Carmel at the entrance to the Plain of Accho are, for those who can understand, among the revealing sights of modern Palestine.
Life in the desert, with its loneliness, its sparseness and transience resulting in insecurity, has through unnumbered centuries induced characteristic social forms. Life centers itself in the tribe and clan: outside, insecurity quickly attains the point of extinction. Survival is a matter of social strength. There result the characteristic features of nomadic life — group solidarity, blood covenant, blood revenge, and hospitality. The persistence of these into Israel’s life in Palestine is evidenced by many incidents and allusions of which it suffices to mention the national consequence of Achan’s trespass and the execution of his entire family with him (Joshua, chap. 7); the hanging of the seven descendants of King Saul to relieve the drought that afflicted the land, so it was believed, because of the king’s wrongdoing (II Sam. 21:1-11) ; also the numerous instances of blood feud (e.g., II Sam. 3:27-30; 14:5-7) or of blood guilt (e.g., I Sam. 25:33; I Kings 21:19). Notwithstanding the persistence of these attitudes, especially among certain groups, altered conditions of life in Palestine soon began their moderating influence. The solidarity of the social group is not typical of peasant life. On the contrary, the tiller of the soil is by nature a stubborn individualist. Further, agricultural life, centering as it did in the country villages or, during times of danger, in walled towns, conduced rather to community than to communal life, with foreshadowing of even city organization. Still, the old patriarchal institutions were not completely unsuited to land tenure, and through these early centuries the idea of family possession took such firm hold as to be written into the laws and to provide the background for the colorful incident of Jezebel’s theft of Naboth’s ancestral property. The revolution in Hebrew society (for it was nothing less) which presently came about was inaugurated by King David. When he captured the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem and made it the capital of his united kingdom, he set in motion forces of which clearly he had no conception; and, although in his own person he soon succumbed to certain of them, he could not have anticipated the distance to which they were to carry Israelite society.
Briefly, the process was the urbanization of Hebrew life. The term is a deliberate overstatement, for, to the end, life in Palestine remained basically agricultural. Yet the change that began with David, confined as it was first to Jerusalem and then to other cities and royal residences, in course of time transformed Hebrew society, leaving only vestiges of the old institutions. The change began with the court. The king surrounded himself with a coterie of supporters and military officers, then presently with a considerable and growing harem which in turn attracted hangers-on — in more respectful terms, courtiers — who lived by the favor of the king and by their own shrewdness. But the court and camp were not insulated against the city. David and his men were hardy outlaws who knew the wild lands of the Negeb better than the graces of city life. But with their success they found themselves the “upper class” in an old city whose institutions and habits long antedated the coming of Israel into the land. The luxury and indulgence of city life soon softened the hardihood of the king, certainly, and, it is fair to conclude, of his followers also. But the city had its aristocracy also and its classes in descending order. And apart from the old military clique of the Jebusites, which evidently was wiped out or absorbed by the Hebrew captors of the city, it was a loose organization based on commerce, industry, and probably religion.
Under Solomon the influences of court and city flourished. Indeed, the fame of his days is to be understood largely in terms of the development of urban life. His immense building program laid the ground for a huge class of temple and palace officials and servants. Not less indicative of the changes taking place were his commercial ventures; royal monopolies they were, but still indicative of what was to continue in some form through the following centuries. The king’s mining and smelting activity in Edom was likewise adapted to alter deeply the outlook and structure of his kingdom, a result that we dimly discern through the biblical historian’s enthusiastic account of the wealth of the age. With this there went political changes that must be surveyed more systematically in a moment; for the present we are concerned primarily with the practical enslavement of hosts of Hebrew tribesmen. We are told that they were only Canaanites whom the king so employed, but elsewhere it is made clear that his own fellow-Hebrews were by no means exempt.
The outcome, as everyone knows, was the revolt under Rehoboam. The northern tribesmen demanded restoration of their ancient rights. On the king’s refusal they set up a state which at first seems to have fulfilled their objective of freedom from city domination and from an oppressive court, but within half a century matters in the north were every whit as bad as in Judah. The same forces — commercial and industrial development and the inescapable trends of city life — operated in both. Samaria was as Jerusalem. North and south alike, the ancient social structure was breaking down, and life was conforming to its new facts. The culmination came in the eighth century. The immediately conducive forces were the hundred years’ war with Syria and the ensuing tranquillity of the time of Jeroboam II. The social features of the time are familiar to every student of the prophecies of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah. At one extreme was a selfish and indolent group of courtiers and idle rich living their parasite life of drunken revelry; at the other, the peasantry and poorer workers whose slavery was not merely that of an income below a living standard, but sank even to the unqualified legal sort. And between these upper and lower levels a numerous class of greedy business folk cheated and swindled one another and whoever else might fall within their power. Little wonder thoughtful persons of the age looked back to the good old days of simplicity. Israelite society had departed far from the rude equity of its times of patriarchal institutions.
The fatalism of the Orient and social despair such as that voiced by Ecclesiastes in a later age did not preclude efforts at reform. It would have been strange if there were not at that time some who as in every age advocated a solution by the simple process of turning back the clock. The good old days were those of rustic, or even nomadic, society; then away with the city and all its distortions! The Rechabite movement, although not founded in a mood of reform, clearly did mean, however, for the Rechabites themselves deliverance from current evils by the too easy course of denying civilization. “Remain Bedouin,” Jonadab ben Rechab had commanded his descendants; and, faithful to patriarchal authority, they followed this plan for centuries. It is rather more surprising to discover that this attitude found acceptance even among the prophets. It was Elijah’s temper; Hosea held up the ideal of a time when Israel should once again live in tents; and some writer whose words we have in the seventh chapter of the Book of Isaiah apparently believed that the land’s reversion to wilderness and its inhabitants’ return to hunting would solve the problems of his time. But civilization cannot be voluntarily thwarted, nor can its evils be escaped by evasion. Israel’s thinkers were not all Gandhis. Some believed in direct political action; it is noteworthy, however, that after the revolt in the days of Rehoboam this method was tried again only once. But then, Jehu’s conduct, though instigated by the prophets, was roundly denounced in the sequel.
Two other solutions were advanced by different groups. It was characteristic of Israelite life that the liberal-minded did not throw up their hands in despair, nor yet accept the situation with pseudopious resignation. They confronted it as a social situation that cried out for action. In this they were not without antecedent. Urukagina in Sumer had sought reform through legislation many centuries before, and six hundred years after his time Hammurabi of Babylon had renewed the effort. The musings of the Egyptian seer Ipuwer evidenced the same social stirring, although in the end his prophecy dissipated itself largely in wishful thinking; but the author of the speeches of the Eloquent Peasant was of more vigorous mood. Nonetheless, the contribution of the Hebrew prophets toward social reform was such as to set them in a class apart. In their compelling earnestness, in their intensity of conviction, in their penetrating insights and ethical elevation, they were a crowning glory of the cultures of the ancient East; and they retain to this day a high place among the great of all ages. The prophets’ solution of the social problem was simple, yet incisive. Social betterment is to be brought about by personal reform. Remake the selfish and dishonest, and you will have an ideal society: Jerusalem will be redeemed with righteousness and then become a faithful town.
Now it was no accident that the prophets threw the social problem back upon the individual’s character. For by their genius they were individualists. And one of their great contributions to Israel’s thinking was in this regard. While undertaking to combat the results of Israel’s long development away from the nomadic social structure, they actually contributed the final element in making a return to the old thinking forever impossible. The individual had been emerging from his absorption in the group ever since the days of the first settlement in the land, but the prophetic experience provided new impetus for the developments. The essence of prophecy was its personal relation with God. The prophet received his messages, so he was convinced, not out of law or tradition, but through his own individual experience in which he heard the Lord speaking to himself. Accordingly, he stood before king, priest, and people and, on his own unsupported conviction that he as a person possessed invaluable truths denied to all others, hurled his denunciations and directions in opposition to accepted standards and conduct. The prophetic experience, not less than the prophet’s words, became the basis of religion of the later age, in time absorbing into itself other expressions of piety. The personal quality of the Psalms which has made them to this day the great classic of inner religion is but the extension to every devout believer of the prophets’ experience of the reality of God in individual life.
Such, then, is the meaning of the prophets’ advocacy of reform through personal regeneration. Still, its real worth we grasp best, it may be, by reference to the hope voiced in a late time. For the doctrine of the law written on the heart (Jer. 31 :33) will be recognized as nothing less than the hope that this experience known first by the prophets should in time become the possession of every faithful soul.
The weakness of the prophetic program of reform was that, in modern phrase, it lacked teeth. The appeal to the thought and conscience of his audience — ultimately the only means to the reform of thought or conduct and justified in the religious history of succeeding centuries — was, for the time of the prophet himself, largely futile. It is always difficult to the point of impossibility to appraise correctly a contemporary who departs from accepted procedures. The prophets met with little success; the majority of their compatriots thought them misguided nuisances. Their reforms did not come about, save only after centuries and then imperfectly. But the legislator is a man of a different approach. He intends, and he takes steps to see to it, that his policies shall be put to practical use. Nonetheless, the reforms of Asa, Joash, and Hezekiah accomplished nothing of social significance. Their objectives were cultic, not ethical, an illuminating fact in itself as showing that social ethics had not yet seized the conscience of the rulers. But not so the reformers to whom we are indebted for one of the truly great bodies of Israel’s literature, the Book of Deuteronomy. This is, as the name happily indicates, a recapitulation — better, a revision — of the old social legislation of Israel. It is relevant to our present interest that the date commonly assigned to the basic core of the book is late in the eighth century or sometime in the first three quarters of the seventh; consequently, it was aimed at ameliorating contemporary conditions of the sort sketched above.
These legislators were profoundly conscious of the social problem. Their revision of the old laws in favor of the poor and underprivileged provides many interesting features. The recension of the Decalogue (Deut. 5 :6-21), although perhaps not properly a part of the original work, is drawn into its temper. In contrast to the familiar law of the Sabbath that enjoins observance because the Lord rested on the seventh day and hallowed it, the Deuteronomic law gives as the reason a recollection of the enslavement in Egypt and consideration for the manservant and maidservant so that they, as well as their master, may enjoy a Sabbath’s rest. In the code proper the old agricultural prescription for a sabbatic year of fallow is transformed into a year of cancellation of debt, or it may be only a year of grace from its collection. The tithe of the third year is to be laid up in a city where the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow may come and partake freely. In the communal festivals of the religious seasons and the payment of tithes, these same classes of indigent, along with the male and female slaves, are to share in the rejoicing, apparently provided for by the bounty of their more fortunate neighbors. Notable, too, is the new regulation of slavery. For the first time the Hebrew woman slave is permitted to share in the manumission at the end of six years of service. Still more striking, liberated slaves are to be given generously of their masters’ produce, a clear effort to meet the situation where formerly the slave, after his years of service, went out into society as poor as he had been six years before and hence liable soon to lose his freedom again. Significant is the fact that this generosity is not to be in niggardly spirit, for “thou shalt remember that thou wast a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”
How far these expedients were effective in relieving the suffering of the time it is not possible to calculate. At the worst they promise as much as our modern expedients of soup kitchens and bread lines in time of economic stress. The malady was too deep for superficial treatment, however. Poverty has origins and causes which it ought to be possible to isolate and perhaps remedy. It is not less than astonishing that these social thinkers of twenty-five centuries ago recognized this fact. In addition to the palliatives just now sketched, Deuteronomy goes to the heart of the matter with a frontal assault on the problem of poverty. The solution offered may seem nothing but a pietistic leap into supernaturalism: “There shall be no poor with thee. . . if only thou diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God to observe to do all this commandment which I command thee this day” (Deut. 15:4, 5). Yet the statement deserves further examination. In its context, “all this commandment” was a comprehensive program; it was nothing less than full social equity. There are probably few today who would deny that if all would “diligently observe to do” such a command, poverty in a land of plenty would become a matter of relative bounty. The crux of the matter is how to implement such a principle. The writer hints at a partial method in his repeated exhortations to consideration for the underprivileged. But the conditions of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. did not obtrude upon the writer’s attention the complement of this in a total social program.
It will be apparent that by this time the old social solidarity of the days of the conquest was extinct, save for some vestigial ideas. It is not at all surprising, then, that the concept of individual responsibility in religion was formulated in definitive statement, first briefly by Jeremiah, and then somewhat more fully by Ezekiel. It would seem that Ezekiel was in this, as in so much of his prophetic teaching, directly indebted to his older contemporary, his own contribution being merely that of expressing the idea in a form that seized upon general thought. The circumstances conducing to the enunciation of the doctrine at this time can be conjectured, if not certainly identified. The impelling consideration for both prophets seems to have been the disintegration of the nation, which obviously threw the individual out into relief. More specifically, the warnings and reproof of the succession of prophets through several centuries, often directed immediately toward personal conduct and always implying such application, had borne fruitage in a realization that the individual’s righteousness depended, not on his membership in the nation, but on his response to the prophet’s message. A group of immediate followers and friends of the prophets, their “disciples,” to use Isaiah’s word (Isa. 8 :16), successors to the older protomonastic organization of the “sons of the prophets,” had embodied the thought in living form as a sort of “church” within the state. In this there was visibly existent precisely that individually centered society, in embryo, which the teaching of Jeremiah and Ezekiel indicated as the hope of survival beyond the imminent ruin of the nation. Their thought may well have been fertilized also with a realization of the unequal responsibility for this catastrophe, such as would compel consideration of corresponding recompense. But, finally, much depended on the personal characters of these two prophets. Jeremiah was a deeply sensitive man, who wrestled with a sense of personal injustice; and Ezekiel was moved by a feeling for the individuals for whose safety he was by his office responsible.
Notwithstanding its long antecedents, Ezekiel’s formulation of the doctrine of individualism in religion was still sufficiently new to provoke the excesses that usually attend novelty. Certain commentators on his book have stereotyped it into essentially a mechanical procedure that automatically works retribution or reward in accord with the individual’s conduct (Ezek. 18:5-32; 33:12-20). No regard is shown for the conditioning of heredity, habit, and circumstance, which other thinkers had considered; but the judgment is flat: if one does such and so, he is wicked; he shall die!
However, the concept of the primacy of the individual in religion worked out in a much more wholesome way than these passages might indicate. And the whole problem of the antithesis and interrelation of society and individual, which has so recently been an issue of the first importance in world-wide politics and must continue with us for many a day, was given very sane treatment in the course of Jewish history. Enough of the traditional emphasis on the supremacy of society persisted, if only as an influence, to insure avoidance of the atomism which has cursed our society. Judaism was, and remained, a community, expressing its characteristic life and convictions in social institutions. But yet the individual was never submerged. The long list of brilliant names in every walk of life that embellish Jewish history to our own day are sufficient testimony to the vitality of individualism within Judaism. Yet they were rooted and nurtured in the Jewish community. They were its expression and outreach; and, in turn, it gave them a concrete loyalty, a vitalizing devotion, and a transcendent purpose.
The development of Israel’s politics paralleled closely that of her social thought. In several cases the same documents or recorded incidents have relevance for both.
Here, too, the deficiency of our knowledge of the invading Habiru clansmen qualifies the approach to the question. The Amarna letters appear to mention certain chieftains of the invaders, but the means of their appointment and the nature of their office we do not know. One might invoke Bedouin rule as parallel, but the better course is to drop the problem for lack of evidence and go on to our earliest sources for Israel’s life after the settlement in Palestine. These reveal clan and community organization under elders who apparently exercised judicial as well as executive functions. It was a primitive democracy, uncritical and unconscious, for there is no ground to suppose other than that every senior member of the group was admitted to the governing body purely on the basis of his age. The decisions of these were apparently reached through free discussion of a most informal sort. The operation of such a ruling group is pictured in the story of Boaz’ negotiations for the redemption of Naomi’s property (Ruth 4:1-12); the narrative is presumably from a comparatively late time, but the councils of elders persisted in the smaller communities right through Old Testament history, so there is ground for believing that the author relates practice with which he was familiar.
But the stress of circumstance compelled the coalescence of the smaller groups of clans and tribes into some approximation of a national unity. This is the story of the rise of successive “judges” and of their rule. Their election to leadership again exemplified primitive democracy. The basic fact was their ability to lead and to deal with the crises of the moment. This was variously manifest; at times through known repute, as in the case of J ephthah; again by spontaneous response to the situation which lifted the erstwhile peasant out of his mediocre role into an exhibition of power and decision that doubtless surprised him not less than his associates. Probably physical prowess was in some cases the desired qualification. The point that concerns us is that, by whatever means, the “judge” won the free consent and loyal following of the clans, so that they accepted his command and under him went against the foe.
It was inevitable that success such as is related of these champions would give them lifelong prestige, and so they “judged Israel” variously for ten, twenty, or forty years. But in only two cases is a tendency revealed to turn this advantage into hereditary rule. It was offered to Gideon, but he refused. Observe, it was offered to him: the initiative was with the people. The terms of the refusal, too, are of interest. He replied: “I shall not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you. The Lord shall rule over you.” If we may beg the doubtful question of the genuineness of the passage, we may recognize in it again an expression of primitive democracy. The unifying bond as well as guiding principle of the tribes had been their loyalty to their God: neither monarch, priest, nor organization had held them together, but all responded when their God spoke through the one chosen by him to save his people. And Gideon, recognizing well that spiritual bonds are mightier than political regimentation, desired to leave matters as they were. However, his son Abimelech felt no such restraints. He was a typical self-seeking upstart of the sort that has made history — and trouble — through many a century, and his story runs true to the type as known in our own days. First he secured by specious argument a following in the city of Shechem and then broadened and supported his rule by violence — until at length violence in turn happily removed him. But in the meantime his venture was symptomatic of the situation. So it is not at all surprising that presently another popularly chosen leader, after succeeding in the crisis that had called him forth, was frankly acclaimed as king, perhaps through the scheming of his friends; but also it is entirely possible that he was chosen by spontaneous action of the associated tribes who actually felt, as it recorded in a late account of the incident, that the exigencies of the disordered time required them to have a king, as did other nations. In any case, Saul was “the last of the judges and the first of the kings.” Whether or not it was envisaged at the time of his choice, he came to believe that hereditary right lodged in his family. And, in point of fact, his son did succeed him.
Saul maintained simple state at his country capital. He was more a rustic squire than a nation’s monarch. He was highhanded and arbitrary at times, yet not more so than many a father unfortunately has shown himself in his own family, and he manifested little inclination to enlarge the prerogatives of his office by encroachment on traditional rights of his people. He did, it is true, refuse to be a mere underling of the old “kingmaker,” Samuel, for which he merits general respect. Somewhat more insidious, however, were his attempt to establish the ascendancy of the throne over the priests and his jealous concern for his family’s succession as revealed in his rebuke of Jonathan’s friendship for David. But, on the whole, his behavior was well within what we may with some exaggeration call the constitutional rights of the monarchy. In the light of developments we can see, as did some ancient writer (I Sam. 8:1-18), that in himself, ex officio, he embodied a stern threat to Israel’s political institutions such as to constitute virtually a revolution. But of this Saul personally was largely innocent.
David began well. He likewise was a popular chieftain who by a combination of personal and national exigencies emerged into such importance that he also was offered, and accepted, the throne. The menace from the Philistines was acute. After the disaster at Mount Gilboa, they were in practically undisputed control of all western Palestine; the Israelites lived by their grace. A hardened outlaw loyal to his people, such as David had abundantly shown himself, was just the man for the time. The popular choice was wise, and events soon went far to justify it. His phenomenal success in reversing the ascendancy of the Philistines, in seizing the famous fortress of Jerusalem for his nation’s capital, and in extending his sway and influence until he was the mightiest monarch between the Euphrates and Egypt transformed the face not alone of the Hebrews’ cultural status but of their politics also.
Yet David never escaped his origin — as, who ever does? Something of the soil and of his hardy life clung to him through all his changed condition as a great monarch in an ancient capital. He had risen from the peasantry, and to the end he understood his people and was properly restrained by his knowledge of their stubborn love of freedom and by the nature of his own position as dependent upon them. The sinister forces that played upon the throne in Jerusalem are best seen in the perspective of the entire united monarchy, extending as it did only into a third reign.
An ominous feature, intelligible only in the light of later history, appeared when David abandoned the command of the army in the field, remaining behind in Jerusalem while Joab conducted the campaign. It will be recalled that this was the background of the nefarious Bath-sheba episode. Also it was at just the parallel point in their history that the obvious decay of the Ottoman dynasty set in. But even more pernicious was the influence of the harem — that breeding-ground of seditions and knavery, as well as the source of the monarch’s personal demoralization, in every oriental court through history — which was firmly established by David and much enlarged by Solomon. It was a harem intrigue that determined the succession of Solomon. And Solomon’s son, who at length wrecked the kingdom, was of the second generation of moral decline that this institution had fastened upon the Jerusalem court.
But other and less reprehensible influences were beating upon the king. Success tries the mettle of any man; and David had succeeded beyond fond dreams. Did he ever in self-consciousness recall his simple days as a shepherd boy near Bethlehem and wonder what his old father would think if now he could look in on the estate of his royal son? In any case, ease, luxury, and wealth that in Solomon’s days attained a relatively fabulous level, public respect that became adulation, full opportunity to indulge his whims such as easily descends into self-indulgence, and not least the position of king per se all combined to set the king apart from the simple state of the nation’s leaders of only a little before. The mystic concepts of the monarchy, to which we have referred, expressed in various forms in the Orient from the divine kingship of Egypt to the mighty monarch, the darling of the gods, as conceived in Mesopotamia, and further the interrelation of king and dying god: these were entailed in some relevant way when Israel set up one of her sons as king. To the concept of the king as a being, in his religious significance, apart from and above his people, we have numerous allusions: Jeremiah refers to public lamentations at the death of a king such as clearly relate them to the ritual of the fertility-god (Jer. 22:18). The seemingly innocent story of Abishag, who was to warm the aged David (I Kings 1:1-4), is suspiciously reminiscent of widespread practices in which the ebbing virility of the old monarch was put to the test, since in his person he embodied the vital forces of the nation. The prevalent school of interpretation of the Psalms would see much of this testing of the king in the plaintive cries of many of these devout poems. Clearly, too, the monarch was regarded in some mystic way as a person more than normal because of the fact that he was the anointed of the Lord. The application of the holy oil transformed him into another man (I Sam. 10:6) so that he came to stand in an intimate relation with God almost of sonship (Ps. 2:7) and certainly of close association (Psalm 110).
It was, then, not merely from personal ambition, which doubtless functioned, nor because of an exaggerated self-importance induced through unaccustomed flattery, that these kings moved steadily in the direction of arrogation of absolute powers. The development was almost forced upon them; it was inherent in the oriental kingship.
Symptomatic of this was the accession of King Solomon. The earlier kings had been chosen by the people; even for the usurper Absalom the fiction of popular choice was maintained (II Sam. 16:18). But Solomon was appointed by his father, under pressure from the harem. The old king had in his forty years of rule moved so far from principles fully accepted at his accession that he either forgot or chose to ignore the rights of his subjects. The succession had become a prerogative of the royal family. Yet there were danger signals for any ruler not blinded with an exaggerated sense of his regal rights. When David was returning from his brief exile during the sedition of Absalom, there went up the ominous cry destined to be heard once more in a crisis of Israel’s history: “We have no portion in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel!” (II Sam. 20:1.) The kingship, whatever the entourage in Jerusalem might think, sat light upon the free men of Israel; and David knew it. He realized the acuteness of the crisis; his prompt action throttled the separatist move and delayed its maturing for another generation. Rehoboam became heir of a problem that he was vastly less fitted to meet than his grandfather had been. Yet, even with full recognition of the folly he manifested, one cannot but feel some sympathy for him. He was a victim of circumstances. How could he, grandson of the harem and its nefarious political influences, have regarded the plea of the peasants as other than an infringement of his sacred rights? The dogma of the divine right of kings had grown apace through Solomon’s reign. It is evident in his irresponsible treatment of affairs of state: his public corvee of Israel’s free men; his extravagant court supported at the expense of the nation; his administrative division of the land in disregard of traditional tribal bounds; and his whole ingrown life in a court that defied the realities of Israel’s basic peasant economy and spent its days in the grand style, with feasting, royal processions, and dilettante scholarship in a setting of magnificent architecture, erected by Israel’s peasants, and with women enough for all and to spare.
But we are indebted to Rehoboam for his clear statement of the issue. He had consulted with the older counselors, who apparently retained some sense of political realities, if not actual memory of events in the reign of David; but he accepted the view of the young fellows of the court, his boon companions reared, like himself, in the diseased artificiality of the harem-infested court and doubtless for long anticipating the day when with his enthronement they should do as they pleased. The serious request of the people of the north who lived on the land, far from the blandishments of Jerusalem, was “Lighten now the severe service exacted by your father, and the heavy yoke which he put upon us; then we will serve you.” Rehoboam replied: “My father chastised you with whips; I will chastise you with scorpions.” So there it was. Had the people rights? Or only the king? The revolt of the northern tribes was an assertion of the sovereign freedom of the common people. The king stood firmly for the divine right of the king to rule his subjects as he chose. He was above the law: he was the law, and they had no rights beyond. For many today, this claim is associated with the Stuart kings of England; but James I in his New Law for Free Monarchic, as were his descendants in their official acts, was dependent on the Old Testament. Whether he realized it or not, he was in the spiritual succession of Rehoboam. Yet if he had studied his Old Testament better, he might have found other matter more pertinent for his heirs, for one of these lost his head through his father’s principles, and another, like Rehoboam, lost his kingdom.
Judah, then, by its loyalty to the House of David, was in the position of supporting despotism. And doubtless we are in a qualified way so to read Judean history, for the striking difference of its politics as over against Israel’s was the stability of the dynasty. Yet this meant less than the bare fact might suggest. The depositions in the north were seldom the result of quasi-democratic agitation, the revolt of Jehu, inspired by the prophets, being a debatable exception. On the contrary, the accession of a new dynasty came about purely through personal ambition and commonly by violence. The initial impulse of liberty that rejected Rehoboam and set Jeroboam on the throne soon spent itself, and the north became even more the bauble of unprincipled and irresponsible rulers than was Judah. To the end, except for the doubtful case of J ehu’s overthrow of the House of Ahab, it provided no further matter relevant to constitutional development. Likewise there is all too little on this subject on the surface of Judean history. The succession of son following father upon the throne, broken only for the interval of Athaliah’s usurpation, is related in the colorless terms that he “ruled in his stead”; whatever may have been Judah’s ritual counterpart of “The king is dead; long live the king,” information is generally lacking. In just three cases, where the monarch had met a violent death, it is told that the people took his son and set him on the throne (II Kings 14:21; 21:24; 23:30). A comparable situation is related in regard to the accession of the boy king Josiah (II Kings 11:4-12). The relation of this to normal procedure of accession is quite uncertain; it lies wide open to guessing. But one matter at least is clear. The consciousness that final authority in the selection of the monarch lay with the people was never abandoned. At most, the right was merely held in abeyance, if indeed we may be certain that it was not exercised or symbolized in each case. That fact means much. After nearly four hundred years of the kingship the Judean people still refused to be regarded as pawns in the game of power politics; they had far-reaching rights — even against their kings — which they would not surrender. And those rights, it will be observed, implied the complete democratic position. If the people were the final arbiters of who should rule over them, then authority rested, in the last recourse, not in the king, but in the people, however submissive these might at times consent to show themselves toward the court.
A jealous concern for their traditional prerogatives was kept alive among the people by various agitators, notably the prophets. Nathan’s rebuke of David, as Elijah’s of Ahab, was a direct denial of the assumptions of divine right and a bold affirmation of the principle that the king was amenable to the same standards of right, the same pervasive natural law as his humblest subject. Here, too, it is apparent, was the principle basic to the entire attitude of the prophets and other progressive thinkers toward the monarchy: the king ruled, not by divine right, but under divinely imposed responsibility. The radicalism of such thinking, sufficiently evident in the western history of the kingship, is even more astonishing against the background of the cultic concepts of royalty prevalent in Israel. Nonetheless, the king was only the servant of the Lord appointed to shepherd his people Israel. His task was to rule in accord with revealed standards of equity. Samuel’s opposition to the kingship, like that of Gideon, on the ground that it was a denial of the Lord’s rule of his people, is probably a fiction of a later time; but at least it is true to the undertone of Hebrew political thought throughout the nation’s history. The theocracy of late times, in reality the hierocracy, was in its assumptions but a perpetuation of the very ancient thought that Israel was “the people of Yahweh”; they were to be governed by him through the man of his choosing who in his office accepted heavy responsibility for the well-being of the people.
This sense of responsibility — of the high ethical demands devolving upon a ruler — is strikingly voiced in the valedictory of Samuel. The old priest-prophet politician at the end of his career, standing before the convocation of the tribes, reported upon his discharge of duties in these words: “I am old and grayheaded . . . .and I have walked before you from my youth unto this day. Here I am: witness against me before the Lord and before his anointed: whose ox have I taken? or whose ass have I taken? whom have I defrauded? whom have I oppressed? or of whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes therewith? and I will make restitution.” But the witness of the people was: “Thou hast not defrauded us, nor oppressed us, neither hast thou taken aught of any man’s hand” (I Sam. 12:2-4). Briefly, Israel’s best thought recognized the far-reaching principle, which stirred as a ferment in the nation’s political life throughout its history, that authority, specifically governmental office, was not to be regarded as an opportunity for exploitation: it was a call to service. The ruler must use his office, not for personal advantage or profit, but for the benefit of the ruled. Here is the very finest tradition of public office known to this day. Its radical nature is evident on a moment’s consideration of the revolution it would effect even in our boasted modern lands if wholeheartedly accepted by all who share in city, state, and national government. Yet its persistence in Israel, if only as a hope and ideal of those who were outside the ruling class, is attested by Jeremiah’s condemnation of Jehoiakim near the end of the history of the kingdom:
“Did not thy father . . . do justice and righteousness? he judged the cause of the poor and needy . But thine eyes and thy heart are not but for thy covetousness and for shedding innocent blood and for doing violence” (Jer. 22:15-17). Ezekiel, also, uttered a similar opinion relative to the official class of his time: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who care for themselves! Should not the shepherds care for the sheep?” (Ezek. 34:2). The popularity of the theme is shown in the lengthy commentary that a succession of writers have attached to this oracle.
In this matter we come upon the very core of the uniqueness of Israel’s government among the nations of the Orient. It would be a distortion to claim that such ideals were unknown elsewhere, for both Egypt and Babylonia had voiced them, the one in literature, the other in legislation. But the striking fact about Israel’s thought was its dissemination and its persistence in the nation, as well as the expression it came to attain in law and, for a brief time, in institutions.
Against the background of the struggles and protestations surveyed above, the progressive group in Judah, sometime apparently in the seventh century B.C, formulated their theory of government in a document which has come to us in whole or in part in our Book of Deuteronomy. Its social legislation must be held in mind as one goes on to study its regulation of the office of king — that he should be chosen by the people from among themselves, and that certain restraints should be placed upon his conduct. Then the document continues:
It shall be when he sitteth on the throne of his kingdom that he shall write for himself a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests, the Levites, and it shall be with him and he shall read therein all the days of his life that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes to do them; that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment to the right or to the left (Deut. 17:18-20).
In its historic setting and in its literary context this pronouncement is such as may without exaggeration be considered Israel’s Magna Carta. The king was not to be exalted in self-importance above his subjects; he should be at pains to obey all the words of the Deuteronomic code with its rich social implications; and, further, the book was to be kept at hand as a sort of constitution of the kingdom that would guide and limit the monarch’s rule. Here is the same defense of the common man against the arrogance of the monarchy and the same constitutional limitation of royal power as was voiced in the famous English document of some eighteen centuries later.
The Deuteronomic code was, in the reform of King Josiah in 621 B.C., made the law of the land; and it would appear that during the dozen years of reign which remained to him he accepted loyally its direction and limitation. After four centuries of struggle the liberal group had won. Their principles of human rights and their restraints upon royal misconduct had found embodiment in the nation’s constitution. If once again one may be guilty of some measure of overmodernization in order to bring out the essential meaning, we may assert that the great achievement of the Hebrew people, practically unparalleled as it was in the ancient world, was the attainment of a limited monarchy.
But Josiah was succeeded by the despotic Jehoiakim, and he by Zedekiah, too weak a creature to have any influence on politics. And the end came so soon that no immediate sequel can be traced for the political principles affirmed in the reform. Still, in judging its historic significance, we must recall that after John, the unwilling agent of Magna Carta, came Henry III, whose arbitrariness and determination to nullify the charter were an unconscious reincarnation of the conduct of Johoiakim. It was a long struggle, and at many a time uncertain of outcome except for the stubborn and independent character of the people concerned, before finally constitutional rights were fully established. Recollection of the ambitions of the Stuarts and the wilfulness of George III give us to realize how recent was the culmination of what began so notably at Runnymede on that June day in A.D. 1215. Until the damage of the government buildings by a Nazi bomb, members of the British House of Commons were proud to point to the dents on the door of their chamber made by the ring on the finger of the king’s messenger sent to summon them to hear the speech from the throne; he might not enter, for this was the domain of the common Englishman; he could only stand at the door and humbly invite.
But Judah was afforded no such experience of national survival and constitutional maturing of the principle so boldly affirmed in the legislation of Josiah’s reign. For the sequel we must look rather to the local councils of elders and the popular assemblies which not uncommonly some overenthusiastic writer in the Bible has exaggerated into “the whole congregation of all Israel.” These two, it is clear from the frequency of the reference, constituted the real local government of ancient Israel. Indeed, it is claimed by a recent historian that the authority of the court was in large measure confined to the capital and a few of the more important cities and that the smaller communities, right through the period of the kings, continued to pay final loyalty to their own assemblies and elders, with little more interference from the central authority than occasional demands for military assistance and for payment of certain taxes. Our sources do not permit us, finally, to adjudicate this claim, but at least it is clear that local authority was a continuing reality in Israel’s life and that the popular assembly was a potent facility for expression of the general will.
In this institution, then, persisting through the vicissitudes of national history from the earliest days of the settlement in Palestine, was nurtured that independence of spirit which marked Hebrew life throughout and could easily be fanned to violent action when age-old liberties were infringed. In this, too, lies justification of the claim that in ancient Israel there existed a genuine, if amorphous, political democracy. Such local assemblies became the expression of Jewish communal life after the destruction of the monarchy, both in Palestine and among that section of the people who went into exile. And the story of subsequent Jewish political development is to be traced, not primarily in the hierarchy of restored Palestinian Judaism and the arrogance of the House of Hasmon, but in the popular assembly with its ruling elders which continued, with local adaptations and variations, it is true, but in essential uniformity, right through the long centuries of the dispersion and into our own times. It was the schooling in local self-government and the institutions so developed back in the hills and valleys of ancient Palestine that gave the uprooted Jews immediately a social organism able to withstand the shock of exile and to support and adapt the community in its struggle to live in an alien environment. The Jews have always taken their politics seriously. The reason lies apparent in their age-old experience of individual participation in public affairs. This experience, crystallized into permanent form in the Old Testament, constitutes the most remarkable theory of government that came out of the ancient world and at the same time an ideal that rebukes and challenges the distressing imperfections of our boasted modern democracy.
But the king was by no means the sole menace to common freedom. The breakdown of the Egyptian empire and the circumstances contributory to the capture of Babylon by Cyrus, besides hosts of incidents from those days to the present, show that organized religion, strange as it appears, can be no less an obstacle to social and political advance than the reactionary policies of vested political or economic interests. The church carries an implicit threat to freedom quite as truly as the court.
An intimate relationship of church and state is traceable far back through human society. Early man’s sense of dependence on the will of the gods and his belief in their immediate interference in human affairs gave high place in community counsel and action to the spiritual adviser who, by theory, could tell just what the gods wished. The transfer of this special prestige into the politics of the ancient East is a familiar story. The monarchs in general either kept conveniently available a group of spiritual advisers or else paid such respect to the views of the hierarchy as to elevate the chief priest virtually into an important minister of the state. In Israel the role of prophets as royal counselors is evident in many incidents already mentioned; notable were the existence of a body of four hundred prophets in the court of Ahab and the relations of Samuel and King Saul. Yet this situation in its logical working~out could mean little less than a subjection of the political rulers such that they might fairly be described as priest-ridden. Beyond a question, this was the ideal cherished by a considerable group in Israel — such subservience for them was a mark of piety; it was obedience to the will of God. This is the meaning of certain comments on the monarchs found in our Books of Kings; it is in large part the viewpoint of the Chronicler; it is freely expressed in the chapters added to the prophecies of Ezekiel in which the function of “the prince” is little more than one of leadership in ritual under the priests. Further, it was built into actual political institutions in later Old Testament times; the rule of the high priests represented a complete triumph of the claim that church is supreme above state. Indeed, it was more extreme than certain modern expressions of the theory, for it did not leave the secular rulers as a sort of subdepartment under the princes of organized religion, but instead the hierarchy gathered into itself the functions of both. The church had swallowed the state.
What protests were voiced against this situation have left but few echoes in literature, which, we must recall, was transmitted by priestly, or pro-priestly, hands. Some of the Psalms are strangely nonritualistic for a collection that is freely recognized to have been “the hymn book of the Second Temple.” In many, too, the temple appears as a house of prayer where worshipers go, independent of priestly propitiation. Yet all such expressions do not obscure the fact that the Psalter, in the large, is loyal to the ritual and the hierarchy. At times it reaches an extreme of glorification of the priestly system, as in Psalm 119. On the other hand, in the account of the reform of Ezra a passage of dubious translation is supposed to mention by name two individuals who withstood the proposed measures (Ezra 10:15). But the activity of Ezra was so mixed with power politics that one may not deduce too much from opposition, if actual. Similarly, the inference commonly drawn from the Books of Ruth and Jonah may not be adduced as antihierarchical. Somewhat earlier the prophet known as Malachi protested vigorously against the misconduct of the priests and voiced a high ideal of their responsibility:
And now, 0 ye priests, this commandment is for you. If ye will not hear and lay it to heart to give glory to my name, saith the Lord of Hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and will curse your blessings; yea I have cursed them already.
. . .My covenant was with him (Levi) of life and peace. . .
The law of truth was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found in his lips: he walked with me in peace and uprightness and turned many away from iniquity. For the priest’s lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts (Mal.2:1-7).
Yet none of this gives us quite what we seek.
In the days of the kingdoms the priesthood enjoyed secular power through its judicial functions. The legislation of the Book of Deuteronomy, in fact, elevates the priests into a supreme court of appeal, with but the possibility that a secular judge also was associated with them. Judges and officers were to be appointed in every locality, but
if there arise a matter too hard for thee in judgment. . . then thou shalt arise and get thee up unto the place which the Lord thy God shall choose, and thou shalt come unto the priests, the Levites, and unto the judge that shall he in those days .. . and they shall show thee the sentence of judgment . . . thou shalt not turn aside from the sentence which they shall show thee, to the right hand or to the left. And the man that doeth presumptuously in not hearkening to the priest that standeth to minister there before the Lord thy Cod, or unto the judge, even that man shall die; and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear and do no more presumptuously (Deut. 17:8-13).
The legislation had teeth in it: capital punishment for disobeying the priests! It was a provision that centuries later was doubtless congenial to Torquemada.
However, matters were by no means as bad as this would indicate. On the contrary, Saul’s bold defiance of the priest-prophet Samuel has already been cited, and Zadok and Abiathar and their sons seem to have been fully subject to David and Solomon. The leadership of Jehoiada in the overthrow of Athaliah and his rule for some years as regent may not be employed as evidence of the rise of the hierarchy to temporal power (II Kings 11:4-12:16). It was a popular movement of which the chief priest was head, evidently because of his forceful personality. Indeed, to the end, the supremacy of the monarchy appears to have been undisputed; even the law-abiding Josiah gave orders to the chief priest and was obeyed (II Kings 22:3-7, 12). The prophets, too, indorsed this situation. Except for a few utterances, mainly those of Hosea, which may well relate to temporary conditions rather than to the monarchy per se, the prophets accept the kings as legitimate officials supreme in their sphere. Their demand was only that their rule must accord with the will of God. But nowhere do they suggest or imply that the hierarchy possesses secular authority to rival the monarchy. On the contrary, their stern denunciations of priestly veniality and their deprecation of the ritual imply rather that, as between king and priest, they would prefer to dispense with the latter. Even the legislation in the Book of Deuteronomy, which a moment ago we found guilty of marked favoritism toward the priests, accepts the kingship as a valid institution. The king must obey the law of God; he is to accept as the constitution of the state a copy of the Deuteronomic law from that “which is before the priests.” But beyond this he rules free of interference from the hierarchy.
And such is the limit of our evidence. Certainly Israel’s thought was less clarified on this than on the issue of popular rights vis-a’-vis secular rulers. It appears that, subsequent to the popular protest and action which freed the government from domination by Samuel, the priesthood were never again a threat to secular power as long as the kingdoms stood. Consequently, the question of church and state did not become an issue to provoke thought such as Israel’s intellectual leaders exercised elsewhere. It was the accident of history, the destruction of the monarchy and the state, and then later the unhappy events, whatever their detail may have been, which weakened the prestige and power of the Jewish governor in the days of Darius I that by consequence elevated the priests into de facto leadership and rule of the Palestinian community. The theocracy was a natural development from this. The situation was a remarkable anticipation of the events through which the Christian church centuries later assumed secular power in the city of Rome. Nonetheless, the Jewish theocracy, so called, was an aberration from the true national genius and tradition. Israel had been governed by secular rulers chosen, such was orthodox dogma, by the Lord himself and commissioned to “shepherd his people Israel.” Of the supremacy of religious standards and restraints above the secular ruler there was no question in Israel’s best thought; but until after the collapse of Zerubbabel’s governorship the exercise of authority over the state by the priesthood was never a practical consideration. Israel, we may say, would have granted the supremacy of the invisible church, the custodian of the nation’s best social achievements and highest idealism; but the visible church was too fallibly human to be trusted with so high a responsibility.
BERTHOLFT, A.: A History of Hebrew Civilization. London, 1926.
MILLER, M. S. and I. L.: Encyclopedia of Bible Life. New York, 1944.
PEDERSEN, JOHS: Israel: Its Life and Culture. London, 1926, 1949.