An Old Testament view of government

In the early years of the nation of Israel, after Moses died and Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, the people were ruled by men called “judges.” The rule of the judges was minimal—one might say libertarian. The taxes (the tithe) were voluntary. The judges did not generally meddle in people’s lives. The primary roles of the judges were to resolve disputes brought to them and to provide leadership during wartime.

Gideon was a judge of Israel. After Gideon successfully led Israel against the Midianites and the Amalekites, the Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.” But Gideon refused to be their king and replied: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.” Judges 8:22–24.

Gideon judged Israel for forty years and then died, leaving seventy sons. Not surprisingly, the biggest villain of the lot, Abimelech, briefly seized power and proceeded to murder all of his brothers except Jotham, the youngest. Jotham then came out of hiding and went to Abimelech’s supporters and preached to them this parable from the book of Judges:

“The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves.

So they said to the olive tree, “Reign over us.”
The olive tree answered them, “Shall I stop producing my rich oil
by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?”

Then the trees said to the fig tree, “You come and reign over us.” But the fig tree answered them, “Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?”

Then the trees said to the vine, “You come and reign over us.” But the vine said to them, “Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?”

Finally, unable to recruit any productive, reputable plant for their king, the trees asked the bramble to rule over them. The bramble took the job. It would seem that ruling over the trees’ business is hardly a fit occupation for any respectable plant. The same applies to men; and when a willing candidate is found, he is more likely to be a bramble than a saint or a hero. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son:

“[T]he most improper job of any man . . . is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity. ”

While some of the judges who led Israel did a good job, some did not, so the people later came to the prophet Samuel with their time-worn demand: “Give us a king to govern us like all the nations.” Samuel was displeased by this, for the Lord was their king and had given them the law of Moses and the judges.

So Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord told him not to worry about it: “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. . . . Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do.” So Samuel did as the Lord directed and said to the people:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam. 8:6–18.

The people were not dissuaded by Samuel’s message. The warning was ignored. Samuel then anointed a king for them and after that followed everything he predicted and eventually, much worse.

Many years and many kings later, a divided Israel was nearing its eventual destruction at the hands of the Assyrians. So in the book of Hosea God sent the prophet with a warning for a sinful and unfaithful nation: “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”

God again denounced Israel’s continuing practice of selecting human kings to rule over them. Hosea brought this message from the Lord: “They made kings, but not through me; they set up princes, but without my knowledge.”

The next post will take a look at the state from
the New Testament viewpoint.

Click here: “Jesus and the state”

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