Are There Lessons That Modern Americans Can Learn from Ancient Israel? (Part 1)

November 13, 2018

Addressing My Worries about the Nation by Turning to Scripture

As last week’s blog demonstrates, I have been doing a lot of thinking—and, if I am honest, a lot of worrying—about the current political situation in the United States.  Not everything that has happened in the last century has been bad. Would any woman really want to go backwards a century, to a time when she could not vote? Would any African-American really want to go back to the 1950s, when lynchings were still tolerated and voting rights were regularly denied to people of color?

The obvious answer is “no,” and for good reason.  The spectre of injustice has long haunted our society, and only through the tireless efforts of many good people has that spectre been recognized and address (at least in part).  We need to celebrate those wins.

Nevertheless, to deny the genuine peril that faces our nation seems to me to be sheer lunacy.  We no longer share a common understanding of what it means to be human, and we no longer possess a common vision for what we want to be as a nation.  And the practical impact of our fractured society can be seen on a daily basis.

It is enough to depress even the most optimistic of souls.  But I am also convinced, after much thought and prayer, that there are resources available to us if we want to address the mess in which we find ourselves.  These resources can be found in the stories and statements of the Bible. We have all heard Scripture used in a naive or even patronizing way. We know that the religious documents and concepts are all-too-easily weaponized against one’s political opponents.  But we neglect the lessons they teach us at our own peril. They are not only the story of God’s interaction with humans in history, but they are also the story of how humans have appropriated those interactions—either for good or for ill.

A Case Study: The Division of the United Israelite Kingdom

There are lots of texts that we could look at in order to inform our understanding of the political situation in the United States, but I would like to direct our attention to one particularly sad incident in Israel’s history.  It is the division of the united kingdom after the death of Solomon, and it is described for us in 1 Kings 12,

There, we read that Solomon’s young heir was confronted with a request from the people.  They wanted him to make the burdens they bore as his subjects lighter. They wanted lower taxes, and they almost certainly wanted less conscripted labor.  Instead of listening with empathy to their request, Rehoboam doubled down on his claim to royal power, and a rebellion ensued. The result was a divided kingdom and decades of on-again, off-again civil war.

But is this all that there is to the story?  Any careful reader of the Bible will know that it is not.  God had already told Solomon that the kingdom would be divided (cf. 1 Kings 11:1-13) because of his idolatry (more on this below), and so we are right to suspect that there is more to the story than is told in 1 Kings 12.  Let’s briefly touch on four factors that contributed to the breakup of Israel’s monarchy.

  1. Ethnic and Geographic Tensions – Even as far back as Genesis, the various narratives that make up the Old Testament seem to be crafted to bring out the tensions that existed between the various Israelite tribes.  These tensions only deepened as the tribes gradually became entrenched in different parts of the Promised Land. The two half-tribes that derived their identity from Joseph formed one power center in the north, while the tribe of Judah formed another power center in the south.  The rest of the tribes filled in around these centers of power. Saul, Israel’s first king, was from the tribe of Benjamin, which was situated between the two centers of power. But when Saul disobeyed God and descended into madness, it became necessary to choose another king. David and Solomon each proved to be effective rulers in their own way, but their membership in the tribe of Judah and their location of the capital (and the temple) in Jerusalem likely exacerbated the underlying tensions.
  2. Irreconcilable Ideologies – Of course, the fact that there was a monarchy at all was part of the problem.  Israel was not founded as a monarchy, and it only became one because its previous governmental system did not seem to be working (cf. 1 Samuel 8-9).  The shift to monarchy was not, however, merely a shift in government.  It was a shift in the controlling ideology of the nation. Samuel warned the people about what this shift would mean, and its consequences are narrated throughout the Samuel-Kings narrative.  One of the reasons why the shift in ideology was so problematic was because there were those, like Naboth (cf. 1 Kings 21) who still held to the old ideology.  Ultimately, the two ideologies were incompatible with one another, and they were bound to come into conflict.)
  3. Royal Overreach – As we have already mentioned, David and Solomon are presented in 1 Samuel and 1 Kings as effective rulers, but they—and especially Solomon—also burdened the people in precisely the ways that the prophet Samuel predicted.  By the end of Solomon’s reign, an elaborate system of royal administration, staffed by a new and growing nobility, was developing. Moreover, a number of significant building projects had been initiated. All of this required money and labor.  The question that seems to stand behind the conflict described in 1 Kings 12 is, “What are we getting for all of our investments?” Obviously, the rebels are not thinking in terms of taxation without representation (although the ethnic and geographic tensions referenced above may have pushed their thinking in that direction), but they were thinking in terms of taxation without benefits.
  4. Religious and Moral Compromise – Perhaps the most important problem faced by the kingdom in Rehoboam’s time was the ever-present spectre of religious and moral compromise.  Exclusive devotion to Yahweh was supposed to be the cornerstone of Israelite identity, and through it the people of Israel were supposed to find the right way to live.  Instead, the people had repeatedly compromised their devotion to Yahweh, and, as time went on, this compromise led to injustice. Moreover, their leaders encouraged this cycle of compromise and injustice.

With these factors in view, it is not hard to see how the great Israelite schism occured.  People came to the meeting described in 1 Kings 12 with complex and highly differentiated sets of motivations, many of which were irreconcilable with the motivations of others who attended the meeting.  Throw in one unwise and tone-deaf leader, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Applying the Case Study to America’s Political Situation

I am convinced that this case study does much to illuminate our own political situation.  Next week, we will look again at the four foundations of the Israelite crisis enumerated above.  When we do, we will see that each one parallels our own political context in important ways. Once we see these parallels, we will be in a better position to propose some ways that we can productively address our situation for the glory of God and the good of our fellow citizens.

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