Are There Lessons That Modern Americans Can Learn From Ancient Israel? (Part 3)

November 27, 2018
For the last two weeks, we have used the division of the Israelite monarchy after the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12) as a tool to help us understand the current political situation in the United States. I argued that four factors contributed to the demise of Davidic rule over the whole of Israel: 1) longstanding ethnic and geographical tensions, 2) the presence of conflicting ideologies, )3 the overuse of royal power (and perhaps an unequal distribution of its benefits), and 4) a tendency to compromise on matters of religious and/or moral importance. I then argued that each of these phenomena, to a lesser or greater extent, can be found in our own political context.

Now, we must turn our attention to the question of how we address these problems. Many people have attempted to propose solutions to what ails the American body politic, and most of them are a lot smarter than me. I’m just a Bible nerd, and, unfortunately, the Bible does not tell us how Israel solved its problems. (Indeed, the problems only got worse. The northern kingdom was eventually conquered by the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians.)

Nevertheless, I am convinced that at least some of the answers to our current woes can be found by carefully reflecting upon Israel’s story and by considering how it might impact us. In the paragraphs that follow, I present a few of my own insights, and I hope that you will do the same in the “Comments” section at the end of the blog.

Begin Where We Are

I think that we ought to begin by remembering the calling we have received as servants of Christ. Our first and primary responsibility is not to solve all the world’s political and economic problems. It is to make disciples for Jesus (cf. Matthew 28:16-20).

Some of you may have rolled your eyes, or even laughed out loud, at this suggestion. In this age of skepticism about the effectiveness of religious instruction and cynicism about religious motivations, it is hard to take anyone seriously who thinks that discipleship to Jesus really matters. But, then again, it is hard to find anyone who actually takes being a disciple of Jesus seriously. Perhaps we should not mock discipleship until it has actually been tried.

A more serious objection comes from those influenced by New Testament scholars like N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, and Scot McKnight (as well as those who belong to the so-called “missional church” movement). These folks rightly point out that the mission of Jesus was about more than just getting people to adopt a worldview or embrace a pattern of worship. It was about, in the words of Wright, “setting right” what has gone wrong with God’s good world. Hence, this stream of Christianity argues, we need to broaden our understanding of the gospel. It is not just about, in the words of Dallas Willard, “sin management.” It embraces every aspect of our lives as creatures embedded in the world and responsible for both it and one another.

With this objection in mind, it is important to note that I am not calling for a withdrawal from the world and its problems. I am simply suggesting that we cannot do all that Wright and others have correctly called us to do until we have been properly initiated into the fellowship of those who sit and learn at the feet of Jesus. Indeed, I am convinced (both as a Christian and as an ideological conservative) that this fellowship can do far more to positively impact our society than any government, political theory, or economic system.

Learn from Israel’s Mistakes

We would also do well to observe how God responded to Israel’s problems, particularly in the prophetic tradition. Over and over again, God told Israel to put away its idols and to practice justice. We would do well to do the same.

But what does that look like in our context? Two points come to mind. First, we need to examine how we, and our neighbors, spend our time, our money, our effort, and our talent. To what do we devote our lives, and why do we devote our lives to these things? We will quickly learn that, although we (for the most part) no longer bow down in front of statues of stone or wood, we do still worship things that are not God and that are not good for us. These things make claims on our lives that prevent us from living abundantly and that impede our ability to be good participants in our community.

Second, we need to stop obsessing so much about what justice looks like on a national scale and start considering what it would look like for each of us as individuals to act justly. Our practices as a nation mimic our practices as individuals. Moreover, the injustices perpetrated by individuals often have to be redressed by governmental entities. And those efforts often create more problems than they solve. If we, as individuals, would simply treat one another in ways that promoted the other person’s good, we would not need to give over so much of our money and our rights to nameless, faceless bureaucrats. We would have fewer problems, and the problems we did have could be solved more often simply by leveraging relational capital for the benefit of the individuals in our communities.

Invest in Civic Education

As the Trinity Forum has often pointed out, we as a society need to invest in civic education. Indeed, I would argue that we as Christians should lead the way in this important task. As Os Guiness rightly points out, this does not mean that we sacrifice our own capacity for careful reflection and discernment on the altar of the American Constitution. But it does mean that we help people understand what kind of republic the founders had in mind, how that republic works, and how its vision is different from the visions of other revolutionaries.

What does this task have to do with Israel’s history? Actually, a lot. It is important to remember that the law handed down to Moses by God was not just a religious document. It was also a civic document. So, when God commanded the people to teach the law to their children, He was commanding them to teach their children about how Israelite society was to be ordered. He was teaching them how to love their neighbor in a formal and public way.

When we as Christians do civic education, we need to do it from an explicitly Christian point of view. This means that we need to do it with three tasks in mind. First, we need to give people the tools to deconstruct the founding vision of America, exploring both how it is rooted in the peculiar convictions of the Protestant Reformation and how other influences shaped its ultimate form. Second, we need to help people see where our nation has acted in ways that are consistent with this vision and where it has acted in ways that are inconsistent with this vision. It is particularly important to demonstrate how the founders themselves did not always fully implement (or even understand the implications of) the vision, for, in so doing, we will help people understand some of the problems that still afflict our society today. Third, we need to give people tools that they can use to deconstruct the rhetoric of contemporary politicians and movements. In particular, we need to help them determine how such politicians and movements are consistent with and different from the founding vision of the nation, where these differences come from, and whether these differences are positive or negative.

Get Informed

We also need to be informed participants in the political process. The task of getting informed has two dimensions. We need to get informed about the theological requirements of our own faith. As Christians, we need to be experts in what God wants from us and what He wants for us. But we also need to get informed about the specific issues faced by our nation and the various people that inhabit it.

This second task is quite difficult. It requires that we know the scientific data of economics or criminology, but it also requires that we know the stories of women, African-Americans, victims of crime, and others who have been affected by the sin and dysfunction of our society. And, whether we are reading stories or science, we have to be an empathetic reader without being naive. We have to realize that no one tells their story or conducts their research in a vacuum., and we have to be responsible consumers of all claims to knowledge.

Confront the Elephant in the Room

Up to this point, I have tried to ignore the elephant in the room. Those of us who follow Jesus, to say nothing of everyone else in the American electorate, come to our involvement in politics from different perspectives. We tell different stories about ourselves, share different experiences (usually with people who have the same perspective as we do), and construct different ideologies on the basis of those shared experiences.

In other words, we disagree with one another—and not just about arcane matters of policy. We disagree about the values that ought to form the foundation of our democracy, about the principles that ought to form its structure, and about the heroes that ought to be celebrated as examples of our democracy’s highest ideals. And any attempt to appeal to Scripture or the Christian tradition as an arbiter of these disagreements will inevitably be seen as a naked play for power. After all, Karl Marx and Adam Smith have far more influence on how we interpret these sources of religious authority than many of us would like to believe, and the human thirst for power is far more active in us than we are willing to admit.

Nevertheless, we have to tackle the divide (or the divides) in our ranks, and we have to do so in light of the gospel. I don’t have any special wisdom or any prophetic insight that will make this an easier process. It is just going to take really hard work. And, we are going to have to experience the pain of having our motives, our values, or even our experiences questioned.

Why does this have to be so hard? We all (supposedly) have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, don’t we? Why can’t we just listen to one another in love and work out solutions that satisfy everyone? For one thing, the history of Israel’s prophetic tradition shows that not everyone who claims to be a faithful community member actually is one. There are, I am sad to say, a lot of bad actors, both in society and in the church. Not everyone is a person of goodwill; some people really are only interested in the acquisition and appropriation of power.

For another, many of the problems that we face are enormously complicated, and some do not have good solutions. It is just part of living in a fallen world. For example, everyone admits that we as a nation have too much debt and that we would be able to do more with the money we have if we did not have this debt. But are we willing to make the sacrifices necessary in order to pay off that debt? Are we willing to make drastic cuts to social security, national defense, Medicare, or Medicaid? Are we willing to allow our infrastructure to decay even more than it already has, and what would happen to millions of Americans who depend on poverty relief programs to survive if those programs had to be drastically curtailed for a generation or more? And what happens if we do nothing—or, even more to the point, if we continue to spend increasing amounts of money to fund new entitlements (universal healthcare, etc.) or to create a new infrastructure (high-speed rail, etc.)?

Problems of this sort tend to do nothing but accentuate the underlying differences in our values and principles. It might be easy for each party to give a little bit on various points if such compromise would actually yield a solution, but everyone in every ideological camp knows (whether they are willing to admit it or not) that real solutions to complex problems usually result in real pain. And real pain means people in power lose their jobs. (As one commentator said recently, “People don’t go to the polls to say, ‘thank you.’ They go to the polls to say ‘get out!’”)

We who follow Jesus need to model a different way of engaging in political dialogue. We need to use our understanding of the human condition and our commitment to human flourishing as points of departure for meaningful interactions about the future of our country. It is not just about finding common ground—although that would help matters substantially. It is not just about being more civil—although that, too, would help in many (but not all) cases. It is about allowing the Word of God to call into question our most treasured assumptions about our own experiences and about the common good. It is about looking to God for guidance with respect to issues that are much too big for us to solve. It is about coming to terms with the fact that nothing we do will ever be perfect and with the fact that there will always be trade-offs. And, above all, it is about being ruthlessly committed to the truth, whether or not it benefits our political party, our race, our gender, our geographic area, or whatever other subgroups we have taken into our identity.

Trying Something Different

Nothing that I have said in these paragraphs is unique. Nothing that I have said is profound. The main reason that they are worth saying is that we as a nation do not do them well. Indeed, we in the Christian community do not do them well. I do not do them well.

A new presidential election is only two years away. Congress is divided, and the courts are still a battleground. We can do things the same way that we have been doing them for the last thirty years. I guarantee that we will get the same results. Or, we can try something different. I hope that we will do the latter.


2 responses to “Are There Lessons That Modern Americans Can Learn From Ancient Israel? (Part 3)”

  1. Bill Lennips says:

    Thank you for your insights on these important issues. They were very enlightening, even from my Canadian perspectives. I have some problems with your implied suggestions that both David and Solomon engaged in on overreach of their calling.

    Using the same sources, like Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, I draw differing conclusion. I respectfully suggest that David’s main goal was to bring back Israel to their initial Mosaic calling. However, it was crucial that first the Promised Land be reclaimed from their many enemies. His son could then focus on the task of cleansing the people from their various forms of idolatry, including the unnamed idol Mammon. But David also addressed Israel’s religious problem by creating his library of Psalms, all of which encouraged the people to glorify Jehovah. That same Psalter also encouraged the tribes to end their obvious political divisions that so concern you, e.g. Psalm 133.

    With regards to Solomon I suggest that he left a far more powerful record of completing his father’s wishes than we realize. Unfortunately that record is easily the most misunderstood book in the entire Scripture, the Song of Solomon. That book is neither a series of ancient poems nor an account of the relationship between Christ and his church as is usually thought. It is in fact Solomon’s own eulogy regarding his efforts, successes, and failures of reforming the elect people of God. The difficulty with that eulogy is that, for perhaps understandable reasons, he chose to bury these accounts so deeply in euphemisms and metaphors that they are very hard to interpret. That book is in fact written in a format not unlike the 3D pictures with which we are familiar. The only difference is this document is a literary puzzle rather than pictorial. But like the images in a pictorial 3D photograph are invisible unless we see the entire internal arrangement so also can this Song not be comprehended unless the entire contents is understood. Allow me to show you three examples of this. Two relate to the time when Solomon was still the ‘crown prince’; the third relates his response to his coronation. Song 1: 2&3:

    O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!
    For your love is better than wine,
    3your anointing oils are fragrant,
    your name is oil poured out;
    therefore the maidens love you.
    It is usually assumed that these kisses, wine, and poured out oil refer to some sort of erotic adventure. But this scene has nothing to do with any of that. Rather, it simply describes the expectation the Hebrew people have from whoever is their ruler. It shows how they don’t care who is king as long as that person keeps coming the bread and the games. It simply describes the challenge that awaits the new king at every level. Hang their religion, hang also the tribal divisions, but also hang the king if he fails to deliver on these demands.

    Example two outlines the approach to reform by Solomon’s warrior father, (ch.1: 9-11):
    I compare you, my love,
    to a mare of Pharaoh’s chariots.
    10Your cheeks are comely with ornaments,
    your neck with strings of jewels.
    11 We will make you ornaments of gold,
    studded with silver.
    David understood that happy people are reluctant to break up their relationships. Many Psalms demonstrate that he wanted to do more reform work, but there was no hope for that until they overcame the dangers and poverty from previous times. Thus the aging David viewed Israel as an victorious Egyptian warhorse, the envy of kings everywhere. Their borders were secure; the remaining threat was the disunity within the tribes. The next logical move was to make them rich. Solomon understood the logic of David’s strategy. His challenge was to utilize these foundations in his own efforts at religious reform.

    The third example takes us to Solomon’s coronation parade. He must first re-assure the people that he will not put their security and wealth at risk. But they must also realize that things will be different. Song of Solomon 3: 6-11:

    What is that coming up from the wilderness,
    like a column of smoke,
    perfumed with myrrh and frankincense,
    with all the fragrant powders of the merchant?
    7 Behold, it is the litter of Solomon!
    About it are sixty mighty men
    of the mighty men of Israel,
    8 all girt with swords
    and expert in war,
    each with his sword at his thigh,
    against alarms by night.
    9 King Solomon made himself a palanquin
    from the wood of Lebanon.
    10 He made its posts of silver,
    its back of gold, its seat of purple;
    it was lovingly wrought within
    by the daughters of Jerusalem.
    11 Go forth, O daughters of Zion,
    and behold King Solomon,
    with the crown with which his mother crowned him
    on the day of his wedding,
    on the day of the gladness of his heart.
    So that was Solomon’s strategy to social and religious reform. David’s warhorse has been eliminated—Samuel’s warning that Israel’s young men would be conscripted may be dismissed. This new king rides in a litter, one with posts of silver and its interior decorated by the young folk of Jerusalem — Judah’s border town with the Northerner Benjamin! Yet the old bodyguard is retained to reassure the old folks. The sweet fragrances of numerous spices are overwhelming. It will take us too far afield to consider how ‘his mother crowned him’ when she was nowhere near the place where that happened. However, that curiosity together with the conspicuous column of smoke, were certainly signs that Israel was about to return to its Mosaic roots. No doubt these two interesting tidbits targeted the old-order Tabernacle crew. But without either of these two concepts there could in Solomon’s theology be neither a Covenanting God nor a Covenant people. That strategy seems to have worked well for the king until he received a royal beating by the temple guards, (Song 5: 7). In that same skirmish he may even have lost his temple privileges, all for the same reason that Saul lost his crown, (1 Samuel 13: 8ff.) After that everything changed for poor Solomon.

    I regret being so long-winded with my comments but wanted to demonstrate why I do not agree that either David or Solomon used excessive political overreach in their respective jurisdictions. Respectfully submitted,
    Bill Lennips.

  2. Wade Berry says:

    Thank you, Bill, for taking the time to read this blog (which itself was quite long) and for leaving a detailed response. I will make my reply brief. First, it is entirely possible for both portraits of Israel’s kings to be true. David and/or Solomon may have thought that they were being faithful to Israel’s God and to Israel’s law. They may have even been a force for positive change in some ways. And, at the same time, they may have burdened the people in ways that were problematic. Second, though I concede that there are many interpretive difficulties associated with Song of Solomon, I cannot endorse the interpretive approach that you have taken. That does not mean that your overall picture is inaccurate; it simply means that, for my part, I do not read Song of Solomon in this way. And I think that Solomon’s flirtation with idolatry bears witness to a deeper problem in his rule. Was he wise? Absolutely. But the Old Testament as a whole is careful to qualify the value of wisdom, especially if that wisdom leads to patterns of behavior that do not conform with Israel’s identity. Solomon did much that benefited Israel. Indeed, he did much that benefited the enemies of his son, whether they realized it or not. That point needs to be acknowledged. But acknowledging the good in his reign does not negate the fact that it had a dark side.

    Again, thank you for sharing your insights. Perhaps others will chime in on the issues that you raise.