An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (3)—Exodus and Torah

Ted Grimsrud—February 9, 2015

 This is the third in a series of posts.

My argument that the Christian Bible, when read as a whole, reflects a strong anarchistic sensibility certainly has at its center the life and teaching of Jesus. However, the heart of the Old Testament story—exodus and Torah—also provides important support for seeing the two main components of this sensibility (a strong suspicion of state power and an optimism about human potential for self-organization) as biblically grounded.

The exodus story is remarkable in how it contrasts the main characteristics of the Hebrews’ God with the main characteristics of the Egyptian empire. Given what follows in the rest of the Bible, it seems appropriate to see Egypt not simply as one specific opponent to the Hebrews in the ancient past but as a representative of power politics in general that is meaningful throughout the story and down to the present. Egypt also provides the model over against which the social philosophy of Torah is articulated—a model of bottom-up power over against Egypt’s top-down power.

Our introduction to Pharaoh: Genesis 41

When we simply read the Bible from the beginning without thinking about what comes later, our first encounter with Pharaoh, the god-king of Egypt, is pretty benign—at least on the surface. The morality tale of Joseph, the eleventh son of Abraham’s grandson Jacob, among other things, gives us an account of how the people of the promise ended up in Egypt.

Joseph is sold into slavery by one of his brothers (who did this to save Joseph’s life after the other brothers left him to die in the desert). What follows is an amazing story of Joseph’s wisdom and God’s providence that places Joseph next to Pharaoh as a key adviser. Joseph’s brilliant suggestions provide a plan that will save the lives of many in face of severe famine—including Joseph’s own family.

On the most obvious level, Pharaoh is presented as a wise leader, willing to listen to his bright subordinate and act in ways that to help people survive the famine. But, it is also clear—especially in light of the story’s sequel in the book of Exodus—that Joseph’s advice shrewdly greatly expands Pharaoh’s power and wealth. In exchange for providing people with scarce food, Pharaoh gains title to their land.

Fatefully, for Joseph’s family, the loss of land causes the next many generations to suffer Joseph’s own fate—their enslavement as landless laborers. When we eventually learn of a Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph” coming into power, we also learn of severe oppression against the Hebrew people. What started as a relationship seemingly characterized by Pharaoh’s benevolence becomes a dance of exploitation and death. This new Pharaoh, typical of those with great power, remains insecure and is threatened by the growing numbers of these Hebrew slaves. So, he seeks to grind them down into insignificance. As they suffer, the Hebrews cry out, seemingly without knowing by whom their cries might be heard.

The Bible’s core salvation story

Gods hears the cries of the Hebrew slaves and “remembers” the promises God had made to Abraham. We probably are not meant to think so much that God had forgotten those promises as that these cries set in motion events that reflected God’s commitment to the process God had started in given Abraham and Sarah descendents—blessing all the families of the earth. It is extraordinarily important to note that God’s human agents for implementing these blessings were powerless slaves. God intervenes to liberate them in a way that discredits power politics in general rather than simply transferring the mantle of centralized power from Pharaoh to a Hebrew king. And God provides a blueprint for their embodiment of their liberation, Torah, that in its most important aspects is a blueprint for a decentralized, broadly empowered community.

The Pharaoh of the early chapters of Exodus displays every characteristic of how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Though holding apparently unchallenged power, Pharaoh remains insecure and ever anxious to sniff out and squash any potential limitation to his domination. It is interesting that this person is never given a name. Perhaps one point of significance is that that anonymity makes it easier for us to see Pharaoh here as an ideal type of the on-going phenomenon of such insecure “absolute” power.

Pharaoh’s violence is boundless. However, he was right to feel insecure in that, as all such leaders, his reign still depended on the consent of those he ruled. That the Hebrews had no investment in Egyptian society meant that they had no loyalty. All it would take would be some kind of catalyst to pull them together and withhold their consent to continue in their role.

God’s answers to the cries was to call up a leader, Moses, who would provide such a catalyst. Moses’s power was prophetic, moral, and charismatic—not the power of force or social position. There is no class of power elite in this community, no kings and no generals. The story presents the power coming from God and being channeled through Moses the prophet. And the power that is exercised to extricate the Hebrews from slavery is spontaneous, God’s intervention through what we could call “nature miracles.”

As a consequence of the work God did through Moses and through God’s direct intervention, ultimately Pharaoh’s hold is broken over the slaves. They manage to escape. Symbolically, the flight through the Red Sea portrays a moment when the bewitchment of Pharaoh’s seeming absolute power to define the Hebrews’ reality is broken. In that moment, they turn from Pharaoh and Egypt, and break free. The tenuousness of the moment may be seen in the immediate crashing down the parted Sea once Pharaoh comes to his senses and decides to stop the exodus. Pharaoh is just too late, and his own troops and horses and chariots pay the cost.

Though thrilling and inspiring, this story is also troubling. God’s direct intervention leads to death—most terribly, the deaths of young children when the angel of death passes through Egypt, as well as the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers when the Sea crashes down on them.

We may note several aspects of the story that may help us keep the violence in perspective. For one thing, clearly the main agent of violence in the story is Pharaoh. Pharaoh has created an environment of severe systemic violence. When the Hebrews are empowered to resist, it is impossible to imagine that such a violent system would not inevitably respond with more violence. The violence linked with God’s intervention may best be seen as the outworking of the dynamics of violence established by Pharaoh. Perhaps God’s way of bringing about liberation here was the least violent possible. Certainly it is possible to imagine much more violent scenarios.

As well, it is crucial to see the political outworking of the liberative events for the Hebrews. Those events did not rely on human actors whose own power was enhanced by their roles as leaders of military revolution. The result of the exodus events was to keep God and the weapon-less prophet Moses as the political center—not human kings and generals. That is, the exodus events actually created the possibilities of an anarchistic sensibility to be central to the political philosophy that would shape this new community. And we see clear evidence of this kind of sensibility in the society’s social blueprint, Torah, and in the early generations of this community’s common life.

Nonetheless, the exodus story is quite dangerous. The story can, on the one hand, fuel the infamous “propaganda of the deed” sentiment characteristic of some anarchists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that underwrote numerous violent deeds that greatly undermined the anarchist cause. On the other hand, the story can be remembered mainly as a story about violent deliverance and not as a story where God rejects both Pharaoh-like power politics and military-centered revolutionary strategies. The actual dynamics of the story point toward nonviolence (certainly on the human level), decentralized political power, and the rejection of domination.

Most of all, the exodus story shows us that anti-slavery and oppression are in God’s heart, and that God’s purposes with humanity have to do with empowerment and freedom.

Torah and political philosophy

We need a careful and thorough anarchistic examination of Torah, as presented in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It would seem to me that our two key points (suspicion of the state and optimism about self-organization) are both profoundly present. Here, I will only be able to touch briefly on three texts that give us a bit of a sense of what an anarchistic reading of Torah could emphasize.

We have several versions of the Ten Commandments. This preamble to the law codes establishes that the community’s God expects the people themselves to be able to follow the core moral expectations. These initial commands emphasize the high potential that people have to live faithfully. The core here is simply the appeal to wholeness that stems from God’s initial gift of life and freedom. Because God mercifully delivered you from slavery, you should want to live as free people. And this freedom is the fruit of life lived with trust in God.

The call to “have no other gods” is not an authoritarian demand by an all-powerful God whose agent of enforcement is a coercive state apparatus. Rather, it’s a call to turn from all rival claimants for ultimate human loyalty—such as the nation, wealth, and power—and to turn toward the shalom for all of the faith community God has established through granting freedom to this community of former slaves.

In Torah, there is a tone of decentralization, of respect for the self-organizing capabilities of the community, and of compassion for the vulnerable ones on the margins of the community. We encounter over and over again the sense that the health of the community is to be discerned in the wellbeing of the vulnerable ones—much more so than in the wealth and power of the elite. This sense of what matters most in the community follows directly from the foundational identity statement concerning God and this community: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Deut 5:6-7).

Sabbath laws and resistance to centralization of power

One important place where God’s concern for the vulnerable in the community is emphasized is in the book of Leviticus. At the heart of the “Holiness Code” in chapters 17–26 we find the legislation in chapter 19 about tending to the needs of the widows, orphans, and aliens in the community—those without familial status that would assure their wellbeing. This is emphasized in this way: “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (19:34). A Torah-centered society seeks the empowerment of all in the community and resists the hierarchical stratification that typically empowers the elite at the expense of the vulnerable.

The Sabbath legislation provides practical directives for keeping power and wealth well distributed. The weekly Sabbath Day was to be a reminder of the community’s dependence on God and a celebration of their freedom from slavery (there were no Sabbath Days in Egypt). Leviticus 25 describes the Sabbath year that was meant that every seventh year. The land shall rest every seventh year, good stewardship of the land but also a reminder that land in the community is for the health of all, not a commodity to provide for the wealth of the few.

We learn elsewhere that the Sabbath Year was also a time for equalizing power, as every seventh year debts were to be canceled (Deut 15:1), thus negating one of the main engines for the concentration of wealth and power in a few hands.

The even more profound Sabbath Law was the Year of Jubilee. This was to be the fiftieth year, where property is to go back to its original owner—again an attempt to resist the development of social stratification and to keep all in the community vested in the wellbeing of the whole community. This law was meant to sustain a social order with decentralized power.

The basis for the Sabbath legislation was the conviction that ultimately God owned everything, not individual people and families. And this was the God who delivered slaves and who empowered God’s people so that they might bless all the families of the earth. It was a God who overthrew empires and brought down the powerful.

The ideological bases for rejecting kingship

Deuteronomy 17 contains a fascinating passage that seems a bit out of place in the broader context of the books of the law. Only here do we get a hint that the Hebrews might establish a human kingship. On the surface, this seems to be in tension with the general sensibility in Torah that points toward decentralized power and opposes hierarchies.

However, a careful reading of the actual legislation leads to the suspicion that these commands are here not to support the turning toward kingship so much as to provide a basis for sharp criticism of the actual kingship that emerges in Israel. The kingship described in Deuteronomy 17 requires the king to be subordinate to Torah—itself a radical demand that no Israelite king came close to meeting. The Deuteronomy 17 king would not gather wealth or weapons of war and would not “acquire many wives” (that is, enter into alliances with outside kingdoms not bound be Torah).

As it turns out, when we look at King Solomon, we will see how these expectations were systematically not met. In fact, the actual story of Israel’s kings is a story of the utter failure of this institution of state power to function in a way that would be compatible with Torah. So there is a sense that the laws for kings in Deuteronomy 17 actually provide the bases for a rejection of kingship. We will see, when we look at a few of the stories of the kings and the end of the Israelite kingdom, the point of the story seems to be precisely this—the way the promise of blessing all the families of the earth through God’s people will not be linked with a territorial kingdom.

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