An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (4)—Conquest and Kingship

Ted Grimsrud—February 16, 2015

 This is the fourth in a series of posts.

We find an intense struggle at the heart of the Old Testament story—and hence at the heart of the biblical faith. It’s a political struggle. We could characterize it as a struggle between the “Empire way” and the “Torah way.” According to the story, following the liberation of the Hebrews from enslavement in the Egyptian Empire, they started a process of finding out how to embody the liberation they had experienced. God provides them with a blueprint for liberated existence, the law codes, Torah.

The story treats it as a matter-of-fact development that this liberated community would take over and settle in the land of Canaan, where they could seek to embody Torah and ultimately bless all the families of the earth. However, the process of entering the land and then sustaining their life in the land was complicated. Could the land be gained without extraordinary violence, given the unwillingness of the inhabitants of the land simply to turn it over? Can the community be sustained as a territorial political entity with borders to defend and an identity to protect without moving towards an empire-like political economy? Can the anarchistic sensibilities I identified in previous posts survive?

The “conquest of Canaan”

On the one hand, the story of the forcible entry of the Hebrews into Canaan does have important parallels with the story of the Exodus—parallels that point at least somewhat in an anarchistic direction. On the other hand, especially when read in light of the ultimate outcome of this excursion into linking with promise with territoriality, this part of the story ends up being a pretty sharp repudiation of statehood as a channel for the promise.

The actual “conquest” where the Hebrews take over the land is notable in how the victory depends on God’s direct intervention, not on generals, warriors, horses, chariots, and careful human planning. The picture, surely not at all realistic, is of a decentralized, ad hoc, even rag tag group of invaders whose success depends upon God’s actions and whose victory does not empower military leaders and a revolutionary vanguard. God is the leader from beginning to end, and the particular events tend to reinforce the sense that this is not the beginnings of a traditional political kingdom but something different.

A paradigmatic story is the victory at Jericho. Here the Hebrew “warriors” have the main task of “fighting” by shouting and blowing trumpets (6:20). When the dust settles in the book of Joshua, and the Hebrews are in possession of the land, they do not have the beginnings of a militaristic and hierarchical kingdom in place that emerge from the successful invasion led by a power elite vanguard. To the contrary, the initial days of the Hebrew community in the land were characterized by a decentralized, tribal structure and a notable lack of horses and chariots.

Though the story is told as if the Hebrews, with God’s guidance, were conquering the entire populations of the Canaanite kingdoms, we are at the same time told who specifically the opponents were: “All [the kings’] troops, a great army in number like the sand on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots; all the kings joined their forces” (Josh 11:4-5). These opponents are described in ways reminiscent of Pharaoh’s Egypt—with the sense too that the victory over these forces is based on God’s direct work, not the greater forces of horses and chariots marshaled by the Hebrews.

As Joshua 11 makes clear, the violence visited upon the Canaanites was extreme—even genocidal. This story is deeply problematic—and not only for pacifists or anarchists. However, we must not fail to note the elements of the story that point away from the top-down power politics of nation-states. This conquest is kind of an upside-down conquest, seemingly meant to overthrow horses-and-chariots-centered power itself, not simply replace one purveyor of that kind of power with another.

At the end of the Joshua story, in chapter 24, “all the tribes” are gathered “before God” for a final accounting of the situation. The people are in the land and the Canaanites (at least for the moment) are subdued. What kinds of political values are hinted at in this stocktaking scene?

Joshua gives a summary of the Hebrews’ forebears who helped bring them to their present moment. In his list of important people, notably there are no kings or generals named. The founding of this new country is not built on a foundation of human power-wielders. God is the agent of their victories. So at this beginning moment, we learn of a kind of “theo-politics” as opposed to a kingly politics. And who is this God? A liberator, the source of justice and mercy—not a dominator, controlling God with a human king as his main representative.

Joshua goes on to emphasize that the presence of the community in the land is contingent. They must serve God alone and not other gods. As implied in the content of Torah and in the problems that follow, to serve God alone meant, politically, to establish and sustain a society based on God’s justice and mercy. Certainly, the God of the Hebrews is portrayed as a violent, jealous, “holy” God—though this portrayal is more complicated than has often been perceived. This God is never only (or even mainly) violent, jealous, and “holy.” This God is very different from the gods that buttressed the power politics of the nations and empires that surrounded Israel.

Joshua in broader perspective

Following the exodus, we are given the sense that to live out Torah, the people need a particular place, that this vision of human flourishing must be embodied and lived out in the flesh in order to lead to the promised blessing. However, we are also given the sense that the only way to imagine such an embodiment of Torah would be in a territoried community, a geographical region with boundaries and sovereignty as a people. However, also, from the start we get the sense that this existence in a territoried community is contingent upon faithfully embodying Torah—the landedness is meant to serve the vocation, not to be an end in itself.

As it turns out, to be established in a particular land will require violence. People will need to be displaced, and the community will require coercive force to maintain its borders. There seems to be no way to have territoriality without also having violence, even if from the story of the exodus it is clear that this necessary violence is not meant to be the monopoly of a centralized human power structure. Instead, at the beginning the “necessary” violence comes in the form of God’s direct intervention.

So, when Joshua leads the Hebrews into the promised land, the land of Canaan, inevitable violence takes place—on a large scale, as the story is told. The story makes it clear that this violence is God’s and, at most, the human role is quite secondary. The on-going human leadership in the community is not based on gathered military might but on faithfulness to God’s commands.

Throughout Joshua as the people enter the land, Judges as the people settle and establish their on-going community, and the first part of 1 Samuel, the necessary violence remains ad hoc and does not lead to permanent structures of power—no standing army, no collection of generals, no human king.

As it turns out, the tension and sense of insecurity without such structures of power prove to be intolerable for Israel’s elders. These elders make a decisive move to restructure Israel’s politics to “be like the nations.” Kingship in Israel does indeed lead to centralized power, wealth accumulation in the hands of the few, disenfranchisement for the many, and a militarized society.

The disasters that befell Israel, the destruction of the kingdom and the temple, followed from the failure to sustain a commitment to the ways of Torah. As it turned out, however, the loss of territory opened the possibility to revisit the initial tension between a community established with decentralized power dynamics and the need for territoriality. This time, the community was able move toward the decentralized power side of the tension instead of the territoriality side.

Beginning with Jeremiah 29 there is an embrace (or at least an explicit acknowledgement) of a vision for carrying on the promise in a way where scattered faith communities would “seek the peace of the city where they found themselves” rather than harking back to a vision of a geographical kingdom as the necessary center for the sustenance of peoplehood and the vocation of blessing the families of the earth.

The Joshua story is crucial as it indicates that territory is not possible without violence. As we notice the movement of the biblical story, we get the sense that what Joshua sets up is a kind of experiment. Will it be possible to embody Torah in concrete life through controlling a particular territory that might be administered in just and peaceable ways?

We see that the very means of establishing Israel in the land carried with them the seeds of failure. Indeed, the land could not be secured without violence—and once the land is secured, the dynamics of violence do not disappear. The initial tension between a decentralized, theo-politics on the one hand and territoriality on the other hand came to be resolved on the side of territoriality. That is, Israel could not be sustained apart from the centralized authority of kingship and its attendant power politics.

However, as Deuteronomy 17 warned, such a politics of domination could not help but undermine Torah. Such a politics could not help but be corrupt and violate the very conditions of existence in the promised land. As the story tells us, in the end, after the Babylonian conquest, Israel again will be presented with the tension between territoriality and theo-politics. This time, in tentative ways, the tension is resolved on the side of theo-politics. Certainly, the strand of the biblical tradition that culminates in the ministry of Jesus clearly resolves the tension in this way. The result is a political vision that profoundly shares many characteristics with modern anarchism.

When we reread the Joshua story in the light of these later developments, we can’t help but recognize that the violence there is quite stylized and exaggerated. In exaggerating that violence, the story of Joshua helps display the inevitability of the dead end of power politics and the impossibility of the promise being channeled through the state. That is, Joshua itself points toward anarchism by helping to clear away the illusion that theo-politics ultimately could find expression in a territorial kingdom.

The story the Bible tells, then, becomes precisely a story pointing toward a kind of anarchistic politics—decentering the state (rejecting empire and the coercive maintenance of geographical boundaries) and (self-) organizing for shalom apart from the state through decentralized communities of faith that are open to all comers.

The witness against kingship—Judges 9 and 1 Samuel 8

The story between Joshua’s farewell address in Joshua 24 and the revelation of Saul as Israel’s first king in 1 Samuel 9 and the subsequent general acceptance of this institution, contains a couple of strong statements in opposition to Israel taking on a human king. These statements point to an ideological opposition to centralized human power structures.

The book of Judges tells of a great deal of political unsettledness in Israel during the time of the tribal confederation. Ultimately, Judges seems to anticipate the desire for a king with its concluding story of Israel’s terrible civil war, apparently the consequence of the lack of a person at the top: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25; cf. also 19:1).

However, Judges also contains a strong counter-kingship message. The practice of the tribes coming together in times of need under the leadership of an ad hoc “judge” worked well when the judges were faithful. A key example comes with Gideon, who led the people to victory in face of the Midianite threat (Judges 6–8). The people seek to make Gideon a dynastic king and he refuses: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you” (8:23).

As it turns out, though, Gideon’s son Abimelech does try to establish himself as king after Gideon’s death (Judges 9). His rule lasted only three years and he died in disgrace. He gained power partly by murdering seventy of his brothers, all except Jotham, the youngest. Jotham them witnesses against Abimelech’s claims for kingship with a parable. The olive, the fig and the vine all benefit humankind without any need for power. Only the worthless bramble aspires to power (9:8-15). That is, human kingship founded on the exercise of unaccountable power over others is contrary to the way God has made and providentially governs the world.

After the ending of the book of Judges, though, with the wry editorial comment that without a king people do what is right only in their own eyes, readers are set up for what follows. First, Samuel arises as a powerful and faithful judge. However, his work does not assuage a growing desire on the part of the social elite in Israel (the “elders,” 1 Sam 8:4-5) for a restructuring of their society to be more “like the nations” (1 Sam 8:5, 20)—most notably involving a human king.

Samuel, as God’s spokesperson, voices strong opposition to the elders’ request for a king. In doing so, he articulates the heart of the anti-kingship bias of overall biblical story. He provides a description of what in fact Israel’s kings will do and gives the rationale for ultimately understanding why this chapter of the people of the promise existing as a territorial kingdom turns out to be a detour, tried out and permanently rejected. That is, Samuel’s critique in 1 Samuel 8 serves as a key articulation of the “suspicion-of-the-state” element of the Bible’s anarchistic sensibilities.

Samuel describes the inevitable descent of human kingship into the practice of taking, taking, and taking some more from the people. “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots” (1 Sam 8:11-12). Kings centralize their power and militarize their society—by taking young men and turning them into soldiers and indentured servants.

Kings take much more as well: “He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers…. He will take … the best of your cattle and donkeys and put them to his work …, and you shall be his slaves” (1 Sam 8:13-17). Kings gather wealth from the community at large and create a socially stratified society with a few wealthy and the many dispossessed and poverty stricken. The kings will lead to a repudiation of Torah and a return to life as the Hebrews knew it in Egypt.

The story that follows shows just how right Samuel was.

2 thoughts on “An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (4)—Conquest and Kingship

  1. Ted, this is where I think you need to recognize more ambiguity, and also the potential (ie: contextual) legitimacy of a biblical reading that insists on the positive potential of a “state” (‘government’ in our day or ‘king’ in the ancient world).

    For instance, if you distinguish between the “empire way” and the “Torah way,” it is clear from Josh. 1:7-8 on that this is presented as a “torah way” and not that of empire. So while I agree with you that this is a profoundly problematic book, it does not just present a counter-example (ie: that violence is necessary or inevitable for holding land), but presents itself precisely as an example of Torah-following. I agree with Matties that Joshua, as it stands now (a previous ‘version’ may well have been different), is not primarily a “conquest narrative” at all but a call to Torah discipleship. Of course, the difficulty is that the Torah itself presents this ‘slaughter’ (herem) as a divine command — but, what is less often noticed, is that this has to do with both Canaanites AND apostate Israelites (Deut. 7, 13; Josh. 6, 7). I don’t think portraying this as a contrary example works too well in your system (or takes the book itself seriously enough).

    More importantly, Judges reflects a biblical account of an “anarchistic” society, and it is not pretty. While you focus on an “anti-kingship message” early in the book, there is little doubt that by the end it is looking forward to a king precisely because of the chaos and violence of an ‘anarchistic’ mode.

    Finally, where you insist on an “anti-kingship message” in Judges, you do not mention at all the strong PRO-monarchic perspective also present in I Sam. You are of course right to note Samuel’s speech re: the dangers of having a king. You do not, however, mention ch. 9 and elsewhere where the king is described in glowing terms, precisely as God’s instrument to “save” or “bring salvation”, here linked to military victory over enemies. In other words, the king is described in largely the same mode as the judges you portray positively in the previous book. You do not mention either that Samuel seeks to set up his OWN children as leaders — in other words, he too wants to set up a hereditary system and is in part against the monarchy because this challenges his sons…

    My point is not to dismiss your observations; you are making some helpful points here. Rather, what we have here is not a complete dismissal of kingship, but rather a debate over the substantial drawbacks but also potential benefits of this mode of centralized governance. And again, it is in part this diversity that I think is essential to maintain. For you in the US I can see how an ‘anarchistic’ reading that challenges the claims of centralized government, etc. may be a key ‘gospel’ message (and, intriguingly, one that seems fairly consistent with the “Tea Party-ers”, albeit not re: the military). At the same time, there are many in our world who identify and live daily with the chaos depicted at the end of Judges, for whom the possibility of a just ‘king’ (a centralized authority or functional government) may well hold a key ‘good news’ message (Congo, Nigeria, Syria, Afghanistan, Colombia among them).

    In other words, we CONTINUE to contextually discern and debate the appropriate and tyrannical possibilities of ‘kingship’ (government). Is there room for an appropriate role for government in your reading, or is this ‘out of bounds’? I hope we can empathize with those Christians for whom more (and better/less corrupt!) government looks like good news, even if we think otherwise in our own context(s).

    Best, Derek

  2. In concert with Derek’s affirmation of your edgy insights but criticism of the very comfortable United States Tea Party (or Old Orders) philosophy of decentralization, separation or segregation of the righteous or regional citizens’ life worlds, I long for the writing of “the old Ted” who wrote about deep democracy rather than anarchy.

    It seems to me that it is easy for those of us who live on College Avenue in Harrisonburg, VA or Richmond, IN or Waterloo, ON to essay on anarchism or on Anabaptist radicalism. I hear weekly from former students and colleagues in Nigeria, most of whom have been displaced from their homes, schools and churches by the anarchism of Boko Haram. They now have their tentative hopes on the upcoming elections to bring some good governance to the chaos and violence of the northeast territory of Nigeria.

    Unless one hopes to live in a Tea Party, an Old Order, a Utopia or an ideology of anarchy in an Ivory Tower, a deep democracy must discipline not only all theories of kingship or politics but also all theologies of Torah, Koran or Gita.

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