An Anarchistic Reading of the Bible (5)—Prophetic Critique

Ted Grimsrud—February 23, 2015

 This is the fifth in a series of posts.

Part of the beauty and part of the frustration of the Old Testament is that it is mostly descriptive and not overly directive in its portrayal of the political economy of ancient Israel. Certainly there are various different perspectives reflected in the story—some seem quite positive about the monarchy and emergence of a hierarchical social order, others are quite critical of those developments. And the reader cannot always be sure which perspective shapes the various parts of the story. But we do have a lot of freedom for interpretation and application.

In reading the Bible for an anarchistic sensibility (note, I say a “sensiibility,” not an overt and thoroughgoing anarchist political philosophy), we can be comfortable with the diversity. I am not making a strong claim here but rather raising some possibilities and trying to see how much support there is in the story for an anarchistic sensibility (with the focus on two general points—a critique of the state and an affirmation of the possibilities of human self-organizing).

I won’t turn to Jesus’s message until the next post. I have been arguing that the Old Testament itself can be read as pointing in an anarchistic direction. I don’t think we need Jesus to see that. However, if we do see Jesus as inclined toward an anarchistic sensibility (as I will argue) and we also understand Jesus to base his social ethics and broader theology on the Old Testament, especially Torah and Israel’s great prophets, we might be more inclined to notice the anarchistic elements in the Old Testament and to expect that when we read it as a whole and read it as pointing toward Jesus, we will recognize that the anarchistic elements reflect the core storyline more faithfully than the monarchical elements.

The story of kingship

We get mixed messages about kingship among the Hebrews from almost the very beginning. Certainly the lack of human kingship in the creation story, in the stories of Abraham and his immediate descendants, in the exodus story, and in Torah (with only a few hints otherwise) is enormously suggestive. This society is founded and guided by God and non-kingly human leaders—and ideologically grounded in both a strong suspicion of imperial power politics and a sense of optimism about human potential for self-organizing.

However, we also learn of the fragility of the time “when there was no king in Israel” (Judges 19:1; 21:25). It seems almost natural—and probably inevitable—that the “elders” would want a king in order “to be like the other nations” (1 Sam 8:4-5, 20). The story is told as if God acquiesces to this desire of the elders and in fact directly participates in the selection of first Saul and then David as Israel’s kings.

David, especially, seems to go with God’s blessing. In 2 Samuel 7, a lengthy account details God’s covenant with David and gives a strong sense of permanence to the Davidic dynasty. When David dies, God tells him, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam 7:12-13). This surely refers to David’s son and immediate successor, Solomon, and his construction of the Temple.

It certainly seems appropriate to see this text as the product of pro-Solomon and pro-kingship elements in Israel. However, we may also read it in light of the rest of the story and see it not as an absolute promise so much as a kind of foil to the actual events that resulted in Judah’s destruction and the end of David’s line. The unconditionality of this promise in 2 Samuel 9 proves to be subordinate to the conditionality of the words of Joshua and the words to Solomon himself that promise destruction and failure should the people not follow Torah. This latter conditionality becomes central for Jeremiah and others who manage to spin the events around the destruction of Judah as confirmation of God’s presence and faithfulness to Torah.

The promise to David and his descendants is evoked in kind of an ironic way in the story of Jesus. As we will see, a strong emphasis with Jesus is the affirmation of him as a direct successor to David—like David, the “anointed one” (Messiah). However, Jesus turns the dynamics of Davidic kingship utterly on its head. Jesus’s “kingship” becomes a final repudiation of the territorial kingdom and its inevitably violent and corrupt human hierarchy.

The turning point of kingship in Israel comes very early in the story. Just two chapters after the proclamation of God’s “ever-lasting” covenant with David and his dynasty, we read of David’s fatal break with the ways of Torah. He spots beautiful Bathsheba, lusts after her, has her husband killed, and takes her (2 Sam 11:1–12:25)—with ultimately disastrous consequences for his own life, the institution of kingship, and the future of the kingdom.

Even the best of the kings ends up being a “taker”—just as Samuel had warned. The tale after David is mainly a sordid account of corruption and power abuse. Solomon’s abusive practices lead to a severing of Israel’s unity and the secession of a large part of the nation. However, the split mainly lead to a doubling of the corruption. The northern kingdom, borne out of resistance to forced labor and other oppressive practices, could not bring itself to break from the institution of kingship. The kings of both Judah in the south and Israel, with few exceptions, confirm Samuel’s dire warnings over and over again.

The story of Solomon’s rise and fall (1 Kings 1-11) points in several directions—an ambitious young leader who ruthlessly usurps his older brother and establishes himself in power, a gifted leader under the promise of God, a king wise beyond all others, the builder of the Lord’s house in Jerusalem, a greedy and power-hungry leader who systematically violates virtually all the stipulations given in Deuteronomy 17 for Israel’s king to remain faithful, and ultimately a worshiper of idols at whose death Israel split in two.

Solomon’s legacy may be interpreted in many diffeerent ways—as a rule he is honored in later biblical writings. However, in terms of Israel’s political economy he led the kingdom away from Torah and toward abusive kingly domination perhaps more than any other king. It is because of Solomon’s legacy that the prophets so assertively proclaimed messages full of anarchistic sensibilities.

The inevitable failure of the Hebrew kingdom

One kingship story captures the oppressive dynamics of Israelite statehood in an especially clear fashion. In 1 Kings 21, King Ahab, powerful and closely linked with his Baal-worshiping non-Israelite wife, Jezebel, goes after a vineyard owned and cared for by a Torah-observing Israelite, Nabath. Nabath won’t sell his vineyard because it is his inheritance and necessary for the future well-being of his family (a key provision in Torah to resist landlessness and social stratification). So Ahab exercises brutal power and has Nabath killed so he may take the vineyard.

He doesn’t quite get away with it, though. One of Israel’s great prophets, Elijah, intervenes—initiating what becomes a long pattern of prophets speaking on behalf of Torah and thus advocating for the well-being of the vulnerable in conflict with Israel’s power elite. Though Ahab wins the immediate struggle, Elijah’s witness versus state power endures in the tradition.

The story of kingship in Israel concludes with the frustratingly brief and cryptic account of King Josiah’s reign (2 Kings 22–23). Josiah institutes important reforms to try to avert the impending disaster facing the southern kingdom, Judah (the northern kingdom had fallen to the Assyrian super-power a century earlier). Josiah keeps his hand in the power-politics game, though, and while still quite young falls in battle with, ironically, Egypt’s Pharaoh Neco—a kind of reversal of the exodus story. It is only a matter of a few years after Josiah’s death that the end comes for the kingdom of Judah at the hands of the vicious Babylonian Empire.

However, the story of Josiah includes one element that plays an absolutely crucial role in the sustenance of the Hebrew peoplehood. Someone discovers the books of the law in the temple, and Josiah reads them and responds with repentance. This recovery of the law codes fuels his reform efforts. However, the reforms themselves were too little, too late, and did not permanently turn the tide. We are told that the sins of his kingly forebears, most notably his grandfather Manasseh, were too great (2 Kings 23:26). But the law codes remained available. Ultimately, the peoplehood did not need a king or a kingdom or a temple—Torah was enough to keep the story going.

The failure of Josiah’s reforms—along with the recovery of Torah and its solidification as the core to Israel’s identity—marked a major transition in the politics of the faith community. The community has moved from its start as the extended clan of the Abraham and Sarah’s descendents. With the exodus, the community emerged as a nation of many people centered on Torah and the liberative call of God. Initially, they settled in the land as a tribal confederation with territory to defend. They then took the turn toward kingship and a more typical power structure with a power elite, social stratification, and a standing army. The final stage, which continues throughout the biblical era and beyond is to exist as a peoplehood without geographical boundaries.

The prophetic counter-vision

The prophet Amos, the first of Israel’s “writing prophets,” entered the scene in the northern kingdom of Israel a couple of centuries after its founding. He voices a profound critique of Israel as a kingdom. In effect, he confirms that Samuel’s critique was accurate, that pursuing the kingdom route and becoming like the nations was a process of empowering kings and their allies to take and take—and to leave the social egalitarianism of Torah far behind. In chapters one and two, Amos unlooses a series of sharp condemnations of the various nations and their injustices, but culminates by lumping Israel and Judah with the others—no more “blessing all the families of the earth” as a Torah-guided counterculture.

Amos’s words indicate the close connection between a corrupt state and corrupt religious institutions. When the people of Israel went to worship, the act of worship itself was blasphemous because at that same time the worshipers were practicing horrendous injustices (4:4; 5:21-23).

What is the answer? “Let justice roll down like waters” (5:24). One key point for our purposes is the sense here that justice is not linked with the state apparatus. Amos does not have in mind state justice. In face, we should gather from his book a sense that true justice operates over-against the state. Amos advocates a theo-politics that sharply differentiates itself from a state-politics. The operative criterion is Torah’s call for social wholeness, which is the word of God. When the state underwrites social brokenness with its centralized power that serves the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the vulnerable, it is acting against God. It’s “justice” becomes injustice.

Hosea and Micah, near contemporaries of Amos, echo many of the same emphases. Hosea especially lays the responsibility for the corruptions and idolatries and injustices of ancient Israel at the feet of the leaders of the nation (Hos 5:1-15), specifically alluding to the priests (5:1) and the princes (5:10). Implied here, and throughout these writings, is the sense that the prophets who speak for the true God are a power center that was established and sustained over against state power—exercising an anarchistic kind of power of exhortation and visionary insight, not a coercive power of sword and punishment.

The only king in Israel or Judah between David and Josiah who is presented in a positive light is Judah’s King Hezekiah, whose reign corresponded with the ministry of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah, chapters 9 and 11 contain optimistic visions that could be seen as expressions of hopefulness about the possibility of a Torah-honoring kingship.

However, the actual content of the vision in Isaiah 11 can be read as a witness against the power politics that tended to characterize Israel and Judah. This vision (possibly an exhortation to Hezekiah who showed promise of being responsive to the prophetic witness) can be read as an echo of Deuteronomy 17 where the ideal king  fears the Lord (11:2) and judges the poor with justice and equity. Isaiah envisions a genuine theo-politics characterized by shalom and humility.

As with the vision in Isaiah 2 of the nations coming to Zion to learn the ways of peace, here too “the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples” and “the nations shall inquire of him” (11:10). One way to read these prophesies is as an exhortation to Hezekiah to put this kind of politics into practice. As it is, though, given the overall story, these words of Isaiah, like the commands of Deuteronomy 17, actually mostly provide a kind of measuring rod to show how utterly problematic politics as usual were in Israel and Judah.

The vocation continues without a kingdom

The hammer fell and the Hebrew kingdom bit the dust early in the sixth century BCE. The prophet Jeremiah played a crucial role in helping the people to understand that the destruction of their temple and kingdom was not due to a failure of God’s power. The effect of Jeremiah’s prophetic work was to give intellectual and spiritual backing to a reconfiguration of the self-understanding of this community. No longer was their vocation as carriers of God’s promise to be linked with territoriality. No more was this vocation to be understood as being compatible with the desire to make the peoplehood a nation like the other nations. Torah stands at the center—a blueprint not for state-centered politics but for decentralized, non-statist communities with an ethical calling to bless the families of the earth with a message of genuine shalom.

For example, the speeches in Jeremiah 7 were written during the exilic period following the fall of Judah to the Babylonians in order to explain that the nation’s inauthentic worship and its disobedience to Torah were the reasons for exile. The key theological point here is to make the fundamental distinction between God and the nation-state. God truly is independent of the kingdom—when it goes against God, God will oppose it. This distinction undermines the assumptions that buttressed the political hierarchy in the Hebrew kingdom. It provides the rationale for the decisive de-centering of state that makes the ongoing existence of this people possible without having a state. What matters is Torah—not as a system of rules so much as a philosophy of life, an ethos. The other key point to be learned in the midst of the rubble is that Solomon’s temple was corrupted by its political role. In reality, it had not been the “house of God” but the tool of the king. Israel would try again on the temple and build one that would not be closely linked with a state—at least for a while.

Later, in Jeremiah 29, we read a remarkable letter that Jeremiah writes to exiles in Babylon. His words to them could serve as the fundamental exhortation to the people in their new phase of living as people of the promise separated from a territorial kingdom. Jeremiah, speaking for God, exhorts his readers to “seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile” (29:7). Embrace this new diasporic existence as an opportunity to embody God’s shalom wherever you are—as a means of living in light of the promise that God will use Abraham’s descendants to bless all the families of the earth.

This new understanding of their vocation underlies the sense that is reinforced in the ministry of Jesus of a peoplehood that is permanently non-statist. Carry on the promise as small faith communities scattered around the world that have the freedom to embody genuine shalom and need not be burdened with the risks and corruptions brought on by territoriality.

Jeremiah also contains a powerful vision, at 31:31-34, of God’s “new covenant” characterized by God putting God’s “law within them.” This is a powerful articulation of the anarchistic notion of how self-organization can be understood. That people have “in their hearts” the capability to live fully and faithfully, independent of kingdoms and empires.

A generation after Jeremiah, the prophet whose words were attached to the prophecies of Isaiah spoke to Israel after their time in exile. Isaiah 40–55 contain a set of visions that speak to Israel after the Babylonian destruction of their kingdom. Their peoplehood will continue, but though they may return to their homeland, it will not be as a kingdom like the nations. The message of 2 Isaiah seems to be that the vocation to be God’s people will continue, but there is a lack of allusions to possessing land or having a human king (in fact, “rulers of the earth” are specifically mentioned as being made “as nothing” by God, 40:23). The sense of identity as people of Torah after exile is reiterated; they are restored in the land but not as a territorial kingdom (so, the visions here are complementary with diasporic communities; God’s people have a similar vocation inside and outside Israel).

A central figure in the visions of Second Isaiah is the “servant of the Lord”(Isa 52–53). Some see this Servant as a new way to look at Israel’s vocation. The Servant Songs make a contrast between the Lord and the nations’ “rulers” who despise God’s name (52:5). We read how the Lord will bring “good news” (a common term used for emperors’ victories, 52:7) and the Lord’s holy arm will be bared before the nations (52:10). Then what is revealed is the ministry of the Servant. The Servant’s politics are the politics of compassion and self-suffering, not of domination and top-down control.

Christians tend to see the Servant Songs as in some significant sense pointing ahead to the ministry of Jesus. Some focus the sense of connection with a theology of Jesus’s death as a saving sacrifice. However, if we recognize the political nature of the Servant Songs, and we keep in mind the other Old Testament political dynamics that reflect a kind anarchistic sensibility, we may see the link between the Servant Songs and the ministry of Jesus as having more to do with the kind of upside-down, anarchistic “king” that Jesus ends up being.

Finally, concerning the Old Testament’s anarchistic sensibility, the book of Daniel dates much later than the rest of the Old Testament (probably in the mid-second century BCE). It is a kind of resistance literature for a besieged community that seeks to sustain its identity as Israelites in face of efforts to destroy that identity. One element of the resistance is a clear effort to delegitimize the authority of the political elite of the world’s empires. In this way, Daniel adds a coda of a state-decentering witness to the entire story.

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