26 Apr 2009

God and Government

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A colleague in Nashville (who is also an Austrian and a Christian) and I have been discussing the well-known passage in Judges (17:6) that says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

I think most American Christians believe that this passage condemns anarchy, i.e. a lack of what we all mean today by the term “government.”

But my colleague and I have been wondering if that’s a misreading. For sure, God certainly doesn’t seem to think that the absence of an earthly king is a problem. He famously warns the Israelites when they ask Him to choose a king over them (I Samuel 8):

10 Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle [b] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the LORD. 22 The LORD answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

So it’s clear that God may have thought it was important for the Israelites to have human judges but not a (human) king. I find this fascinating since I have mused on how a completely free market in law might function.

Incidentally, there is a more succinct way to handle the issue, found in Deuteronomy. The typical Republican Christian is right when he thinks, “You can’t have people just doing whatever is right in their own eyes!” And indeed, Moses tells the Israelites (Dt 12) that when they cross into the Promised Land:

8 “You shall not at all do as we are doing here today—every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes—9 for as yet you have not come to the rest and the inheritance which the LORD your God is giving you.”

OK, but then how should they behave? He explains in Dt 13:

17 So none of the accursed things shall remain in your hand, that the LORD may turn from the fierceness of His anger and show you mercy, have compassion on you and multiply you, just as He swore to your fathers, 18 because you have listened to the voice of the LORD your God, to keep all His commandments which I command you today, to do what is right in the eyes of the LORD your God.

So it’s certainly true that you can’t have “anarchy,” meaning people doing whatever the heck they feel like. But from that it does not at all follow that those who believe in the God of Moses should establish and obey human political rulers, certainly not as they exist in our modern nation-State, which in practice has truly been institutionalized evil since its invention.

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