Democracy in the Old Testament: An Essay on the Eve of its Decline

By Nestor Ravilas

Consider this as an introductory piece in a prodigious project on Theopolitic initiated by Penuel School of Theology. In hope that this maverick move will offer us alternative biblical readings, those that are done in humility, clarity, sophistication, and careful analysis of available data. This project was primarily motivated by the threat that evil prospers when good (wo)men do nothing against it. The same way we perceived that bad theologies will keep dominating the public discourse when good theologians are afraid to take the risk of antagonizing their financial benefactors. To be good, we know, is a presumptuous claim, struggling would be the modest posture Penuel people can take.

This undertaking agrees on majority opinion that democracy is in decline. Not because promoting a collective good is a bad idea, rather such goal is hard to promote than pursuing personal interest. History testifies that what primarily holds back the consummation of democratic imagination is the drive for personal interest. Friedrich Hayek needs a little prodding to make us believe that pursuant of collective good is dictatorial stance that cuts into our freedom to pursue our ultimate self-interest. It is unwise therefore to say that democracy is in decline, it was rather in perennial precariousness from the beginning of civilizations where personal interest is the natural human inclination.

It was at this point that collective good has to be intentionally structured and politically supported. And it is in this structuring of Hebrew republic that Evangelicals obtusely missed in most of their theo-political discourses. While most sociologists and anthropologists appreciated much the innovative revolution Hebrew republic has done in response to the ancient “cosmological myth” which has exploited “personal interest” by mighty and strong leaders, we, Bible believing people, neglected this innovation and trapped instead into the idolatry of revering strong leaders as “divine representatives”.

Three things cited by most scholars that changed the field of political power by the establishment of Hebrew Republic which has been seen as basis in promoting “common good” against personal interest: (1) the driving off of God from the temporal world, (2) the Torah as law given by God, and (3) the creation of humans after the image of God. Despite the fact that there is an unsettling argument as to where did the records of early history of Israel compile and publish, let me proceed just the same discussing the three with tacit agreement that the political breakdown of the fall of two kingdoms and of the first temple and the subsequent exile were the political context of this revolutionary innovation.

The removal of gods from the temporal world is not a surprising narrative. Divine history of early civilizations claimed their gods once walked on the planet earth then for mysterious reasons left the earth to humans. This does not say however that gods have abandoned completely the earth. The fusion of divine and political power remained in the figures of earthly leaders who claimed to be sired by the gods. Thus, in Egypt, where the Israelite claimed to be enslaved for many years, the pharaohs were fathered by Ammun-Ra. These leaders ruled as sovereign, which in early modern period perfectly defined by Jean Bodin as rulers whose power is absolute and perpetual.

The removal of the Hebrew God from the temporal world and the act of creation told in a manner that God was presented distinct from what he created is obviously done to remove sovereignty outside of the created world. And the refusal of this God to give his name to the supposedly divine representative, Moses, says only that the true sovereign remained apart from the world and no human can claim be in “blood” relation with God. Not even Moses! That is the background why the entire humanity was condemned on the sin of desiring to be like God in the early chapters of Genesis. God is the only sovereign, and She doesn’t share this divinity to anyone and She stays outside to keep sovereignty away from human reach.

Does it mean therefore that God has abandoned Her creation? There’s the twist that surprised most scholars. The giving of the Law proves otherwise. God remains in contact with Her creation, and the Law shows Her intention to govern as the sovereign Her creation.

In Egypt especially in second millennium, their political theology assumes that kings made the laws but their gods will execute the final judgment. In Israel’s innovation, however, God was responsible to their legal tradition and She will carry out judgment at the same time. The 613 stipulations of the Torah have an overwhelming agreement from all the books of the Old Testament of their divine origin.

No king was sired by Yahweh, and no king has legislated any of the instruction in the 613 commands in the Torah. Yahweh is the only sovereign and everyone is subject to his rule and laws, including kings and high priests! Everyone is answerable to the only and true Sovereign!

What then is the theopolitical implication of the phrase that humans were created after the “image of God”? Promoting human agency is the most progressive opinion I have heard. That is after all a consoling idea. But the phrase is not original to the Bible. The phrase was a common epithet attributed to Egyptian Pharaohs because they were considered as children either of Ammun-Ra or Osiris. That provided them innate privileged position. To say therefore that humans, not only kings, are created after the “image of God” does not only entail human agency, but equality among humans!

No doubt that historical trauma, political breakdown and history of frustration will compel us to gear us towards innovative reform to a more life giving social and political arrangement. Few were able to see the Hebrew Republic as a catalyst towards such renewal and reform on their perspective of the relation of religion and politics, or political theology. A kind of theopolitical discourse that deprived us of for letting the most naïve, but entertaining, among us to dominate the public space. The false repugnance to scholarly discussion could no longer shelter us from our pretension and shallow understanding of the rich tradition of Judeo-Christian wisdom. And to this task, Penuel is committed to dive, despite the fear that it might disturb the market, which is holding hostage not only politics, but even theological enterprise.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close