The Political Order of Ancient Israel
By Jefferson White
Canaanite gate at Megiddo, Israel
This is Chapter One of The Political Theory of Christ (2015).
The political order of ancient Israel both precedes and prefigures the political theory of Christ. And the heart of the Israelite political order is the continuing intervention of God in Israel’s political history. There is also the covenant that is created between God and Israel. However, the covenant is just one aspect, although the most important aspect, of that intervention.
Stop any serious Christian on the street today, anywhere in the world, and ask him or her this question: What was the fundamental difference between the people of ancient Israel and every other people of the ancient world? And if that Christian is orthodox in belief, he or she will inevitably answer that the difference was that Israel alone trusted and followed the one true God. Scripturally speaking, the formulation is axiomatic; it is fundamental. For the orthodox believer in Christ, the only real distinction between ancient Israel and every other ancient people was that Israel alone followed God.
We tend to forget how radical a proposition this is. Worse, it is more than a matter of our forgetting. In today’s America, for example, we are in the process of being spiritually re-educated. Most Americans are now taught from childhood – by the public schools, by the mass media, and by popular culture – that all religious beliefs are equal. The dominant American culture now requires that orthodox Christians, at the very minimum, will keep public silence when this common belief is stated. Indeed, the orthodox Christian belief that only one people can know God is in the process of becoming a thought crime. According to the dominant culture, the belief that God singled out a single people as the “chosen people,” while leaving the rest of the world in spiritual darkness, is a belief that can no longer be tolerated in any advanced society. And yet this belief is the spiritual foundation of both Judaism and Christianity.
But for the sake of argument, let us momentarily embrace the proposition that all religions are equal. Let us put aside, for the moment, the belief that God chose Israel alone to be His people among the peoples of the ancient world. And let us attempt to understand the history of Israel on the supposition that no such divine favoritism existed. Now if we do this, we may discover, perhaps for the first time, just how unique Israel’s history was.
In the rest of the ancient world, no distinction was made between true and false religions. Not only was this distinction not made, but it was a distinction that could not be made. What some scholars have called the “cosmological consciousness” of the ancient world entailed the universal conviction that all religions were true and that it was only their power relationships that had to be worked out. For example, every state in the ancient world, except for Israel, considered itself to be a microcosm of the cosmic macrocosm. That is to say, every state in the ancient world, apart from Israel, viewed itself as a reproduction, in miniature, of the cosmic order. Therefore, when one state warred against another, the gods of the victor state were believed to have defeated the gods of the defeated state. And the defeated gods were assimilated into the pantheon of the gods of the stronger state, just as the people of the defeated state were assimilated into the people of the stronger state.
This universal “cosmic consciousness” also entailed the complete merger of religion, politics, and nature. It was intellectually impossible for the peoples of the ancient world to distinguish between these three things. The natural order, like the political order, was a microcosm of the cosmic macrocosm. All events in nature possessed a causal connection to events in politics and to events among the gods. In other words, the peoples of the ancient world, apart from Israel, were literally unable to distinguish between what happened in nature, in politics, and in the cosmic order. They were all one thing. And this universal belief entailed the further belief that there could be multiple causal explanations for any event. Every accepted causal explanation was considered to be true, even when those multiple causal explanations logically contradicted one another. Logic had nothing to do with causality. If today it is almost impossible for us to understand this way of thinking, this is because we are not the spiritual heirs of that ancient pagan world. We are the spiritual heirs of Israel, since it was Israel alone that first decisively broke with this form of universal consciousness.
First of all, Israel served a God Who was the only God. This entailed the belief that there were no other gods except for this one God. Today most of us think that we know what this means. It means that Israel was the first “monotheistic religion.” But the radical difference between Israel and the rest of the ancient world goes far deeper than this. For Israel believed that this one God was completely separate from the cosmic order, having created it. This was also a belief unique to Israel. Every other god in the ancient world existed within the cosmic order and was bound to that order. The Israelite God alone created the cosmos and the cosmic order. Thus the cosmos was not the ultimate reality, but was merely a “thing” that God had created. Although, by late antiquity, the belief in a common, universal religion arose in several parts of the world – in Iran, in China, and briefly in Egypt – the belief in a God who completely transcended the cosmos arose only in Israel.
Therefore the political order of Israel, unlike the political order of every other ancient state, was never viewed by the Israelites as the microcosm of a cosmic macrocosm. Indeed, the Israelite political order was the opposite of a microcosm. It was the mundane product of a covenant, or treaty, which had been concluded within history between the Creator of the cosmos and the people of Israel. This belief that Israel had made a covenant with the Creator of the cosmos was also unique to Israel. There are no parallels to this belief anywhere in the ancient world. In the rest of the ancient world, the state was only a reflection of the cosmic order. In Israel alone the state was the creation, within history, of a relationship between the people Israel and the Creator of the cosmos.
Which means that we have a mystery: since if the Israelite God is a myth, if the Creator of the cosmos did not intervene in Israel’s history, then there exists no rational explanation for why the Israelites believed what they did. The religious beliefs of ancient Israel simply appear out of nowhere, without historical parallel or antecedent.
Archeologist and historian Henri Frankfort:
The dominant tenet of Hebrew thought is the absolute transcendence of God. Yahweh is not in nature. Neither earth, nor sun nor heaven is divine; even the most potent natural phenomena are but reflections of God’s greatness. It is not possible to even properly name God…sacredness and value remain attributes of God alone, and the violent changes of fortune observed in social life are but signs of God’s omnipotence. Nowhere else do we meet this fanatical devaluation of the phenomena of nature and the achievements of man: art, virtue, social order – in view of the unique significance of the divine. It has been rightly pointed out that the monotheism of the Hebrews is a correlate of their insistence on the unconditioned nature of God. Only a God who transcends every phenomenon, who is not conditioned by any mode of manifestation – only an unqualified God can be the one and only ground of all existence. (1)
Now the primary truth of God’s revelation to Israel is that it is God’s revelation that alone is true. And this entails the corollary belief that all other religions are false. Again: in the rest of the ancient world, every religion was assumed to be true; it was just their power relationships that had to be worked out. But Israel’s understanding of the divine entailed the belief that since there is only one God there can be only one truth. And this entails the further belief that the rest of the world lives in spiritual slavery to a radically false conception of reality. For the rest of the ancient world believes in many gods: none of whom exist. Israel alone possesses the truth, the truth revealed to Israel within history, by the one, true God. And again: this is a conviction unique to ancient Israel. It is found nowhere else in the ancient world. The rest of the ancient world is bound to a cosmological consciousness in which politics, nature, and religion are a single, interlocking microcosm that reflects a cosmic macrocosm.
Historian and philosopher Eric Voegelin:
It is a matter of empirical knowledge that the cosmological myth arises in a certain number of civilizations without apparent mutual influences…the same type of symbols occurs in the China of the Chou dynasty, as well as in the Andean civilizations, where Babylonian or Egyptian influences are improbable. The state of empirical knowledge makes it advisable, therefore, to treat the cosmological myth as a typical phenomenon in the history of mankind rather than as a symbolic form peculiar to the order of Babylon, or Egypt, or China…The breakthrough [to a new form of consciousness] was achieved only among the peoples of the Syriac civilization, through Israel. (2)
At a later date, the ancient Greeks broke with this cosmological consciousness. But they did so in a radically different way. In Greece, philosophy was the method that allowed an elite group of thinkers to move from a cosmological to a revelatory understanding of reality. Similar to Israelite belief, the Greek philosophers held that there was a radical disjunction between true and false religion. Plato even invented the word theology to denote true religious belief. Philosophy was therefore believed by its practitioners to lead to a true revelation of the divine. However, the Greek revelation was not of a personal God Who intervened in history. Greek philosophy claimed to be a revelation of the divine through the clarification of ideas about the divine. And it was ideas about the divine that were true. Thus the Greek and Hebrew concepts of revelation are radically different. They agree only that there are true and false religion.
Greek philosophy also has no radical political implications. This is often misunderstood by modern scholars. Greek philosophy enabled the elite few, those who were able to understand the divine wisdom, also to understand the true nature of politics. But that is the full extent of the relationship of philosophy to politics. Modern commentators who credit Plato with creating utopian political theory therefore misunderstand Plato’s philosophical revelation. This is because Plato makes a radical distinction between the political truth that can be discovered by philosophical intellection and the actual politics that occurs within history. Plato’s political philosophy is anti-historical. It is devoted to distinguishing between true and false ideas about the nature of the divine, and therefore is about the true nature of politics in light of the divine order. For Plato, the philosophical analysis of politics is really a study of the divine order and only secondarily a study of the political order. Because the divine order completely transcends human existence, and therefore does not enter history, the philosophical study of the divine order can never be anything more than an analysis of how actual political orders fail to reflect that divine order.
For Plato, Greek society, like every other society, was but a pale reflection of the divine. Although Plato taught that a “philosopher-king” would be the best ruler, this was because the philosopher’s understanding of the divine would enable him to govern wisely. However, this had nothing to do with establishing the divine order within history. By definition, the divine order could not be established within history. It was only the philosopher’s ideas about the divine that were real. To the philosopher, the human and the divine were radically different poles within the matrix of reality. The only real connection between them lay in the philosopher’s understanding of that connection, which was only understood within the realm of ideas.
Thus the Greek understanding of politics was radically different from the Israelite understanding. But they did have one thing in common. In Israel, a completely transcendent God stood apart from the political order, meaning that the Israelite political order could never be identified with God. In this, the Greek philosopher and the Hebrew prophet were agreed. However, unlike the Greek conception of the divine, Israel’s God continually and also personally intervened in Israel’s actual history to maintain the Israelite political order. The Israelite God was both transcendent – existing radically completely apart from the political and natural orders – and personally involved in the political and natural orders. God even sent human delegates, the prophets, to declare His Will against the Israelite kings and people when they violated the covenant. The prophets were divinely commissioned, meaning that they had an authority that was independent of the authority of the Israelite state. This, too, was unique to ancient Israel. In the rest of the ancient world, religion always served the state. In Israel alone, God and the prophets stood completely apart from the state and pronounced judgment on that state.
The politics of ancient Israel rested upon a radical separation of powers between the political and religious authorities. Such a separation of powers existed nowhere else in the ancient world, including Greece. It was God’s intervention in Israel’s politics, through the agency of His prophets, which created this separation of powers. Every other state in the ancient world rested upon a unitary conception of state authority, in which there was only one authority that included within itself both the political and the religious orders. In Israel alone, there was a radical separation of powers: first, between God and man, and therefore between man and man.
Most modern scholars point to the covenant that was created between God and Israel as Israel’s fundamental political reality. But the covenant was a secondary phenomenon. The covenant existed only because of the recognition that God transcends the political, social, and natural worlds, and therefore an accommodation must made, in the form of the covenant, between God and Israel. It is this recognition of the radical separation that exists between God and man that is fundamental and which is then bridged by the covenant. This radical separation, which already exists, must be defined and managed by the covenant.
In the rest of the ancient world, the gods and the state are one. The gods act through the state and their own fate depends upon the rise and the fall of the state. Only in Israel do God and the state exist in a radical tension that denotes a complete separation between the political and religious order. God is never identified with the Israelite state nor do His power and authority depend upon the continuing existence of that state. And since, in human terms, a covenant or treaty can only be established between equal claimants to an agreement, the covenant that God makes with Israel involves, or imputes, a kind of equality between God and man. But this equality is only imputed by God and exists only under the terms stipulated in the covenant. Once again: there is no historical parallel, in the ancient world, to this covenant.
According to the scriptures, before the time of Abraham (circa 2000 BC), God dealt only with individuals. Because of God’s personal relationship with Abraham, and due to the covenant concluded between them, God agreed to deal with the descendants of Abraham as the inheritors of that covenant. By the time of Moses, those descendants were a great nation. Following the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, God now makes another covenant, this time with the people of Israel as a whole. After the Israelite settlement in Canaan, individual judges arise, at the direction of God, to temporarily lead Israel in times of crisis. Later a kingdom is established, with first Saul and then David and his descendants as kings. Over the next four centuries, God sends His prophets to challenge the kings and people of Israel and Judah when they stray from the covenant.
In the rest of the ancient world, the state continues to embody the cosmic order. The state is the conduit through which the gods act and by which the cosmic order is localized. Most of the kings of the ancient world are priest-kings and some are even god-kings. In Israel alone, God stands completely apart from the state and completely apart from the cosmos, while personally and continually intervening in Israel’s history. The kings of Israel are not permitted to become priests. In Israel alone, the state is not divine. In Israel alone, there is a radical separation between the political and the divine, while God acts as the chief protagonist in Israel’s political history.
Throughout these many centuries, the Israelite consciousness of the radical tension existing between God’s purposes and the purposes of the Israelite state grows and deepens. God’s ongoing intervention in Israel’s political history permanently creates, in the Israelite mind, the conviction that God’s authority exists radically apart from political authority and that God sits in judgment on that political authority. A radical separation of powers defines Israel’s politics.
Note the phrase we have used: the separation of powers. The phrase is familiar to us today because modern constitutional government also rests upon a separation of powers. The phrase as we use it today, of course, denotes a division of political authority among an independent legislature, an independent executive, and an independent judiciary. However, in this book, the phrase “separation of powers” is going to take on a much wider and more radical meaning. It will be used to describe, not only modern constitutional government, but the essential character of Western political history since the time of Christ.
The phrase “separation of powers” was first coined in seventeenth century England. It was invented by certain Puritan political thinkers, in the middle of the English Civil War, in an attempt to conceptualize the new political relationship that now existed between King and Parliament. The phrase “separation of powers,” does not appear in history before this time. Indeed, we know almost the moment in which the phrase was first used.
Historian of political theory M.J.C. Vile:
The failure in the sphere of practical politics of the attempt to find a workable compromise [between King and Parliament] resulted in the creation of conditions in which [the idea of] mixed government seemed irrelevant, and the way was clear for the new doctrine…[The] doctrine of the separation of powers may begin with the work of Charles Herle, a supporter of the Parliamentary cause. (3)
In this book, our use of the phrase “separation of powers” will include the seventeenth century English understanding of Parliamentary independence from the king. It will include the later three-fold separation of powers that became the framework for the American Constitution. But we will also use this phrase to denote the existence of multiple sovereignties at any point in history in which multiple sovereignties appear. Thus the phrase “separation of powers” will be used to describe the political order of ancient Israel, because Israel is the world’s first example of the existence of multiple sovereignties, between the kings and the prophets. We may even discover that the seventeenth century English revolt against the English King was a result of the English Puritan belief that the king had violated the political covenant binding Englishmen to him. We may even discover that the Puritan writers who coined the phrase “separation of powers” were trying to delineate the idea of multiple sovereignties because that idea is implicit in the idea of a covenant.
There is no more radical separation of powers than the separation of powers between God and man. This means that every separation of powers within history derives from this primary separation. As we will see in our analysis of Western political history, human beings in the West have continually sought to relate to each other in the same manner in which they relate to God. And this is why ancient Israel is not just the world’s first example of a state based upon a separation of powers, but represents the beginning of Western political history.
For it is with the resurrection of Christ that this separation of powers becomes the political basis of the Western world.
1. Henri Frankfort and H. A. Frankfort, “The Emancipation of Thought From Myth,” in Henri Frankfort, et al, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1946/1964), 241 and 243.
2. Eric Voegelin, Israel and Revelation (1956), 14.
3. M. J. C. Vile, Constitutionalism and the Separation of Powers (1967/1998), 43.
The Political Theory of Christ
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