The Politics of Ancient Israel

Ancient Israelite political models of only limited value in understanding contemporary politics.

By Norman Gottwald
Westminster John Knox

When I began to work on this book, I encountered a troubling obstacle to discerning the politics of ancient Israel. I realized that all the political leaders in the Hebrew Bible were at the same time religious figures, and all the political institutions mentioned were simultaneously viewed as religious institutions. Moreover, the biblical descriptions and evaluations of politics were almost entirely cast in a religious voice, to such an extent that it was difficult to grasp the specifically political character of ancient Israelite life. The success or failure of every political regime seemed to hinge on the religious policies and practices honored or violated during their incumbency.

This casting of politics into a reflex of religion was aggravated in the extreme by the widely recognized fact that the religious standards used to evaluate Israelite politics were largely those developed during the Deuteronomic Reform of the late 7th century. These standards were applied anachronistically to the tribal and monarchic periods from the late 13th century onward. In effect, political leaders were declared good or bad on the basis of religious standards that were not in force in their day. Thus, we have a two-fold blow to our understanding of Israelite politics: not only is the politics obscured by religion but the reformist religion used to assess politics was unknown to the political leaders on whom it is unfairly foisted.

How then are we to access politics so distorted after the fact by retrospective religious judgments? To surmount this obstacle, I decided on two methodological moves. The first was to bracket the overload of late religious glossing of politics in order to locate the probable political and religious challenges faced by political leaders from era to era in Israel's history, as well as the resources and options available to them. What remained was a sketch of Israel's political history with many gaps and uncertainties. A second methodological move was necessary in order to fill some of the biblical gaps and to provide a comparative basis for viewing Israel as an ancient Near Eastern polity. This is best accomplished by drawing on archaeology, ancient Near Eastern texts, ancient Near Eastern political history, and comparative social sciences.

My resulting reenvisioning of Israelite politics is one that will seem strange to biblical readers accustomed to the religious guidelines by which Israel's history is normally read. The usual reading of Israel's religious and political history is what I call a "triumphalist back-reading" in terms of the eventual emergence of Judaism and/or Christianity. On this reading, the aspects of old Israel that carried over into later Jewish and Christian belief and practice are highlighted as a more-or-less unbroken course of development, while those aspects that were dropped are dismissed as "heterodox." In contrast, the reading of Israel's religious and political history at which I arrived is what I call a "non-triumphalist forward-reading" in terms of the contingencies and crises at each stage of the history, taking into account all discernible religious stances relevant to politics and without any attempt to force the outcome in a direction compatible with present day religion. This, of course, means that I "suspend" the canonical status of the biblical writings in order to let them speak for themselves in the context provided by extrabiblical sources. I do so in the confidence that the value of biblical religion and politics for today will have to adjust to the down-sized reading that I conclude best accords with ancient Israelite experience.

With this context in mind, let me describe the gist of my critically imaginative account of ancient Israelite politics.

  1. Ancient Israel passed through three major zones of political organization in its long history from the 13th - 12th centuries to the end of the biblical period, which for my purposes I define, against all prevailing convention, as the 2nd century C.E. These three zones of political organization may be characterized as the tribal era (ca. 1225 - 1000 B.C.E.), the monarchic era (ca. 1000 - 586 B.C.E.), and the colonial era (ca. 586 B.C.E. - 135 C.E., interrupted by a brief revival of the monarchy under the Hasmonean dynasty, 140 - 63 B.C.E., and extending on for centuries thereafter until the inclusion of Jews as citizens of modern states). These eras did not totally displace one another, since institutional and ideological aspects of the tribal era live on under the monarchy, and both tribal and monarchic memories and aspirations appear in the colonial period. Nevertheless, these three zones or horizons constituted the dominant and determinative political regimes in three successive eras of ancient Israel's history.
  2. The determinative literary voices of the Hebrew Bible speak from a colonial context in which traditions from tribal and monarchic times are assembled, often revised or glossed, and included either within or alongside fresh traditions. As a result of this elongated literary trajectory involving sources that are cumulative and temporal in depth, political data about ancient Israel are "dispersed" and "scrambled" throughout the sources. While the dominant political perspective is colonial, some of the details and dynamics, as well as the ideologies, of tribal and monarchic politics are retained amid the recast traditions. These surviving features of pre-colonial politics can be assessed for their plausibility in the light of extrabiblical information and with the help of comparative social science models.
  3. An examination of the rich trove of archaeological finds and abundant information about ancient Near Eastern states demonstrates that the Israelite monarchic experience recounted in the Hebrew Bible is a familiar instance of the many small to mid-size tributary monarchies in Syro-Palestine, many of whom interacted commercially, diplomatically, and militarily with Israelite states. Substratum of politically authentic information in the Bible is thus separable from its heavy-handed religious overlay.

    As a tributary monarchy, Israel's political structures and strategies were remarkably similar to those of other such agrarian states ruled by small elites whose lifeblood was drawn from a peasant population vulnerable to famine, warfare, taxation, and debt. Israelite states engaged surrounding states in diplomacy and warfare, participated in shifting alliances, and in the end were destroyed by two of the dominant powers, Assyria and Neo-Babylonia.

    In spite of the biblical premise that the Law of Moses predated the tribal and monarchic eras and that its laws should be regulative of Israelite politics, there is very little indication that these laws had significant effect on Israel's kings or even that most of the laws were known to them. In all fundamental respects, Israel's monarchy was like other ancient Near Eastern monarchies, oriented to the interests of the ruling elite and for the most part dismissive of the interests of the populace at large in spite of the political rhetoric trumpeting their just and peaceful rule.

  4. Taking into account advances in our knowledge of the multiple, often competitive, forms of preexilic Israelite religion, it is reasonable to conclude that the cult of Yahweh, while a creative force in the tribal era and the official state religion under the monarchy, was neither dominant enough nor sufficiently unified in its diverse manifestations to shape the politics of the Israelite states in a decisive manner, even though various versions of Yahwism were enlisted in political causes and conflicts. A royal theology, premised on a divine covenant with David and the sanctity of Jerusalem, gave ideological validation to the state, but it was counterbalanced and often opposed by familial, local, and regional forms of Yahweh worship, especially in the north but also in Judah. This broad spectrum of non-Jerusalemite practices is summed up by the author of Kings as illicit worship at "the high places."

    Worship of Baal and Asherah, either openly or in sublimated form in Yahwistic circles, frequently added to the Israelite religious melange. Prophets, variously aligned with diverse forms of Yahwism, sometimes supported but more often criticized the foreign and domestic policies of kings. It would not be amiss to speak in the plural of the religions of ancient Israel prior to the reforming monotheism of colonial times.

  5. The frequent claim that somehow the covenant-based religion of Yahwism, stemming from Moses and associated with reforming kings such as Joash, Hezekiah, and Josiah, was controlling or even influential in monarchic politics appears mistaken. Even though Deuteronomy tries to subject the king to the covenant mediated through Moses, it is clear that few kings before Josiah and none after him regarded themselves beholden to covenant politics. The "people of the land" referred to in some texts were ad hoc groupings with particular political interests and not a representative assembly of leading citizens or a council of state. Prophets who railed against state politics had no political channels to work through other than to confront the kings and their bureaucrats directly with religious inducements and threats. Israelites who might consider themselves equals under Mosaic Yahwism were not "citizens" in a constitutional state but "subjects" of a tributary state. Such "seeds" of democracy or popular rule as might be located in the Hebrew Bible are at best implicit in its religious pronouncements and critiques but not in the political practice it reports. The frequent theme of royal obligation to enact social justice is more indebted to a general ancient Near Eastern notion than to any specific Israelite religious dictum.
  6. Less biblical and extrabiblical information is available concerning tribal and colonial politics. Nevertheless, a feature of the political traditions in the Hebrew Bible that is not found in other ancient Near Eastern states is its inclusion of a sizable body of traditions from the tribal era, largely concentrated in Joshua and Judges. While a history of the tribal era, or even a full profile of its social organization, is not reconstructible at present, the clear signs of a loose pre-state association of peasants and herders are evident in the biblical text and in archaeological finds.

    Why was this eccentric body of pre-state lore preserved? The answer appears to be that it served the political and religious interests of subsequent Israelites, especially in the colonial era when Israelites were thrown into a stateless condition analogous in some ways to the tribal period. In reinforcing the attribution of Israelite law to Moses, colonial Israelites were downplaying the failed monarchy and reconnecting with the traditional fountainhead of the tribal period. To be sure, we have no historical evidence of an exodus or of a Moses, but their prominence in biblical lore attests to the importance that colonial Yahwists attached to cultural and religious foundations independent of monarchic structures and policies. Traces of such non-statist, even anti-statist, foundations are discernible in the fragmentary tribal traditions that have survived editing and reediting.

  7. So we are brought to a critical question: If the tenacity of ancient Israel as a people is not creditable either to its political institutions or to a completed revelation of its religion to Moses at the beginning of its history, to what factors and forces is that tenacity and creativity to be attributed? My tentative conclusion is that the cultural and religious vibrancy of Israel's tribal era, surviving as a substratum under the monarchy, eventually fructified the energies and commitments of colonial Israelites to fashion a fundamentally "a-political" mode of communal life. In the process, the ancient tribal cult of Yahweh, emerging out of its Canaanite milieu, enriched by royal, wisdom, and prophetic elements during the monarchy, was shaped into the literate monotheism of colonial times. The evolving Hebrew Bible caught up traditions from the several stages of this religious development, downplaying politics but not entirely effacing the political counterpoints to this long cultural and religious struggle.
  8. The politics recounted or implied in the Hebrew Bible, however, is not sufficient to grasp the full course of biblical politics vis-a-vis its religion. In my view it is necessary to extend the story line well beyond the usual "ending" of the biblical era in the 4th or 3rd century B.C.E. My study convinces me that the fundamental sociopolitical and religious dynamics of the biblical period extend on as far as the 2nd century C.E. In this misnamed "intertestamental" period, Israel made three bids for political independence, once successfully against the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire and twice unsuccessfully against Rome.

    The eighty-year rule of the Hasmonean dynasty was opposed by many Judahites because of its religious irregularities and its socially repressive policies, to such an extent that in the end Judahites preferred rule by Rome rather than by corrupt native kings. But soon the yoke of Roman rule grew heavy and two uprisings by Judahite nationalists in 66-70 and 132-135 C.E. were crushed. In this same period, the religion of Israel had an institutional center in the Jerusalem Temple until it was destroyed in 70 C.E., and it cherished a body of traditions carrying considerable authority but not as yet delimited in contents and, more importantly, not as yet submitted to a commonly agreed upon hermeneutics. As a result many "brands" of Yahwistic religion competed for dominance but without resolution until the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism.

    It is to be noted that the blossoming of Rabbinic Judaism, with its delimited canon and consensual hermeneutics, was made possible by the utter failure of the attempts to reestablish Israelite statehood. Provincial in their religious interests and alienated from large numbers of their fellow countrymen, neither the Hasmonean state nor the Jerusalem Temple priesthood was able to achieve religious stability among the competing forms of Yahwism. It was the "a-political" lay rabbis who managed, via Mishnah and Gemara, to fashion a communal polity in which longstanding arguments about textual interpretation and cultic practice could be peacefully adjudicated. Only with this rabbinic achievement is it correct to speak of Judaism in the singular, since all that preceded it were various "Judah-isms." In one stroke, the rabbinic consensus shaped the Jewish community as a "surrogate state" under the aegis of a life-affirming and socially bonding interpretation of canonized scripture.

Looking back over the whole course of Israelite politics, I believe it is fair to say that the Israelite people never managed to develop a political structure that matched the creativity and novelty of the culture and religion they produced. Moreover, beyond a general aspiration that their form of rule should be accordant with religious ideals and respectful of ordinary Judahites, they never developed a conception or model of political order as a viable alternative to the tributary or imperial state. The political visions they entertained harked back vaguely to tribal comradeship, or longed for a truly righteous king, or projected harmonious rule by the righteous after foreign and domestic sinners would be annihilated all of these nostalgic and utopian visions, powerful as protests against abusive politics, depended on religious loyalties as the basis for resolving the dilemmas inherent in the exercise of corporate power. But the hoped-for religious solidarity was itself an issue of political dispute, and the longed-for derivation of the ends and means of political order from religious solidarity remained unspecified and unrealized.

Finally, what is the contribution of ancient Israelite politics to contemporary political thought and practice? I conclude that the legacy of ancient Israelite politics provides us with no distinctive politics and with no template for translating culture and religion into a viable polity. To be sure, ancient Israel's politics have been repeatedly mined for the support of the divine right of kings, revolution against unjust authority, covenant-based commonwealths, liberal democracy, religious nationalism, anarchism, capitalism, and socialism.

This habit of biblical proof-texting to validate one or another form of politics has been tempting because of the religious and cultural authority invested in the Hebrew Bible. The small "grain of truth" in this practice is that the unsystematized and unreconciled political structures, practices, and viewpoints expressed in the Hebrew Bible contain elements that appear to have certain affinities with a wide spectrum of western political systems. The nearest "whole view" of ancient Israelite politics I have been able to conjure in my critical imagination is that of a tributary agrarian monarchy, preceded by a loose association of tribes exercising diffused power and authority, and followed by semi-autonomous religiocultural enclaves incorporated into monarchic empires.

As far as I can determine, none of these political forms is transferable into contemporary politics. They cannot be transferred as a whole, or in selected parts, if only because the course of world history has unfolded far beyond the adequacy of ancient models to do more than inform us of the sources of some of our notions and sentiments about politics and to highlight political dilemmas that have been with us since "the dawn of civilization."

The modern state of Israel, committed to its biblical roots, has not been able to recuperate a coherent biblical politics that can resolve the conflicting claims of religious nationalism and liberal democracy. Various attempts to conceive the United States theopolitically as a "New Israel" have foundered on the shoals of religious diversity and liberal democracy. The gulf between culture/religion on the one hand and politics on the other was never successfully bridged in ancient Israel, nor has it ever been in the long and uneasy relations between these two divergent networks of social power. The rise of liberal democracies, with their separation of church and state, attests to the systemic weaknesses and gross abuses of polities grounded in religion, while leaving unsettled the ontological and moral foundations of these religiously neutral states.

My conclusion that biblical politics are of limited value for contemporary political theory and practice should not be construed to imply that there is no basis for judging between political systems and particular political establishments. It is rather to say that our political judgments must involve a web of pragmatic, historical, moral, religious, and philosophical considerations, within which the Hebrew Bible is but one modest resource, more cautionary than instructive in its effects. Indeed, those biblical interpreters who invite us to revel in the literary artfulness of the Hebrew Bible, without trying to draw lessons from it, may offer the wisest counsel on biblical politics. It is perhaps the very "disconnect" between religion and politics that constitutes one aspect of the enduring attraction of the Hebrew Bible, since in its pages we are invited to rehearse critically and imaginatively the political dilemmas that still bedevil us in a modern/post-modern world and thus to note how even the most religious of peoples can flounder when it comes to politics.

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