The Hebrew Bible, the Enlightenment, and Theocracy

In texts replete with detailed regulations for a wide range of activities, the absence of institutionally-based enforcement of religious orders is striking. It highlights an important value for the Hebrew biblical text: that religious observance remains the responsibility of each individual and is not a political token to be bartered or even compelled. For the Hebrew Bible, the moral dimension of individual freedom is not subject to political coercion.

See Also: Reframing Politics in the Hebrew Bible: A New Introduction with Readings (September 2017, Hackett).

By Mira Morgenstern
Department of Political Science
City College of New York
September 2017

Readers of the Hebrew Bible sometimes contend that its portrayal of the dual role Moses played as both religious and political leader of the Israelites clearly demonstrates that it upholds theocracy as the best political system. On this reading, the leadership of Moses represents organizational unification of religion and state, along with its inevitable moral outcome: no true freedom of choice to deviate from the set path of religious actions and worship (because punishment for malefactors is so swift).

But there is another way to read the texts, both in terms of the organizational structures of the relations between religion and state, and the degree of moral autonomy vouchsafed to the Israelites. In this view, the early stages of the relationship between religious observance and political organization need not – and should not – be seen as defining the normative relationship between these two domains. According to this approach, the union of religious and political power in the figure of Moses is remarkable largely for being presented by the Hebrew Bible as unique in Israelite history (Deuteronomy 34:14).

After Moses’ death however, and particularly as narrated by various books of the Hebrew Bible, a different set of considerations comes to the fore. In the pages of Deuteronomy, the Israelite monarch is warned against misunderstanding the nature of his position. According to the Hebrew biblical text, the monarch is not fundamentally different from any other Israelite—thus, he may not have too many wives or horses, and he may not be prideful (Deuteronomy 17:15). By the same token, he may not proclaim himself to be Divine: to guard against that equation (common in the world in which kings often construed themselves as priests or deities), the king must keep a copy of the Torah—which the Israelites recognized as God’s Divine writ—with him at all times, and read from it always; that is to say, the monarch must recognize that he is bound by the Divine word as is any other Israelite, and must not confuse his possession of political power with being Divine (Deuteronomy 17:18–20). This is a direct consequence of Hebrew biblical monotheism: belief in the one God that reigns supreme means that no political ruler can be confused—or be allowed to confuse himself—with God.

The ruler’s lack of identification with God raises another question: once a human ruler is charged with governing the people, what is the place of God in the system of governance? Within the Hebrew biblical texts, there is the open recognition that the advent of institutionalized political power generally means that God will no longer play the traditional role that He had played in the early stages of the political life of the Israelites.

This point is made clear in the dialogue between the (prophet and judge) Samuel and God as depicted in I Samuel 8:7: Samuel interprets the Israelite request for a king (with its attendant assumption that Samuel’s own sons are not acceptable to the Israelites as leaders) as a personal rejection of him. God hastens to correct Samuel: “…for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them (my emphasis).” While this dialogue has often been interpreted as a sort of “lamentation contest” (who is really the more aggrieved: Samuel or God?), its textual context makes it clear that God is commenting on an inevitable consequence of establishing a centralized government that will necessarily dominate the local tenor of life that had previously obtained.

The introduction of a complex polity concomitantly implies that for the most part, God will withdraw His palpable presence from the daily life of the political sphere. The consequences of this development are crucial, as the relationship between politics and monarchy becomes more complicated. New questions come to the fore: Does the separate identity of political power from Divine being extend to the enforcement of Divine writ? If God is displaced from the obvious workings of the political sphere, to what extent must the human holder of political power supervise the polity’s observance of religious law? In more contemporary terms, to what extent is the enforcement of religious observances separate from—or alternatively, a function of—the political realm in the Hebrew Bible?

Analyzing the Hebrew biblical texts in order to answer to this question brings us to the discovery – surprising in so ancient a document – of the consequences for moral autonomy enabled by the distinctive state-religion relationship sketched by the Hebrew Bible. The form of this innovation is no less remarkable than its content: it is presented in the text through the silences of the Hebrew Bible itself, particularly in places where it might have been expected that the Hebrew Bible comment in detail on this relationship.

The Hebrew Bible presents no text commanding or even suggesting that a political official be charged with policing the people’s religious observance. It mentions God often, but politically-based institutions of religious enforcement not at all. There are Elders, to be sure; there are even priests and judges. But they are not presented as embedded within the political corridors of power and with carrying out their political directives to enforce religious dicta (although some judicial authorities, like Samuel, are portrayed as exercising considerable political influence). In effect, these officials are not even mentioned when the Hebrew Bible talks about the consequences for the Israelites if they choose the path of religious disobedience (we limit our remarks here to the values presented in the Hebrew Bible, omitting later historical/legal commentary in Talmudic and post-Talmudic sources).

This omission is significant: in texts replete with detailed regulations for a wide range of activities, the absence of institutionally-based enforcement of religious orders is striking. It highlights an important value for the Hebrew biblical text: that religious observance remains the responsibility of each individual and is not a political token to be bartered or even compelled. For the Hebrew Bible, the moral dimension of individual freedom is not subject to political coercion.

It is worthwhile noting that just as religious functionaries are not presented as embedded within the political hierarchy, the political arm—as exemplified by the monarch—is not portrayed as being in charge of regulating the religious arena or of making mandatory the subjects’ religious observances, either. This is not to say that the monarch is deprived of religious influence: as depicted in the Hebrew Bible, the monarch was supposed to be a model figure for the Israelite community (see the description of Solomon as he celebrates the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem in I Kings 8). Even taking into account the king’s wide range of influence in various arenas of life, however, the Hebrew Bible insists that the king is just that: a king. That gives him a lot of political power. Still, the king is not God, and he is not the High Priest.

As the Hebrew biblical texts detail the large amount of conflict among kings, priests, and prophets, that awareness underlies a significant sense of separation between the political and the religious realms. The Hebrew biblical texts seem persuaded that the Israelites would recognize the need to obey their religious laws without state-enforced or perennial strong-armed duress (technically speaking, no Israelite political state existed until the depiction of the events described in I Samuel 8). Consequently, the presence of charismatic events and people that seem to indicate a kind of social enforcement of religious codes (in the wilderness sojourn, for example) is not the same thing as political-institutional enforcement of religious codes.

As described in the Hebrew Bible, the kind and extent of religious liberty experienced by the Israelites is itself a double-edged sword. The Hebrew Bible makes that point elliptically, when it describes how the Israelites are censured throughout their history by prophet after prophet, who scold them for having abandoned the monotheistic worship of God to follow the idolatrous practices of their neighbors. Despite these negative repercussions, the ability of the Israelites to flout the central tenet of their religious ordinances as noted in the Hebrew biblical text does indicate that the Israelites did experience a certain amount of religious autonomy, even if the kind of moral autonomy invoked here is not congruent with various conceptions of contemporary (21st-century) notions of individually sourced systems of morality.

The conclusion that emerges is that the resounding silence of the Hebrew Bible concerning institutional enforcement of religious life winds up functioning as a tacit allowance, or even approval, of the separation of political power and religious authority. To be sure, the separation between religious and political power depicted in the Hebrew Bible does not approach what 21st-century standards would qualify as separation between church and state. Nonetheless, its significance is remarkable.

The Hebrew Bible’s differentiation between political and religious power remains an overlooked development within the traditional canon of political theory. It signals a significant degree of freedom in the domain of faith, and, as we shall see below, a strong determination to limit the political powers of the state. Much of the Hebrew Bible’s implicit distinctions between political and religious power are accepted by various Enlightenment thinkers were also avid readers of the Hebrew Bible. This is particularly evident in writings by the founders of the American republic (for example, Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1777) and “Query 17” in his Notes on the State of Virginia), and is realized constitutionally in the anti-Establishment clause of its Constitution’s First Amendment. Whether or not these Enlightenment thinkers are consciously aware in every instance of the effect that the texts of the Hebrew Bible have on particular elements of their own political theory, the contributions that these Hebrew Biblical texts, as understood by these Enlightenment thinkers, offer in this regard do influence the debate over the proper aims and scope of politics.

An important part of this new understanding is the limited extent of the political realm. This concept is directly linked to the Hebrew Bible’s insistence that the monarch cannot be equated with God. The upshot of this point is that, as opposed to the Hebrew Bible’s understanding of the infinitude of God’s powers, the power of the human monarch – and thus of the state that he represents or embodies – is limited. Enlightenment political thought takes this perception of the Hebrew Bible seriously: it mandates limited government based on its own conception of the origin of power—the people’s consent—and, in the case of the American founders, ensures that the power of government is itself divided and hence less likely to devolve into tyranny (as seen especially in Madison’s The Federalist, particularly No. 10 and No. 51).

The separation between the religious and the political realms as countenanced by the Hebrew Bible—if only by its resounding silence on their (expected, albeit unfulfilled) union in its texts —is not trivial. It also points forward to an understanding of the political realm as requiring an aura of secularism (since in the texts of the Hebrew Bible, citizens’ political rights and powers are not specifically linked to individual religious obedience), and hence legitimation, particularly vis-à-vis its citizenry.

Interestingly enough, the narratives of the Hebrew Bible foreshadow Tocqueville’s observation, in Democracy in America, that people living in countries without state-enforced religion are themselves more religiously observant. The Hebrew Bible implicitly endorses this argument, demonstrating in its historical narratives that making religion a function of political power (as it portrays as having occurred—despite its own dictates--under a variety of bad reigns chronicled in its pages) winds up subordinating religious practice to the whims of the holder of political power, and inevitably leads to idolatry.

Ironically enough, particularly for those who delight in castigating the Enlightenment for many of the evils that, in their view, beset the American cultural and political scene today, it is precisely those Enlightenment thinkers – notably Jefferson – who most often come in for a share of the blame who best understood the message of the Hebrew Bible regarding the appropriate relationship between state and religion. As it turns out, Enlightenment thinkers are more faithful to the spirit of the Hebrew Bible than is often acknowledged, even in our own age of “religious revivalism.”

Adapted by permission of the publisher from Reframing Politics in the Hebrew Bible: A New Introduction with Readings (September 2017, Hackett).

Comments (1)

I am surprised by this argument. I think that there should be some consideration of contrary evidence and perhaps some thought given to the idea that the text is not fully consistent.
The King was not a god but he could be the son of God, which would make him mortal but not a mere mortal: something a bit special about him. It is the King who dedicates the Temple.
I had a look at II Kings 23 with the useful assistance of Biblehub and its list of parallels, which are indeed many. We find breaking down of religious edifices and some killings which stand somewhere between royal justice and human sacrifice on royal orders.
Breaking down places of worship and punishment of individual leaders, plus pressure on others to leave (in the spirit of the Biblical 'there shall not be found among you') were the characteristics of Louis XIV's dragonnades. I don't know if special superintendents were appointed for the process but the name 'dragonnade' reminds us that ordinary armed forces (dragoons) and police can be quite enough for that kind of thing. So I would query the force of the argument that, since we do not know of any specific superintendents of religious conformity in ancient Israel, this was a place of anything like individual conscience, toleration or church-state separation. I note also that it is the King who specifies the unaccustomed form of Passover ritual, just as it was an earlier King who removed the poor old Nehushtan.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 09/27/2017 - 15:47

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