Did the Kingdom of Judah Invent "Separation of Church and State" ?

By Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg
W.F. Albright Institute, Jerusalem
January 2010

The separation of Religion and State is a topic that comes up every few years in Israel. In his recent book, “The Home We Build Together,” Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, advocates a liberal democracy founded on such a separation. His predecessor, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, even suggested it would do wonders for Israel. In the British Isles, disestablishmentarianism (the longest word in the English language) was never able to take root and separate the Head of State, the monarch, from the Church, of which he, or she, is the head.

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791, sets out a separation, though it was not ratified in practice by the Supreme Court until many years later. Similarly, in France, the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801 laid down a strict separation, but it was not put into practice in the schools until eighty years later. The idea of making the organs of State separate from any ruling Church is obviously attractive to Jews living in the Diaspora, where they would not be dominated by a state religion, be it Christianity or another.

Theodor Herzl advocated the separation of "Church and State" for Palestine in his ambitious blueprint, “The Jewish State,” written in 1896. He was following the more liberal European constitutions of his time, but this part of his ideas was never implemented. Now we can ask, would the concept be right in modern Israel, which is called on to be a Jewish State?

In practice, the connection between State and Religion in Israel is very close in some matters like the marriage ceremony, in burial rights, and in much of the school system. The national airline is not supposed to fly on the Sabbath, and the municipal bus services halt on Friday afternoons before sundown. The separation of "Church and State," good or bad, would cause a tremendous upheaval in Israel. It has not taken place in modern times, but it seems to have occurred at one time in the distant past.

King Jehoash (Joash) came to the throne of Judah in the year 835 BCE. His reign should have started six years earlier, but he was then only a baby, and the throne was usurped by his grandmother, Athaliah. With the untimely murder of her son, King Ahaziah, she took the precaution, normal for the period, of wiping out all possible rivals, but she missed Jehoash, Ahaziah's infant son, who was hidden in the Temple by his aunt, Jehosheba, wife of the priest, Jehoyada.

Athaliah, the daughter of notorious Jezebel, imposed Baal worship on Judah and appointed Mattan to be High Priest. It became the state religion, imposed on an unwilling population. We say unwilling, because six years later, when Jehoyada thought the young Jehoash was old enough to be presented as the rightful heir, he was brought out of hiding and proclaimed king, to the cheers of the people and the army, who then slaughtered Athaliah and Mattan. This palace revolution led to a remarkable pair of national agreements.

“And Jehoyada made a covenant between the Lord and the king and the people, that they should be the Lord’s people, and between the king and the people” (2 Kings 11:17, my emphasis). The intention of these two agreements is clear: the first one is the conventional religious covenant, while the second one is secular and omits the Lord.

Who exactly the people were and who represented them is not known. The book of Kings is not a social history, but here the people were able to exercise their rights and reach a separate covenant with the king. Why should this unusual arrangement happen just at this particular stage?

It would have been a reaction to the Baal worship imposed by Athaliah. Although such worship had often been adopted by the Judahites on a personal basis, in this case it was imposed from above and became highly unpopular. We suggest that the people, who seem to have had a democratic voice in this matter, wanted a separate covenant with the king, that did not include any imposed religion, and this was agreed to by Jehoyada, the priest and guardian of young Jehoash.

A later passage confirms that Jehoash “did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord all his days....however the people still sacrificed in the high places,” so the secular covenant was not anathema, and the people continued to worship as they pleased. Jehoash, who reigned for another thirty-three years, did not particularly favor the priests. He insisted that the moneys given to the Temple should be used for upkeep of the House and not for the personal ornaments and vessels of the priests.

Even though Jehoash did what was right, his rule ended in revolution and tragedy. Perhaps his anti-clerical views went too far, for he was denounced by Zechariah, the son of his mentor, Jehoyada, and the king had him killed for inciting the people against him. Thus, when Jehoash fell ill, his courtiers, in revenge, took the opportunity to kill him on his sick bed (2 Chronicles 24:25).

The experiment of a secular society continued under Amaziah, Jehoash’s son, who reigned for another twenty-nine years, and then under Amaziah's very successful son, Azariah (Uzziah), who ruled for over fifty years. Azariah's son, Jotham, who became regent when his father was struck by leprosy, carried on the experiment, until the accession of his own son, Ahaz, in 742 BCE. 

All these kings “did right in the eyes of the Lord....however the people still sacrificed and offered in the high places,” which seems to mean that the kings did not impose any formal paganism on the people, and so were acceptable to the Lord. The people worshipped as they had always done, without coercion. Not until Ahaz' reign was a state religion again imposed, when Ahaz avoided the threat from Aram by allying himself with the greater regional power of Assyria.

For that alliance the country paid a heavy price. To demonstrate his fealty to Assyria, Ahaz commanded High Priest Uriyah to install a copy of the Assyrians' heathen altar in the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 16:11), and thus, a state religion was again imposed on the people.

So, the separation of Religion and State, that began under young Jehoash, lasted for nearly a hundred years, until it was snuffed out by his great-great-grandson, Ahaz, who recognized the over-arching power of the Assyrians.

In the time of Jehoash, the people mandated, with the agreement of the priests and the king, a separation of "Church and State." The secular state of Judah did not fail; it was halted by events beyond the control of Judah and its people.

Comments (1)

I'm sure I'm not the only one in noting that Lord Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, which means that he is not the Chief Rabbi for all Jews and describing the reach of his role as Great Britain is inaccurate.
#1 - Ben Joseph - 01/17/2010 - 08:35

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