Friday, July 21, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 4.3

The Prophets

The Prophets includes the ‘former prophets’ and the ‘latter prophets.’ The former include the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings (because of its narrative unity and connection to the book of Deuteronomy, this section is often called the Deuteronomistic History). The latter prophets include Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 minor prophets (the Book of the 12).

Most notable for our purposes is the ongoing commentary on the Torah that gets carried out in the prophetic books. The Torah as scripture is continually brought up as a reminder of who God is and how God’s people are to order their common life accordingly.

In the former prophets, the political vision of the Torah is worked out in new situations. The Torah more or less envisions a theocracy, in which prophets or ‘judges’ relay God’s messages to the people. But after a long period of strange and unsuccessful judges, the Israelites demand a king so that they can be ‘like other nations’ (1 Samuel 8:5, 20). Nevertheless, throughout the period of the kings (Saul, David, etc.), God continues to raise up prophets to call the kings and the people to faithfulness to the Torah. But the kings do not lead the Israelites to greater faithfulness—only greater territory—and the narrative of Deuteronomy to Kings as a whole seems to be a sharp political criticism of kingship in light of the Torah.

One specific use of scripture in politics worth pointing out from the former prophets occurs in Josiah’s reform. Josiah was king of Judah during a rough time for the people of God: foreign superpowers threatened Judah with their militaries, Israel was divided (Judah was the Southern Kingdom), and God’s people worshiped foreign gods. When Josiah’s high priest found the long-neglected ‘book of the law’ in a back corner of the temple (many scholars think it was Deuteronomy), Josiah declared a time of national repentance. Altars and temples of foreign gods were destroyed, the Passover was celebrated in Jerusalem, and ‘the words of the law that were written in the book’ were established by kingly decree (2 Kings 23:24).

The latter prophets continued the tradition of political critique based on the Torah. The following comment from Isaiah is typical: ‘Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of rights and rob my oppressed people of justice, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless’ (10:1-2, NIV). We need to be careful here to recognize that ‘laws’ and ‘decrees’ were not generic terms, but referred directly to the Torah as a legal source book. Similarly, in a passage we will discuss more later, the proclamation of the ‘year of the Lord’s favor’ in Isaiah 61 seems to be a call to the economic and social practices embodied in the Torah’s jubilee laws (in which land and food were regularly redistributed to the poor).

Finally, the use of Torah by the former prophets in international politics was complex. On the one hand, foreign invasion was sometimes depicted as God’s just punishment for the people’s disobedience. Thus Cyrus, the invading emperor of Persia, is depicted as God’s anointed king (Isaiah 45). On the other hand, the prophets sometimes proclaim judgment on foreign nations for their unjust practices. (It should be pointed out, however, that it is unlikely that the foreign nations ever heard those critiques; rather, they may have served to warn Israel about how serious God was about the Torah.) At another point, when the Jews are captive in Babylon, Jeremiah recommends they ‘seek the welfare [shalom]’ of the Babylonian city (Jeremiah 29:7). Again, the concepts ‘justice’ and ‘welfare’ were not neutral terms, but would have directed their readers back to the political vision of the Torah.


One helpful book for understanding the politics of the law is Christopher J.H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).


1) Think about our own political context—how is it different from the Israelites’? Would Josiah’s Reform make sense in our national setting, or would it better be undertaken within faith communities? What do the latter prophets suggest about our ability to communicate prophetic critique to ‘foreign’ nations (including our own)?

2) The prophets’ language of peace and justice was rooted in the Torah’s vision of those terms. But those terms are also common in our American political discourse—do we mean the same thing as the prophets when we use them? What traditions lie behind our political language?

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 4.2

The Torah

The Torah (or Pentateuch) comprises the first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy. Though it is unlikely that all of the Torah was written before the rest of the Old Testament, it makes no overt references to the rest of Scripture. This fact makes it somewhat difficult to discuss for our purposes, but not impossible. The final or canonical form of the Torah evidences multiple layers of skillful editing, and the finished product seems to include elements from older scripture traditions. These instances, then, will be useful for us to examine in order to see how the Torah used scripture in political contexts. In the interest of space, I’ll only examine one of these instances, the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments or Ten Words).

The Decalogue shows up in two places in the Torah—Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5—suggesting a tradition (oral or written) prior to the writing of the Torah. Both places it appears are politically charged, and it’s interesting to note how the Decalogue is tweaked to fit the different contexts. In Exodus, the Israelites are at Mount Sinai, having just left Egypt. There God gives Moses the commandments in order to guide their behavior on the path to the Promised Land, basically to ensure that they will remain faithful in their travels. The Decalogue in Exodus therefore acts as a sort of basic political charter for God’s people on the move. In contrast, when the Decalogue is restated in Deuteronomy, it’s at the threshold of the Promised Land, acting now as a political charter for Israel’s life in the Land.

Though much of the two passages are the same, it’s notable that the rationale for the Sabbath command changes: in Exodus the Israelites are told to take a Sabbath in imitation of God’s rest on the 7th day of creation; in Deuteronomy they are told to take a Sabbath because God led them out of Egypt. It’s difficult to say why the rationale changes, but it does suggest a process of recontextualization in the face of new political contexts. As the political setting changes from a wandering tribe in the desert to an established nation, the stories that guide the application of the commandments change. This, perhaps, suggests a basic ‘negotiability’ in the structure of God’s teachings, though it is notable that the basic direction of the teaching stays the same. (See the work of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann for this concept of negotiability.)

To suggest some other places where older traditions have been incorporated into our Torah, I point out the two creation stories and the numerous places where psalms, prayers, and other liturgical elements have been imported (e.g., Jacob’s prayers for his sons in Genesis 49; Moses and Miriam’s songs in Exodus 15).

The point of all this is that the Torah itself, as a political document for God’s people, draws on older traditions that would have been considered ‘scripture’ by the Torah’s authors. Those traditions are brought into new contexts and altered somewhat to provide fresh political commentary. (Again, as I said before, the purpose of these texts is not only political, just as much as they are not only spiritual.)

1) I have said that God’s commands are altered or ‘negotiable’ to some degree in light of changing political contexts. Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? What does your answer mean for how we read the Bible in light of our current political contexts?

2) The teaching in the Torah, including the Decalogue, is primarily directed at God’s people as a guide for their worship, politics, family life, etc. This being the case, to what extent can the Torah’s teachings be recommended to those ‘outside’ the people of God? Why would or wouldn’t you use the Torah to make political recommendations?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Bible and Politics, pt. 4.1

In this week’s lesson and the next we turn to the use of the Bible in politics by the Bible itself. Specifically, we’ll be looking at how different biblical authors draw from other passages of Scripture in political situations. This week we’ll look at the Old Testament (of, if you prefer, Hebrew Bible) in three sections: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. Next week we’ll get into the New Testament. There is A LOT of information here, so I’ll necessarily be skipping important passages and books—please add your insights!

A note on my approach to politics in the Bible: In the last couple hundred years we in the West have developed the idea that religion and politics are two distinct entities. Our doctrine of separation of the church and state is the perfect expression of such a distinction. But in biblical times, as is still the case in some parts of the world, there was no categorical differentiation between the two. Thus, to talk about ‘politics’ in the Bible as a distinct matter from ‘religion’ or ‘spirituality’ probably would not have made sense to any of the Bible’s authors. Today the distinction between religion and politics is firmly embedded in our worldview, and it is difficult to read the Bible any other way.

The difference all this makes for us is that I may read a passage as ‘political,’ whereas you may have only read it as ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual.’ My hope is that we can respect the biblical worldview(s) enough to see that there are both political and religious layers to most if not all texts. But, as always, lets speak openly when we disagree about a reading of a passage.

I’ll get the lesson on the Torah up ASAP, and the lessons on the Prophets and Writings up later in the week. For now, be thinking and commenting on the above note: what is your reaction to thinking about the Bible as a ‘political’ text?