Friday, February 12, 2010

The Socialist Temptation IV: Israel, Kingship and Socialism

Israel was meant to be a theocracy: no king but Yahweh. That much is clear from the canonical text as we have it. When the people demanded from Samuel a king so they could be like the other nations the irony was that God had just gone to all the trouble of saving them out of Egypt precisely so that they could be different from all the other nations - a light to the nations.

Israel was chosen to reveal the nature of God to the nations and to be a witness among the nations to the sovereignty, mercy and greatness of God. But Israel wanted to be like all the other nations, which ultimately led to the exile.

When Samuel prayed to God about the request of the people, God instructed him to give in to their request partially. Israel was to have a king, but not a king like the nations. Israel's king was to be a ruler who would enforce Torah and lead the people in the keeping of the covenant. But Samuel was realistic when he warned the people what their demand for a king would entail. God told him to warn them and he did:
This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. he will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and given them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen and the LORD will not answer you in that day. (I Sam. 8:10-18)
Does that not sound like a prophetic description of the USSR expressed in 10th century BC Hebrew thought forms? Note the climax: "And you yourselves will become his slaves." This is the end game of socialism: everyone becomes a slave of the state. And note who "wins" in this system: the bureaucratic class created by the king to serve the state. Socialism the modern ideology may be new, but statism is as old as the Tower of Babel and socialism is just a modern form of statism dressed up in pieties about helping the poor. Those who mouth the pieties may sincerely believe them; such people are dupes who are used by those who have a clear ideological vision.

Israel began as a decentralized group of tribes built on the family structure and loosely allied mainly for purposes of common defense against invaders. Israel was rescued from the most centralized state in the ancient near east, Egypt, where the Pharaoh was a god and the Israelites had been reduced to slavery. Samuel predicts that by demanding a centralized, bureaucratic state symbolized by the king, they would return to slavery.

The prophets, as the Evangelical Left often points out, cry out about injustice, poverty and mis-treatment of orphans and widows. And various measures of mercy for widows, orphans and aliens were indeed built into the Law of Moses. It was the neglect of legal provisions for social welfare that the prophets lambasted. And this neglect was perpetrated by the centralized, bureaucratic state symbolized by the king. The prophets scathingly excoriated the king for what? For neglecting the law, for failing to uphold Torah, for not ensuring that the law's provision for the weak and needy was followed.

If you asked an Amos or a Micah if the answer to social injustice would be socialism, then (once the concept was explained) he would have laughed at you as if you were some sort of dolt. Socialism, with its central planning, its top down attempt at the bureaucratic management of every detail of life, and its ever-expanding of civil "servants" in need of support by the productive members of society, was what they escaped from in Egypt only to fall back into in the Promised Land.

To appeal to the prophets' concern for equality before the law and their rage at bribery of judges and dishonest scales in support of socialism is to misunderstand the prophets' message. They were motivated by exactly what socialism must destroy: a concern for the rule of law. Their anger at the rich landowners and the dispossession of the landless poor is rooted in the neglect of the Law's provisions for Jubilee and the restoration of the land to families every fifty years. They represented in their persons a division of powers that keeps any one power center in society from becoming absolute, that is, they functioned as a bulwark against the total concentration of power in the centralized state. To portray the prophets as proto-socialists is a perverse reading into the text of modern ideals. Better to portray the kings as socialist rulers of a failed state that ended in captivity and the prophets as conservatives who called the nation back to law.

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