25 November 2014

Theocracy in the Hebrew Bible

I highly recommend that you go here to download Geoffrey P. Miller's short (16 pages) article, The Kingdom of God in Samuel. Miller is a professor of law at New York University.

Miller's abstract is straightforward:
This paper argues that the idea of the kingdom of God in the Hebrew Bible refers to theocracy – the political system in which authority is exercised by God’s representative on earth. The relevant texts, most importantly parts of the Book of Samuel, explore the advantages and disadvantages of theocratic rule and compare that form of government with other models. Bible’s treatment of this topic is subtle and nuanced, recognizing virtues in theocratic rule but concluding, overall, that it does not deliver sustainable and effective governance in the real world.
The abstract does not, however, adequately demonstrate the quality of Miller's analysis. He begins by describing the benefits of narrative as opposed to the standard accounts of political theory:
Narrative is an effective analytical tool – so effective that it is widely used today, and is even a dominant approach in ostensibly scientific fields such as economic theory. Using narrative, the analyst can frame issues for discussion by specifying elements of the setting – when, where, and how events take place – and also the cast of characters – the figures to whom action is attributed within the narrative. The plot – the events that transpire in the narrative – is then a form of experiment: the analyst explores how events play out and, based on these results, can make normative assessments about the strengths or weaknesses of different arrangements.
He goes on to analyze the political account of threocracy in the Garden of Eden but then observes that 
The Bible does not, however, draw the conclusion that theocratic rule is best for actual human societies. Adam and Eve are expelled from God’s presence and can never return. God will no longer rule over them directly. Practical governance in the real world, if it is to exist at all, must be administered by flesh-and-blood human beings. The question posed is whether theocracy, an excellent form of government in a society directly ruled by God, is also the most desirable system in a society ruled by human beings?
I will skip over Miller's analysis of the theocratic approach to political ordering in the accounts of Moses, Aaron, and Gideon. With the advent of Samuel, Israel experiences a brief, legitimate theocratic interlude that ultimately ends in failure for institutional reasons: theocratic rule through an individual does not provide a foundation for administration of the powers of civil government beyond the narrow reach and short (from a national point of view) life of the theocratic ruler. Miller concludes by observing that the account of theocracy in the Hebrew scriptures for the actual world is negative:
In the real world, where rule is exercised by flesh-and-blood human beings, theocratic government is subject to shortcomings. Its institutions do not deliver the benefits of government over the long term. It is subject to abuse because theocratic leadership is intrinsically autocratic. The person chosen as the theocratic ruler may not receive genuine revelations from God and may not rule according to God’s wishes. Theocratic rule all too easily degenerates into apostasy. And theocratic rule performs badly as a guarantor of national security. Overall it is not optimal as a model for governing a substantial nation.
The lack of knowledge of institutional and administrative matters among theologians is vast. From the Right or the Left, most don't know more about civil administration than your average talk-show host. Simple-minded conclusions drawn from a few scriptural texts fall short as a source of valid prescriptions for governing the modern nation state.

(For more along this line see my multi-part review of "Law and the Bible" ending here.)

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