Limited Government; My People

1.  In Rolf Rendtorff’s The Old Testament: An Introduction, something on page 44 stood out to me:

The problem of relationships between Israelite and Canaanite traditions also perhaps underlies the narrative of Naboth’s vineyard.  Ahab wants to buy a piece of land which the owner refuses to sell because it is the [nachalah] of his family (v. 3), i.e., the heritage assigned to it, which may not be sold (cf. Lev. 25:23f.).  Jezebel argues against this from a standpoint according to which there are no restrictions to the right of the king (v. 7).  She finally secures Ahab his ‘rights’ by the judicial murder of Naboth (vv. 8-16).

The IVP Bible Background Commentary says something similar:

…Israelites believed that all land was Yahweh’s land, while the Phoenicians would have seen the land as royal fiefdoms—all land was on grant from the king…Israelite kingship was designed to be less despotic than most monarchies—the king was not above the law.  Jezebel [(a Phoenician)] would not have been accustomed to such niceties. 

One would think that the idea of limited government originated with Israel, and was in marked contrast with her ancient Near Eastern neighbors.  Even Norman Gottwald’s “peasant revolt” model for the origin of ancient Israel contains that undertone: you had these oppressive Canaanite cities, and you had these peasants who revolted against them and formed a more just, egalitarian society.  These peasants became known as “Israel”.

Apologists have often argued that ancient Israel was unique, or at least better than other nations in the ancient Near East.  But I wonder if other ancient Near Eastern nations also had some notion of limited government.  I’m fuzzy on the details, but I remember reading in a Harvard class on ancient Near Eastern history that there were two models of kingship: one viewed the king as an underling to the gods, while the other thought that he had more power, as if the king himself had divinity.  Then there’s ancient Egypt, which required a king to uphold maat, a system of order and justice.  And, actually, all ancient Near Eastern nations claimed to believe in justice for the poor and the oppressed.

But I don’t want to say that there’s absolutely nothing to Rendtorff’s point, or that of the IVP Bible Background Commentary.   Monarchies could be despotic.  Where there are monarchies, there can easily develop the notion that a king is more special than everyone else, and has power over people’s lives and property.  Samuel wasn’t getting his critique of kingship out of the clear blue sky!

2.  Over the next few days, I’ll be posting my favorite quotes from Adam McHugh’s Introverts in the Church.  Most of them are concentrated in one chapter.  It’s the chapter that I was expecting to like least, but which I ended up liking the most.  It’s the longest chapter in the book, Chapter 7, “Leading As Ourselves.”

On page 139, McHugh shares the following observation about Moses:

Amidst ravaging supernatural plagues and pyrotechnics of burning bushes and smoldering mountains, I think that the most dramatic moment in the story of Moses centers around a shift in pronouns.  Throughout the story of Moses’ call, the exodus and the handing down of the law, Moses persisted in referring to the Hebrews as “your people”, God’s possession.  He was distancing himself from his kinsfolk.  But in Exodus 34, God showed Moses his glory, passing by him in an unprecedented theophany while Moses hid in a crevice in the mountain, his eyes sheltered from the fullness of God’s majestic holiness.  Moses then prayed to the Lord: “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us.  Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance” (Ex 34:9).  Go with us.  Pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.  Moses finally came out of hiding: he claimed his people, his true heritage and identity.

Moses’ transformation demonstrates that a deep, intimate relationship with God is not exclusive of a profound love for people.  Indeed, when we behold the glory of the Lord, we claim his people as our own.

I almost missed this passage because my mind was wandering when I first read it.  Fortunately, I had enough sense to go back and read it again!

This passage reminds me of the importance (for me, at least) of reading the Scriptures in community.  I don’t have all of the answers by myself.  Other people can notice things that I may miss.  And I can even learn from people who may not have a scholarly background in the Bible.  It doesn’t take a degree in Hebrew and the ancient Near East to notice that Moses calls the Israelites “your people” for quite some time, before he finally starts to refer to them as “my people”.

(Of course, this isn’t absolutely correct, since Moses’ message to the Pharaoh was “Let my people go”, and this was before Moses’ experience of God on the mountain.  But, in a big-picture sense, I think that McHugh is on to something.)

I’m also reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “The Inner Light”, which is one of my (and Wil Wheaton’s) favorite episodes from the series.   In this episode, Captain Picard is transported to another man’s life.  This man has a wife, and is part of a community that needs water.  For a while, Captain Picard obsesses over returning to the Enterprise, which is where he belongs.  But he eventually becomes a part of the community.  When Picard offers a governing official suggestions on how to handle the water supply, a friend remarks to him that this was the first time that Picard acted as part of the community.  At first, this community was somebody else’s people, and Picard was an outsider.  Now, it was Picard’s people.

I wonder how a people can become “my people”, since there are many times when I feel like an outsider.  There was a time when I tried to view evangelicals as “my people”, and I sought to arrive at this insight by spending time in prayer before God.  Hopefully, I would see evangelicals as the people of God, and come to love them.  Yet, while there were many evangelicals who were nice, I had a hard time conceptualizing them as “my people”.  This was especially difficult for me because I was encouraged to see other Christians as my “family”.  I didn’t feel particularly connected to these people, and I was supposed to see them as my family!

What’s interesting is that Moses saw the Israelites as his people, even though they could treat him horribly.  They complained to him.  They stoned him.  Yet, Moses could somehow accept them as his people.  And this occurred after his experience with God on the mountain.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Limited Government; My People

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    On my blogger blog, Looney says:

    Thanks for highlighting the pronouns. When Moses says, “let my people go”, isn’t he quoting God, so the ‘my’ refers to God’s possession?

    As for how to really feel bonded to a community, I am still struggling myself.


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