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Saul, Uzziah, and the Hasmoneans: Part II

July 19, 2010

This is a longer post, and so I have broken it into two sections. If you haven’t read the first one I recommend that you do so now.

For the Christian

For the Christian the end of Saul’s dynastic rule through his ill-fated opposition to the priesthood’s power is more than an interesting tale of an ancient world. It is a story of God intervening in the world to make a government more to his liking and this government is less centralized than we often assume. Indeed, for all the talk of an Old Testament power structure that runs God – the king – the people there are at least three power structures within the Old Testament and the most centralized, the monarchy, contains within it three centers of power.

The first governmental structure in the Old Testament is that of the judges. I have discussed this elsewhere, but judges functioned as non-dynastic kings, and the rule of a judge was normally driven by an extraordinary external event. Judges were not the usual method of governing Israel in the period of the judges The daily governance appears to have been left to the very decentralized tribal authorities.

The third governmental structure in the Old Testament (I am labeling these in the order they appear in the Bible) is the structure by which the Jewish communities governed themselves during the Exile. This appears to have seen a wider role for prophets and religious teachers, perhaps because no real hierarchy can be discerned. Like the first governmental structure, this structure is very decentralized, although it is also a structure inflicted by necessity and punishment, and may not be something for which to aim.

The second structure is the monarchy. As I discussed in part one of this article the monarch was not the sole authority. He had to also deal with the priesthood. (In fact, he probably also had to deal with a secular aristocracy, as all monarchs always have, and as is suggested by the political scheming in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.) But this is not all. The prophets provided a third center of power, outside of the effective control of either the kings or the priests.

Of these structures only the kingship does not seem to get special protection by God to allow it to continue wielding power in the face of opposition. There are several reasons why this might be, including the secular nature of kings and the fact that the kings already have the initiative when it comes to squeezing other powers out. Both the priesthood and the prophets are defended from the king, though, and the prophets are also defended from the priesthood.

In theory the king is a good king and never needs correction. What’s more, he sets the tone for the country. We don’t really hear of priestly or prophetic religious changes, it always seems to be led by the kings (or started by the people and condoned by the kings). However, good kings are about as thin on the ground as ice on the equator, and so the other centers of power serve to correct the king. The priesthood is fairly ineffective at this (except that it provides a lot of the prophets). However, the same thing that seems to make it so ineffective, its great size and lack of coordination (since any male descendent of Aaron can be a priest) also makes it hard to change quickly. If the priesthood is doing the right thing changing them to the wrong thing will take time, simply because the priesthood is sluggish. What’s more, the priesthood always has a vested interest in keeping competitors out of their territory.

The prophets are the third line. There are, it seems, always prophets, but their influence changes dramatically, so that we only hear of a relative few. We hear about them precisely when the other branches fail. The prophets exist in large part as a specially-conscripted disciplinary force that comes into being because someone else isn’t doing their job. In this way prophets and judges are very alike. Neither is meant to be a lasting power, but a temporary corrective. Both also tend to have a very strong sense of being appointed by God, normally coming from a vision or an enabling ability (although not all judges seem to start by being enabled by God). Notably, it is also these two power structures that seem to be most favored by God, over and against the monarchy.

Modern authority

The model of Davidic kingship has no shortage of modern adherents, although they normally wear ecclesiastical garb, not the robes of state. The idea that what God really meant was to appoint some clearly-recognizable defined sole leader who was corrected only by God (although this ignores the reality of David’s own rule vise a vie Nathan the prophet) is simply an attractive one. If only we could find (or be) this leader things would be so much simpler. We’d know just what we had to do, and the only question would be whether we obeyed or not.

The first problem, of course, is that this is flatly impossible. As much as one tries to escape it at the end of the day choosing to submit to an authority is still your choice for which you are accountable. Claiming that you had orders from someone higher up the food chain than you is a workable defense only when you didn’t choose your food chain. I’ve seen a lot of attempts to work around this, including the rather classic, “This is your church, therefore your pastors are your authority,” which simply shoves the choice out one level: why did you choose to go to that church? For some traditions that may simply be, “Why did you choose this branch of the faith, with this one church in the area?” but for many of us it will literally be, “Why did you choose that particular congregation?” Choice is simply inescapable, even when buried under layers of other choices.

The second problem is that this ideal of a leader doesn’t seem to be Biblical. Certainly there are examples of very good leaders but we don’t get much further than this before things start falling apart. Which leaders hand off their abilities well? Moses (to Joshua) and Elijah (to Elisha) spring to mind. And nothing else does. Apparently the normal situation is that in every generation you will need to find a new leader (exercise a new decision to place yourself under new authority), because one will not be found for you in all likelihood. Even if one is found for you you’ll need to exercise a decision to make sure you believe it’s been done correctly, because the odds are it hasn’t. And how good are good leaders? There are perhaps a few whose lives are recorded in some detail who are not rebuked by human authority, but not many. Moses is only sort of one, in that he clearly depends on the advice of his father-in-law at times. Elijah, again, seems to escape correct rebuke, as do many prophets, but in many cases the prophets are functionally alone in the community of faith. Who would rebuke them? The apostate? David fails rather famously, and it falls to another center of power, the prophet, to rebuke him and bring him back in line. Similarly, we see amongst the disciples that Peter and Paul disagree and correct one another in Acts.

I would suggest that all of this has rather strong implications for modern church governance and authority structures. God’s authority structures are always multi-centered. Now, I will not claim to read the mind of God, but it seems suspicious that authority increases not in response to things running well but in response to them running poorly. Invasions bring about judges, and bad kings bring about prophets. It appears that God is not primarily in the business of propping up authority, but primarily of using it to combat other incorrect authority.

There is, at this point, an immense argument about church governance. In my first draft I attempted to avoid this argument as much as possible, but in reality the conclusions are clear enough that they should be drawn. The natural conclusion of this study is that conciliar government is the best form. This is also not much of a statement, since I have not defined what makes an acceptable council for a conciliar government. To take three examples, the Nicene Council was composed of every bishop in the world that was able to make it to the council, while the Congregationalists widen the council a different way by including all full church members, and the Presbyterians select a smaller representational body. All of these follow the same important principle, which is that they include a diversity of opinions within the unity required by their shared allegiance to Christ.

In the Old Testament monarchy when the King went wrong God could call on the priests or prophets. This was not because the priests and prophets were immune to corruption, or even necessarily better listeners. There are bad priests and bad prophets throughout the Bible. What was different was that amongst all these people God could use some would be listening. It is always easier for us to listen about some things, and close our ears to others. With enough people God’s voice will always get through. This, then, is the point of conciliar government: someone on the council will hear God and speak for Him. When our ecclesiastical authority begins to look too much like one of us it will start to have the characteristic faults of one of us. When authority looks, instead, like the entire Body of Christ we might hope her virtues would shine through more clearly.

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