Democracies around the world brought unheard of freedoms, prosperity and blessing to untold multitudes of oppressed and enslaved peoples. But is democracy a biblical concept? And given the breakdown in trust in modern democratic institutions can democracy survive? How long will Israel’s Jewish democracy last? And what’s next?
One of the main reasons that democracies around the world have been so successful is the separation of powers. Coequal branches of government were set up to prevent a monarch, president or prime minister from abusing authority and doing whatever he or she wants with the people.
It should come as no surprise that the kingdoms of Israel also had three distinctive branches of government to ensure proper governance. In Israel King, Priest, and Prophet had coequal authorities to safeguard equitable governance and prevent any one man or movement from abusing the people or leading them too far astray.
Where did democracy go wrong?
By comparing Israel’s modern Jewish democracy with her biblical government we can begin to see where democracy goes wrong and what needs to happen to get it back on track.
The three branches of government in Israel today are the Executive, Legislative and Judicial.
Legislative: Israel’s Knesset of 120 members makes the laws of Israel and controls all of the money. The Knesset can be compared to the US Congress.
The role of the Knesset is to represent the different sectors of the population that voted for them.
In ancient Israel the Priests were appointed, like a congress, to represent the people before God and in matters pertaining to the kingdom’s laws. They were charged with making sure that the laws of Torah, Israel’s constitution, were implemented fairly and correctly. Priests cared for and protected the people with grace and truth in the public square and at the Mercy Seat in the Temple.
To ensure that the priests could not be corrupted by political pressures from the rulers, kings and prophets were not allowed to interfere with their work and they were not allowed to enter the inner sanctuaries of the Temple.
Executive: In Israel this is the Prime Minister (today Benjamin Netanyahu) and his majority coalition with at least 61 out of 120 members of Knesset. In general, this branch can be compared to the US president and White House.
The King and his court were the executive branch in ancient Israel’s government. However, unlike other monarchies, Israel’s kings never had full sovereign powers like the Gentile rulers. Israel’s king remained under the scrutiny and restraints of Priests and Prophets.
In Israel, God is King of kings, and no man or woman could claim but limited authority. A king could not make or enforce laws according to his own will, or excessively abuse the people.
No king was above the law (Torah). In fact, by law the king was required to study the Torah (Israel’s constitution) every day and memorize it by copying it down under the scrutiny of the Priests.
“When he is seated on his royal throne, he must write for himself a copy of this instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. It is to remain with him, and he is to read from it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by carefully observing all the words of this instruction and these statutes. Then his heart will not be exalted above his countrymen, and he will not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or to the left (politics?).” (Deut. 17: 18-20)
Judicial: This is Israel’s Supreme Court. Modern Israel does not have an official constitution, which is the reason rabbis and Orthodox Jews in the Knesset are able to push for more Torah-oriented tradition in Israel. There is no separation of “state and church” in Israel.
Without a recognized founding document like a constitution (or Torah) Israel’s democracy leans on the Supreme Court to deliberate and judge the fairness of laws made by the Knesset. This issue has become extremely contentious in Israel and is dividing the country over who gets to determine which laws are just, and which are not. Given the current secular and left-leaning majority on the bench of Israel’s Supreme Court, this has thrown Netanyahu’s current government with its large number of religious MKs into a maelstrom of battles with the court.
It appears that unless Israel decides to recognize the applicable portions of Torah as the only potential constitution of the Jewish State to provide guidance to the Supreme Court’s decisions, Israel will become a nation like all the other nations.
Of course, when Messiah comes he will reestablish God’s laws in Israel.
The Prophets of ancient Israel can be compared to today’s judiciary.
The Prophets of Israel completed the three-fold separation of powers, and had complete freedom to reprimand kings and princes for their sins, behavior and judgements. From King Saul and the beginning of Israel’s monarchy, rulers in Israel were kept on their toes with the threat they might find themselves publicly rebuked or rejected by the Prophets, who never failed to remind them and the people who is the real King. Israel’s kings were subject to the Lord’s judgements, a situation that often proved frustrating under the pressures of governing. Being able to do as they pleased, like Gentiles kings, would certainly have made things easier.
Like the Supreme Court, the Prophets were concerned with the rights of the poor and justice for minorities. The Prophets’ spirit was to be kept synced to God’s Spirit, which would guide them to speak truth to the other two branches of government.
What have we learned?
This separation of powers in ancient Israel only worked because the overriding principle that held it all together was faith in God and Torah.
Clearly without God or Torah (Bible) to guide us, today’s Jewish democracy, and ultimately all democracies, are doomed. Public opinion and the will of the people on its own can never lead to blessing.
Still today Israel is unlike other nations, for the government together with the Knesset’s religious parties do work to incorporate Torah into the laws, customs and identity of the Jewish state. Daily on the streets of Israel and in the government we discuss what it means to be a Jew (can you imagine the US determining what it means to be Christian?!). We debate immigration guidelines, which are based on Jewish law, as are marriage regulations, policies governing conversion to Judaism, and kosher laws.
In contrast to the current trend in Western democracies to diminish strong cultural and religious identities within the nation-state, Israel looks to her biblical history to strengthen her identity as a modern Jewish democracy.
Not an easy journey in the modern progressive world, essential as it may be.
In Israel, rabbis play a central role in the government. Something like the relationship between the kings of Israel and the priesthood. And why can’t a Jewish supreme court, with the right people appointed to the bench, bring biblical and prophetic insights into their deliberations and judgements?
In many Western countries the Bible is used ceremonially to encourage witnesses to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It seems to me that Israel has a much better chance of finding truth, because here the Torah is more than just a prop.
Israel, where the Bible is mandatory reading from grammar school to high school; where Torah and Jewish Talmudic law are subjects that students major in at public schools; and where average citizens are far more educated in biblical knowledge than in most Western Christian democracies where state and religion are forcibly separated by law.
Israel, where a fair and just democracy is more likely to survive.
At least, that is, until Messiah comes and establishes his just and everlasting kingdom nation.
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