In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s power is either praised or hated. Some say he has been in power for too long and has become corrupt, while others see him as a blessing from God. Of course, popular leaders, kings and heads of state have the power to determine our lives. But the problem is that most of them are abusing their power.
The Bible lays down clear rules for kings on how to use power. Much of the Bible was written at a time when peoples were serving numerous idols and gods. Among ancient pagan peoples, the concept of a single, all-powerful God did not exist. In this world, surrounded by pagan cultures, the Scriptures were composed. Torah scholars and philosophers wonder what new ideas and thoughts the Bible brought with it. One of them was the Israeli religious philosopher and biblical scholar Yehezkel Koifmann, who in his work History of the Biblical Israeli Faith (תולדות האמונה הישראלית-מקראית) describes the religious development of the children of Israel. In his view, the Word of God proclaimed a philosophical revolution and at that time generated three new ideas.
According to Koifmann, the Bible introduces a new God. If one recognizes this, then the whole of reality changes. Then the Bible creates a new concept of time. A linear time, and that is a radical change. Third, the Bible characterizes a new concept of power. God, time and power are therefore three new messages that the Bible promoted. The chosen people conveyed this new faith to other peoples and thus changed the face of humanity. The goal of all this is of course the Messiah and salvation.
Power. The Bible describes the idea of power differently. In the pagan world, power was glorified and always associated with “God.” Those in power were also “God.” In Egypt, the Pharaoh was identified as the incarnation of the sun god. It was much the same in Mesopotamia. As soon as a person was crowned king, he was glorified as “God.” The Sumerian list of kings begins with the god-king and hero Gilgamesh, later rulers of Mesopotamia such as Naram-Sin also claimed divine attributes. Alexander the Great was also counted as one of the gods during his lifetime. There is a deep logic behind this in the ancient political concept. This is how you created a disciplined society. One not only obeys the King, one worships the God-King. And when you worship a king as a god, obedience is easier, you surrender.
But then came the Bible, and it separated God and King. The glorification of God is one thing and the human ruler on earth is another. This was a new idea, a biblical idea. And how does the Bible do it? It shows that kings also sin. The Bible shatters the myth of kings. There are no holy people in the Bible, including kings. David and Solomon were humans, not gods. The Almighty is above politics. This concept did not come about in Egypt or Mesopotamia, but in the tiny strip of land, Eretz Israel. The fifth book in the Torah (Deuteronomy) is dominated by politics. Moses gives his final speeches to the people and leaves them clear instructions.
The kingship, the monarchy in the biblical sense, only becomes relevant after three stages. This can be read in the paragraph on the biblical King’s Law (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). Only after the people have come into the land that God is giving them, inherit it and are living in it, should the first king be appointed. Moses says: “A king will not bring you into the land, a king will not conquer the land for you, nor will a king settle you in the land. God did all of this for you.” The biblical king is not a god as in the pagan environment.
Biblical kings also have limitations and boundaries. They shouldn’t keep many horses, take many wives, or collect too much silver and gold.
- “Don’t take too many women” had to do with foreign policy in ancient times. Kings married the daughters and princesses of foreign kings in order to expand their diplomatic relations. Such a restriction would have set limits on foreign policy.
- Horses in ancient times meant a powerful army. The phrase “don’t keep many horses” is limiting the Ministry of Defense.
- And with “collecting silver and gold” God restricts the kings so that they do not place too much of a tax burden on the people.
With these regulations God bridles the power of the biblical kings, a concept that was absolutely alien to the pagan rulers. The king must first trust in God and not in his own power.
And as soon as the king sits on the throne, he is to write a Torah scroll and read it to the Levitical priests. The content applies only to the priests. The king, who is not worshiped as a god, is not even considered a priest. The ministry of religion is also taken from the king. All aspects of power that we typically associate with kingship are stripped by the biblical royal law. Furthermore, in the biblical text the king is even portrayed as a brother, not as a leader of the people, “so that his heart may not rise above his brothers.” This is typical of Israel to this day. We consider one another as brothers and speak to each other as such in the army, at work and in politics, regardless of rank.
Why then is the king called to read the Scriptures? “That he may learn to fear the Lord his God and be careful to observe all the words of this law and these statutes, that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left.” God seeks to nip in the bud any ego trip. Only one thing is missing from the royal law. It is not written anywhere that the people must obey the king. According to Leviticus, the people must obey the courts. They must obey the prophets as well. But to obey a king is missing?
It is said that religion is a means of controlling people. The most dangerous manipulation is when rulers address their people and say, “God told me you must obey me!” In this way, rulers manipulate religious zeal in order to achieve political discipline. This is one of the oldest tricks, but biblical royal law doesn’t do that. The Bible does not leverage religion to get the people to obey kings. The paradox is that the only one who has to obey the royal law is the king himself. The text describes a king with limited power who is ruled, but does not himself rule.
And after the king was stripped of his power, it says at the end: “Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.” This is where things get really interesting. It is only when the king keeps all of the laws and statutes in the royal law, when he renounces his own power and understands deep in his heart that God is the true ruler, only then is he allowed to rule with any semblance of stability. Power only belongs to those who can do without it. But what God suggests in the Bible is often not implemented in reality, neither in the past nor in the present. Power is too enticing for us to let go of. And this is exactly that of which the Bible warns.