Why the Bible Cuts Both Ways — two-edged sword and all that

Peter Leithart’s comments on Eran Shalev’s American Zion: The Old Testament as a Political Text from the Revolution to the Civil War reminded me of what I learned from Sunday’s sermon (a week ago) from II Chronicles 36, the culmination of Judah’s fall from grace, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the beginning of the people of God’s status as refugees (which continues). This narrative includes the hard-to-spin wrinkle of Zedekiah, Judah’s king, rebelling against a pagan and foreign king, Nebuchadnezzar, a figure whom the Israelites would normally have regarded as a tyrant and against whom legitimately rebelled. But when Zedekiah doesn’t submit to Nebuchadnezzar, the writer likens Judah’s king to Pharoah — the stiffnecked oppressor who held the Israelites in slavery:

Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he began to reign, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD his God. He did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the LORD. He also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God. He stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD, the God of Israel. All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the LORD that he had made holy in Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 36:11-14 ESV)

This is the sort of narrative that folks like John of Salisbury or Thomas Aquinas may have cited to show that tyranny was not always bad. Well, to be precise, it was bad in the sense of not being the way things were supposed to be. But not bad in the sense that this was a form of rule that God was using to punish his people.

And yet, the American colonists, led by Calvinists as we keep hearing, never stopped to consider whether King George was their Nebuchadnezzar, the Lord’s appointed ruler to mete out punishment for disobedience and infidelity. According to Leithart (following Shalev):

During the Revolution, writers and preachers turned to the historical books of the Hebrew Bible to fill out ancient Roman analyses of political corruption. George III was Rehoboam, Solomon’s son whose high taxes divided Israel, or Ahab, who seized the vineyard of innocent Naboth. The charges against King George were sometimes moderated by reference to the book of Esther: The hapless king was manipulated by Haman-like advisors who turned him against the children of the land of the Virgin. Patriots were Mordecais or Maccabees, while loyalists were “sons of Meroz,” a Hebrew town cursed because its inhabitants refused to follow Deborah and Barak into battle. Colonial writers saw links with Roman history: Washington was Cincinnatus. But Washington was also Gideon, the judge who delivered Israel and very deliberately refused an offer of kingship.

Of course, the American rebels didn’t have a prophet to tell them what to think about King George the way that Zedekiah had Jeremiah to whisper advice or shout warning. And that’s the point. Without divine revelation, how do you interpret any ruler or set of events (or culture or city or television series) as in accord with or against divine will? (And when will the students of American politics who seem to enjoy pointing out the biblical context for political debates also point out that such appeals to holy writ could very well be wrong and an abuse of Scripture?)

6 thoughts on “Why the Bible Cuts Both Ways — two-edged sword and all that

  1. My favorite example along this line is from Ken Myers, who points out that, although peaceniks are fond of citing the biblical phrase “swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks” from Isaiah 2, nobody seems to know about the verse in Joel 3 that reverses exactly to “plowshares into swords, and pruning hooks into spears”.

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  2. Some of us pacifists know this verse in Romans 12 which says, “leave the wrath to God.”

    I Peter 2– But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you would follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

    James 1: 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

    Psalm 76: 10 Surely the wrath of man shall praise you

    Also these Psalms

    Psalm 58:6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths;tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!7 Let them vanish like water that runs away;when he aims his arrows, let them be blunted.
    8 Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,
    like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.
    9 Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,
    whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!
    10 The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance;
    he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.

    Psalm 109 Be not silent, O God of my praise!
    2 For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
    speaking against me with lying tongues.
    3 They encircle me with words of hate,
    and attack me without cause.
    4 In return for my love they accuse me,
    but I give myself to prayer.
    5 So they reward me evil for good,
    and hatred for my love.
    6 Appoint a wicked man against him;
    let an accuser stand at his right hand.
    7 When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
    let his prayer be counted as sin!
    8 May his days be few;
    may another take his office!
    9 May his children be fatherless
    and his wife a widow!
    10 May his children wander about and beg,
    seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
    11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
    12 Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
    nor any to pity his fatherless children!
    13 May his posterity be cut off;
    may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
    14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord,
    and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
    15 Let them be before the Lord continually,
    that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!
    16 For he did not remember to show kindness,
    but pursued the poor and needy
    and the brokenhearted, to put them to death.
    17 He loved to curse; let curses come upon him!
    He did not delight in blessing; may blessing be far from him!
    18 He clothed himself with cursing as his coat;
    may curses soak into his body like water,
    like oil into his bones!

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  3. The Jewish rabbis in ad 70 had to eliminate sacrifice in their religion.

    The New Testament teaches that Christ’s death is the final last sacrifice, and that our worship is acceptable “sacrifice” without any need for anymore killing or death.

    But Leithart claims the Constantinian state had no sacrifice, but that the modern state has “re-sacralized” violence, because the modern state is not part of Christendom. I think Leithart is not only too optimistic about the future of this age, but also way too optimistic about what happened with Constantine and with the Roman Catholic institution….

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