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?)