Covenant & Polity in Biblical Israel

Covenant and Polity

A. The Covenant Idea in the Bible and Politics

1. Introduction

In this well-researched and engaging volume, Daniel J. Elazar, in describing the biblical tradition of covenant, examines the covenantal foundations of Jewish political life, the revival of these foundations in Reformed Protestant Christianity, and the ways that the American polity was founded on this tradition in its "Puritan expression and in its secularized Lockean form" (p. xiii). He defines the covenant as a "morally informed agreement or pact based upon voluntary consent, established by mutual oaths or promises, involving or witnessed by some transcendent higher authority, between peoples or parties having independent status, equal in connection with the purposes of the pact, that provides for joint action or obligation to achieve defined ends ... under conditions of mutual respect, which protect the individual integrities of all the parties to it" (p. 23). A biblical covenant ("brit") "involves a pledge of loyalty beyond that demanded for mutual advantage, actually involving the development of community among the partners to it" (p. 64).

Elazar distinguishes covenants and compacts, which are public in nature, from contracts, which are private. While the former are designed to be perpetual in nature, the latter frequently include terms for abrogation by the parties. A covenant is not like a private legal partnership where each partner has limited obligations to the others; rather it is like "the most comprehensive kind of public law partnership" (p. 69), with extensive mutual obligations.

2. The Bible as a Political Book; the Protestant Reformation

The Bible is an "eminently political book" (p. 60). However, it has not successfully inspired many political orders. After the abortive revolts against Rome in the first centuries of the common era, Jewish concern with political matters declined. Christians of the early Church were similarly reluctant in applying biblical principles to the political order; they were instead concerned with individual salvation and were expecting an imminent second coming of Christ.

However, as the centuries passed by, the Bible and biblical ideas of covenant would ultimately find expression in the Protestant Reformation. Christians would rediscover biblical insights on politics and civic order. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, "the Swiss, the Dutch, the Scots, and the English Puritans not only conceived of civil society in [biblical] covenantal terms, but actually wrote national covenants to which loyal members of the body politic subscribed. Similar covenants were used in the founding of many of the original colonies in British North America" (p. 20). Reformed Protestantism wholeheartedly embraced the covenant concept (p. 26). Based on the idea of sacred covenant, reformed Protestants came to believe that once God establishes a covenant, no human authority can abridge the rights established therein without the consent of the governed.

Especially in Switzerland, a federal theology was articulated (the Latin foedus means "covenant"). American constitutionalism merged the concept of covenant with the secularized idea of compact (p. 28).

3. Three Models of Political Society

Elazar describes three systems that have shaped substantial segments of the human race: (i) the covenantal, which tends to be federal; (ii) the conquest based, which tends to be hierarchical and developed through conquest; and (iii) the classical Greek organic system, which tends to be oligarchic and involves "the development of political life from families, tribes, and villages into large polities" (p. 36). The American system, based on the political ideas of the Protestant Puritans, is predominantly covenantal, and thus lends itself well to democracy.

B. The Torah as Ancient Israel's Constitution

The book of Genesis institutes the first covenants between God and man. Elazar calls the Genesis 2 relationship between God and Adam "asymmetrical" and "segmented" (p. 113); the covenant is hence "implicit" (p. 212). Aimless violence follows Adam's disobedience and leads God to the first true covenant between God and man that recognizes man's ability to choose and grants him a formal role in the choosing (p. 113). God thus destroys all life on earth, with the exception of the inhabitants of Noah's ark. The covenant with Abraham is formed in Genesis 15 and 17 and is renewed with Jacob. In Exodus, God establishes a covenant at Sinai, which is reiterated in Leviticus 26. In Numbers 18, God establishes a covenant with Aaron and His House and a covenant in Plains of Moab is established in Deuteronomy 28-30.

While Genesis establishes the first covenants between God and man and the setting for the emergence of Israel and of its constitution, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers "constitute the second part based on the exodus from Egypt" (p. 211). In Exodus, the Decalogue is given in the form of two tablets and the Book of Covenant, which enumerates a series of civil and criminal laws, is described (Exo 20-23). In Leviticus, laws and priestly functions and rituals are enumerated. Numbers continues the constitutional corpus and is an indivisible part of the original constitution (p. 184). It discusses the national census by tribes, the divisions of the tribe of Levi and their responsibilities, operational rules for managing the camp, provisions for sacrificial offerings, adjudication of vows, and an allocation for the Levites, among other matters.

Finally, in Deuteronomy, Moses summarizes the history of Israel and puts down all of the laws and revelations he had received in a final form so that they would be memorialized. The book, which ends with the death of Moses, is a "restatement of the entire constitution in a more systematic fashion" (p. 193). The repetition of these laws is especially important to an "oral tradition where repetition is critical to developing recognition if not memorization of texts" (p. 200). While the previous four books served as a constitution for the Jews as a nomadic people, Deuteronomy serves as a constitution that only deals with those laws as applicable to the Jews while living in their land.

C. A Biblical Republic?

1. Joshua

The book of Joshua "describes the classic polity envisaged in the Torah," with the Eved Adonai responsible for the civil rule of the edah (congregational assembly) and the Kohen Gadol responsible for linking the people to God. In Elazar's view, it is "a classic of political thoughts," "a major statement of the class political worldview of the Bible and the regime it advocated," and "the first classic exposition of federal republicanism" (p. 229). The book is divided in an account of the conquests (chaps. 1-12), the division of the land (chaps. 12-21), and Joshua's farewell addresses (chaps. 22-24) (p. 232.). The book explains why the Jews lost or won specific battles and contains instructions to the Jews as to how they should fight. For example, in the case of Jericho, the people were to withhold the desire to loot and personally profit (p. 248). Joshua warns the Jews that they keep God's commandments and, in his words of closing, he warns the people of the consequences that will befall them if they depart from the covenant (Jos 23:14.16).

The book likely emerged during the struggle of Israel against the better armed Philistines. Joshua sought to restore Israel's constitution to its original form in order to reform the confederacy's constitution and better prepare for battle.

2. Judges

The book of Judges was written after the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua and before they had a king. Judges contains stories that traces Israel's forsaking of God and His consequent forsaking of Israel. The following cycle repeats throughout the book: (i) the people of Israel begin to worship the foreign gods of the Canaanites that were still living among them; (ii) as judgment for the Jews' following after these foreign gods, God allows the Jews to be conquered by the Canaanites, thus becoming their slaves; (iii) the people of Israel remember God and cry out to Him; and (iv) God raises up a judge (meaning "ruler"), from among them (usually a military leader) who fears God and who helps them conquer their slave masters. Having experienced deliverance from slavery, the Jews live in freedom for a while until they forget God and start to worship false gods once again, thus repeating the cycle.

The book as a whole traces and describes a decline in republican civic virtue. The cycle of backsliding, repentance, and deliverance foresees the redemption of all who repent and turn to Jesus Christ for forgiveness.

D. A Biblical Constitutional Monarchy?

1. General Overview

In Part IV, Elazar deals with the alternate monarchical model of biblical Israel. In the book of Judges, "monarchy is rejected as a form of government consistent with God's covenant" (p. 323). Nevertheless, Saul is made king (p. 330 ff.). Saul's kingship is followed by great tumult as he persecutes David, causing him to go into hiding. In 1 Samuel 21-23, David flees from Saul and hides in the desert. After Saul pursues him, an opportunity arises for David to kill him, but he refuses to do so, for Saul "is the anointed of the Lord" (1Sa 24:7). In this way, David remains faithful to his lord.

The battle with the Amalekites brings about the death of Saul (1Sa 30). When the news reaches him, David weeps and fasts. David is then anointed by the elders of Judah as their king (2Sa 2:4). Meanwhile, the son of Saul, Ishbosheth, is made king of Israel, and war between Israel and Judah follow. David ultimately wins the war (2Sa 4) and becomes king over all Israel (2Sa 5).

2. Government and Covenant in Ancient Israel

Until this point, we have seen God's implicit covenant with Adam, and his explicit covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Moses, and the renewal of the Mosaic covenant under Joshua. In the books of Samuel, God establishes yet another covenant. He says to David: "when your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever" (2Sa 7:12-13). From this "everlasting covenant" (2Sa 23:1-5) comes David's descendent, the Messiah Jesus Christ.

The covenantal governmental framework established by the Israeli Scriptures pursues "a limited but active role in the affairs of society, a role whose level depended upon the needs of the time" (p. 353). It is unclear if from the biblical record the public sphere played a role in education and social services (p. 353). Those principles that animated ancient Israel were theocracy, federalism, and republicanism (p. 354).

3. David as a Precursor to the Christ

In the life of David, we find a window pointing to the Gospel. David's entire life is marked by war and the death of his loved ones, from his "lord" King Saul, to his friend Jonathan, to his first son through Bathsheba and ultimately, the death of his rebellious son Absalom. David experiences firsthand the horrors of sin that have polluted the broken world.

Yet at the same time, David represents a man after God's heart. He is quick to repent of his sins (2Sa 12:13), and his own words at the death of his rebellious and treacherous son Absalom reflect God's own love towards his sinful and rebellious children: "O my son Absalom--my son, my son Absalom--if only I had died in your place!" (2Sa 18:33). We thus find in David's life the mar of sin of even one who is "after the heart of God." His lamentation for his son reminds us of the love of God for all of his children. He would rather take death upon himself than allow that even his rebellious children might perish.

E. Conclusion

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring the idea of covenant in the Bible and how this idea was carried over into America at its founding. In an age where the idea of covenant is being replaced by loose contracts based not on a transcendental view as to the universal good of all of the parties involved, but on the atomistic self-interest of each party divorced from the good of all others and from the good of the community as a whole, this milestone volume is crucial reading