Political Theology in the Bible: An Exegesis

The account of human life offered in the Bible is radically different from the writings of Plato and Aristotle in classical antiquity.

In the Bible, an infinitely distant God creates the world and then places humans in it. He is an artisan and a poet -He speaks life into existence. However, the account of His creation was not witnessed by any living human, yet curiously an anonymous narrator shares the story of creation through revealed scripture (tradition holds this narrator to be Moses). God’s initial intent for humans is that they be immortal yet blissfully ignorant denizens of the Garden of Eden, but they immediately disobey the law laid down by God which is not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Initially, humans are unsatisfied to live according to mere need (as a Marxist might claim) nor by pure hedonistic self-interest (as Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham or Adam Smith might claim). This dissatisfaction points to a human desire to know good and evil -an Aristotelian stretching out toward knowledge. After the humans disobey God, their eyes become opened, just as the cunning serpent suggested. God banishes the humans and their new knowledge from the Garden of Eden, never to return again. God is disappointed and resentful of the humans and their disobedient desire for knowledge. As further evidence of this, God punishes future human offspring: Cain is punished for killing his brother Abel out of jealousy. Abel is a shepherd and a nomad, and God approves of his sacrifice; whereas Cain is a settled farmer who works the land and whose seed beholds future creators -musicians, builders of cities, and other human crafts. However, the human genealogy of the other brother, Seth (born after Abel’s murder), is what carries the human race through Noah. The humans are mainly a people who “walk with God” (Genesis 5:24). God prefers humans to have an unsettled, uncomfortable, and nomadic life. He is skeptical of human greatness, autonomy, and knowledge. The Bible calls for “righteousness” rather than “civilization.” Theology comes to light as skeptical of knowledge and human potential.

However, as time passes mankind grows wicked. There are no laws and humans lives in freedom. They possess the knowledge that they will one day die (perhaps not unlike Gilgamesh) and this causes them to live in rebellion, so God endeavors to destroy life through a catastrophic flood, saving only Noah and his family. When Noah emerges from the receding floodwaters and sacrifices, God finally acknowledges man’s evil nature and he makes a concession -a promise never to destroy innocent life again. Notably, God performs a similar act to Cain’s earlier sin: murder. At any rate, God is learning how to best handle human beings.

Next, humanity becomes divided. First, Noah becomes the first man to grow a vineyard and he becomes drunk while his son Ham transgress an unspoken law -seeing his father’s nakedness. Ham (the future father of Canaan) is cursed and his other two sons are praised, humanity becomes divided into the “cursed” and the “blessed.” In addition, the descendants of Noah under Nimrod build the mighty tower of Babel in order to penetrate the heavens where God dwells and also to make a name for themselves as one people, until God ‘comes down’ and thwarts human efforts toward self-reliance, pride, and techne. He confuses languages and scatters humans in different nations across the earth. There is presumably something dangerous or threatening to God’s authority if humans live according to one single city or state.

Next, God chooses to elevate one nation as his “chosen people” under the fatherhood of Abraham. What characterizes Abraham as important? For starters, he circumcises himself and his household as a sign of his devotion to God, but more importantly there are three chief passages that demonstrate Abraham’s increasing awareness of his own mortality, as well as a deeper faith in and a love for God. First, in his old age Abraham has a son named Isaac (meaning “he will laugh” -because of the way Abraham laughs at the thought of a child, though not in a contemptuous way because that form of laughter would presuppose a distinction between things that are possible and impossible). At any rate, God seemingly breaks his own covenant with Noah and commands Abraham to sacrifice his son as a show of his true obedience and child-like love for God without qualification. However, at the last moment God rescues Isaac. Only by accepting God as wholly unfathomable, yet also perfectly just, can a person come to be rewarded by God. Thus the Bible preserves the classical idea of self-sacrificial love: a Biblical hero is one who commits wholly to God’s unfathomable demands. Throughout the Bible, humans are blamed for their downfalls, but God claims all the glory for their accomplishments.

Next, we follow the descendants of Isaac, particularly Jacob or “Israel” -the patriarch of the future nation, and his son Joseph’s rise through slavery in Egypt to become Pharaoh. The pure despotism of the Egyptian government is contrasted with the simple, nomadic life of the burgeoning Israelites. As time passes, the rule of Joseph is forgotten and the Israelites become an enslaved people with no proud leaders of their own anymore, nor any experience in ruling themselves until Moses rises up to lead the people (i.e. God’s people, not Moses’s people). He leads them out of Egypt and to the promised land. In the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, we are provided with a vast array of laws handed down to Moses who delivers them to the wayward, wandering people of God. Unlike the works of political philosophy found in the writings of Athens, there is no explicit teaching of the “best regime” in the Bible. Instead, we are offered a glimpse into the theocratic teachings of ancient Israel, most of which are prohibitive injunctions.

The closest example we find in the Bible to a political teaching is through the narrative: an exemplary, chosen people wrestles with their political existence as a series of successive systems of authority unfold. Only through a painful and purifying process can humans hope to live up to their nature: made of dust, yet also created in the image of God. This process requires the search for the “best regime” for humanity (which now possesses a certain divine intelligence). In the Bible, humans struggle to rule their fellow lowly humans.

The first regime to appear in the narrative is the patriarchal regime, best exemplified in the story of Abraham, but this regime proves faulty as the sons of Jacob and their tribal offspring can hardly keep peace among themselves. What is needed is the rule of law -divine law- but in the second regime we gain a glimpse of the pure despotism of the Pharaonic regime in Egypt, completed by Joseph when he abolishes all private property in Egypt. The Egyptians are a nation who have mastered control over their environment (such as irrigation canals from the Nile) and thus they do not require dependence on the whims of the natural world. They are an irreligious people as well, though they do praise the power of human magic. The Pharaoh embodies the desires of Nimrod and his construction of the Tower of Babel. A higher power embodies the necessary constraints on this kind of regime.

The third political order is the Mosaic liberation from Pharaoh and toward divine law. The laws handed down at Sinai are intrinsic and they do not rely on any modern notion of the ‘consent of the governed.’ In delivering these holy laws, God further continues His quest toward becoming ruler of humans, and His authority is absolute. According to the law, the economic sphere protects a certain degree of private property -fraternity and charity is not merely encouraged but rather enforced- and in the erotic sphere sexual pleasure is allowed only insofar as it serves the perpetuation of the patriarchal lineage. Lastly, the principle of retribution rules the penal code of ancient Israel. Nowhere is the distinction between Jerusalem and Athens more apparent than in the Mosaic laws which are contra Plato’s Laws and the oft-repeated Socratic assertion that virtue is knowledge, and vice ignorance.

Mosaic law details injunctions in order to instill a “pure” and holy people, but the laws are unclear on the future regime, or how the laws will be enforced.

In the fourth regime, we encounter Joshua, the conquering warlord who rules the Israelites with a zeal for exterminating surrounding tribes. However, following the rulership of Joshua comes the problematic rule of Judges -a reign characterizes by chaos and by a tribal confederacy that is mired in near constant disagreement. However, scripture seems to indicate that God favors this reign of the Judges, wherein humans are fragile, vulnerable, and internally chaotic.

Lastly, we see the sixth and final political regime offered in the Hebrew Bible: a divinely anointed monarchy. The kingship begins with a demand from the people that they become a ‘nation like other nations’ and so the tallest man, an all-too-human man named Saul is chosen by lot but he is soon proved to be an insufficient leader. The monarchy allows Israel to rise to its cultural heights, but it eventually devolves into despotism, as with the Pharaohs in Genesis and Exodus. Saul is initially brought to the kingship against the wishes of the prophet Samuel, as well as in opposition to God who allows the Israelites to experience a human king only insofar as it may show them how corrupt and evil a human ruler can be, however the Judges are the most stark symbols of corruption. In contrast, Saul is a dependable king by all measures. His chief flaw is that he governs humans in their own interest and does not obey the commandment of God when God instructs the Israelites in one of their conquests of the Philistines to offer up everything as an offering to God, but Saul tells them to keep what is good and offer the rest to God.

At any rate, the kingship is passed to David, a short and unassuming shepherd-boy turned lyre-player in the court of Saul. He humbly defeats the giant philistine warrior named Goliath. David’s heroism lies in his meekness and humility, but all the credit goes to God, as the Biblical narrator indicates. Thus David assumes power. He marries Saul’s daughter Michal, a refined lady of higher society who is ashamed of David’s wanton musical ways, such as his erratic dance in a loin cloth after the end of battle. David is a craftsman, a musician, and a creator like Cain (David is traditionally held to be the writer of the Psalms) and thus he is a privately selfish person but a publicly righteous leader. He is complex and flawed, as in the infamous case of his lust for Bathsheba. David is famed throughout the world because of his self-centered nature: he is the humble, warrior, poet king who also represents the height of Biblical political and cultural flourishing. He is the king that all future kings of Israel are compared to, including the fabled Messiah, or the divinely anointed king of all peoples.

David and Bathsheba have a son named Solomon who longs for wisdom above all else. He is a writer, like his father. Traditionally Solomon writes the Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. He begins with a series of wisdom quotations, followed by the book of deep love, and lastly his thinking leads him to become morbid and even fatalistic, perhaps approaching quasi-philosophy, yet the wise Solomon is overshadowed by the poet king, David, the height of Biblical political philosophy.

Following David and Solomon, the leaders of Israel grow increasingly decadent until the nation is once again enslaved, this time by the Babylonians. Between enslavement and a decline in the old ways of doing things many Israelite prophets call for a messiah, or a savior-king to restore the order of David, such as a tolerant leader like Cyrus of Persia. Christian scriptures, collectively called the “New Testament,” identify Jesus as this messiah. However, he has apparently not been sent for political rule (recall Jesus’s encounter with the devil who tempts him with ultimate political power in exchange for devil-worship). Instead Jesus gathers a group of followers and performs a variety of miracles, but only when he summons a large enough crowd does he deliver his famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ -in which Jesus spells out his vision of the right way of life in the Beatitudes (or eight “blessed are the…” rather than “thou shalt…”). He intensifies Mosaic law by commanding the fullest extent of moral purity, the criteria for which few ‘Old Testament’ figures would ever meet. All pride is condemned, and surrendering to evildoers is praised -it brings to mind the definition of justice offered by Polemarchos in Book I of Plato’s Republic in which the distinction between friends and enemies is central to the just city/man. Jesus erases this distinction and suggests prayer for enemies, and instructs the new purified people to turn the other cheek to abusers and so on. He reorients the Mosaic idea of neighborliness into a universalist idea of neighborliness (i.e. the parable of the Good Samaritan). People are not only encouraged to love another, but now they are commanded to love (Paul notes the primacy of Christian love: ‘faith, hope, love abide: but the greatest of these is love.’)

Because of his large following of people, many of whom are drawn to miracles, Jesus draws the ire of the Pharisees and other traditional Jewish authorities. They are resentful of his popularity. They press Pontius Pilate to condemn Jesus to death under Roman blasphemy laws. Jesus’s gruesome death on the cross becomes a symbol of redemption for all humans, and the possibility of eternal life (as was once offered in the Garden of Eden). Classical heroism is replaced by modern martyrdom. Jesus’ offer of eternal life is further buttressed by his corporeal resurrection from death. He appears to his apostles with varying claims about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -opening the door for future theologians to puzzle about a trinitarian God who is no longer a god for one particular chosen people, thus the new scriptures represent a claim to the fulfillment of the Jewish Biblical saga. In Acts, a council is gathered to determine which parts of Mosaic law will be upheld, such as circumcision (which is no longer a held to be a divine requirement). Rather than signs and symbols of a covenant between God and Man, the apostle Paul zealously argues that belief in Jesus’s claims alone is the new criteria for the faith which supersedes Mosaic law. Distinctions are removed between friends and enemies, slave and free, men and women. Regarding private property, for early Christians most every personal possession was held in common, from each according to his need.

However, Jesus’s teaching raises more questions than it answers: how are redeemed Christians to live in an unredeemed world? What does it mean to give unto Caesar what belongs to him? What exactly is the property of Caesar? How are Christians intended to act as both earthly citizens as well as patient pilgrims waiting for a second coming of Jesus? Paul and Peter attempt to answer these questions to an extent, however the incomplete nature of the scriptures forces these and many other problematic questions to be addressed by other Christian theologians, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.


This essay was heavily influenced by Thomas Pangle and Timothy Burns and their writings on “Biblical Political Theology” in their book The Key Texts of Political Philosophy.

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