Does the Old Testament Prescribe a ‘State’?

Numerous texts in the Bible speak about the need for civil authority, and/or presume that a state exists. But does the Bible’s normative teaching prescribe something like a state government, or rather mere governance of some kind?

All human social arrangements require order and governance. Constitutions, norms, and customary law can allow for governance, as can the establishment of a state with government. In this essay, when I use the term “state,” I mean a class of people whose specialized role it is to govern: to make and promulgate laws, to extract wealth for non-productive purposes (either the provision of public or private goods).

In a small polity with governance that is highly responsive to the needs of the people, a “state” might be very small, and those who work for the state might not even have that much power or need to be paid full-time salary. In a modern context: think of a small town that has a part-time mayor, a police force of five or six, some administrative staff, and not much more. In a larger polity, more administration is required, and more resources must be extracted from productive citizens and applied to these “non-productive” roles (not that police aren’t necessary, but they don’t produce anything–they are just supposed to be present to restrain evil so others an flourish and produce).

In the ancient context, a “state” nearly always meant a king, though there were some city-states ruled by priests or a council of nobles. Stateless societies have always existed, but they were more common in ancient times. In a small clan or village, there were no police and no mayor–the elders enforced local customs, and the people of the city took up arms to defend themselves if attacked.

We might describe the period in Israel’s story of transition from judges to kings as one of statelessness to statehood.

Setting Up the Question: Deuteronomy 17 and 1 Samuel 8

Two well-known texts about kingship in the Deuteronomistic History are 1 Sam 8 and Deut 17:14-20. In 1 Sam 8, the people of Israel reject of Samuel’s sons as “judges”—really, they are rejecting the system of judges in favor of a kingship that looks like those of other nations. YHWH’s voice in the text construes this as not just a rejection of Samuel, but of YHWH Himself from being king over the people. One might conclude from this that human kingship was not always part of YHWH’s plan for Israel. Yet there are numerous hints in the Pentateuch, such as Gen 49:10 and Num 24:7 and 24:17, that YHWH had planned for Israel to have a king. Interestingly, when Saul fails and YHWH regrets making him king, YHWH’s response is not to reprimand the Israelites and do away with kingship altogether, but to replace Saul with a king after His own heart: David, from whom would come the Messiah.

Sometimes this “anti-kingship” text in 1 Samuel is played off against Deuteronomy 17:14–20, which is the only place in the Law that prescribes how kingship should work in Israel:

14 “When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and live in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me like all the nations who are around me,’ 15 you shall surely set a king over you whom the Lord your God chooses, one from among your countrymen you shall set as king over yourselves; you may not put a foreigner over yourselves who is not your countryman. 16 Moreover, he shall not multiply horses for himself, nor shall he cause the people to return to Egypt to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never again return that way.’ 17 He shall not multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; nor shall he greatly increase silver and gold for himself.

18 “Now it shall come about when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself a copy of this law on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. 19 It shall be with him and he shall read it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by carefully observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 that his heart may not be lifted up above his countrymen and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, to the right or the left, so that he and his sons may continue long in his kingdom in the midst of Israel.

Deut 17:14–20 (NASB95)

One observes a couple of important points in this text. First, there are clear parallels to the sins and shortcomings of Solomon, causing some scholars to consider whether there may be some shaping of this Deut 17 text in light of the story of Solomon, who in Israelite memory presides over the most glorious and successful “state.” In this line of analysis, prescriptions for a kingship existed prior to Solomon, but once the scribes knew how a “state” led by a king turned out in practice, they enshrined the more specific sins of Solomon within the Deuteronomy text. So, there may be some “statehood regret” captured here.

Second, and more importantly: there is no provision here or anywhere else in the Pentateuch for a king who leads a “state”: no standing army, no means of taxation. The Deuteronomy 17:14-20 king is really a glorified (better-educated?) judge: a first-among-equals military leader who is subordinate to the law and the priests.

Crucially, it seems like the kind of kingship Samuel describes in 1 Sam 8:11–18, the kind of kingship the people are demanding—which includes ten-percent taxation, conscription, and a corvee (forced labor)—is not the kingship of Deuteronomy 17.

Kingship in Israel through the Lens of Joseph’s Tyranny over Egypt

1 Sam 8 warns that a king will essentially set up a state: an administration, a palace, a standing army—and, crucially, he will take ten percent of their produce in addition to the corvée.

I’ve coauthored with a colleague, Jonathan (an economist), an essay that will hopefully appear in a volume on economic thought—a working draft is available here. In the section titled, “Slavery and the Exodus from Egypt,” we explore the implications of Genesis 47 for understanding the Old Testament’s vision of taxation, kingship, and land ownership.

Genesis 47 is the part of the Joseph story that most people don’t remember, in which Joseph taxes the Egyptians out of house and home—literally. He first extracts twenty percent of their income, ostensibly to save up grain during the “fat cow” years before famine. But during the famine years, instead of giving the Egyptians back the grain he took from them, he sells the grain to them (and to others in the region). The result is that within a few years, all Egyptian former landowners are direct “servants/slaves” of Pharaoh. The only exceptions in the land are Jacob and his family, who receive Goshen as a personal land grant from the king, and the priests of Egypt (interestingly, the elite class to which Joseph’s father-in-law belongs!).

By contrast, in Exodus–Deuteronomy, taxation only consists of what one might call “ten percent plus”:  the tithes (tenth-portions) of produce, plus the firstborn/firstfruits, plus priestly portions of sacrifices brought to the sanctuary. The priests and Levites have no farmland from YHWH (the King), only towns and cities. Since the Levites are smaller than the other tribes (cf. Num 1–3 and 26), the ten percent should be plenty for them and for the personae miserae (widow, orphan, foreigner).

We see in these Pentateuchal texts read together a pattern that excessive taxation leads to enslavement, and the establishment of a state that is self-perpetuating. The conclusion of Genesis gives way to Exodus 1, in which a subsequent king of Egypt breaks the previous agreement with the Israelites, enslaving them to build his cities. Elsewhere in the Bible (and in history), the existence of a standing professional army often leads to military adventurism.

One-Fifth Versus One-Tenth

In 1 Samuel 8, Samuel warns that the king will “take a tithe” (יעשׂר) of the people’s produce (1 Sam 8:15, 17), plus forced labor. If we add into this the implication that there is a “tithe” in Israel that supports the cult personnel and the poor, ten percent for the king brings the implied overall “tax burden” on the people to twenty percent (plus firstborn/firstfruits, priestly portions and conscripted labor).

This “twenty-percent-plus” evokes the cultural memory of slavery in Egypt. The connection is strengthened by YHWH’s reference to Egypt (1 Sam 8:8), the reference to Egypt in Deut 17:16, and a few other echoes of the Egyptian state in the list of jobs for which a proposed Israelite king would conscript (1 Sam 8:11–18). Just as the Egyptians declare themselves “slaves of Pharaoh” (Gen 47:19), Samuel warns that through taxation the Israelites will be come the king’s “slaves,” who will “cry out to YHWH” for relief (1 Sam 8:17–18).

Thus “one-fifth” vs. “one-tenth” becomes a shorthand for contrasting the way that led to slavery (back to Egypt), and the way that leads to flourishing. The point is not necessarily these precise percentages, but rather the concern that a political leader would have the power to conscript and tax in order to field a standing army and enhance his own position. The tithes for the cultic personnel and for the poor are never enforced through the threat of state violence, but only through moral suasion, social pressure, and example.

State Failure and Human Failure

Of course, as we learn from the Latter Prophets, neither moral suasion nor state coercion was sufficient to lead the people of Israel to support the YHWH cult and care for the poor. A reader who is anti-state might point out that the existence of a state (king and nobility) seems to have crowded out opportunities for voluntary care for the poor—but a kingless Israel still was not perfect; see the book of Judges, which is pro-monarchy in its final form.

Also, some biblical texts do seem to romanticize or even commend the ideal state under David and Solomon. The Chronicler especially, with his descriptions of elaborate state administration, seems to idealize a kingship, insofar as the king uses his power to support the Jerusalem cult and the peace of All Israel. Scholars debate whether the Chronicler, writing in the Persian period, understands that the Persian Emperor could continue to fulfill this function for the Jerusalem cult, or whether he envisions a restored (independent?) Davidic monarchy. But regardless, the Chronicler is not anti-state in principle. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that kings are to lead the people by example in making voluntary contributions to the cult and the administration (1 Chr 29:1–9; 2 Chr 2:17–18, contra 1 Kgs 5:13–14).

Reading 1 Sam 8 alongside Gen 47, ten-percent versus twenty-percent wealth extraction, and extraction versus voluntary contribution—these comparisons all have important implications for thinking about the role of a state in God’s ideal for Israel. Whether this is a universal ideal to be applied in non-agrarian societies is another matter. I have lived my whole life in highly-developed states, including cities, where life without “professional governors” (police, mayors, etc.) seems chaotic and impossible.

To me, the most important message of 1 Sam 8 for modern politics is that professional state actors (kings, priests, generals, police, prosecutors, etc.), once established in their positions of power, will rarely give up those positions voluntarily, and will go in search of additional tasks to justify their own existence. Police and prosecutors will look for more crimes and criminals, even when there are none. A powerful professional military will inevitably be sent abroad in search of dragons to slay. At least in a localized system of governance, or a small state: moral and civic failures are localized, and thus the damage of human failure is localized as well.


About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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