Summary: “This piece was written in response to Post 650: Old Testament anarchism from Samuel to Daniel by Richard Beck, which should ideally be read first. The author claims that the Hebrew Scriptures are not anarchist because God legitimates kings in many places. The New Testament emphasises that Jesus was of the house of King David.”
Christian Anarchism: A Response
For today’s post, I am taking a suggestion from a friend and writing a response to this blog post about the relationship between Christianity, Anarchism, and “Atheism” (you’ll see what I mean by the scare quotes when you read it—the way the writer is using it has nothing to do with what we usually think of as atheism, and that’s okay). Because this post is just that, a response to something, I recommend you read the original post and come back to this one to get the full experience.
The author of the post wants, in part, to show that Christianity is an “anarchist” religion, meaning that it is a religion that, at its roots, is about rejecting the idea of people governing each other, and that favors loyalty to and sole leadership by God. I think there is a case to be made for this, but I think the post makes some key mistakes along the way, mistakes that miss something I think is interesting, and maybe even important.
The big flaw in the post is the assertion that the Hebrew Bible has a beef with earthly rulers (“an anarchist strain runs through the Old…Testament”). The author holds up an extended quote from the book of Samuel as his main example*, but there’s a great deal of evidence that, on the contrary, the Hebrew Bible is not at all an anarchist book.
There is a great deal of non–anarchism (archism?) in the form of pro-monarchy sentiment in the Hebrew Bible. God legitimates the idea of a king in Israel as far back as their wanderings in the desert (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). In the book of Judges, you see the phrase “there was no king in Israel” twotimes, right before something terrible happens (the creation of a major shrine to an idol, and a civil war), which basically comes off as “there was no king to prevent these terrible things from happening so wouldn’t it be great if there was a king?” The Psalms are full of positive references to kings, including hope for the king’s victory (Psalm 20:9), statements of the king’s blessedness (Psalm 21), direct praises to the king himself (Psalm 45), and even visions of God speaking to the king and calling him God’s son (Psalm 2:6-9)!
If there is any “anarchist” strain in the Hebrew Bible, it is not in the idea that people ruling themselves is a bad thing in itself, but rather that it is a problem when the ruler interferes with the people’s relationship with God. It is almost universally this activity that gets kings condemned in the Bible; it happens throughout the book of Kings, when various kings lead Israel astray and keep Israel from worshiping God, and it is Nebuchadnezzar’s crime in the book of Daniel. If you’re a king who lets Israel worship God, even if you’re a foreign king like King Artaxerxes in Ezra-Nehemiah, you get a pass; and if you’re a king who won’t let Israel worship God, like Pharaoh, you’re condemned. Given that there are plenty of both kinds of rulers, who do and don’t make this mistake, it’s hard to see the overarching theme as “anarchist” in nature.
So what? Does it really matter if there’s an “anarchist strain” or not in the Hebrew Bible? Maybe not. But I want to point out that it is precisely because of the pro-kingship nature of the Hebrew Bible that both the New Testament and Christianity exist in the form we have them.
The idea of a “messiah” is rooted in the central role that the king played in Israelite religion. “Messiah” is just the word for “anointed” in Hebrew†, and it was used, among other things, to refer to the king of Israel, who was anointed with oil as a sign of his kingship. Later, in Jesus’ time, it had come to be used to describe a hoped-for person who would save Israel from its troubles, a king who was descended from the legitimate king of Israel, David. Christians believe that Jesus is that hoped-for person, but that rather than saving Israel from the Romans a few thousand years ago by becoming a temporal king, he saved everyone by dying for us and thereby removing a barrier separating us from God.
The important thing here is that the New Testament connects Jesus with the king/messiah imagery very strongly. He is described as being descended from David, even as being born in David’s city, Bethlehem. Without a pro-king slant in the Hebrew Bible, there’s nothing tying Jesus to God’s promises, no sense that Jesus is the fulfillment of a longstanding plan on God’s part. Instead, Christians can see Jesus as a once-and-for-all follow-through on God’s promise to establish the house of David as kings forever, and as a ruler who, unlike many of Israel’s former kings, mediates our relationship with God properly. Plus, as we see in Psalm 2, God was thought of as having a close, even father-son relationship with the king:
[God said: ]‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.’
I will tell of the decree of the Lord
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.’
Psalm 2:6-8, NRSV
This imagery becomes literal in the case of Jesus, who Christians believe is God’s literal son; this little scene from the Psalms is obliquely referenced in the New Testament when Jesus starts his ministry an d God declares Jesus’ sonship (here, here, and here). In other words, without the Hebrew Bible’s message that kings can be and are part of God’s plan for God’s people, we don’t have a Christianity or a New Testament that sees Jesus as a legitimate part of God’s plan from the beginning. And I think that’s a big deal.
All that said, the fact the Christians now owe allegiance to a king in heaven before any earthy rulers does, in my opinion, mean that we can consider ourselves a certain kind of anarchists, and I definitely think that the early church acted in a way that reflected that, which the author of the original post describes quite well. (There are some fun details embedded in this book review about how early Christians were perceived by Roman society and how weird they seemed, and would probably seem today.) I can’t really speak to the history of how we’ve reconciled this anarchic tendency in our religion to living in and even creating societies in which we rule ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t had to. But I do know that every once in a while, the question of who we really owe allegiance to will come up, and Christians like Bonhoeffer will stand up and say they are Christians first, and (in his case) Germans second; so I think it’s undeniable that a certain anarchism is part of who we are as a religion.
* I considered discussing this in the body of my post, but I got a little long-winded and maybe a bit away from the main point in my analysis of the text. Check out the passage and my thoughts below if you’ve got some extra time; I really am not at all sure that it’s a good argument for an “anarchist strain” in the Hebrew Bible at all.
But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home.’ 1 Samuel 8:6-22, NRSV
To me, this reads like Samuel is getting upset (“the thing displeased Samuel when they said…”) about things not going his way: up to this point in the Bible, judges like Samuel were the only “rulers” Israel had, so he feels personally offended and rejected by the people when they ask for a king. If you read it this way, God’s response is mostly just a commiseration with or a consolation for Samuel, rather than a rejection of the idea of kings in general. Indeed, while God tells Samuel to warn the people of what kings are like, the text doesn’t make it 100% clear that the big list of things he comes up with are God’s idea; it sounds to me like Samuel, more than God, is being super negative about kingship. The last bit about being the king’s slaves and the Lord not responding to their cry for help sounds particularly harsh, and I suspect that God had nothing to do with it. Finally, note that it even seems like Samuel gets cranky and refuses to do what God tells him to; he doesn’t give the people a king, he just sends them away (“‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ Samuel then said…’return home'”) and only follows through later.
I think the biggest argument against this representing an “anarchist strain” in the Hebrew Bible, though, is that God promises to make someone’s (David’s) family kings of Israel forever later in the same book (2 Samuel 7:12-16). That is not really the kind of thing one expects from an anarchist text.
† Okay, sort of; it’s an English-friendly version; the Hebrew is more like “mashiach.”