Are you fascinated by politics? I am. No, I don’t attend political rallies or listen to talk radio. I watch the news occasionally and sometimes listen to political commentators, but I can’t tell you who my local and state representatives are. In fact, where current politics is concerned, I tend to find bliss in relative ignorance. Yet when it comes to biblical politics, I’m as enthusiastic as any faithful viewer of Bill O’Reilly, Stephen Colbert, Glenn Beck, or Jon Stewart.
Many of the biblical narratives, psalms, epistles, and oracles are set against a particular political backdrop. Miss that political reality, and you end up with a very incomplete understanding of what is going on.
Sometimes the political situation is obvious, such as when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were faced with the threat of foreign invasion. Sometimes the situation is more subtle, resulting from the competing concerns of rival political factions or the ongoing tension between local and national interests.
It is this last political reality which we have touched on in a few posts already. Once you catch a glimpse of it, you begin to see its presence throughout the Bible. Much of Israel’s history can be characterized as the tug and pull between local communities and their national rulers.
My recent devotion about the sin of Jeroboam discusses how Jeroboam came to be king over the northern tribes of Israel. The northern tribes had been taxed heavily to pay for all of Solomon’s grand building projects, and they were beginning to feel like all their wealth and manpower were being used to make the king in Jerusalem and his own tribe of Judah rich and powerful. When they went to Solomon’s son Rehoboam to ask that he soften his father’s policies, they were really protesting what we would call the “redistribution of wealth” and “taxation without representation.”
My Dotwatch post about the Temple to Yahweh at Arad discusses how people who took pride in their local sanctuaries must have felt when Hezekiah and Josiah shut those sanctuaries down. Why should they be forced to travel to the Jerusalem temple to celebrate the festivals and offer sacrifices? That would just funnel tourism dollars into Jerusalem, making the central government rich at the expense of local communities.
Much of the current political turmoil in the United States stems from this same tension between local and national interests. When we feel that the federal government is taking money away from our own communities and using it to benefit other communities, or worse, to line the pockets of corrupt politicians, we tend to cry foul. We petition our own representatives to go to Washington and make sure some of that money goes to benefit us. We do the same thing when we feel that Washington is trying to dictate how we should live in our local communities. How can those politicians from other states tell us what to do when they don’t understand our situation? Again we cry foul and demand that our representatives defend our “rights.”
While we have more control over our own destiny than the average ancient Israelite farmer, we can understand the resentment and frustration those farmers felt when their kings were interfering with their personal interests. We can also understand the predicament those kings faced when trying to satisfy the competing interests of diverse tribes and communities. Catching sight of this political reality can help us make connections and better understand the motivations, frustrations, and seemingly inexplicable actions of the people we read about in the Bible.