by Sonja DeWitt | 2 February 2019 |
There’s a powerful conservative Christian movement in this country which finds the idea of a theocracy powerfully attractive. Imagine: a government like ancient Israel’s, with God directly in charge, favoring his chosen people with blessing and prosperity and cursing their enemies with dire punishments. A righteous nation which keeps God’s law under pain of severe legal penalties. It’s every good dominionist’s ultimate fantasy!
So, what about it? Let’s forget, for the moment, that it’s been tried. More than once, as a matter of fact. Let’s forget that the results have always been far from satisfactory. That theocracies have always failed notably, both in creating a righteous and just society and in contributing to long-term prosperity and power.
And let’s leave aside basic Christian theology—that Paul makes clear that the ceremonial and civil laws which governed Israel were done away with at the cross. Let’s ignore Jesus’ teaching that God and Caesar are two separate entities, with separate realms of power.
For dominionists—Christians who believe government should be primarily an engine of moral control and that its goal should be to create the perfectly righteous society—Old Testament-style theocracy is virtually irresistible. Imagine: dire punishments for moral violations such as homosexuality, adultery, Sabbath-breaking and blasphemy. The patriarchal structure enshrined into law, and women kept in their place. The nation recognized as God’s special people, to the exclusion of all others. The perfect government to maintain and promote conservative values.
But before dominionists rush out to embrace theocracy wholesale, they should be aware that there’s a downside—a significant one, as a matter of fact. There are crucial aspects of Old Testament theocracy that aren’t quite as conducive to their ideal fundamentalist society—that might, in fact, violate sacrosanct principles of conservative political theory.
God’s theocracy came complete with regulations! And I don’t mean just the obvious moral regulations. There were also economic regulations, labor regulations, environmental regulations, even social justice regulations. There was even a form of welfare! This is not a paradise of rampant unbridled capitalism, a profit-maximizing, free market Promised Land.
Multiple regulations in the law of Moses prohibited landowners and employees from wringing maximum profit from their products at the expense of the poor, widows, orphans and other vulnerable people.
Israelite landowners were forbidden from harvesting the edges of their fields, or picking up any produce that fell. They were prohibited from picking over their fruit trees and vines a second time. The crops that were left were intended to feed the poor (Deut. 24:19).
Every seven years, landowners were required to allow their fields to remain fallow, and the whatever grew on its own was to be gathered by the poor (Ex. 23:10-12).
Moreover, every three years, Israelites were required to bring ten percent of their crops to the cities, to be stored there for the use of—you guessed it—the poor, the orphans and widows and others marginalized by society (Deut. 14:28). This was a legal requirement—not a voluntary charitable contribution. Rather like a tax.
Lenders were not allowed to charge any interest to fellow Israelites, and were not even allowed to profit from selling food to them (Lev. 25:36,37). All debts of Israelites were canceled every seven years (Deut. 15:1,2). Lenders were prohibited from keeping pledges of payment overnight if a poor person needed the item.
Dishonesty, fraud and self-dealing in business transactions were strictly forbidden (Lev. 19:36). “The Lord detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him” (Prov. 11:1).
And, most significantly, land reverted to its original owners every 50 years (Lev. 25). So wealth was redistributed in every generation, preventing gross income disparities across generations. Isaiah proclaimed God’s extreme displeasure at violation of this principle:
“Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.
The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
“Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants” (Is. 5:8,9).
The Sabbath was obviously a religious celebration, but it was also a labor regulation. It applied not only to landowners, but to merchants, slaves, guests and foreigners. (Ex. 23:12) Employers were required to give all their workers one day a week off. In additions, employers were required to give workers a holiday on sacred occasions such as the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Trumpets, the Feast of Tabernacles and Passover (Lev. 23).
Employers were forbidden from taking advantage of their employees and were required to pay them promptly every day before sundown. “Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deut. 24:14, 15).
The regulations of God’s theocracy also demonstrated He was concerned about animals and the earth. To His people, God reiterated His claim, originally made at Creation, to absolute ownership of the land. He said, “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” Because of this, God had the absolute right to specify regulations to protect the land and its resources.
Most significant of these were the Sabbath year every seven years and the year of jubilee, every 50 years, which allowed the land to rest and renew its fertility, so it did not become depleted.
The violation of this restriction was a serious issue to God. So much so that God told the people that if they disobeyed Him, their land would be ruined and desolate and “the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it” (Lev. 26:34, 35).
There were other environmental regulations as well. Residents of ancient Israel were prohibited from eating any fruit produced by a tree for five years after it was planted. This was a sustainable agricultural practice which allowed the tree to be pruned for five years. Such pruning significantly increased the tree’s long-term productivity.
The regulations also protected animals. Oxen and donkeys are specifically mentioned as being included in the Sabbath day rest (Ex. 23:12). Muzzling an ox while it was threshing grain was prohibited, establishing the principle that even animals were entitled to a share of their work (Deut. 25:4). Animals were to be allowed to eat the produce that grew by itself during the Sabbath year.
Regulations also promoted sustainability. Hunters were not allowed to take a mother bird with her eggs, thus allowing her to continue to reproduce (Deut. 22:6).
Social Justice Regulations
In addition to the regulations protecting the poor, widows, orphans and workers, Israelite regulations also protected foreigners. Foreigners were explicitly included in the lists of those allowed to eat the volunteer crops during the Sabbath year and the Jubilee (Deut. 24:21). Employers were not allowed to make them work on the Sabbath day or the other holy days. They were also explicitly included in the regulation forbidding exploitation of workers and requiring workers to be paid every day (Deut. 24:14,15).
The regulations specifically prohibited oppressing a foreigner. All the people were commanded, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:33).
Even a broad overview of the regulations God gave to ancient Israel amply demonstrates that, whether in the Old or the New Testament, God cares about fairness, social justice and compassion. He cares about the poor, the oppressed, widows, orphans and foreigners.
These regulations also demonstrate that God hates greed, exploitation and maximizing of profit at the expense of the vulnerable. He also opposes monopolies and other inter-generational accumulations of massive wealth.
Biblical theocracy comes as a package deal. Political and religious leaders cannot simply pick and choose which elements best suit them. The law specifying severe judicial punishments for moral failings—which dominionists long for—is the same law promising the curses of God on those who violate the economic and social justice regulations—which they find so distasteful. To promote one is to accept the other.
Those who want to disregard God’s “liberal” regulations and make America into a haven of unbridled capitalistic greed and exploitation; a strip-mined, clear-cut industrial wasteland; or a WASP paradise, excluding everyone who looks different from them—do not have God’s support or His blessing.
Sonja DeWitt is a civil rights attorney with over 20 years of experience handling Equal Employment Opportunity cases. She has a strong interest in religious liberty and has worked with the North American Religious Liberty Association, for which she received an award. She blogs about religion, politics and government, and social justice at www.voicesfromthewilderness.net,